It hasn’t been long since 5e’s newest collection, Spelljammer: Adventures in Space, was released out to retailers, and subsequently to Dungeons and Dragons players. It’s a collection of 3 books: The Astral Adventurer’s Guide (a typical sourcebook, with an overview of the setting and new rules for Spelljammer), Boo’s Astral Menagerie (a monster manual with spacefaring monsters and enemies), and Light of Xaryxis (a short new adventure module to get you and your players started in the setting). Almost everyone that I know has been excited since it was first announced, and subsequently have been poring over their new copies, plotting new sci-fi-inspired adventures, and generally marinating themselves in the content.
I was especially excited, having read and loved a number of the original sourcebooks, to see what aspects of the game they kept, and which they changed. And for the most part, I’m pretty happy with the content that WotC released. But I have a major problem with perhaps the most important part of the Spelljammer setting – how it’s meant to work at all.
The Hadozee’s New History
The largest problem with the Astral Adventurer’s Guide was, of course, the racist undertones applied to a new species history for the Hadozee. This isn’t just a problem to be debated, and the issues with it have been fully explained by a number of concerned individuals and open letters to Wizards of the Coast. This Divination is not about that, and information about it should be learned from well-informed individuals.
Wildspace in the Astral Sea
I was pretty surprised to find that the name of the new Spelljammer sourcebook was the Astral Adventurer’s Guide. It makes sense upon reading it, since you find that Wildspace (what we would consider to be outer space) is in fact where the Astral and Material Planes overlap, and to get between different Wildspace Systems (aka the solar system of each DnD setting) you travel through the Astral Sea. Travel to another system is done by thought, doesn’t technically require a ship at all, and travelers just know the fastest route to where they want to go.
This is kind of terrible, world-building wise.
Originally, each setting was contained in a Crystal Sphere, crafted by one or more creator-gods for that world. Within these spheres, various solar systems and planets floated in Wildspace (also outer space to us). Those spheres then ‘floated,’ or existed, surrounded by phlogiston, a void-like space between them, except for a colorful flow of liquid-like matter known by the same name (or, colloquially, the Rainbow Ocean). This Ocean had currently which could reliably take travelers between different Spheres (if they knew how to navigate them), or could be explored to discover new and exciting worlds. The Astral Plane was another plane entirely, overlaying all Spheres. You could travel to another world through the Astral Plane (as it doesn’t have Spheres, planets, or systems in the way that the Material Plane does), but it does also require navigation, and contending with its own inhabitants.
Why The Astral Sea Doesn’t Work
While the idea of the Astral Sea is certainly simpler than phlogiston, it complicates more than a few aspects of gameplay.
For one, it eliminates a great deal of the potential for worldbuilding.
In many Spelljammer settings, the difference between Astral and Material travel between worlds is especially important. Mind Flayers are common in Wildspace and the phlogiston, for example, because the Githyanki like in the Astral Plane, and they have to contend with them when they travel through it. The Astromundi Cluster setting, for another example, has a unique trait that allows travelers to enter but not exit, which has trapped a number of peoples, creating it’s unique social and political worldbuilding. That entire setting won’t work in 5e now because a block on the Astral Plane would have wildly different implications for the worldbuilding.
For another thing, this new addition to travel in the Astral Sea confuses things about the Astral Plane, which is a location that already has important aspects of worldbuilding tied to it. The Outer Planes, for instance, where the strangest and most disturbing entities lurk, so horrific that they corrupt upon first sight, are located at the edges of the Astral Plane. Does Spelljamming travel put you in danger of these things? Living, intelligent creatures also sometimes travel to the Astral Plane in their sleep (or at least their minds do). If you sleep in the Astral Sea, do you risk veering off of your course? Can a being from the Material Plane sleep in the Astral Plane at all? And what is now implied about those races which were once phlogiston-travelers, like Giff and Neogi? The Astral Plane is a vastly different place to the phlogiston, but are we supposed to assume that doesn’t change anything about them?
And perhaps most importantly, it severely limits the type of adventure that you can even have in Spelljammer. Nothing can ever be lost in 5e’s universe. Nothing can ever be hidden. There can be no mysteries to solve. Quite frankly, it’s boring. The idea of being able to intuitively know how to get somewhere (even if you might encounter things along the way and get sidetracked) limits the feeling of space exploration, or travel into the unknown.
No, while I don’t mind using the new rules for Wildspace travel, I’m definitely sticking to the old rules for travel between settings.
What do you think about the new worldbuilding for Spelljammer? Do you like it, or are you sticking with previous editions’ use of Phlogiston and Astral travel as different methods of getting between worlds? Let us know in the comments below!