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

Faolyn

(she/her)
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.
I think it's more that the people who write the D&D fiction don't adhere to the actual mechanics.
 

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Hussar

Legend
I think it's more that the people who write the D&D fiction don't adhere to the actual mechanics.
Or, to put it another way - the settings are built without really paying much attention to the game itself. "Here are some cool ideas for this setting - now, go make it work." is about the level of world building that most setting books aspire to IME. It really all comes right around between the tension between setting fiction and game design. Because those two things are always, always in tension.
 

talien

Community Supporter
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.
One of my favorite ways to deal with things is bureaucracy. I have "sky elves" in my world (which at one point had a thriving Spelljammer component) who now consider anything flying to be off limits and demand anyone flying to have a license that they provide at a very steep price. The elven sky fleet are the remnants of a much larger fleet that is now grounded, and they live on their ships. They consider groundlings beneath them in the most patronizing way possible, and they gleefully shoot down anyone who invents flying technology or otherwise abuses it. They are my excuse for why any one nation hasn't used magic or steampunk tech to just invade everyone else.

And when push comes to shove, they use the bombing tactic @lewpuls has mentioned in the past (Worlds of Design: Death from Above), which is pretty effective at reinforcing why you don't want to mess with the elven fleet.
 

Von Ether

Legend
I think it's more that the people who write the D&D fiction don't adhere to the actual mechanics.

Or to stop the buck where it needs to stop, the IP holders, TSR and WotC, have never made that a priority for some reason, even when they used writers like Ed Greenwood who created the settings. Settings that, for the most part, don't really address how magical energies actually work.

Pure speculation on my part, while spell slots work as a mechanic, they're a bit too constricting for the pulpy style of fiction the company is going for.

OTH, after decades of fantasy fiction, we now have Brandon Sanderson doing "hard magic," i.e. highly codified magical laws, in his world. Though I get the impression most of his magics could be done with mana points and skill checks.

Just a quick thought that came to me ... I don't know if a culture that used spell slots would label them the same way way D&D does. Perhaps the mage would think of "tiers" of spells he can learn to build his mental "pyramid." Just a crazy off the cuff idea.

In fact, one of the closest settings to embrace spell slots is the Gyre in Kevin Crawford's Worlds Without Number OSR game. It's a Dying Earth setting and magic works the way it does because the whole world is artificial and whatever post-nanotech that makes magic work is damaged enough these bits of dogma are how the technology can predictably react. Tech doesn't work because the same tech interferes with something that might be able to control it.
 
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Stormonu

Legend
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.
There were some guidelines for vegetation/life you needed for spells, but it was pretty much a "mother-may-I" sort of situation, depending where the DM had you. Deep sand-dune desert? You're hosed. City of Tyr? Take out a few plebs or risk drawing from Kalak's gardens and getting his attention...
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
Or, to put it another way - the settings are built without really paying much attention to the game itself. "Here are some cool ideas for this setting - now, go make it work." is about the level of world building that most setting books aspire to IME. It really all comes right around between the tension between setting fiction and game design. Because those two things are always, always in tension.
This plus the need to keep things "medieval fantasy."
 

Von Ether

Legend
Exactly, there's a reason the setting closest to meeting the bar is Eberron, it threw Medieval Fantasy right out the window. It's also not a surprise that Eberron also added pulpy action/noir.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
One of my favorite ways to deal with things is bureaucracy. I have "sky elves" in my world (which at one point had a thriving Spelljammer component) who now consider anything flying to be off limits and demand anyone flying to have a license that they provide at a very steep price. The elven sky fleet are the remnants of a much larger fleet that is now grounded, and they live on their ships. They consider groundlings beneath them in the most patronizing way possible, and they gleefully shoot down anyone who invents flying technology or otherwise abuses it. They are my excuse for why any one nation hasn't used magic or steampunk tech to just invade everyone else.

And when push comes to shove, they use the bombing tactic @lewpuls has mentioned in the past (Worlds of Design: Death from Above), which is pretty effective at reinforcing why you don't want to mess with the elven fleet.
Do your elves have a problem with flying mounts, or just flying vehicles?
 

talien

Community Supporter
Do your elves have a problem with flying mounts, or just flying vehicles?
They have a problem with anyone flying, period, including giant flying monsters they consider a threat to their domain. But that's not the same thing as dealing with flying mounts, for example. Any single-flyer type stuff (mounts, a wizard casting a fly spell) is unlikely to be noticed unless he's foolish enough to do it in front of a giant insectoid elf ship. But if word got out that there were griffon riders, dirigibles carrying gliders, or someone created their own airships (all things that have happened in my campaign), the elven sky fleet shows up to do something about it.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
They have a problem with anyone flying, period, including giant flying monsters they consider a threat to their domain. But that's not the same thing as dealing with flying mounts, for example. Any single-flyer type stuff (mounts, a wizard casting a fly spell) is unlikely to be noticed unless he's foolish enough to do it in front of a giant insectoid elf ship. But if word got out that there were griffon riders, dirigibles carrying gliders, or someone created their own airships (all things that have happened in my campaign), the elven sky fleet shows up to do something about it.
Pretty cool. My friends and I came up with a setting where the elves have flying cities and everyone else is on the ground, but we haven't really talked about their attitudes towards others who fly. One of the other races is the aarakocra, but I think they mostly work for the elves.
 

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