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
Your Turn: Did you create or borrow rules from other systems to play in your Spelljammer campaign?

I haven’t run Spelljammer yet, (although this book-set really makes me want to) there‘s enough material here for me to run Dark Sun instead so I’m currently planning that, a couple of story arcs worth at least.

Personally I don’t need detailed ship to ship combat rules, as some people have pointed out in various threads, this is usually not that interesting to players. I tend to skip to the boarding part where the action starts.

I got the alternate covers and honestly the book(s) are a thing of beauty. I think we’ve entered the coffee table book era of D&D where the books feel as much like art objects as they do game manuals and I can’t wait for Planescape next year.

I’m already thinking I might have to save up for a case of miniatures when they come out, I went a bit nuts getting Spelljammer minis last weekend.
 

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VelvetViolet

Adventurer
By that time the new DMG will be right around the corner. They might not feel beholden to the cosmology in the 2014 version.
The cosmology wasn’t fixed in place. They recapped the various cosmologies that were default for some edition or prominent suggestions. The great wheel is treated as the implicit cosmology in 5e, but since WotC doesn’t write planar adventures it’s purely academic at this point.

Making a stripped down setting that reduces the number of outer planes to 9, combines all the elemental planes into one, combines the ethereal and astral planes, or whatever… that would require more effort that just recapping the gist of PS and leaving it up to licensed products to fill the gaps.

I’m not a fan of letting licensed products fill the gap because it’s lazy and leads to annoying inconsistencies. IIRC, eladrins and guardinals have been retconned to fey but the planar bestiaries on DM Guild ignore that and just adapt the 2e cosmology without adjustment.

I really would like the cosmology to be simplified (at least from a top-down perspective; the individual geography can still be infinite and varied) because, nostalgia aside, the MotP cosmology is an overcomplicated mess created by nerds with severe OCD. I vastly prefer cosmologies like 4e’s World Axis or the hypothetical Omniverse cosmology. But the amount of work involved would be extensive and I don’t see modern WotC going to that effort.

I think they’re just going to recap the gist of PS with minor changes and a ton of glossing over that they’ll expect DM Guild to detail for them. The faction war and its aftermath will probably be ignored, not that I expect anyone to be unhappy about that. It will probably be disappointing to Planescape fans, much like how the other previous 2e revivals have generally been disappointing to fans.

At this point I’d be more excited if WotC licensed out crpgs in these settings. Stone Prophet II, Pirates of Realmspace II, Torment II, whatever
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
The cosmology wasn’t fixed in place. They recapped the various cosmologies that were default for some edition or prominent suggestions. The great wheel is treated as the implicit cosmology in 5e, but since WotC doesn’t write planar adventures it’s purely academic at this point.

Making a stripped down setting that reduces the number of outer planes to 9, combines all the elemental planes into one, combines the ethereal and astral planes, or whatever… that would require more effort that just recapping the gist of PS and leaving it up to licensed products to fill the gaps.

I’m not a fan of letting licensed products fill the gap because it’s lazy and leads to annoying inconsistencies. IIRC, eladrins and guardinals have been retconned to fey but the planar bestiaries on DM Guild ignore that and just adapt the 2e cosmology without adjustment.

I really would like the cosmology to be simplified (at least from a top-down perspective; the individual geography can still be infinite and varied) because, nostalgia aside, the MotP cosmology is an overcomplicated mess created by nerds with severe OCD. I vastly prefer cosmologies like 4e’s World Axis or the hypothetical Omniverse cosmology. But the amount of work involved would be extensive and I don’t see modern WotC going to that effort.

I think they’re just going to recap the gist of PS with minor changes and a ton of glossing over that they’ll expect DM Guild to detail for them. The faction war and its aftermath will probably be ignored, not that I expect anyone to be unhappy about that. It will probably be disappointing to Planescape fans, much like how the other previous 2e revivals have generally been disappointing to fans.

