Spelljammer thrusts your D&D adventures into space
In last week’s column I shared a cobbled-together homebrew system for handling ship-to-ship combat from the homebrew 5E D&D Spelljammer campaign that I run for my friends. With the Memorial Day weekend keeping my players busy we did not gather around the gaming table this week, which means playtesting those rules will have to wait.
Spoilers for any of my players reading this before our next session – they will encounter a potential ship-to-ship combat situation. Or did they think commandeering that mercenary ship was going to be easy?
In Nerdarchy’s live chat on Saturday, May 27, one of the viewers asked for more Spelljammer stuff. Nerdarchist Ted was quick to point out not only the ship combat primer article, but also mentioned Nate the Nerdarch’s articles from the past, too.
Well, YouTuber MarvelX42 you asked for it, you got it.
Paraphrasing as Matt Colville is wont to say, quoting his friend Jim Murphy quoting Anthony Quinn from Lawrence of Arabia, “I am a phlogiston river to my people!” Running adventures involving D&D in space has been the most fun campaign I’ve ever been involved with and I’m happy to write about and share the experiences if it helps or inspires anyone else with getting their 5E D&D in space game going.
Introducing Spelljammer to your 5E D&D game
Despite never having actually played a Spelljammer game back in the halcyon days of my youth, nevertheless the Spelljammer Campaign Setting boxed set sat on my shelf along with the Complete Spacefarer’s Handbook, Practical Planetology, Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix and more.
I decided to send my fledgling party of adventurers off on 5E D&D adventures in space after the climax of their first big arc. They beat the big bad evil creature, found a decrepit old spelljammer ship and they were off to the stars.
Therein lies one of the best aspects of Spelljammer elements for your D&D game – it’s incredibly easy to introduce in your campaign. The Lorebook of the Void included with the boxed set offers several ideas for injecting Spelljammer elements to your campaign and getting your adventurers off into D&D in space. Discovering a crashed spelljammer ship at the end of an adventure, finding an ancient scroll detailing how to create a spelljammer helm or simply the arrival of a ship on your game world’s planet are just a handful of methods. In the case of the latter, a ship could crash and the adventurers investigate the site, or in the case of the adventure “Wildspace” a huge anchor plummets to the ground from the clouds, and the captain of a spelljammer ship seeks to hire adventurers for a perilous quest in space.
What Spelljammer has to offer for 5E D&D
From a purely flavor perspective, Spelljammer in your 5E D&D games is an opportunity to explore ideas and concepts that flip the script on more traditional fantasy adventures. In the vastness of space, among the crystal spheres floating in the phlogiston, the dynamics of ground-based adventures are completely different.
Species typically viewed as immediate foes to heroic adventurers might instead become friendly NPC shopkeeps on asteroid outposts – a spirit naga’s gotta make a living, too! Or for example you could spot an illithid, or mind-flayer, relaxing at a café on the Rock of Bral – the default mega-city in space that serves as a home base and galactic hub in the original boxed set. Or perhaps a drow vessel comes to the party’s aid when their ship is beset by neogi slavers, making for unusual new allies. When you set D&D in space, “monster” ecology takes on a different meaning. Any of the species or creatures in your Monster Manual and the like are members of a universal community and their place within it is more akin to various alien species in science fiction.
One of the most useful aspects of Spelljammer in my 5E D&D game is the versatility it grants for my player group. Because not everyone in the group can make it to every session, building a crew for their ship to complement the roster of PCs means they can create “away teams” for their adventures. Since the party took command of their own ship right away, they spend a good amount of time talking among themselves on how best to operate their vessel as an adventuring tool. As the DM, watching and listening to their engagement with each other is incredibly fun and informative, giving me insights into what interests them and their characters.
The players love recruiting new crew members, hashing out employment contracts with them and putting them to the test on trial runs. Forming their away teams, I let each player typically control one NPC crew member who comes along, with the rest remaining on board their ship with whatever players’ PCs that are not present for the session. Because the vastness of wildspace can make for strange companions, these NPC allies and crew are sometimes monstrous in nature. For simplicity I use creature stat blocks right out of the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and the like. This saves me time from having to create fully fleshed out, leveled-up NPCs and adds a ton of variety. Nerdarchy Patreon patrons could use the monthly Friend or Foe, or even Monster Menagerie creatures to fulfill similar functions.
What has resulted is a very dynamic game, both for action and roleplaying development. Because the player group is generally small, adding their NPC crew members means they can tackle bigger challenges. This is a lot of fun for me as the DM, since I can throw larger or more monsters at them then they might otherwise be able to handle. From a roleplaying perspective, the players have developed into leaders and specialists both on and off the ship, creating narrative arcs between themselves with their favorite crew members. They also provide great opportunities for me – sometimes crew interactions don’t go so well and these NPCs may come back later as antagonists!
This technique also turned about to be a sort of litmus test to gauge NPCs against, too. On my players’ most recent adventure, they assumed responsibility for a person of interest in a murder investigation and I let one of the players run the character while she was with the party. I was delighted to discover he roleplayed the NPC wonderfully, representing her personality and motivation spot-on. As a DM this was great to see that the players picked up on those things with the minimal amount of interaction they’d had with the NPC.
