Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Retrospective: Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space

Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space is a guilty pleasure of mine. Written and conceived by Jeff Grubb, this overstuffed boxed set was first released in 1989, just as I was transferring between two colleges. For a lot of reasons, this was a very tumultuous time in my life and, as a result, my memories of it are very vivid, even thirty-five years later – memories that include purchasing Spelljammer from a Waldenbooks in a suburban mall and then poring over its contents for some time afterwards.

As its subtitle suggests, Spelljammer took AD&D 2e into "space," though not in the traditional scientific (or even science fictional) sense of the word. Rather, Grubb took inspiration from ancient and medieval conceptions of the cosmos, in which the stars and planets are embedded within celestial spheres made of ether. Rather than multiple nested spheres containing all the celestial bodies of a single solar system, as the ancients conceived, Grubb imagined each sphere as encompassing an entire solar system or, more to the point, an entire campaign setting, with all the spheres floating within a "sea" of flammable material called phlogiston.

Through the use of flying vessels equipped with magical "helms," it was possible for the inhabitants of worlds within one sphere to journey to worlds within another. This was the high concept of Spelljammer: the ability to travel between TSR's various campaign settings by means of magical "space" ships. It's a very clever conceit, one reminiscent not just of ancient cosmology but also of Jack Vance's Rhialto the Marvelous. In addition to facilitating transit between existing settings, Spelljammer also opened up the development of a "bridge" setting between them, namely, the larger cosmos of races, organizations, and even worlds that make regular use of space travel. 

In some respects, Spelljammer is the forerunner of both Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) and Planescape (1994), two other TSR boxed campaign settings whose conceptual frameworks allowed characters from Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Krynn, and elsewhere to adventure side by side while also exploring entirely new locales created to flesh out the bridge setting. In the case of Spelljammer, that bridge setting includes a mix of the good, the bad, and the downright weird. There's the pompous Elven Navy attempting to keep the peace, xenophobic beholders at war with themselves and everyone else, mysterious mind flayers with their nautilus ships, the spider-like neogi, and mercantile arcane, just to name a few. As presented in Spelljammer, the cosmos was positively filled with all manner of space-faring peoples – and an equally large number of space-based locales and mysteries.

Chief among these mysteries is the titular Spelljammer, an ancient – and gigantic – manta ray-shaped space vessel with an equally gigantic citadel on its back. The origins and true nature of the Spelljammer are unknown, making it the subject of many legends. It's also the destination of many a spacefaring adventurer, as the citadel on its back is reputed to hold untold magic and wealth for those bold enough to venture within. The Spelljammer is thus equal parts the Flying Dutchman of space and an old school megadungeon, which is itself a pretty good high concept.  

Of course, Spelljammer was replete with high concepts – and that's part of the problem. In an effort to be expansive and easy to use to use with any existing AD&D campaign setting, Spelljammer is something of a curate's egg. I suspect that this was due less to Jeff Grubb's own preferences and more to directives from TSR regarding the boxed set's place within their larger publishing scheme. This prevents the bridge setting from having a strong flavor of its own, which is too bad, because it contains a lot of elements that I wish had been better (or differently) developed. Instead, the whole thing has a kind of underdone quality that fails to do full justice something I still consider to be a great idea to this day.

Spelljammer straddles the line between the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age of Dungeons & Dragons, which, I think, explains a lot. Like the products of the Silver Age, Spelljammer is an exemplar of the era's "fantastic realism," itself a metastasis of Gygaxian Naturalism. At the same time, Spelljammer heralds the start of AD&D's "boxed set era," when TSR cranked out new boxed campaign settings (and expansions thereof) almost on a monthly basis – a seemingly never-ending parade of good ideas not given sufficient time to germinate. There's reason why so many gamers of a certain age have such affection for this period of AD&D's development. For all of the flaws in their output, almost all of these boxed sets contained good, imaginative ideas that inspired a lot of us, Spelljammer included.  

34 comments:

  1. We mostly played the spelljammer setting divorced from the other established settings. Embracing the lore associated with space.

    It never made sense that if Dragonlance setting had flying ships they would employee them to move goods around terrestrial. Faster and easier than relying on wind. So best just ignore that spelljammer existed on Krynn or Oerth.

    This was what Spelljammer should have been all along

    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/17243/The-Astromundi-Cluster-2e

    The 3e reboot in Dungeon Magazine was also great.

