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

Hussar

Legend
For better or worse, however, I came into D&D largely through 2e, so that's the style I prefer. Mechanically, I'm good with 1e, 2e, 3e or 5e (though 5e is closest in officialdom), but for everything else I like 2e.
That's fair.

And, adding a later thought. I wonder if there is some overlap in the venn diagrams between starting date and how much lore is important to you. I mean, I started back in 1e when there wasn't much of any lore. At least not comparitively. When I started playing Basic/Expert D&D, the sum total of D&D lore available was about 120 pages. Plus Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread I suppose. It would be some years before TSR would start banging out lore books like Dragonlance Adventures. Even things like the Greyhawk boxed set were very, very light. The GH boxed set book is what, 60 pages? If that? Outside of modules, and I suppose Dragon magazine, there just wasn't any lore.

By the time 2e started gaining a lot of steam in the lore department, I had already made several home brew campaign worlds. So, I had pretty much zero interest in established worlds. Even my love of Greyhawk is much more due to the fact that there is so little actual lore about Greyhawk. It's such a wide open setting.
 
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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
That's fair.

And, adding a later thought. I wonder if there is some overlap in the venn diagrams between starting date and how much lore is important to you.
I expect there's very much a connection here. For example, I came into D&D in the 2e era and mostly from the Dragonlance novels, so lore is a big deal to me right off the bat. I've always been a fan of how game mechanics reinforce worldbuilding, too, and the Dragonlance setting, though its various incarnations and editions, is a great case study in how that works.

I also vastly prefer the 2nd Edition Spelljammer lore, both because it's where I started and because I love the idea of approaching a world as if long-since-debunked ideas like Ptolemaic physics were actually baseline reality. Swapping out the phlogiston for the Astral makes some sort of economic sense, but is a far less interesting approach IMO. I prefer a planar setup where those on the Prime [Material] plane don't need to leave it to travel between worlds. Despite the obviously magical nature of Spelljamming helms, Spelljamming always seemed like the more technological approach to travel, as opposed to magically jumping planes.

It's a different sort of basis for adventure.
 

Mean Eyed Cat

Explorer
I'm currently running a 5E Spelljammer game and I'm really enjoying it. Yes, the new 5E SJ books are "lacking" but, IMHO, they can be fixed with a little effort. My game started with 1st level characters and we used the free Spelljammer Academy adventure found on the DnD Beyond site. Since the connection between SJA and Light of Xaryxis is a little "abrupt," I'm using an adventure called "Orc Chief's Throne" I found over on DM's Guild. This is a nice bridge because it also offers an opportunity for the characters to get their own SJ ship. Finally, I'm using another document I found on the DM's Guild called "Spelljammer Combat Expanded." This pulls vehicle combat stuff from Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Descent into Avernus and streamlines it - fixing the rules in Astral Adventurer's Guide. So far my players and I have been pretty happy with how the game is turning out.
 
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see

Pedantic Grognard
I don’t know what edition you play,
I've played 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, and 5th. My usual assumption on this board (since this isn't the "D&D Older Editions" board) is that we're all talking about 5th edition, but that doesn't particularly matter here, because . . .

but for my group the astral plane has always been the method used to travel to/from/across the outer planes using astral barges.
. . . in literally no canonical version of the Great Wheel (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, or 5th) are "astral barges", or anything like them, a common way to travel to, from, or across the Outer Planes.

So there aren't any "astral barge rules" that could be subsumed into Spelljammer, and accordingly 5e Spelljammer did not do that.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
I've played 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, and 5th. My usual assumption on this board (since this isn't the "D&D Older Editions" board) is that we're all talking about 5th edition, but that doesn't particularly matter here, because . . .


. . . in literally no canonical version of the Great Wheel (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, or 5th) are "astral barges", or anything like them, a common way to travel to, from, or across the Outer Planes.

So there aren't any "astral barge rules" that could be subsumed into Spelljammer, and accordingly 5e Spelljammer did not do that.
I think one of the previous editions (it might have been 4th) does reference ships in the Astral Plane, and before that there was a wonderful article in Dragon Magazine issue#159 (back in early 2e in a Spelljammer-themed issue) that dealt with the same thing.
 

see

Pedantic Grognard
I think one of the previous editions (it might have been 4th) does reference ships in the Astral Plane, and before that there was a wonderful article in Dragon Magazine issue#159 (back in early 2e in a Spelljammer-themed issue) that dealt with the same thing.
Yes, there's a reason I explicitly specified "canonical version of the Great Wheel" and "a common way".
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Yes, there's a reason I explicitly specified "canonical version of the Great Wheel" and "a common way".
Fair enough. The Astral ships stuff is cool though, although I agree with the poster you're responding to that the Phlogiston and the Astral should remain separate. I already found a workaround I like should I run Spelljammer.
 

VelvetViolet

Adventurer
Fair enough. The Astral ships stuff is cool though, although I agree with the poster you're responding to that the Phlogiston and the Astral should remain separate. I already found a workaround I like should I run Spelljammer.
I actually think the cosmology needs to rebuilt from the ground up with actual planning in mind. The ad hoc design just leads to nonsensical results.

