How Would You Design For Spelljammer?
  • How Would You Design For Spelljammer?


    I enjoyed playing Spelljammer in conjunction with the 1e D&D rules back in the day - I'm a naval guy at heart. For those who don't remember, it's FRPG in outer space, with different physics and magical spaceships that often resemble creatures such as sharks or wasps, for 7th-13th level. (There was a brief version in Dungeon Magazine for 3e as well.) I read that we may see a new version for 5e, so I dug out some old notes in order to discuss the design of the original game.


    Spelljammer included core rules, supplements, adventures. The rules and published adventures are chaotic, inconsistent, as though there was no editorial oversight. Sometimes they don't even enforce the major rule that the helmsman has lost all his spells for the day, or the major rule that the strategic (not tactical) speed of all ships is the same.

    The former highlights the biggest problem for an adventuring party that controls a 'jammer, one of the characters (two, if the ship is under power 24 hours) must give up his spells to helm the ship, which means either:


    • the players with spell-casters should have an extra character because one will be mostly-useless when out in wildspace, or



    • NPCs take care of the helming, often a lowish-level type since the low level doesn't affect strategic speed even though it affects tactical speed. But in battle either the players sacrifice one of their high level spell-casters, or they are at a disadvantage in maneuver (another reason to board, if you can get close enough).


    The weapons are ridiculously accurate. This is not unusual for fantasy games: most people don't realize how hard it is during combat to hit a target with anything, even with a pistol at a range of less than 10 feet. (That's why automatic weapons are so popular.) Yet rarely, in a battle, was a ship destroyed (I remember my 40 ton galleon disintegrating!); instead, boarding action was the order of the day. So Spelljammer battles often become the equivalent of encounters in buildings (castle, cathedral, etc.), two or three ships locked together with otherwise-fairly-typical D&D combat going on (with 3D action). I have deck plans found online that can be printed out at a size for actual play (square grids). One of my player's made a physical Hammership (for combat, not for looks) that I still have, about four feet long.

    The tonnage of ships (which is supposed to be gross tonnage, that is, volume) is sometimes way out of proportion with the deck plans. Somewhere I have a list of the squares of the deck plans compared with the tonnage, and it varies wildly. Once again, no effective editorial oversight.

    The biggest flaw was one of behavior. If you had a substantial sized flying vessel would you go out into (wild)space looking for trouble, or would you stay on the planet and use your nigh-invulnerable super bomber as a means for terrestrial combat? Even if you have nothing that would explode and can only drop rocks, you've got a stupendous advantage; but gunpowder and bombards are available in this game. The assumption of the Spelljammer rules was that no one would ever do this! I can't recall rules for conducting a battle in this context.

    The game included many new monsters. The spiderlike Neogi are built up as major bad guys, but aren't dangerous compared with (insane) beholder-filled ships - Just Say No! Ships full of Illithids and their slaves are scary enough, thank you.

    I drafted a set of standalone rules to solve these problems, but never finished them. More recently, I tested a game of fleet battles using some of Spelljammer's ideas. Maybe someday I'll finish one or the other, but first we'll see what Wizards of the Coast are going to do.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 90 Comments
    1. SerHogan's Avatar
      SerHogan -
      Did the setting provide alien worlds or did the group spend most time in wildspace on the ship? Or did they go from Krynn to Toril to Dark Sun, etc.? Were there 'space stations?'
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Quote Originally Posted by SerHogan View Post
      Did the setting provide alien worlds or did the group spend most time in wildspace on the ship? Or did they go from Krynn to Toril to Dark Sun, etc.? Were there 'space stations?'
      A number of supplements added alien worlds to it.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      So I was thinking about Spelljammer recently. I intend to do a live game stream using it and the Realms.

      But if I were going to design it for 5e, these are the basic changes I would make

      * Give it a fresh coat of paint that is reminiscent of Farscape. A Henson make over, not with puppets per se but with that colorful and rich texture to the creatures native to the setting. The Giff as a species in Frscape would have been gold.
      * Make the Elven High Fleet ...villains.. kind of like the Peace Keepers. Maybe not that bad, but close. Almost like the Vulcan High Command in Enterprise. That may be a better analogy.
      * Engage adventures both from the POV of old space hands AND fresh faced characters who had no idea that you could go into space.
      * Bring back the Vodoni from Under The Dark Fist as bad guys.
      * A Better space combat system. Maybe not Saganami Island Simulator, but a Star Fleet Battles or B5Wars kind of thing, but with more boarding actions.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      I would allow space for the chronomancers and the time spheres (something like parallel eaths with an alternative timeline).

