To Boldly Go: Spelljammer

When it came out thirty years ago, Spelljammer quickly became one of my favourite settings for Dungeons & Dragons. Not only did it open up an exciting blend of fantasy and sci-fi for my campaigns, but I loved the aesthetic of sailing ships soaring through space, using the “rules” of fantasy “science”. For several years, even if the campaign wasn’t centred in the Spelljammer setting, elements of it appeared all through my games; weird alien devices, the ruined hulk of a “sailing ship” hundreds of miles from any coast, and so on.

Loving the setting didn’t mean I didn’t house rule the crap out of it, of course. There were aspects of both the fluff and the crunch I wanted to change. I thought the mechanics around air were a bit clunky, and I felt like restricting the use of a spelljamming helm to spell casters was limiting. So I wrote pages of house rules, modified things to run in a way I considered smoother, and gave my version of the setting a make-over. I loved it, my players loved it (at least, based on the number of times I got asked to run it), and I played with it for several years. Then I moved cities and like a bunch of my gaming material those Spelljammer notes ended up in a box for twenty five years.

Until recently. It seems Spelljammer keeps coming up in certain corners of the 5e community. Everytime WotC teases a new product announcement you will hear the whispers, “Spelljammer? Are we finally getting Spelljammer?” Not so far, sadly. But I recently came across my old Spelljammer house rules, and that got me thinking about running a 5e Spelljammer campaign. One of the beautiful things about how the Spelljammer rules were designed in the first place, was they were meant to sit above the regular 2nd Ed AD&D rules, so the setting could be used as another level to an existing setting like the Forgotten Realms or Krynn. This makes it really easy to drop the old AD&D rules and swap in 5e rules, sort of like swapping in a new TTRPG battery for the old. And going over my house rules, most of them will also work in the new system with a bit of tweaking and fixing.

All of that tweaking and fixing is going to be a series of posts over on Renaissance Gamer. But I thought I would share some bits of my Spelljammer house rules here, for anyone who might be interested in adding them to their campaign. And since they’re house rules, feel free to take them and mod the crap out of them for your table. If you do, drop me a line and let me know what you did and how it worked, I would love to hear about it.

Spellcasters? We don’t need no stinking spellcasters! – The original Spelljammer rules called for a character with some sort of spellcasting ability to make the ship go. That arcane character had to sit in a special chair called the helm, and from there direct the ship’s movement and other abilities. Right from the beginning I knew I wanted to expand that, because I wanted the ship to be more than a large magical item, I wanted it to be closer to an animal companion for the entire group of characters. To me, that meant that even the non-spellcasters should be able to fly the ship, or at the very least a connection to it that allowed them to control a specific aspect. It made sense, for instance, that the fighter be able to tie into the weapons somehow, or that the rogue might be able to make the ship faster and stealthier.

So not only could anyone helm the ship, but the ship’s abilities changed depending on who was at the helm. While I still have notes on some things we came up with, for the most part we played this aspect by ear. The characters in that early group had never encountered a spelljamming vessel before, so the characters were learning about how it worked at about the speed I and the players were coming up with ideas.

Updating these rules for 5e, everyone would have the same basic abilities to maneuver and navigate the ship, but I would tie special ship’s abilities to the Skills and Class Abilities of the character at the helm. So the rogue could use their Stealth to make the ship harder to spot, or use their Uncanny Dodge to blunt ship’s damage. The fighter might be the best helmsperson in ship-to-ship combat, because they could take an Action Surge to hit that much harder, or Second Wind to repair damage. But everyone in the group should have something cool they can do when they take the helm.

More than just a giant magic item –  A giant magic item the adventurers could use to sail between worlds is pretty darn cool, and it’s what drew me to Spelljammer. Inspired by Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and her other Brainship novels, I wanted spelljamming ships to be something more. Initially my concept for the vessels had me treating them more like animal companions; they had some sort of intelligence and could learn, but no real sentience. This lasted while I was getting to grips with the rules and the setting. Once I felt comfortable, I slowly expanded the ship’s personality and gave it a an Awakening moment, so it became more like an NPC nominally under the control of the group, but played by me.

Again, because my group were playing characters new to spelljamming, we were able to keep this Awakening a bit nebulous. Did all ships Awaken at some point? Was their ship special in some way? If there were other Awakened vessels, could they talk to one another? Would they talk to one another? All of these questions led to fun moments with characters trying to befriend strange spelljamming vessels, never being sure of a response, or what type of response.