The astral has always been the transitive plane used to travel between the material plane and the outer planes. If you use it for interstellar travel too, then you open the possibility for travel to heaven and hell as if they were planets. (See the latest Thor movie for examples.) Assuming you intend to be consistent with your own internal logic. Is that the intention, or isn’t it?
 

SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
I actually think the cosmology needs to rebuilt from the ground up with actual planning in mind. The ad hoc design just leads to nonsensical results.

The astral has always been the transitive plane used to travel between the material plane and the outer planes. If you use it for interstellar travel too, then you open the possibility for travel to heaven and hell as if they were planets. (See the latest Thor movie for examples.) Assuming you intend to be consistent with your own internal logic. Is that the intention, or isn’t it?
My heavens and hells are planets. (Waaay before Thor movies though...)
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
I think one of the previous editions (it might have been 4th) does reference ships in the Astral Plane, and before that there was a wonderful article in Dragon Magazine issue#159 (back in early 2e in a Spelljammer-themed issue) that dealt with the same thing.
Ships on the Astral Sea have been a Thing since 2e, though 4e did give that concept a lot more space to breathe than 2e and 3e did.
The astral has always been the transitive plane used to travel between the material plane and the outer planes. If you use it for interstellar travel too, then you open the possibility for travel to heaven and hell as if they were planets.
This is pretty much how 4e worked. Though honestly, 2e and 3e weren't much different. Given the prominence of color pools, which allowed one to travel to an Outer Plane from the Astral Plane, and which have been one of the defining characteristics of the Astral in every edition (even 4e had "color veils"), one of the main purposes of going to the Astral Plane for adventuring parties was to get to the Outer Planes (or "astral dominions" in 4e).
I also vastly prefer the 2nd Edition Spelljammer lore, both because it's where I started and because I love the idea of approaching a world as if long-since-debunked ideas like Ptolemaic physics were actually baseline reality. Swapping out the phlogiston for the Astral makes some sort of economic sense, but is a far less interesting approach IMO. I prefer a planar setup where those on the Prime [Material] plane don't need to leave it to travel between worlds. Despite the obviously magical nature of Spelljamming helms, Spelljamming always seemed like the more technological approach to travel, as opposed to magically jumping planes.
I don't personally miss the phlogiston much as an adventuring locale. Not that I disliked it. SJ is such an unusual setting that "go through this flamable gas to reach your destination" is just something I took in stride. I do like the Astral with its dead gods and githyanki pirates and divine dominions as an addition to the setting, though. The phlogiston didn't have much in it (a few monsters and a tendency to blow up are all that really stick in my mind). Especially with the 4e material I'm using, the astral has a lot of material that adds interesting wrinkles to the setting. Like, my first session had a rastipede / deva romance that played both with the idea of rastipedes being loyal corpos (cribbing a bit of the vrusk lore) to make the villain interesting (a rastipede that defied their organization!) and deva reincarnation to give a bit of pathos (a deva who believed she could change him). That mashup was a lot of fun! Though I wouldn't mind adding some kind of phlogiston back to my game...perhaps more as an alchemical substance than as hyperspace, though.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Your Turn: Did you create or borrow rules from other systems to play in your Spelljammer campaign?
I bought the new Spelljammer boxed set and after reading through it I realized that I'd have to pull out my 2e stuff if I really wanted to run a Spelljammer campaign with any depth to it. The only thing the new set did for me was provide a few monsters and give me the Astral Sea. My Spelljammer will still have crystal spheres, but they float in the Astral Sea rather than the phlogiston.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I bought the new Spelljammer boxed set and after reading through it I realized that I'd have to pull out my 2e stuff if I really wanted to run a Spelljammer campaign with any depth to it. The only thing the new set did for me was provide a few monsters and give me the Astral Sea. My Spelljammer will still have crystal spheres, but they float in the Astral Sea rather than the phlogiston.
Personally, I'm replacing the Crystal Spheres with Astral Curtains. Dark Sun is likely to be the only one with a Crystal/metal shell around it in my personal cosmology (and I'm not using Doomspace as Dark Sun's system).

And while the Spelljammer book is shallow, there is enough there to run it without grabbing the 2E books or knowing about the old campaign set - but having them does help add extra details if you've got them.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Personally, I'm replacing the Crystal Spheres with Astral Curtains. Dark Sun is likely to be the only one with a Crystal/metal shell around it in my personal cosmology (and I'm not using Doomspace as Dark Sun's system).

And while the Spelljammer book is shallow, there is enough there to run it without grabbing the 2E books or knowing about the old campaign set - but having them does help add extra details if you've got them.
That depends on what your priorities are. If you want to run a fun, casual game of adventure and cool visuals, then 5e Spelljammer provides everything you need. I am always looking for depth and a feeling of verisimilitude in every game I run, so to me this product is woefully incomplete and not nearly worth what they are asking for it.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
And while the Spelljammer book is shallow, there is enough there to run it without grabbing the 2E books or knowing about the old campaign set - but having them does help add extra details if you've got them.
To me it the new Spelljammer is runnable in the same way that a setting idea my buddy was kicking around and described to me over lunch would be runnable. I could do it, but there wouldn't be a lot below the surface, and that doesn't cut it for me and the the settings that I run.
 

