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.

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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?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Stormonu

Legend
It is hard to explain, but like ... now you have the forgotten realms. They were their own thing. And suddenly you have Spelljammer there that was and is supposed to be there since forever and like everybody important knows about it and Space is full with stuff and a very busy place. But it doesn't have any impact on the forgotten realms. There are no space faring nations in the forgotten realms, nobody who is exploiting space, but suddenly wildspace is very important.
It does not feel organically integrated in the other settings.
I feel that I as a DM would have to change so many things to integrate an existing setting into Spelljammer that I just could create my own setting or go the Ebberon-Way with Spelljamming as something new.
Nah, FR is like Tatooine for Spelljamming - “If there’s a bright center of the universe, Toril’s is the furthest planet away”.

In old 2E Spelljammer, as I recall, the elves (of Evermeet) were the main spacefaring race, and they pretty deliberately kept both knowledge of Spelljamming and use of Spelljamming pretty low-key. (“This planet is out-of-bounds for interaction with the greater Elvin Armada and we will apply heavy tariffs and inspections to any space-faring beings going or coming from here. We’ve marooned the goblinoids of this planet and don’t need another Inhuman War if they get off-planet.”). Its been a while since I read the source material, but I seem to recall that Waterdeep, Calimshan and Shou Lung/Wa were just (re)discovering Spelljamming - and giving the elves fits with their push into space.
 

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Hussar

Legend
Considering how easy it is for I do planar travel, I’m not really sure how influential spelljamming would actually be.
 


It is hard to explain, but like ... now you have the forgotten realms. They were their own thing. And suddenly you have Spelljammer there that was and is supposed to be there since forever and like everybody important knows about it and Space is full with stuff and a very busy place. But it doesn't have any impact on the forgotten realms. There are no space faring nations in the forgotten realms, nobody who is exploiting space, but suddenly wildspace is very important.
It does not feel organically integrated in the other settings.
I feel that I as a DM would have to change so many things to integrate an existing setting into Spelljammer that I just could create my own setting or go the Ebberon-Way with Spelljamming as something new.

There are some FR nations with Spelljammers, including Wa and Evermeet, among others. Wa I think even had a colony on Garden one of the strange Planets of Realmspace.
 

DaffCon1

Professional Lurker
As I've said before, I've long been a fan of Spelljammer, since the 2E set came out... But I've always felt that one of the failings of Spelljammer was that there didn't seem to be much consideration for the impact of spelljamming on groundling nations.

You'd be able to create accurate, planet-wide maps with just a few days of work. Sure, you wouldn't necessarily know that this large community is called Biggzittee or that it's the capital of Ovairyondur, but you'd know the city is there, how far from the coast it is, what rivers were nearby, and how to navigate to that distance coast.

Distant nations -- and their goods -- would become a suborbital hop away. Why bother with journeys of weeks or even months, lugging mass quantities of trade goods, when you can take a shipload of stuff and be there in less than a day?

And then there's the military implications. Even if you stick to ground-based infantry and cavalry, just a couple of spelljamming ships and a few days' time can put a sizeable force within striking distance of a particular objective, without all the bother of marching there and tangling with the opposing troops betwixt here and there.

Spelljammer was my first love of D&D settings, but I've always recognized that it had its flaws.
 

Von Ether

Legend
As I've said before, I've long been a fan of Spelljammer, since the 2E set came out... But I've always felt that one of the failings of Spelljammer was that there didn't seem to be much consideration for the impact of spelljamming on groundling nations.

You'd be able to create accurate, planet-wide maps with just a few days of work. Sure, you wouldn't necessarily know that this large community is called Biggzittee or that it's the capital of Ovairyondur, but you'd know the city is there, how far from the coast it is, what rivers were nearby, and how to navigate to that distance coast.

Distant nations -- and their goods -- would become a suborbital hop away. Why bother with journeys of weeks or even months, lugging mass quantities of trade goods, when you can take a shipload of stuff and be there in less than a day?

And then there's the military implications. Even if you stick to ground-based infantry and cavalry, just a couple of spelljamming ships and a few days' time can put a sizeable force within striking distance of a particular objective, without all the bother of marching there and tangling with the opposing troops betwixt here and there.

Spelljammer was my first love of D&D settings, but I've always recognized that it had its flaws.

That was SJ's main issue, TSR's implementation tried to have the best of both worlds (and maybe also a lack of direction to the creatives.) SJ was
both Swashbuckling, (Use your ship to jump through the tower's window to make an entrance) and Naval/Merchant 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?) And in typical TSR Old School, it wasn't spelled out. It was expected that GM got all the implied references and would know how to chose one or the other, know how to reinforce said choice at the table or when to switch between the two.

On the other hand, Monte Cook just did a great article on how world building can go too far sometimes.
 
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Hussar

Legend
As I've said before, I've long been a fan of Spelljammer, since the 2E set came out... But I've always felt that one of the failings of Spelljammer was that there didn't seem to be much consideration for the impact of spelljamming on groundling nations.

You'd be able to create accurate, planet-wide maps with just a few days of work. Sure, you wouldn't necessarily know that this large community is called Biggzittee or that it's the capital of Ovairyondur, but you'd know the city is there, how far from the coast it is, what rivers were nearby, and how to navigate to that distance coast.

