WRITER’S NOTE SEPT 8: Due to the enormous response to this article, we must add a few points here at the start. We here at Yawning Portal always knew that a mostly negative critique like this would get responses. And that’s great! We point you to the comments, there’s a lot of nitpicking but also a lot of valid arguments and great counterpoints, particularly from David Shepheard of Wildspace and the Spelljammer Wiki. There remain a lot of points I’d still like to discuss and, frankly, argue there but won’t for two reasons. First, these are mostly subjective arguments – David and I will simply never agree, and that’s fine. Second, I just can’t spend more time on this subject for now. I have to move on to other articles. Hopefully I can return to this subject later on. I wish that more of you wouldn’t be so stuck on the completely unimportant and trivial (and true) statement that I don’t know anyone who misses Spelljammer (at least until now). That is the least important part of my critique. We offered David the chance to write a rebuttal but he declined due to his schedule. Hopefully he’ll reconsider later. I absolutely do not mind if people don’t agree with me – that’s just fine. I use loaded language and can take it as well. Up to a point…
Finally, to that Spelljammer fan that sent me an extremely graphic and disgusting message where he threatened to rape and murder my wife – you really need to stop and think where you are headed in life. Threats of physical and/or sexual violence are never ok, but if something as trivial as this brings on such emotions, you’re in a bad place fella.
We just did a retrospective on Dark Sun and it was very well received. In fact, I cannot think of anyone ever having a bad thing to say about Dark Sun – There were those who didn’t play it or weren’t that interested but even they conceded that it was an awesome and unique game world with its own identity and great twists on expectations.
The same cannot said for Spelljammer. I have never met anyone who waxes nostalgic about that game world (or worlds, to be more precise). I’ve met people who think it was funny and people who think it was awful but nobody (yet) has said it was great.
Around 1990 and for the next five years, TSR became highly experimental. They churned out campaign settings and game worlds. Some of them were great (and will be explored here by us Yawners in the weeks to come). Some of them were not. Nothing was more odd then Spelljammer.
For those unfamiliar, the idea of Spelljammer was AD&D in space. Yup. The idea is not the worst on paper, space travelling ships that were fuelled by magic and could bridge the gap between the various AD&D worlds, allowing for any type of character to be played.
The execution was, to put it charitably, not particularly well thought out. The worlds were situated within crystal spheres and between them was an element or energy field referred to as the Phlogiston. The ships were not sci-fi spaceships, but galleons or had fantastical bird or animal shapes and the method of travel was the spelljamming helm (not a helmet, but a ship’s helm) that was activated and fuelled by magic. Gravity and air were important factors. There was a region called Wildspace, which was sort of a frontier, outer space region.
You could play all the traditional races and variants from any world but other races and creatures, both new and old, played a large role. Beholders and Mind Flayers, terrible monsters in a more traditional setting, had their own empires and cultures in this space setting. There was a race of militant humanoid hippos called Giff, draconic centaurs called Dracons, an orc variant called Scro (orcs bacwards. Ho-hum…) and so on and so on. One of the few successes were the Neogi, who were genuinely terrifying slavers and pirates who can to this day easily be made an exotic and terrible threat in other, more traditional worlds.
A large part of the design idea of Spelljammer was to connect the various worlds, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance (or rather – Oerth, Toril and Krynn). I can see the appeal, but this never works unless… well, wait until later in this article.
Spelljammer was a surprisingly good seller in the beginning and there were quite a few additions and supplements. There was a book that specifically addressed ship to ship combat in space and a boxed set, The Astromundi Cluster, that was an entire campaign setting within the ruleset. Of particular note was the Complete Spacefarer’s Handbook, which was by far the best addition, and gave the setting its own voice and identity. It contained rules on how to play the various races, a lot of character options, gear and reading it was (and remains) the only thing that I find exciting about the Spelljammer setting.
Spelljammer never really caught on. It was discontinued after four years and largely forgotten. Back in the days when Paizo (designers and publishers of Pathfinder) published Dragon magazine, there was an annual issue dedicated to discontinued settings and how to incorporate them into the current rules and they updated the spelljamming rules. It was nostalgia and fine for what it was, but nothing more. The best element of Spelljammer, the terrifying Neogi, were brought back in the fantastic 3.5 supplement Lords of Madness.
The true sin of Spelljammer was the wasted potential. It could have been a novel idea with its own unique settings, completely new kinds of adventures and a sense of wonder and discovery. Instead its main selling point was always the connections between established worlds.
It was an experiment, and not a successful one, but the core idea of connecting the various worlds was one that TSR was very fond of and wanted to explore further.
And boy, did they…
If once you fail – try, try again
Spelljammer’s legacy led to possibly the greatest thing to come from AD&D 2e, the absolutely, stunningly amazing Planescape. Planescape will be further explored later on here at Yawning Portal, but for a quick recap, it was an explorations of the outer planes and dimensions of AD&D. The elemental planes, the hellish lower planes, celestial upper planes and everything in between was the game world and from there everything was connected. It could be used to bridge exploration between worlds or exclusively to explore the planes. The only limit was the imagination and it was helped a lot by the incredibly beautiful and distinctive look of the products. Many remember the amazing drawings and paintings of Tony DiTerlizzi, but no less important was the general design and layout of the books. Even the fonts were distinct. There was a highly specific lingo based on Victorian working class slang. Planescape was, simply put, amazing.
Poor Spelljammer never stood a chance. I recently looked through the old rules and they make less sense to me now than they did back when I was a young’un. But like most things, there are things in Spelljammer that can be salvaged for an interesting one-off or experiment. And please give the Neogi a chance.
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