Aside from being a loveletter to the original Spelljammer D&D books, Lead Designer Chris Perkins says the upcoming Adventures in Space books will also honor the 80s B-movie sci fi and more, particularly the Flash Gordon movie.
In an interview with us he walked us through swashbuckling through space, and bringing the domain of sci-fi into one of the most iconic high fantasy IPs of all time.
This was an important part of bringing D&D into space, since so much of the iconic tabletop game was rooted in swords and sorcery, not battleships off the coast of Orion or Tanhauser gates.
Pulling up an image of a spaceship looking like a giant spider, Chris said that it wasn’t about sticking to one monolithic idea of D&D- instead, it was about making sure to cater to all the different of flavors of D&D players had cultivated over the years.
“This illustration might be a good example of how we try to do it. That is to preserve what spelljammer had originally. For example ship designs that looked almost like creatures. In this case, we have a Neogi ship shaped like a giant spider gliding through what is an asteroid field”, he says.
“If they want to do cosmic horror, there are cosmic horror type creatures in Boo’s Astral Menagerie. If they want to do something sort of swashbuckling, campy and whimsical, there are creatures and elements along that line as well”, Chris adds. “I think that’s really the key to keeping it feeling like medieval fantasy D&D but then putting a setting spin on it. You have to make sure that all those elements are there to some extent and the rules aren’t trying to emulate real world physics”.
Another thing he mentioned was to make sure things could still feel like ships, not glorified hangars for the Gundam. In essence, he says it’s about not thinking too hard about things like science when you can solve things with magic.
“Every ship has a gravity plane and every ship has an air envelope. When you’re on a ship going through wild space it’s just like being on a ship on an ocean. You’re on a deck, you’ve got air, it’s all being taken care of by magic when you’re in space. That was done specifically so that travel on a ship in space doesn’t feel like travel on a spaceship”, he says.
Out With The Old, In With The New
The good thing about refreshing Spelljammer is also the ability to go back and redo old ideas. As Chris explains, as much as he was a fan of the original Spelljammer, some of the ideas could be done away with for in the name of adding more fun.
Two of these on the cutting room floor were the idea of Crystal Spheres- big physical walls locking planetary systems from each other as well as the Phlogiston- an ether existing between space that was incredibly flammable. Instead of dealing with that, they leaned into a more astral approach:
“In earlier editions we have also introduced the concept of the astral sea, which is just sort of another word for the astral plane”, he says. “It’s a place of thought and reason but its also space that you can live in and fly through, there are Githyanki on ships there. The very word Astral means of the stars, so when we were thinking about what to keep and what to change, we wanted to make wild space and the astral sea sort of our media through which the characters travel in this version of Spelljammer. Just sort of leaning into that idea that you are flying among the stars”.
“One of the reasons we jettisoned the Phlogiston was that historically there wasn’t a lot happening there. It was a hostile environment, one fireball could basically incinerate you and a bunch of other people”, he adds on. “But the fun of the astral sea is that not only do our fans already know what it is because we talk about it in the dungeon masters guide, but theres actually quite a lot of interesting stuff there that you can play with”.
In contrast to the astral fire hazard of the Phlogiston, Chris says the Astral Sea was just a more interesting place in general.
“When you enter [The Astral Sea], it is a very different environment. Because it is a realm of the mind, you don’t need to breathe in the astral sea. Nothing ages in the Astral Sea, you don’t need food or water in the astral sea, and actually if you really wanted to you don’t even need a ship in the astral sea because you can propel yourself through this ship with your mind”, he says.
The Call of Space
But how does one go from wrangling sheep to the cosmic beyond? According to Chris, it’s not exactly like it’s entirely secret. The knowledge of spelljamming is more like something that’s incredibly rare, as opposed to being intentionally obscure.
