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
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

I think you misunderstand. Almost all of my standalone games are models of some (possibly fictional) situation, whereas a great many modern board games (such as many Euros) are abstract (model of nothing) even if a story is tacked on. Modeling is essential. But if you only have story, you don't have a game. A story without mechanisms is not a game. When much of the discussion has been how to connect various realms (and which realms), you're not doing much (if anything) to specify mechanisms to model that.
You're right. There was context, expressed here, that I missed.

3D: No, it's a matter of practicality. It's too fiddly, too complex, to model 3D space. 3D dominates tabletop games where it's done. Even computer space games, which can model 3D much better than tabletop, are sometimes 2D.
That explains RPGs and board games, but it doesn't explain Star Wars, Star Trek, BSG, Babylon 5, "Space: Above and Beyond", or the like. Which was the point I was making in the paragraph above the one you quoted. Sci-fi, for all that it deals in a 3d environment, still extensively uses ships best suited to a 2d environment. There's no reason, then, that space fantasy such as Spelljammer should be any different.
 
* 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.
This is very much the way that I treated the IEN in my most recent Spelljammer game. They weren't bad per say, but they were very much of the opinion that they were right, and that their policies would bear out as such over time, no matter what anyone else said. My players' characters hated them, but still felt compelled to (mostly) defer to their authority, because oftentimes, the alternatives were much, much worse (i.e. allowing Illithid, Neogi, Mercane, or Beholder authority to gain ascendancy).

Also, I portrayed (baslically) all planetbound elves as sort of backwater rednecks. It was great fun.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
... if you work purely from setting first you'll get something that may look nice but is unfocused and useless.
If you are world building for sake of world building, yes. And it's a classic trap many novice game designers and genre writers fall into, letting the world get away from them as they get lost in the weeds creating detail after detail.

Many designers and authors do worlds in iteration, reigning things in and refocusing as they keep in mind that future mechanics or plot have an impact.

It's one of the reasons I think that genre writer don't get the credit they deserve. They have to make a fun plot, engaging characters, great prose AND a new world.
 
If you are world building for sake of world building, yes. And it's a classic trap many novice game designers and genre writers fall into, letting the world get away from them as they get lost in the weeds creating detail after detail.

Many designers and authors do worlds in iteration, reigning things in and refocusing as they keep in mind that future mechanics or plot have an impact.

It's one of the reasons I think that genre writer don't get the credit they deserve. They have to make a fun plot, engaging characters, great prose AND a new world.
Yep. Agreed on all points.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
Spelljammer should be more pulp-fiction than science-fiction. How do ships fly? Spell power! How does it work? Who cares! Fly the damn ship towards adventure and get on with it!

But how will they breathe? You never cared how monsters could survive in a single cavern within an unnatural and unexplained ecosystem that exists miles beneath the earth, why is this suddenly a concern?!

Why do we never see Giff outside of a space-traveling setting within the supposed multiverse of D&D cosmos? Good question! The answer is at the end of that space-plank. Hurry, or you might miss it!
 

lewpuls

Explorer
If you have a low magic setting, and a fleet of Spell Jammers show up, then what you have done is exactly replicated Admiral Perry sailing into Edo harbor to tell the Tokugawa Shogunate that the time of isolation is over, and your players get to play through the Meiji restoration and the modernization (ramping up of magic level) of their setting. It would probably be a hell of a fun game, but it's not the standard assumption of Spelljammer.
Nice analogy.

Like the "magic" of great ocean going sailing ships (e.g. galleons), I can see Spelljammers meeting a low-magic campaign, where even the 'jammer people are generally in a low-magic state, they've just figured out 'jammers for some reason.
 

lewpuls

Explorer
That explains RPGs and board games, but it doesn't explain Star Wars, Star Trek, BSG, Babylon 5, "Space: Above and Beyond", or the like. Which was the point I was making in the paragraph above the one you quoted. Sci-fi, for all that it deals in a 3d environment, still extensively uses ships best suited to a 2d environment. There's no reason, then, that space fantasy such as Spelljammer should be any different.
I watched a short vid on the maker's ideal Star Wars ship and laughed. The military side of Star Wars, from a practical point of view, is ludicrous. Spherical ships are boring, but far more practical than anything he suggested. I still remember complaining, after watching the first movie the first time, about the sound effects in outer space. But SW isn't even science fiction, it's science fantasy.

