This review is meant for Dungeon Masters - spoilers ahead
Wizards of the Coast heard you like nostalgia purchases and its leadership doesn’t feel like the company is monetizing its intellectual property sufficiently. Before the OGL crisis, 2022 saw Wizards of the Coast finally revisit a treasured Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting with an underwhelming boxed set. While the setting book is exceedingly light, the included adventure is worth a look for some players of the world’s most popular role-playing game.
64 pages per book is not a lot
Pages: Folio of three 64-page books
Release: August 16, 2022
My Familiarity: Completed run-through as GM
What this game is ‘about’
Reviewer’s note: Games need to know what they are about. The market is crowded and few games have the luxury of being middle of the road. What is the appeal of a game to the players, including the game master?
This campaign setting is an attempt to resurrect the gonzo space naval adventure in 5th edition D&D. This game takes the sailing ship pirate adventures of D&D and relocates them to a medieval model of cosmology involving planets, crystal spheres, and the astral plane. The twelve-part adventure is an intentional whirlwind tour of the intellectual property, making sure to experience all the tropes of a Spelljammer game that you wish you played through back in the 90s but probably didn’t.
Space D&D is pretty old school gonzo, even for the very late 80's
Let’s be honest for a moment
The original Spelljammer wasn’t as good of a setting as Darksun, Planescape, or even the kitchen sink Forgotten Realms. The wacky space setting has few memorable characters or adventures and exists as an intermediate point between the modules of older D&D and the better-produced settings of the 2nd edition. No direct translation of Spelljammer would be an effective game setting in 2023.
WoTC has underdelivered on mechanics, taking almost a step backward for vehicle modification and combat from Decent into Avernus. The races are somewhat uninteresting coming with almost no supporting locations or factions in the setting. The Hadozee needed a proofread. The Rock of Bral description doesn’t give you much to work with and is intentionally not fully utilized by the included adventure.
Can you name one Giff NPC from 2nd Edition?
Structure - an interesting experiment
Light of Xaryxis is an interesting departure from previous adventure structures. The game is grouped into twelve four-hour sessions that have intentional one-sitting pacing complete with cliffhangers.
Instead of a pure rail road (Descent into Avernus), branching story (Waterdeep Dragon Heist), or hex/point-crawl (Tomb of Annihilation), Light of Xaryxis feels more like a “Legacy” board game where each 4-hour adventure has a fail-forward climax. Did the party stop Traevus the thug or get pushed around by him on the escaping moon dancer? The next adventure is the same either way, but the relationships and approach moving forward will be different between playthroughs making each group’s run unique.
The path is straight but the ending feels more unique
This episodic format has the advantage of being well-suited for organized play or groups with players who can’t make every session. DMs who prefer a strong main storyline from which the party can’t deviate will do well here.
The game almost feels influenced by a video game style of narrative design where the story rarely branches but gives the players some sense of agency through interaction like in some Telltale adventure games. After reading several WoTC adventures that were unplayable without heavy modification, this might be a good compromise of expectations for more experienced DMs who want some degree of player agency but also value their time.
Is it Just me? Call from the Deep similarities
Maybe they both pull from the same Pirates of the Caribbean-like influences but many of the story beats of Light of Xaryxis are reminiscent of the arguably stronger DMs Guild campaign book Call from the Deep. Especially at the start with riding with a swashbuckling lady captain in the first chapter or exploring a crashed Nautiloid, I felt like I was back in my Inner Sea campaign. Other elements I added personally to Inner Sea were revisited making me wonder if this was a simultaneous invention or if we pulled subconsciously from the same inspiration.
Thor Ragnarok? Maybe
While the marketing for the game tries to convince us this will be what Thor Ragnarok was for the Marvel universe, a neon-packed genre-busting space adventure, this aspiring goal is only partly met. More accurately the game is more 1950’s Buck Rogers crossed with the humor of 5th edition house-style of Christopher Perkins helmed projects. The tone isn’t much different from other hardback adventures despite the setting change. For me, this was fine. My game had multiple memorable moments where, because of the fail-forward narrative I felt free to let the dice decide what happens and had opportunities to “yes and” my players in ways past campaign books did not.
Without fail, if there is a gargantuan creature, the monk in my group will try to ride it.
