Today I had the chance to sit down with the Light of Xaryxis module included in the 5e Spelljammer boxed set. I enjoyed the Astral Adventurer's Guide, but I didn't love the old 2nd Edition module Skull and Crossbows, so I was eager to see what kind of precedence the 5e authors were setting for adventuring in fantasy space. This review contains minor spoilers.
The module is explicitly designed for 2-3 hour sessions, with the excpectation that the story can be completed within 12 sessions. That is exactly my kind of adventure. For me, a standard D&D session is 2 hours. I feel like anything longer encourages people to squander the time, but 2 hours means there's pressure to actually achieve something during the session. My regular gaming group plays for 2 hours, and any short term game I run is usually a 2 hour session. An adventure with exactly that pace in mind is perfect for me.
I also love clearly defined goals in my games. I know not everyone does, and some people love just hanging out in their RPG world, wandering aimlessly around, stumbling upon adventure. That's not my style either as a Dungeon Master or when running a player character. I want objectives, and I want a way to measure progress after each session, I think partly because there are too many modules out there yet to be played, so I want the comfort of knowing that the current adventure will end.
What I've described, and the way Light of Xaryxis is designed, is essentially league play. Light of Xaryxis could easily have been released as a series of Adventurer's League sessions. And like a typical league game, Light of Xaryxis is largely on rails.
Each session gives you exactly one objective.
You accomplish the objective.
There's no allowance, at least as written, for wandering around the vastness of Wildspace or the Astral Sea, poking around for clues or unexpected solutions. At the start of the session, you learn (usually from an overly helpful NPC) what new NPC you have to go talk to so they can tell you the next NPC to go talk to. Each NPC you talk to gives you a mini-quest before they'll help you.
It gets pretty predictable after a few sessions. I think maybe one of the middle parts, the equivalent of Act 2 in the usual three-act structure, could have been a little more open with its objectives. There's a whole part (that's three chapters) of the storyline where you're told to find the wizard in the tower, who tells you to go find the vampirate captain with a fleet, who ends up not having a fleet so tells you to go to the Mercane merchant with lots of connections. I can't quite imagine putting my players through that. I think instead, I send them out into space to find a fleet, and depending on their own curiousity and theories, I'd let them either find the wizard and vampirate, or the Mercane. And I'd let that happen over the course of three sessions.
This module, though, is determined to follow a specific structure. A chapter is a session, and each chapter is only about 5 pages long. At the end of every single chapter, there's a cliffhanger, whether the story demands it or not. And I guess that works, but I felt it became predictable, and the characters in the module suffer for it.
In the first chapter, disaster strikes the port town where the PC's are located. In the midst of the mayhem, the PCs are inexplicably approached by a random captain of a random ship. She tells the PCs to come with her, because she has a ship and can get them to safety. There's no indication that she's offering anybody else in town a lift, she just offers to rescue the PCs. Should the PCs decline to follow her, she literally flies back over town (in what turns out to be a spelljamming ship) and drops a rope ladder for them so they can get on board.
OK, I'm intrigued. Who is this mysterious woman and why has she targeted the PCs for a rescue to outer space?
Well, don't get too intrigued because you'll never see her again. You leave her on the Rock of Bral when you pick up a Giff companion instead.
The giff, Commodore Krux, actually persists through the rest of the adventure, but there are so many more NPCs, many of whom fill essentially the same role. There's a quest at one point to find another giff who's been assembling a coalition against the baddies. Except it turns out he hasn't been, so you pick up the giff anyway and go on a different quest. The party just keeps growing and growing. On page 63, a character named "Starbough" is mentioned, and I couldn't remember who or what Starbough was. I went back and searched through the book, couldn't find a mention. For most of the evening, I was convinced that Starbough must have been the name of an NPC that they changed at the last minute and forgot to edit on page 63. Eventually, I realized that Starbough was the treant on the Living Ship that the PCs acquire through one of the dozen NPCs, but the treant's name is only mentioned once prior to consulting him on page 63 for advice.
I don't think most players are necessarily going to care how many NPCs they encounter. But I do think that it does, even subconsciously, make it hard for players to keep the story straight. I think I'd probably reduce the number of NPCs, I'd do something more with the mysterious captain from the first chapter, and I'd reduce the number of objectives such that a few of them are accomplished over the course of a few sessions.
In a game with a very linear story, it's easy as a Dungeon Master to just usher players through the adventure. But it's important to look at the essentialy plot points. Ultimately, the adventure requires only a few specific events. The homeworld of the PCs must be threatened by astral seeds, PCs must get into Wildspace, PCs must assemble a fleet, PCs must meet the princess, and the PCs must deal with Xaryxis. If your players aren't responding to the episodic approach, then you can easily adjust the pacing, the number of NPCs and how blatantly those NPCs direct them to the next plot point. Your players believe they're making decisions that matter. Maybe they'd start to see through the set dressing if they re-played the adventure, but that's the case with most pre-written adventures. It's true that no matter what you do when the astral seeds start to sprout, you eventually have to end up in Wildspace on a spelljammer, or else there's no adventure. But this is why D&D is D&D. The Dungeon Master can adjust and make an adventure feel fresh as needed.
It's puzzling, but the book references Flash Gordon up front. I feel it really belabours the point, between literally telling you to go watch the Flash Gordon movie first, and then enforcing the silly cliffhangers (often not even related to the story) at the end of each session. Personally, I don't get the connection. The tone of this module is, luckily, no different than any other official D&D adventure. There's nothing in the adventure that feels out of place or too deliberate. You don't actually need knowledge about Flash Gordon or even old Spelljammer lore to play or appreciate this module.
Light of Xaryxis is a good adventure. It's clearly written, with each plot point made abundantly clear for the busy Dungeon Master. Each session is carefully planned, and never do you lose sight of where you are in the larger story.
It starts at level 5, so you probably will need an introductory adventure before getting to this one. That's easily done, though, with any number of low level modules, including the official starter sets, Saltmarsh, or any third party adventure that takes place in or around a port city (it's convenient to have your PCs to end up in a port city so there's an excuse for getting on a boat that turns out to be a spelljammer.)
Maybe most importantly, this adventure sets expectations for what a Spelljammer adventure is like. All told, you experience three different Wildspace systems and the Astral Sea. You get ship combat, you get weird encounters, and a big and important-feeling story. I think after this, any Dungeon Master will be able to come up with a Spelljammer adventure.