Spelljammer: Adventures in Space Review

Posted by Andrew E. on

Table of Contents:

Cosmic Triumph or Space Hamster Dropping?

Spelljammer is a beloved setting and concept from long gone editions now brought back from the abyss into 5th edition with Spelljammer: Adventures in Space. Spelljammer is a fantastical world of galleons sailing between the stars, giant space hamsters, and more ancient floating dead gods than you can shake a spelljamming helm at. Does this new offering capture the old spelljammer spirit? What off earth are space clowns? Grab your blunderbuss and look towards the stars as we go through everything you need to know.

 SpellJammer: Adventures in Space Book Review

A Package Deal?

So, the first bit of confusion to clear up is that “Spelljammer: Adventures in Space” is actually 3 books sold as a single package. It’s not entirely clear why they did it like this, but I do see the appeal, with the content separated I can pass over the new core rules without handing the new adventure path out for my players to peek at. I’ve had quite a hard time nailing down the actual MSRP. I purchased a digital copy for $49.99, the lowest I’ve seen a physical copy at was $42.99, and I’ve seen some places selling it for as high as $69.99. I’m going to assume $50 is about the intended price though as that would be in line with similar releases. At that cost though we’re paying a premium. Each of the 3 books is only 64 pages in length and added together you’re looking at 192 pages of content which is quite a bit shorter than the typical 250-ish pages we’ve come to expect from new supplements. The physical copy also includes a lovely DM screen though so that may make up for some lost content.  The 3 new books that the package includes are:

  • Astral Adventurer’s Guide
  • Boo’s Astral Menagerie
  • Light of Xaryxis

 

Let’s go through and evaluate each book on its own before coming back around and evaluating it all as a set.

 

What’s in the Astral Adventurer’s Guide?

The best way to think of this book is as a mini player’s guide that only includes the rules for spelljamming, and things related to spelljamming. It also includes the new player options, most notably the 6 new adventuring races we’ve been playing around since their unearthed arcana. All together this booklet contains:

  • 2 New Backgrounds
  • 6 New Races
  • Rules for Spelljamming
  • 16 Spelljammer Ships
  • The Rock of Braal Lore

 

2 New Backgrounds

Included are the new Astral Drifter and Wildspacer backgrounds, both meant to accommodate players who’ve spent all or most of their lives wandering the astral sea. Both backgrounds grant you a feat, which I initially found very odd, but considering the new “One D&D” announcement we now know feats are going to be an integral part of backgrounds moving forward so that makes much more sense.

 

6 New Races

We’re getting the aloof and starry-eyed Astral Elves, the quirky robotic Autognomes, the goofy gun-toting hippofolk the Giffs, the flying monkey Hadozee, ooze-folk Plasmoids, and the insectoid Thri-Kreen. We’ll have to go through each race on their own at some point, but I can tell you here that they’re powerful and will probably be popping up in your games before long. I’m a bit worried about the Giffs specifically as their main feature is so reliant on firearms, they’ll be underpowered in settings that don’t have them but at least as races in spelljammer settings they all hit the mark beautifully. 

 

Rules for Spelljamming

The rules we get here for spelljamming are VERY light and simple. You have the rules for spelljammer helms which are very simple, a few rules regarding how gravity and air bubbles work for that whole “breathing in space” thing, but when it comes right down to it there isn’t much going on sailing a spelljammer. In fact, the ships are so functionally identical to regular sailing ships that you could easily use existing ships from ghosts of saltmarsh as spelljammers and they’d work just fine.

This is a double-edged sword though, I like simplicity, but I feel like they went a bit too far in that direction. There’s nothing interesting regarding the actual spelljamming mechanics, there’s nothing really that differentiates sailing or doing battle on a spelljamming ship when you compare it to a regular ship. There is very little work to do setting up a spelljamming scenario but there’s practically no payoff either. This will be great news for some players and a bit disappointing to others, but personally I look at it as the product’s greatest failing as a whole.

 

16 Spelljammer Ships

Here we get a healthy number of ships, each one just about right to be either the home and transport for your spelljamming adventurers or as a sizable threat when crewed by the evil enemies of the session. I love that we get a full ship layout for each ship, making it very easy to swashbuckle your way through even while below decks. 

I do have some major issues with them though. Firstly, they don’t do anything special for the most part. We’re still using basic cannons and ballistae just like we’ve always used, and with a couple notable exceptions all the ships function in basically the same way as a standard sailing ship. And while they come in some fantastical shapes, they don’t really have much underlying variety. Sure, one ship looks like a squid for some reason, but it doesn’t actually function differently from any other ship. I was hoping for tiny zippy support ships, big slow transports, giant warships and sleek stealth ships. Instead, what we mostly get are nearly identical ships in wacky shapes. I feel like there was a real missed opportunity here to add variety and depth to the combat and interactions between spelljammer ships, but your fish boat isn’t really going to play differently from any of the others.

