The latest Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign setting from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is none other than Spelljammer, a fan-favourite setting from the 1980s that was previously hinted at.
First published in 1989 and released as a box set, Spelljammer captured the hearts and minds of space opera fans who also loved fantasy, by providing an outer space setting — with magic.
In the world (or rather, universe) of Spelljammer, players can travel from world to world by navigating the starry space in between with spacefaring ships.
So an adventuring party can travel from Faerûn (the world of the Forgotten Realms) to Krynn (the world of Dragonlance) simply by sailing their way through the cosmos to get from one planet to another.
Spelljammer returns for the 5th Edition of D&D this August in the form of a box set — one of the very few box sets available in the current incarnation of D&D — that comprises three hardcover books, a giant poster map and a DM screen.
The three hardcover books are: Astral Adventurer's Guide, which contains all the rules and lore of the updated Spelljammer setting; Boo's Astral Menagerie, a monster book featuring Spelljammer-specific creatures; and Light of Xarxis, an adventure set in the Spelljammer universe.
The box set isn't just a callback to the original Spelljammer box set. In fact, its weird form factor is perfectly in line with the weirdness of the Spelljammer setting.
Also, breaking up the material into three smaller books (rather than having it all in one book) is designed to help Dungeon Masters (DMs) run the game, by having the adventure in one book, monsters in another and the new rules in a third, so that they don't have to flip back and forth in the same book to run an adventure. They are meant to be more welcoming and easier to use for DMs.
As Lead D&D Designer Chris Perkins said, "there's nothing else like [Spelljammer]. We tried to preserve what's unique about it — that is to say, the way you travel between worlds."
Space ships in a fantasy setting? How does it work?
In the Spelljammer universe, players can travel through space using ships equipped with devices called spelljamming helms, which are the means by which said galleons can be propelled through space.
Of course, dangers run rampant across the Spelljammer universe, just like it would the high seas of any campaign world. Swashbucklers, otherworldly horrors and pirates are some of the encounters that players might have in the setting.
But how is this different from the 1980s version of Spelljammer?
For one, crystal spheres no longer exist — different worlds are still encased in their own wildspace (the fantasy analogue of outer space), but they aren't encased by a hard crystal sphere barrier any more.
Phlogiston, which was the flammable ether between each world, is now gone.
Instead, the various worlds and their wildspace are suspended in the Astral Sea. As one gets further away from a planet, the wildspace of that world starts becoming thinning and the haze of the Astral Sea becomes more obvious, until one has completely left the wildspace of a world and entered the Astral Sea.
Since Spelljammer is still a fantasy setting at heart, "wildspace doesn't have black", said Perkins.
Our real-life version of outer space is mainly black, but "Spelljammer is a fantasy, not sci-fi setting, so outer space is colourful in Wildspace", Perkins explained.
It pushes the art into a "spectral fantasy feel", which is significant given that Spelljammer devoted 30 to 39 per cent of its budget for art. Normally, the art budget for books would be 20 to 25 per cent, Perkins revealed.
With the increased focus on visuals, Perkins said that they preserved the "ships look like creatures" aesthetic for the vehicles in the book.
He cited the Nightspider ship, which belongs to the spider-like Neogi race. Its arachnid design calls to mind its creators.
Art from around the world
The DM screen features a wildspace landscape illustrated by Malaysian artist Julian Kok, who is also an art director at Ubisoft Singapore.
Over half of the artists who worked on Spelljammer are not based in North America, Perkins said, which works well for D&D, since the game can demonstrate a broad range of artistic styles.
To have a local artist's work be at the games of thousands of people all over the planet is truly an example of the Spelljammer concept at work — that people (and art) can travel anywhere, like magic.
Since Spelljammer is effectively a multiverse, allowing players to traverse between campaign settings, which famous icons know about the existence of this D&D multiverse?
Ever the loremaster in such matters, Perkins explained that the Forgotten Realms' Elminster and Greyhawk's Mordenkainen would know about wildspace and the Spelljammer universe at large.
However, Dragonlance's Raistlin would probably be too self-absorbed to be aware of this.
Perkins also shared that the Spelljammer adventure, Light of Xarxis, is designed to be played over twelve sessions.
He cited research done by Wizards of the Coast which shared that the average campaign lasts for about twelve sessions (something this writer can attest to), and he wanted players and DMs alike to feel the accomplishment of finishing a campaign.
However, each session also has a scripted cliffhanger or instructions on how to leave the session on a cliffhanger.
As a scriptwriter, I appreciate them taking a leaf from other mediums and applying to D&D — I've always structured my own games as self-contained episodes across a season, and seeing this philosophy being espoused in adventure design helps make the storytelling all the richer.
As a tribute to the 1980s (the era when Spelljammer was "born"), the setting also contains plenty of Easter eggs, such as killer clowns (as a reference to the 1988 film Killer Klowns in Outer Space), as well as vampires akin to those in the 1985 horror film Lifeforce.
But Spelljammer isn't all about horror (although cosmic horror is one direction that the campaign can go in) — campy, whimsical monsters also exist in Boo's Menagerie, and it's up to DMs to choose what they want to use.
But one thing's for sure - every DM (and player) is going to want to have a Giant Space Hamster in their game.
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Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for "Lion Mums", "Crimewatch", "Police & Thief", and "Incredible Tales". He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site.