Making Fixes For Spelljammer
  • Making Fixes For Spelljammer


    What did I do to change the mechanisms of Spelljammer when I devised my own version?


    When I taught video game design in college I discovered that students who were asked to write down their conception of their game, usually wrote about a story and not any actual game mechanisms (often called mechanics). That's not a game. Always keep in mind that stories are part of settings or adventures, not part of actual game design (though RPGs usually have a default setting). The game designer must focus on the mechanisms, the rules that players must follow. Without mechanisms you don't have a game.

    A good set of mechanisms (rules), such as Apocalypse World or the D&D D20 mechanisms, can be adapted for a variety of settings.

    I usually create my own settings, but the commercial setting most interesting to me is Spelljammer, despite its inconsistencies. I'm a naval guy at heart. 15 years ago I devised an alternative set of rules to fix Spelljammer rather than start over from scratch.


    Consider the biggest flaw in Spelljammer, that those who come into possession of flying/space traveling ships are likely to stay at home and use them to great benefit in warfare, trade, or adventure. If you could use a full-size ship flying above a planet-sized world's surface, why would you ever leave? You'd use the ship as a super bomber in pursuit of defense or conquest, or for trade if peaceably inclined.

    The key aspect of my game is a relationship between ship size and the size of celestial bodies. The larger a ship is, the sooner it loses ability to fly as it approaches celestial bodies. The larger a celestial body is, the sooner an approaching ship loses ability to fly. For an Earth-sized planet only very small boats and magic carpets can fly all the way to the surface from space without losing propulsive capability; everything else suffers "kinetic energy poisoning" (crashes). Keep in mind, in Spelljammer all bodies of any size generate their own gravity field, always 1G. Nor does distance from the sun(s) affect the typically terrestrial temperatures. While only practical way to use ships is in conjunction with quite small celestial bodies, such as asteroids and small moons, those can be inhabited and farmed, and hold water and atmosphere just as the Earth can.

    This necessarily means that if adventurers want to use such ships they will have to go out into Wildspace, not hang around a planet. It also means that there would be little interaction between a full-size planet and the denizens of Wildspace. Which makes it easy to make up unusual settings for use "out there" without worrying much about how they would affect the main planet(s) - if there are such.

    The second big change is that you are not required to sacrifice your spells to have a good tactical platform. The ship-master must be able to cast spells. Sometimes he may cast spells to provide the propulsive force for the ship, or someone else may cast the spells, but in either case the master cannot cast spells except to power the ship while he, she, or it is conning the ship. The master doesn't lose spells the way they do in Spelljammer, but in order to cast non-propulsive spells they must abandon the task of guiding the ship.

    These "aetherships" are "kinda magical". There are no separate magical "helms". If you want a spaceship you cannot destroy one in battle and put the helm on another vessel, you must take the ship more or less intact. Ships have been developed over centuries in a haphazard manner, people using trial and error (guess and check) because the scientific method is virtually unknown. There are ShipCraftsmen (or women) who build these ships using expensive materials, a highly sought-after skill, but in most respects it's more like Vikings building ships than like anything approaching modern shipbuilding.

    Nonetheless, there are standard forms of ships, and one of the greatest peculiarities is the discovery that aetherships work better when they are built in the form of some living creature. The ships are Very Expensive, but last for decades, even centuries with good upkeep (there's no water deteriorationÖ).

    More about "Localships," AetherGuns, strategic vs tactical speeds, and ramming another time.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 13 Comments
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      Thanks for this Lewis.

      True, fluff without crunch would not be a game...it'd be a novel.

      ...And crunch without fluff would not be a game...it'd be a mathematics quiz.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      What about knights vs pirates, armours vs gunpowder? And about "biopunk technology", living machines like the ones by the yuuzhan vong from Star Wars?

      How could a level 1 group of characters to hire or buy a spelljammer or skyship? Maybe they can't but they could use little ships with carborite (anti-gravity mineral) to travel across some "routes", a magnet for space monster predators and pirates. they could be adventures about travelling in caravans with other ships to avoid corsairs from enemy factions, or be hired to explore unknown celestial bodies.

      What if any players wants to use their own space fantasy version of famous sci-fi franchises: (Star Wars, Star Treck, Flash Gordon, Dune, Galactica, Firefly, Andromeda, Stargate, Farscape, Starcraft, Halo, Mass Effect, Doom, Dead Space, Gears of War, Prey, Warhammer 40.000, Battletech, Aliens vs Predators..).