From a game design point of view, if I can make sense, and make a good game, that's preferable to making a game (good or not) that doesn't make sense.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Also, smooth is better than craggy. Just like with armor, protrusions and indentations on a hull are spots where impacts get worsened.

At the very least, borrow design decisions from naval ships, and smooth out what you can.
 
I think one important mechanism to a Spelljammer Campaign supplement would be some way to generate content.

Tables by which to generate spheres, planets, civilizations, fantasy aliens, ships, cargoes, commodities, and so on. These tables would likely look a bit similar to those found in Traveller, GURPS: Space, and Stars Without Number.
 

smiteworks

Explorer
I liked the idea of magic powering a ship via the helm, but not at the expense of spell slots. You already lose a wizard because they are focused on flying the ship. Don't make the wizard useless when they finally step away from the helm too.

I liked the idea of the phlogiston connecting multiple crystal spheres. When I ran my campaign for a few years, I had players start out in a homebrew world and enter a phlogiston that constantly shifted. With that houserule, I was able to bring them to new homebrew worlds if I wanted or back into the standard worlds of D&D. The unpredictability of it opened up lots of great adventuring arcs.

I would have liked ship-to-ship combat to be a bit more cinematic until the boarding phase. Not every one of the players was interested in a tactical wargame simulation and how some games assign multiple roles to players is a good way to make it fun and exciting for everyone. Ship chases and escapes can also be boring if both ships have the same speed. A system that incorporates everyone in the party working together to either pull away, close the gap, etc. is more exciting.

Trading became a big part of the campaign for my players. They wanted to buy cheap and sell high from one planet to another. The problem was with how to manage this. Tracking tons of lumber, ore, food, etc was boring and required a spreadsheet. This should be abstracted as well and rely upon some combination of skill checks and randomness based on the distance traveled and other modifiers.

Salvage was another area where players wanted to exploit. They ended up collecting ships of defeated foes and hauling them back to port to sell. I mostly was able to keep this in check by inventing a bunch of salvage laws and fees. Instead of getting the full purchase price or trade-in price of salvaged helms and ships, they received a bounty. They had a license that allowed them to operate like this without being branded a pirate and hunted by the authorities - often ships of elves in powerful Man o' Wars or small fleets of humans in Hammerheads.

When making landfall, most landbound communities knew nothing of Spelljamming. I presented it mostly like Vampire the Masquerade where if the news leaked out, the players were likely to be assaulted by other powerful empires, orc clans, etc. who wanted the powerful ships and technology for themselves.
 

monarch71

Visitor
Not long ago I ran a D&D 5E campaign I titled "Freebooters in the Star Lanes." It was strongly (shamelessly) inspired by Spelljammer. The mechanics of space travel were different. There were no crystal spheres, and instead of helms ships used magitech engines and gold-coated sails to catch the "ghost wind" that blew in ribbons between the stars.

One mechanic I created that I'm proud of was creating crew stats. This was a set of stats for the whole crew of a ship, and included the ship itself, the crew's discipline, etc., and doubled for a set of stats for the party. A crew also had morale points, which were essentially hit points; if you lose them all, your crew is no longer on your side and will surrender or mutiny. You automatically lost morale when you lost crew members for any reason (attack, sickness), but also to other causes like large fear effects.
 

blackrazor49

Explorer
I haven’t read many sourcebooks for Spelljammer and when I did read them it was a long time ago, so I don’t know the mechanics inside and out. That being said, I think it is important to get the “feel” of the setting correct and design the mechanics later. On a very high level, when I think Spelljammer the following pop into my head:

