I’ve been excited by the possibilities in the prospects of Spaceships & Starwyrms for a while. As a matter of fact, I’ve written repeatedly about sci-fi adaptations of D&D and about Esper Genesis in detail. So when I got the chance to examine a copy of the latest addition to this category, I eagerly opened it up. It’s a setting of technology and magic, busy planets and empty space, and… well, spaceships and starwyrms.
I’ll cut to the chase here, I think this product is a great option for running D&D in space, both thematically and mechanically. It’s well designed, clear, and attractively laid out. That said, I think it’s overwhelming and weirdly vague in some key areas. In short, I found reading through the book to be a binary experience where most of it is really, really good and some of it is really not. Overall, though, the good parts way outweigh my frustrations.
There are a lot of species to pick from in Spaceships & Starwyrms, so much so that you can expect crowded cantinas of various aliens like a Star Wars film. That sounds great until you realize that people coming from D&D 5e might reasonably expect their race to come up in play. If you’re an elf and you ever only meet other elves in passing then it feels like your choice in race doesn’t really mean anything. With only about a half-dozen options in most D&D campaigns, you probably have to try and exclude a particular race from the story but in Spaceships & Starwyrms you’ll probably have to try to include them all.
So that’s the pessimistic side. The good news is that the twelve (!) new species presented in this book are ally pretty sweet. I’m not usually swayed by a pretty face but I feel excited about making a PC for any one of these species. Even the vaguely-defined “dark matter magic” seems to fit into these imaginative species in a really awesome way.
Brahvaasch are sort of the dragonborn of the setting, though because S&S has the eponymous spacewyrms instead of “normal” dragons, the Brahvaasch are actually the larval stage of star-swimming dragons! I’ll just let that sink in…
- Eezonites are a clear indication of the “opera” part of this space opera setting. The planet Eezon was consumed by a nova at the same time as a “dark matter energy storm” hit. The result is a blasted planet with an ecosystem made entirely out of living flame.
- Glabrau are the obligatory cat-people of this sci-fi setting but they have a unique twist. Their planet is a frozen waste and so they developed advanced technology with no computers, relying only on kinetic machines. It’s a Turing-planet!
- Handarians are beautiful creatures that live for centuries but worship the stars and so seek to be stunning and immortal. A glittering, long-lived race that melds magic and technology and is obsessed with death? Sign me up.
- Ix are your classic insectile species but they avoid many of the clichés of other settings. They are human-sized insects because everything on their world is super-sized, and they have insect-like lifespans and so are hopeless romantics trying to make the most out of their short lives.
- The Kygorans are actually two species that evolved in parallel. The Kygad are short little goblin-things that are master crafters, while the Kyrrov are tall and muscled fighters. They live for machines and tech and have forged a cooperative that’s like Darguun set on Coruscant.
- Luonn Tua are flying bird people with a deep bond to dark mater magic. Erase whatever that just made you think of, though, as they are the fallen empire with the setting, having conquered much of the galaxy after destroying the ecosystems of their home planet.
- Maeshar also have a deep magical affinity but they live on a watery world where they contemplate philosophy. Oh yeah, and they’re also intersex plant-animal hybrids with poison barbs and prehensile hair.
- Piranthi are another aquatic species but they’re world is far from quiet and contemplative: a frozen ice-crust covers a roiling sea heated by vents in the seafloor. They operate well in the dark and have technology powered by thermal energy and they look like freaking sharks. I know, right?
Proxies are humanoid (usually) robots that live on a lifeless moon. However, they were created to serve as the literal hands and eyes of hyper-intelligent, liquid-bodied aliens called the Curators who send these wayward androids out to collect information on the galaxy at large.
- Saguarin are your classic sentient plants, but they get away from the Groot-staples by being nomads whose civilization was literally consumed and who now wander the galaxy obsessed with death. Oh, and they petrify into statues upon death, so there’s that.
- Wireborn are another artificial species created by the Kygor who are actually the children of nanite-infused others. So they function like androids but are actually more like thinking and feeling Borg who have a mix of stats incorporating another species.
- W’uther are maybe my least-favorite species in the book, which is to say they expertly embody a number of tropes but don’t really challenge any. In a nutshell, they are cyclopic space-dwarves formerly enslaved by the Luonn Tua.
On top of all these, of course, the mechanics of Starships & Spacewyrms are the same as standard D&D 5e and there’s even an avenue for magic so any 5e race from any sourcebook could conceivably show up in this setting. The authors say as much but they don’t make room for any others except humans who are outsiders come to this galaxy. It’s getting awful crowded in my skies.
