Wednesday, 28 October 2009

I talk to planets baby

I've been on a real Spelljammer kick recently ever since reading this entry. Spelljammer is one of those things that you tend to forget about for long stretches of your life, but comes back with a vengeance when you least expect it. Like a girl you went out with in school and who you always bump into when you go back to your home town. You don't often mention her and you can go for years without even thinking about her. Then there she is on the dance floor, bam. And you want to play with her.

Ahem. Anyway, yeah, Spelljammer.

There are three things that I find interesting about Spelljammer.

The Grand List of Things That Are Interesting about Spelljammer
  1. It taps into that very compelling subgenre of fantasy that is sometimes called "Sword and Planet" ("Science fantasy" is both boring and inaccurate), and which swirls, vortex-like, around a certain Michael Moorcock. We all know about the connections between Hawkwind (the ur space rockers) and that author, but it goes much deeper than that - just about every Eternal Champion incarnation has some sort of space-going element to it. And since the Eternal Champion is just about the most interesting fantasy series ever written (if not the best, always the most interesting) that makes Spelljammer interesting too - brilliance through association. That's not even to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  2. Don't even get me started on the picaresque. The thesis that D&D is a picaresque seems compelling to me and you don't get a better setting for that than riding through the phlogiston on a star sailing ship, landing on random planets and meeting space orcs. You just don't.
  3. There are not one, not two, but three subgenres of Spelljammer game which you can explore. (There are more than that actually, but let's look at the main three.
  • Horror Spelljammer. In space no one can hear you scream. In the phlogiston, people might hear you scream as the pack of githyanki pirates begin to eviscerate you with astral cleavers, but seeing as those people are likely to be illithids and neogi, you can forget being home in time for dinner. Spelljammer has a potential like no other setting (except Planescape, natch) for existential terror: in the big bad prime material plane there is only murder and pain.
  • Traveller Spelljammer. Roll up a sector of crystal spheres on a hex map and go off a-trading with the Zhodani scro in a combination of (arguably) the two greatest role playing games of all time. Just be careful of those space elves waiting in that asteroid belt.
  • Trad Spelljammer. The background music is Hawkwind, The Mars Volta, Pink Floyd, Monster Magnet, Klaatu, Ziggy Stardust, and weird Daft-Punk-esque French synth pop; the flavour art is stills from Ulysses 31 and Thundercats, the illithids are dressed like Marc Bolan. It's so naff that it has gone beyond naff into cool again. It's Spelljammer how God intended it, and it is really, really great.

When people talk about imaginative 2nd edition era settings they tend to bring up Dark Sun and Planescape the most, but if you ask me Spelljammer gives them both a serious run for their money. Buy it, play it, love it.


  1. -I remain unconvinced. Probably because all the original spelljammer illustrationss I've seen look so goofy and airy-fairy to me and I just can't get past that. Especially for the ships. And this is from somebody who loves art nouveau.

    -That having been said, here's some art for Pirate Spelljammer:

    I think all the issues of Swords of the Swashbuclers are available on pdf somewhere

  2. Or maybe if you did it like mike mignola's Ironwolf...

  3. I'll take the third option!

    I've always liked the idea of Spelljammer, but something about it has always put me off in the end. Not sure what. As I get older, though, its merits become more and more apparent; perhaps I didn't appreciate its inherent silliness when I was younger.

  4. In the 3rd edition era they did up a Spelljammer setting in an issue of Polyhedron magazine. It was very cool, with nice artwork and a certain Barsoomian feel. They key was limiting the scope to one star system and detailing it in interesting ways. Check it out if you can...

  5. I've never given Spelljammer a close look, but I've been thinking about it more and more since seeing posts like this. Might be an interesting direction to take my current Wilderlands campaign if things ever go stale planet-side.