      And let's pray if somebody wants to create his own version d20 of the transhuman technology from "Eclipse Phase RPGs" with those egos and morphos because then...
    1. barasawa -
      In one version of the Spelljammer game I ran a long time ago, I did make the planets somewhat separate from space.
      All planets had a natural barrier around them. A huge impact could break through, so meteors happened, and breaking through is why they suddenly got so hot.
      For ships, the heat and impact damage, even if you had a ram, would pretty much destroy any known ship.
      However, most planets had some natural holes in the barrier, some large enough for a ship to enter.
      To further limit access, the flight powers of spelljammers only worked in a column directly below the hole. So they could carefully land or take off, but otherwise they'd have to travel the surface in the same fashion as any other vessel. For some ships that obviously can't happen.
      It was also possible to make a special magical structure on the ground similar to a ward or magic circle in appearance that would create one of those holes directly above it.
      As this was my second campaign I ran of Spelljammer, I also ran with one of the other GMs mods to Spelljammer and changed the helms. The standard was a magical construct. Kind of like (forgot names) the one that eats magic items, and the one that runs on an artifact. The old spell draining ones were ancient antique kludges that nobody wanted if they could afford a real helm. The favorite excuse when asking NPCs was "Do you know how freaking expensive and stupid it is to hire a wizard to NOT cast spells?!?!"
      I really enjoyed Spelljammer, and really hope they do bring it out again with updates.
    1. barasawa -
      Apologies for posting again so soon, but on a point with the adventures that were published for Spelljammer, I always thought the earlier ones were just fine, even if they weren't a linked campaign. Later on, it's as though the writers didn't even bother to read the rules/bible of Spelljammer and started doing stupid things that really broke the game. The one that comes to mind the most was a scenario where there was a sargaso of wrecked/stranded ships in an antimagic zone. That alone is enough for an adventure, but then the idiot writer added an immaterial undead! (Spectre, wraith, something like that)

      Of course the rules say that any such entity would be severed from it's other plane connection and become a fully materialized creature without special properties, or would be pushed to that other plane and cease to exist in this one while the antimagic was up.

      As if it wasn't hard to guess, the writer didn't do that. So the players are hunted by a level draining undead that's immaterial so it can float through the ships and requires magic or magic weapons to harm it, which don't exist in the antimagic field, it was utterly unstoppable, and you really didn't have anyplace to run since your ship has no power to move.

      That was flat out the absolutely worst scenario I've ever seen in a professionally published commercial product.
      So with that as an example, I totally have to agree that the later stuff had lots of problems, but the one with that "adventure" (more like a way to kill off a campaign) was the topper of the trash imo.

      Anyhow, thanks for reading my comments.
    1. Mark Craddock's Avatar
      Mark Craddock -
      Lews, first thanks for writing about Spelljammer. While I appreciate your ideas, the way my mind deals with your first change is to simply remind myself that others have magic too and that if Spelljammers were around, then they would be dealt with.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Every group I gave a helm to was afraid to break atmosphere.
    1. Tranquilis's Avatar
      Tranquilis -
      Thanks so much for this! I hope to see more!

      Your concern about Spelljammers being able to dominate a world are exactly like mine. I love your solution.

      I also love the visual of magic carpets being used as skiffs!
    1. rmcoen's Avatar
      rmcoen -
      I love both presented solutions - "Kinetic Poisoning" and "only works in anomaly zone beneath the hole".

      Also, as a games designer, I like mechanics to be consistent across everything, so a *break* from the consistency is intentional and important and carefully considered. Too many writers in the library (cooks in the kitchen) makes for game-breaking inconsistency, which is bad.

      I reintroduced "spelljamming" into my 4e campaign at high paragaon / low epic level. The simple compromise I gave was that the spellcaster at the helm chose the ship's speed FOR THE DAY by sacrificing a Daily (4e, remember) power to the helm. As a 21st level caster, the party wizard had dailies of level 1, 5, 13, 21, and so forth; each bracket was a "Warp Speed" rating (metaphor breach, I know). Warp 1 was cheap, Warp 4 took his one epic level daily; speed relationship was on squares - so Warp 4 was 16 times faster than Warp 1. So the choice was theirs - make a trip in two weeks (Warp 1), or one day (Warp 4), or something in between that minimized flytime but left the wizard with some "oomph". And of course, all his Encounter and At-Will magics were fully available.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Good article. It highlights an understanding that I think is rare... "Crunch is fluff."

      This is because if your crunch doesn't match your fluff, invariably your game evolves over the long run until your fluff does match your crunch. Players will use their creativity to drag your setting away from whatever you state that your setting is unless the implications of the crunch actually matches the setting description.

