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[Let's Read] SJR1 - Lost Ships

MacBalance

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(Sorry for the lack of updates... I thought I'd have more free time while on vacation last weekend. I did not. On the other hand, visiting New Orleans did give me some interesting adventure ideas for D&D...)

Except that it wasn't Spelljammer. It didn't have any of the things that I liked most in Spelljammer. Which is why I hated it then and hate it now: it got all the attention and budget that Spelljammer should've had. Also that dialect it's all written in gets on my nerves to no end.
I was big on the Spelljammer train (ship would be more appropriate, I guess) when it first came out. I avoided Planescape for a while because I felt it was replacing Spelljammer.

I still think they're both valid and can coexist: Planescape rarely 'contradicted' Spelljammer as far as I can tell, but just did it's own thing. Unfortunately I also feel the 2e representations had some serious flaws in the earlier material (because it was earlier material).

Ignoring the big visual stuff (Planescape material looked really great, with a much more consistent art style, full color, and more. (Some of this was was probably partially a matter of the times also, Planescape is something of an identifiable victim of mid-late 90s Desktop Publishing gone mad, such as when
word
wrap
was
ab-
-used
mercilessly
around
artwork.)

As I review, I feel like PS was a bit more 'gentle' on players and DMs. A lot more advice for new players and such, while Spelljammer seems to almost be aimed more at veterans who enjoy figuring out (or handwaving) crew.

Were I in charge of relaunching Spelljammer I'd disregard a lot of the post-2e references that I feel did harm the setting: Conflating with astral travel and such. It should be it's own thing, and stand alone as a viable frontier and alternative to planes hopping.

A quick list of 'pain points' with Spelljammer:
  • The 'economy' had some issues, even by D&D terms.
  • Characters were likely either 'crew' with limited autonomy, or in an owner/captain role with minimal oversight.
  • The ships weren't that interesting as things, despite interesting art and design.
  • They often got boiled down to 'travel devices' with the ships being used as shuttles to/from more traditional dungeons.
  • Important knowledge tended to be scattered across books. Of the 2e settings that needed a Revised set, this was probably the one that didn't get one.
It's a favorite of mine, but I admit that it has serious faults, especially on review. I was looking at the Revised Dark Sun PDFs recently and I'm glad it didn't get a set during that period with complex attempts to make stat blocks work across multiple rules options and such...

Anyway, back to the book: Next up we have a page of adventure seeds.

First is Giants Jump Up which is basically an encounter near a small moon in which Fire Giants jump into space to throw rocks. I think the mostly unwritten idea is that the moon is a low-gravity moon, which is not the Spelljammer norm (where a small ship may have 'normal' gravity). It's not a bad encounter idea, though: Giants on ropes throw a few boulders then use the ropes to climb back to safety and reload/heal as needed. Also using their ropes to harass the ships that pass by. The main thing lacking is any motivation.

The next gets about 1.5 columns and a terrible pun for a base. The PCs discover "Statulee Manor" a floating castle owned by the wizard (27th level, so..) Statulee. As in "Stately Manor" yes it's that bad. It's basically an excuse for a simple dungeon crawl with no real meaning as the castle is a trap covered in an anti-magic shell but the wizard is constantly wandering around invisible and untouchable, the latter by adventure fiat. There's also a Slithering Tracker as a 'cleanup monster' and a bulette of unusual size (giant and 15 HD) as something for the adventurers to fight. Also 9 space worms who attack the PCs ship.

The adventure suggest using "an old castle floor plan from a played-out module or the floor plan of any large home (even a modern one)" or combining multiple plans. There's no real motivation or 'solution' to the puzzle, as the crazed wizard is pretty much just there.

The section ends with Treasure Island which is basically finding a wrecked pirate ship on an asteroid. It's infested with undead. There's a little treasure (4,000 gp in gold) and a lifejammer and a furnace but little of real interest. The undead are 'lead' by a wight who was the captain's mate (romantically and possibly organizationally) but this doesn't really go anywhere.

The adventure ideas are rough, and I don't feel they've aged well. They'd be good encounters to throw in, but most need work to make them interesting and have a place, so they're not even that useful.

Next up is "Flotsam of Space" which is a few pages of encounter-is options to add 'terrain' to the void. Then there's the ship catalog, which I do think is a redeeming feature of the book.
 

