I will freely admit that I loved Spelljammer, but I was also perfectly okay with watching the line fade away. How can I say that if I loved it? Because, like much of 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Spelljammer couldn’t stay focused on what it wanted to be.
What did I love about Spelljammer?
- Weird blue space guys selling magic chairs that let your ship fly up into space
- Spider-eels with Umber Hulk warriors
- Beholder and Illithid crewed ships
- Explosive rainbow goo between the crystal spheres
- Different, sometimes REALLY fantastic cosmologies
- The legend of the Spelljammer itself
- The idea that any adventure from any D&D world could end up in space
- Gun crazy hippo mercenaries!
I loved the crazy, over the top weirdness of the setting. I loved running into areas of space where the stars were sentient or were just glowing paint on the inside of the crystal sphere. I loved things like the Dwarven craft ships and the Rock of Bral, that provided fortresses and cities in D&D space.
So why was I okay with the whole thing fading away? Because this crazy setting that existed “out there” away from all of the D&D worlds and was it’s own thing rapidly started to become part of every setting. Initially, I loved the idea of running into a Krynn minotaur in space. I even enjoyed the crazy contributions of the tinker gnomes to Wildspace. But I really hated when tinker gnomes were kind of “known” in various worlds because Spelljamming, within a year or two of products, went from this rare thing that some adventurers may run into, to being a THING that all the important movers and shakers know about in the individual settings.
There was even a mention in the Spelljammer boxed set that the phlogiston (the flammable rainbow river between worlds) flows AWAY from Krynn, meaning Krynn adventurers usually find space, but almost never go home again, and outside influences don’t often find their way to Krynn from other worlds–until later products came along mentioning Spelljamming docks in Palanthus, and we won’t even talk about how other gods apparently can grant spells in Krynnspace despite the whole theme of the original set of modules. Kind of makes you wonder why Spelljamming missionaries never showed up in that 300 years of silence and just said, “hey, I’ve got a deity for you, and they didn’t drop a mountain on you.”
Why was I okay with Spelljammer fading away?
- Even Elminster and Khelben shouldn’t casually know a ton of facts about Spelljamming
- Cormyr and Shou Lung shouldn’t be building up Spelljamming fleets since that kind of significant changes the damn setting
- There shouldn’t be space elf ambassadors just hanging out in every elf kingdom in every D&D world, but especially not with the Silvanesti on Krynn
- There shouldn’t be not one, but three, space wars to end all space wars that make any planet based war look really petty and pointless
So, what about those adventures I mentioned in the title?
I tried running two published adventures while I was DMing Spelljamming characters. One adventure was everything I wanted out of Spelljammer, even if it had its own little quirks. The other adventure was everything that annoyed me about the conceptual drift that the meta-setting seemed to run smack dab into eventually.
I haven’t run these adventures since the early 90s. I’m super old. So I might get some details wrong. That said, Crystal Spheres was the adventure I was picturing when I first read about Spelljammer. Your adventurers end up heading into space. They get their own unique ship, shaped like a hummingbird, that could convert magic missiles into anti-ship energy blasts. You were chasing a vampire villain in a scavenger hunt across multiple crystal spheres, including one called Faeriespace, where all of the planets hung in the boughs of a giant, star system sized tree, and the final battle took place in Darkspace, where the sun had burned out and the whole system was pretty much set up to favor the vampire villain.
I am sure I modified and skipped various parts of the adventure, but I loved the idea of flying to a ton of new crystal spheres, with crazy, weird cosmologies and local rules, doing over the top things to track down a villain who is hiding out in a region of space that pretty much is all about him being in his home territory.
Later, I tried to run Under the Dark Fist. Under the Dark Fist was about a space emperor with a fleet of spaceships that threatened all of known space. So, in other words, if you don’t stop the Emperor, all of the local D&D worlds are heading for their own Dark Times. Your characters get to interact with the Free Space Alliance. Are these just space-based cultures that are worried about the Emperor? Nope. This includes representatives from the standard D&D worlds, sent by people that know something about Spelljamming, to form an alliance to defend their worlds.
And while I’m not normally the guy to complain about this–Important People on Oerth, Toril, and Krynn know about this massive space fleet that threatens all of their worlds. But instead of Mordenkainen, Elminster, or Dalamar being directly involved, well, we’ll look for some 10-14th level adventurers to handle the fate of all of our worlds.
While Crystal Spheres was over the top with wonder and craziness, Under the Dark Fist was over the top by multiplying everything by 100. The Free Space Alliance and Cormyrean and Shou Lung fleets of Spelljammers was the trend that looked to be emerging for the setting, not the prospect of finding flat worlds carried on the backs of elephants, floating in Wild Space on the back of a giant tortoise, or acting as space privateers, raiding eel-spider slavers for gold and glory.
There have been a few hints about Spelljamming in 5th edition, and I’d welcome it–but I really hope that it’s the crazy “planets in a tree” and “let’s fight a vampire where all the stars are dead” Spelljammer, and not the “this is all kind of mundane, and all the stuff you thought was important back on your home world really doesn’t matter” Spelljammer.