    Seeing your "horror" take on the setting put me in mind of an old Dragon Magazine tidbit from one of my favorite Roger E. Moore editorials ("Fear is Good", #156):

    Allen Varney (TSR's AD&D® SPELLJAMMER module SJA1 Wildspace): I refuse to do this brand-new module a terrible injustice and spoil it for you, but any DM who happens to read the "Story Background" section from pages 2-3 will instantly grasp that this could well be the Ultimate Adventure, the El Dorado of Player Characters' Nightmares, the module that will make the most hardened and jaded Monty Haul character grow wool and bleat in terror by Chapter 3. And things only get worse from there. Not one of the survivors of this adventure (if there are any) will ever look up at the night sky and feel safe again, assuming there's even a planet left to stand on. I read this module and fell in love.

    This module is what real fear is all about. Thank you, Allen. Wildspace--you make my heart race.

    Not sure how much the module lived up to the hype, but it certainly shows that you're not alone in your analysis!

    That said, the so-naff-it's-cool flavor appeals to me the most, I think, especially with that soundtrack you laid out. :)

  6. "...perhaps I didn't appreciate its inherent silliness when I was younger."

    I definitely think I'm more apt to see the worth inherent in a Giant Space Hamster now than I was when I was a teenager.

  7. Thanks, Noisms.

    We had a great privateering & exploration-based campaign. One of my favorite campaigns from our AD&D 2nd edition days, without a doubt.

    It's nice to see someone talking about Spelljammer who actually gets it.

    There is some nice design work in the visual presentation of the 3rd Edition Polyhedron magazine treatment of the setting, but it came with the standard disdain for the gonzo elements of the original and the requisite shallow attempts to "re-imagine" the setting as a more "serious" milieu. They failed to understand the original on its own terms.

  8. Monster Magnet, for the win! Cause I think the world should have cried, on the day Jack Kirby died.

    I like the idea of spelljammer, but TSR's execution never quite got any traction in my head.

  9. Trad Spelljammer. The background music is Hawkwind, The Mars Volta, Pink Floyd, Monster Magnet, Klaatu, Ziggy Stardust, and weird Daft-Punk-esque French synth pop; the flavour art is stills from Ulysses 31 and Thundercats, the illithids are dressed like Marc Bolan. It's so naff that it has gone beyond naff into cool again.

    "Get out of my head Charles!"

    @sirlarkins: Wildspace is a toughie. Presented right, with the desolation and isolation of the situation cranked up, it can be terrifying in its scope and scale. Done wrong, with the twinkier elements emphasized, it's just *meh*.

  10. Yeah...I'll have to go with Zak and Kelvingreen on this one. Spelljammer is perhaps the best example of a phenomenon I call 'all but cool'.

    If you told me you had an RPG in which ether flying medieval spacecraft zoomed through the phlogiston on an adventure to battle elven space pirates and explore magical alien worlds I'd say "Righteous! Bring it ON!" If you then showed me Spelljammer I would wonder what the two had to do with each other.

    IMO, the game was goofy where it should have been cool, edgy where it could have used to be light hearted and just all together too poorly organized and explained for me. I would rather generate such a universe myself and therefore I wouldn't really need Spelljammer.

  11. Undoubtedly coincidentally, I'm about to start up a short Rogue Trader campaign. I have no intention at all of taking it seriously; this is Traveller with demons and decadent nobles, and a soundtrack by Iron Maiden. Taking it seriously seems to be missing the point.

  12. The original boxed set is the only Spelljammer item I intend to keep, mainly out of nostalgia.

    The few attempts to get a Spelljammer campaign off the ground crashed and burned, due in no small part to a "fantasy and science fiction are completely different, and never the twain shall meet" attitude on the part of more than a few gamers.

    Though I am curious as to the similarities in font/layout between Spelljammer and West End's Star Wars RPG...

  13. I think the "one planet has one or two races" things wuld really work. You know how in Star Trek you'd continually see planets with just one guy on it, or just a couple small cities full of the same people?

    You'd have to say there is no "main standard D&D world" in the sense that you'd have a place with a standard random encounter table containing a whole range of humanoids. Trade planets may have a mix, but no more than 1% will be the foreign mix. Space stations and colonies and such would be more interesting because everyone there has already breached the main barrier - getting offworld.

