Movies are filled with heroes failing. Before they can be victorious in the final confrontation with the villains, the good guys often get beaten up, get captured, or lose people or things that they care about to ramp up the tension. That’s harder to do in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, where players typically expect to win every fight unless they have some extremely bad dice luck. The writers of the Spelljammer: Adventures in Space box set are trying to change that expectation with a cinematic adventure where failing can be even more fun than succeeding.
Inspired by the 1980 pulp science fiction film Flash Gordon, Light of Xaryxis is a zany space opera where the players must save their home world from being destroyed by an evil elven empire. To challenge their military might, the players will need to enlist allies including an alcoholic anthropomorphic hippopotamus, a renegade princess, and an amorous vampire pirate. There are splashes of space horror and a gladiatorial battle that show off many of the monsters in Boo’s Astral Menagerie.
The adventure designed to take characters from level 5-8 is broken into 11 chapters, each meant to be run as a two- to three-hour session. Adding to the pulp adventure tone, every chapter ends with a cliffhanger and starts with a catch-up summary of the action so far. Often those cliffhangers will be the appearance of a nasty foe that the players won’t actually end up fighting. While your table might get wise to the deception, they’ll still be rewarded by some goofy humor or a different sort of challenge.
Most D&D adventures are balanced very carefully so that the players are likely to succeed at fights and skill checks required to move the plot forward. You don’t want the story cut short because the player characters are killed in a fight or can’t get the information they need. But almost every challenge in Light of Xaryxis comes with text on what happens if the players fail — and those setbacks often have extremely entertaining results.
Lose an early fight against the astral elves? They’ll take you captive, and the Dungeon Master is encouraged to throw in an extra ship-to-ship combat where the chaos will give the players a chance to escape. A battle against an organic ship with the ability to disable another craft’s spelljamming helm, the device that lets them cruise through space, is likely to leave the players stranded. If they get lucky and make their saves against the attacks, they can continue on their way as planned. If their ship is busted, they have to figure out how to wrangle a pod of space whales to get to their next destination. You need to negotiate with a vampirate captain to get him to join your cause. He’ll help you no matter what your persuasion check is, but if you fail you have to call him admiral and adhere to his pirate code.
These suggestions help change the nature of conflict in the game, keeping players from feeling too bad about a fight that didn’t go their way and keeping the DM from needing to fudge dice or come up with some other way to bail the players out on the fly. Light of Xaryxis normalizes failure as just a key part of the narrative. There’s even a suggestion for using a starlight apparition, a ghost devoted to helping someone complete a task they couldn’t fulfill in life, to deliver key information or aid if the players lose one of their NPC companions and need a little help.
Light of Xaryxis isn’t perfect — the ending involves a deus ex machina and the results of your characters’ coalition building are underwhelming — but it’s an excellent introduction to Spelljammer’s rules and tone. It shows off a wide variety of creatures often in spectacularly goofy ways, like a brain-collecting neh-thalggu pretending to be a pirate or a space guppy accidentally summoned for the players to fight only for it to be summarily devoured by the real threat. The art throughout the book and the rest of the box set is gorgeous, featuring both portraits of key NPCs and dramatic half- and full-page images showing major fights and locations.
The adventure also offers plenty of opportunities to try the fairly simple ship-to-ship combat rules laid out in the Astral Adventurer’s Guide. Unlike Starfinder or the Star Wars role-playing game, Spelljammer doesn’t give lots of new actions players can take on a ship. The book explicitly says that players typically shouldn’t both use their vessel’s weaponry and their own powers and weapons. A spellcaster might take on the role of a spelljammer to move the ship around, but Light of Xaryxis also offers NPCs to take that job for you since a caster is likely to be more useful blasting an enemy from range. The rules divide the distance between ships into four simplified bands ranging from too far to interact to close enough to board, which is when the real fight is likely to begin.
The Astral Adventurer’s Guide also provides plenty of ways to extend your Spelljammer adventure beyond Light of Xaryxis. There are rules for creating characters who are native to the Astral Sea like mechanical gnomes and the amoeba-like plasmoids along with new backgrounds like the wildspacer, which is effectively a D&D version of The Expanse’s Belters. The book features plenty of details on the Rock of Bral, a wretched hive of scum and villainy players briefly visit in Light of Xaryxis that has plenty of hooks for future adventures.
Starting at 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 Spelljammer and Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel by moving the Radiant Citadel from the Ethereal Plane to the Astral Sea. However your adventures in space start and wherever they take you, you’d benefit from embracing the spirit of the pulpy source material and not being afraid to take big risks. Sometimes failing makes for a better story.
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is out now. A special alternative art cover designed by Hydro74 is only available at your friendly local gaming store, while the standard edition is available at 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 copy of the books provided by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.