Spelljammer (1989)

I got the first Spelljammer box as a birthday gift back in 1990, and because of my birthday’s proximity to Christmas, I associate the two. The connection I feel between D&D’s space fantasy setting and the holidays is spurious at best, but this is my roleplaying game Instagram feed, so.

Anyway! Spelljammer is weird. I love Spelljammer to itty-bitty pieces, but it is ridiculous. The ridiculousness might actually be what makes in great, kind of like the movies in MST3K.

Space travel is possible in the D&D universe by means of magical artifacts called Spelljamming Helms. Space is depicted using a version of the Ptolemaic system, with planets contained within crystal spheres and connected by an elemental gas called phlogiston, that serves as a kind of interstellar ocean. There are dozens of spacefaring races in Spelljammer, all with their unique (and often silly) ships themed to their physical appearance. There’s a lot of Jules Verne here and things that would have been called “steampunk,” had the term been widespread at the time.

Spelljammer was a hugely ambitious campaign setting and served as the launch setting for the AD&D 2E in 1989, if you can believe it. (I can’t imagine something as weird as Spelljammer coming out today at all, let alone launching something.) Conceived by Jeff Grubb, one of the key design goals of Spelljammer was to connect all the existing TSR campaign settings – thus Krynn, Toril and Oerth are all places Spelljammer characters can hail from and visit.

Jim Holloway’s art and ship designs define the box set – he’s great at balancing the cool and the doofy in a way that is appealing. That falls off with future supplements. In a historical context, this is TSR’s first real high concept setting, but they hadn’t yet figured out how important a strong aesthetic was in anchoring a setting like this for players. In this way, Spelljammer is a clear, if flawed, stepping stone to settings like Dark Sun and Planescape (which was Spelljammer’s philosophical replacement as the connective tissue between all TSR worlds), both of which fuse high concept material with strong visual style.

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