      * A little easter egg about Hasbro's franchises, for example the transformers and Rom, the space knight, and other for the setting "Iron lords of Jupiter".

      * A biopunk living crossbow what reload itself. What if any players want steampunk mechas and exo-suits?

      * The crystal sphere of Athas is "closed" or the link is broken, but maybe people from Athas could visit and conolize a second crystal sphere, for example the world of the Jakandor settin.

      * The fraals, the little gray men, were canon in AD&D (Monstrous Compedium Annual IV).

      * If the PCs can kill a dinosaur with only a shot by a giant crossbow from a skyship then the system of the XPs needs to be fixed. What if the hun army is killed because Mulan provoked a snow avalanche, Tirion Lannister ordered to shot a fire arrow againts the wildfire next to the enemy fleet, or Mowgly, the jungle kid, causing a buffalo stampede againts Sher-khan, his archienemy tiger?

      * After buying and reading "Eclipse Phase rpg" I wonder about a d20 version of transhumanism in a space fantasy settin.

      * We need a playtesting about balance of power for knights vs pirates, shinning armours againts gunpowder.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      The game wanted to be more pulpy and swashbuckler via the adventure and implied ideas, but the addition super accurate weapons, detailed ship modification rules and losing a caster to the helm made it a poor Master and Commander wanna be.

      You'd negotiate with Giff and escape Mind Flayers only to do book keeping on converting your treasure into cannons, a new keel and install a piercing ram.
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      Cool - thanks for this Lewis. Your experiences bring out some good points for discussion and (re)envisioning. (One niggle from your article - I believe SJ started with 2E not 1E.)

      In response to your question. This is what I'd do:

      * In regard to Spelljamming rules, I'd change whatever isn't fun. I'd unashamedly borrow any fun features from Starfinder, Dragon Star, and other OGL space-fantasy games.

      * In regard to the Spelljammer setting(s), I'd be respectful of existing continuity. While at the same time, changing whatever in-story elements need to be changed to make it more fun. In other words, a lot has happened in the D&D Multiverse since 2E Spelljammer and the 3E Spelljammer mini-game. The whole cosmology has transformed two or three times since then. I mean, in 4E, "outer space" was fully merged with the Astral Plane, forming an Astral Sea which could be visited by getting in an airship! Though everything in those previous editions still "happened", the entire structure of "outer space" may have drastically changed since the time of those stories. (Though keep in mind the oft-forgotten fact that each rules edition is also a different Reality which continues to exist in the past, present, and future.)

      * I would include a Star Wars-style galactic map of the D&D "galaxy". A full two-page spread. I'd shape the galaxy like the D&D logo. A dragon breathing fire, in the shape of an ampersand. The "center" of the galaxy would be the dragon's heart.

      * This galactic map would show locations for each and every D&D World (and Crystal Sphere) which has been published or mentioned so far. Spelljammer grognards will moan and say it's impossible to map because the spheres move. But just like in Real Life, or in Star Wars, the star systems are in perpetual movement, but that doesn't mean there can't be a map! A map makes it more coherent, and evokes wanderlust: "Dude! I see Krynn and Mystara are on the way to Oerth. Let's stop by them all!"

      * I'd clarify whether the Milky Way and Earth—the setting of Alternity, d20 Modern, and d20 Future campaign models (and which has been visited by the Wizards Three, and so forth) exist in the same Material Plane as the D&D Galaxy or not.

      * I'd use the Spelljammer book as an opportunity to definitively correlate the timelines of the various D&D worlds. As the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance timelines have continued to advance, the other settings which haven't been seen since 2E are over a hundred years behind. Here's a compiled list of timelines (see especially the links to the Mystara timeline crossover discussions - it's pretty complicated to figure out how they line up!).

      * I'd make sure all of the Spelljammer material from previous editions is available on D&D Classics.

      * I'd bring the old Spelljammer novels back in print, at least in Kindle format. Does RPG Now/D&D Classics carry novels?

