Friday, November 29, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Spelljammer Boxed Set

Holy shit, guys! I think I might own a genuine treasure!

I'm still a little unclear about how it happened. The corners of the box are a little beat-up, but the colors are still really good, and when I opened it up, the contents were in near-perfect condition. There was one small stain, but otherwise very clean pages, with no foxing or wrinkles or smudges. Covers totally pristine. All of the inserts were still in there and still in factory condition. All-in-all, I felt really awkward about reading it. Not infrequently, I would wonder to myself, "what the hell am I doing putting my sweaty paws all over something that could clearly fetch me $200 on eBay?"

It was completely unlike all of my other surviving childhood rpgs. But I think I know what happened. I played Spelljammer as a teenager, but it must have been with my friend's copy. I must have bought this particular boxed set sometime in college, out of some misguided nostalgia, long after I stopped playing AD&D. There's still a sticker on the front of the box from the hobby shop across the street from my school. Eight dollars?!

In some ways, it's a terrible burden to have gotten such a deal. To know that I possess a rare and valued thing that I obtained purely by chance. I really didn't want this sort of responsibility. I'm of the "possessions are meant to be loved" school of collecting. Protect the books. Treat them gently. But don't just leave them on a shelf. To me, there's nothing more pointless than an action figure left in its original packaging.

Nonetheless, as a collector, I can't help feel ambivalence. Maybe this is something wonderful for my heirs to discover. They'll grab Spelljammer instead of The Complete Barbarian's Handbook and they'll think, "wow, uncle John had some cool vintage games," and that will put my more problematic volumes into context.

Morbid thoughts aside, it's an interesting insight into the effects of the internet. I remember that hobby shop very well. It wasn't a very welcoming place. It was mostly devoted to model kits and serious train collecting, but it had a little corner with a random hodge-podge of old rpg books. I always got the sense that the old man who owned the place resented having to sell me Magic: the Gathering cards, so much so that I eventually wound up walking farther away to buy them. However, there was also something magical about the place. Things came through his door and he clearly didn't know what they were, but he'd put a price on 'em and put them on a shelf.

Things are different now. The internet makes obscure things easier to find, but also equalizes prices. There's a different local store I go to now, when I'm in the mood to try my luck with people's castoffs. I've found some good things there, but the prices have generally been much more accurate. If something comes into your shop and you don't know what it is, you can just check.

I suppose it's more fair this way, but I'm still a little wistful. If it weren't for the veil of ignorance that existed in 2003, there's no way in hell I'd be able to own something like Spelljammer.

So, after spilling so much digital ink on the story behind my copy, how is the game itself?

It's good, but good in a way that's impossible to do anymore.

How to put it? There's a certain vital energy when someone tries something dumb for the first time and it somehow works, despite itself. There are choices here that demonstrate the kind of untutored brilliance where you can't be 100% sure if they just got lucky or if you're looking at genuine inspiration, unencumbered by the weight of pre-existing expectations.

Like, the way this game handles gravity is amazing - it's either on or it's off. If you're in a place with gravity, it's always the same strength. The only other option is zero gravity. Nothing greater and nothing in-between. In practice, a lot of science fiction winds up around this point eventually, but to just cut the Gordian knot this way and make it explicit, I feel like it's something that even better games would hesitate to do.

But it's not entirely hand-waved. There are rules about the orientation of gravity. Objects in space have a "gravity plane." And if it's not entirely clear where the gravity plane is supposed to be (it's actually almost 100% along the floor of the ship, but canonically, this is because people build their ships so that it works out this way), then at least it has its own weird fantasy physics to explore. Objects "below" the gravity plane fall "up" towards it. Ships could theoretically be two-sided, having flipped-over chambers on opposite sides of the plane, but since entering a larger-ship's gravity field aligns a smaller ship towards the larger one's plane, this is considered a good way to get half your shit scattered across your ceilings. The fact that, in addition to being a neat bit of fantasy, this also effortlessly justifies the sci-fi convention of two ships approaching each other in the same orientation, like they were sailing on an ocean together, is just a cherry on top (I also love that approaching a ship "upside down" is both a thing you can logically do and an in-setting faux pas.)