First of all, you can play the bard, fighter, paladin, and rogue from the Player’s Handbook. Probably, you can play any of the standard dozen classes but these are the ones most supported here. Spaceships & Starwyrms even has five new archetypes for those, making them a little more sci-fi. The bard has the option of the College of the Diva to inspire the masses while the fighter has some additional fighting styles as well as the Crackshot archetype for those wanting to be amazing with guns and the Myrmidon for those wanting to fight with swords against folks with guns.
The paladin has more fighting styles also as well as the Oath of Exploration for those who want their paladins plying the spacelanes, the Oath of Preservation for saving lost cultures, and the Oath of the Unknown to be a champion of the downtrodden. The rogue features the Hacker archetype for… well, hacking. There’s also the Mechanic for being a sneaky fixer. Lastly, the sorcerer has a number of different bloodlines: Cosmic sorcerers wield star magic, Eclipse sorcerers manipulate light, Eldritch sorcerers have magical mutations, and Magnetism sorcerers are surrounded by a magnetic field that grows as they level up.
So those are the new archetypes. There are also several seven new full base classes to pick from. The marshal is a combat-heavy class but also one with some inspirational mechanics to help allies with their abilities. The three subclasses are the Path of the Commander (lead on the offensive), Path of the Guardian (lead on the defensive), and Path of the Herald (lead in a glorious cause).
On the mystical side, the oracle is clearly a potential alternative for the cleric, though there is not much tying them mechanically except spellcasting and a link to the divine. Oracles suffer under a growing curse that makes you stranger and stranger, and subclasses are based around a particular cosmic mystery you are plumbing: Blood, Conflict, Dimensions, Life, and Time. The psion is a sort of mix between the monk and (of all things) the wizard, with psychic implants that give them magical abilities tied to arcane schools. Psions start play with an implant that lets them access one of the eight schools of magic from the Player’s Handbook and they’ll get three more over the course of their career in lieu of a regular subclass.
The roboticist is easy to understand and works much like a rigger in Shadowrun. You get lots of engineering abilities and a robotic companion as a sort of subclass: there’s no set abilities for this companion, you keep improving and changing it at every level until it’s crazy. The scientist is sort of the wizard of tech classes, using their training to create amazing gadgets that can create their own inventions from a whole chapter in this book. Their subclasses are called “Research Focuses,” which is cute: Chemistry, Computers, Engineering, and Medicine.
The adept is one of two “augmented classes” which means it’s nearly identical mechanically to a standard class (in this case, the monk) but has a few sci-fi tweaks. These are mostly ways to make them better against ranged weapons, but also new subclasses: the Way of the Mystic and the Way of the Void. The vanguard is the other “augmented class,” a reimagining of the barbarian for a sci-fi setting. Instead of rage and battle-fury they are powered by nanites. The subclasses are similarly shifted: the Dreadnought, the Opportunist (use nanites to weaponize anything), and the Viral Savant (release a cloud of nanites to subvert machines).
If the species represented a complication of choices, the complexity here is fractal in design. There are tons of new options that need contextualization, plus several of those options (the roboticist, scientist, and psion) have combinations of many different options instead of standard subclass structures. This is decision paralysis at its strongest, but it’s still a sweet paralysis.
I’ll start this section on Backgrounds talking about something that is entirely separate from Backgrounds, because that’s what the authors did. In taking a look at fleshing out characters in general there is a whole page written about challenging your concepts of cultural hegemony, sexuality, and gender in a fantasy RPG. There’s nothing earth-shattering here but calling it out specifically is something I really want to applaud.
Furthermore, the section on languages is long and detailed and includes five different nonverbal languages including Galactic Sign Language. This effort at inclusivity to make the deaf community feel welcome is another really excellent part of this game.
On to the backgrounds themselves, there is a table tweaking seven backgrounds from the PHB (acolyte, charlatan, criminal, entertainer, sage, soldier, and urchin) as well as sixteen new backgrounds for your character to choose from. The bounty hunter, deep spacer, fugitive, linguist, mechanic, naturalist, occultist, physician, pilot, professional, wanderer, wealthy, and zealot are all fairly self-explantory.
The cryosleeper is a person out of time who has awaken from stasis and had some important dreams while they were asleep. I’m not exactly sure how the famed background compares to the entertainer, except that the former is sort of a larval form of the latter. The test subject was altered in some way and has a strange look because of it, plus they can purchase cyberware at half price to start.
Conclusion and Next Time
I stand by my initial assessment: this book is overwhelming and certainly isn’t as sleek as the core D&D experience. At the same time, some science-fiction-and-fantasy RPGs like Esper Genesis or the 3e-era Dragonstar cleave to familiar old standards but in space! Spaceships & Starwyrms might have the most derivative name but the ideas and setting here are totally different. If you want a game that feels very different from D&D but still plays like it, then this is your game.
Next time, I’ll be looking at the setting in more detail as well as equipment, starships, and creatures!