      * I'd get the Spelljammer comic series uploaded to Drive Through Comics. Many of the D&D, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance comics are already there. www.drivethrucomics.com

      * In the run-up to Spelljammer, I'd have my WotC team post a comprehensive Spelljammer webpage with a link to all these resources.

      * I'd open up Spelljammer to DM's Guild and Kindle Worlds (fan-fic novels and short stories). (And thereby finally get to see Bruce Heard's further Voyages of the Prince Ark!)

      Edit: * P.S. Note that Mystara (at least in the "Classic D&D Reality") has its own skyship rules, which are consciously distinct from the Spelljammers - see "Up, Away, and Beyond!" for a comparison of Skyships and Spelljammers. Also the Champions of Mystara boxed set, and Bruce Heard's updates: "Ideas about space", "Mystaraspace: air", "Mystaraspace: gravity", "Mystaraspace: navigation".
    1. AmerginLiath's Avatar
      AmerginLiath -
      I’d prefer to see what was Spelljammer and Planescape both integrated into a common 5e sense of planar travel and campaigning, rather than having multiple conflicting models within the game itself). Where traveling around in ships would be so useful would be among “lower-level” (comparatively speaking) where casters are transporting themselves, parties, and treasure hordes en masse instantly from plane to plane: a spelljammer would be a mobile base to securely travel from site to site across planes (one of the terms I’d rescue from 4e is The Astral Sea). I’ve never played SJ, but integrating it more directly into the main game (as I imagine 5e would do if it used it) strikes me as a more interesting way of swashbuckling across the planes than opening up a portal and simply going from Point A to Point B (and a better way of running a longer campaign building across the multiverse).
    1. marcoasalazarm -
      * More technology. Steampunk, mostly, but stuff like primitive sonar that detects ships using invisibility spells and such. Steam-powered Cybertronian copy-cats?

      * Fantasy transhumanism. If all dwarves are typically the same, copying the LOTR standard, how about a sub-society that has somehow become symbiotes to their ships, getting a hefty bonus to navigation and such?

      * Warforged as a Transformers copy-cat race? Just change from their original backstory, make the reason they exist part of the setting's mysteries, and add character options like size increases/decreases.

      * Society inspired by "The Expanse". The Earthers are the people in planets, the Martians are people in different planes, the Belters are those on Spelljammer ships going to and from. Add massive ships that are wandering colonies, a la what the "Nauvoo" was supposed to be.

      * At the same time, many sci-fi settings that are famous today are loaded with humor. Sure, there's a whole lot of discussion about how applicable IS that humor, but even something as dreary as BSG had its laughable moments and "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Farscape" wore their gonzo like a honor badge. The original Spelljammer probably had some of that (talking the "hippos" race, as an example), but this thing needs MORE.

      * Starship combat needs to go nuts. Talking Crazy Ivans to present guns to the enemy, barrel rolls to try to keep parts of the ship protected (hell, the "Errol Flynn"-style boarding may occasionally be doing a barrel roll OVER the enemy ship and free falling onto the other deck) and such. If it has to be simplistic, ok. If it has to be very book-keeping-loaded, ok. Whatever works.
    1. thundershot's Avatar
      thundershot -
      Quote Originally Posted by SMHWorlds View Post
      So I was thinking about Spelljammer recently. I intend to do a live game stream using it and the Realms.

      But if I were going to design it for 5e, these are the basic changes I would make

