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Is Spelljamer 5e a Waste of Space? (Kinda)
Originally, it was a 4 out of 5. Now, months in, it's a 2.5 out of 5, and I feel that's being generous. (Also: upcoming project updates)
A few months ago, I started a Spelljammer campaign at my local game shop. It’s been a lot of fun because I love my group, and we love each other. I wrote my original review of Spelljammer 5e a few weeks into the campaign, and I gave it a 4 out of 5.
I don’t think that’s really a realistic score. After playing with it for a while, I changed it to a 2.5 out of 5, and it probably should be a 2, but I wanted to be generous.
So why the reduction in score? Here’s my update:
The lack of mechanics for ships in general, whether that's space combat, maneuvering, or basic ship control is actually a huge hindrance in actual gameplay. I've had to homebrew a ton of things just to give the party members things to do while on the ship, both in and out of combat. That shouldn't happen.
The easy accessibility of the spelljamming helms and ships makes the setting so much less dangerous that it's almost boring to explore. Combine that with the chill Astral Sea versus the old, flammable phlogiston flow, and your party of hardened adventurers are basically on a pleasure cruise more often than they are a space heist. The actual act of Spelljamming should be special, and in 5e, it's just...not. It's common, and that takes some of the magic away (pun intended).
The current lore-sparse 5e mentality is hardcore at work here, and I don't see how anyone who hadn't read the old series of novels from the '80s and the 2e sourcebooks could make any sense of what's presented here. The stuff that's here is really really cool, but the stuff that's not there is really really important.
And there are so many holes in the story that don't blend together well that I recommend hitting up DMs Guild to fill those in with side-quests like Saving Commodore Krux. My party had more fun with it than most anything else in the WotC hardcover. Sigh.
For instance, take the Eye of Doom that appears later in the Light of Xaryxis adventure. This is basically a black hole, a "swirling, flightless vortex" that is "slowly pulling the system's planets, moons, and crystal shards into it." Sounds pretty righteous, yeah? An awesome set piece that will definitely play a major part in the story since they're sending you to Doomspace...to learn of and avoid the horrible fate that awaits the entire system as it enters the Eye of Doom.
What's that? No? It won't? No, of course not. Because instead of actually telling players what this super-awesome space vortext is, it literally says "that's up to you."
Now, as Dungeon Masters we know of course it's up to us! But we buy these books for ideas, for lore, for mechanics, and things to yoink and use in our games. Telling us it "might be a gate to another dimension, an alternate reality, or another Wildspace system" is useless. We got that, y'all. We know what it might be. We want to know what it is.
All that combined makes me unable to really recommend that you buy Spelljammer: Adventures in Space unless you find it at a deep discount. The art is gorgeous, the covers are neat, and there is enough good stuff in here to warrant a $25-$40 purchase. Just don't expect it to be a "complete" product like you'd get from the Curse of Strahd box set.
But for real, take what I say below with a grain of salt because while the surface-level stuff is still great, and I am very glad I ran it, I can't wait to be done with Spelljammer so I can run something with more substance and bite. You can definitely tell the difference in how I feel about it after a few months now, versus how I felt just a few weeks in. I thought that was important to note.
Like I said, 2.5 out of 5 stars, and I think that's being generous after spending the past few months with it.
It is still worth buying, however.
Even though I rated it low and think it’s definitely lacking, there are a lot of good things in the book. I love the art more than any other D&D book I own, and the limited edition alt covers are amazing.
I like the lore that exists, and I am even basing some of my upcoming DMs Guild titles on the Spelljammer set to expand the content I have basically had to create myself.
(Currently, that means a dungeon crawl through The Unknowable One’s cavern hideout inside the Rock of Bral.)
Heck, maybe I’ll release that o DriveThruRPG and Itch.io since mind flayer exists in the SRD that’s Creative Commons now. Who knows?
Anyway, I thought I’d let y’all know what was going on with it in case you’re looking to pick it up sometime.
P.S. I have been in contact with Paizo and may be getting some Starfinder review copies. In terms of continuing out Spelljammer, I actually wonder if that system and setting would work better for the way my party plays. Do any of you have experience with Starfinder that you’d like to share?