Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Secret History of Spelljammer and a Question

Former TSR game wizard Jeff Grubb has done a another "secret history of" post on his blog, this time about Spelljammer--a game near and dear to his heart--that I think is fascinating. There's a lot to love/learn from his post, but some of the best is the fact that the game was inspired by a single image:
One of the things that I came into the pitch session with was the idea that I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was. Yeah, we had done FR and DL, but those had been written down as typical fantasy worlds. Vanilla fantasy. Default fantasy. Background static. Here was a chance to go out on more of a limb and push the envelope. So this was the chance to do D&D in space. I’m sorry – Innnnn Spaaaaaaace!
He goes on to describe that image:
A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

If that's not the definition of weird science fantasy, I don't know what is. Sure it seems wacky at first, but it led to a whole new way of thinking in the game and opened a really imaginative approach to the genre (which he talks more about in his post).

Fair disclosure: I'm not even a fan of Spelljammer. Always thought it was a little too out there, which is my own fault for not giving it a chance. But I'm willing to admit what a fool I've been! Anyway, I'm just getting to the good part, which is:
For the boxed sets at that time, we had a format – two 96-page books, 4 big color maps, and a bunch of light cardboard sheets. Our task was to fill that space. Sometimes the format worked, sometimes it was less successful. For Spelljammer, we used them to create the ship stat cards and standups. So that worked out pretty well.

A Challenge!
So, here you have a template:
  • 1 box, 
  • 2 books
  • 4 maps
  • Some cardboard sheets
Make a game. Take an image--real or imagined--and base an entire game on it. Think what the cover would look like, what the books would cover, and most intriguingly, what do you do with those cardboard sheets?

Using the same items and format, what type of game do you come up with? To the comments my friends!


  1. I liked Spelljammer back in the day, but you know, as weird as it was in some ways I think it wasn't weird enough (or maybe not cool weird enough). I like some of the sensibilities of the d20 min-game from Polyhedron that riffed off of it better.

    Anyway, to your challenge...

    I guess I'd do my Weird Adventures setting as a fully on game:

    Box cover: (the cover pic I've posted for WA ;))
    book one: Gamemaster's book (rules, mostly).
    book two: guide to the City.
    4 maps: 1 world, 1 conitnent, 1 entire City, and 1 street map of part of the City
    cardboard sheets: uh...cardboad minis?

  2. I agree, the Spelljammer seems to tread in that "middle area" of weird. Perhaps that was by design so it didn't stray too far from established TSR brand.

    Yeah, the cardboard sheets are kind of the mystery element. Tokens/minis seem like the best value, but I'm wondering if there's anything else not yet thought of.

    I'm looking forward to seeing Weird Adventures! :)

  3. I have hard time with Spelljammer. I want to like it (I've got a copy right here) but it isn't really strange enough for me, and the interior art does nothing (Holloway) to evoke the setting. As with Dark Sun, I think they should have peeled away some things; mindflayers and beholders in space- totally! Gnomes? Not so much.

  4. I think where Spelljammer really failed was in its insistence to be standard-issue D&D -- heavy armor, broadswords, catapults -- but Innnnn Spaaaaaaace.

    If they had instead gone for a more swashbuckling mindset, but Innnnn Spaaaaaaace instead of At Sea, I think it would have worked far better.