      * Give it a fresh coat of paint that is reminiscent of Farscape. A Henson make over, not with puppets per se but with that colorful and rich texture to the creatures native to the setting. The Giff as a species in Frscape would have been gold.
      * Make the Elven High Fleet ...villains.. kind of like the Peace Keepers. Maybe not that bad, but close. Almost like the Vulcan High Command in Enterprise. That may be a better analogy.
      * Engage adventures both from the POV of old space hands AND fresh faced characters who had no idea that you could go into space.
      * Bring back the Vodoni from Under The Dark Fist as bad guys.
      * A Better space combat system. Maybe not Saganami Island Simulator, but a Star Fleet Battles or B5Wars kind of thing, but with more boarding actions.
      Oh my God. Farscape is PERFECT to draw inspiration from. I could totally see Giff in that world. I also agree about the Elven High Fleet. In my campaign, the elves in Wildspace were kinda the bad guys for us, since our characters didn't agree with some of the crap that they were doing. This was long before Farscape, too..
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      P.S. Note that Mystara (at least in the "Classic D&D Reality") has its own Skyship rules, which are consciously distinct from the Spelljammers - see the DRAGON magazine article "Up, Away, and Beyond!" for a comparison of Skyships and Spelljammers (the article also explains how the different editions of D&D exist at the same time, as a different "Realities"). Also the Champions of Mystara boxed set, and Bruce Heard's updates: "Ideas about space", "Mystaraspace: air" (which describes how Mystaraspace filled with air in the year 1016 A.C.), "Mystaraspace: gravity", "Mystaraspace: navigation".
    1. Leatherhead's Avatar
      Leatherhead -
      I would include functional gun rules. As opposed to "realistic" ones.
    1. marcoasalazarm -
      I would go for "John Woo with flintlocks".
    1. Xavian Starsider's Avatar
      Xavian Starsider -
      If they do 5E Spelljammer, I want to see them approach it like they did Ravenloft. Instead of a campaign guide, give us a beefy adventure with side treks, amazing battles and locations, set the tone, have appendices to cover the staples. A bit of support online (articles, Dragon+) and let people use that as a stepping stone if they want more.

      We don't need an exhaustive catalog of ship types, monsters, etc. We just need the tone and what it should look like when everything comes together. Curse of Strahd did this amazingly well.
    1. FaerieGodfather's Avatar
      FaerieGodfather -
      My Galactic Dragons setting actually came about as an attempt to "fix" Spelljammer, and I'm developing it for use with Sellsword & Avatars.

      Main distinctions:
      • I've divorced it from the Radiant Triangle entirely. Galactic Dragons is its own setting, with its own planets and kingdoms. The one part of Spelljammer's meta-setting that I kept is the massive Asiatic influence, reflected by the two main Empires sandwiching the main playable region-- one's Anglo-Spanish, and the other is Sino-Japanese.
      • Bumped the tech level to mid-late 19th century, replacing the spelljammer helms with FTL dirigibles. Generally incorporating a lot of Western tropes.
      • Revamped the core races-- the standard D&D races all get sci-fi twists, while Vanara, Kenku, and Tortle all become major players. (All of my settings have Tortles. All of them.)
    1. Zardnaar's Avatar
      Zardnaar -
      Was just thinking about this. Look at some rules from Star Wars Saga perhaps with the numbers closer to 5E using the bounded accuracy.

      Turn hull points into hit points. Ships do not make saves as such but just gain resistance vs most spells. Ships are immune to PC weapons of L or smaller, take full damage from H beings and siege weapons.

      Pilot becomes a back ground you get to add your proficiency bonus to piloting rolls + the helmsman relevant mental stats.
    1. Man in the Funny Hat's Avatar
      Man in the Funny Hat -
      I'd blow it up and start over from scratch, with a specific and SELF-CONTAINED setting in mind (unpolluted by crossover with existing game settings of ANY kind - leave that to people that want to house-rule such stuff in at their own risk). Spelljammer had an overwhelming amount of large and small-scale problems with settings, game mechanics, even general concepts. It was fun when I first ran it - and did so VERY fast and loose, glossing over massive chunks of mechanics and the values that were assigned to things. But that's no way to run a railroad, as it were.

      Spelljammer needs to be approached as if it were a SCI-FI game, not a fantasy game, because that's the basic shape of frame that Spelljammer is hung on. But they peddled it as something you just tacked on to any existing D&D setting (indeed mixing any and ALL settings for maximum kitchen sink dishwater) and weirdly expected that to really work long-term. For me it was just a cognitive dissonance atomic bomb and despite various attempts to go back and patch it up to where I'd feel able to use it again, it just wouldn't gel. Some of its basic concepts just got to be sacrificed to make that happen, IMO. It's doable, and _I_ think would result in a really cool game, but the few existing dedicated fans of the original would HATE it because of what it ISN'T rather than love it because of what it would actually be.