This is something I would definitely keep in an updated campaign. Similar to a magic item which gained abilities and even sentience as the wielder increased in levels, I love the idea of the spelljamming vessel gaining a personality and peculiarities in response to the characters. I think that becomes a treat not just for the players, but for me.

All I need is the air that I breathe, and to spelljam! – In the original Spellammer rules they played on the “scientific” idea that when anything went into space, it carried a bit of gravity with it that held an atmospheric bubble around that object. So a person floating in space retained enough air around them for about 2d10 turns (a turn was ten minutes) before it started to foul, and they could replenish that air bubble by interacting with a larger bubble, say from a planet or vessel. A spelljamming vessel, of course, held a much larger bubble which could support its crew for several months before it would also have to dip into a planet’s atmosphere to replenish that supply.

I didn’t really have a problem with this concept, in fact I quite liked it. But I also knew my group at the time was going to crap at keeping track of how much breathable air they had left. I could see several game stalling arguments over math in out future, so I needed another solution. Enter something I simply referred to as “the organics”. The organics were essentially a highly efficient biome which created “good air” and filtered out “bad air” (keeping things firmly in the realm of pseudo-science). As long as the crew size didn’t exceed the maximum number for the ship size and the organics were not compromised in some way, there was enough air for everyone indefinitely.

At the time I was worried that I was removing an important bit of tension from the game. But what I ended up doing was swapping out a vague tension (did we maths properly?) for very specific tensions that fit in with the actions and plot. I knew I had made the right choice when, as were were nearing the end of a session and also the party’s first ship-to-ship combat, I had a crew members run up from below decks and simply gasp out, “Sir! It’s…it’s the organics, something’s wrong!”. And then I ended the session. The entire week until the next session the players were coming to me singly and in groups to try and wheedle out what exactly had happened, all the while panicking about their character’s suffocating in space. Perfection.

So yes, the organics are definitely something I’m going to keep around in my update. Besides giving me options for creating moments of tension and problem-solving for my players, their presence also opens up the possibility of cunning tactical plans from my players, should they lean that way. The organics also tie in nicely with the idea of the ship growing toward sentience, and becoming something closer to a living being over time.

Who would build a ship like that!? – The art in the Spelljammer box set is iconic, and I loved the designs of the various species specific spelljamming vessels. But influenced by both anime and Euro-scifi themes and aesthetics, I wanted to get really out there with ships designs. Yes, certain things needed to be common between all spelljamming ships, because of the “science” behind their function. But I wasn’t afraid to make other ships the party encountered over-the-top special. I didn’t want them running into a steady stream of what were essentially sailing ships, I wanted the ships of other species to invoke awe, dread, wonder, or (if I could manage it) all three.

I won’t go into the details of all the species, but I will talk about the Elves as an example. Elves did not build spelljamming vessels, they grew them. Smaller ships had the appearance of seed pods, eggs, or cocoons, depending on the “breed” of ship. Smaller ships grow into larger ships, so if the Elves wanted a large ship for trade or war, they had to grow them from Seedling class ships. Larger Elven ships have a very organic appearance, with features resembling various plants, insects, and birds, again depending on the breed of ship involved. Because Elven ships begin as living beings, they have no centralized organics section; the entire ship serves that function. This has the benefit of not allowing an enemy to target that area specifically, but does mean that damage to any area of the ship has the potential to threaten the well-being of the entire crew. Elven ships also never stop growing, and so all of what are currently Elven outposts and waystations were once ships, tended and well maintained over centuries, now able to support hundreds if not thousands of people. Their most common appearance is that of an enormous tree, root systems and all, growing in space.

That’s not all I have for the Elves, but it should give you an idea of the things I thought about for each of the species in the game. While spelljamming ships from other species wouldn’t have been as numerous as those from the Elves and Humans, I wanted them to stand out. I hope I come across the sketch one of my players did from the description I gave of a tinker gnome spelljammer, because it was a ridiculous Rube Goldberg design of a ship, nevertheless effective in its own strange way.

So yes, of course species distinctive ships are going to stay in the new version. I’ll revisit my design assumptions and update where necessary, and you can follow along with that over on Renaissance Gamer. But I am keeping the base assumption I made back then, that because we’re in space, building a ship aerodynamically is not important unless that ship has to enter an atmosphere. The presence of organics to provide air removes that need for the most part, and so ship designs can get a bit…out there. Should be fun!

Hopefully something in there interests you, maybe sparks some ideas for your own Spelljammer revival. If it does please drop me a line here or on Twitter and let me know. I’d love to see what you come up with for your own voyage between the stars.