There was a flurry of Dungeons & Dragons news last week (see Polygon.com summary), it came out just as I was ramping up to a frantic week of work so I was kind of distracted from absorbing any of it beyond the headlines. I’ve since done some catch up reading and listened to the relevant episode of the Morrus’ Unofficial Tabletop RPG Talk podcast for some discussion on this deluge of updates. Here’s a collection of my thoughts on some of these headlines:
I’ve seen a lot of excitement about the return of this classic 1980s D&D campaign setting on Twitter. I did actually read the first two triologies when they came out, and ran the first AD&D module for friends. But my tastes in fantasy have changed rather a lot since then. There were more exciting settings, for me, released at the time and since, than ‘generic fantasy world but with clerical magics and deities removed and a LOT of dragons’. The books were enjoyable to read as works of epic fantasy, but like any ‘larger than life’ fantasy I’d probably find it a bit harder to run a campaign in a world where anything other than the ‘main events’ would feel overshadowed. It’s a reason why I’ve struggled to plan a satisfactory campaign in any Star Wars RPG.
This is apparently a new twist on the setting in that it will re-introduce mass combat style mechanics to this edition of D&D. There’ll be standard small-party adventures and a coop game to simulate the big battles of the War of the Lance. If the latter ends up being fun to play then it could tap into, belatedly, some of the general enthusiasm for epic fantasy + fantasy big battles in other media (e.g. the Game of Thrones series or even the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies). Mass combat simulation gaming isn’t something I’m in a hurry to revisit, I did my fair share of Warhammer 40k back in my 90s but I’ve not been tempted to revisit that style of gaming even in digital form.
I have my preferred D&D campaign already available with Eberron – as I mentioned my tastes in fantasy have moved on from standard settings. The Magicpunk / Renaissance-fantasy themes of Eberron have a lasting appeal for me, and have proved to be a richer source of inspiration for stories and backdrops for the adventures I have written myself than I ever found in older D&D settings.
A much predicted and requested classic setting that’s also coming back, is the ‘fantasy in space’ Spelljammer. It was a pretty unusual setting when released: I wasn’t aware of any similar space fantasy properties at the time so it felt very fresh. In Spelljammer ships, both mundane and very exotic in shape, have magical helms attached that allow them to fly up and into space. Each star system is contained within an enormous ‘crystal sphere‘ (fan wiki link), and deep space – everything around and between the many crystal spheres is a magical medium called the phlogiston. Ships normally travel between spheres using ‘flowrivers’, invisible currents in this medium that connect pairs of spheres. The setting introduced some evocative factions to act as potential allies or enemies for the party: for example the vile neogi (centauroid wolf-spider slavers), the insidious mind flayers (their spelljammer ships are some of the most iconic), asteroid mining dwarves and an imperious elven space empire.
I rather loved Spelljammer back in the day, friends and I ran several different campaigns using the system so I got to DM and play in the setting. I even created my own cluster of crystal spheres to run an entire campaign based on Mystara, the de facto D&D setting for “Basic Dungeons & Dragons” (a k a OD&D). In theory I should be firmly within the target audience for this nostalgia-heavy release.
There’s one very major obstacle to me getting that excited about Spelljammer, however: unlike in the 1980s I now have a competing product for my freetime and DMing enthusiasm in the Starfinder system from Paizo. Although the two products are not identical (‘fantasy in space’ vs ‘science fantasy’) they do overlap in some key conceits – in both campaigns likely centre around a party of adventurers who have access to their own ship for travel between different planets or star systems. Both have travel and exploration as key underlying themes, and a wider-than-normal variety of species and biomes than say the Forgotten Realms (or even Eberron).
I’m so invested in Starfinder at the moment that I’m not keen to jump on yet another setting and campaign. I’ve seen some Tweets the sentiment of which I echo – along the lines of “great, Spelljammer is exciting, but hey if you didn’t already know there’s a very similar game already out with tons of great material called Starfinder…”
Who doesn’t love free stuff? The old 1980s concept of Monster Compendium for D&D is back (think serialised release of groups of stat blocks). Volume 1 will be available for free via the D&D Beyond website. Not surprisingly the first volume focuses on some Spelljammer-themed monsters. I’ve never signed up for a D&D Beyond account, but now might be the time so I can get access to some more monsters for my own D&D campaigns! For more details see this Bell of Lost Souls blogpost.