 

The Rock of Braal Lore

We get some lore regarding the astral plane, wildspace, and general knowledge you’d need for navigating a spelljamming campaign, but the one major lore chapter concerns The Rock of Braal. The Rock is a city built on a huge mobile asteroid and it’s meant as a sort of default starting point and questing hub for spelljamming adventures. I would have liked a little more content on the Rock if I were to try and use it as a main focal point for a campaign, but it gives me nearly everything I’d need. The Rock has enough interesting content on it to serve as a good hub, and it has enough interlaced factions and a constant flow of people and ships that it’ll do its job as a springboard into adventures between the stars.

 

What’s Good About the Astral Adventurer’s Guide? 

The new playable races alone will probably get many players to pick this up and despite its small size we still get everything we need to run spelljamming ships and a spelljamming adventure. The 16 spelljammer ships have fully illustrated interior decks and make for very easy maps when rolling for initiative on the high astral seas. The spelljammer rules themselves are very simple, easy to run, and players should have no problem with the gravity bending realities of the astral sea. 

 

What’s Bad About the Astral Adventurer’s Guide?  

Simple spelljamming rules are a double-edged sword. There’s just so little here to work with that the space motif ends up feeling like window dressing. There’s no real difference between sailing the astral sea and fighting a space shark rather than sailing a traditional ocean and fighting a normal shark. This iteration of spelljammer feels very tacked on and lacking in mechanical depth. I was expecting rules for asteroid fields, tables for what you might encounter exploring the corpse of a dead god, or at least more lore than a single port.

 

Astral Adventurer’s Guide Conclusions

The Astral Adventurer’s Guide feels anemic, and I think this has a lot to do with it’s drastically reduced size. At only 64 pages including all the cover pages and legalese, we’re looking at a very condensed set of rules that feels very bare bones. I highly suspect that a lot of the content that was going to be included here has been shaved off and saved for the upcoming Planescape book that was just announced, and what we have left really suffers for it.

If all you want is the new races, then yeah, they’re here and they’re well designed. But I was hoping for much more content that I’d need for running actual spelljammer campaigns. As it is, I feel hesitant to even recommend the book for DMs planning to run spelljammer as a setting. Yes, you get some ships to work with, but there’s so little to them that you could just as easily run ships out of say ghosts of saltmarsh and just run them as spelljammers. And there’s so little to the spelljammer rules that you could easily make up your own and they’d function just as well. 

I think there’s enough value here that in those circumstances you should get it, but just barely. From what I’ve read, if I were to run a spelljammer game of my own I’d be making up 90% of the content on my own with the book, vs about 95% without, and that’s a problem.

 

Final Score: 4 out of 10 

 

What’s in Boo’s Astral Menagerie?

Boo’s Astral Menagerie provides us with about 70 new monster and NPC statblocks of creatures that can be found in the astral sea. We also get a brief set of encounter tables but really this book is our spelljamming bestiary supplement.

  • Spelljamming Encounter Tables
  • 72 New Monsters and NPCs

Spelljamming Encounter Tables

We get 3 tables, a table for wildspace encounters (the area surrounding a planet), a table for astral sea encounters (deep space) and a table of ship encounters (enemy ships, pirates, Etc.). It shakes out like you’d expect, but it does feel very light. Almost every result is a straightforward monster fight, and I’m disappointed that we don’t get more “interesting stuff in space” encounters.

 

72 Monsters and NPCs

It’s not fair to compare this to the bestiary (which boasts 195 monsters) given its comparably tiny size, but Boo manages to give us a fair assortment of potential threats and allies to play around with. They mainly fall into 4 categories, spooky space things, spelljamming race NPCs, space fish, and wacky nonsense.

 

Out of the spooky space things I think I’ll be getting the most use out of the starlight apparitions which can make for excellent quest givers or threats I can pop in reasonably whenever I need them. I also loved the mysterious and foreboding zodar with their once per lifetime wish that feels suitably epic.

 

The spelljamming race NPCs give us about what you’d expect and should you use say astral elves or Thri-Kreen as primary antagonists you’ll have a good variety of enemies to play with.

 

A surprising number of the monsters here can be summed up as space fish. Space eels, space sharks, space guppies, space whales, and space birds all fill the pages here. They’re welcome additions, but it does highlight the apparent design choice to keep spelljammer more nautical and less “spacy”.

 

And finally, we get to the wacky nonsense which they definitely leaned into with their marketing. Boo includes his giant space hamsters of course, but we also get space clowns that are literally inspired by the cult movie Killer Clowns from Outer Space. We have beholders that pretend to be asteroids, space chwingas riding space guppies, and little space penguin people. While there are a scant few genuinely “terrifying” monsters, the book overall is not taking itself that seriously and you should expect a lighthearted tone to most of the entries. 

 

What’s Good About the Boo’s Astral Menagerie? 

For its size the book wastes no space and fills up with as many monsters as possible. Many of the monsters are inspired and clever designs and can potentially inspire the spark of entire campaigns. It does a good job of filling all the niches you’ll likely run into during a spelljammer campaign. While space is infinite and they can’t cover everything, you have a great jumping off point with each statblock for most of the tropes you’re likely to encounter.

What’s Bad About the Boo’s Astral Menagerie?  