• Naval vessels in space
• Travel between worlds
• Pirates and boarding actions
• Large empires fighting for resources
• Magic used to power ships

For me I would keep it as simple as possible so the players can relate more. Instead of a true 3D space environment, ships MUST travel on a plane of floatable material. Perhaps that floatable material curves up or down over a large area, but never so close that two ships attacking each other would be on different elevations.
This means the ships float on a substance that does not extend into the atmosphere of the planet, thus preventing vessels from also becoming ocean/air travel means. Spelljamming should not interfere with worlds too much. Off the top of my head I would probably use teleport to go from ship to planet at specific circles (but the idea of a “shuttle craft” crashing to a planet is hard to pass up…have to think about this part a bit).

In 5e most classes get some sort of spells so I would probably uses cantrips to power a ship (this way most classes could do it or even backgrounds). Perhaps multiple casters could make the ship move faster (almost like a ritual) or casting certain levels of spells could help perform maneuvers. Although keeping the ships on a plane makes it relatable, the thought of a ship flipping over the top of another one (as a previous poster mentioned) is a cool visual….at least to me. Do you want to cast cloudkill on the deck of the other ship or use the spell slot on the helm to suddenly submerge and make the other ship tilt since you have a bunch of grappling hooks attached?

The rest is just changing the setting to a larger scale. An Elven empire that operates out of a core area or pirates on the edge of the empire. Resources might be a bit hard to explain, unless planets weren’t that important (or were small in comparison to other resource nodes). Personally I would have oxygen and gravity just exist everywhere, but light would need to be figured out. Maybe there are large “star bases” that grow food since it is difficult to transport resources from the planet. This would make for strategic places to attack and defend.

Lastly, just place the core D&D worlds at the edge of known space. They are difficult to get to, perhaps relatively unknown, and there is little reason to go to them often. That way they are connected, but can be easily ignored if desired…that would just depend on what story the DM was creating.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I think one important mechanism to a Spelljammer Campaign supplement would be some way to generate content.

Tables by which to generate spheres, planets, civilizations, fantasy aliens, ships, cargoes, commodities, and so on. These tables would likely look a bit similar to those found in Traveller, GURPS: Space, and Stars Without Number.
There was a REALLY good one in SPI’s (long OoP) Universe RPG.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Perhaps...

Perhaps the energy required to run a Spelljammer would come- at least in part- from the magics used to create the helms in the first place, much like a powerful wizard’s staff. This energy would be depleted over time and would need to be replenished by:

1) casters (arcane or divine, but maybe not psionic or other mystic means*) dumping spell power into it.
2) destroying magic items within it (releasing their energy)
3) a necromantic ritual doing likewise with the life energy of sentient creatures.

The first would be the most common, and might even be a common way for casters to pay for their passage. The second would have interesting repercussions. The third would be an interesting campaign feature that would further delineate the differences between who is good but overbearing (elven forces) and the truly evil.


* Psijammers and similar could be their own thing as well, and not rechargeable by spells.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
I remember one thing I invented for the setting, because I hated dealing with the mechanics of air supply, etc... a twined band of three metals that went around the mast of the ship... one band provided circulating heat to keep the temperature comfortable, one provided circulating air so everyone could breathe, and one kept the water barrels full... the only thing I had them calculate and keep track of was food...
 
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 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.
.
It is kind of weird, but I imagine it like the existence of interstellar travel in Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" - it exists, and at least some educated people on Earth who aren't directly involved with it have some knowledge of its existence (and there are bits of high tech and alien creatures around). But it's not really relevant to the average person's life or the ordinary economy since the medieval-tech Earth by and large doesn't have much of anything to offer the interstellar people/aliens. Ordinary people don't really necessarily know whether faraway places they've heard stories about are on other continents or other worlds.
 
