Spelljammer Campaign Setting Review

Forgotten Realms was originally intended to provide a place for 2e adventures, however with the heavy editing and playtesting which took place during the writing process, nobody really knew what the final ruleset was going to be, and they didn’t want to have Forgotten Realms on the back burner for two years, so in 1987 they began the process of releasing it.

Besides the Realms, people who didn’t want to invent their own worlds could play in Greyhawk, or Dragonlance, but the first true setting of the 2e era was a strange one. SPELLJAMMER! The Manual of the Planes had talked about linking worlds together, but this product was the result of a long and productive brainstorming session which took place at a restaurant with the intention of linking the worlds through space travel. What it became was much bigger than that! Space travel kind of took a back seat as the ideas produced a true setting that was unique to itself.

At the time, SPELLJAMMER was a huge flop with consumers. I remember walking into a Kaybee Toy Store in the mid-90’s and seeing a shopping cart full of Spelljammer box sets going for $5, I’d like to say that I’d picked it up, but I can’t. Spelljammer was way ahead of its time, few players bought into it, but today it is a huge cult hit that is actually still supported by an Official Website at spelljammer.org

Spelljammer is not Science Fiction in any way, the laws of physics and magic all hold true to high fantasy architypes; space ships are not designed to function realistically, they are powered by magic and the less one thinks about it, the healthier their mind will be.

Since the system contained lots of rules that were unique to it, and because Jeff Grubb was able to get enough solid information out of Dave Cook to sync it up with 2nd Edition rules, Spelljammer was able to get a release date in 1989 with product 1049: Adventures In Space Campaign Setting Boxset.

Buyers got two rulebooks, full color cards depicting a huge collection of fully mapped ships, a giant map of the Spelljammer craft itself, as well as a good collection of new monsters unique to the setting. It was one of those products that offered a bang for one’s buck, and with a cover price of only $15, you’d figure that Spelljammer would had sold like hotcakes! It of course didn’t. I think that the low price scared many people off, not to mention that many believed that it was a Science Fiction genre thing, but for this box specifically, you had people trying to learn the new 2e ruleset, and they just didn’t want to be distracted at this point by some weird space game.

My biggest problem with it was that it wasn’t labeled well. There were a total of 4 boxsets published, with no real labeling as to which one was the original, which would be this one, Adventures In Space. To me, that always sounded like it was a supplement, so I had no idea what to get. I’m the kind of DM who prefers to write my own supplemental material and adventures; when I buy into a setting, I want enough there to actually play with, without having to head right back to the store to get more information. Did SPELLJAMMER satisfy this requirement by giving us complete information? From looking over the material available on PDF format, I think that they did.

Buying into Spelljammer is expensive. Retailers shipped tons of unsold copies back to TSR and they were eventually destroyed, making them rare in today’s market and highly desired by collectors. Finding a complete copy of the setting on the used market is difficult, so prices are going to run higher. I rarely promote PDF play, but a DM’s got to do what a DM’s got to do, and in this case, it is cheaper to print off your own copy.

This is a neat and unique setting to have adventures in, it was one of those products that pushed the game forward (a bit too far forward at the time), but now that people are more willing to try new things, Spelljammer has finally found its market. At the time I would have graded this product as an F, I had no interest in it; this grade has improved, I now give the product a B+ I’m not sure how sturdy this one box is on its own, but as it pushed the game so hard, and it is so original with tons of adventure ideas and hooks at the DM’s disposal, I publicly take back all of the mean and unwarranted criticism that I had bestowed upon it in my early gaming days. Now I wish that I would have bought it, and I have a feeling that I’m not alone with this assessment.


Jens D. said...

I love me some Spelljammer! Of course it's hard to get any hard copies of those books, but the only true revision of AD&D 2E (Hackmaster 4E, naturally) managed to squeeze a supplement out there condensing 5 major Spelljammer supplements into one sweet volume: HackJammer. 128 pages of awesome and maybe (just maybe) easier to get than those other books. Worth hunting down, in my opinion ...

RipperX said...

