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
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 they’re aiming at people that already have the older edition version that can be used together with the new books to flesh things out (not to mention the inclusion of Star Frontiers) AND new players that only need the basics. I think you might be underestimating the imagination and creativity of new and younger players. AND basically anyway that loves homebrew and world building, as I mentioned earlier in the thread, I’m using it to run Dark Sun, but the plan is to mix in plenty of Spelljammer. And I’m having a great time coming up with new ideas using the set as inspiration.

Personally I think my favourite version of Spelljammer was the 3E Shadow of the Spider Moon, but I no longer have it, so it could just be the rose tinting.
 

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Hussar

Legend
/snip

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.
But, there are issue here to consider. Paizo and Kobold Press combined are rounding errors as far as WotC is concerned. We're no longer in the era of the 600 pound gorilla, but, rather, a gorilla all by itself. Note, this has nothing to do with quality or anything like that, but, the considerations for WotC and the considerations for Paizo or Kobold Press are just so different. Your point about the demographic being large enough to make a profit off of presumes that the profits of Paizo or Kobold Press wouldn't be considered an utter and abject failure for a WotC book.

When WotC books are routinely breaking the top fifty of all books on Amazon, even in pre-order, never minding afterward, there just isn't a comparison to be made.

Now, all that being said, I do think you are actually probably right. The WotC settings, outside of Forgotten Realms, are largely one and done. You are expected to play that one adventure path, maybe with some additional stuff from DM's Guild, and then move on. And it's apparently a pretty accurate approach. But, I would note that this has nothing to do with age. I've played this way since the 80's. The idea of playing in the same setting over and over again is completely alien to me. So, I can honestly say, I'M the target demographic. Square in the middle of it to be honest.

To put it in perspective, since 5e was released, I've played or DM'd about ten or eleven campaigns (I'm blanking on one I think it will come to me later) and in the following settings - Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Homebrew, Dragonlance, and Primeval Thule. So, yeah, why would I want a 300 page tome of background material for a setting that I'm going to use once, for one campaign, and then likely never look at again unless it's to mine it for ideas for another campaign setting?
 

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.

Fun being more important than realism sounds like what Spelljammer has always been about. That‘s pretty much the genre of space fantasy.
 

The idea of playing in the same setting over and over again is completely alien to me. So, I can honestly say, I'M the target demographic. Square in the middle of it to be honest.

To put it in perspective, since 5e was released, I've played or DM'd about ten or eleven campaigns (I'm blanking on one I think it will come to me later) and in the following settings - Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Homebrew, Dragonlance, and Primeval Thule. So, yeah, why would I want a 300 page tome of background material for a setting that I'm going to use once, for one campaign, and then likely never look at again unless it's to mine it for ideas for another campaign setting?

Same here, the idea of playing the same setting two campaigns in a row wouldn’t excite anyone at my table.

Spelljammer is just as likely to be used for a short story arc in a campaign to go from one setting to another, as it is a full campaign.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Also, media has changed quite a bit since the 70's/80's. Sitting down and spending hours to read a book was something the sort of people who played D&D back then wouldn't flinch at doing. I remember playing 6-8 hours at a stretch. You could spend hours, days, even years reading up on those worlds.

Nowadays, things are much more about immediate gratification and use & dispose. Watch a 30 second video to understand the setting. Throw together a character in an app. Play 2-3 hours, then run off and do something else. For all its popularity, D&D is no longer a lifestyle - it's one of a hundred forms of entertainment, and at times a rather slow one at that. I don't think most people want the depth - they want a bit of entertainment and then move on to other things.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, being able to play for 8 hours at a stretch was as much of a function of our age than anything. Trying to carve out a free 8 hour stretch for a group of 40 somethings (or even 30 somethings) is pretty much a lost cause. It's just not going to happen.

Then again, even the idea of spending hours reading up on a setting has never really interested me. It wasn't until fairly recently that I ever ran in a published world. Last numbers I saw pegged about 50% of gamers as playing home-brew and probably another 25% playing Forgotten Realms.

