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5 Reasons Spelljammer Rocked

In the late 1980s, TSR began expanding the D&D universe. Forgotten Realms appeared, along with Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and other expansion sets. Perhaps the most daring, and most bizarre, was Spelljammer, which the first rulebook described simply as "AD&D in Space."

Spelljammer is largely forgotten now, but it was a fun, distinctive setting. It presaged steampunk and brought planetary romance to a game that needed a jolt. If you liked the Disney film Treasure Planet, you would have loved Spelljammer.

What was so cool about this campaign setting? Here are five answers.

The Crystal Spheres

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Spelljammer made the ancient model of astronomy real. Spheres surrounding the D&D planet's sun contained entire planetary systems. They were separated from each other by phlogiston, a sort of fire/plasma element that can be navigated by magical spelljamming ships. This allowed characters to plausibly(!) travel from, say, the standard setting of Greyhawk to Faerun in the Forgotten Realms. It also allowed Dungeon Masters to drop their characters into any world they could imagine. The space between Spheres was also home to strange creatures, bizarre phenomena, and pirates. Just getting to a new setting was itself an adventure.

 

The Creatures

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All the usual fantasy races appeared in Spelljammer, but the setting also included unique new creatures and cultures for heroes to encounter. There were the the Giff, blustering humanoid hippos who were usually mercenaries; the Insectare, who were half-elf and half-insect; the Scro, advanced, disciplined Orcs that had mastered space travel; and the mysterious, 12-foot-tall Arcanes. PC's battled monsters such as the eel/spider hybrid Neogis, Stellar Dragons, and even Giant Space Hamsters. Just about every NPC and creature in Spelljammer was cool and/or crazy.

 

The Combat

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D&D rarely featured any sort of maritime exploration or combat. Spelljammer made up for that with ship-to-ship battles in space. Heroes had to fend off entire fleets of Beholders, as well as ships from different races bristling with catapults that could fire slime and mold as fast a machine gun; bladed hulls; and attacks from any magical characters on board. When all else failed, ships could just ram each other. There were also giant monsters to fight (including huge slugs that lived in asteroids, a la The Empire Strikes Back). This sure beat swinging a mace at a kobold.

 

The Novels

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TSR soon realized the limitless potential of the campaign setting and commissioned six novels, known as The Cloakmaster Cycle. These weren't exactly Dragonlance-quality but were still a lot of fun, as seemingly every race and monster from every Spelljammer sourcebook made an appearance. The cycle follows Teldin Moore, a farmer from Krynn (speaking of Dragonlance!), whose life is changed when a Spelljammer ship crashes onto his planet. He acquires a magic cloak and becomes hunted by Neogi. He voyages among the Spheres to learn more about the cloak. In the third book, he even stops on Toril, the world of Forgotten Realms. If you're interested, you can buy the first installment, Beyond the Moons, for just 30 cents.

 

The Comics

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Even more wacko than the novels, this 15-issue series centered on Meredith, a mysterious mage who was sometimes heroic and sometimes villainous. It was cool to finally see some of the planets and characters from the sourcebooks. The comics added a few interesting concepts, like a goddess called the Mother of Songs whose priests cast spells through music. But the writers and artists didn't seem to give the project their full concentration: By the end, there were Elves in Napoleonic uniforms, backstories and plot reveals that violated existing canon, and ship interiors that looked sci-fi instead of D&D (their hulls are made of wood, after all). Eventually, the series just sort of petered out, without a clear ending and with many questions left unresolved. Fansite Spelljammer.org describes the final issues as "pretty much garbage." The line has a sort of "so bad it's good" quality, and there are plenty of pictures of galleons blasting each other in space.


Do you have any memories of Spelljammer? Fire away in the comments.

 


Jason ginsburg

Jason Ginsburg

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