Dungeons & Dragons’ reboot of the fanciful Spelljammer setting is arguably the most highly anticipated tabletop RPG release of the year (followed closely by Dragonlance). Fans have been waiting for decades to revisit the place between the stars, and the new three-volume set titled Spelljammer: Adventures in Space will be out on Aug. 16. But beware: The module contains a couple of items — including enemies — that Dungeon Masters may want to adjust or avoid entirely when playing with their regular group.
[Content warning: This article includes images of clowns and spiders.]
In addition to Spelljammer’s hippo-folk (giff) and other astral oddities, the setting is also home to a particularly dangerous band of ultra-violent clowns. If you choose to look closely at the image above, you can see their pale faces leering from the shadows.
“What we’re looking at here is a modified space galleon,” creative director Chris Perkins said during a recent press preview event. “They’ve put a big klaxon horn on the bow and they’ve got a pie-flinging catapult on the aft-castle.”
Perkins said that the addition of maniacal space clowns — a nod to the 1980s cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space — isn’t meant to trigger anyone’s phobias. Far from it; these “whimsical” critters are actually there to provide a bit of comic relief, “a counterpoint for some of the more serious elements in the setting” which includes elements of “cosmic horror.” But if you have someone in your group with a serious clown issue, then you’ll need to steer away from this particular encounter. Of course, a good DM should know their players’ hot-button topics well ahead of time after having established clear boundaries during a pre-game chat, commonly called session zero.
Another oddball element of the original Spelljammer setting are the neogi, cruel creatures described as a “cross between a wolf spider and a moray eel.” So, furry on the bottom and slippery up top. In the new Spelljammer, neogi will be among the player’s enemies. Aside from their own fearsome appearance, the sight of their ships could also be alarming for arachnophobic players. The massive, 175-foot-long vessels are literally shaped like spiders, with gigantic taloned limbs that will reach out to capture other ships so that boarding parties can scuttle across and do their dirty work.
Of course, in your home campaign, DMs can make adjustments on the fly to cause those enemies and their ships to look like anything they want.
“We present those ships as sort of examples,” Perkins said, noting that the original Spelljammer contained a hefty wargaming element, with gridded battle maps and tokens for enemy and allied starships. “They run the gamut from the expected sort of space galleons to bizarre things like this — and hammerhead ships and squid ships. Many of Spelljammer ships are sort of modeled after creatures. [...] That’s something we preserved. I think it’s one of the key elements that sort of defines Spelljammer.”
New art for the Neogi nightspiders seems to be very faithful to the original, called deathspiders, with Jessica Nyugen’s brightly illuminated starship retaining the same lines and coloration as the 1989 version, illustrated by Jim Holloway.
Over the last several years, Wizards of the Coast has made a big show of avoiding issues of racial essentialism, expanding the drow for instance to allow for a variety of alignments other than true evil. The neogi are canonically among the worst of the worst, with an entire social structure that relies on slavery. “Own or be owned” is the neogi way of life, according to the original books. So, will Wizards be massaging some elements of this and other canonical races for a modern audience? Yes and no, according to Perkins.
Mindflayers will be present in the revised setting, sailing through space in their mollusk-shaped nautiloid ships. Those who have played Baldur’s Gate 3 or who have visited the frozen north in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden have likewise encountered these evil, brain-eating squid people in the past. They’re still basically 100% bad guys, as are some of the beholders (giant, floating head-shaped monsters) that you’ll also be encountering in Spelljammer. But other races in the setting will have a lot more nuance than ever before.
“With other types of creatures we just wanted to show that there are layers there [and] that sometimes [...] your expectations can be turned on their head,” Perkins said, in response to Polygon’s query. “This question brought to mind one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called ‘I, Borg’ where, for the first time, we see sort of a more sympathetic side of what had previously been sort of a monolithic race in the Borg. I think that’s always a possibility within this setting, and many creatures that you encounter both in the adventure that appears in the product and that art more broadly described in [Boo’s Astral Menagerie], that there is a range there. [...] Vampirates can be nasty, but sometimes you find a good one. And sometimes you can make deals with them. And sometimes they’re your friends, and sometimes they’ll even sacrifice their lives to save you.”
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space will include a 64-page adventure titled Light of Xaryxis. The boxed set, which includes a DM screen, is available for pre-order now online and at your local game store — where it features unique cover art from Hydro64.