It says a lot about how beloved the setting is that “Spelljammer confirmed” became such a long-running meme. Even though its blend of sci-fi fantasy hadn’t been seen in decades (officially, at least), you couldn’t get through a Dungeons and Dragons announcement without the now-infamous phrase being dropped into comments. In fact, D&D’s official account made it an April Fool’s joke for 2022.
Fast-forward a few months and we actually have to grapple with how Spelljammer fits into today’s D&D lineup. If the likes of flintlock-wielding hippo aliens exist in – and have visited – the world of knights on horseback, how come we haven’t heard about them? There’s an obvious real-world explanation, of course, but it does raise questions in-universe. Modern Dungeons and Dragons books have stayed mum about the floating asteroid city that’s supposed to orbit one of the setting’s moons, for instance.
To help set the record straight, project lead Chris Perkins chatted with us during a press briefing to discuss how Spelljammer: Adventures in Space integrates with existing D&D mythology, what it carries over from the classic version, and what it changes. Basically? This isn’t the Spelljammer you remember – it might be even better.
ocean of stars
Perkins and Spelljammer go way back. To be precise, he ran a campaign set aboard the Rock of Bral (that aforementioned asteroid city) back in the ’90s. The setting has a special place in his heart as a result, but don’t mistake Adventures in Space for a passion project. Besides being split into three books with their own slipcase and Dungeon Master’s screen, it sounds ambitious enough to live up to Spelljammer’s legend. It’s got the largest art budget for any D&D project to date, for example.
The streamlining of Spelljammer lore is another indication that isn’t a one-and-done thing, either; it’s been tweaked to blend in with D&D’s updated cosmology. Namely, its worldbuilding – which used to rely on ‘crystal spheres’ containing planets, a bit like that scene from Men in Black where the camera pulls back to reveal our galaxy held within a marble – now features something more like the system from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. To be precise, each solar system in the new Spelljammer is bordered by mist or nebulae rather than a physical shell you can bump into (yes, that could happen back in the day). Make your way through this and you’ll end up in the Astral Sea, an in-between from which you can hop into practically any other dimension. This allows an adventurer from the Dungeons and Dragons starter set to hop on a Spelljammer ship and travel to the alternate steampunk reality of Eberron. It’s a neat, in-universe way of moving your character from one campaign setting to another without having to start afresh.
However, that isn’t to say this is common knowledge in-universe. When I asked Perkins about how the team integrated Spelljammer back into D&D lore (and how they avoided it upending the status quo with advanced spacecraft changing everything for a feudal society), he compared it to a medieval villager’s macro view of the world. Although some European peasants in the 1200s might have known about far-off places like North America or Africa, the vast majority wouldn’t. They’d never gone further than the next town, so why would they? It’s the same case here. A few D&D characters from Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter will be aware of what’s waiting out amongst the stars, but the majority remain clueless. They’d simply never encounter Spelljamming crews, and those crews would be more intrigued by what’s out in space than on a backwater world that’s much like any other.
That’s why Adventures in Space assumes players know nothing about Spelljammer, and also why Spelljammer Academy – a one-off adventure that introduces the idea to modern players – came about. It puts players and characters in the same situation, where they can learn about this entirely new world beyond the horizon together.
For much the same reason, Perkins and co were keen to avoid technological science fiction here. More than a few of the best tabletop RPGs have that covered, so the key was maintaining a sword and sorcery theme. With that in mind, they leaned into Spelljammer’s Treasure Planet-style approach of treating space like an ocean. That’s why all of its ships take the form of galleons or vessels inspired by sea life you’d find under the waves.
Equally, it’s why you’ll see Spelljammer citizens wielding cutlesses instead of Star Wars-esque blasters. Besides keeping things grounded in the D&D reality we’ve come to know since the 1970s, there’s less need for mechanical gizmos if magic exists. As an example, equipping your ship with laser weapons or cannons isn’t necessary when player characters can throw literal lightning.
That train of thought extends to the new races you can use – and the monsters you’ll encounter – throughout Spelljammer: Adventures in Space. While there are robotic auto gnomes and oozing, amorphous plasmoids, they’re still very grounded in the fantasy seen amongst the pages of other books. Starfaring elves are a common sight, and creatures inspired by the ones found in classic fantasy (such as cosmic spiders the size of a comet) are par for the course rather than the species you’d see in Star Trek.
Naturally, whether this is successful or not (and whether these efforts appeal to long-time Spelljammer fans) will only be seen when Adventures in Space launches this August 16. But from what I’ve seen so far, the long, long wait for more Spelljammer is about to pay off.
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