Von Ether

Legend
To me it the new Spelljammer is runnable in the same way that a setting idea my buddy was kicking around and described to me over lunch would be runnable. I could do it, but there wouldn't be a lot below the surface, and that doesn't cut it for me and the the settings that I run.

I appreciate world building but I go in cycles because my player group pretty much focuses on the task at hand. Any depth or call back more than a couple of months out are lost on them. It's also a trope at this point.


So some settings I run are much lighter on since I'm the only one that would be enjoying depth it provides.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I appreciate world building but I go in cycles because my player group pretty much focuses on the task at hand. Any depth or call back more than a couple of months out are lost on them. It's also a trope at this point.


So some settings I run are much lighter on since I'm the only one that would be enjoying depth it provides.
Yeah. Even if I'm the only one that sees it, the depth allows me to bring in specific places, NPCs, and information that the PCs are looking for that I wouldn't have handy without that depth. I could make it up, but if I have to make up too much, I might as well just make up the entire setting and save the $70. :)
 

Von Ether

Legend
Yeah. Even if I'm the only one that sees it, the depth allows me to bring in specific places, NPCs, and information that the PCs are looking for that I wouldn't have handy without that depth. I could make it up, but if I have to make up too much, I might as well just make up the entire setting and save the $70. :)
All valid points. Every table and GM is different
 

DaffCon1

Professional Lurker
I was a huge fan of the original Spelljammer, despite its flaws (and I'll admit, there were a fair number of them).

I got this set for $40 from Amazon.

I spent way too much, for what I got. The rules were sparse and created new issues, and there's barely a framework in place for doing anything, here. One of the many changes they made, with simplifying the rules, is that these magically-propelled flying ships now move at walking speed. Sure, I get that real-world sailing ships were slow, but they were also dependent on wind. 5E Spelljammers are powered ships and they can't outrun an angry halfling. (Obviously, this refers to being on a world and not in wildspace or the Astral, but making planetary envelopes bigger means ships will spend way more time landing/taking off than they did before -- weeks instead of hours! Rules as written, you could land your ship way faster by letting it fall from the sky and then powering up for a controlled landing, instead of making a controlled descent the entire way)

One description I saw (perhaps elsewhere on these forums) was that this set was a campaign setting without the setting -- and I think that's a great description.

If I ever run anything Spelljammer, I'm sticking almost entirely with the 2E rules. I like this version's cheaper prices for helms, but that's about the only improvement on the old material.

Also, this new version has evil space clowns with ray guns. That's a painful idea before you find out it's pretty much a direct ripoff of a cheesy 80s/90s horror flick. I can't stand how the current "design" team loves to reach for pop culture and old movie references and then beat us in the face with them. Others will likely disagree with me, but I personally feel this is insulting and shows WotC's lack of respect for their target demographic.

This product also demonstrates something I've been saying about WotC for a while: they're not creating anything, anymore. They grab some existing property, update the rules for 5E, and throw it out there with little or no further effort. The upcoming Dragonlance book is an excellent example of that: we've already had adventures, novels, source material, and even comic books covering the War of the Lance -- and rather than doing something new with the setting, they're going right back to the War of the Lance.

Once upon a time, the day a new WotC product was released, I would rush out on my lunch break and buy it, despite the fact that I'd only have a few minutes before the end of my work day to look at it. Now, WotC gets very little of my gaming money. Paizo gets more than WotC does, and Kobold Press and Kickstarter get more than either Paizo or WotC.

Someone else said above that WotC is resting on their laurels. I very much agree. Name recognition has been a large part of D&D's success for a long time, now, and I feel the people at WotC are counting on that name recognition to make up for a lack of effort on their part.
 

I can't stand how the current "design" team loves to reach for pop culture and old movie references and then beat us in the face with them. Others will likely disagree with me, but I personally feel this is insulting and shows WotC's lack of respect for their target demographic.

Yeah, I’m not planning on using Space clowns, although I didn’t know it was a movie reference so I didn’t really feel like I was being beaten in the face by anything.

Out of interest, what do you see as the target demographic?
 

DaffCon1

Professional Lurker
Yeah, I’m not planning on using Space clowns, although I didn’t know it was a movie reference so I didn’t really feel like I was being beaten in the face by anything.

Out of interest, what do you see as the target demographic?

I didn't know it was a movie reference until I looked for it -- but still, evil space clowns with ray guns? Even not knowing that was a movie reference, it was still so far out there that it drew attention to itself.

As for the target demographic, I'm honestly not sure. It seems to be that they want a younger crowd that wants disposable settings -- no depth or substance, just the most basic info. It seems the intent is to use it once or twice and then move on to something else.

This is my personal impression, based on what they've been producing. I could very well be wrong. However, I am quite comfortable saying that people who want to come up with their own adventures in richly detailed settings are most definitely not WotC's target demographic.

I think that Paizo and Kobold Press are among the companies showing that that latter demographic is large enough to make a profit off of, but WotC (or someone at Hasbro) has decided to go in a different direction.
 

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