Game Master Tips | Spelljammer for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition D&D
Flashback to 1995 — Spelljammer. The second edition campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons I liked playing. Flash forward some to 3E D&D, an edition I enjoyed for many years but an edition I will not be playing in the foreseeable future. Will I ever get to play Spelljammer again?
A Fist Full of Dice video started this whole thing
Flash forward to November 21, 2014, on a call with Nerdarchist Dave.
Dave: Hey Nate I got inspired by A Fistful Of Dice and I am going to run a Spelljammer game. Are you in?
Nate: That is sweet Dave! Of course I am in. When did you convert it over to 5E D&D?
Dave: I didn’t, we are just going to wing it.
Nate: Whohoo! Yeah! Spelljammer I am so pumped! (Wait, did he say wing it?)
This article is a response to my need for Dave not to “wing it” this Thanksgiving eve when we sit down and play 5E D&D Spelljammer. I broke the major concepts needed to make Nerdarchy’s version of Spelljammer into the following sections. Classes, Races and Cultures, Spaceships and Travel, and Encounters and Monsters.
Now for a brief attempt at managing reader expectations. This article is not a novel, nor is it a completed setting. This post is a rough draft of a setting for the purpose of getting it ready for playing in a one night campaign. So Spelljammer 5E D&D in two thousand words or less.
The spaceship designs of Spelljammer are far out. For those familiar with regular spaceships and space travel, just forget what you know it won’t help you. The vessels in Spelljammer are magical. They are powered by and fly by magic. So there is no need for aerodynamic concepts of planes or ships.
There is a dwarven crew and they want the ship to look like a flying mountain or giant anvil, cool. The last true elves of Athas leave before it was too late and they wanted a 5000 year old tree from that dying world to be the ship hull, awesome!
For our one shot maybe we will go with an air ship galleon converted to also work as a spaceship. You get the idea, whatever can be dreamed up can be yours. The more thematic the better. Now to some mechanics. How do the helms work?
Seriously, I will get into their stats in the Spelljammer helms section.
Traveling the galaxies
In the 2E AD&D campaign setting they had the flow. I won’t mention it anymore than to say Nerdarchy is ignoring it. There are areas where we will have solar winds to help a ship move along if they brought the proper sails but for the most part it is cold and airless space in between the worlds.
Solar winds can be constant for years but may shift or fluctuate from storms in nebula so with the sails open a ship can make decent time between realms if the winds are going their way. Solar winds can attain speeds as high as 5000 ft. per round or around 550 miles an hour. Sounds fast on the ground but in space it is the coasting lane when traveling to a world like Athas, which is off of the main solar currents. It may take months or years based on the speed of the winds and ship to get to such a backwater world.
Many ships as well as many space faring beings use the solar wind currents to speed them along, so one could think of these winds as highways with increased chances of encountering other travelers. Or one could slog through the wilderness of the wildspace with just their spell powers to get them to their destination.
Spelljammer helms in 5E D&D
I simplified the spelljammer helms. The helms are the magic chairs, devices, controls, magic helmets, or whatever that allow for travel to the other worlds. I simplified them by omitting or morphing all of them down to three types. I also altered the ship rating system to a minimum.
Spellhelm. This is modeled after the traditional spelljammer that runs off of a spellcaster who is able to cast at least 1st level spells of any kind. For 5E D&D I am allowing any class that has spell slots to operate the spellhelm. I am going with expenditure of spell slots to fuel the take off, speed and movement of the craft. And there is no loss of spell casting ability by the helmsman. If you want to take off? Then burn some spell levels. Want to go faster? Burn some more spell levels.
There are three levels to spellhelms. Lesser, greater, and spellhelm. The lesser is a two to one ratio; 2 spell slot levels to 1 ship power. The average spellhelm is a one to one ratio. The greater spellhelm is a 1:2 ratio — one spell slot level gives 2 ship power
Ritual casters can use a ritual in place of a 1st level spell slot but only once per maneuver per day. One take off ritual, 1 landing ritual, 1 ship power for acceleration, 1 ship power for deceleration. The rituals are in the spellhelmsman manual. Each takes ten minutes to cast and requires the full attention of the caster. Not good for times when it is important to leave quickly.
Lifehelm. This model runs on the life force of the helmsman. It does 1d6 necrotic damage to the helmsman for each spell slot of maneuvers the pilot wishes to make. To accelerate to the same speed as a ship that used a 3rd level spell to speed up the lifehelm’s pilot would have to take 3d6 necrotic damage. This damage is irreducible and can cause death if the pilot takes their full hit points worth of damage in necrotic. This is great for a backup for when you find yourself lost in space with a damaged spellhelm or no living spell casters.
The darker side to the lifehelm is evil races have found a way to force slaves and captives to power their vessels. They have engineered an interface between the person in the helm and the maneuvers of the ship. This allows for the control of the ship to be the master rather than the person giving their life force.
The life helm comes in lesser lifehelm, greater lifehelm and lifehelm. The difference being the lesser lifehelm rolls damage with advantage (roll 2d6 and take the highest). The greater lifehelm rolls with disadvantage against the helmsman (roll 2d6 take the lowest)
Bondhelms. The name needs some work. These are the helms used by creatures with magical powers (not spell slots). Illithids (mind flayers) are good examples of a race that would use these. Any race that can cast magic by cantrip or spell like ability could use a bondhelm. High elves, warlocks and many monster races such as nothics and deep gnomes are good candidates.