Dalillama

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I still think they're both valid and can coexist: Planescape rarely 'contradicted' Spelljammer as far as I can tell,
Yeah, but once it came out, they stopped doing anymore Spelljammer stuff.
As I review, I feel like PS was a bit more 'gentle' on players and DMs. A lot more advice for new players and such, while Spelljammer seems to almost be aimed more at veterans who enjoy figuring out (or handwaving) crew.
Yes! The entire thing was premised on name level murderhobos who don't want to build keeps, so now they can murderhobo their way across the stars.


The 'economy' had some issues, even by D&D terms.
Among other things, it didn't really exist; there's prices for things (which are wildly out of balance, the whole idea that magic items must be super expensive didn't help), but there's no indication of where they're sold. Every once in a while a shipping company is mentioned, but mostly it's mercenaries, wreckers, and adventurers, and we never learn where anything might be shipped to or from.
Characters were likely either 'crew' with limited autonomy, or in an owner/captain role with minimal oversight.
That's one reason we see so many kinds of ships with small crew requirements (viz the Vipership from this very catalogue); so PCs can have their own ship without worrying much about crew.
They often got boiled down to 'travel devices' with the ships being used as shuttles to/from more traditional dungeons.
This is my second biggest issue; dungeon crawls IN SPACE aren't meaningfully different to ones on planets, and it doesn't play to the setting's strengths. Where's the adventures involving 'carry mysterious cargo that a lotta people seem to want' adventures? Where's the secretive passenger paying extra to run the blockade/avoid customs/etc? Where's the battling ships stumbled upon in an out of the way sphere and you have to figure out who, if anyone, to help?

. I think the mostly unwritten idea is that the moon is a low-gravity moon, which is not the Spelljammer norm
Nah, smaller worlds have shallower atmospheres and take less time to leave, even though surface gravity is normal.
The main thing lacking is any motivation.
They're fire giants, they're evil.
It's basically an excuse for a simple dungeon crawl with no real meaning
Or point. There's literally nothing interesting or valuable here. Frankly, as a player, if I found this place, once the party left I'd stand off and destroy it with artillery.
 

MacBalance

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Yeah, but once it came out, they stopped doing anymore Spelljammer stuff.
Keep in mind I don't think it was any real transition between the two. I feel like Spelljammer wound down, and several years later Planescape arrived.

It should also be said that some of the Planescape adventurers were also "means to get to the dungeon" just via a series of portals and treks through weird planes as opposed to ships. The dungeon is a recurring and easy thing for DMs to handle.

I wouldn't mind a 5e Planescape campaign (and at least one member of the dev team seems to kind of agree: Chris Perkins has been hiding tiny Spelljammer references in 5e material and his gaming streams for a while.) although I hope it's done right. Someone will need to really buy in to the setting and get the feel right if they're going to do it: I don't want to see another "We've mashed this up with Planescape" or something where the PC's Flying Ship is a unique weird thing instead of one of many in space.

The 'economy' issues are hard to fix, but I'd look at recent RPGs like the Rogue Trader game for a few years ago. Different scale (Rogue Trader was one of the 40k games, so a setting where ships are kilometers long and have crews measured in hundreds or thousands at least.) Still, the idea of making "Ship management" an interesting and fun variation not he 'hex crawl' style of play is interesting to me.

I'd heard once that Spelljammer was partially done as a way to annoy Lorraine Williams.
I have not heard that specifically. I know she didn't like some aspects, but I mostly heard it as more the general frustration between her and the rest of the company. I've also heard they pitched it to Hollywood, which sadly went nowhere.

Our next chapter is Flotsam in Space and as I said, is kind of 'terrain' for voyages... Which overlaps with the adventure ideas a bit. It's even described as a grab bag. These feel like they elaborate on ideas covered in earlier books in many cases.

Daveys covers the setting concept of how individuals left in the flow don't die from low oxygen, but go into a state if suspended animation. Elves and Dwarves call these individuals "drifters" which even the text notes is a conflict for the common term for disabled vessels. Slavers may refer to such individuals as "meat."

I kind of like this section, because it has a strong focus on "DMs may use..." with a short treats on how such characters could be used. Of course, this being D&D "Trapped bad news" is a totally viable option, as is "loot boxes in space" or similar. A discourse suggests re-using NPCs or even those of dead PCs with name changes (Akin to a Traveller suggestion) for the settings. it's suggested to add appropriate skills and possessions. Also to think about why the character is now in space and why they're adrift in space.We're encouraged to give the character motivations. I like that.