“I would say imagine that you’re a peasant living in medieval central Europe. You probably don’t know anything about Australia”, Chris explains. “But I guarantee you there’s somebody in central Europe who knows something about Australia. Even if its only some rumor. You know, a far flung place where people might live and great treasures and riches and monsters abound. It’s kind of like that”.
“Most people of the realms have no idea of this great ocean that lets them travel between worlds. Or beyond that ocean is a silvery expanse through which they can travel to entirely other Wildspace systems. But D&D is a setting of wizards and stages and ancient beings who probably do know. Whether or not they choose to share this information is entirely up to them”, he adds.
Once you’ve gotten into space though, you’ll find it’s quite different to outer space as we know it. Chris says that he worked with many artists to bring Wildspace to life, with some of the artists even evoking that airbrushed Wizard on a van aesthetic that’s practically synonymous with 80s fantasy.
“Right off the outset, we set up all our artists with a color palette, both for Wildspace which is psychedelic and kaleidoscopic and has very bright colors. Very rarely in Wild Space do you actually see the color black”, Chris says.
“We wanted it to be vibrant partly because in the movie Flash Gordon when Flash heads into space towards Mongo it’s very psychedelic. It’s all done with watercolor paints poured into tanks, so everything was sort of very bright and we were trying to emulate that feel here, deliberately so it becomes clear visually that Spelljammer is not a science fiction setting, its a fantasy setting”, he continues. “So making space seem unreal, almost like the overexposed hubble telescope images of a nebula which is all hypercolor reality which isn’t how space is really, we thought that would push the art and thus the entire product into a more spectral fantasy feel”.
“When we told the artists, when we gave them this palette and told them what we were looking for, they were pumped. They were excited because they loved the idea of trying to bring out the fantasy in this space-based environment. They just sort of break expectations in terms of Palette and depth and things like that”, he adds on.
One of these artists is Julian Kok, a Singapore-based talent, who illustrated the expansive DM screen that comes with the Spelljammer: Adventures In Space book. Chris even described what it was like working with Julian on the illustration:
We as the D&D team are able to use that talent as much as the Magic folks are. Our Art directors talk to each other and they’re always talking about which artists are doing great work, turning over their stuff on time, and so there’s a lot of exchange within our art departments. That has lead to us discovering artistic talent all over the world. Not only people who have a passion for fantasy, but also have a passion for our brands. Who live and breathe our brands and have since they were kids.
Giving them opportunities to not only work with us but to show their work to the community at large. To stretch our wings in terms of styles. It’s a joy for us, it’s a joy for me and Kate, our other art director , to be able to send notes and descriptive text to an artist and just watch them create something that is either a snapshot of something I envisioned in my head or something I didn’t expect at all, like this scene here.
We basically gave Julian a palette, and we gave him a list of things that are typically found in Wildspace. Then Julian just did a version of this, and we had him make some very minor changes. Basically what you see here is what Julian came up with just based on some reference material that we sent him.
There’s a lot going on here, and that’s because we like our players to get absorbed by our DM screens and find easter eggs and stuff like that.
Julian’s just a wonderful person. There’s a combination of genius and professionalism that Julian and all of our artists bring to their work.
We know that we’re doing good because our D&D fanbase is telling us ‘more, more, more’
Back To The 80s
One huge inspiration for a lot of what you see in Spelljammer was the contemporaries of the original Spelljammer: 80s Science Fiction. Chris in particular notes Flash Gordon as being a huge inspiration for Light of Xaryxis, with the movie setting the tone for the adventure while the comics inspiring the episodic nature of its components.
“I felt like it was trying to do something different. The other thing I liked about it was that the movie harkened back to the old 1930s Flash Gordon serial comics. I have a book that Ray, my boss, gave me, that was the complete collected Flash Gordon comic books”, he explains.
He noted that the comics loved their cliffhangers, and says it’s something he wanted to bring to Light of Xaryxis, too.
“What I like about that is just the feeling that might create at the game table, just the suspense of just hanging on a critical note and getting players excited to come back to the next session”, he says. “We had never done anything structurally like that in any adventure ever before, and I just thought it’d be a fun challenge”.
