Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Spelljammer Review

The new version of Spelljammer just dropped for Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition. Let me preface this by saying that: a) Spelljammer was one of my favorite settings from 2nd Edition, and b) I am a mad old greybeard. Your mileage may vary, you may disagree with me, and that is quite alright. I am going to try to be as objective as possible here and I will fail miserably. My opinions are going to be colored by having played Spelljammer back before some people reading this were born. These are my opinions, and you are welcome to yours.

Finally! SPELLJAMMER! Let’s go to SPACE!

Spelljammer was one of my favorite settings because it offered a way to connect settings without having to traipse through the outer planes. Want a kender on Toril? Spelljammer. Bored with whatever backwater world you were on and want to check out Oerth? Spelljammer. But the real fun of Spelljammer was, well… it was a massive new setting, effectively an entire multiverse. Even if you stayed in your own planet’s system, you had whole new planets to explore. And you know what? It’s still that. It’s a game where you get to fly a boat to the stars and find them teeming with life. Spelljammer’s aesthetic was a lot of camp, and a lot of Jules Verne’s Le Voyage dans la Lune and the 1902 movie version by Georges Méliès. It is not NASA.

Somehow, though, the 5E version feels small in comparison. For starters, the two books in the set (one rules, one monsters) contain less information than the two books from 2nd Edition, which combine to be half the thickness. Part of this is due to the new books being gorgeously illustrated. Part of it is because they condensed the rules and concepts down so far that there is barely anything left that establishes the spacefaring flavor of the setting.

Space Travel Got Cheap

First things first, the literal engine of Spelljammer, the spelljamming helm. There are some major changes here. In the original, there were two classes of “standard” helms – Minor and Major. Minor helms could move a ship at slower combat speeds, and Major helms were the best and fastest thing in the game, if you had a powerful enough mage. There were a few other types of helms that weren’t as good and required different fuels (magic items, a diet of brains, etc…), but Minor and Major helms were the least needy and best performant. And they were EXPENSIVE. 250,000 gold for a major helm. To make matters worse, only one race knew how to make them (the Arcane, now known as the Mercane), and they were not keen on sharing their trade secrets. You had to buy one from them, or acquire them in some other way. That’s part of the adventure, though. There were spells that could create temporary helms, but they were 6th and 7th level, took some time to cast, and had only a few weeks’ duration. No one rode for free.

Now? There’s one type of helm, it costs 10,000gp tops on the open market, or you can make one for 5,000 and a 5th-level spell. There is no scarcity here. Depending on your party’s loot haul, by the time your wizard can learn the spell, they can start mass producing them.

Additionally, in 2nd Edition, there was a price to be paid for using a helm, and that price was your spell slots. I don’t necessarily disagree with the direction they went here, but I will say that in a 5E game I absolutely used this as a nonlethal trap. Party finds a spelljamming helm (only one party member remembered 2nd Edition), and the bard took a seat. BAM all casting gone until the next rest. Now? Nothing. No price other than the feeling that your leg is going to sleep.

That was a big thing in 2nd Edition. You had to hire a few casters (and pay them!) to pilot your ship or do it yourself and potentially be without a caster in combat. Ship speeds were determined by caster level, so you had some hard choices to make. Move fast or have your most potent caster available to sling spells?

Hoist The Mainmast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!

5E is a game that demands a map. It is a rule set based on positioning and rate of movement. I would find it incredibly difficult to play without. Contrast that to 2nd Edition, which I played almost entirely theater-of-the-mind. But when it came to Spelljammer, they gave you a map and tokens, because ship combat was very much a game of speed, facing, and position. It was a game-within-a-game. What your ship was armed with, how fast it was (based on the helm and its pilot!), and how good you were at outmaneuvering your opponent were critical.

They scrapped all that. In fact, they took it so far away that it is basically theater-of-the-mind now. The ranges are all in broad estimates, the rules for movement practically non-existent. It’s an exercise in waiting to board or be boarded, so that you can have another battlemap to move your character around in combat. It may as well be another dungeon. They removed the spacefaring element from it completely, and it kind of makes me sad.

If you remember when Assassin’s Creed 3 came out, you remember how awesome it was that you got to pilot a ship around fighting other ships. That was a huge element of Spelljammer. Tooling around in the dark of space, dogfighting with illithids like it’s Best Viper Battles of Battlestar Galactica. Honestly this loss was the most disappointing thing to me.