At this point I’d be more excited if WotC licensed out crpgs in these settings. Stone Prophet II, Pirates of Realmspace II, Torment II, whatever
See, I do like that, because I prefer the 2e cosmology and don't like what later editions did to it.
 

Hussar

Legend
I had a thought about how to make ship combat a bit more fun.

If the gravity planes are somewhat unstable at the edges - as in the get progressively more unstable the further from the ship you are, then ranged weapons wouldn’t work. Impossible to aim. Add in the idea that spells cannot cross gravity plane bubbles and now ship combat always starts at boarding.

I think that’s how I will do it.
 

dave2008

Legend
Unless my players make a decision to split the party up or agree to stand on the sidelines while one PC does something relevant to the adventure, I always try to keep the party together and keep the players engaged. Nothings worse than seeing a player on their phone or disinterested with glazed over eyes.

Im currently working on a Spelljammer adventure to actually kick the tires on the 5E version to see if it plays better than it reads. Im going to give the players each their own Mosquito ships. The name on the side is going to be Dak and Porkins.
I've given Dark Matter and WildJammer a quick look and if you want ship to ship combat you should give it a look. 5e Spelljammer is set up more for boarding party battles then ship to ship combat. Of course, as @Micah Sweet said, you then have to have PC's assume specific roles on the ship. Something my players have never liked, so maybe having your own Mosquito is the way to go (but then I would use the Ship & Ship combat rules in Wildjammer or Dark Matter).
 

I've given Dark Matter and WildJammer a quick look and if you want ship to ship combat you should give it a look. 5e Spelljammer is set up more for boarding party battles then ship to ship combat. Of course, as @Micah Sweet said, you then have to have PC's assume specific roles on the ship. Something my players have never liked, so maybe having your own Mosquito is the way to go (but then I would use the Ship & Ship combat rules in Wildjammer or Dark Matter).
Dark Matter, that was Alternity's X-Files setting right? I liked that one. Alternity was the precursor to 3E IMO. We can make up whatever rules we need for ship-to-ship combat so I'm not worried but to leave that out of a SJ product is just heinous.
 

VelvetViolet

Adventurer
See, I do like that, because I prefer the 2e cosmology and don't like what later editions did to it.
My first problem with the great wheel cosmology is that the planes were added for the sake of OCD rather than as places you could actually adventure in. The transitive and inner planes get the worst of it. (Especially the paraplanes and quasiplanes, which got silly fast.) The only time the elemental planes have ever looked interesting to me is the Mystara take that gave them actual geography or the 4e take that combined them into one elemental plane and then combined that with the planes of chaos.

My second problem is that the inhabitants have about as much thought put into them. Limbo is remarkably sparse on races when you would expect it to have a plethora of inhabitants beyond slaad and chaos beasts. The fiend and celestial races lack any kind of unifying visual motif to distinguish them from each other, ironically making them making more chaotic than the chaos demons in Warhammer… The “standard” elementals (apparently writers can’t be bothered to give them a name that distinguishes them from the elemental type) are visually boring and lazy, even compared to Gen 1 Pokémon like Grimer, Gastly or Voltorb.

But I digress. This is the wrong thread for that.
 

see

Pedantic Grognard
Not to mention that heaven and hell are now reachable by spaceship.
Are they? Where's that said?

The astral dominions of "many" gods can be reached by spelljamming, but the book doesn't say anything about the actual Outer Planes being reachable by ship. The set is clear that these islands and cities are part of the Astral Sea. The implication is that these are specific outposts of the relevant gods, not heaven and hell themselves, divine embassy-ports in the Astral rather than their realms proper.

If you're trying to actually reach an Outer Plane in a ship, well, maybe you can do it if, while on the Astral, you can find a color pool of sufficient diameter to the right plane, but since the mechanics aren't specified anywhere, DM's call whether you can actually take a whole ship through a color pool instead of yourself and reasonable gear. And the way color pools work, you're now stuck on the destination plane, with no obvious way to get your ship back.