      Your solution is elegant, but I wonder if it ignores the problem of "orbital bombardment" too much. High altitude bombardment is a problem in the long run with any flying technology. Do you simply assume that high altitude bombardment is too inaccurate to have become much of a tactic?
    1. erisred's Avatar
      erisred -
      I've never run it, but this was the way I envisioned running a Spelljammer game:

      On Aerath (or whatever you call the home planet) there was once an age of Spelljamming, but that was long ago. The war for control of Aerath was long and hard, but eventually the combined power of High Priests, Master Mages and Warlords were able to drive the League of Spelljammers away and put up barriers around the world.

      Today, no Spelljamming ship can reach Aearth, nor leave it. Most of the people of Aearth have all but forgotten that time. There are those, though, who keep an eye upon the heavens watching for the ships of the League and maintaining the barrier.

      Out in the Wildspace time has moved forward as well. Those who were once the powerful League of Spelljammers settled the other ?2? rocky planets of the system and the many smaller bodies, like moons and asteroids. Over time they split and re-split, built, destroyed and rebuilt, warred among themselves and over the ages created a multitude of small competing cultures and entities all across the system.

      To the Wilders, depending upon their culture, Aerath is the home denied, the paradise lost, heaven, even the hell to be avoided at all costs. For all of them, though, it is a place to be given a wide berth, for those who sail too close to that big blue marble never, ever, return.
      This setting, along with a fantasy hanseatic league, a fantasy bronze age Mediterranean sea setting, and a degenerate Ocean Ringworld with nanotech magic setting are at the top of my "going to run a game there someday" list.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      "...the way my mind deals with your first change is to simply remind myself that others have magic too and that if Spelljammers were around, then they would be dealt with."
      I ran SJ with a low-power campaign, where a double-figure level character was as rare as a US congressman. In that situation, there aren't enough others to prevent general use of 'jammers, though maybe you could get together a group to go after just one.


      In other words, the more magic and magic-users there are around, the less effect 'jammers can have terrestrially.


      "Do you simply assume that high altitude bombardment is too inaccurate to have become much of a tactic?"
      Even with Norden bombsights from only 4 miles up in broad daylight, American bombers had little hope of hitting a target smaller than a city block. Trying to bombard from orbit, more or less, with unguided and unpowered missiles is hopelessly inaccurate. Even now we don't know where a satellite is coming down, witness the recent Chinese device, let alone being able to hit something with one.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Even with Norden bombsights from only 4 miles up in broad daylight, American bombers had little hope of hitting a target smaller than a city block.
      That was in fact basically the gist of my question.

      One of the big questions of a D&D setting is, "Are castles really functional?" And for most objections, I have a way to answer, "Yes.", which is my desired outcome because I consider the castle so important to the medieval fantasy setting. Minas Tirith is still something I want to exist.

      But one area that might render that untrue is bombardment by aerial attackers. If you can carry a catapult stone, say 40-80 lbs., up to above the level that a ground attacker can reply by way of a torsion engine of any sort - which isn't that high really. Then you can bomb with impunity. So far that's never been really tested, because no PC has ever hard pressed the idea and had the resources. So far I've mostly said that the time required to load bombs, gain altitude, and return put a hard limit on the utility of bombing a castle, so that really, having an 'air force' and 'air superiority' was no better than gaining engine superiority (meaning your siege weapons had knocked out the castles siege weapons).

      If you think about it though, if bombing from 20,000 feet up means you might half the time hit a 500' circle, then bombing from 1000 feet up might mean a 25' circle. Much of the difficulty from bombing from altitude was owed to the speed of the bomber combined with upper altitude winds.

      Trying to bombard from orbit, more or less, with unguided and unpowered missiles is hopelessly inaccurate. Even now we don't know where a satellite is coming down, witness the recent Chinese device, let alone being able to hit something with one.
      I figure a civilization that is capable of developing magical space travel is capable of using divination magic - upgraded versions of 'true strike' - to predict the correct release point to deorbit something from with a sophistication equal to or greater than a modern computer simulation. Further, if you are deorbiting something of sufficient size - say a rock the size of a castle - you don't need to worry about city block accuracy. Getting something within a mile or two would probably do the trick. I guess the point though is that you eventually run out of convenient sufficiently sized rocks?

      Besides which, is the orbital mechanics of Spelljammer really as complicated as the real world? I'm not that familiar with Spelljammer, but I always got the impression they explicitly simplified the physics.

      Basically, I'm just curious to see if you've had experience with players trying these sorts of things.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      'jammers can hover. That makes it much easier to bomb accurately, if you're only a thousand feet (or 20,000) up and not under attack (as opposed to bombers flying 150 mph and being shot at).

      I suppose it might help to find a way in the rules that doesn't allow 'jammers to hover. . . kind of like sharks must always be in motion.
    Comments Leave Comment