D&D 5E Spelljammer Makes the Most of Monsters

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It’s been a few weeks since the last trip into the wildspace of Spelljammer for D&D 5E. My home game dabbled in a few one-shots and welcomed a new, first time Dungeon Master. Origins came and went, and several Nerdarchy projects kept me from sharing more insights into the exploits of a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Spelljammer campaign.

Then I saw this tweet from Mike Mearls the other day.

And the enthusiastic replies.

And a long list of other Spelljammer fans sharing affection for the setting.

And fan groups on Facebook, Google+ and more.

We’re out there, Wizards of the Coast! While I can’t speak for all of us, it’s encouraging to know the folks behind the game we love include all of our favorite aspects from its rich history in their grand vision. In time, I’m confident we’ll get our Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, Dragonlance and Eberron fixes in official capacities.

In the meantime, left to our own devices we bring those beloved settings to life in our home games. We plot, plan and scheme. We develop and devise intricate adaptations for D&D 5E. Or, if you’re like me, you go with your gut and do the best you can in the moment on the fly. That’s how I run my Spelljammer game, and so far, so good.

Actual footage of me DMing a Spelljammer game for D&D 5E.

Here at Nerdarchy, Spelljammer has enjoyed a special niche. There’s an annual Spelljammer game on Thanksgiving Eve and a few videos and articles from the Nerdarchy crew. I’ve written about the value of giving it a shot and presented a quick, simple system for handling ship-to-ship combat.

If you’ve read this far and you’re wondering what in the world Spelljammer is, congratulations on an ironic interjection. Spelljammer takes your D&D adventures out of the world!

Way back in the days of THAC0, nonweapon proficiencies and class kits, Spelljammer was a boxed set campaign setting built on the premise that all of the D&D worlds existed in the same universe on the prime material plane. Separated by the phologiston – a multicolored gas – worlds existed inside crystal spheres. Travel within these spheres and through the phlogiston was made possible aboard spelljammers. These ships harness spellcasters’ magical energy to propel vessels through space and maintain an atmosphere.

Experiment through Spelljammer

One of the most exciting aspects of a Spelljammer space fantasy D&D campaign is all the monsters and creatures. Everything from a scro – that’s a space orc – to a purple worm takes on a new dimension. Sure, a wight is a wight…but now it’s a space wight! Imagine a stranded Spelljammer vessel, the crew slowly dying from diminishing air. Desperate and driven by dark desire, the captain calls out to vile powers among the stars with the last gasps of air as death stills their hearts. Next thing you know there’s a ship of undead prowling the void.

Without even laying everything out to players, taking a D&D game out of the quasi-medieval fantasy setting and opening up the universe changes their perspectives. Creatures normally seen as immediate enemies and threats are suddenly seen as simply alien species. Certainly, there could be a level of fear when you spot an illithid, oni or drider. But then you realize they’re just a patron at the intergalactic tavern, a shopkeeper or picking up their laundry.

D&D 5E monsters
A spirit naga as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. Explictica Defilus is one such creature, from the classic adventure “Against the Cult of the Reptile God.” [Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast]
Once the decision to turn Explictica Defilus from a self-styled “reptile god” into a fugitive from wildspace took hold of my imagination, I never looked back. Instead, I looked forward through all the creature books on my shelf with new vision. Will-o’-wisps haunting lonely space would lead travelers among the stars into danger and despair. Shadows would overtake a ship one by one. And the icky stuff stuck to your boots would grow out of control into a gibbering mouther down in the cargo hold.

The larger framework for my whole Spelljammer game came from one particular book – Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press. There’s so many cool monsters in this book! Many of them appear destined for space-themed adventures. Standout among them is the absolutely amazing void dragon. The moment I laid eyes on this creature I’d found the entity to hang the entire campaign on. Void dragons wander the stars, peering into the black nothingness and going mad. They even look like they’re made of the night sky, their scales twinkling like a star field. And their powers…incredible. I don’t want to give too much away or give any spoilers (my players read these articles after all) but they’re devastating.

