Game Master Tips | Spelljammer for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition D&D

Game Master Tips | Spelljammer for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition D&D

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Flashback to 1995- Spelljammer. The 2nd edition campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons that I liked playing.

Flash foward some to D&D 3E- Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition. 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???

Flash forward to November 21, 2014- On a call with Nerdarchist Dave-

Dave: Hey Nate I got inspired by afistfulofdice 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.

Dave: I didn’t, we are just going to wing it.

Nate: Whohoo! Yeah! Spelljammer I am so pump- wait did he say wing it?

The A Fist Full of Dice Video that started this whole thing-

This article is a response to my need for Dave not to “wing it” this Thanksgiving eve when we sit down and play Spelljammer 5th edition D&D

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.

Game Master Tips | Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ( D&D )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 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 that was converted to also work as a spaceship. 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?

They’re magic…

Seriously, I will get into their stats in the Spelljammer helms section.

Traveling the Galaxies

In the 2nd edition 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” that may be used 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 / round  around 550 miles and 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 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

I simplified the spelljammer helms. The helms are the magic chairs, devices, controls, magic helmets, etc, that allow for travel to the other worlds. I simplified them and by that I mean that I omitted or morphed all of them down to three types. I also altered the ship rating system to a minimum.

Game Master Tips | Spelljammer for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ( D&D ) shipSpellhelm-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 5th edition D&D I am allowing any class that has 1st level 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,  2 spell slot levels to 1 Ship power (2:1 ratio). The Average Spellhelm is a one to one ratio. The greater spellhelm is a 1:2 ratio, one spell slot level give 2 Ship power

Ritual casters can use a ritual in place of a 1st level spell slot but only once per maneuver per day. 1 Take off ritual, 1 Landing ritual, 1 ship power for Acceleration, 1 ship power for Deceleration. The rituals are in the spellhelmsman manual. Each take ten minutes to cast and require the full attention of the caster. Not good for times when it is important to leave quickly.

spell jammer shipLifehelm– 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 that 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 that 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)

Spelljammer_4016_2701Bondhelms- 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 that 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. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition doesn’t even put costs to magic items. I think on the scale of a +1 long sword 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 non magical, floats on water, plain, boring ship. This price does not include a spell caster 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 to outfit a merchant ship with trade goods (like Dwarven steel for Darksun), a crew, pilots, a backup lifehelm, experienced ship crew, etc.

Not an investment for the faint of heart or countries that have a low GDP.

Ship power, maneuvers, and speed of the ship

Ship power, I have it written numerous times earlier in the article 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.

The helmsman provide the ship 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/ round to the ship’s speed. Unless something like a solar wind break or helmsman slow 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 it’s own gravity then maybe it was meant to be their time to die. While I don’t encourage Player 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 crewman 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 that the races that have the greatest propensity to be spell casters and hold spell casting 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 spell casting classes. The eldritch knight and arcane trickster are seen more rather than other fighter and rouge variants. Paladin and Ranger are two very versatile classes due to their increased spell casting from 2nd edition to 5th edition.

Some of you may have questioned it earlier but a big switch overall for Spelljammer from 2nd edition to 5th edition for us is the inclusion of all spell caster being able to power a helm. This is due to how spell casting is viewed in 5th 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 that 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 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition D&D

Well I said this was not going to be a novel so to wrap it up for now, creatures and encounters.

Really I would go for re-skinning creatures currently in the 5th edition 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.

An example Nerdarchy did for a terrible terrain panel at 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 5th edition. Some minor alterations later and we had a 5th edition 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 that 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 evey round 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 D&D into the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition and check out our first discussion of the concept here.

Nerdarchy Discusses Dungeons &Dragons in Space

You get the idea. Make it fun. Make it memorable.
Above all Stay Nerdy!

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I would say my manner, skill sets, and subject knowledge are incongruous but they all seem to find a home under the umbrella term of nerd. I have a passion for studying science, religion, art, games, crafting, wine/beer-crafting, sustainable living, and green chemistry. I really enjoy gaming with friends and writing about my experiences as a nerd.

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I would say my manner, skill sets, and subject knowledge are incongruous but they all seem to find a home under the umbrella term of nerd. I have a passion for studying science, religion, art, games, crafting, wine/beer-crafting, sustainable living, and green chemistry. I really enjoy gaming with friends and writing about my experiences as a nerd.