(There is an exception in that a nautiloid can plane shift. This is explicitly specific to a nautiloid, per that ship's entry. Thus a DM can easily have a campaign where you go to heaven and hell by spaceship by letting the players get a nautiloid, but it's not the default way Spelljammer works.)
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Dark Matter, that was Alternity's X-Files setting right? I liked that one. Alternity was the precursor to 3E IMO. We can make up whatever rules we need for ship-to-ship combat so I'm not worried but to leave that out of a SJ product is just heinous.
Dark Matter is a science fantasy setting setting created by the 3pp Mage Hand Press. They put out a ton of 5e content, most of it pretty good.

Wildjammer is an independent project, available for free through Reddit, that adapts the Dark Matter rules to the Spelljammer setting.
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
My context: I've recently started a Spelljammer campaign; we're about 4 sessions in and I'm digging it.

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.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the artwork-heavy approach, especially for a setting that leans into the weird as much as Spelljammer does. It really helps illustrate some of the more niche setting-specific content. For most fantasy games, it's not hard to find something to illustrate your concept of "a lady in armor fights a dragon" or whatever. Spelljammer has a lot of idiosyncratic elements that really benefit from an illustration-heavy approach. It's great to be able to use these bits of art as table props.

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.

My own intention is to do Spelljammer for about a year of real-world time and then switch it up. I do like playing most of my D&D campaigns this way - we spend a "season" telling a story about one particular group of characters in one particular plotline over 10 or so levels, and then move onto the next one. So I don't think you're too far off. I like the variety this brings!

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.

I don't know that I lean into the ships as much as you do. My party has a ship that they call their own, and there are ships in the setting, but my campaign isn't about ships. It's about the characters. Their ship serves as a mobile base of operations, and it's cool to own a big mobile base of operations, but mostly it is a way to get from Point A to Point B. I like that there is a lot of ship variety, and that ship-to-ship combat and exploration is a thing. For me, the ship is background to most adventures, and ship-to-ship combat isn't something that's going to happen in every session, so I'm OK with lightweight rules for that. I don't need a lot of options or a lot of detail.

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.

There's definitely a bias toward save-the-world style adventures rather than more episodic fare. My own SJ campaign is highly episodic, though there are arcs throughout the planned sessions (it's taking a very Cowboy Bebop approach).

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?

I am borrowing a lot of stuff from D&D itself, especially 4e, whose Plane Above supplement provides a lot of good ideas for astral adventuring. My campaign has 4e "devas," shardminds, the shattered Living Gate, and astral dominions (as cities important to the gods, rather than as the lairs of the gods). The party is about to go to Kaladdurren, for instance (I probably mangled that spelling).

I think that pairing one big adventure with the setting might've been a bit of a mixed bag, and the idea of including more episodic takes is a pretty good one, since that can also give multiple points of entry and flavors for the setting, rather than putting it all in the D&D Does Flash Gordon basket and hoping that's good enough. DMs can take those episodes as a launching point with a thorough enough setting description.
 

dave2008

Legend
Dark Matter, that was Alternity's X-Files setting right? I liked that one. Alternity was the precursor to 3E IMO. We can make up whatever rules we need for ship-to-ship combat so I'm not worried but to leave that out of a SJ product is just heinous.
AS far as I can tell it doesn't have anything to do with Alternity. It is a 5e SciFi setting: Dark Matter The name comes form the "dark matter" engines that allows ships to jump through space.
 
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Dark Matter is a science fantasy setting setting created by the 3pp Mage Hand Press. They put out a ton of 5e content, most of it pretty good.
I think we are talking about 2 different things maybe. Dark Matter was also a campaign setting which if Im not mistaken started in Alternity from WotC.
 


I pretty much agree with everything in this article. I keep comparing it to the old 2e boxset, which wasn't honestly that much shorter in page length. But without an adventure and a full bestiary, it gave them a lot more room to explore the universe of Spelljammer and give a little more crunch to life in space in that boxset.

