Wizards of the Coast releases new settings for Dungeons & Dragons faster than ever. Those settings include worlds borrowed from Magic: The Gathering like Ravnica and Theros, a world taken from Critical Role, older settings like Eberron and Ravenloft, and now the Spelljammer setting. The last time the D&D team released so many settings, the flood of options split the D&D market and helped send TSR, the game’s owner, to the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, D&D players only have so much time and money. Faced with a game store full of D&D campaign options, most customers will skip some. Each setting still costs to develop, but it competes with others, splitting the D&D customer base and potentially leading to financial losses.
Clearly, today’s D&D team doesn’t fear repeating the history that brought TSR to ruin. Part of that fearlessness comes from D&D’s surging popularity. So many folks play the game now that numerous campaign releases can profit despite a diluted audience. Of course, some enthusiasts buy them all, so more of my money goes to Hasbro.
Also, the product lines for D&D settings released now just include a set of miniatures and a book, or for Spelljammer a slipcase of 3 slim harcovers. From 1989 to 1993, the original Spelljammer line included 4 boxed sets, 6 adventures, 11 accessories, plus novels and comics. A committed Spelljammer fan could spend their entire budget on D&D in space without buying other products. TSR spent money creating all these products to support a setting that surely trailed other D&D settings in popularity.
In 2015, Wizards polled to rank their campaign settings’ popularity and then reported the results. “Our most popular settings from prior editions landed at the top of the rankings, with Eberron, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape, and the Forgotten Realms all proving equally popular. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Spelljammer all shared a similar level of second-tier popularity, followed by a fairly steep drop-off to the rest of the settings. My sense is that Spelljammer has often lagged behind the broad popularity of other settings, falling into love-it-or-hate-it status depending on personal tastes.”
Gamers mostly remember Spelljammer for its silliest ideas, like hippo people and giant space hamsters powering ships by running on wheels attached like paddle wheels. “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs,” writes original Spelljammer designer Jeff Grubb. “The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddle wheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster.” Sometimes Spelljammer treats D&D as seriously as the 60s Batman TV show treated the dark knight. To some fans, Spelljammer felt like a setting that mocked their passion for D&D by making the game seem ridiculous and childish.
For years, D&D enthusiasts online joked about any slim hint of a Spelljammer revival by announcing, “Spelljammer confirmed!” The humor came from treating a sometimes ridiculous second-tier setting as an eagerly awaited release when in truth Spelljammer seemed like one of the least likely targets for return. Even Chris Perkins, the architect of Spelljammer’s return, jokes about Spelljammer’s lesser popularity.
I didn’t include Spelljammer because it would’ve gotten more votes than all the other worlds combined. Probably. https://t.co/rFxcJaKvfd
— Christopher Perkins (@ChrisPerkinsDnD) February 23, 2016
So if the gleeful shouts of “Spelljammer confirmed’’ come from a joke rather than a groundswell of fans, then how did Spelljammer get confirmed? Credit Chris Perkins’s true passion for the setting. He even embraces the setting’s gonzo elements like killer space clowns and murder comets—ideas that made some gamers snub the original.
Mainly credit D&D’s new emphasis on the multiverse for Spelljammer. D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained the shift. “We’ve been letting fans know for the last year or two that we are going out there to other worlds, to other planes, and there’s going to be a lot of exciting journeys ahead.” D&D is headed to “this wonderful array of worlds that make the D&D multiverse special because it’s not just one fantasy setting, it’s a dizzying array of fantasy settings, including each DM’s home setting all in one massive multiversal setting.”
Rather than asking players to select a world and stick to it, the focus on a multiverse encourages D&D fans to dabble in different settings, skipping from world to world or gathering their favorite bits for their own worlds in the wonderful array. Hints of a D&D multiverse date back to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) where the Demonweb included gates to parallel worlds on the material plane, but Spelljammer made the game’s worlds accessible by Spelljamming ships.
The multiverse gives D&D room for settings that feel less conventional. By design, Spelljammer delivers. “I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was,” Jeff Gubb writes. “We had done Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, 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!” Spelljammer brings a different tone than those grounded settings. Fans love the setting’s swashbuckling flavor, ships like the mind flayer nautiloid, heroes like the hippo folk on safari, villains like the half-spider/half-eel neogi, and the chance to explore strange new D&D worlds.
Jeff Grubb pitched Spelljammer by describing a knight standing on the open deck of a ship in space. Based on the preview of the new Spelljammer, the setting moves from shining armor and wizards in pointy hats to the Guardians of the Galaxy and a cast as varied as the Star Wars cantina scene.
Spelljamming lets characters take the scenic route while they travel the D&D multiverse, leading to more adventure than using spells like plane shift. “Spelljammer was initially thought of as being AD&D in space, but soon became obvious as a way to tie the existing campaigns together.” In the revised setting, D&D worlds exist in spheres of magical space called wildspace. In wildspace, even objects as small as ships have enough gravity to capture bubbles of air and for sailors to walk the decks.
The emphasis on the multiverse shows in changes to the Spelljammer cosmology. In the old version, indestructible crystal spheres locked each world into a bubble suspended in phlogiston, “a turbulent, unstable, multicolored, fluorescent gas.” The designers imagined the crystal shells to account for different gods and rules in different spheres. “Want to run a hard science version? It works that way in the sphere. Want the constellations to move around? There you go. Want a flat world resting on elephants, with iterative turtles below? Go for it.” But the crystal barriers strike me as unnecessarily clutter separating magical pockets. Meanwhile, phlogiston overlaps too much with existing D&D lore around the astral plane. So at the edge of wildspace, the bubbles now transition to the astral sea where explorers might meet gith, astral dreadnoughts, and planetoid-sized bodies of dead gods. Here, Spelljammer blends into Planescape. Planescape confirmed!
One way that D&D 5e has preemptively avoided the “split the audience” problem with campaign settings is by encouraging players to adapt the big adventure books to whichever setting they choose. You don’t need ten adventures for each campaign; you just need ten adventures that can take place on any campaign world. (Of course, the Forgotten Realms campaign books are less readily adaptable to Spelljammer than they are to Eberron or Dragonlance, where you can almost get away with just changing the names.)
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I actually hope that they downplay the “travel to different campaign settings” aspect and just focus on making Spelljammer as fun as possible as a campaign setting unto itself. I don’t really care about taking a spaceship from Faerun to Greyhawk. I just want to have bizarre D&D adventures INNNN SPAAAAACE. I don’t want to have to consider the impact of Astral Elves on Greyhawk or think about whether Faerun has enterprising spelljammer captains undermining the entire trade economy by flying cargo from Kozakura to Waterdeep in 18 hours rather than six months.
I think the big difference between the glut of campaign settings during 2e and now is that WotC is just putting out a single book for each campaign setting, and you are left to DM’s Guild or your own devices for further adventures. Back in the 1990s, TSR was churning out an adventure every couple of months for Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Al-Qadim, Spelljammer and later Planescape, etc. It was just too much for anyone to buy and read, let alone play. I think DM’s Guild is a big win for everyone in this sense. WotC produces the campaign setting, and fans produce more detailed material to support the setting.