On a side note, I met the person responsible for these fantastic beasts’ D&D 5E iteration at Origins. Friend of Nerdarchy and Second Timers Club charter member Dan Dillon is a terrific game designer who adapted the vibrant void dragon for the D&D 5E system. Another awesome book Dillon wrote is Deep Magic: Void Magic from Kobold Press. A great source of cool new magical stuff, Void Magic is another cornerstone of my Spelljammer campaign. But I’ll get more into that in a different article to explore customized warlock pacts for Spelljammer.

“My favorite thing about the void dragon is how many hooks are built into it. Forbidden lore as a cornerstone does a lot of heavy lifting, and then you add in the extradimensional lair/lair nexus, and that’s so much story potential. The icing on the cake is how ancient void dragons are inherently so much more than just a tough fight. You have to know and plan every step of a confrontation with an ancient void, because of the [REDACTED BY EDITOR]. You have to know what’s going to happen, first of all, so it’s a knowledge challenge. Then you have to survive the fight, and THEN you have to survive the [REDACTED BY EDITOR]. Beyond that, you have to make sure that everything you care about will survive the [REDACTED BY EDITOR], which means you might need a way to [REDACTED BY EDITOR]” – Dan Dillon, game designer

Adventures start with monsters

Spelljammer monsters
Y’all got replacement windows for an ’89 Hammerhead? Art by Brom

My approach to adventure design begins with monsters. In the case of Spelljammer the entire campaign is predicated on a few key monsters and their impact on the entire prime material plane. Beginning with the void dragon, a number of other Tome of Beasts creatures form the framework for an epic quest to save the universe. Because what else are your D&D 5E heroes supposed to do in this sort of playground?

There were obvious monster standouts for a Spelljammer campaign in Tome of Beasts. Lovecraftian fans will immediately recognize the mi-go, folk and spiders of Leng and of course the star-spawn of Cthulhu. Voidlings, nihileth (undead aboleth), mamura and soul eaters all struck me as fittingly at home in space. With these forming the base structure of a long campaign, a framework emerged. Strange monsters from beyond the vastness of wildspace begin seeping into the prime material plane. Colonies of established races begin to go missing. Bizarre artifacts begin to be discovered, hinting at the universe’s peril through terrifying visions thrust into the minds of those who come too close.

On the other side of the DM screen, the result was a big spreadsheet of monsters. Each entry includes categories like whether they can travel the stars on their own and their disposition. There’s the Void – the big cosmic threat – as well as those actively opposing the danger. One of my favorite categories is Infestations, which are nonintelligent creatures that make wonderful space encounters. Blights, oozes, shambling mounds, fungi and the like are great to instill a sense of weirdness in a Spelljammer game. They take on a different tone when, instead of an evil druid or mad wizard festooning a dungeon with these dangers, they’re the result of space spores, wildspace radiation and the like.

Spelljammer monsters make more sense

One of the challenges with a Spelljammer campaign is the open-endedness. Taking the sandbox style to a whole new level, the players have the means to travel with relative impunity anywhere in the universe! This can be daunting for a DM. Responding to player actions can get pretty tricky. On the other hand the great unknowns leave a lot of room to experiment without contradicting what has been established. A traditional D&D 5E game can break down if too many strange elements are introduced and start to pile up. A small region can only support so many different monsters, plots and big threats. Spelljammer alleviates this by spreading your plots and encounters across a vast expanse.

Spelljammer
A neogi deathspider encounters an illithid nautiloid in wildspace.

With monsters driving a D&D 5E campaign it’s easy to progress the story with tentpole encounters and fill in the space between with weird situations before, during and after travel. A hierarchy of campaign villains with a timeline of their machinations leaves the players free to go about their business while things take place in the background. As they advance in level, their missions get more dangerous and attract more attention from important monsters.

The interplay between character progression and monster agendas creates a synergy for adventure creation. The players basically say what they’d like to do and you figure out where they need to go to do it. Along they way, they’ll encounter hazards like derelict ships, asteroid outposts and wildspace phenomena. Sometime during the adventure you insert a clue, hint or encounter related to the overarching plot and observe their reaction.