I agree with the sentiment that Wizards of the Coast has lost too much of their world building experts. I wish they would have played to their strengths and just given us a Spelljammer adventure book (like Curse of Strahd as the revisit to Ravenloft, as opposed Van Richten's) instead of spreading themselves to thin with 180 pages. Ditto with Planescape: there's no way that they can cover 27 inner, outer, and transitory planes, along with 15 factions, in a 60 page slipcase book!

Thankfully, the ol' 2e stuff seems to hold up. I'm running a Planescape campaign in 5e with the old adventures and boxsets. When I get around to a Spelljammer campaign, I can freely pilfer from the 2e boxsets and adventures.

Once again WotC trying to make every product too many different things, especially bad when it's has an absurdly, embarrassingly low page counts and a lot of space using art.

It leds to a beautiful, but naughty word product. Even Radiant Citadel feels more like an actual setting then this. Oh Hell Witchlight feels more like a setting then this.

The product is a pretty disgrace. Great art and material quality, but the only satifiactory rules are the Player rules, there are enough intriguing bits of lore that end up getting no support or exploration to be frustrating.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Once again WotC trying to make every product too many different things, especially bad when it's has an absurdly, embarrassingly low page counts and a lot of space using art.

It leds to a beautiful, but naughty word product. Even Radiant Citadel feels more like an actual setting then this. Oh Hell Witchlight feels more like a setting then this.

The product is a pretty disgrace. Great art and material quality, but the only satifiactory rules are the Player rules, there are enough intriguing bits of lore that end up getting no support or exploration to be frustrating.
WotC considers player rules far more important than any other kind (or lore), because that's what encourages many people to buy the books.
 

VelvetViolet

Adventurer
Are they? Where's that said?

The astral dominions of "many" gods can be reached by spelljamming, but the book doesn't say anything about the actual Outer Planes being reachable by ship. The set is clear that these islands and cities are part of the Astral Sea. The implication is that these are specific outposts of the relevant gods, not heaven and hell themselves, divine embassy-ports in the Astral rather than their realms proper.

If you're trying to actually reach an Outer Plane in a ship, well, maybe you can do it if, while on the Astral, you can find a color pool of sufficient diameter to the right plane, but since the mechanics aren't specified anywhere, DM's call whether you can actually take a whole ship through a color pool instead of yourself and reasonable gear. And the way color pools work, you're now stuck on the destination plane, with no obvious way to get your ship back.

(There is an exception in that a nautiloid can plane shift. This is explicitly specific to a nautiloid, per that ship's entry. Thus a DM can easily have a campaign where you go to heaven and hell by spaceship by letting the players get a nautiloid, but it's not the default way Spelljammer works.)
I don’t know what edition you play, but for my group the astral plane has always been the method used to travel to/from/across the outer planes using astral barges. I assumed that the change meant the astral barge rules were subsumed into spelljammers and now there was regular trade between the outer planes and the mortal planets now… because otherwise ditching the phlogiston wouldn’t make sense. The astral is to the outer planes what the phlogiston was to the crystal spheres. Unless you’re using the rule that each crystal sphere has its own set of outer planes, which is only true for certain editions or settings.

I hate this cosmology so much
 

Hussar

Legend
WotC considers player rules far more important than any other kind (or lore), because that's what encourages many people to buy the books.
Considering that they've banged out adventures far in excess of player rules, I'd say that this is not particularly true. 15 Adventure Paths, 5 rule books and a couple of setting guides? At least that's my rough count. I'm thinking that perhaps WotC considers being able to play far more important than lore because D&D isn't meant to be read but actually played.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Considering that they've banged out adventures far in excess of player rules, I'd say that this is not particularly true. 15 Adventure Paths, 5 rule books and a couple of setting guides? At least that's my rough count. I'm thinking that perhaps WotC considers being able to play far more important than lore because D&D isn't meant to be read but actually played.
In all fairness, I sometimes think 2e was meant to be read 😉
 



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