11 Responses

  1. Scott Preston
    | Reply

    Which edition of Spelljammer would you recommend for use with 5th edition D&D?

    • Nathan Riggins
      | Reply

      I was going off of my 2nd edition box set (the only one I have). Feel free to change any of my suggested helms to whatever would suit your needs or desires, that is what I did. I thought it was a bit much to convert over every single helm type. There were so many helm choices that required similar power and gave similar results, so I removed some and ignored others completely especially the strange ones for the non-magical dwarves of 2nd edition. Also while I was at it I changed how several other mechanisms of the campaign setting worked. If you want a more traditional Spelljammer campaign when playing 5th I suggest you revisit concepts such as the Flow.

  2. TacoClone
    | Reply

    What kind of distances would you do between worlds? I simplified mine down to like 40,000,00km, which for 100ft/rd would require like 320 power points to get between planets/planes in less than a year (if I did that math correctly). I want travel between worlds to be more time consuming than using solar winds (or what I’m thinking of using, which is ships having ‘Astral Drives’ that basically will be like a hyperdrive using an astral plane that coincides with the universe). What are your thoughts for distances and travel speeds?

    • Nathan Riggins
      | Reply

      The Astral Drive sounds really cool. I would say if you want it to be easier to travel between worlds then have the astral drives can be extremely fast. If you want it to be more akin to the Lord of the Rings journey to Mordor than make it take a year and have encounters along the way. Space pirate, waring illithids, mutiny, stranded craft in need of assistance ( or in the case of a derelict ship- exploration). There is enough space faring material from movies and shows that with a few twists and combinations you could be in material for years.

      That being said what is your main goal behind having them travel? If it is for the experience to be an adventure all its own than have it take awhile getting from place to place. If you want to give that experience at first and then transition into the speedy way to travel I suggest having the Astral drives cost a lot of money so that the party has to save all of their loot for a dozen levels or so to buy one or the party can only get it through discovery or a quest reward (Final Fantasy Airship style). That way they get the feel of space travel at low levels but it won’t always take that long as they get to higher levels.

      Going by my excel sheet calculations I say it takes a 5th level wizard or cleric about 52 days of building up speed to get to the half way point. At that point they have to use their spell levels to begin deceleration. That turns out to be a little over three months with no stopping or slowing down. A big issue without sensors is that it becomes impossible on these types of trips to stop for anything. And if the ship hits something everyone will die. I say it is safe to have a few people with spell casting in reserve in case of emergency slow downs.

      Otherwise, like Dave did in his campaign, don’t care about the speeds and simply make it all relative. “How far away is the enemy ship, helmsman?” “30000 ft but they will catch up to us because they are going faster than we are currently, captain” “lets speed up and steer towards that asteroid belt in an attempt to lose them”

      It can be more like the example above rather than a huge excel file calculation to figure out how long the journey will be. Hope that helps and thanks for your interest in my version of 5th edition spelljammer

  3. David Friant
    | Reply

    Hi Scott,
    I ran a SpellJammeresk game for Nerdarchy not to long ago and didn't really worry about it. I just arbitrarily made up an amount of time I wanted them to travel before getting where they were going.

    I know folks like to agonize over these details, but personally I like to kind of paint in broad strokes. More than anything I just hope to capture the feel of the game. In this case "Space Opera".
    Your question seems like something Nate the Nerdarch would love to tear into with his level 12 intellect.
    -Nerdarchist Dave

  4. Jay Rodriguez
    | Reply

    I use similar mechanics to power the ship Helms with the exception of the Life Jammer…I allow the expenditure of HD (normally used for healing in short or long rests). Once all of the HD is used (in your system 1 HD of any type equals 1 D of Necrotic Damage) then the Necrotic Damage applies to HP as you described above. Excellent article and thanks for sharing!!

    • Nathan Riggins
      | Reply

      Thanks, I like the HD consumption first instead of the hit points. Since that represents energy that could normally be used to carry a person through a few fights as long as they took a rest in between.

  5. Charles Foster
    | Reply

    As much as you like psionics, I thought omitting psihelms a bit odd. Does the stuff you have not include them? If so I can make copies for you or something. I have all the box sets and play large scale space battles, though not as often as I would like.

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