D&D's newest adventures explore diversity and spaaaaaaaaace.
There are a couple of new 5e books out in the wild and both (well, all four of them technically) are pretty interesting for different reasons. With the recent announcement and uncertainty of whatever D&D One will bring to the table and with a sort of renewed vigor to bring back legacy settings such as Dragonlance and Planescape, perhaps these new tomes point the way to the future of the game? In some ways I definitely hope so but in others I think there’s some refinement in order.
Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel is a collection of 13 short-ish adventures similar to the excellent Candlekeep Mysteries book, each proscribed for a different level range and executed by diverse authors- and this time, those authors are primarily folks who aren’t white. I’m sure this likely caused many an OSRbro to clutch his copy of Oriental Adventures in horror at the “wokeness” of it all. But by bringing Black and Brown voices to the fore, the result is a fascinating look at how expansive and thoughtful fantasy gaming can be when it is no longer tethered to its crusted ass “Appendix N” origins, prejudices, and narrow perspectives.
Instead of tired, worn out genre tropes, these adventures go to places and explore themes that are inspiring and rich with possibility. I’m especially fond of “Written in Blood”, a lovely Southern Gothic influenced by Black American and African folklore featuring a truly terrifying monster made of arms called a Soul Shaker. And I’ve also been especially intrigued by the 4th level adventure, “The Fiend of Hollow Mine” which offers a wonderful South American piece that brings in classic D&D elements such as a dark-dealing sorcerer, shape-changers, cultists, and a tidy dungeon crawl but also finds the players learning to set an Ofrenda as part of a Dia De Los Muertos-inspired segment. Other stories bring in elements and inspiration from Southeast Asian and Arabic cultures. And it’s all far more authentic, heartfelt, imaginative, and honest than anything in Oriental Adventures or Al-Qadim. Thank god.
Each of the adventures also includes a brief gazetteer describing the individual regions that they take place. This is significant because all of these stories are set in different locations with different cultural backgrounds, lifestyles, geography, and languages. The frame that holds all of this together is the Radiant Citadel, a floating city built around a massive, color-changing gemstone called the Auroral Diamond. The Radiant Citadel is sort of a hub and players may reach civilizations described in the adventure by means of Concord Jewels. Of course the Radiant Citadel itself has its own factions, lore, and potential for adventure.
There’s an overarching theme of interconnectedness and diversity throughout with a tone of exploration and appreciation. I’m just a bit disappointed – and this is more of a personal preference issue – that the adventures, much like Wild Beyond the Witchlight, are strongly focused on role-playing encounters and non-violent interactions. Depending on your group and how you play this may not be an issue and quite frankly, I think this is a generational thing where folks who have come up playing online or watching streams are more interested in those elements than dungeon slogs or extended combat encounters. But you know what, if you really want that kind of stuff in your game it’s not hard to throw in some fights, make an NPC or faction more hostile, or add in a bespoke dungeon to raid.
It’s a wonderful book offering all of the high-end qualities that the indie RPG scene despises – but in some sense, it almost feels like D&D is catching up with the broader scope and diversity that has always been out there. And that leads into the other recent – and not quite as successful – D&D release.
I never got to play Spelljammer but wow, I sure wanted to. The closest I ever got was a campaign a friend ran where we wound up in a castle that was actually a crashed Spelljammer ship. I feel like I bought the PC game at one point but I have absolutely no recollection of playing it. So I was pretty excited when WOTC announced that they were bringing Spelljammer back as a three-volume slipcase set including a new DM’s screen, The Astral Adventurer’s Guide, Boo’s Astral Menagerie, and Light of Xaryxis. These books are essentially appendices for the DMG, Monster Manual, and a sort of weirdly brief adventure.
In fact, my first thought after looking over the three books, could be summed up as “weirdly brief”. I felt like my expectations were perhaps set too high by excellent books like The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, and Eberron: Rising from the Last War. These were all stunning and thorough works with lots of new options, lore, and inspiration that left me excited to play and scribbling notes for future campaign ideas. The Spelljammer set just kind of left me wanting more of it.
The Astral Adventurer’s Guide seems to barely scratch the surface of what Wildspace has to offer with an almost kind of hand-wavy explanation of how it all works and what the deal is with the whole Spelljammer setting. There’s a couple of new backgrounds and six new PC races (I thought we weren’t doing that anymore, WOTC???) including a questionably described slave race, the Hadozee, who are borrowed from – believe it or not- the simian Yazirians from Star Frontiers. It’s really unfortunate that whoever edited this book or oversaw this section didn’t think twice about having a slave race whose background story does nothing but reinforce white, colonial supremacist views of slavery including the “happy go lucky” slave myth and this whole weird, extremely cringey thing where the Hadozee love and adore Astral Elves – who were there opressors, who brought them civilization and culture, whatever. Yikes. It’s especially troubling given everything I wrote above about Radiant Citadel and WOTC’s stated initiatives to strive for, you know, less of this kind of bullshit. (Note- WOTC has officially apologized for the oversight and future printings and downloads have a heavily revised and much less racist description.)
Stick with it and there’s also two new spells. A table for “Astral Fishing”. And then almost half the book is Spelljammer ship layouts and stat pages. It all feels quite perfunctory, rushed, and constrained.
Boo’s Astral Menagerie fares much better since it is essentially just a monster manual for Wildspace. There’s lots of variations on the classics like some new Githyanki and of course dragons as well as plenty of fun new monsters like the Megapede, Eyemonger and the Murder Comet. There are also Space Clowns and Vampirates so that should give you an idea of the freewheeling tone of it all. There are more bits of lore and background in the monster descriptions to be picked up on, so maybe the thought was to offload some of that out of the core book.
Light of Xaryxis engendered goodwill right from its first pages because it states that it is very specifically inspired by the 1980 Flash Gordon film so I was on board with it immediately. Billed as a “rollicking” space adventure, it encourages players to lean into the pulpy 4 chapter narrative and there are definitely opportunities to do so. It’s a 5th level adventure so characters should be fairly capable in rising to the challenge of saving their home world from the imperial advances of an Astral Elf prince. It’s all very good and with lots of fun elements such as cliffhanger chapter breaks but it also feels extremely scripted and constrained. It almost feels like there was a larger concept here that got squished into 64 pages.
But truth be told, I’m kind of torn on this point because I’d actually rather run a 64 page episodic adventure than a sprawling 400+ page one like what I am doing right now entering into year 2 of my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. That’s great and all, but this is a much more manageable, modern adventure. I just wish that it felt bigger in scope than it does.
Here again, as a DM you can flesh all this out and make it your own, as proscribed by Rule #1 of any RPG game – “this is your game”. But I can’t help but feel like WOTC wanted to do this as a single SKU and that pushed Spelljammer up against some editorial constraints. I think I wanted this book to be more like Eberron or Wildemount, brimming with ideas and details rather than really just a few new character options, some ship rules, and a monster manual supported by a pretty restricted adventure. With all of that said, I’m sure Spelljammer will have plenty of support on DM’s Guild and there will likely be all kinds of stuff there for it. I just sort of hope that Dragonlance and Planescape don’t get this kind of dashed off feeling. It makes me miss the days when a D&D setting was an entire product line, but heaven knows that’s just not tenable now.