Archives of Candlekeep: Spelljammer Redux
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Eighty Seven on 30th October 2021.
Like many modern settings and elements of D&D, Spelljammer’s roots are in 2nd edition, and they owe their existence to a man named Jeff Grubb. As Keith Baker is to Eberron, Jeff Grubb is to Spelljammer, although he doesn’t have the laser focus on his setting Mr.Baker does for Eberron. Grubb is the author of the first Manual of the Planes and created the forgotten Al-Qadim setting, and is credited as being part of the team that originated the Forgotten Realms itself. Later on, he was also contracted by Wizards to work on a lot of d20 system resources such as d20 Modern, their d20 Star Wars RPG, and Urban Arcana, as well as writing some of the lore novels for Magic: The Gathering. Spelljammer specifically came out in 1989, and based on the forward in the book it was originally borne out of an animated discussion between Grubb and several colleagues after a convention.
Apparently, during the course of their discussions, the team decided something NASA has known for decades; space is hard. They wanted space to be fun, so they threw out a lot of conventional wisdom about it, starting with physics. After that they started throwing a lot more out. One of the Spelljammer source books features in-universe quotations on every other page or so that relate to the content being discussed. One of the quotes just says “In space, weirder is better”. It has no attribution to an in-game character, and I strongly suspect it was the guiding principle the designers followed.
Getting into space in Spelljammer was comparatively easy. All that was required was a magic item called a “spelljammer helm” (that’s helm in the naval sense, not the piece of medieval armor). Practically, it was a chair with a special enchantment. If the helm was installed on a mobile object and a magic user sat in it, they could go to space. Now why didn’t everyone immediately die? Because any object that enters space automatically creates a bubble of air three times larger than itself. One human pulls enough air to last for 2-20 turns, while a 3 ton ship drags enough air to support three beings for 8 months. If it’s large enough, it also retains its original gravity, because magic. The generic spelljammer helm is chair shaped and mostly used by humanoids, but custom designed helms existed for different races: the mindflayers and beholders designed helms based on their own needs, and dwarves developed helms that don’t work on magic. There are also things like the Gnomish Helm, which, and this is literally the description from the book: “…should not function. Their very construction seems to defy the nature of thaumaturgic law. They are impossible. Of course, being gnomish, they work anyway.” Further lore suggests the reason they function is because another type of helm that does work is included in the design of the Gnomish Helm somewhere.
Spelljammer’s universe is not what Neil DeGras Tyson, Stephen Hawking, or even George Lucas envisioned in their minds. In Spelljammer world, what we think of as space is called wildspace. That space functions sort of like space as we know it, with stars and planets and a lot of empty vacuum. However, that only exists while you remain more or less within the confines of a star system. For those not up on their astronomy, a star system is the star and all the planets that orbit it, usually between 1 and 10 if you don’t count moons, and let me tell you there can be a lot of moons… Anyway, each pocket of wildspace is contained within crystal spheres or shells. Those spheres can be breached with magical portals either created by spellcasters or a few creatures that do it naturally. The spheres all sit in a substance called phlogiston [flah-JIST-un] (sometimes just called the Flow), a rainbow colored, highly flammable ether. Highly flammable in this case means if you cast a fireball, it explodes immediately at three times the size and strength of a normal one. Lighting a candle will set you and everything within three feet of the candle on fire.
Interesting side note, by the way; phlogiston actually is or was a real concept in the middle ages. Early scientists came up with it as a way to describe why some things spontaneously degraded, mostly why iron and steel would rust and why copper would turn green. This was before anyone knew about or was able to discover oxygen, of course.
The irregularities also extended to planetary systems, and some would say are most obvious when discussing planetary systems. Spelljammer’s main book included rolling tables that usually kept things within the realm of normalcy, but every table had what I call the “10% crazy.”
The 10% crazy allowed things like planets carried on boats, a planetary system where some planets orbited clockwise and some counterclockwise, and planets with ring systems made of fire. Also, they didn’t even stick with 10% where planets were concerned. Half the time, planets would be normal spherical ones. But cubes, discs, triangles, irregular polygons, and planets with no defined shape were all within the realm of possibility and not even that unlikely. Also, sentient planets were totally a thing. The book did helpfully provide the planetary systems of major settings like Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk (which, incidentally, is a system where Oerth is the center of the system, and the sun Liga was demoted to the third orbital ring instead).
