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.

ship-4008046_960_720_png.jpg

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.
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

TrainedMunkee

Explorer
We wanted to like Spelljammer back in 2e. Read the books and comics, they were good but didn't really help with understanding the whole crystal sphere thing and how they related to each other. Really wanted to like the setting, but it just didn't jive. We did manage to do some space battles, go to asteroid/pirate haven and the Spelljammer ship.

The rules need to be reworked, that's for sure. Crystal spheres and Phlogiston were bad concepts.

Our party wizard hated losing his spells for the day just to power the ship. The solution was using an NPC wizard, not a good solution. A good fantasy trope is using wood from magic trees to make ships fly, which is a much better solution than using a magic chair that uses up your spell slots.

From what I understand, the next published adventure will focus on Halruaa and the Elaine Cunningham's series of books. This would be an excellent segue into Spelljammer, but would indicate that we will not be getting a Spelljammer setting per se, but an adventure with new setting built in, a la Ravenloft. This has been their modus operandi so far. While I understand it, I would love a little more crunch.
 

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thexar

Explorer
No crystal spheres. The Flow (a plane) can be reached by portal (natural or opened by device) at twice the distance from the primary to the furthest planet.

Take-off and landing from a planet needs to be extremely difficult - and easily fatal, to prevent using ships for terrestrial combat.

Sitting on a helm should not sap all a magic user's energy. The user should have to attune to the helm (as normal), then spend spell slots to charge the helm. Something like a level per hour. You can use extra slots for a boost.
 

Andor

First Post
All of the in-world issues can be easily addressed by making all Spelljammers enter or leave through a single point, fluffed however you wish. While in the atmosphere there is no need for them to be any faster than other readily available means of flight making everything a wash.

As others have pointed out a SJ ship is hardly the only (or worst) flying threat a D&D castle faces.

I'm eager to see what a 5e Spelljammer setting would look like, and I, for one, welcome our new spelljamming formian overlords.
 

DammitVictor

Trust the Fungus
Supporter
A modern redesign of Spelljammer that included major elements from Buck Rogers XXVc would be amazing.

Double the list of playable races so that half are D&D and the other half are a mixture of SJ and XXVc. Alongside all the smokepowder firearms, have limited-use, rechargeable energy weapons as magic items primarily for Fighters. Everyone can breathe in space, but adapted sailing vessels are considered primitive-- real spacers have rocketships with fins on them.

Design the System/Sphere around space travel from the beginning.
 

lewpuls

Hero
My title was "Spelljammer's Game Design", but the question as title is better for eliciting comments. I have drafted another piece to explain the major changes I made in my game (not enough room for more in 600 words).


Many of these comments talk about story elements/setting, few about mechanisms (some say mechanics) of play. While evocative, story isn't a game, nor is a setting a game. To design a game, you must focus on mechanisms, not on story. You could use an entirely different setting with the Spelljammer rules (mechanisms), and it might well be more entertaining. But the focus of the article was on the mechanisms and their flaws.


Yes, Polyhedral Columbia, SJ was 2e, but I used 1e rules with it. There's not much difference between the two editions.


In game design, talking about "fun" is mostly useless, because it depends so much on the person. One person's fun is another's trash. Saying something like "I'll add what's fun and remove what isn't" is 100% useless to anyone else, though you (may) know what you mean.


Andor, the speed of the 'jammer isn't what's important in terrestrial situations, it's the size/carrying capacity.


While discussion of how the many different D&D realities fit together is interesting, it's all setting, not mechanisms of play.
 

Von Ether

Legend
My title was "Spelljammer's Game Design", but the question as title is better for eliciting comments. I have drafted another piece to explain the major changes I made in my game (not enough room for more in 600 words).


Many of these comments talk about story elements/setting, few about mechanisms (some say mechanics) of play. While evocative, story isn't a game, nor is a setting a game. To design a game, you must focus on mechanisms, not on story. You could use an entirely different setting with the Spelljammer rules (mechanisms), and it might well be more entertaining. But the focus of the article was on the mechanisms and their flaws.


Yes, Polyhedral Columbia, SJ was 2e, but I used 1e rules with it. There's not much difference between the two editions.


In game design, talking about "fun" is mostly useless, because it depends so much on the person. One person's fun is another's trash. Saying something like "I'll add what's fun and remove what isn't" is 100% useless to anyone else, though you (may) know what you mean.


Andor, the speed of the 'jammer isn't what's important in terrestrial situations, it's the size/carrying capacity.


While discussion of how the many different D&D realities fit together is interesting, it's all setting, not mechanisms of play.

That's where I was going with swashbuckler vs Master and Commander.

The rules should focus on one style or another. Spelljammer rules need to focus on one or the other.

Players won't feel inclined to sneak into a castle when dropping rocks will do the heavy lifting.

As a side note, I enjoyed the Polyhedron version and LOVED the art.
 
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delericho

Legend
To design a game, you must focus on mechanisms, not on story.

I disagree. Story and setting will inevitably inform mechanics - if only because some setting elements will dictate the need for some mechanical elements (an explosive Phlogiston needs rules for how explosive it is, while a non-explosive one does not).

Further than that, though, in my experience RPGs are better where the mechanics are designed to reflect the setting. And the more idiosyncratic the setting, the more it benefits from this (again, in my experience).

Rather than focusing on one or the other, I'd argue that you're better off designing both together, each to support the other.
 

bmfb1980

First Post
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.

Exactly. The DM/GM has total authority (and license) to modify, alter, ignore, add rules as game play warrants. The best authors - and games - leave more to the imagination of the players than not. The question then becomes for each DM... how much imagination do you *really* have?

As for flying leviathons reigning death from above, a good DM would do what was necessary to preserve game balance depending if the players were aggressors or defenders, and what the aerial threat's role was in the story. No different than an ancient dragon dealing death from above, really. How did people defend against those things, though not easy... let me count the ways.

(By the way in one of our games it was somehow possible that dragons could fly up to SJ ships. The DM didn't have to "explain" how this was accomplished to the players, but easy really if think about what a dragon really is. Players who argued with the DM - who aren't fun to play with anyway - were often the first targets of said dragons, and learned to go with the flow of the game.)

The entire point of the game is to entertain. So a good DM will do what is necessary to keep their players lean and hungry, and thus engaged. The ship of beholders is only for groups that have got too big for their britches IMO. But if you have groups that powerful, it's indicative of the type of game you run as a DM.

So bottom line is... the mechanics are suggestions and helpful for those who wish to quantify their fantasy worlds, but by no means are all the rules to be followed. Just as many as needed to be fun and keep everyone engaged. Provide enough mechanical base so that you don't suffocate your players or degrade gameplay so the joy is not lost. Personally, for those who are obsessed with mechanics... just go to WoW and be done with it man. Tabletop games are not meant to be like computer games else we'd all be playing them instead of tabletops. An important point to remember.
 
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bmfb1980

First Post
Our party wizard hated losing his spells for the day just to power the ship. The solution was using an NPC wizard, not a good solution. A good fantasy trope is using wood from magic trees to make ships fly, which is a much better solution than using a magic chair that uses up your spell slots.

Nothing wrong with a player controlling 2 characters at the same time - that's one way to deal with it. I also let players power helms by letting them drain the magic from items they placed in the magic incinerator under the helm... still needed someone to steer/control the ship, but power could be provided by items as well as people. The more powerful the item, the higher equivalent spell. Which begs the question, how much would a life force power a ship? Which spawned a fleet of undead/ghost pirate ships, each powered by a "soul sucking" helm. Now that was a fun series of weeks...
 

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