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    1. Yeah, if I used it, it'd be isolated from my main campaign world. The presence of spell jamming ships makes a world small.

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    2. Thanks for sharing the link! I might grab this up, I've wanted to try a sort of space exploration game in Spelljammer.
      Are there other Spelljammer modules that give me a lot of stuff to explore?

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    3. ...just a few: greyspace, krynnspace, and realmspace, plus the astromundi cluster, practical planetology, the rock of braal, and space lairs...

      ...i like to throw in champions of mystara, too, but it features a fundamentally different cosmology and physics so it and spelljammer need some finesse to marry together...

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  2. Interesting take on SJ, and quite different from mine. I'm as much a fan of it as anyone but see it as D&D's only serious attempt at a nautical campaign setting, even if the ships fly and the ocean is the void of Wildspace and the churning ether of the Flow. That's certainly how we always played it, with the player crewing and eventually owning increasingly powerful and heavily customized ships that were as much part of the party as any NPC. Groundside adventures were mere island stops between the important parts of the game, that being politicking with other spacefarers and engaging in (or desperately fleeing from) ship combat or encounters with astrofauna. I've been in three multi-year SJ campaigns over the decades and enjoyed every one of them, 2e's warts notwithsatnding.

    Also thought the setting (while much less tightly defined than Greyhawk, FR, etc.) was as strong as it needed to be from word one, and grew more so as the flood of further products came out. The core box gave just enough material to start a campaign with the unique ways existing species (particularly some of the monster races - mind flayers & beholders foremost) behaved when they took to spelljamming, major new players in the form of neogi and arcane, and political situation in the aftermath of the Unhuman War. The Rock of Bral was great "starting port town" even before it got its own eponymous expansion, the Astromundi Cluster box was an all-new campaign setting unto itself, and the Spelljammer box detailed a cross between a mobile megadungeon and a proper city campaign. The modules also expanded the setting with looks at both a brand-new "evil empire" with the Vodoni and resurgent humanoids with the Scro plans for a second Unhuman War. There was plenty going on in the setting if you didn't want to homebrew everything, and all without having to touch on existing dirtside settings even if they did cover the Krynn, Greyhawk and FR spheres.

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  3. The publication of this coincided with the point at which I left D&D for other games (MSH and MERP/RM). When 2e came out we had a look at it but couldn't see what it offered over our BX-1e mash-up and we were suspicious that it was simply a repackage of stuff we already owned - an idea dreamt up by the TSR marketing department. The Forgotten Realms and Spelljammer boxed sets seemed to be further evidence of this and we didn't buy.

    Which is a shame because we had all read Vance and had enjoyed Rhialto the Marvellous (my favourite Dying Earth book, and second to Showboat World in Vance's books).

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  4. Well geez. I've never been the least bit interested in SJ for the past 30 years I've known about it. What little I'd seen, like the Space Hippos, seemed like a farce, and turned me off. I guess Gully Dwarves might do the same for those otherwise interested in. Dragonlance..or Glorantha and Ducks.

    This post has me curious to seek it out and learn some more. I'm guessing that Drivethru/DmsGuild has a pdf as I know 5E recently had a SJ book come out.

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    1. It's got more random comedic stuff jammed into it than most folks are comfortable with, but almost all of it is (and was) easily ignored in favor of a more serious tone. Even the Giff ("space hippos") aren't all that funny unless you insist on making them so by playing them up as British colonial stereotypes. Their core concept is "dangerous mercenaries who have an unhealthy fascination with gunpowder weaponry and won't fight one another if they wind up on both sides of a fight" not some kind of funny-animal cartoon figure.

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    2. Thanks for the FYI. I'll have to put it on my wishlist for future purchases.

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  5. I wonder if you (or any of the readers here) have any experience with the 5e edition of the Spelljammer 'boxed set' [1], so that someone can make a comparison ? Just curious.

    [1]
    https://dnd.wizards.com/products/spelljammer

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    1. I know it exists, but that's about it, I'm afraid.

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    2. From what little I know of it, they've thrown out the original SJ wildspace/phlogiston/crystal spheres concept entirely and moved everything to the astral plane, somewhat like what 4e did with treating the "Astral Sea" as the SJ replacement if you wanted high fantasy nautical adventuring. Fans of the older version seem consistently unhappy with it and even pure 5e players haven't much good to say about it. Appears to be regarded as a poorly-supported cash grab trying to exploit nostalgia.