Spelljammer has a lot of stuff like that. It defines its planets in terms of elemental correspondences, so that you can't rely on real-world planetology. In game terms, our Sun would be a fire-type spherical planet, meaning that instead of fusing elemental hydrogen, it was actually formed from an inclusion in our universe of the Elemental Plane of Fire. And the reason earth-type planets like, um, Earth have things like oceans is because the dominant elemental type might have impurities. Air-type gas giants can have floating continents with entire civilizations. The sun in Greyhawk has lakes! And no matter where you go, most planets have atmospheres and all have 1G of gravity!

This is space fantasy that is more Flash Gordon than Star Wars and it's kind of amazing.

But the best thing about Spelljammer is that, by its very nature of its subject matter, it manages to wiggle out from under AD&D 2nd Editions sometimes stifling atmosphere (no pun intended) of One-True-Wayism. Just with planets alone, you can have spheres, discs, cubes or elliptical shapes - and those are just the ones that have their own symbols in the legend. It also suggests planets that are carried on the back of giant star-beasts, stars that are cities on the interior surface of light-year-wide crystal spheres, and massive citadels powered by the creative energies releases when their inhabitants practice the arts. The text encourages you to break the rules in ways AD&D rarely did.

Although, even in space, you can never stop being Asian. Seriously, it's weird and gross. One of the factions in Spelljammer is sponsored by the "oriental" lands of Forgotten Realms. But in the description of their Dragonships it says "Shou Lung's approach to space exploration is typical of oriental nations throughout space. While 'western' nations dismiss space travel or turn their attention to more militaristic ends, the oriental nation pushes its experimentation with fantasy space forward."

What does that even mean?!

It's especially baffling when, later on, they talk about how Shou Lung has a fifth elemental classification for planets, the Lifeworlds, that's based on their own cosmology, but then become totally dismissive of it in the sidebar where they explain the concept.
The most western-oriented sages of space marvel at the fact that the otherwise sane and rational easteners will take such a flight of fancy just to make their own cosmology fit the real universe.
Sounds to me like the "westerners" (whatever that means in space) are full of shit, because there's a canon world that's a giant fucking tree.

But out-of-left-field racism aside, Spelljammer is a landmark setting with imagination to spare. Its main flaw is the era in which it was made. There's a roughness to it that would hardly be tolerated today. Information gets repeated between the two books. There's not enough new character options. For all the charming brevity of its gravity system, the space combat rules are too long. It is well within the AD&D tradition of tying all its fantasy elements to he spellcasting classes (fighters and thieves really should be able to handle a spelljammer if the wizard or priest dies). Gnomes get no respect.

It's astonishing that this setting has never gotten a second edition. A hardcover with the same production values as some of the 3rd or 4th edition settings would have been spectacular. As it is, it's a good source of ideas for games, but primitive enough that doing so would require significant adaptation.

Ukss Contribution: There's a lot of good stuff here. Only one accidental revelation. When talking about vampires in space, it did a weird 80s gender-normative thing that, as a side effect, gave us some great imagery. Apparently female vampires can protect themselves from the sun with long gloves and parasols.

It was a real temptation for me to go with southern gothic vampire ladies floating through space on a magically-rigged riverboat. And an even greater temptation to go with the same idea, but replacing the ladies with men in drag. But the whole idea is potentially quite problematic, so it's probably best to steer clear.

I think instead that the Cosmic Sphere is overdue to get its second planet. A gas giant with floating continents. My only worry is that this is such a great setting that it will eclipse Ukss entirely.


  1. ...does that, then, suggest the UKSS (after all, a deliberate hodgepodge of unconnected things) is a gas giant with floating continents?

    1. You know, that wouldn't have been a bad idea for the setting, but no. I'm still working on the assumption that I'll be able to get most of the parts to work together in something resembling a coherent whole. I've even got a prototype map on the Ukss page now (though making that crummy map only drove home how much I need to make a better one).

  2. I think this blog is a wonderful thing that puts your more problematic volumes into context. =)