When 3/4 of your audience isn't really interested in running in setting X, and half or more are only going to mine that setting for use in their own stuff, again, it's not a particularly good strategy to spend gobs of time developing stuff that only a fairly small number of people will ever use.

Really, all that extended lore stuff is so much better shifted over to the DM's Guild where people who are interested in it can find it but the rest of us can safely ignore it.
 

Also the whole ‘kids today and their throw away, disposable culture‘ was said about video games in the 80’s when I was growing up, and television before that.
 


DaffCon1

Professional Lurker
Also the whole ‘kids today and their throw away, disposable culture‘ was said about video games in the 80’s when I was growing up, and television before that.

I'm not saying that I believe that, I'm saying I believe that's what WotC believes and is targeting.

I've been ignoring all the tropes about "kids today" since I was a kid, and moreso since becoming a parent.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
I'm not saying that I believe that, I'm saying I believe that's what WotC believes and is targeting.

I've been ignoring all the tropes about "kids today" since I was a kid, and moreso since becoming a parent.
To be fair, a lot of people play a particular video game for a short time and then move on to another one without finishing. When your Steam client is constantly pushing out ads for the the hot new thing, jumping on the next thing is pretty easy.
 

DaffCon1

Professional Lurker
Same here, the idea of playing the same setting two campaigns in a row wouldn’t excite anyone at my table.

Spelljammer is just as likely to be used for a short story arc in a campaign to go from one setting to another, as it is a full campaign.

I wasn't speaking of being about to run two same setting campaigns in a row. I was speaking of being able to run a single campaign OTHER than the one that WotC decided I'm going to run.

In regards to Spelljammer, what if my PCs decide to go in a different direction, before finding out Doomspace even exists? Or what if they decide, after saving Doomspace, that they want to explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no Realms-born tiefling has gone before? This set doesn't give me anything at all for those likely cases -- WotC assumes my group is going to follow the course WotC has laid out for them and then want to do something that isn't Spelljammer.

It's the same with the Forgotten Realms stuff. They've given us multiple adventures there -- but none of those adventures have any material for sidequests or going beyond the written campaign. And gods forbid your PCs want to leave the Sword Coast!

Contrast this to the original Spelljammer boxed set from 2E, or any of the Forgotten Realms Campaign sets from 1E, 2E, or 3E. All of those were full campaign settings -- enough for any DM to pick up just the one thing and write out however many campaigns for however many parties they were inclined to write.

Sure, many DMs don't have time for that -- but for those that do, or for those that have PCs that tear off in unexpected directions, WotC is not giving them anything. If someone buys a campaign setting, they shouldn't have to create 75% of it themselves. They shouldn't have to look for 20 year old, out of print material, or rely on something some random person wrote and posted on DM's Guild.

I want a campaign setting that lets me come up with my own campaign. Is that really too much to ask?
 

DaffCon1

Professional Lurker
But, there are issue here to consider. Paizo and Kobold Press combined are rounding errors as far as WotC is concerned. We're no longer in the era of the 600 pound gorilla, but, rather, a gorilla all by itself. Note, this has nothing to do with quality or anything like that, but, the considerations for WotC and the considerations for Paizo or Kobold Press are just so different. Your point about the demographic being large enough to make a profit off of presumes that the profits of Paizo or Kobold Press wouldn't be considered an utter and abject failure for a WotC book.

The fact that those companies are as successful as they are proves the demographic exists. Just because WotC has chosen not to cater to it (which, by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, means less work for them), doesn't mean the demographic isn't there.

This thing of barebones support (if that much) is a new direction for WotC. Even as recently as 4E, they still provided real setting support.
 

SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
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.
Or fill in the blanks and make it your own long running campaign, like the original Greyhawk.
 


SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
I want a campaign setting that lets me come up with my own campaign. Is that really too much to ask?
While I agree that specifically Spelljammer is a little light, this quote really clarifies the difference in viewpoints.*


Spelljammer seems to be the campaign that would let you create "fill in the blanks" your own.

If they filled it all in, it would be their campaign.