Beyond The Stars

They made a lot of stylistic changes, but the one that struck me the most was the makeup of the cosmos. In 2nd Edition, solar systems were encased in Crystal Spheres. The stars were just portals to what lay beyond, and that was the Phlogiston, a sea of highly flammable vapor that permeated everything. The Flow, as it was called, had currents and eddies. Some Spheres were easy to get to from others, some were basically impossible to reach (like Athas, in keeping with its complete disconnection from the planes). But most importantly, the Phlogiston was completely and utterly disconnected from the planes. No planar travel, no summoning, no divine magic over 2nd level (other than the ability to pilot a helm). It was an endless void that had no analog in any other game world. Also, if you had a pyro wizard who loved chucking fireballs, you were pretty much a goner.

They scrapped that entirely and have the Crystal Spheres bobbing along in the Astral Plane. That is an… odd choice, because it feels very tacked-on and not at all like the intensely strange and new thing for players to deal with that the Phlogiston was in 2nd Edition (even if it sucked for clerics). The entire point of Spelljammer was that you were moving from Prime Material to Prime Material without having to traverse the planes.

Some Choices Were Made

While the new book does a decent enough job of keeping the aesthetic of Spelljammer, it does make some stylistic changes, not all of which make sense to me. There are a bunch of name changes. The Arcane become the Mercane, which I don’t get other than to differentiate them from all the other uses of the word “arcane” in the game. The Elven Man o’ War becomes the Star Moth, which, yeah, that makes sense, but Space Hamster? No no no. There were Giant Space Hamsters, and Miniature Giant Space Hamsters. Part of the Spelljammer aesthetic was pure camp, and this was one of those things. It was hilarious to me as a kid, right out of Monty Python. I have no idea why they changed this.

The other weird thing to me was the renaming of the catapult. You know what a catapult is. Even if you’ve never played D&D, you probably know what a catapult is. It’s a rock-chucker. They chose this to rename. Now it’s called a mangonel. Now, I have a stupid trivia brain. I encounter random facts and my brain stores them like my body stores every calorie I’ve ever encountered. When I saw “mangonel,” I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up. I now know a lot about mangonels. Way more than apparently the designers did.

A mangonel is a catapult, specifically, a very early catapult. There’s some weirdness about the historical accuracy of them, though, so much that a myth about them has its own Wikipedia page. And the designers apparently bought all the way into that myth. What they describe is not, in fact, a mangonel, but what we call a torsion catapult, or just “A CATAPULT.” Mangonels worked by having a bunch of people yank a rope real hard to send a small chunk of rock flying. Torsion catapults worked by putting a piece of wood under a lot of tension with a rope, then releasing all that tension to send a small chunk of rock flying. Are these functionally the same? Yes and no. Yes, because of the aforementioned flying rock. No, because a mangonel needed about 5-10 people to fire, had a much smaller rock size, and much shorter range, whereas a catapult needed a crew of 2-4. Yes, this is a pedantic nitpick, but my point here is that they changed a word that everyone knew to one that very few people knew, the word they changed it to isn’t even accurate, and the original one is accurate. It just strikes me as a very weird design choice.

But There’s Cool Elves!

Something I’ll eventually get to is that I like elves. No surprise then that one of the design choices I really like is the Astral elves. Elves in 2nd Edition Spelljammer were the same elves you got in any other setting, and elves in pretty much every setting were identical, even if they had slightly different names (High/Grey/Silvanesti, Moon/Silver/Qualinesti). There was universe-spanning elven empire of some sort, and an Imperial Elven Navy that operated in most known Crystal Spheres. Your particular relationship with elves determined if they were ally, nuisance, or outright enemy.

Astral elves capture that very nicely, but they are different in a way that makes them stand far apart from other elves. In 2nd Edition, you could launch from Evermeet into space and meet some other elves and maybe find your character’s uncle or something. Now, if you start from a terrestrial campaign and head to the stars, you’re going to meet some weird-ass elves. And that’s pretty cool. Also, in the included adventure, they come off as very inspired by Melniboné. This isn’t Rivendell, my friend, you are in space and a bunch of elves flying crystal butterflies are going to wreck your entire planet. You had best beware.

You’ll Never Take The Sky From Me

That’s my take on the new Spelljammer for D&D 5E. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it. I have some issue with what they did, but I think the books are just amazingly beautiful. There’s stuff I miss, and stuff I like. There’s changes I appreciate, and ones I really do not understand.

But I would really like to run Light of Xaryxis for a group and send them off into the stars. It looks like a fun and well-designed adventure.

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