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    3. >
      > Appears to be regarded as a poorly-supported cash grab trying to exploit nostalgia.
      >

      Well, that was the impression I got from the general hatred filled trolls on social media, but I tend to mostly ignore 'information' from those kind of sources. I was wondering what 'real people' thought about it, perhaps even from people who played the older version(s) as well as the 5e version.

      Anyway, thanks for the responses @James Maliszewski and @Dick McGee.

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    4. Dick is correct. It’s been received as a vacuous, creatively bereft nostalgia cash grab.

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    5. That's a shame. Although I'm not sure if I would personally like the setting (in general), at least it sounds like something wildly different from the average 'Tolkien-inspired' stuff, with goblins and orcs. Oh, well.

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    6. Note that while I relayed a common community opinion of 5e SJ, it isn't one I personally hold. I have zero personal experience with the product and can't judge it fairly. It does seem to be lacking in much support compared to the TSR version, and hasn't got a whole lot more than the WotC-era Spider Moon article for 3/3.5 (which was much better received and I quite enjoyed).

      Was kind of nice to see actual SJ miniatures, even if they were pricey and there weren't very many of them. I certainly always dreamed of having metal ship minis back in the day but no one's ever released anything even kind of close AFAIK.

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    7. It absolutely is that, wildly different. I’d recommend trying to pick up some of the older material if you have the means.

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    8. @Dick McGeeMay
      >
      > " Note that while I relayed a common community
      > opinion of 5e SJ, it isn't one I personally hold.
      > I have zero personal experience with the
      > product and can't judge it fairly."
      >

      Well, that was sort of the point of my question: does anyone have any personal (emphasis on 'personal') experience here ?

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    9. @BookooMay
      >
      > " It absolutely is that, wildly different.
      > I’d recommend trying to pick up some
      > of the older material if you have the means."
      >

      My main concern here is not the means, but rather :
      1.) a.) I'm not the DM in our group, and b.) am not sure if I can convince out group to try it out.
      2.) transmogrifying AD&D material into 5e sounds like a herculean task, even for a DM that has multiple editions of experience.

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    10. Well. It looks like I even seem to have managed to mess up even the simple 'cut-n-paste' task.

      @Dick McGeeMay - obviously @Dick McGee
      @BookooMay- obviously @Bookoo

      But still in 'May' though. Sorry.

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    11. Moving between AD&D and 5E isn’t that difficult in my experience. I write modules for both editions and have no problems.

      I also read a lot of gaming material for pleasure and ideas. Old SJ is a joy to read.

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  6. My experience with this product is/was a sort of composite of the assorted accounts above. The backyard sandbox with invading cats. Our young-teen gaming group had fractured by 1989 forever. I was consumed with trying to figure out Jake's guitar parts on the new Badlands album, but saw the SJ box marquis-displayed at a Waldenbooks in a suburban mall in Northern VA. In typical didpoorlyinhighschooltransitioningtoNowhere fashion, I saw the killer cover but spied "Space" and that was it for me. Judas Priest, with synthesizers? No. Never. And that was it. Shot the whole thing down because of a single word. But the concept above of the SJ landscape being one of a vast nautical atmosphere is extremely intriguing to me. Forgive my ignorance: in rough-hew what are the various Ages of D&D: Golden, Silver, Bronze, Implant Porn, etc.? Internally I feel as though the Golden Age probably transitioned to Silver with Dragonlance, or perhaps Ravenloft.

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    1. James has a post about it: https://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/01/ages-of-d.html

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  7. I have to admit, it took me some time to warm up to SJ, but my regard for it has increased steadily over the years. I came to the hobby via the Mentzer red box in '87, that brief decadent period when TSR was trying to De-Gygax itself while gearing up for 2e. So, unlike a lot of the hobby's old timers, I wasn't (initially) interested in anything new and different. SJ seemed to me to be utterly at odds with the pseudo-medievalism I wanted from D&D. By the mid-90s, however, it was evident that the early 2e Era was also a period of considerable creative ferment at TSR. (Dark Sun and Planescape were the other big successes in this regard, but i might be the only person who also liked Al Qadim.) I picked up a second hand copy of the SJ boxed set and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it -- planetary romance, ship combat, mind flayers, all of it. (And I picked up sundry other products at Kay-Bee toys when TSR dumped its remainders in the late 90s). The under-developed nature of the setting is actually something of an advantage, especially given how over-determined the Realms were and are.

