Worlds of Design: 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...

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.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

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.

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
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".
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Xavian Starsider

First Post
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.


Trust the Fungus
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.)


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.

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.

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, 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.


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.


First Post
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.

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads