Now the problem with reviewing a RPG system or a setting for a game is that it’s entirely dependent on your experiences playing that system or setting. The material is presented not only in the way that the author intended but filtered through not only the game master’s vision of the setting but through your own. As a result one person’s experience playing in a game will be completely different from another’s. I was introduced to the RPG Vampire: The Masquerade by a group that was very, very into the role-playing aspect of the game. This meant that a player would spend 30 minutes in game (in character) explaining to another player what’s been going on and what the story is up to now because his character hadn’t been there. Now this would go on despite the fact that the other player had, despite his character’s absence, been in the fucking room the whole time and already knew what was going on!! As a result the 2 of them could have just said “ok, when his character gets here, my character tells him everything that happened while he was gone.” I’d never fallen asleep during a RPG before then. So for me Vampire will always be a very role-play heavy game system.
Just something to keep in mind for the time being.
I would like to introduce you to the SpellJammer setting. What is SpellJammer you ask? Well, back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, during Lorraine Williams’ (She who must not be named, Bitch Queen, “That bitch”, etc…) rule over TSR (the guys who made D&D), the main goal she set for the company was to churn out product in an effort to make a profit without worrying about possible inconsistencies or conflicts within the rules themselves. This is what happens when you hand your gaming company over to a woman who says outright that she detests gaming and that gamers are, as a group, beneath her. Now this was both good and bad for gaming in general and D&D in particular because on the one hand, they were churning out a lot of crap (see the Ravenloft setting). But at the same time, this gave their writers a certain amount of freedom to be creative. One example of this is the SpellJammer setting.
Now let me start by saying this setting is broken. Oh god is it broken. You get the feeling that someone at TSR got a memo one day saying “Sci-Fi RPGs are selling right now. Make one. We print next quarter.” In short, SpellJammer is D&D in space, and there’s just something deliciously twisted about that.
The setting is heavily based on old romanticized novels about space travel from back before we actually knew anything about astronomy. Space is fairly warm just like it is on Earth and air pockets stick to objects out there. Why? Well, if it sticks to planets it should stick to anything right? And if something planet sized can hold onto enough air to last us for all of human history, then something as small as a boat should be able to hold onto enough air to last a couple of weeks right? I won’t even go into what they do to gravity, but I’ve seen physics majors whimper while trying to understand it. In game terms, it works out like this. There’s this race of blue giants called the Arcane and they are the biggest group of unscrupulous merchants in existence. So they go around selling off these magical artifacts that convert magical energy into motive force. You bolt one of these suckers onto the deck of a boat and toss a mage in the seat, and he can make that mother fly. And once you get outside of the gravity well created by a planet it can go really fast (from Earth to Mars in about a day). Better yet, if you ever saw the Disney movie “Treasure Planet” it’s like that except you replace all the technology with magic, and swap the comical sidekick for a group of brain-eating slavers.
So what you get is a crazy fucking setting. A mix of pirates and colonial European themes. Small colonies farm out a living on drifting asteroids. Great and mighty empires of evil creatures. Space pirates, merchants, militant hippos, and the great elvish armada. Basically elves, being the magically inclined, ancients that they are have been traveling for quite a while and are little more than a parody of the British Empire, right down to the snootiness and belief that they are justified in anything they do. Oh, and gnomes…oh ye gods the gnomes. Take the craziest, most out there concepts from every D&D setting and mix them together. Now you’d think that was the broken part, but it isn’t. Somehow all of these influences blended together into a fantastic setting. You can be ruthless pirates, a scourge upon the trade between the spheres; elvish agents trying to stop the next great inhuman war; explorers mapping out new and undiscovered worlds; or any other sci-fi concept you’d like. It’s a blending of traditional sci-fi concepts with the magical fantasy of traditional D&D. It was steampunk before Eberron was released as a setting.
The question then, is how exactly was this setting broken? Well it was designed as a high level setting. Nasty, powerful monsters and high adventure. And to keep the ships rare, they priced the cheapest magical engine at about 150,000 gold. For that cost, in a D&D game, a player could build a castle. A good castle. Which means that unless it’s a high level game, or the GM wants specifically run a SpellJammer game, the setting wouldn’t mess up any preexisting games. This was an issue as SpellJammer was one of those settings that tried to tie all of the other D&D settings together. You could travel through space from Greyhawk to the Forgotten Realms. However that price tag meant that all a group of pirates had to do was take a single ship and then they could retire happily off the sale of the engine.
This kind of problem plagued the setting. While one of the most creative settings they worked on, the writers for TSR seem to have been a bit rushed as there are a score of conflicting rules and systems that just don’t work. The parody setting released by the guys who made Hack Master, HackJammer, did a lot to fix these but for many it was too little too late. It’s a great and exciting setting, but it must be run the right way and it requires a GM who can abandon the rules as given and instead run a game that feels whole. There was also a rather crappy PC game based on the setting. I managed to track it down online a few years ago and it was a great dissapointment.
I’ll close with a few comments on my favorite race from the setting, Tinker Gnomes.
Originally a race taken from the DragonLance setting, these little buggers found a home in the SpellJammer setting and became one of its most memorable races. They are gnomes obsessed with invention and cursed with the kind of irrefutable logic you only find in a better class of British comedy. They invented a steam engine and a way to get into space and it’s gone downhill ever since. Few would see the mass transit opportunities in a catapult, instead of just taking the stairs, but not Tinker Gnomes. Few would see the military applications (as well as the hair styling/animal feed/and dentistry applications) in the electricity generating properties of potatoes, copper and zinc. Along the same lines, few ethnic groups list “laboratory mishaps” as the leading cause of death for their entire race. Combine it all with a misplaced optimism in the world and you have one of the most unbalanced, destructive and generally entertaining races in the history of RPGs.
They also raise grizzly bear sized hamsters.
What’s not to love?