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D&D’s new 'Spelljammer' setting basically lets you play ‘Star Trek’ in fantasy space
D&D’s principal story designer Chris Perkins reveals the many ways that '80s sci-fi inspired the long-awaited return of Spelljamer to the iconic tabletop roleplaying game.
Spelljammer, a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting that took all the game’s iconic fantasy tropes and put them into outer space, first blasted off in 1989. Despite — or perhaps because — of how bizarre the setting was, it became a fan favorite, though it was functionally discontinued in the ‘90s and has been MIA from official D&D releases… until now.
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space — a three-book set featuring a player/DM handbook, monster manual, and adventure module — is coming out next week. While the Spelljammer setting has been updated in some ways for 2022 and the game’s Fifth Edition, it’s still very much indebted to the era when it first came out, and to the now-classic sci-fi of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Speaking to SYFY WIRE and a handful of other journalists ahead of Spelljammer: Adventures in Space’s Aug. 16 drop date, D&D’s principal story designer Chris Perkins was eager to point out some of the ‘80s sci-fi homages in the upcoming release. For instance, Boo’s Astral Menagerie, which collects more than 60 different new monsters and creatures for DMs to throw at their players, features Space Clowns — a nod to the cult 1988 sci-fi horror film Killer Clowns From Outer Space.
“Since this product is, to some extent, an homage to many sci-fi/fantasy films of the ‘80s, we would be remiss if we did not include space clowns in the mix,” Perkins said.
The five new playable races Spelljammer adds to Fifth Edition are also mostly nods to the sci-fi of the era. The first, Astral Elves — which are elves that left the Feywild and headed for the stars – are a great candidate for players who want to be a fantasy Mr. Spock. (“Humanoid, pointy ears, lives in space. if you want to play a wise Vulcan, this is pretty much the option for you.”) Plasmoids, a playable ooze race with some shapeshifting abilities, are likewise partially inspired by Odo from Deep Space Nine. Autognomes, mechanical gnomes that are Fifth Edition’s first true construct race, remind Perkins of Data from The Next Generation.
Hadozee, simian-like creatures with the ability to soar like a flying squirrel, are D&D’s version of Planet of the Apes. Perkins admits that Tri-Kreen, mantis-like beings who have historically been big parts of the Spelljammer and Dark Sun settings, are “odd,” but “in any setting where there are hints of science fiction, an insectoid race is not out of place.” Finally, there’s the Griff, “broad-shouldered hippo-folk” with a penchant for space travel and firearms.
Sci-fi from the 1980s — specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation — also came to Perkins’ mind when asked about one of the ways that D&D is attempting to modernize itself. For the past few years, the game has tried to move away from race- or species-essentialist origins, as the idea of a race of beings who are always evil can have problematic implications. Perkins says that there are still flat-out evil creatures in Spelljammer, like the Mind Flayers and various space-themed variants on Beholders. But, in other instances, they’re taking steps to avoid sweeping and loaded generalizations.
Perkins cites the classic TNG episode “I, Borg,” which is “the first time we see the sympathetic side to a previously monolithic race,” as a comparison to some of the ways Spelljammer aims to “turn expectations on their head.”
The new Spelljammer release makes some other updates to the classic setting, in ways that are tied into D&D’s present rather than linked to old ‘80s movies or shows. Previously, Spelljammer players would travel through a flammable gas-like realm known as the Phlogiston when going between various fantasy planetary systems. In their galactic travels, players would also be encased in crystal spheres. (Spelljammer is a hoot, just go with it.) The Phlogiston is gone in Fifth Edition; instead, players will explore Wildspace, a fantasy cosmic realm that’s like “an ocean of our world with color and life” rather than the blackness of sci-fi space. From there, players can then voyage to the Astral Plane — which is a key aspect of D&D’s current cosmology. It is a heavenly expanse of thought given form between realms whose very name, “astral,” means “of the stars.” Making this part of Spelljammer’s mechanics was a natural update.
“When we were building this version of Spelljammer, we were trying to hook it to the cosmology described in the dungeon master’s guide,” Perkins explains. He further adds that there’s going to be plenty of material in the books that will be new and exciting, even to Spelljammer vets, who were playing during the first Bush administration, especially in the adventure module, Light of Xaryxis. “If you are previously familiar with Spelljammer, and you go on the adventure, you’re going to go to places you’ve never seen before.”
That the new Spelljammer ties into Fifth Edtion’s cosmology so neatly helps explain, if only a little, why it took so long for the setting to make a return, as Fifth Edition came out back in 2014.
“We were focused on the Forgotten Realms and only occasionally branched out,” Perkins says, explaining that the first several years of Fifth Edition focused on the core, iconic fantasy setting to build a strong foundation. “We weren’t at the point in the line where we felt we could really branch out into the multiverse.”
“Eight or ten years into Fifth Edition now is a good time to turn our attention to Wildspace, because it is kind of the last frontier,” Perkins says. “There is this vast setting between our worlds that we haven’t really done much with.”
Very soon, though, players will be able to make like Picard and explore that final frontier.
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space, a three-book set consisting of The Astral Adventurer’s Guide, Boo’s Astral Menagerie, and Light of Xaryxis, along with a poster and DM’s screen, will be available to purchase on Aug. 16.