Sunday, 23 December 2018

Saving Spelljammer


So in 1989 TSR – then-publisher of D&D – released their first “weird” setting for 2nd Edition AD&D. It was a setting that linked their three existing “full” settings (Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms). It was a science fantasy setting – SET IN SPACE. It had some marvellous new monsters and concepts for settings. It was called Spelljammer.

It was kinda lame.

I should qualify that. Let's say you get the Spelljammer boxed set, the original release. There's loads of great stuff in it, and it looks very promising. Full-colour ship data cards! Paper miniatures with stands to allow you to simulate space combat on the board! Two books and two full-colour maps of a the iconic “Spelljammer” and a typical asteroid spaceport!

                                                             And cool art like this by Brom!

The writing by Jeff Grubb isn't bad, either, if a little hyper-technical in that 2nd Edition house style. The ships and their datacards are great. There's some good but short adventure seeds to get your “groundlings” into space, and perfectly reasonable rules for travelling in both “Wildspace” (the solar system within a specific Crystal Sphere) and the “Phlogiston” (the Ptolemaic substance between the crystal spheres hanging in the heavens). They're maybe heavier than I go for, but that's fine. There's a few cool monsters/races in one of the books.

But that's kinda it. The setting information (beyond some overwritten high-angle stuff on the nature of civilization in space) is very sparse. There are minute gazeteers of the three main “systems” (Greyspace, Krynnspace, Realmspace), with each planet within each of those systems getting three or four generally bland paragraphs. The Rock of Bral, the asteroid which provides a perfect “starting” spaceport once your guys are in space, gets three pages. There's virtually nothing on the Spelljammer itself. There's similarly little on structuring and running a campaign in space.

The other three boxsets that came over the next few years were of mixed use – the one on the eponymous Spelljammer is considered pretty bland, there's a decent one on space combat, the campaign boxset gets startlingly mixed reviews. A few of the individual books were pretty good depending on what you wanted – SJR1 Lost Ships has been called “the third book that should have been in the first boxset”, based on its wealth of interesting encounters and locations, whilst SJA2 Skulls and Crossbows similarly gives a lot of adventure ideas. The three setting books for the three core systems, and the one for the Rock of Bral, are useful if you're running in those settings.

You probably get the idea. Missed opportunity writ large. It took til Planescape came out, 6 years later, for D&D to have its “iconic weird setting”.

But Spelljammer is worth saving. It's a setting about wizards using their brainmagicjuice to fly butterfly- & squid-shaped ships through spacelanes made of magical oil, inhabited by spider-people slavers and star dragons. I'm sure plenty of individual DMs have salvaged it for themselves before; this is the start of my attempt. It's an attempt which emphasizes the “OSR” elements of Spelljammer.

What is Spelljammer, fundamentally, about? Well it's partly about cool ships; certainly a lot of the published material emphasized galactic trade and high politics; but fundamentally, it's surely about exploration and discovery (in a cool magical ship!). I think it's like a lot of D&D in that way, especially OSR D&D. You fly around going to weird new places, which may well be full of traps and monsters and treasures. You find strange Ancestries with complex objectives, which you can help or hinder. In many ways, the key distinctives are that it's a 3-D Island Crawl, and that it's got Science Fantasy elements. That's what should make the setting feel different. I'll expand on those a little, and then add a few more key categories and concepts to my conception of the setting.

3-D Island Crawl
Think of Skerples' (http://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com) island crawl. There's cool locations spread across your hexcrawl, with seas and attendant dangers in-between. Think of Ben L's (http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com) Zyan Below Inverted Junglecrawl – you can move vertically as well as horizontally on this hexcrawl. I've done this 3-D hex-mapping myself a little, for my Out of the Abyss campaign. That's what the Spelljammer universe is – both within a crystal sphere, and between them, is a 3-D map your player travel around. In so much as the game is one about exploration, functional mapping (hexcrawl, big pointcrawl, whatever) is vital. Your players have to be able to make choices between different targets, and “travel costs” have to be paid to make that choice meaningful.

Another feature of this being an “Island Crawl” is that it's arguably more exploration-focussed than most other settings, or should be. Of course, any game can be exploration-focussed, but when you're on the high seas, the sense of adventurous discovery may well be the primary emotional resonance of the game. So travel between planets, or between spheres, should be hazardous, but rewarding – each location should be fresh, and distinct from other places the players have been. The nested argument should be that each location should be more distinct from each other than in a landcrawl. Dolmenwood or Slumbering Ursine Dunes are obviously very fresh and vibrant settings, without much sense of replication between hexes/points – but there's a thematic similarity between locations within them. That's a softer requirement in Spelljammer. It's legitimate for one world to be the high/epic-fantasy Forgotten Realms and another to be the picaresque, slightly grubby Hill Cantons.