It is a simple fact that many D&D tropes don't survive contact with elements of high level play, that has been true since AD&D, and nothing has changed. The defensive value of a large pile of stone, unsupported by magic, in D&D is "Not very much" past 4th level or so. Ergo D&D castles are supported by magic, or they aren't used, or they are only in low level areas, and who is surprised that a bunch of 9th level characters can shove around a 3rd level town/princedom?
IIRC, there was a bit in a very old Dragon magazine (maybe in the Forum section) suggesting that this is WHY so many huge, sprawling underground complexes exist in the D&D world - a Moria type underground city is a lot less vulnerable to aerial fire.

(Not with reference to spelljamming ships, but dragons and wizards with Fly and Fireball/Lightning Bolt spells.)
 

Wyvern

Explorer
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.)
Sounds awesome. Do you have it published on a website anywhere?
 

Wyvern

Explorer
I have a Spelljammer-Fading Suns crossover which has been percolating in my brain for years; one of these days I may get around to actually typing it all up for public consumption. Here's an overview of the key elements:

- Crystal spheres are out, replaced by a system of jumpgates. However, instead of instantaneous travel as in Fading Suns, the jumpgates take you to the phlogiston, which looks like a rainbow-colored version of Babylon 5's hyperspace. (There's no "traditional" planar travel; you can summon angels or demons, but you can't go to where they came from.)

- Ships resemble the familiar Spelljammer designs, but instead of Spelljammer-style helms, they have ether sails. (Think Treasure Planet and you won't be far off.) The physics are a bit less wonky than original-flavor Spelljammer; ship gravity and atmosphere are artificially created by magic devices, but in the event of failure you can still survive because the ether is breathable. (Prolonged exposure to pure ether induces a comatose state, however, which is why you still need an atmosphere generator.) Any large-enough asteroid or other celestial object will have Earth-normal gravity, though.

- Personal firearms are rayguns, not black-powder weapons. Cannons still shoot projectiles, but they too have a retro-futuristic look (and autoloaders). Treasure Planet-style cybernetic enhancements also exist. Clothing styles are a blend of the Fading Suns aesthetic and classic age-of-swashbuckling fashions.

- Monsters and sentient races are mostly from D&D, although some are replaced or merged with Fading Suns races. Vorox take the place of giff, and Ukari take the place of drow (with the high elves in turn replacing the Ur-Obun). The arcane/mercane are the public face of the Vau. Gannok are like hadozee and grommam combined, etyri are the same thing as aarakocra, xixchil and ascorbites are both varieties of kreen, and so forth. Also, hobgoblins and bugbears are replaced by orcs, which have the intelligence level of Spelljammer scro (I didn't feel it was necessary to have so many "warlike savage humanoid" races in the setting).

- The D&D worlds exist in the setting, but the timeline is advanced a couple of thousand years, so you don't have to worry about space travel messing up the continuity of the "present-day" settings.

- The dominant human presence in space is the Torillian Alliance, with the nations of Cormyr, Amn, Thay, Calimshan and Shou Lung standing in for Fading Sun's noble houses. (If you're not a fan of the Realms, feel free to substitute in Oerth, Eberron, Aebrynnis, Golarion or whatever other world you prefer.)

- The Merchant League and its guilds are basically unchanged from Fading Suns.

- The dominant religion is the Unification Church from Dragonstar, which has different orders like those of the Universal Church in Fading Suns.

- The other major powers (those that control a large chunk of territory) are the Eldari (elven) Empire, the Vau Hegemony, and the Illithid Dominion. Minor powers (those that control a smaller territory, or scattered individual systems) are the Kreen Confederacy, the League of Scalykind (a loose alliance of saurian races, headed by lizardfolk with a Sumerian-flavored culture), the Dwarven Clans, Beholder Hives, and the Unhuman Liberation Army (orcs, goblins and kobolds).

- Independents and rogue elements include the neogi, Gith pirates, Ukari insurgents, the Black Sun Syndicate (yes, from Star Wars), the Rock of Bral (an independent asteroid port on the fringes of Torillian space), and the planets of Krynn and Athas.