Lack of Story Hooks
You don’t have much of a reason to care about the starting planet. You leave a bar and fight to get on a refugee ship. The only named characters from the planet you are trying to save are local tough guys. To fix this in my game I started with the players being inducted into the “Order of Milea” a local heroes guild for the small planetoid. I asked them to narrate what great act they accomplished and why the Queen of Milea liked them so much. Nothing gets the players to like a home base than knowing their players are loved by the locals.
I make the crystal vines of the first chapter green to match the green sails of the star moth. I also gave the astral elves green laser swords to connect their whole empire to the evil act of harvesting planets.
Chapter 3 is a standout success
The Derelict nautiloid in Chapter 3 is a great session but isn’t written in a way that makes it easy to run. This is a haunted house episode where disguised NPCs turn out to be monsters and subvert the expectations of the players set by movies like Alien and Aliens. If the adventure writers just stated in a “how to run this chapter” section what was going on and how to frame the dramatic setup rather than writing the chapter as a room-by-room dungeon crawl the game would be much more successful. I leaned into it fully and reskinned the Benoto character to resemble Newt from Aliens and let the chaos ensue. The encounter with the Psurlons and Neh-thalggu is one of the few interesting tactical fights in the adventure.
Things went sideways quickly
The combats are underwhelming
Compared to past WOTC adventures like Rime of the Frostmaiden or 5e innovation coming from MCDM, most monsters and combat encounters are underwhelming. The fights tend to be against bags of hitpoints with simple high-damage attacks. Most spell casters have the equivalent of eldritch blast and similar spell lists full of command and hold person spells. They are challenging and well-balanced, but they aren’t interesting. The mid-campaign gladiatorial arena fight is three back-to-back large solo monsters in a row with no terrain or tactical movement possibilities. I was underwhelmed.
The Neogi fight was better with a mind-controlled dragon that needed rescuing
A rushed timeline and unfinished product
Travel times don’t lend themselves well to the ticking-clock nature of the adventure. There isn’t time to visit or Explore the Rock of Bral. The game doesn’t come with a star map of the starting system. Exploring the maps of Doomspace and Xaryxis Space is not part of the game. The encounter maps are too basic or mostly non-existent. Put together, the lack of exploration makes it seem like a lot had to be edited out to make sure the adventure fit into 64 pages. Maybe WOTC knows that they make a huge cut off of DM’s guild ‘DLC’ content for their adventures and they don’t have to ship finished products. That’s how it felt.
A weak ending
Chapters 10 through 12 are the most open-ended. The game leaves it to the players to decide how to approach the Citadel but provides little way for them to gain information ahead about what they will face. Aside from a diplomacy battle with ship captains, they have little way to collect allies or assets before the confrontation.
The DM’s Guild provides an adventure between games 9 and 10 to assist a Githyanki to gain intel on the Xaryxis fleet called Mind-flayer over matter. I used its story prompt but made the enemy the Neogi slavers the party had not finished off in Chapter 3. For the setting, I used a location from Call from the Deep that my players never reached due to the end of the campaign.
There is no foreshadowing of the final boss monster. There is no way to know that the Zodar has a powerful spell ability when it dies. This meta-knowledge story event has no guidance from the adventure authors to explain how to introduce this information to the players, making them passive observers of what should be a high-player agency end to the adventure. In short, the final chapter is mostly one big cut scene as written with too much occurring behind the screen and in the GM’s head. The fail-forward narrative structure unceremoniously ends with the following disappointing statement:
In either case, proceed to the “Trial by Combat” section.
Good stories need a beginning middle and end. Light of Xaryxis skimps on the end.
Read, Play, or Skip?
If your players love Spelljammer and you want a low-prep game, this adventure is ideal. This is a game written for episodic organized play rather than more open-ended campaign play. Many GMs will want to break it apart completely to take it off the railroad and put it in a sandbox. At that point, why not just run a Spelljammer sandbox? This boxed set won’t help you do that but it will still be fun.
This boxed set matched my 5e needs to get back into playing a monthly in-person D&D game after burning out on online play. It was a good experience, but it makes me fear that the Planescape boxed set will be much of the same and not worthy of the excellent 90’s source material.