In fact, Chris even teased that the short episodic nature of Xaryxis would introduce many D&D players to an entirely new sensation- actually completing their campaign.
“The goal of the adventure was to present a fun romp in space. It’s meant to be super fun, super fast”, he says. “It is a 12 session of play, which to us is actually a pretty short campaign. But the message we’re getting from our DMs is “We love your long campaigns like Icewind Dale and Witchlight and Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd“, but they take 6 months to 18 months to complete. But that’s a long time commitment”.
“So here its like “You can complete this campaign in 12 sessions. You can have the glorious sensation of completing a campaign. Possibly for the first time in your life“. It’s a one and done story. Something terrible happens, you deal with it. The end”.
Of course, there’s a lot more science fiction that Spelljammer draws on than just Flash Gordon. According to Chris, you can expect to find all manner of science fiction easter eggs in the books.
“Whether it’s the 1980s Killer Clowns In Outer Space, which of course had menacing clowns, which Spelljammer has as well. Or, the life sucking space vampires from the British 1983 film Lifeforce, which is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. That movie inspired some of the creatures that show up in Boo’s Astral Menagerie”, Chris continues. “Beyond that, there are references to all sorts of 1980s and earlier Science Fiction entertainment sort of scattered throughout and we look forward to fans dissecting the product from the point of view of simply finding all of these little easter eggs and homages”.
Pulling In New People
It wasn’t just stories of Nautiloids and dead gods that Wizards plans on using to pull people in. Chris says business decisions were also made on the product side as well, to make the set more appealing to new players.
“I think one of the ways I’d answer that is to say we’re experimenting with the form factor is to make the books smaller and digestible. The smaller books I think will feel more welcoming to new players and DMS and less intimidating to DMs, especially since the art budget is so much higher in these books than what we’ve done in the past”, Chris says.
“We typically have a 20-25% art budget for each book but these products have a 35-39% or something like that. So they’re much more illustrated, so we can show off many more characters, many more places”, he continues. “We were very careful about showing off environments- giving you a sense of world and place and allowing you to imagine where you are in that place to sort of pull you in. Tapping into different fields in the art like this one here [space hamster] of the halfling and her pet space hamster, which is as big as a bear. This is a very sort of friendly piece of art that will appeal to more of our non standard D&D fans”
Considering it’s a game all about imagination, you’d think giving more pictures would be stifling, but Chris argues the opposite. Instead, the illustrations in Spelljammer: Adventures in Space are a great hook for more casual players to get into the world of high fantasy in space.
“Long time players will love this just fine, it’s very enchanting. Younger players will look at this and go “Well I want to be her, and I want to have that pet“. “This is just something I’ve never seen before in fantasy“. We’re trying to captivate people with our art, with our presentation, and not make our words so dense”, he says.
Of course, if you’re not sure about making your purchase, never fret: Wizards is also trying out a new method to get people into the game, with online adventures you can sample for free.
“We’ve got Spelljammer Academy, which is a short series of free adventures that people can download off our website and if they have a Wizards account, they can download the adventures for free and they’re meant to be a sort of training wheels version of a Spelljammer adventure so you can ramp up players who might be trepidatious or might not know anything about the setting and if you wanna just ease them gently into this wide wacky setting the Spelljammer academy takes them through levels 1 to 5”, he explains.
See You, Space Cowboy
If you’ve any love for taking your campaign to the stars or even trying out an all-new space romp with the Light of Xaryxis adventure, there’s something for you in the new Spelljammer: Adventures In Space set.
Be it DM or player, there’s a veritable treasure trove of monster information, ideas and ships (all complete with their own stat blocks) for you to check out when Spelljammer: Adventures in Space launches on August 16th, 2022.
Our thanks to Chris for talking all sorts of fun space adventures with us ahead of the set’s release.