Announced earlier this year, Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is an update to the classic D&D setting for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. We recently sat in on a briefing with Lead Designer Chris Perkins who walked us through what’s included the various editions of the books as well as some of the new rules and creatures coming to this revised spacefaring fantasy realm.
Chris Perkins, Lead Designer: Spelljammer has always been a bit of a weirdo and so we felt like this was a great opportunity to play with the form factor of the product. Instead of presenting it as a book—like we would typically do—what we decided to do was break it down into smaller, more digestible components. So, this product includes three books: a rule book/setting book called the Astral Adventurer’s Guide, a monster book called Boo’s Astral Menagerie, and an adventure, Light of Xaryxis. Coupled with a poster map of the Rock of Bral, which is a classic setting, and a DM screen all tidily tucked away in a beautiful slipcase.
There are two versions of this product, the mass-marketed version (shown in the previous image), which has its own slipcase design, and DM screen, and unique covers for each of the three books. And then there is the version exclusive to local hobby stores, which has different art on the slipcase, the books, and the DM screen. All the alternate covers were done by artist Hydro74… but apart from the changes in art, both versions of the product are identical.
Perkins goes on to explain some of the changes made to the Spelljammer setting in order to make it a better fit into the Fifth Edition lore. He begins with the art on the alternate DM screen, a rendering of the Astral Sea by artist Jedd Chevrier.
CP: Those who are familiar with the original Spelljammer setting, there were two elements of that setting that were interesting and weird. One was that every system, every planetary system is basically contained within a crystal sphere, so that if you were to rocket away from the sun to the edge of the system, eventually your ship would just slam into this crystal shell that encases every system.
Now, when we were building this version of Spelljammer, we were trying to hook it into the cosmology that is described in the Dungeon Masters Guide. And it’s the cosmology that we’ve adopted in recent editions, that includes not only the Astral Plane, but this concept that the Astral Plane is like a sea… In the DMG, we make no mention of crystal spheres, we make no mention of the Phlogiston (the original Spelljammer’s “space between multiverses”). And so, for this version of Spelljammer, what we opted to do instead is say, “Okay, Spelljammer is you traveling among the stars.” The Astral Plane, astral means of the stars, and it is the heavenly realms. It is the medium in our cosmology that you pass through to get to other planes and the realms of the gods and things like that.
And so, what happens now is if you’re on a planet and you hop aboard a Spelljamming vessel and you head into space, you are entering the vast ocean that is Wildspace (as pictured in the DM screen art below). And if you continue outward to the edge of your system, rather than bumping into a crystal shell, you start to enter or see around you this silvery haze. And the brilliant colors of Wildspace give way to a silvery purplish void through which the light of the stars of other Wildspace systems shine. At that point, you are crossing into the Astral sea, the Astral plane, which is a realm of thought, given form. And if you keep going through the Astral Plane, like the Phlogiston, you are passing through a medium and eventually can get to another Wildspace system. As the silvery mist begin to thin, you find yourself in another piece of Wildspace. And so, it’s a divergence from the original, but we think it fits elegantly into the current cosmology.
When it comes to how you’ll actually move through the Astral Sea and Wildspace, there are more than a dozen ship templates statted out.
CP: Many of Spelljammer ships are modeled after creatures in design, that’s something that we preserved. I think it’s one of the key elements that defines Spelljammer.
In the Astral adventures guide, we present 16 different ship designs that DMs and players can choose from. And this image (above) shows one of the more unusual ships used primarily by creatures called Neogi. This is a Nightspider. So, we presented those ships as examples and they run the gamut from the expected space galleons to bizarre things like this and hammerhead ships and squid ships.
We don’t then go off and say, “Here is a kit you can use to build your own ships.” We give you so many to choose from and so many of them are player-facing options that we felt we didn’t have to do anything more than that. And of course, there will still be communities out there designing, creating their own ship designs or riffing on versions of Spelljammer ships that were created in earlier additions, and that’s cool.
For those who don’t know, one of the things we did keep from the original Spelljammer is the concept of gravity, planes and air envelopes. And that is when a ship enters space, Wildspace or the Astral Sea, it has a gravity plane, so people can stay, stand on the deck of the ship. It has an air envelope that manifests around it, so people can breathe on the ship. What that does in terms of play is immediately tell players, “Oh, we’re not in normal space. And this is not a normal space-based campaign.” This is fantasy. Thanks to magic. We’re standing on a ship and breathing air as we rock it through Wildspace and that’s cool and weird and different.” And it means that ships in space more or less behave like ships on planets. There’s no weird sense of having to reorient yourself or strap yourself in or anything like that. And so you can have very traditional D&D battles and encounters in space by virtue of these rules.
For ship engagements in this setting, we’re basically using the core rules of the game. Many ships have siege-like weapons on them like ballistas and mangonel and other forms of catapults and whatnot… The way we think of ship-to-ship engagements is, in Fifth Edition—which is more a theater of the mind—there aren’t things like Facing or Turning or anything like that. We’re not trying to create a game-within-a-game where suddenly you’re no longer role-playing, you’re engaged in some tactical, “Where’s my ship exactly in space” kind of game.