That is interesting Jens D. I had never really thought about Hackmaster as anything serious. I found a copy of that for $50, which is still more than I like to spend, but if you get 5 condensed supplements, and you are serious enough to really play it, that is a value!

Jens D. said...

HackMaster is a serious (and complete) revision of AD&D 2E, the presentation they chose is coming from a funny premise and many people didn't get it. As with every rpg, you can play the game as you like despite the tone it sports :) Wrote a love letter once about it, so if you are interested in reading a long and winded text about a game that deserves way more than that, you could look here:


Brooser Bear said...

I tweaked AD&D 1 for combat realism. Spell-jammer came out in 1987. Grend Duchy of Karameikos setting came out in 1987. 1987 was a significant year in my life. A Separate post about that later. I fell in love with the Moldway dungeon design chapter in his red book, and since then I only run my own adventures. It's more fun to start from scratch. Literally. Spell Jammer has a special significance for me because Minsc's Boo is really a giant space hamster (Baldur's Gate CRPG).

RipperX said...

Jens D.: I remember this article! It was a really good one, that I found surprising. I got tunnel vision with games. I have a few 3rd party products that are useless to me, but others are gold! I love the old generic Tunnels and Trolls stuff, but I've never personally bought anything for Hackmaster. If I find something for the right price, I'll pick it up!

Brooser Bear: I have never desired to really start from scratch. I suppose that I like to be motivated. My worlds are my own, I avoid mass plots unless they serve a purpose. When I fill in a city, it gets pretty detailed! I guess I prefer working on a small scale, rather then the large. There are things that I want to focus on, and things that I don't. Published settings have a good knack at filling in the stuff that I don't want to do for me.

Brooser Bear said...

Rip, I prefer small scale myself. Gygax never went in the direction of the players becoming immortals or kings, etc. High level AD&D gaming goes in a very different direction. The most overlooked piece of Gygax writing is his Appendix A, Random Dungeon Generator. It's not so much a random labyrinth algorithm, as it is a collection of his randomized descriptions, traps, special events, how the treasure is guarded and hidden. I am compiling all of the 1st edition writing on adventure design into one integrated whole, and I reviewed Gygax's appendices, and it suddenly occurred to me, that if you use Gygax's tables you will (i) DM adventurtes in the same style as Gygax and (ii) It will duplicate the setting described in the sword and sorcery stories much vaunted in the Appendix N. That was a touch of Gygax genius! Subsequent post-Moldway editions of Basic Expert Companion etc breaks down any kind of quality writing. Post Moldway edition cuts down verbiage and breaks down Moldway's language to dry instructions devoid of any kind of spark, and also breaks the spell by suggesting that the DM use explosive booby traps, anti-gravity fields etc for Dungeon Draps, amoing the most mundane pits and spring fired darts and arrows. Anti-Gravity fields, really? How about Uranium Hexafluoride gas in a flask in a Wizard's laboratory, one whiff and painful death in out world. No saving throw, for that matter how about V-Nerve gas condensate coated door handle. Also one of those painful death guaranteed things no saving throw allowed and by the time players figure out something is wrong, it will be too late to save the dum PC, since death will occur before the Cleric can cast any kind of a spell. I get it, it works great, but is it any kind of a medieval fantasy. Those books were written by dilettante hacks. Anyway, I thought you'd get a kick out of that.

Jens D: I got all the D&D books I want a long, long time ago. I can still buy some old AD&D Modules on e-bay, the way some people collect comic books, but hadn't started. I still buy books that have writing about DMing and about how to write adventures, but these are no longer gaming books. Compleat Strategist in Manhattan, New York, used to carry a selection of books related to gaming that were not hobby publications, but they stopped carrying those. I picked up a book called Hamlet's Hit Points, a few years ago. It was not a great book, but an interesting read. I bought some books on cuty, wilderness and dungeon design that were put out by d20 Layers and Legends and by Wizards of the Coast in the 3rd Edition Era, also a couple of books on the history of the role-playing game hobby, most were product promotional garbage written by industry insiders in the vein of Gygax books wrote in the heyday, the only one worth getting is Jon Peterson's Playing at the World, which is written like a serious history work written by a professional academic, a breath of fresh air.

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