This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy One on 1st May 2019.
Ryu: Okay so now I’m morbidly curious. If Spelljammer’s lore was so crazy, how did that work with gameplay?
Lennon: Awesomely, I’m sure.
Ostron: Did Spelljammer pay off your mortgage or something?
Lennon: So far it’s D&D in space, there are 7ft hippos with muskets and I get to throw Kender out of airlocks. I’m sold.
Ostron: Well there weren’t actually airlocks, you know.
Spelljammer is presented as a separate campaign setting that uses spaceships, space, and planets to substitute for horses, open plains, and cities. The original sourcebook explains the separation as willful apathy: people in the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance setting know that there are people cruising around in space, but they don’t really care. Similarly, the people in space really don’t worry about what’s going on in Waterdeep on a regular basis; everyone has their own problems to worry about.
That said, a very common suggestion in the sourcebooks for getting players into Spelljammer was to make a ship or the means to create a ship some sort of reward at the end of a story arc. That would be fine in some cases, but there were a few issues that might trip up unwitting players.
Spelljamming as a spellcaster was a bit of a risk. First of all, everyone would want you to sit in that chair, the spelljammer helm, which sucked up all of your magical energy to power the ship; if the ship moved at all and then you left the chair, all of your spell slots were gone. Go lay down and have a nap. Secondly, if you leave one of the crystal spheres and went into the flow, a lot of your spells didn’t work (like anything that summoned creatures), and many other spells had special exceptions – the reference guide for players in a Spelljammer campaign includes an entire section that cross-references spells and how they work in wildspace and the phlogiston. There were some new spells to use (such as a form of magical fire that didn’t cause everything to explode) but there were still a lot of restrictions on how a spellcaster normally did things.
Also, if you were a divine spellcaster you were pretty much SOL if you ever left your home sphere; the gods had no influence outside of their home sphere, and only helped out in other spheres if they existed there. So if you were a devoted Cleric of Bahamut and traveled to a sphere like the one Eberron is in, the question “where is your God now?” literally applies. Practically that meant divine spellcasters could only regenerate spell slots of level 2 or lower. There were some “universal space gods” that worked anywhere, such as the Followers of Ptah, but that often required the players to know the campaign was a Spelljammer one from the get-go, which didn’t mesh with the “you suddenly find a spaceship” story arc.
Travel and combat on ships was also a whole different set of rules and mechanics. Ship to ship combat assumed a 500 yard hex grid in the original Spelljammer book. The rules were simplified because Spelljammer was not trying to be a space combat game, so there was no 3D movement, and each ship was a single combatant with its own initiative, rather than having each crew member on the ships roll individually. The speed and size of the ships were very important, because how the ships were facing determined how they could move and what weapons could be used. That’s where the spellcaster in the chair became important; an acolyte is not going to move the ship fast at all, whereas an archmage could really get things moving. When it came to actual fighting, however, combatants could target the enemy ship, the crew, or (depending on the weapon in question) both. Critical hits on ships usually damaged ship components. There were also optional rules for crew performance shifting depending on experience and morale, as well as how ongoing combat would affect said morale. Since most of the rules strongly resemble systems used for tabletop naval combat games, it’s very possible these rules were consulted or borrowed for use in the seafaring Unearthed Arcana, and likely Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
For interplanetary and interstellar travel, there were two options. An appendix in the original book provided reference tables for planetary systems that corresponded to major settings, such as Earth, Greyhawk, and Toril. If DMs were creating their own planetary systems as part of an exploratory campaign, they could compare them to those tables and guess at travel times and distances. However, if someone wanted to try their hand at being a thaumaturgical astrogator, there was a formula that described how to calculate the travel time based on the size and speed of the ship and the distance between planets.
In contrast to how D&D tends to operate today, several sourcebooks recommended *against* trying to use Spelljammer in all settings. In particular, the Dark Sun setting was said to lack any spelljammer contact or ability, and Ravenloft was at the time a demiplane and thus unreachable by standard spelljammers. The lore also specified that if a spelljammer ship did somehow end up in one place or the other, the natives were more likely to destroy it for various reasons than figure out how to use it.
However, arguably you never needed to visit any of the existing settings; the spelljammer books took pains to outline that any D&D tale you wanted could be represented in Spelljammer. Dungeon crawls could be jaunts through derelict ships or the dungeons could just be on, or actually be, other planets. Multiple guilds, militaries, and other groups existed in space to facilitate military campaigns, espionage and intrigue, or political conflicts, and trade and piracy in space was even more exciting than doing it on the water.
Through Spelljammer’s existence, multiple short adventure modules appeared for it and eventually character options started to emerge. Playable races included Giff and a number of Spelljammer-unique options such as Hadozee (tail-less ape like creatures that like to serve as ship’s crew), Rastipedes (hard bargaining, insect centaurs) Scro (orcs, but larger and with full military organization and discipline, Xixchil (six-foot preying mantises that are *really* into body modification), and several others. The books also provided extra kits, 2nd edition’s version of class archetypes, for various classes to give them abilities and bonuses helpful for Spelljammer campaigns. Two monstrous compendium collections specific to spelljammer were also released.
However, Spelljammer never officially reemerged after 2nd edition and it is still somewhat polarizing among fans. As we covered last time, many lore aspects of the setting were very haphazard and unnatural, and some feel that it’s out of place in D&D. They point to the fact that space travel in Spelljammer bears so little resemblance to actual space that it shouldn’t even be thought of as such. People in that camp often say the Planescape setting is the correct way to represent an idea like this, with ships traveling through different planes and the astral sea without trying to bring space into it. It also eliminates the problem of cross-pollenation between settings.
On the other hand, a vocal group of players feel Spelljammer’s return in 5th edition is almost inevitable. Making their case, there have been several very specific pieces of Spelljammer content making their way into official D&D publications, including the Giff in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, the Qualish laboratory adventure re-release, and several aspects of Dungeon of the Mad Mage (not to mention that whole Acquisitions Incorporated C-Team arc). Also the 5th edition ruleset with its archetype mechanic is arguably the best one since 2nd edition to allow for re-introducing Spelljammer specific elements to character classes. Time will tell if 5th edition becomes the one that resurrects space travel.