It’s kind of like two groups on two small islands, separated by shooting arrows at one another. A ship becomes a platform on which the encounter takes place, like a dungeon room a room in a castle. You can attack the ship, of course, and the ship can take damage, but for the most part, ship-to-ship engagements really have to do with the crews on board. And, despite the fact that your ship may have a catapult and ballistae and whatnot on board, it’s still pretty hard to trump a Fireball spell or a Lightning Bolt spell. The characters have so many other options at their disposal for disposing of shipboard enemies. We stay very much in the theatre of the mind with this product for the sake of keeping encounters fluid and fast.
As we flip through slides, Perkins is eager to get into Spelljammer’s pop-culture sci-fi inspirations, explaining how he wanted to introduce a new race of Astral Elves in no small part due to a particular love for Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, and stopping on a piece of art featuring a galleon crewed by space clowns (not a typo) and retrofitted with a large pie-slinging catapult.
CP: They’re a nod to one of my favorite campy science fiction films of the 1980s, which was Killer Clowns from Outer Space. Since this product is, to some extent, an homage to a number of science fiction/fantasy films of the 80s, we would be remiss if we didn’t include space clowns in the mix.
D&D has always been this delightful ad-hoc mixture of serious fantasy, horror fantasy, and whimsy. I think this setting succeeds at bringing some of the whimsy forward – and using that as sort of a counterpoint for some of the more serious elements of the setting.
Perkins also got into a bit more detail about the new playable species that have been added – including the Astral Elves, but also several other anthropomorphized creatures and constructs (and more Star Trek references than you might expect!).
CP: Because this is such an unusual setting and because Spelljammer has a history of introducing some very unusual bipedal characters, we felt it was a great opportunity to put a number of new races in here, partly to satisfy certain science fiction fantasy tropes.
Astral Elves are elves that left the Feywild and ventured to the Astral plane and basically just resided there. And because the Astral Plane is ageless and creatures do not age while they’re there, you can be a particularly long-lived elf if you’re an Astral elf. But as you can see, Astral Elves are still elves in terms of their shapes body and whatnot. They’ve got a few distinguishing features like little starry pinpoints of light in their eyes and their outfitting is a little different. They’re fond of visors covering their faces and whatnot. Still very elf-y though.
With Autognomes, I was leaning pretty much into the Commander Data archetype. You’re a construct in this case built by gnomes in the likeness of a gnome and this is the first time we’ve allowed you to play a true construct. We’ve got war forged in the game, of course. There you’re a living construct, but here, you’re purely mechanical.
The Giff are truly Spelljammer, strongly identified with Spelljammer. Giff are broad-shouldered hippofolk. And they are just so absurd and delightful and people love them. They’ve got a penchant for firearms, which actually traces back to their divine origins. So, we explore that a little bit, but we can’t do Spelljammer without touching on these guys. They’re just so intrinsic to the setting.
Then we’ve got Hadozees, which are bipedal with some big eyes and very cute squirrel-like or simian-like features, and then they’ve got wing flaps, like flying squirrels. They’re wonderful gliders, and they’re delightful space explorers. And they trope-wise or homage-wise, they tie into the science fiction Planet of the Apes feel to them.
As a fan of Deep Space 9, one of my favorite characters on that show is Constable Odo, played by the late great René Auberjonois. And we felt like if any setting can support a blob as a playable race, then Spelljammer is that setting. Here is your first chance to play an ooze. It’s just so wonderfully absurd. And Plasmoids are delightful for a number of reasons. One of which is some of them like to absorb dyes into their membranes, so they can actually change their color.
And finally, the Thri-Kreen, which seems like an odd race, but I think in any setting where there’s hints of science fiction, an insectoid race is not out of place. And we’ve been looking for a long time to bring Thri-Kreen into our larger multiverse. And so, here you can play a forearmed bipedal insectoid. The other reason why I wanted to include Thri-Kreens, Plasmoids and Hadozees is because they trace their origins back to one of my all-time favorite TSR games, Star Frontiers. That’s where they first appeared and I felt that I wanted to bring them into Spelljammer. They were actually brought into Spelljammer late in second edition. I don’t think they got much attention, so we’re giving them the attention now.
Of course, one of the bigger questions surrounding Spelljammer’s 2022 revival is “why now?” With the “next iteration” of D&D—whether that ends up being Sixth Edition or, more likely (similar to what was revised back in Third Edition), a “D&D 5.5″—on the horizon, it’s somewhat surprising to see legacy settings like this one (or Dragonlance, which is getting an update this fall) make a return.
CP: In the early years of Fifth Edition, we were really focused on the forgotten realms for various and sundry reasons. And occasionally branched off and did stuff apart from that like Curse of Strahd. But we weren’t at the point in the line yet where we felt like we could really start to dive into the multiverse. Well, that changed about two years ago.
And then we started to say, “Okay, we’ve done a lot of stuff with the Forgotten Realms or at least a good amount of stuff for the fifth edition. We’re going to put the Forgotten Realms on hold for a bit and start to reach out into various corners of the multiverse.” And that’s how we ended up with stuff like Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft and Wild Beyond Witchlight and that kind of thing. And it just seemed like, “Okay, we’re now eight to 10 years into Fifth Edition, now is a good time to turn our attention to Wildspace.” Because it is like the Final Frontier.
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is available for pre-order now and will release on August 16, 2022. For more D&D on IGN, check out everything we learned about the upcoming D&D movie at Comic-Con, or catch up on the latest D&D video game announcements.
JR is a Senior Producer at IGN, you can follow him on Twitter for more video games and tabletop RPG shenanigans.
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Author: Jon Ryan