Next up, Debris Fields, or various small (and I believe more realistic) asteroid fields. Close packed by real-life standards, but small objects. One suggestion is intentionally-created fields called "rubble fields" created as defensive screens for bases and disabled ships. There's another reference to a Spalljammer thing that is sometimes forgotten: Raiders using rocks with "captured power sources" to turn them into missiles.

Other than that, it covers damage in detail as well as some suggestion on hiding monsters or loot in the debris field. And monsters using loot as bait.

Dust Clouds slow ships and foul air envelopes, which could be a pretty serious threat. They're also "dark regions" and conceal pirates and monsters. Guess the pirates have air sources: There's even a note that fog magic to refresh the air not only doesn't help while in the cloud, but makes things worse. There's a weirdly specific (21%) chance that a cloud has something harmful in it like mold spores, gas spores, etc. An unspecified but higher percentage have sizable rocks which could cause damage.

The use of spells to light up clouds is briefly discussed: It lights up the entire cloud, but provides limited visibility to the ship using the light spell.

Flame Rings are an exotic and interesting hazard. There's a lot of options, with many being gateways to planes of flammable gases. There's some brief discussion of harvesting the flammable gases (Giff and Gnomes think a great idea. Some think it's a great idea twice.) and it's kind of also the Spelljammer analog to a black hole: A region in space that can be used to skip to another plane, albeit not easily. Doing so is suggested as a last ditch maneuver. We're pointed at the (1e) Manual of the Planes for details.

A simpler object is the Floating Islands which range from "horse sized" to mid-sized asteroid in scale. They're generally described as having life on them... And of course monsters, including ghouls and undead. A suggestion is that some may have ship debris at the core. They may be a source of salvation offering air and other supplies to beleaguered travelers.

Flow Beacons are metal 'stars' in the phlogiston that have glowing blinking patches and emit sound in a constant pitch, unique to each star. They're markers perhaps, but no one knows who placed them. They're immune to nearly everything.

The Gas Clouds are kind of a mixed bag. They could be anything, so PCs that aren't desperate will probably be best to avoid them. There's a laundry list of suggested random effects to using the gas cloud's air. They can also hold monsters, of course.

An Ice Fist is essentially a small comet that can strike a ship. A thought is that most of the items in this chapter could be part of random events for a Spelljammer computer game: Imagine if during a long travel sequence (listening to early-90s disk-whirring and such) you receive a pop-up that an Ice Fist has struck your vessel. It's a trade-off in that you take ship damage (2d6 hull and a "Ship Shaken" critical) and crew damage (3 attacks dosing 2d4 each to all crew in deck or rigging) but may get water, trapped air, or even exotics like a trapped monster or treasure. Many of these items read like that.

Planetoids are large than Flaoting Islands, but broadly similar. Add in a note that they're used as garbage dumps and places for illicit meetings. Spelljammer was often plagued by not having a set campaign theme, but this seems weirdly proscriptive:

It is recommended that a DM detail six or seven planetoids before spacefaring play begins, and use them as needed (PC activity will probably require at least two planetoid visits before three weeks of spacefaring game time have elapsed).
That seems weirdly specific, and perhaps redundant with laying out the system the PCs are in and perhaps the worlds and ports on those worlds.

Next is Sargassos which in Spelljammer are "magic-dead" regions, a term hat gained foothold in the aftermath of the Forgotten Realm's Time of Troubles 1e to 2e events. These are areas where spell jamming and other magic fails. Ships that don't recognize the danger and turn immediately may end up drifting, risking death due to air.

The helm failure has an interesting progression:

  1. Round 1 sees the ship's speed (from spelljamming and any magical source) reduced to half. Helmsmen feel a "sickening, gut-wrenching feeling" but don't take damage.
  2. The 2nd round sees the ship's speed fail completely.
  3. On the 3rd round the ship's speed comes back to half-speed.
  4. On the fourth turn the ship fail completely unless it's out of the Sargasso (in which case it's back to full speed).
The idea is, I think, to simulate the idea that the helm is trying to push some power through, but becomes erratic instead of just failing like many similar effects. If PC helmsman don't specify an action, there's a Dex and Intelligence check to work things out. If both succeed they do so, while a single passed check can be interpreted as a "succeed with difficulty" kind of result.