Theoretically any race can and did make it into spelljammer space, but the lore recognized two types. Major races had full spacefaring civilizations that made ships and established space outposts and colonies. Minor races either only sent a few ships into space at a time and weren’t really invested in building more, or had been dragged into space by some other civilization for various reasons. Major races in original spelljammer were humans, mind flayers, beholders, dwarves, and elves. Minor races included the giff, gnomes (specifically Krynnish gnomes), halflings, centaurs, giants and kender. Obviously; you need someone you can jettison into the void without feeling guilty about it.
As with most of the unique settings for 2nd edition. Spelljammer also produced a few unique races for people to interact with. Two of them were slightly more noteworthy than the others, though.
On the negative end of the scale were the Neogi, a major spacefaring race of xenophobes that served as a sort of bogeyman race. They look like what you get if you take an eel and attach spider legs to it. Their entire society is literally based around slavery. Every Neogi is either a slave or a master, and sometimes both; Neogi slaves are allowed to own their own slaves. Every other race is inferior and to be enslaved.
Most of their slaves end up being Umber Hulks. The Neogi breed and keep them specifically to serve as basic slaves for young Neogi until they work their way up to enslaving a lot of hulks or some other creatures as well.
The Neogi have a number of gods but the main thing most people focus on is their main god. They have a name that’s really hard for humans to pronounce and the Neogi will instantly kill you if you mispronounce it so it’s really not worth it. The god’s brain is apparently located on what the Neogi consider their homeworld and gave them a directive to go out and conquer all the crystal spheres and enslave everyone that isn’t a Neogi.
A mysterious wrinkle in their lore suggests that the Neogi “homeworld” isn’t actually their original homeworld. Some in-universe scholars believe the Neogi homeworld was actually destroyed by beings called clockwork horrors and their current homeworld is where they fled to.
The other major spacefaring race created for spelljammer is the Arcane, a race that didn’t really have much celestial infrastructure but can be found almost anywhere. The major interest in these beings is that they are magical merchants that, among other things, offer spelljammer helms for sale wherever they are. And as mentioned, they seemed to be wherever there was a major spacefaring hub; anyone looking for an Arcane would only have to wait about a day before finding one to purchase from, and in some cases this would be despite no one else noticing an Arcane around previously and without any other ships arriving at a location.
Despite almost always having the helms available, the Arcane never made or used ships of their own; they were known to travel on other beings’ ships (except for Neogi, whom they refused to deal with), but many people suspect they have another, unknown method of traversing the stars. Apart from the helms, they were also known to deal in magical items of all types. There is debate about whether the Arcane know how to create the magical items, such as spelljammer helms, themselves or if they are being sourced from somewhere else, but no conclusive answer was provided in lore.
Other races could be encountered, but for a variety of reasons most of them did not have a major spacefaring presence or interest including radiant, celestial, or star dragons, the creatures are one of the few native spacefaring creatures from Spelljammer. Unlike the terrestrial dragons, the star dragons are serpent-like by default without any limbs except for their wings, which are translucent and flecked with mica and gypsum. The dragons varied widely in temperament; some acted like space pirates, attacking and harassing ships, others offered help and advice to travelers, and others tried to set themselves up as benevolent tyrants of small areas of space or a planetoid, believing themselves to be the most powerful beings in space. To be fair, they had some evidence to back that up; the dragons averaged 100 feet from mouth to tail, which by default is larger than all but the oldest land-based dragons. They were also one of the creatures with the innate ability to breach crystal spheres, so people sometimes sought them out for that reason.
Through the course of spelljammers life in 2nd edition there were numerous other creatures created for the setting, far too many to cover here, but they were as varied and curious as any bestiary for a planet-based setting.
It’s worth noting that, in the lore of 2nd edition, *Spelljammer* was the name of a particular ship that most spacefaring myths centered around. The ship itself was the largest spacefaring vessel known, and that was important because it was too big to actually travel the stars based on most in-universe knowledge of how such things worked. Rumors of the ship persist throughout the known universe, with some people claiming it visited their planet or rescued their ship, while others say they saw it destroyed. Many different expeditions launch to find the mythical spelljammer for a variety of reasons.