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    1. "...i might be the only person who also liked Al Qadim."

      Not quite. It had its good points, even if a lot of folks these days flinch at the way it handled religion when borrowing heavily from highly-religious cultures. Still, I don't see where any of it was deliberately disrespectful or malicious, and it was an interesting sub-setting with some innovative classes, much like Oriental Adventures had been.

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  8. I started with 3e, so the 2e settings were all settled and I could look back at them as a whole. I always preferred Planescape's gates over the ships of Spelljammer, so it was one of the settings I never got too deep into, and for various reasons it's still a bit low on my list. When I was younger I didn't like mixing sci-fi and fantasy, but now that I've actually come around to the idea I find that I prefer actual space and spaceships and flying saucers in my D&D. Still, I don't think it'd be too difficult to sci-fi Spelljammer up a bit, and someday I'll pick up the POD from Drivethru.

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  9. I've always admired the swagger of Spelljammer, but yes, it doesn't quite click for me either. As others have mentioned above, I'd probably drop the "multiverse" aspect entirely and emphasise the swashbuckling space adventure.

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    1. That's what most folks did with it. Hopping between published (or even homebrew) campaign settings was not the point. Nautical adventures IN SPACE was. With the exception of the three "sphere" supplements for FR, GH and Krynn none of the other SJ products (and there were a lot of them) gave more than lip service to interacting with the saps planetside, it was all about your fellow spacefarers and their shenanigans. They even made a point about how small-minded groundlings tended to be from a spelljamming POV. So what if your planet (or even whole sphere) is going to be destroyed or conquered? There's plenty more out there.

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    2. I used the elements of SJ that I liked to spice up and provide mechanical structure for my planar travel campaigning options, turning the spelljamming ships and helms into planar devices (inspired in part by Michael Moorcock’s Elric tales, and Roger Dean’s covert art for Yes’ albums).

      Some of the SJ monsters and their treatments were pretty cool, and I’ve always wondered how much the Neogi might have influenced the design/presentation of the Shadows from _Babylon 5_.

      Allan.

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  10. To me, Spelljammer & Planescape are the D&D properties that actually stand out as "D&D," instead of just generic fantasy.

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    1. I'd give Dark Sun some credit for that too, it's pretty unique. You could probably make an argument for Ravenloft as well, if it's generic anything it's horror, not fantasy.

      But yeah, SJ and PS are standouts. Ironic, since they theoretically both exist as a way to transit between the generic fantasy settings. Both outgrew that role right quick and became their own unique things. :)

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  11. I always liked Spelljammer, despite normally being the sort of stick in the mud who wants my fantasy settings to be low magic affairs with a strong grounding in historical verisimilitude… SJ was everything I dislike about high fantasy settings like Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder, but dialed up to “11” and unashamedly throwing in a bit of Horatio Hornblower, John Carter, and Ronnie James Dio. I couldn’t help but love it!

    Conversely, I never cared much for Planescape. A perfectly fine setting that I can find no real fault with… But it just kinda never sat right with me. Can’t explain it.

    ‘Polyhedron Magazine’ #151 (May 2002), back when it was the “backside” of ‘Dragon Magazine’ had a very short mini-campaign setting called Spelljammer: Shadow of the Spider Moon which is basically the perfect “self contained” SJ setting. You’ve got a whole solar system to use as a sandbox, several intriguing unexplained mysteries from the ancient past, a couple of looming threats, and some petty political squabbling between the “good guys” that leaves them vulnerable to the “bad guys” unless the PCs intervene… Or the PCs can just pillage and plunder as space pirates and ignore all that.

    There are 3e rules, like feats and prestige classes, but those are easy enough to ignore or adapt.

    I’ve read through the 5e book and, to be frank, anyone interested in running SJ in 5e is better off reading a Wikipedia article about the setting and saving themselves $50 USD. It’s a four page magazine article that they somehow managed to stretch into a 200+ page book.

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  12. I have always been convinced that the SJ beholders were expies of the Daleks. And I’m rather convinced too that the Judoon were RTD’s awareness of that and returning the favour with the Giff.

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  13. I wonder if I’m the only one who used Masque of the Red Death as a rosetta stone to mash up Spelljammer with Space 1889 and start a war between the Elvish and British Imperial fleets.

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