My biggest complaint is the size. We’re dealing with the entire astral sea and beyond so why is the bestiary a third of the size as the original bestiary? Sure, you can modify existing monsters to fit the space aesthetic, but I was hoping for more original concepts and a few more favorites to return. Where are the dracons? Where are the rogue moons? Where are the fractlings and the oortlings? I just can’t shake the feeling that we got short-changed and while I like what monsters we got we could have gotten so many more. 

 

Boo’s Astral Menagerie Conclusions

Boo’s Astral Menagerie is lighthearted, well-written, and tragically short. I can feel the design gaps that I think were left behind when content was chopped off and saved for future upcoming projects such as planescape. What we have here is excellent, but I don’t feel like it has enough to really flesh out my own spelljammer campaign unless I only use a few narrow portions of it for my adventures. I also felt far too many listings were just “space versions” of things rather than new and interesting ideas in and of themselves. Still, it’s not a terrible condemnation if the worst thing I can say about something is that there’s not enough of it. Great content, and there will for sure be space clowns haunting some of my future adventures, but I wanted much more of it.  

Final Score: 7 out of 10 

 

What’s in The Light of Xaryxis?

Light of Xaryxis is a complete spelljammer adventure that runs from 5th level to 9th level as the players attempt to save their planet from murderous astral elves. It explicitly states that it’s attempting to get a Flash Gordan feel, and it achieves it. There are clearly stated good guys, over the top bad guys, and supporting comic relief characters that your players will absolutely attach to and love. Especially Flapjack the flumph spelljammer, he is a precious boy and I love him.

The writers took a fascinating choice to divide up each of the adventure’s 4 parts into separate chapters, with each “chapter” supposedly taking just about a 2–3-hour long session. I’m interested to see how this works in practice but it’s an innovative idea that I really want to experiment with. Giving the DM a clear-cut idea of how much content the players are expected to go through in a session sounds like a decent idea. They also try hard to end every chapter with a cliffhanger (playing up the campy Flash Gordan inspiration) which is a creative way to keep your players invested and an excellent cap to a session.

I also find it interesting that they explicitly include ways to begin this adventure off the end of the existing mainline WotC starter adventures the Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak. They’re trying to set this adventure up as the “next starter adventure” to play after the first, introducing the players to the rules of spelljammer after their initial introductions to 5e.

 

What’s Good About the Light of Xaryxis? 

Light of Xaryxis is fun. It’s a well-designed campaign that leans into the campy and the dramatic. The characters are over-the-top on purpose and if the players join them in the wacky and absurd Flash Gordan themes they’ll have a blast. I’m also incredibly interested to see if this “session-length chapters” thing will work out in practice and if it does, I feel like it will quickly become an industry standard.

What’s Bad About the Light of Xaryxis?  

If I had to criticize the adventure everything, I’d point out is more of a failing of spelljammer as a whole. A part that emphasizes that the most for me is a point near the end in which the heroes have assembled a huge fleet of spelljammers to take on the opposing evil fleet of astral elves. And rather than experiencing that fight, it is boiled down to a fight between two ships, and even that is sort of glossed over. Ship to ship combat is just not really set up to be fun and that’s a real shame. 

 

Light of Xaryxis Conclusions

For me the Light of Xaryxis is the highlight of the collection and practically justifies the purchase all by itself. The characters had the right mix of depth and over-the-top wackiness to really hit the aesthetic they were going for. The Flash Gordan vibe is what they aimed for and they nailed it on the head. I may have to fight my nostalgia-colored glasses on this for both the campy sci-fi of the past and the old spelljammer itself, but at least from where I sit this is a nearly perfect adventure path. My one gripe is a lack of ship-to-ship encounters with anything interesting going on regarding the ships themselves. This is an issue I also had with ghosts of saltmarsh and other WotC encounters on ships. It all just devolves down into boarding actions and I don’t get much out of the ship itself. That’s me being nitpicky though and a personal gripe that shouldn’t deter you from this adventure. If you’re looking for a 12 session or so adventure with a comedic vein, this may be the perfect book for you.

 

Final Score: 9 out of 10 

 

Should I Buy Spelljammer: Adventures in Space?

This is a very tough call for me. On one hand I was VERY disappointed in the core rules for spelljamming, but on the other hand we’re getting an excellent bestiary and a FANTASTIC adventure path. I think ultimately, it’s worth getting, but only just. I’m hesitant to fully recommend it as I fully believe the rules are so minimalistic, you’d have just as good of a campaign winging it for what’s been provided. 

My biggest concern is just how much improvising most players will need to do as a DM if they want to run their own spelljammer campaign. We don’t have rules for practically anything you could encounter out in the astral sea beyond a few monsters that barely add up to a third of what you’d have on Toril using just the base bestiary. And if you’re playing a game where you’re improvising 90% of the content anyway, why buy the book?

The answer is Xaryxis. The included adventure puts it over the top for me as a recommendation and it justifies the price tag. If you’re looking to play Xaryxis or your own spelljammer games, you may as well pick this up. Just anticipate waiting quite a while for the rest of the content to come out much later in planescape and consider waiting for that release if you don’t want to be improvising everything between the stars.

 

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10

 

SkullSplitter Dice

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