Distant nations -- and their goods -- would become a suborbital hop away. Why bother with journeys of weeks or even months, lugging mass quantities of trade goods, when you can take a shipload of stuff and be there in less than a day?

And then there's the military implications. Even if you stick to ground-based infantry and cavalry, just a couple of spelljamming ships and a few days' time can put a sizeable force within striking distance of a particular objective, without all the bother of marching there and tangling with the opposing troops betwixt here and there.

Spelljammer was my first love of D&D settings, but I've always recognized that it had its flaws.
Well, to be fair, that's a problem with D&D full stop. D&D has never really taken the implications of D&D into account when world building. There are a thousand threads on this site alone discussing the various implications (depending on edition) of all sorts of things on a game world.

It's largely why I'm very much not a world builder. The worlds of D&D are barely functional as it is. They are mostly nonsensical.

I mean, heck, you talk about mapping the world. There are worlds with airborne cavalry - they should have unbelievably accurate maps. If you've had flying cavalry for a couple of centuries, you'd have the entire land for several days around you mapped down to the square foot.

It's just one of those things that I largely put a great big blanket over and ignore. :D

-----

I did just pick up the Spelljammer set this week. I totally get why folks are pissed about how light it is. It IS really light. Fortunately, there's just enough there to get things goings and there's so much out there on the Internet that details stuff if you actually want to dive into the setting. The set is basically just a module - it's closer to something like Dragon Heist in that sense - it's kinda a setting guide, and there's bits and bobs, mostly buried in the modules and the monster book rather than the player's guide to make a more canon style Spelljammer setting.

My setting is going to be 99% home-brew, so, I'm not too disappointed. There's a decent beastiary, there's a couple of bits from the module I can adapt and the players guide is slim enough that I can actually kinda expect my players to read it.

On the plus side, HOLY CRAP are the home brew crowds going nuts over this. Reddit's D&D maps section has some absolutely GORGEOUS maps for this. And there are lots of sites out there that do have all sorts of ideas. My main bad guys at the moment are clockwork automatons that are half borg, half Cylon, able to impersonate people and infiltrate before assimilating. Insert Demonic Laughter HERE
 


Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Well, to be fair, that's a problem with D&D full stop. D&D has never really taken the implications of D&D into account when world building. There are a thousand threads on this site alone discussing the various implications (depending on edition) of all sorts of things on a game world.

It's largely why I'm very much not a world builder. The worlds of D&D are barely functional as it is. They are mostly nonsensical.

I mean, heck, you talk about mapping the world. There are worlds with airborne cavalry - they should have unbelievably accurate maps. If you've had flying cavalry for a couple of centuries, you'd have the entire land for several days around you mapped down to the square foot.

It's just one of those things that I largely put a great big blanket over and ignore. :D

-----

I did just pick up the Spelljammer set this week. I totally get why folks are pissed about how light it is. It IS really light. Fortunately, there's just enough there to get things goings and there's so much out there on the Internet that details stuff if you actually want to dive into the setting. The set is basically just a module - it's closer to something like Dragon Heist in that sense - it's kinda a setting guide, and there's bits and bobs, mostly buried in the modules and the monster book rather than the player's guide to make a more canon style Spelljammer setting.

My setting is going to be 99% home-brew, so, I'm not too disappointed. There's a decent beastiary, there's a couple of bits from the module I can adapt and the players guide is slim enough that I can actually kinda expect my players to read it.

On the plus side, HOLY CRAP are the home brew crowds going nuts over this. Reddit's D&D maps section has some absolutely GORGEOUS maps for this. And there are lots of sites out there that do have all sorts of ideas. My main bad guys at the moment are clockwork automatons that are half borg, half Cylon, able to impersonate people and infiltrate before assimilating. Insert Demonic Laughter HERE
That does sound very cool.
 

Von Ether

Legend
Well, to be fair, that's a problem with D&D full stop. D&D has never really taken the implications of D&D into account when world building. There are a thousand threads on this site alone discussing the various implications (depending on edition) of all sorts of things on a game world.

It's largely why I'm very much not a world builder. The worlds of D&D are barely functional as it is. They are mostly nonsensical.
As far as worldbuilding goers: This sort of goes the root of it all.-- Spell slot mechanics for any edition of D&D don't connect to the fiction of magic the worldbuilding implies. Eberron gets close, which is why it's one of my faves, but that's because the setting was built to reflect the system as compared to most settings that are shoehorned into D&D.

Try adding anything like ley lines, magic null zone or magic flavor zones and things get clunky quickly and/or you've messed with a spellcasting class so much it's not much fun to play with. Correct me if I am wrong but even on Athas, the "effect" of despoiling is just how much acreage you killed off of instead of the amount of nearby vegetation should limit what magic you could do. The city of Sharn's connection to the elemental plane of air is just being able to build skyscrapers. As a player in the 80s - 90s this bugged me to no end.

As a GM in the 21st century, I recognize the spell slot system (If you want true Vancian magic, check out Amber Diceless), is predictable and works. While the choices change in every edition of D&D (or do they Mr. Fireball?), you pretty much know what spells your players are going to pick and in which order. And for some GMs that's a blessing right there.
 

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