With the D&D Direct announcement of Spelljammer, I find myself at an odd junction as a gamer. I remember the original release of the setting for the 2nd ed. of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though I wasn’t as enthralled with it as some as my peers. I think the element that the promotional materials for Spelljammer uses, that retro-80’s spacey futuristic vibe that Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok (with the cyan & hot pink-infused title cards) perfectly capture the vibe of the setting, which younger generations may get a kick out of and the elder generations have a rueful chuckle.
Perhaps since I am older, the initial corniness of the setting (for me) that pushed me away from it is actually a good thing in its presentation now. It’s not some super-serious and grimdark reboot like that of Battlestar: Galactica, but a tongue-in-cheek mixture and homage of science fantasy of various flavors (along with a hefty dose of the kitchen sink-style of wide cosmos from comics) with a twist of Age of Sail ala the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. To display an example of the humor and homage present in the game, one just needs to behold a monster released in the free promotional material: the Goon Balloon.
And now, behold the alien from John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star:
This is not a bug; it’s a feature of the setting. The bizarre silliness of it all fits in with the bizarre silliness that’s sorta cool as harnessed in Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s been rendered into a central feature of the cosmic MCU. And it’s also used as a narrative means to explain how, if a group desired, to have a party of adventurers travel through the Astral Plane from one realm to another, such as from the world of Abeir-Toril from Forgotten Realms to the war-torn world of Krynn from Dragonlance (which also is getting some love through a novel and an adventure).
I’d also argue that it’s a reminder of the possibilities of role-playing games, and the sorts of tropes that can be used or exploited all in the name of fun. And fun is the key element here—it’s meant to entertain and pass the time. This sort of silliness is present throughout gaming, though I think people can willingly forget or ignore that aspect. Having a character running around in a pink bunny costume in an FPS game is the same impulse of silliness, just manifest in a different way.
Also, in the history of D&D, there is an established tradition of scient fiction elements being integrated into fantasy: the cosmic horror of Lovecraftian-style creatures, the crashed spaceship in the module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the S.S. Beagle in Mystara/Blackmoor, and the like. Even one of the old CRPG series from the 1980s and 1990s, Might & Magic, has a very science-fiction backstory for its fantasy setting and game, much like Ultima I and Ultima II had a ton of fantasy and science fiction references throughout. (And the Ultima games are spawned from the homebrew game made during the original old D&D “white box” edition of the game, which left everyone customizing the game as they saw fit.)
But these are the fun, good elements from the time. I would argue that Wizards of the Coast is doing their best to perpetuate the positive aspects of the game over its long history while editing out the things that evoke cringe or discomfort because it was deemed “acceptable” in those days of old. It’s not a denial that it was ever there to begin with, but it’s an acknowledgement and a conscious decision to leave such things behind as life and the game move forward.