Worlds of Design: Spelljammer 2.0

As a big fan of the old Spelljammer, I really wanted to like the new 5e version. But it doesn’t fix some of the problems of the old version.

81SsoYdosTL.jpg

What Sets Spelljammer Apart​

Beth Rimmels wrote a thorough review of the new Spelljammer product ($44.93 including tax, free shipping, from Amazon; list $69.99). This is my perspective on what’s changed.

What sets fantasy adventures in outer space apart from other settings? First it is the ships themselves and ship to ship combat, and second it is a new set of monsters designed for “space”, such as the Neogi and the solar dragons. The third book of the set is the monster manual for the setting, and it works fine. The ships are a substantial part of the first book that describes how Spelljammer works (though its title is Astral Adventurer’s Guide). The other book is an adventure path.

Same Setting, New Edition​

There’s been some discussion lately that Wizards of the Coast may have adopted a strategy of issuing new D&D settings but relying on the DM’s Guild for third-party support thereafter. Spelljammer shows signs of this. Moreover, it is only 192 pages despite being three pasteboard hardcover books; much of that is occupied by artwork. Artwork doesn’t do much for a GM, certainly not when the resulting product is too short to adequately describe itself.

Perhaps because of the limited space available, the new Spelljammer doesn’t dive very deeply into most topics. Instead of greatly improving the setting they have merely given it a brief new paint job. The approach feels a bit like the approach to board games, in which most board games are played up to three times at most, because players have so many other games to choose from. I wonder if this has also become the norm for role-playing game publishers, with the expectation that most customers won’t be playing in the setting for more than a few sessions.

Sinking Ships​

To me, the main interest of Spelljammer is the ships and ship combat. (Then again, I’ve always been a fan of the Naval aspects of history, including when I wrote my dissertation.). Unfortunately, there’s a considerable lack of detail in how ship combat works. There is no maneuverability rating; as far as I can tell any ship can stop or turn on a dime, move sideways or backwards at full speed. In the adventure, ships always initially appear quite close to one another to limit opportunities for maneuver. The ship determines the tactical speed, not the level of the helmsman (now called the spelljammer).

The ship diagrams look very much like the old ones, not a bad thing. Helms are cheap. There is no spell penalty for helming a ship (in the old system, the caster lost all of their spells). Level of helmsman doesn't matter for tactical speed or much of anything else.

Ship tonnage is no longer specified, just hit points (250-450 generally). That helps avoid some of the bizarre inconsistencies in size between ship diagrams and the official size of ships in the old rules. Ship diagrams are very reminiscent of the old, may even be the same in a few cases, and it is mostly the same ships as in the original. There are still odd allocations of square footage, such as a captain’s cabin much larger than the entire crew quarters for 21 crew. Some diagrams show a location for the helm (an important point in boarding), some don’t.

The standard appears to be just one spelljammer (helmsman) on a ship! The ship can move 24/7, but helmsman, who must concentrate as for a spell, is not going to last more than half a day. Why no second or third helmsman?

This version feels as though it treats the ships as mere transportation, a way of getting from one place to another. I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment but that’s how it feels to me, the game is not ship oriented even though the ships are the unique feature of adventures in outer space.

Other Changes​

The entire second book is a sort of adventure path that takes characters from 5th to 9th level. Unfortunately, the objective is, yet again, to save a world. My impression is that the creators felt that players would only play Spelljammer a few times, so they included a big “save the world” adventure sequence so that people could be done with the setting when they finished the sequence. I would instead have preferred some unconnected adventures for lower-level characters who could then look forward to bigger things.

It is not all one-sided disappointment. One change that makes sense: instead of “the phlogiston” connecting star systems together, the Astral Sea is the connection. Githyanki are present! As if mind flayers and beholders weren’t bad enough.

It’s a shame, because Spelljammer is chock full of ideas … and full of inconsistencies. The new edition was an opportunity to streamline the setting by taking the best of what came before. Instead, we got some tantalizing concepts and not enough content to do them justice.

Your Turn: Did you create or borrow rules from other systems to play in your Spelljammer campaign?
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

R_J_K75

Legend
I think the assumption that groups will probably only run Spelljammer for shorter mini campaigns than extended campaigns is right. That was my intention when I considered buying the books, but never had any intention of running the included adventure. I read chapter 2 of the Astral Adventurer’s Guide and was left rather underwhelmed and disappointed. The new races and backgrounds in chapter 1 didn't interest me so I skipped that one. The last chapter on the Rock of Bral and map seems like it was included just for nostalgia because it was in the original 2E boxed set but is too short to be of much use. The ship deck plans, descriptions and combat rules were a missed opportunity to update and streamline them, but they didn't. They're overly simplified and incomplete. Now I have the luxury of having played the old version so I can make adjustments as I need but someone new to the setting would probably have lots of questions. I think the biggest mistake they made was not including any guidance or rules on creating worlds and solar systems. Another thing that I was disappointed in is that they didn't remove the rule that the Spelljammer (Helmsman) has to be a spellcaster. This rule was always odd to me, but with bounded accuracy and the lack of need for magical items in 5E this seems even odder to me now. Definitely a rule I will be removing if I decide to run a SJ game. Overall, the product is disjointed and too short.
 


Stormonu

Legend
I was disappointed by the lack of manueverability, but as I recently ran a SJ adventure, I realized that such a subsystem is really a minigame that's not necessarily needed. It's not difficult to pull in the old rules if you want to do a naval tabletop battle game (involving the PCs), and I'd like to see WotC put out a set like Warriors of Krynn for "naval battles".