D&D in space opens up a lot of opportunities that groundling campaigns might not otherwise have. Not the least of which is the ability to travel far and wide in spelljammer ships to explore space, seek out new life and new civilizations and boldly go…wait…I’m mixing intellectual properties here. That’s okay though – Star Trek TOS (the best of all the franchises of course) has 79 episodes of plots you can steal for your D&D in space game. Why not give your party A Taste of Armageddon next time they’re transporting an ambassador on a diplomatic mission?
Need a money sink for the party’s treasure?
DMs and players alike sometimes find it frustrating to accumulate large amounts of treasure and wealth. For DMs, excessive player wealth means they can circumvent or overcome certain challenging situations simply by throwing gold at the problem. On the other side of the coin, players love to acquire treasure but often wonder what they can use it to buy.
Spelljammer solves both of those issues.
Operating and maintaining a ship on space adventures can be expensive. Practically, there’s food and supplies needed for lengthy travel through wildspace. More crew means more supplies are needed, too. And those crew members expect to be paid! Then there’s dock fees, license fees, tolls and other administrative costs I hit them with all the time (basically whenever the players announce with glee how much money they have). D&D in space is a lot of fun and pretty expensive for the party – but that’s a good thing.
In my 5E D&D Spelljammer game, the players have devised a standard crew contract. Each full-time crew receives room and board on the ship, and is paid a portion of the contract fee for every job – whether they were directly involved or not. Half of each total contract fee is put into the party’s general fund, which they use for maintenance and supplies. From the other half, each NPC crew member received one percent, and the remaining amount is split equally between the PCs individually.
One-time hirelings or trial run potential crew members are paid differently. For each day of employment until the contract is fulfilled, these folks are paid 1gp/day per level or 4gp/day per CR.
For example, their first big job to find out what happened to a kidnapped dwarven forgemistress paid 1000gp, or 1500gp if they found and rescued her safely (they did). So right off the bat, 750gp was put into the safe aboard the ship. Their sole crew member at the time, Lagdush the goliath and former impound lot attendant, received 7gp and 5sp. That might not seem like a lot, until you consider that unskilled labor pays 2sp/day.
It would take Lagdush just over 37 days to earn that much at his job. Granted, threat of death wasn’t as much of a concern and the job did take 60 days to complete, but almost all of that time was spent on the ship where he had free room and board. And the party bought him a set of armor, too. If Lagdush wanted to sell his studded leather and go back to his old life, he could live his old lifestyle for 225 days without working from that alone.
On that same job, the party hired a bard, using the stat block in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Since the job took 60 days to complete, the bard’s price came to 480gp. At the completion of that job, one of the PCs had a…let’s say falling out…with the bard and made a potential enemy. But, true to their words they paid her the agreed-upon fee before she jumped ship at the next port-of-call (but not before taking some high-end bottles of wine from the ship’s hold).
When it comes to supplies and maintenance, the players really enjoy going shopping for things to store on their ship. Not content for rations and hard tack, the players generally drop a lot of coin on fine foods and drinks. They’ve also established a small arsenal of mundane weapons on board like swords, bows/crossbows with ammunition and spare sets of armor. These have come in handy for times when they find people in need of rescue that can grab a weapon and help fight, for example.
There’s also supplies like ropes and grappling hooks, navigational and other tools, maps and charts. The ship’s navigation room is vitally important for plotting their course. Every failed navigation check is an extra roll on the random encounters in space chart!
And the party’s warlock has a penchant for the finer things in life, spending a good deal of money on silk sheets, tapestries, crystal drinking glasses and velvet furniture for his cabin.
Finally, there’s ship maintenance to worry about. Getting into space battles with sentient meteors and space dragons, ramming into other ships and passing through acidic space clouds can cause a lot of wear and tear on a spelljammer. Repairs can be costly, but necessary to continue adventures in space.
As you can see, there’s ample avenues open to PCs for spending all the gold and gems they find. For the DM, this allows you to throw a lot of treasure their way, which is always fun, while at the same time giving your players lots of chances to spend it that don’t necessarily put them ahead in terms of power relative to the challenges they face. Life in space running a ship ain’t cheap!
Tables, charts and lists are your friends
Let’s face it – most tabletop roleplaying gamers love rolling dice on random tables and charts. A big part of my Spelljammer game involves various tables. There’s ones for random names organized by species, encounters in wildspace, hooks and job opportunities, creatures organized by type and location and more. I don’t use them all the time, and in fact as the game has progressed I rely on them less than when we started.
Nevertheless, they do come in handy – it’s better to have them and not need them. From time to time I’ll have the players make the rolls; I advocate players rolling dice as often as possible. One technique I’ve started to employ is something I learned from watching Nerdarchy game play videos: I’ll ask the players to imagine and describe events to me. For example, on a 30-day trip through wildspace, I would have them make three navigation checks to avoid straying off course. Even if they make them all successfully and there are no dangerous encounters, I’ll ask them to tell me something interesting they witnessed in space.
As regards my tables and charts, I created them before we really got into the Spelljammer side of the campaign, as well as before I was aware of Chartopia. With that terrific tool at my disposal, there’s a great opportunity to update and revise these tables and charts, and share them with the community.
But that, as the wizard says, is another story …
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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy, he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.