Spelljammer. The name makes my skin crawl and my brain cringe. But why? Isn’t it a beloved TSR era setting? Well, apparently people want to know, so here we go with why Spelljammer missed the mark hard for me back in the day and now.
Spelljammer was an early release in the 2e AD&D era, coming out in 1989. Between 1989 and 1993, 21 modules, adventures, expansions, and accessories were released for it, making it one of the least supported major setting lines in TSR’s tenure; and placing it low over all among all the settings for support. It also had six novels, a computer game by SSI, and a short comic series by DC. The reception was bumpy at best. The core boxed set was described as borderline unplayable by some critics (which is supported by the subsequent releases of rules for things like ship-to-ship combat), but it picked up a small fanbase. It should be noted that it was an early example of a polarizing moment in the D&D fandom, as its high fantasy trappings conflicted with the still largely historically themed aspects of 2e AD&D and AD&D before it.
Spelljammer’s main claim to fame is that it connected the extant campaign settings at the time, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance, into one travelable universe. It ceased having active support in 1993, and only received mentions and cameos for the rest of 2e, 3e, 4e, and 5e D&D until the announcement on 21 April 2022.
So, I’ll be up front. Spelljammer was a garbage setting and that’s why it got dropped like a hot rock by TSR, only making appearances when its fans were writing material and never getting any serious support after 1993. But why? Well, the setting wasn’t well planned out, and TSR’s practices in terms of world building and cooperation guaranteed that it would fail.
Spelljammer was a tonal mess. It whiplashed between lighthearted and deadly serious with no rhyme or reason, making it a difficult setting maintain a vibe in. Gnomes, at the time only distinctive in Dragonlance, used rubberband powered vessels and hunted Giant Space Hamsters while singing praises to the tastiness of “SpaHam” (I am not making any of this up) while the Elven Imperial Navy fought Neogi, Illithid, and Clockwork Horror nightmares in pitched battles while doing a bit of lite genocide on the side against “Unhumans” (Orcs, Scro, Ogres, and all Goblinoids). There were anime easter eggs in the monstrous compendium, and they weren’t even subtle; one was just straight up Guyver. So it didn’t really know its own tone or what it wanted to do; it’s hard to balance “both sides used magically mutated soldiers to fight a savage war of extermination” with “LOL! They eat SpaHam! Get it?!? SPAM!”
Weak As a Setting
Spelljammer was long on ideas and short on execution. It offered up some epic powers that be, swirling around the established worlds and… Doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. Spelljammer’s impact on all the settings should have been immense, but TSR’s brand of terrible world building sank that immediately. The result was that as a setting, Spelljammer was hollow. It was functionally just connective tissue between other settings and not much else. It didn’t matter that there were empires in space because they ultimately all stayed there. All the landing spots on established worlds were functionally secret and were treated like if people discovered there was space travel, it would destroy everything. Bear in mind these would also be people who already live with monsters, magic, elemental planes, inner and outer planes, and more and seem to be doing okay.
Then there was the actual construction of the setting itself. Each setting was contained in a quasi-Ptolemaic Crystal Sphere. These Crystal Spheres floated in a vast unending ocean of Pholgiston (IRL it was an element theorized to allow combustion), a gas-like material that can combust; like a normal ocean, the Pholgiston has currents. Then inside the Crystal Spheres you had “Wild Space”, which was more or less pulp adventure outer space that contained the setting’s world, sun, moon(s), and then a bunch of other planets, planetoids, and asteroid belts that weren’t always or ever mentioned in those settings. And all of that was super-imposed over the existing Great Wheel Cosmology and in competition with existing lore of said settings.
This is the big one. The one that killed it for me. The idea behind Spelljammer was that it connected the existing settings. But in its lore creation, it built around those settings, like there was a wall covered in flaming barbed wire built around them. It had almost no integration with the settings it touched. You could almost describe it as an alternate reality.
