Back in the 90s, Spelljammer was one of my favorite second edition settings and I had been hoping for a re-release during every edition since. We saw hints, but no true re-release… until now. Spelljammer for 5e has been officially released as of August 16th, and I got my grubby little paws on a copy day one!
My initial worry of course was: does this edition stand up to the second edition version? Ie: did this edition “ruin my childhood”? By way of an example: the 3e d20 minigame we got was far from faithful to the original material (but to be fair, they only had a few pages to cram content in. SOMETHING had to give). Thus, here is a side by side comparison of the 5e release to the 2e material.
Rules and Setting:
Character options give players two new backgrounds and a half dozen new races, including favorites like the Giff and Dark Sun’s Thri-kreen (not the only element of Dark Sun to make it into the box. Make of that what you will). Lizard men, a staple race of 2e’s Spelljammer, didn’t even get a mention as a major spacefaring race though the rules for them are in Volo’s Guide to Monsters if you want to play one.
Most of the rules and setting material are largely unchanged. Air works much like it used to. Gravity works much like it used to. Wildspace (the area of space around celestial bodies) is still Wildspace. The only major change to piloting a spelljammer is that mages no longer lose all their spells the moment they sit in a helm. Rules have been simplified to suit the new edition which is less crunchy than 2e was, but the concepts behind them remain the same.
Crystal shells (the giant shells that contained a chunk of wildspace) and the Phlogiston (the aether that flows between crystal shells) however are both gone. In their place is the astral plane. This is one of the few big changes to the system/setting. On the one hand, this is a major change that doesn’t seem entirely necessary. On the other, this change is a good one because it eliminates several speed bumps in the original setting. No longer do you have to grind gold to buy a portal locator to find holes in crystal spheres to leave a section of wildspace. No longer are clerics gimped the instant they enter the Phlogiston and lose access to the majority of their spells. No longer do they have to petition deities when they enter new spheres and quest to regain their spell slots. While this mechanic was certainly a springboard for adventure, it unfairly penalized a single class without providing any benefit for the extra effort. In addition, merging the astral plane and spelljamming adds reams of potential astral plane content to the spelljamming setting. So all in all, I’m happy with this change. And if you’re not, returning crystal spheres and the phlogiston to the setting is a simple enough modification to make, especially if you have the original rules handy.
One place where content is missing is planetary systems. The planetary display (the map that showed locations of planets and other bodies with respect to each other) is given a nod in the new system maps which look like pictures of planets in orbit instead of the pure text charts they used to be, but the major thing that is missing is the rules for making your own systems and the charts for the major campaign setting systems. No Greyspace, or Realmspace, etc… maps. Instead we got “There are two systems in the module. Use them as examples” and that just doesn’t cut it. This is a place where the old rules are ripe to be dropped into the new edition, and possibly an opportunity for supplemental material.
Boo’s Astral Menagerie includes a lot of old favorites like the Kindori as well as some new material such as the killer clowns. It would be unfair to expect it to cover everything from the years-long run of Spelljammer, but it’s a good start. Of note is that despite Spelljammer traditionally being a high level campaign setting, there are only a small handful of high CR monsters to be found here.
The rules for ships are mostly similar but there are a few notable differences. First, Ship to ship combat has been incredibly simplified. It now works more like most games handle chase mechanics. Spelljammers make rolls to increase or decrease the range between ships which allows different combat options to come into play. Hidden in this is the assumption that all ships now have perfect maneuverability. Maneuverability class, and the resultant difficulty turning and bringing your weapons to bear are gone. This is certainly a major change to the system, and the reasoning behind it seems pretty clear. It keeps the role playing game a role playing game instead of turning it into a tactical wargame where not all players get to evenly participate. Whether this is a pro or con is entirely up to you and your table. If you wanted to mod this back in, it would be fairly easy to give each ship a Maneuverability Class rating and drop the battle system from 2e into your game.
The other place where rules for ships were greatly simplified is in ship options. There are plenty of ships to choose from but gone is the information needed to create your own ships. Gone are the options to modify your ship, stripping out armor, adding more rigging, changing out a ballista for an alchemical fire projector. Magical items for your ship, crew experience, and many types of weapons are gone entirely. In my mind, this is a major issue with the new edition, BUT also one that’s not too hard to fix by dropping in content from 2e, and also an excellent opportunity for a supplemental product.
All in all, the 5th edition Spelljammer is largely similar to the 2e version, and despite a few missing elements and a few differences in setting and rules is fairly true to the original source material, and much of what is missing can be easily adapted from the 2e rules if you have them on hand (they’re available on Drivethru RPG). If you’ve been waiting because you’re unsure if 5e will do justice to the older version, hopefully this article gives you what you need to make a decision.