FANS of Dungeons & Dragons were very excited by the announcements of the return of the Spelljammer and Dragonlance settings to the game’s fifth edition (5e) at the recent D&D Direct event.
While Dragonlance is a fairly traditional fantasy setting (albeit with an epic story that’s covered in something like 180+ novels), Spelljammer is an unusual one in that it’s a blend of science fiction and fantasy – space travel and magic and dragons, if you will.
First introduced in 1989 for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, Spelljammer was intended to act as a sort of connecting setting for all the various D&D worlds, while Dragonlance was first published in 1984 for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
It’s been about 20 years since either setting has been fully part of the ‘current’ edition of D&D, so I sat down with some of the senior team from Wizards of The Coast via virtual meeting for a discussion about what’s involved in taking a classic setting and bringing it to D&D 5e.
Game design architect and lead Spelljammer designer Chris Perkins said bringing back classic adventure settings was as much an art as it was a science, and it could take up to two years for the complete process.
“We do have data on what resonates with our fans, what they ask us for, what settings are more popular – we’re constantly sort of studying the fan base,” he said.
“We have all of that. We also have … our personal connection to the setting and the ones that resonate with us, and the ones we’d like to bring back.
“Other factors we consider are things like ‘Do we have an idea to sufficiently differentiate this experience from the other worlds?’ Some of it too, just comes down to what we have people who are motivated to work on at any given time.
“I think if, if nobody on the D & D studio was excited by Spelljammer, it’s likely that product would still be on waiting to be updated. We pour a lot of passion and time into these projects, some of which take up to two years to create, so we want to make sure that that passion comes through in the finished product.
“If nobody on the team wanted to work on Spelljammer, we probably wouldn’t force them to just push it out there, if you know what I mean.”
So, having decided it’s time to bring back one of the earlier settings, what’s the process for that? Mr Perkins outlined how it all works from beginning to end, using Spelljammer as an example – starting with the initial decision to
“In the case of Spelljammer there is even before the, a schedule is built around the project conversations are had in the studio and often pulling in people elsewhere in the company, sometimes even contractors who have experiences that we think are valuable.
“We’ll have conversations about what the product could be – how big should it be? What form factors should it take? What parts of this do we think are going to really resonate with people and what parts won’t and maybe need to be changed? Are there any interesting, mechanical things that we can do within the setting? Do we need special rules, mechanics for, to represent some key aspect of the setting, or are there certain character archetypes that beg to be fleshed out with rules in this setting?
We have all those conversations really early on in a, just a series of meetings until we finally get it on a schedule and assign a lead basically a project lead who is to shepherd the project from inception to completion.
The project lead – in this case, Mr Perkins – is responsible for creating the initial documents which are put together, including a “one-pager” summarising the whole project.
“That’s like the sexy elevator pitch sell sheet,” he said. “If anybody asks you what this project is, here is the sentence that you can say that encapsulates the essence of that product.”
“Then when people buy off on that, the lead then goes off and creates a more detailed outline, putting all the skin on the bones, figuring out ‘is the book long enough, or if the product long enough for everything I want to include’ identifying elements that will need to go through play testing public play testing things like that, all of that is captured early on.
Once the outline is put together, the team then talk about who to bring in to actually bring the product to life, such as the best people for the writing and editing team. Internal resource spreadsheets are also compiled so everyone knows who is working on what and where and when elements of the project are going to land on their desk.
We can sort of schedule around all the other products that we have; if somebody has a great deal of passion for this particular project, we have to rejigger their schedule so that we can put them on this instead of that; that kind of activity goes on,” Mr Perkins said.
“All of this is even before word one is actually put on paper, but then when the outline’s finished, when the schedule is nailed down, when all the resources are nailed down, then begins the writing process.”
The writing process is followed by a revision process, followed by a play-testing process, followed by a copyediting process, followed by the book layout/component creation process. The art creation element runs simultaneously to the writing process aspect, and the whole thing is rounded out by a final review process before the finished product heads off to the publisher and from there, out into the hands of players around the world.
“All of these processes basically span about 12 to 15 months of time. Plus all that upfront time I was talking about earlier, plus the actual printing time at the end, that gets you in the range of about 18 to 24 months [for the complete project],” Mr Perkins said.
D&D Studio executive producer Ray Winninger said while Spelljammer wasn’t out until August 16, eager players could still get a taste of it now, however.
“We produced a brand new Monstrous Compendium with 10 spell jammer monsters in it that you can download for free at D&D Beyond or at wizards.com that gives you a taste of what we have in mind.
We’re very excited about that, by the way – you know, of course, we’ve announced that we’re in the process of purchasing D and D beyond, and this is a little bit of taste of what we can do.
With D and D beyond as part of the family, we can give away more cool digital stuff and, and give away some of these teasers on products before they arrive.
“So everybody, go download some free monsters, and start playing around with them!”