But I now realize the design team wanted to go for a more narrative take where it's mostly going to be a 1v1 ship battle where it's going to be one or two closing shots ending in a boarding action, instead of an armada-style battle where the PCs are in control of a fleet (and possibly each PC captaining their own ship or small force).
 

Von Ether

Legend

Sinking Ships​

To me, the main interest of Spelljammer is the ships and ship combat. (Then again, I’ve always been a fan of the Naval aspects of history, including when I wrote my dissertation.). Unfortunately, there’s a considerable lack of detail in how ship combat works.


I think this article touches on one unspoken aspect of old Spelljammer. It wanted to both be Swashbuckler, (Use your ship to jump through the tower's window to make an entrance) and Master and Commander (Use your ship to drop rocks from out of fireball range to make an entrance.)

The two styles don't really mesh well at the same table (again, why dramatically jump through a window when you can just drop rocks all day?) Old school Spelljammer sort of expected your GM to chose one or the other or know when to switch (and in typical old school fashion didn't clue you in that it was choice or how to reinforce said choice at the table or how to switch between the two.)

The 5e version seems to lean in on the Swashbuckling side. Ideally, such a focus should also followed up with tweaks to the setting that double down on style. The marketing obviously did double down on the Swashbuckling, I haven't read the books yet to ascertain if the setting lore did as well. (and if such canon changes would sit well with some fans.)

A more naval Master and Commander approach would have doubled down on ship combat and logistics. Neither style is #badwrongfun but to try to do both in a game needs a GM who can switch between both and a table who has a consensus. Otherwise Swashbucklers get grumpy when they can't swash into a tactical situation and Commanders get grumpy when they can't apply a tactical solution to a swashbuckling scene.

As a side note when it comes to vehicular combat and modifying said vehicles/starships in 5e. You can't go wrong with Esper Genesis. The stats of a starship changes depending on who sits in what bridge chair and it's still all part of regular combat so you don't have to switch gears when you get a boarding action.

 
Last edited:

GreyLord

Legend
Well, I've never been a Spelljammer fan. Obviously there was someone at Wotc that is (there have been hints by some who some of those individuals may from comments on these forums) and loves it dearly.

Spelljammer may not be my cup of tea, but I will say the covers and DM screen look absolutely gorgeous. The art is beautiful overall.
 

I have been prepping 2 spelljammer games... 1 comedic and 1 mostly (as much as anything in D&D is) serious

the funny one is based on space pirates loosely based on the cartoon tailspin
the serious one is a mash up of Star Gate and "the dark forest"
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
Is there any adventure path that isn't "save the world" at some point? I really don't need that all the time.....but, well, I guess I get it.

I think rules for the mini game of running ship to ship combat would have been a good idea, as A LOT of people don't visit DMSBUILD. Frankly, the whole thing felt half done to me. Don't get me wrong, I really like what we got, we just should have got more for the money (and no DM screen and no wrap around container, those are merely a waste of money and resources for most people).
 


OB1

Jedi Master
I never played or ran Spelljammer back in the day, but was always intrigued by it. Needing a break from my homebrew campaign, I'm now DMing the adventure for my group (4 players, 2 who've been playing D&D for 4 years, 2 who've been playing for decades) and will run episode 8 tonight.

The short review is, everyone is loving it and having an absolute blast. Spelljammer has a very strong frame, and lets the DM and the players build on that frame in play in their own preferred play style.

For me, the greatest asset has been the flexibility in design of both the source book and the adventure. I typically hate running pre-gens, as I feel like I have to study sections for hours to get them to run right. With LoX, I skim thru a chapter to get the gist, then go, referencing the books in play for some specific events, and make a lot up on the fly based on what the PCs do (which is similar to how I DM). And even though the adventure has some pretty strong rails (which the players bought into in session 0 and is primarily tied to the desire to stop the empire from destroying their world, but which they also now have a lot of personal reasons to keep following the main plot thread), there is plenty of room for them to explore outside the primary quest in each session. We've had some amazing role play in the campaign, maybe the best this group has ever had. And it's also changed things. NPCs who should still be in the campaign are now gone, but the structure is loose enough to let me get around those things.

A close second is the monster design. If this is what we can expect from the 2024MM, I can't freaking wait. And the adventure puts together set piece combats with those monsters that are TOUGH and we're even playtesting the no monster crit rules. Most of these have even been single encounter days, and they are pushing the group to the limit. We've had 1 character death (and a session with a replacement before the original got resurrected), 1 near TPK, and at least 1 PC at 0HP per combat. The combat that start's todays session could well be a TPK if the PCs don't play smartly.

Ultimately, the frame that Spelljammer comes with I think makes it both more accessible to a less experienced group, and less restrictive to a more experienced one. It doesn't necessarily READ great, but it PLAYS wonderfully. And I expect that should the group make it to the end, they would want to keep adventuring in space, and that I could keep it going without any additional DMs guild materials.

The construction of the random encounter tables is superb, for example, and lead to a multitude of possibilities for what happens even if the same encounter was rolled twice. For example, last session, while in the Astral Sea, they just happened to not only encounter a Solar, but a hostile one (total odds of that were 1 in 1,200). Take away the adventure rails and just go Spelljamming around the multiverse, and those encounter tables alone could make sessions for another 10 levels, or an even an entire campaign.
 

Related Articles


Latest threads


AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Upcoming Releases

Top