      But that's just me. Hey, if they actually DO make a Spelljammer game I'm likely to buy it just to see what I might be able to do with it. Spelljammer is the ONE game setting I ran that players specifically have asked me on multiple occasions to run again. I just don't want to do it while freestyling EVERYTHING from the DM's chair. I'm too old for that. Takes too much energy and/or too much time to prep, neither of which I have in abundance any more.
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      Quote Originally Posted by Man in the Funny Hat View Post
      I'd blow it up and start over from scratch, with a specific and SELF-CONTAINED setting in mind (unpolluted by crossover with existing game settings of ANY kind
      Well, that's a valid perspective, and the approach of the 3E-era SJ minigame. But, then why bother with making it part of the D&D Multiverse?...(which does still exist in 5E). I thought spaceships were made to visit places? What better place to visit than the known D&D worlds and the many crystal spheres which have already been described in the 2E SJ products (along with all sorts of other strange new worlds). Yeah, it can all be re-booted and re-freshed, but...it is the D&D Multiverse after all. If I just wanted a space RPG without the D&D IP cross-overs, I'd play Starfinder or Traveller or whatevah.
    1. mcosgrave's Avatar
      mcosgrave -
      I was never a fan of the crystal spheres as such, I thought of them as simply how folks in the magic using part of the multiverse made sense of the existence of parallel universes.
      On that basis, I can happily live with all sorts of crossovers or leakages of ideas between alternate universes, and given how often that has come up in fiction since SJ originally appeared, I can see lots of groups wanting to use a new SJ as an entry point for crossovers to the non-magic using part of the multiverse.
    1. conclave27's Avatar
      conclave27 -
      If one take into consideration the worlds of D&D, each edition and game system is its own separate Reality Tangent. Check out Alternity's Tangent book discussing this. As for where "Earth" is it is not in the same reality as the D&D Worlds. As stated many, many times with Greyhawk.... Earth is one of the many alternate Oerth(s). The includes Aerth from "Dangerous Journey's", Nerath from 4th Edition, and a few others.
      The world of Mystara has never really been...well settled upon... as some say that "it" is an alternate Earth and others saying "no". Plus people forget there are many multiple "Earth" tangents, thanks to the D20 system and previous TSR games including Marvel/Conan Earth, Gamma World Earth, Top Secret Earth, Adventures of Indian Jones Earth, Starcraft Earth, Buck Rogers 25 Century Earth, and many others.

      Yet for Spelljammer, I think since magic is a huge factor, is to have some established stellar nations. Like the Imperial Elven Armada territory is Oerth, Toril, and a number of worlds. There is a whole Neogi syndicate, and the ancient threat of the Illithid Empire looms from the dark past to the future. Most worlds are either to heavily fortified for Spelljamer to take, so most focus on uninhabited planets. Don't touch the established worlds....matter of factly focus away from them on concentrate on new stuff.

      The best way to control spelljammer is to have tons of barren and uninhabitable planets..... Currently almost every planet is teaming with life and a hospitable atmosphere. I think one pathfinder 3rd party system replaced the spelljammer with a spell engine, which needs to be powered up by arcane energy so you don't have to be dependent on you spellcasters and psionists stuck in a helm.

      Another thing I would do is away with the crystal spheres. Instead have a pervasive nebula that is the phlogiston, that prevents technology from working. You would have to navigate along the flow of the nebula in safe corridors. Outside of the nebula you can include campaign settings with high Tech such as Star Frontiers, the Tale from the Comet box Set, and I would say Starfinder as well.
    1. Tranquilis's Avatar
      Tranquilis -
      Quote Originally Posted by mcosgrave View Post
      I was never a fan of the crystal spheres as such, I thought of them as simply how folks in the magic using part of the multiverse made sense of the existence of parallel universes.
      On that basis, I can happily live with all sorts of crossovers or leakages of ideas between alternate universes, and given how often that has come up in fiction since SJ originally appeared, I can see lots of groups wanting to use a new SJ as an entry point for crossovers to the non-magic using part of the multiverse.
      I agree. I never liked the idea that when an adventurer on Oerth looked up at the night sky, he was really seeing gems set into a crystal sphere instead of actual other stars - or whatever that particular crystal sphere had instead of stars (e.g. elementals, etc.).

      The phlogiston could still exist, pushed away like the RL solar system termination shock or whatever.

      I also had a problem rectifying Spelljamming denizens of any race - especially elves, humans, etc. - not totally going anti-Prime Directive and letting their unfortunate world-locked cousins know how superior they were. I always got the impression there is an almost “hush hush” atmosphere about SJ tech and the realities of other worlds for the vast majority of a world’s population, but I can’t see the same SJ brigands and vagabonds keeping it to themselves very well.

      I own and have read the SJ comics, but they absolutely did not make any sense to me as a coherent story.
    Comments Leave Comment