The best examples of this come from the 1st and 2nd Unhuman Wars and the War of the Spheres. Never heard of them? I don’t blame you. You can word search the Grand History of the Realms and never learn a thing about them. But who cares why are they important? Well, they had major fronts in both Realmspace (Forgotten Realms) and Greyspace (Greyhawk). During the 1st Unhuman War, the planet Borka in Greyspace was blown up using a combination of arcane and divine magic by the Elven Imperial Navy. They Deathstar style killed it. No word on that or the massive battles in Greyspace afterward show up in Greyhawk Lore. In the 2nd Unhuman War, the Scro (an Orc variant) made contact with the terrestrial Orcs and Goblinoids of Toril and provided them with training, firearms and smoke powder. This was in 1368 DR. Not a mention in the Grand History of the Realms. And The War of the Spheres saw Realmspace team up with Greyspace and Krynnspace (Dragonlance) to battle the Vodoni Empire, ultimately defeating it in the mid 14th century DR.
All of that happened without any of it registering on the main planets of the respective settings involved. None of it appears in their lore. Adding to the bizarre situation were the one off Spelljammer mentions in supplemental books, where something Spelljammer related would happen, but then everyone acts like it was nothing. And this was still happening years after Spelljammer ceased having active support. The lack of world building and interconnectivity between Spelljammer and existing settings was so staggering it literally punted me out of the loop.
My Broader Thoughts On It
To me, Spelljammer encapsulates three major failings in D&D.
- D&D’s failure to embrace fantasy to the point of being able to create a true High Fantasy setting. They constantly dance around the edges of it, but ultimately their devotion to Vancian magic systems and the idea of existing in the “sword and sorcery” to “heroic fantasy” range of subgenres while clinging to familiar and poor world building prevents them from doing so.
- D&D’s inability to make swashbuckling ocean and undersea adventures appealing or accept airships as a norm in settings they exist in. I think this one comes down to the taint of “historical accuracy and inspiration” that has plagued D&D since day one and that we’ve seen a sad resurgence of in 5e after the strides made in 3e and 4e. But regardless, this overly complicated mess was the only way they managed to make this cool adventure type palatable to the player base and it’s disappointing.
- D&D’s poor internal connectivity; it exemplifies both TSR’s and Wizards’ inability to integrate and crosspollinate. Spelljammer should have been the single most impactful release ever. It should have changed things wildly. It didn’t. And given Wizards’ lore-lite approach to everything, I have no reason to expect that the same thing isn’t going to happen again.
What We Know About The New Version
Obviously not much at this point. We know they’ve retained Wild Space, and from the initial reporting, it seems they dropped the Phlogiston in favour of the Astral Sea. The Astral Sea is likely where the floating bodies of dead gods are, because that’s something that’s come up with the Gith in the past (no, I will not take bets on whether they remember to reference the Gith in the book). This choice is a net good since, if it’s what they did, it removes a layer of complexity and better connects Spelljammer to the extant systems in place rather than adding another layer to them. The art in the promo video also indicates some old favourite vessels are back, as are a variety of monsters.
Spelljammer didn’t have to be bad. The idea is sound and science fantasy can be fun. It was just horribly executed and its integration into the multiverse it was supposed to glue together was nonexistent. It’s also a concept that leans HEAVY on lore and careful world building to work, and Wizards is functionally allergic to those at this point. And that doesn’t even touch into the issues around the MtG settings that it will inevitably connect to.
So the announcement of the Spelljammer setting for 5e D&D leaves me with a familiar cold feeling. I have no doubt that the art will be beautiful, and that people will peel the player races and monsters out and use them everywhere. But as a stand alone setting? It’s still likely to be weak. As an integrated part of the larger multiverse? Likely still poorly integrated if at all. Especially at 64 pages, which between base setting description, six player races, some class stuff, some backgrounds, rules for spelljamming vessels, and some fluff doesn’t leave much space for how it interlocks with other settings.