The announcement of Spelljammer: Adventures in Space 5E during last month’s D&D Direct appeared to get a good number of Dungeons & Dragons fans hyped up with excitement. Having never experienced the original Spelljammer setting that was first released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2E in 1989 – mainly because I wasn’t alive at the time – I didn’t share the initial buzz that many older fans of the tabletop RPG had.
However, the prospect of Spelljammer – a mishmash setting of science-fiction and fantasy – caught my eye. Combining two very distinctive genres together is not for the faint of heart - and we’ve seen plenty of failed attempts. (For instance, everybody has already forgotten the doomed 2012 film John Carter.) But the look of Spelljammer gave me a lot of confidence. The neon colour palette and unique artistic flourishes of having characters fly around space on traditional wooden ships immediately made the setting stand out, giving me flashbacks to the 2002 Disney film Treasure Planet – which looked amazing, even if the script was mostly awful.
Wizards of the Coast description of Spelljammer’s setting as “deep space meets deep sea”, alongside mentions of a playable ooze species and giant hamsters, left me extremely intrigued to see what Adventures in Space will be like. This could be the shot in the arm I’ve felt that Dungeons & Dragons’ line of sourcebooks has needed, considering the many, many crossovers with Magic: The Gathering and Critical Role we’ve seen lately - which are great for fans of those franchises but not so much for original creative expression.
I’ve been disappointed by the fact that the return of the beloved sci-fi setting has been confined.
While I’m sure that the Astral Adventurer’s Guide sourcebook will provide dungeon masters and players with whatever they need to create characters and run campaigns, that Boo’s Astral Menagerie will contain tons of monsters to fight and creatures to meet, and the 12 episode-long campaign Light of Xaryxis will keep parties entertained for a good long time, I’ve been left feeling disappointed by the fact that the return of the beloved sci-fi setting has been confined to the release of just three books.
The fact that Spelljammer is tied to the fast-moving, unrelenting D&D release schedule means it’s very likely this will be the last of the setting we’ll see for a good long while. That’s a shame, as Spelljammer would have huge potential if it were a standalone tabletop roleplaying game separate from D&D 5E. The vastness of space always makes a good blueprint for worldbuilding because the possibilities of adventure, discovery and drama are so great. Far from the sky being the limit, in a space setting the only limits are the ones imposed by the game master. With Spelljammer’s distinctive period starfaring/fantasy/science-fiction style, an entirely new roleplaying game could be created.
The core gameplay system of 5E can remain [...] but the setting could flourish away from the confines of the main D&D series.
A standalone Spelljammer RPG is exactly what Wizards of the Coast should release - rather than just putting out a single set of books before once again confining another great setting to the Dungeons & Dragons vault, not to be seen for another few years. Like how Starfinder was created as a sci-fi RPG spin-off from Pathfinder – with its own collection of rulebooks and adventure paths – Spelljammer should become a game separate from D&D 5E. The core gameplay system of 5E can remain, as it’s what most current and potential fans of Spelljammer are most familiar with, but the setting could flourish away from the confines of the main D&D series.
This isn’t to say I don’t support D&D branching out into genres outside of its fantasy roots. I fully approve of Dungeons & Dragons stepping away from the reductive elements of its past and towards inspirations that the community hasn’t seen as much of. Upcoming anthology Journeys through the Radiant Citadel is a perfect example of the positive moves that Wizards of the Coast is making in opening its game up to a diverse team of writers and inspirations outside of western fantasy.
With Spelljammer flying in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, it’s tragic to think that it will soon be cast aside.
Nonetheless, it’s sad that entire settings such as Spelljammer are being tied to the homogeneity of modern Dungeons & Dragons 5E. It feels like Wizards of the Coast is attempting to do something akin to what a lot of film production companies are trying – and almost entirely failing – to do at the moment, which is to make every franchise into a universe containing movies of varying tones and genres but sharing the same core structure. Forgotten Realms, Wildemount, Eberron, Ravenloft – these are settings are all extremely distinct from one another in style, tone and inspiration but are all part of one D&D universe, which means they all have to wait their turn to receive sourcebooks, adventure books and more.
With Spelljammer flying in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, it’s almost tragic to think that it will soon be cast aside for the next hot thing that Wizards wants to release. In contrast, if it was allowed to be its own roleplaying game, Spelljammer could continue receiving fresh and exciting content to flesh out its world and provide DMs and players with ideas for new stories, whilst D&D proper could still stick to its busy release schedule.
It’s a shame that Wizards isn’t willing to let D&D settings be their own thing, keeping the 5E system but having the freedom to thrive away from the main series. After all, how is Spelljammer meant to offer its players a sense of boundless freedom if the setting itself is so tied down?