Spelljammer is one of those settings that gets an unreasonable amount of stick. Monsters and Manuals recognized this. The Cloakmaster Cycle was the second set of tie-in novels I got into without understanding they were attached to a game of some kind, although the original Spelljammer boxed set, AD&D in Space was probably my first role playing supplement. I received it for Christmas, had no idea what to do with it due to a lack of Dungeons & Dragons experience and brought it back to Waldenbooks at the Burlington Square Mall to exchange for store credit — which I probably spent on more Dragonlance novels. I was a weird kid.
Regardless of how I started out, I still hold the grief Spelljammer gets is largely undeserved. Let’s count the reasons down.
Some folks hold “militaristic space hippos” are silly. And I hold “Um, why?”
“Because they’re aliens” covers a lot of ground in my book. Moreover, when my disbelief suspenders stretch far enough to encompass crystal spheres that contain solar systems, I don’t have much problem tucking giff in there as well — though I had questions myself, namely why an entire race were mercenaries for hire and how they ever got around to reproducing or having any sort of society if everyone was off soldiering.
Coming as I did from a reading diet over-saturated with Dragonlance novels, I didn’t have a problem with tinker gnomes in space. From a literary perspective, they’re just comic relief. I can see how, in a game, they could irritate as some people take them as an excuse to be “wacky.” Besides, they’re crafters and inventors, which is always a pain in games with pre-modern era technology, as there’s always some wiseacre who decides his character’s going to invent gunpowder.
On the other hand, the gnomes and their paddle-wheelers were one way the setting showed that one of its more grievous problems, the spelljamming helm, didn’t necessarily have to be a concern for parties whose wizard was disinclined to burn all her spells just to keep the plot on track.
Speaking of which . . .
Okay, yeah, these were more problematic. The core widget that makes travel between worlds feasible works by draining spells out of magic casters. Sure, there were other ways to make spelljamming ships move — artifact furnaces, the aforementioned gnomish works, and so on — but it’s made abundantly clear that helms are the primary means of ship propulsion in spacefaring society. Which, unless one’s party boasts an ample number of spell-casting fellows or mystically-enabled minions, can become problematic.
Now, if they’d done something like the original World of Darkness, where each game line had its own little economy in the physical embodiment of the mojo de jeu — Mage: The Ascension, for example, had quintessence that could be harvested as tass, a material manifestation of the energy — that could have worked. They save themselves creating a brand new dilithium-like plotdevicium fuel source by concocting a way to put magical energy in a conveniently utilized pellet form, rather than expecting a wizard to man the helm all the time.
It’s Dungeons & Dragons. Physics are already funky. What’s wrong with ships generating their own planes of gravity? It lets everyone keep their feet on the deck planks with a minimum of fuss.
Though I sometimes wondered if anyone designed a spelljammer where the gravity plane bisected the ship in two, allowing for two decks, one on the upside and a second on the downside.
They did a lot of things well. The overbearing, fascistic elvish navy struck a chord with me; I thought, “Yeah, I can see how people from that culture and biology could come to feel that yes, they do know what’s best and it’s their heavy burden to protect everyone who’s more ignorant or innocent.” The astonishing variety of cultures and styles of wildspace-faring technology caught my eye, too. Elves grew their ships. Dwarven nations tore up the mountain wholesale. Undead liches dragged their tombs into space. For someone who grew up with the tame ship and alien designs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the wild, chaotic panoply of the Spelljammer cosmos, where even the solar systems could vary wildly, captured my attention.
The freedom of the Spelljammer setting also spoke to me. Before Planescape rolled along, there was no set up for a Dungeons & Dragons that so explicitly said, “Yes, the player characters get a ship. Yes, they should rollick along from planet to planet, getting into scrapes of various magnitudes and generally having picaresque escapades.”
I’ve only made one attempt at running a Spelljammer-based game, a decidedly half-boiled kitbash involving HERO that evaporated. It’s still something I’d like to do, but it’s way down the list of games I’d like to run. So Spelljammer is still mostly fond memories of loving the tie-in novels when I was an adolescent. I need to get back to reading the supplements TSR published.