There's a two-page sidebar on "The Sea of Shadows" a specific sargasso near Krynnspace. It's a pulsing massive of purple mists and red glows that swirl and change. Which is basically how I visualize the Phlogistion anyway. It's home to many Shadows (presumably the D&D kind, not B5's Crab-ship piloting aliens) and popular with the Arcane. There's rumors of an Arcane base within, even, and they may show up riding Sarphardin and maybe offering help at a price.

There's a few more hazards as well as a sidebar on space diseases: As I said, many of these feel like rough notes on Random Events I'd consider for a Spelljammer cRPG while traveling.
 

MacBalance

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The rest of the hazards and our special guest, Diseases:

Spaceworms are a new monster. The description here mostly mentions them as a threat in many places, but focuses more on eating them: They must be eaten raw as they dissolve into skin and slime if cooked. They taste like "greasy, lumpy white sausages" and are known to be eaten by both Giff and Illithids (the latter who generally only eat brains, preferring those of intelligent creatures. Also, the image of an Illithid eating a long pallid sausage just seems.... messy. Like it's eating it's own tentacle. Elminster has, as of this book, canonically tried them.

Spaceworms are kind of a dud, but something I feel should be said: Ed Greenwood was totally on board with integrating the Forgotten Realms with Spelljammer, at least as of this book. I've heard he disliked the whole "The Realms loosely mirrors earth nations" tone of many 2e expansions, but he seems OK with adding space stuff in.

Space Missiles are fast-moving objects. A major suggestion is furnace or artifurnace helms that broke loose. There's no real mechanics for them having to roll to hit. Again, this is an entry that would kind of work if this was a Random Encounter Table item or an event while fast-traveling in a cRPG.

Finally, we get Spore Fields which I feel like I've discussed before. They're another highly variable entry: There's some that resemble dust clouds, while others are invisible. Some are harmless, others very dangerous. Some may carry diseases, and good charts may note "disease fields' as places smart ships don't go. There's a suggestion that searching for the antidote to a disease might make a trip fun. I'm not sure I agree.

A brief sidebar discussed Diseases and presents quick rules, realizing that most players and DMs don't really want to deal with the detailed illness rules that are probably in the DMG somewhere. The suggested 'disease' is really an 'infestation' with later notes about modifying it to a disease: Visible "cloud of spiny, greenish-white spores" that causes everyone to Save vs, Breath Weapon or fall down dropping held items. 2-5 turns of unconsciousness, 1 hp lost (which seems trivial), halved strength for 1-2 days, blackish sores that cause a temporary 3 point hit to Charisma, hard of hearing, dazed, and act last in combat. The DM may also call for ability checks for 'simple actions' as desired and note general illness symptoms.

If used as a disease, the spore cloud and collapse are lost.

The spore-disease is pretty bad. This is the 'quick' infestation. The DM may also use more detailed diseases, but we're told not to use Mummy Rot or Lycanthropy as they're technically curses.

I actually like the space hazards section better than the adventures. It accomplishes its goals better I feel. It's still rough notes at times, but it doesn't aspire to be anything more. My main issue is it has a lot of old-school AD&D-style "Ha, ha! You got hit by an inescapable DM fiat trap!" stuff that makes me unhappy. Some aren't fun while traveling: Damage to characters us likely trivial (unless it kills crew, which some could) and/or healed during the trip. Essentially another aspect of the whole issue with Random Encounters while traveling in many editions.

Some of these might be fun events to add to a combat if they're somewhat avoidable/ Maybe if it's established that a region of Wildspace (even an entire Crystal Sphere) has a problem with Ice Fists and a d6 (or d8, d10, etc.) is rolled every round of combat, and on a 1 the PC's ship is hit by a giant ice bomb, while on a max roll the enemy's ship is hit. (Both of which are bad, assuming PCs will board the enemy ship).

Next up we can finally start looking at the Ship Catalog, which I do still feel is the book's saving grace, despite some being a bit silly.
 

Trireme

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This is my second biggest issue; dungeon crawls IN SPACE aren't meaningfully different to ones on planets, and it doesn't play to the setting's strengths. Where's the adventures involving 'carry mysterious cargo that a lotta people seem to want' adventures? Where's the secretive passenger paying extra to run the blockade/avoid customs/etc? Where's the battling ships stumbled upon in an out of the way sphere and you have to figure out who, if anyone, to help?
You write them, or I did.

The #1 thing about Spelljammer is that it will absolutely fail as a setting if used by a DM who lacks skill at coming up with interesting scenarios or plots or does not want to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about adventures.

