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

Movies are filled with heroes who fail. Before they can triumph in the final showdown with the villains, the good guys are often beaten up, imprisoned, or lose people or things they care about to ramp up the tension. That’s harder in a game Dungeons and Dragons, where players typically expect to win every fight unless they have extremely bad dice luck. The writers of the Spelljammer: Adventures in Space boxset try to change that expectation with a cinematic adventure where failure can be even more fun than success.

Inspired by the 1980 pulp science fiction film Flash Gordon, Light of Xaryxis is a wacky space opera in which players must save their home world from destruction by an evil elf realm. To challenge their military might, players must enlist allies, including an alcoholic anthropomorphic hippopotamus, a renegade princess and an amorous vampire pirate. There are splatters of space horror and a gladiator fight showing off many of the monsters in Boo’s astral menagerie.

Designed to take on level 5-8 characters, the adventure is broken up into 11 chapters, each intended to be run as a two- to three-hour session. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and begins with a catch-up summary of the action so far. Often those cliffhangers will be the appearance of a vicious enemy that the players won’t actually fight. While your table may be wise to the trickery, they’ll still be rewarded with some wacky humor or some other kind of challenge.

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

The back of a Spelljammer book with some Dispel Dice, a rebellious helmet and that guy from Destiny.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Losing an early battle against the astral elves? They capture you and the Dungeon Master is encouraged to engage in an additional ship-to-ship battle, with the chaos giving players a chance to escape. A battle against an organic ship with the ability to disable the enchanting helm of another craft, the device that allows them to cruise through space, is likely to leave players stranded. If they are lucky and save the attacks, they can continue as planned. When their ship gets caught, they must figure out how to fight a group of space whales to reach their next destination. You must negotiate with a vampire captain to get him to your cause. He will help you, whatever your persuasion, but if you fail, you must call him Admiral and stick to his pirate code.

These suggestions help change the nature of conflict in the game, so that players don’t feel too bad about a fight that isn’t to their liking and the DM doesn’t have to roll the dice or come up with some other way to save the players the fly. Light of Xaryxis normalizes failure as only one important part of the story. There’s even a suggestion for using a starlight apparition, a ghost dedicated to helping someone complete a task they can’t fulfill in life, to provide important information or help if the players use one of their NPCs. -lose companions and need a little help.

Light of Xaryxis isn’t perfect – the ending includes a deus ex machina and the results of your characters’ coalition building are disappointing – but it’s an excellent introduction to Spell pity‘s rules and tone. It shows off a wide variety of creatures, often in spectacularly wacky ways, such as a brain-gathering neh-thalggu who pretends to be a pirate or a space guppy who is accidentally summoned for the players to fight, only to be devoured by the real threat. The art throughout the book and throughout the box set is beautiful, featuring both portraits of key NPCs and dramatic half- and full-page depictions of key battles and locations.

Cover art for the Light of Xaryxis adventure 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 found in the Guide for Astral Adventurers. unlike star finder or the Star Wars role play, Spell pity doesn’t provide many new actions players can take on a ship. The book explicitly states that players should not typically use their ship’s weapons as well as their own powers and weapons. A spellcaster can take on the role of a spelljammer to move the ship, but Light of Xaryxis also offers NPCs to take over that task for you, as a caster is probably more useful for shooting an enemy from range. The rules divide the distance between ships into four simplified bands, ranging from too far to communicate to close enough to board, which is when the real battle is likely to begin.

The Guide for Astral Adventurers also offers many ways to Spell pity adventure out there Light of Xaryxis. There are rules for creating characters native to the Astral Sea, such as mechanical gnomes and the amoeba-like plasmoids, along with new backgrounds such as the wildspacer, which is basically a D&D version of the vastness‘s Belters. The book contains many details about the Rock of Bral, a wretched hive of scum and villainous players who briefly Light of Xaryxis which has enough hooks for future adventures.

From level 5 makes Light of Xaryxis a great way to take your D&D in a wild new direction. You could also easily mash together Spell pity and Traveling through the radiant citadel by moving the Radiant Citadel from the Etheric Plane to the Astral Sea. However your adventures in space begin and wherever they take you, you would benefit from embracing the spirit of the pulpy source material and not being afraid to take big risks. Sometimes failure makes for a better story.

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

Spelljammer adventures in space was reviewed with a pre-release version of the books provided by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliated partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links. you can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.

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