Finally, consider the relationship between “Crystal Spheres” (semi-sealed solar systems) – think of them in terms of oceanology. The individual Crystal Sphere has many islands or continents dotted around an interior sea, like the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Between the Crystal Spheres is the Phlogiston – the dangerous high seas! This both gives a particular “feel” to each type of ocean-terrain, but also informs potential factional relationships. It should be complex for one sphere to major influence or dominate another sphere. The massive web of empires and wars presented in the books doesn't work for me; they clog up the “map”, and make space seem a lot smaller than it should.

Science Fantasy
One element that links subsidiary locations, and is the broader texture of the setting, is that it has pseudo-science at the core – magi-tech is basically how you get around. It's very much fantastic, though, rather than speculative – magically-talented characters give up their spells for a day to pilot the ship, the ships themselves are all sorts of implausible but cool designs, and so forth.

This should certainly influence many of the nodes or hexes the characters explore. One planet could be a giant air bubble with hundreds of floating asteroids within it, inhabited by “Polynesian” plant-men paddling flying canoes. Another could be a sentient, largely benign, incredibly complex bacteria that covers a core of solid adamant.

Similarly, this means the technology involved should be fun and a potential attraction for players. Put time into making running a ship simple but genuinely enjoyable (and sometimes challenging). 2nd Edition will normally overload this; make this many percentile rolls, check this table and then this one. A small modular system for this, with a way of integrating NPC crew as hirelings, seems very doable and fun.

The Adventure
For me, a key concept in how I run D&D is emphasizing player agency over the direction of the game – which leads will they follow up on, which dungeons will they explore, and so forth. I don't need, then, to have a series of fully-developed, plot-heavy adventures on hand; but that doesn't mean the players aren't going to go on adventures, and that there isn't a functional mechanical concept of “The Adventure” in play. Once they go to a place, and as they go there, stuff is going to happen. How?

One, have weird locations to travel to that have volatile situations ready for the PCs to mess with – this is basic D&Dcraft, but if we bear in mind that this is a 3-D Island Crawl, the self-contained ready-to-blowness of a location becomes more clearly important.

Two, if you're running a crawly-style exploration game, there need to be random encounter tables to introduce unpredictable danger or opportunity.

Three, you need to be able (via random encounter or organic story development) to create “bottle episodes” - things that can happen just on the individual jamming ship. Some DMs may be happy to make this happen by fiat, though my own taste runs to random or organic. This sort of story adds a third string to the bow – there's the stuff that happens on nodal locations, the stuff that happens to the ship (Goblin pirates attack! The ship gets stuck in space sargasso!), and the stuff that happens on the ship. Crew morale is low because of recent casualties – there's risk of a mutiny. A random encounter they rolled on the Rock of Bral four sessions ago comes to fruit as the stowaway flower-person tries to release their seeds into the Phlogiston. You get the idea.

(Idea in respect of stocking encounter tables or worlds – rob Star Trek and the Star Wars Expanded Universe for ideas and then spin them as fantastically as possible.)

Factions
Even wilderness settings – and Spelljammer encompasses those – can benefit from “factions”, whether an individual wizard in an isolated tower or a city-state government. Factions can serve two purposes in Spelljammer games, I think.

One is political – some players love political games, so let them mess around with the factions you're using on that basis. The gigantic empires Spelljammer canonises aren't to my taste, but I can definitely see Neogi slavers and ancient dragons and planet-hopping archmages being major players.

The other purpose that comes to mind is as sources of regular interaction. It seems natural that Spelljamming parties may engage with the same NPCs less than some types of party – there's so much travel that you might only engage with a set of significant NPCs for a few sessions before leaving them for a year or two of real-time play. Having NPCs that the PCs regularly talk with can give a sense of setting density and investment. These NPCs have their own interests, naturally, and want the PCs to advance them. The elven Priest of the Observer God who travels with the PCs is both full of wisdom and secrets, but also is gathering information – perhaps quite sensitive stuff. The bartender at the place in the Rock of Bral the PCs always go is a loyal friend but also a nascent crimelord who's likely to clash with other local bosses.

What Next?
I think I need to develop a map of a starting sphere and stock it with cool stuff and then throw some players into it to see if the above principles create a more functional Spelljammer setting. That could, if successful, turn into some useful stuff to put up here (I guess either way there might be some cool locales or monsters that could end up here).

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Saving Spelljammer

So in 1989 TSR – then-publisher of D&D – released their first “weird” setting for 2 nd Edition AD&D. It was a setting that linked...