And before people assume I'm saying otherwise: those are perfectly fine ways to be a DM. There are many settings that operate cleanly and effectively as pop-up tents.

It just won't work here, and it can lead to some absurd ways of reading these books in the sort of "Let's Read" format the Internet favors. But, hell, they're pretty funny threads.
 

MacBalance

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The #1 thing about Spelljammer is that it will absolutely fail as a setting if used by a DM who lacks skill at coming up with interesting scenarios or plots or does not want to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about adventures.

And before people assume I'm saying otherwise: those are perfectly fine ways to be a DM. There are many settings that operate cleanly and effectively as pop-up tents.

It just won't work here, and it can lead to some absurd ways of reading these books in the sort of "Let's Read" format the Internet favors. But, hell, they're pretty funny threads.
That's something I'm noticing in my recent reviews of the Spelljammer material. It definitely feels like a setting created by veteran players/authors for veteran players, and it shows. The material has some organizational issues (it resembles 1e in some ways!) and as everyone here says, assumes the DM will do a lot. It has the quality of providing perhaps too many options at times. I feel like there was an attempt to add more of a 'structure' with the later adventures, but perhaps that was too little too late.

At the same time, it had a ton of neat ideas and, importantly, did make me (as a younger gamer) think of adventure ideas based off the material... Even the material in books like this one. (I'd still go for the Spacefarer's guide if I had one Spelljammer book to read forever... Or maybe the Legend of the Spelljammer box if I could sneak a campaign in and had people to run it for.)

Anyway, our first entry in the Ship Catalog is the Angelship!


Overall, it's an interesting design. I feel like it could be referred to as an 'axe head' and the biggest negative I can think of is since it didn't get any art (that I'm aware of) showing one in action (as opposed to the schematic view) it's a little tough to visualize. I'm not sure if the intent is for the wings. It doesn't say "anthropomorphic angel" to me the way other ships say "fish ship" or "butterfly ship" but maybe not everything needs to be so literal.

The anthropomorphic ship is kind of a 'thing' in sci-fi/fantasy... Megamaid being one of the examples as it at least knows it's silly.

Anyway, back to the Angelship. It stands out as I believe one of only two or three 'Kobold' ships in the canon of the game who are both the builders and operator. it's on the light side at 33 tons. It can land on land but not water, and is reasonably well equipped including a blunt ram.

The Kobold Angel was formerly the backbone of the kobold space presence: This ties in to the setting's Inhuman Wars when the Elves wiped out everyone they didn't like, mostly. It was "Named for a kobold legend of winged humans who healed fallen warriors" or, you know, the things that powerful clerics summon that aren't demons or neutral outsiders.

The ship's big "feature" is the wing-warrens: They're described as a series of crawl-tunnels used for maintenance and to access gunnery stations out on the wings, although the floorplan shows the weapons as being mounted on the for and aft decks. The tunnels are the distinctive feature, and I feel like in-use I'd stress that those shown are just a rough idea or the major 'as-built' passages, and there may be smaller pathways kobolds can shimmy down. Also, kobolds probably line the passageways with traps, being kobolds.

It can land on... land, but is a Reverse Gravity design (One of many in this book). That may limit it's value as a trading vessel or bulk carrier (two major uses). It's also the Kobold's warship of day's past, equipped with hulls painted black and cloaking by spells. This night angel variant uses a darklight spell that allowed them to get around the usual limitations of spells like darkness. They were up-armed and armored variants. Some had two piercing rams added to the wingtips (Noted as a failure due to structural reason... Plus I don't think the rules planned for multiple rams being useful).

Overall, I like the Kobold Angel. An interesting scenario (to me) would be a heavily repaired example run by a band of kobolds that lean towards a Robin Hood-like ethos. They're still arguably evil or at least will steal anything not nailed down, but when they pull into a port they often hand out rations and maybe free medical care to the downtrodden and poor of the city, especially if there's kobolds or similar. Maybe they do this because of a debt they feel they are repaying, maybe they want to be seen as somehow above the rest of their race (or goblinoids in general). Maybe a dragon told them to do it.

I feel like few adventuring parties would want this ship based on the ship's lineage.

By the way, the intro to this chapter suggests this is 'DM Territory' and that DMs should change these around (appearance, armaments) in case players read up on the vessels. The descriptions don't have costs: These are exotics not available in the average shipyard.
 
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