This method of D&D 5E adventure can serve well not just in Spelljammer but any sort of campaign. A basic framework and hierarchy of monsters informs the entire campaign, including the endpoint. If the big finale showdown you imagine pits the party against a froghemoth, that tells you several things. First off, you know the campaign is going to end with the party somewhere in the 8-12 level range. Also, the big threat helps generate the ideas to get you there like where they party will face the beast and the sorts of monsters that could be related. It also gives you an idea of the kind of plot involving the monster. Froghemoths are essentially mindless beasts, so the big plot won’t turn on the monster’s devious plans.

In contrast, choosing a primary campaign villain like an ancient void dragon for a Spelljammer game suggests a desire to go all the way. Void dragons are vastly intelligent, supremely powerful and insane. They are the sorts of monsters that have plots within plots within plots. Huge numbers of minions and operatives could be at their disposal, many of who might be unaware of each other. They might even be unaware of the purpose of their own actions under the direction of such a powerful entity as an ancient void dragon.

Even evil monsters might be allies

monsters
DC Comics’ Emerald Empress, member of the Fatal Five, enemies of the Legion of Super Heroes. Thankfully my players don’t pick up on half the stuff I “borrow” from other media. [Art by Gene Gonzales]
Escalation of monster threats gives the players an idea of what’s going on in the big picture. The players and their characters are ignorant of the exact nature of the threat, who and what monsters are involved and their goals. But as they encounter weirder creatures and their increasingly bizarre activities, they (hopefully) become more invested. They start to question who and what they can trust. Connections between seemingly unrelated events become clearer. And the monsters they choose to fight, or ally with, illuminate the tough choices made along the way.

Spelljammer offers a great opportunity to turn typical monster threats on their heads. In a space fantasy setting encompassing myriad planets and star systems, the scale of danger takes on new dimensions. In my D&D 5E game, the characters’ have made strange bedfellows, setting aside usual differences. Dwarves and duergar teamed up against a threat from the Void. A beholder guides the party toward combating a danger to all of existence. The crew of the party’s ship includes scro, gith, a flameskull-like entity and a sentient mind-controlling gemstone. (That last one is a freebie for my players. How long do you have to travel with a dude who has a weird gem floating around him before you ask what the heck is up with that?)

Placing the D&D 5E action in an unusual setting like space gives players and the DM a fresh perspective on monsters. Like all the beloved campaign settings from D&D history, reimagining various creatures’ places in the world has a huge impact on the flavor of a campaign. Unique situations arise and great opportunities for roleplaying and storytelling emerge. In the same way that not-so-great people can weave great stories you might find looking at monsters through a different lens creates dynamic situations in a Spelljammer game.

Making the most of monsters

By starting with the monsters, you can set the tone for your D&D 5E campaign. Whether it’s Spelljammer, Forgotten Realms or your own homemade game world, choosing a campaign-ending monster to get started provides a great framework. Filling in the blanks on the road to the finale becomes easier. You’ve got a solid idea of the campaign’s level limit and your big bad guides you towards the sorts of monsters adventurers will face on the road to stopping the threat.

Naturally what happens in game sessions will give you new ideas and the players might steer the ship in different directions. Not every quest needs to focus entirely on the primary arc and feature the spotlight monsters you’ve chosen. But a clear idea of the monstrous threats gives you a structure to lean into when things begin to stray.

Spelljammer D&D 5E monsters
Illithid like to chill with some hookah as much as the next guy. Relax, it’s Spelljammer! [Art by Paul Abrams]
In a Spelljammer game monsters are more akin to alien species. Adventures take on a decidedly different tone. Intelligent creatures seen as hostile threats in a traditional D&D 5E game can just as easily be allies or totally neutral parties simply going about the business of living in Spelljammer. Other monsters of a related nature can become the basis of adventures themselves. An airy planetoid with constant lightning storms might be home to behirs, storm giants, grell and black puddings for example.

If you’re interested in exploring a Spelljammer campaign for D&D 5E, try starting out with the monsters. Pick a campaign-ending creature and create a hierarchy of monsters leading up to it. Experiment with presenting monsters as alien species and flip the script on the traditional paradigm. Explore the limitless options Spelljammer space has to offer and see what happens.

And until next time, see you later, space cowboy. Uh, I mean, that is to say…stay nerdy!

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy, he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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