Review: Spelljammer is for losers, D&D’s campaign repeatedly fails

Movies are full of failed heroes. Before they can be victorious in the final showdown with the bad guys, the good guys are often beaten, captured, or lose people or things they care about to escalate the tension. It’s harder to do in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, where players generally expect to win every fight unless they have very bad luck at the dice. The writers of Spelljammer: Adventures in Space try to change that expectation with a cinematic adventure where failing can be even more fun than succeeding.

Inspired by the 1980 sci-fi film Pulp Flash Gordon, Light of Xaryxis is a wacky space opera where players must save their home world from destruction by an evil Elven empire. To challenge their military might, players will need to recruit allies including an alcoholic anthropomorphic hippopotamus, a renegade princess, and an amorous vampire pirate. There are splashes of space horror and gladiatorial battle which show many monsters in Boo’s Astral Menagerie.

The adventure designed to take characters from level 5 to 8 is divided into 11 chapters, each intended to be run as a two to three hour session. Adding to the tone of the pulp adventure, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and begins with a catch-up summary of the action so far. Often these cliffhangers will be the appearance of a bad enemy that players don’t end up fighting. While your table may grow wise in the face of deception, it will always be rewarded with goofy humor or some other kind of challenge.

Most D&D adventures are balanced very carefully so that players are likely to successfully complete the combat and skill checks necessary to advance the plot. You don’t want the story cut short because player characters are killed in combat or can’t get the information they need. But almost all the challenges of Light of Xaryxis comes with text about what happens if players fail – and those setbacks often have hugely entertaining results.

The back of a Spelljammer book with dispel dice, a rebel helmet and this guy from Destiny.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Lose an early fight against the astral elves? They’ll take you captive, and the dungeon master is encouraged to initiate additional ship-to-ship combat where chaos will give players a chance to escape. A battle against an organic ship with the ability to disable another ship’s scramble bar, the device that allows them to navigate through space, is likely to leave players stranded. If they are lucky and successful in their saves against attacks, they can continue on their way as planned. If their ship is destroyed, they must find a way to fight off a group of space whales to get to their next destination. You must negotiate with a vampire captain to join your cause. He will help you with whatever persuasion test you make, but if you fail you must call him an admiral and abide by his pirate code.

These suggestions help change the nature of conflict in the game, preventing players from feeling too bad about a fight that didn’t go their way and preventing the DM from having to rig the dice or find another way to bail out players. Fly. Light of Xaryxis normalizes failure as a key part of the narrative. There’s even a suggestion to use a starlight apparition, a ghost dedicated to helping someone with a task they couldn’t do in life, to provide key information or help if players lose one. of their fellow NPCs and need a little help.

Light of Xaryxis isn’t perfect – the ending involves a deus ex machina and the results of forming your characters’ coalition are disappointing – but it’s a great introduction to spell scramblerrules and tone. It shows off a wide variety of creatures often in spectacular and goofy ways, like a brain-gathering neh-thalggu posing as a pirate or a space guppy accidentally summoned for players to fight only to be summarily devoured by the real threat. The art throughout the book and the rest of the box set is stunning, with both key NPC portraits and spectacular half-page and full-page images showing off major battles and locations.

The Light of Xaryxis adventure sleeve should be packaged with Spelljammer.

Image: Hydro74/Wizards of the Coast

The adventure also offers plenty of opportunities to try out the fairly simple ship-to-ship combat rules laid out in the Astral Adventurer’s Guide. Contrary to star seeker or star wars Roleplay, spell scrambler doesn’t give many new actions players can take on a ship. The book explicitly says that players generally shouldn’t use both their ship’s weapons and their own powers and weapons. A spellcaster can act as a spell scrambler to move the ship, but Light of Xaryxis Also offers NPCs to take this job for you, as a caster will likely be more useful for blasting an enemy from a distance. The rules divide the distance between ships into four simplified bands ranging from too far to interact to close enough to board, which is when the real combat is likely to begin.

The Astral Adventurer’s Guide also provides many ways to expand your spell scrambler adventure beyond Light of Xaryxis. There are rules for creating characters native to the Astral Sea like clockwork gnomes and amoeba-like plasmoids as well as new backgrounds like the wildspacer, which is actually a D&D version of The extentof Belters. The book contains extensive details about the Rock of Bral, a miserable hive of scum and villains that players briefly visit in Light of Xaryxis which has plenty of hooks for future adventures.

From level 5, Light of Xaryxis a great way to take your D&D in a wild new direction. You can also easily mash together spell scrambler and Journeys through the Radiant Citadel moving the Radiant Citadel from the Ethereal Plane to the Astral Sea. However your adventures in space begin and wherever they take you, you’d benefit from embracing the spirit of the pulpy source material and not being afraid to take big risks. Sometimes a failure makes a better story.

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is out now. A special alternate art cover designed by Hydro74 is only available at your friendly local game store, while the standard edition is available at major retailers including Amazon. Digital versions are available for the D&D Beyond, Roll20, and Fantasy Grounds toolset.

Spelljammer Adventures in Space has been reviewed with an advance copy of the books provided by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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