- Krynn is a backwater, but historically important as the birthplace of the Unification Church and of the modern era of space travel (tinker gnomes were the first of the "younger races" -- i.e. any race other than elves, illithids and Vau -- to achieve spaceflight of their own accord).

- Athas is officially off-limits (although still visited by smugglers) for fear of what could happen if the Sorcerer-Kings got their hands on spacefaring vessels. (The Athasian kreen are believed to be a lost colony of the Confederacy.)

- Incidentally, beholders are actually native to wildspace (although they can be found on planets too). Neogi aren't, but the location of their original homeworld is unknown even to them. The Pirates of Gith are a former illithid slave race (there are no githzerai or githyanki), and Gith is the name of their destroyed homeworld.

- Oh, and "giant space hamsters" are actually capybara. Originally native to the Vorox homeworld, they've become popular among spacefarers as a compact, low-maintenance food animal -- as well as being used by gnomes to power the driveshafts of many of their ships.

- Ruleswise, I'd probably favor D&D 5e with modifications, but I could also see it working well with Savage Worlds.

Wyvern
 
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smiteworks

Explorer
There are some great ideas here.

monarch71 said:
One mechanic I created that I'm proud of was creating crew stats. This was a set of stats for the whole crew of a ship, and included the ship itself, the crew's discipline, etc., and doubled for a set of stats for the party. A crew also had morale points, which were essentially hit points; if you lose them all, your crew is no longer on your side and will surrender or mutiny. You automatically lost morale when you lost crew members for any reason (attack, sickness), but also to other causes like large fear effects.
Simplifying crew stats is great. How do you handle multiple classes of crews? Our players would occasionally pick up a set of marines or archers to go with the standard crew. Would they be added into one big crew pool but still available separately so you can see where the losses occurred?

For me I would keep it as simple as possible so the players can relate more. Instead of a true 3D space environment, ships MUST travel on a plane of floatable material. Perhaps that floatable material curves up or down over a large area, but never so close that two ships attacking each other would be on different elevations.
This means the ships float on a substance that does not extend into the atmosphere of the planet, thus preventing vessels from also becoming ocean/air travel means. Spelljamming should not interfere with worlds too much. Off the top of my head I would probably use teleport to go from ship to planet at specific circles (but the idea of a “shuttle craft” crashing to a planet is hard to pass up…have to think about this part a bit).
That's a cool idea.

dannyalcatraz said:
Perhaps the energy required to run a Spelljammer would come- at least in part- from the magics used to create the helms in the first place, much like a powerful wizard’s staff. This energy would be depleted over time and would need to be replenished by:

1) casters (arcane or divine, but maybe not psionic or other mystic means*) dumping spell power into it.
2) destroying magic items within it (releasing their energy)
3) a necromantic ritual doing likewise with the life energy of sentient creatures.
There are some great helms in Spelljammer. The lifejammer has to be favorite bad guy helm. They throw people into a chamber that siphons off their captive's life energy to power the ship. Dwarves had an artifact furnace that converted artifacts and magic items into energy for ship propulsion. There were also mind jammers (I might be mis-remembering the name) that the Illithids would use in their ships. They could work as a team to power it as well. Making the helm rechargeable by dumping spell power into it might be a good way to get around the problem of completely draining a wizard or forcing a wizard to have to be the one flying the ship. Perhaps they could dump spells into it each night when they went to bed and then someone else could fly it while they slept.

Regardless of the mechanics you employ, part of the fun of Spelljammer was when players discover it for the first time. My players enjoyed the first time something fell overboard and they watched it oscillate up and down along the gravity plane as it slowly drifted to the edge of the gravity bubble. They stressed out the first time they encountered a ship full of undead with a fouled air envelope. They laughed when the monk ran around the bottom of the ship to pop up on the other side and attack the enemy spellcaster from behind.
 

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