Classic Campaign Setting Review: Spelljammer

ImageSUMMARY: Inventive, wildly imaginative, great set of tools for the ultimate sandbox-style campaign, but suffers from too much focus on other settings and never really comes into its own.

SPELLJAMMER was one of the first campaign setting boxed sets published specifically for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules.  I didn’t discover it until a few years after that, and at first, I was skeptical.  Very, very skeptical.

The subtitle said it all: “AD&D Adventures In Space.”  That tagline called to mind all the wrong images for me.  I immediately pictured elves with light sabers, robot wizards, and lots of ray guns.  Everything I’d never want in my fantasy campaigns.  Back then, I was a real stickler for genre purity, and sci-fi and fantasy mixes just didn’t float my boat.

But I was mistaken. Not about the virtues of genre-blending, but about the content of Spelljammer itself.  This was an outer-space game setting, but turns out there was little to no actual science in it.  And that is what made it great.

I stumbled upon a used copy of the core boxed set several years after its release, and it wasn’t shrink-wrapped.  That allowed me to examine its contents in detail, and I was hooked from the very first sentence:

“Everything you know about space is wrong.”

From there, I learned that my character could get out of the atmosphere on the back of a dragon (OK, the text actually said “back of a roc,” but dragons are just cooler); that he could breathe in outer space without protection, because the open-decked flying ships of this setting generated their own atmospheres; that “solar systems” were encased inside gigantic crystal spheres that protected them from a universe filled with a rainbow-colored flammable gas called phlogiston; that planets could be spheres, sure, but they could also be flat, or be carried on the back of a gigantic animal; that stars could orbit planets and as well as the reverse. For that matter, stars themselves didn’t necessarily have to be giant balls of super-heated plasma; they might be enormous gates to the Elemental Plan Of Fire, or flaming bowls held aloft by the statues of forgotten gods, or glowing gems with connections to the Positive Energy Plane.  And it just went on and on in that vein, working very hard to disavow me and other readers of everything that came to our minds when the word “space” was used alongside the word “adventure.”

I dug further, and found to my delight that there were no light sabers or ray guns; no robots, or computers, or powered armors, or anything like that.  The most advanced technology in this version of space was black powder weapons, and they were not as reliable as magic.  Ships in space fought each other with archers, ballistae, catapults, and in some rare circumstances, primitive cannons.  There were rules for how things like gravity, oxygen, and other concerns of space travelers worked, and those rules were consistent across the whole universe, but these rules were based on fantasy, not real-world physics.

In short, Spelljammer was not a science fiction game using the AD&D rules.  It was the AD&D rules and its underlying assumptions extrapolated outward into an entire universe rather than just a single continent on some backwater planet.

My initial reaction to this was: “play this right now!”  So I did. Within weeks, I had a game up and running, which turned into one of my longest, most successful, and best-remembered campaigns, ever.

That’s not a coincidence.  The SPELLJAMMER Boxed Set is chock-abrim with tools for the ultimate sand-box style campaign. You really can go anywhere, do anything here.  The DM needs to dangle very few hooks, as the nature of the setting itself is intriguing enough that players generate their own adventure ideas, and pursue them independently, 

But, there are weaknesses.

Perhaps the biggest was the focus on TSR’s other campaign settings at the time: Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and The Forgotten Realms. Each of their crystal spheres was detailed for use by DMs and players, so characters from those settings could easily take spelljamming side-quests in the local version of “outer space.”  Or travel from one setting to the other without using magical gates or other powerful spells.  All of which is fine, as far as it goes.  It made marketing sense, if nothing else, for TSR to draw these connections and provide these tools.

The problem with it is that these three settings were made the centerpiece of Spelljammer‘s interstellar (or interspherical?) civilization.  Which would be OK, except that most people on said worlds knew nothing about the  existence of space travel, and there was very little on any of those three worlds that would attract more than passing interest from the universe-spanning culture sailing among their stars.

This approach took a brilliant concept, and reduced it to the equivalent of a plot device to justify crossovers between TSR’s Big Three properties.  That ultimately served as a dis-incentive to play Spelljammer on its own terms.

Spelljammer deserved its own, stand-alone setting, something that wasn’t constantly defined with reference to other campaign worlds.  A setting where, for instance, each of the major races had their own homeworld or home crystal sphere, and their own spare-faring culture.  Late in its run, the Spelljammer team started heading in that direction, giving us The Astromundi Cluster boxed set, a fully space-based campaign setting in which everyone was in on “the secret.”  But that was too late. The Spelljammer line was cancelled not long after, and most of its unique elements were incorporated into other products with their numbers filed off.

A second weakness of the setting was “too much comedy.” Tinker gnomes from Krynn, the world of the Dragonlance setting, were a major space-faring race (which sort of begged the question why they weren’t a dominant race on their homeworld). Their ships were usually powered by a combination of giant hamster wheels and very unreliable proto-steampunk technology.  Now, tinker gnomes can be fun, don’t get me wrong. But given that they weren’t even a major race in their natural setting, their prominence in Spelljammer made little logical sense, and played a huge role in many Spelljammer detractors’ dismissals of the setting as “silly.”

Finally, there are the rules for how most of the spaceships in Spelljammer are powered: helms.  These are magical devices which require a spell-caster to sit in them, causing the ship to become an extension of their own body, and tapping the spell power within them for motive force.  A cool idea, in theory. The drawback, though, is that helms sucked all the magic out of your spell-caster, even if you only touched them for a brief moment. So, to be effective, a spelljamming party would need to be very heavy on both clerical and wizardly spell-casters: enough members to work in shifts on the helm while still being able to have active spell casters on deck at all times, as well.  This could be handled with a large crew of NPCs, but doing that deprived players of the opportunity to role-play their own ship.

Most of the time, this aspect of the setting didn’t get in the way, but in retrospect, it’s probably something I would have done differently at the design level.

In summary, then, SPELLJAMMER was a hidden gem among TSR’s old-school settings.  Even with its weaknesses, it provided my gaming group with two years’ worth of weekly fantasy-space adventure, and ranks among my personal top 5 best campaigns I’ve ever run.  If you happen to stumble across it the core boxed set somewhere, it’s well worth your money.

About thebobgoblin

It's true. Birds are dinosaurs.
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2 Responses to Classic Campaign Setting Review: Spelljammer

  1. coyotecyb says:

    This was BY FAR my favorite RPG over the years – I still would love to gather a group of old school gamers and play some of this.

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