If there is a interface to control a ship independent of the person in the bondhelm then one could even put sentient magic items and artifacts in the bondhelm seat. Or maybe the artifact is in control of everyone and the ship!
While weaker overall when considering speed, these ships make up for it with versatility. A bondhelm may be set in clusters of 3-5 bondhelms. This allows for steady ship power for maneuvering. A ship with 3 occupied bondhelms could leave a world using 1 bondhelm for take off and the other two would add 2 ship power to the speed for the day.
Another advantage to a bondhelm is once the helmsman links with the bondhelm the person can act normally by using concentration to continue to use the helm (as long as they are conscious and remain on the ship). Every four hours a new crew member must replace the current helmsman. This gives the ship another ship power point to use at the end of the four hours. A helmsman must complete a long rest before the ship can receive any benefit from the helmsman’s powers. The helmsman losses one spell like ability of their choice (not use per day but the whole ability) until they take a long rest.
Cost associated with space travel
Costs, in gold, of each helm vary. 5E D&D doesn’t even put costs to magic items. I think on the scale of a +1 longsword being really cool a ship that can travel across the known worlds would be really freaking sweet to own!
To give you an idea of cost, warships and galleons are 25,000 gp and 30,000 gp respectively. That is for a nonmagical, floats on water, plain, boring ship. This price does not include a spellcaster to pilot it or crew to maintain it for weeks and months at a time.
For the least of the spellhelms I could see it costing over 100,000 gp with the material parts of the ship, plus the crew’s salaries for a year plus provisions. Easily 150,000 to 250,000 gp to outfit a merchant ship with trade goods (like dwarven steel for Dark Sun), a crew, pilots, a backup lifehelm, experienced ship crew and so forth.
Not an investment for the faint of heart or countries with a low GDP.
Ship power, maneuvers and speed of the ship
I have mentioned ship power numerous times with no explanation. Sorry for that but something had to go first and ship power would not have had much meaning without knowing how spaceships gained it. Helmsmen provide ships with power points. The helmsman can choose to use those power points for take off (leaving the world), landing (safely entering a worlds atmosphere), accelerating in space, movement or non-movement within a world’s sky or ocean. These all cost 1 ship power point each. Leaving a world (take off) is enough to get a ship to a point where they can accelerate in space.
Each ship power point used for acceleration adds or subtracts 100 ft. per round to the ship’s speed. Unless something like a solar wind breaks or helmsman slows the craft it will keep going until other things slow it.
Lost in space
I dislike the non-lethality of falling off a ship. If a character has the misfortune of getting kicked off an object with its own gravity then maybe it was meant to be their time to die. While I don’t encourage character killing all the time I feel the threat should be there. At the same time it should be harder to knock a person off of a spaceship with artificial gravity than it is to knock a sailor overboard into the sea.
I like the idea of the spelljammer helms generating crystals that, when activated, create a sphere of warm air around the crystal for a few days. So if you do lose crewpeople there is a chance to go find them if they had one of these on their person and activated it.
Races, classes and cultures
Any race can be a part of spelljammer as well as any worlds. If you want Forgotten Realms drow and Dragonlance kender to have space vessels together, go for it. Just keep in mind the races with the greatest propensity to be spellcasters and hold spellcasting in high regard culturally are at an advantage for making and using the Spellhelms, while a race with supernatural powers and spell like abilities is going to lean towards the bondhelms. Particularly hearty or barbaric races would see the advantage of the lifehelms.
Classes in a Spelljammer campaign will lean towards spellcasting classes. The Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster are strong contenders. Paladin and ranger are two very versatile classes due to their increased spellcasting from second to fifth edition D&D.
Some of you may have questioned it earlier but a big switch overall for Spelljammer from for us is the inclusion of all spellcaster being able to power a helm. This is due to how spellcasting is viewed in 5E D&D and because I always thought it was silly to only allow “arcane” casters to power a regular helm.
That distinction was one of the ways I was able to cut the helms list down to three. That and I thought some of the helms were to bad to continue. Dwarves don’t have to power ships with their collective creative energies anymore now since they can use any type of spell to power a spellhelm ship, or they can lifehelm their way across the universe.
Game Master Tips — Spelljammer for 5E D&D
I said this was not going to be a novel so to wrap it up for now we’ll discuss creatures and encounters.
Really I would go for re-skinning creatures currently in the 5E D&D Monster Manual to give you the feel of some of the spelljammer monsters. I know that doesn’t seem like a strong tip but it is really useful and less time consuming than converting monsters. For an example let’s look at a Terrible Terrain panel Nerdarchy did for Brigadecon 2014. We wanted skum but they were not around in 5E D&D. So we looked at the template for them in 3E and compared it to the kuo toa in 5E D&D. Some minor alterations later and we had a 5E D&D skum ready to be an aboleth’s minion.
Encounters can be everything from a mash up of several B space movies you have seen to the most epic of space operas.
Attacked by space pirates, you are lawful space pirates working for the true space emperor. Fight feral dragons in space. Fight orcs in space. Some elder being from another reality is breaking into your reality and your group discovers they have to go to the different worlds to seal the tears in the universe if they want to stop it in time.
Or add some old style ray guns and up the tech level. A wizard can shoot a cantrip every round, so why not a magic device that feeds off the energy of its user in a benign way. Maybe they have to eat double rations because the “cantrip gun” uses the shooter’s ATP.
Let us know what changes you would make to bring Spelljammer into the spirit of 5E D&D and check out our first discussion of the concept here. You get the idea. Make it fun. Make it memorable. Above all stay nerdy!