Behind the screen, the ship is acutally a race of semi-sentient beings that take the form of such ships. The ships don’t require any crew to function, but most have a full settlement of about 5,000 beings on it. The exception is the captain, who is chosen by the Spelljammer itself and uses an “ultimate helm” when it wants to do anything related to the ship. The creatures there don’t run the ship in the sense of controlling its direction, but they are beholden to the ship because it generates a persistent charm effect that convinces creatures to stay on and defend it. The creatures reproduce like rodents; hundreds of offspring are produced but very few make it to maturity because of the dangers of space, meaning there aren’t very many full-grown spelljammers, giving rise to the legend that all of them are the same ship.
So, if Spelljammer’s lore was so crazy, how did that work with gameplay? Awesomely, I’m sure. So far it’s D&D in space and I get to throw Kender out of airlocks. Except, 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, and if you don’t want to mess around with extraplanar portals and traveling through the different elemental planes or the astral sea to get to other worlds, spelljamming is the best option.
So if that’s happening, why isn’t there a spaceport in Waterdeep and a bar where you can meet a whole bunch of weird alien races and cut someone’s arm off with a vorpal sword because they were rude to your apprentice?
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. And as mentioned, getting into another crystal sphere is not easy, so there aren’t a lot of people trying to do it unless they have a really good reason.
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 “I need to go have a lie-down now” gone. Secondly, if you leave one of the crystal spheres and went into the phlogiston, 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 flying. 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 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. All of this was a lot of math, so they did keep that part of space travel somewhat authentic, though it’s still way, way less math than actual space travel requires.
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, although the Tri-keen race was eventually credited with having a presence in space despite that. Also Ravenloft, being a separate demiplane, was not considered part of the material plane 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.
Eberron wasn’t totally cut off from Spelljammer, but Keith Baker, when asked, suggested that Eberron’s crystal sphere was harder to get through than most, so spelljamming activity and influence was even rarer there than anywhere else.
That theme generally continued in all Spelljammer material; the main thing that set Spelljammer apart from Planescape is the former all takes place within the material plane, and in several instances races or items in Spelljammer actually resisted the influence of other planes. The Arcane, for example, would not do business with any extraplanar beings, regardless of alignment.
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 [ha-DOE-zee] (tail-less ape like creatures that like to serve as ship’s crew), Rastipedes (hard bargaining, insect centaurs) Scro [hard o] (orcs, but larger and with full military organization and discipline, Xixchil [ZIX-chill] (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 mentioned, 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 though 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.
However, as of this recording practical evidence is piling up to suggest Spelljammer in 5th edition is more and more likely.
The Giff, a race of really quite handsome and refined anthropomorphized hippopotamus people who exhibit the finest traditions of military decorum and manners. The Giff showed up in Volo’s Guide to Monsters several years back and arguably ignited the fervor of people talking about spelljammer possibly showing up in 5e; while a lot of other creatures and elements of 5e were present in spelljammer as well, the Giff were the first time a uniquely Spelljammer item showed up in 5th edition. That was followed up by one of the levels in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage providing a portal that linked to a literal spacedock in an asteroid, something that’s really really hard to argue is anything other than spelljammer content. Then The Lost Laboratory of Kwalish module had characters finding a crashed spaceship or spelljammer ship, a plot point that was recycled for Rime of the Frostmaiden as a side adventure if characters made certain choices.
But the most solid evidence so far was the recent Unearthed Arcana detailing “travelers of the multiverse. The Astral elf is not really spelljammer related; in the original setting any elves that existed on the surface of a planet could take off into space. However, autognomes, giff, hadozee, and plasmoids all trace their origins to spelljammer before they showed up anywhere else.
The last race, the thri-kreen, were originally a Dark Sun idea but thanks to an adventure published in 1990 called “skull and crossbows, the thri-kreen were established as an ancient spacefaring race. That may be a bit apocryphal, however; the spelljammer setting already had established the Xixchil as a mantis-like spacefaring species and as mentioned the planet of Athas, where Dark Sun takes place, had been declared inaccessible by spelljammer. It’s not clear why the authors of the 1990 module decided to use thri-kreen rather than the Xixchil, nor why WotC decided to go with them here over the originally established race.
However, as much as I hate to acknowledge it, the preponderance of evidence certainly points to Spelljammer as a likely 5th edition add-on in the not too distant future.