    In Star Trek's Earth, for example, you see monstly humans. On Vulcan you see mostly vulcans. I forget the name of the Klingon planet ... I bring shame upon my family. But you get the idea.

    It's a shift, but if you tell the players what's going on when pitching the game (which is always a really good idea) they can probably get right on board. I know I'd be interested.

  14. Ah, it brings a tear to my eye. The kids still get it. :)

    Jeff G.

  15. Holy shit, Captain FASERIP just posted on your blog!

  16. Zak: And to think you were slagging off Spelljammer with its creator looking on. Tch.

    That said, I do like the Ironwolf art a lot.

    Kelvingreen: Perhaps it happens to every D&D player eventually - sooner or later the Spelljammer bug WILL get you.

    Anonymous: Hopefully I'll be able to find it!

    Sirlarkins: That does sound very cool. Although I have to say I'm a bit suspicious of any Dragon "review" of a new module.

    Superhero: The thing that I like about Spelljammer is that it is silly and gonzo, but not in a self-referential or ironic way (at least not initially). That's its charm. It's not being arch or knowing. It's honestly silly.

    E. G. Palmer: Ah, but did you ever play it with my soundtrack in the background? If not, you're not doing it justice!

    Barking Alien: You're wrong, of course, but I respect your opinion. ;)

    Mothman's: The problem that afflicts any D&D setting that isn't Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, it seems.

    1d20: Yes, that is what you have to do - if only because making every planet like a standard D&D world would drive you utterly insane. Although, I can imagine a group of DMs playing a Spelljammer campaign where each of their homebrew worlds is a crystal sphere...

    Jeff Grubb: There are more of us out there than you think!

  17. Although I have to say I'm a bit suspicious of any Dragon "review" of a new module.

    I'd normally be a bit suspect too, but since it was an editorial and REM usually only shilled for products he legitimately liked (the other two products mentioned in the editorial were Call of Cthulhu and Gamma World), I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

  18. Noisms -- Definitely. I'm in full agreement on this one.

  19. I always found SpellJammer intriguing, but it could simply be that I enjoy "shipboard tales;" a purely nautical game (say pirates or some such on a wet sea) would also be fun. All those blueprints? Just aching for a deck-to-deck fight!

    SpellJammer is imaginative, but part of me can't help but wonder if the folks at TSR weren't simply trying to milk some of the scifi genre out of their loyal fan base who wouldn't play anything besides D&D. 'Course people who only play D&D tend to NOT want to mix scifi into it, which might be the reason SpellJammer disappeared.

  20. I'm late getting to this thread, but as the author of the Spelljammer module Wildspace mentioned above, I can at least clarify why Roger Moore found it scary. The module concerns a dormant, planet-destroying asteroid artifact, basically a fantasy Death Star, built by a long-dead race of beholders with help from the Arcane. The interior of the asteroid is a dungeon consisting of ten cubical rooms, each one mile on a side, and a central chamber five miles across; PCs would sail their spelljamming ship through the rooms. I like to call it the largest dungeon TSR ever published (at least in terms of square mileage). I think what scared Roger was the finale, where the PCs battle alone against the activated artifact (that had already wiped out the thousands of beholders that built it) and its commander, a powerful beholder mage.

    Spelljammer is my favorite AD&D setting, because its scale permits such colossal settings and large-canvas adventures.

  21. Allen Varney: Well it's an honour to have you posting on the blog.

    I like Spelljammer for those reasons too, although I suppose you could argue that Planescape goes one further.

  22. Spelljammer is one of those unique subgenres you have to get into. I would love to see more space-faring fantasy...maybe of a different type. Maybe some sort of mage-punk/steam-punk sci-fi drama...speaking of mage-punk, check out my site. If you like Spelljammer, you will love my Sedallia Campaign Setting!

  23. Hmmm... I think if you mixed the Eberron and/or the Dragonmech settings with Spelljammer, you would come up with a great Science-Fantacy Romance in the steampunk fashion. Those settings are made for each other.