I also think some folks mean campaign = adventure, while others campaign = setting.
 

delericho

Legend
This thing of barebones support (if that much) is a new direction for WotC. Even as recently as 4E, they still provided real setting support.
While that's true, D&D enjoying unprecedented levels of success (eclipsing even the fad years of the early 80's) is also new. By comparison with 5e, both 3e and 4e were abject failures.

For what it's worth, I agree with you in wanting more extensive setting support (and, indeed, the lack is one of the reasons I didn't buy Spelljammer). But the success of D&D pretty thoroughly vindicates their chosen approach. Of course, the corollary of that is that if you do want more extensive setting support, don't look for it from WotC, because you'll almost certainly be disappointed.
 

Von Ether

Legend
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.

It's a subjective line for sure, but there's also the crowd that wants bare bones and they fill in the details. Many OSR books are half or quarter the page count and lauded for their brevity in setting details.

That's not to say the very same books can be used for short, light campaigns. Just that one GM's "disposable" is another GM's "freedom."

And again, that line between "enough" and "Why don't I just do all this myself" is subjective. As an example for me, Forgotten Realms borders on "DIY" not because of there's a lack lore (quite the opposite you know) but because its become the bog standard D&D setting. My attitude, which is not to say it's wrong or right, is that I take a decent world map and slap elves into any forests and sprinkle cosmopolitan (or highly isolated) cities on a coastline and call it good. Same for Grayhawk and Dragonlance as settings on their own. Richly detailed can sometimes get in the way.
 

Von Ether

Legend
While I agree that specifically Spelljammer is a little light, this quote really clarifies the difference in viewpoints.*


Spelljammer seems to be the campaign that would let you create "fill in the blanks" your own.

If they filled it all in, it would be their campaign.


I also think some folks mean campaign = adventure, while others campaign = setting.

The word "campaign" almost meaningless now. It's almost become a synonym for "My game system/story arc/game world I am running at the moment."

When someone says, "My players are loosing interest in my campaign, what do I do?" And the answer is, "My campaign has been going on for 20 years!" I know they are talking about two different things.,
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The fact that those companies are as successful as they are proves the demographic exists. Just because WotC has chosen not to cater to it (which, by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, means less work for them), doesn't mean the demographic isn't there.

This thing of barebones support (if that much) is a new direction for WotC. Even as recently as 4E, they still provided real setting support.
I'd just like to point out that this many posts in such a short period of time completely downgrades you. You're now an amateur lurker at best. ;)
 

BovineofWar

Explorer
While that's true, D&D enjoying unprecedented levels of success (eclipsing even the fad years of the early 80's) is also new. By comparison with 5e, both 3e and 4e were abject failures.
I think based on Ben Riggs reporting, later 2e settings like Spelljammer and Planescape were absolute failures (not relative to other editions!), including numerous products with negative margins: every copy sold at a loss.

I'm not advocating for the bad old days of two box sets a year and a splat book every month for every setting, but there's got to be a decent middle ground.

The 2e boxset has only 4 or 5 pages on the Rock of Braal, which is comparable to the 5e boxset, but there's also a 96 page supplement on it. Maybe I skimmed it too quickly, but I didn't see anything on the Inhuman War or the Legend of the Spelljammer in the AAG...

The 'problem' with WotC's current model is we're just not going to get anything else Spelljammer related. So take out the ship diagrams out of the Astral Adventurer's Guide, and that's what? 40 pages to describe a whole universe? There's nothing that prevents you from making your own campaign if they give you the building blocks, like the city details, the factions and intrigues, the history, but the lack of that means I don't have anything to rely on in my campaign if I do decide on this setting.

In my mind, WotC should have probably just given up on doing a 'campaign setting' without the setting information, and just did a solid adventure path like Curse of Strahd for Ravenloft or Ghosts of Saltmarsh for Greyhawk. Here's a chance to do a deep dive into the theme of the setting, and condence the extra rules down to an appendix or two. Even the Forgotten Realms is serviced better by adventure paths than the anemic Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide.
 

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