Spelljammer is a D&D campaign setting, published in their second edition, that takes sailing ships into outer space. If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie “Treasure Planet,” that will give you some idea as to how it works. And if you haven’t, Google it; there’s all kinds of clips on YouTube.
Okay, so the campaign setting is a little kooky. It makes up its own physics. It has weird creatures with backwards names (like the “scro”; spell that backwards D&D fans) and giant space hamsters. Its game rules were utterly inconsistent and contradictory. But it’s still my favourite setting and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, let’s consider this: we’re going to combine all the high seas adventure of the Age of Sail with all the “boldly going where no one has gone before” of the Space Age. We’re going to add in all the magic of high fantasy. Basically, it’s like a crossbreed of Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings married the spawn of Star Trek and Dr. Who. As some humourist once put it, “It’s like porn for nerds!”
So it can be a little goofy. No one would deny that Pirates of the Caribbean or Dr. Who are a little goofy; it’s part of their attraction. It’s limitless fun.
And that’s the other part of it; there’s no limit. Game Masters, here you have, right at your fingertips, an in-plot, in-game way of combining as many crazy game settings as you want. That’s right; you want your high fantasy Greyhawk characters to go to the world of Battletech? No problem; just have them sail to it! And if you don’t like the idea of giving your characters mechs in a setting not designed to handle them, remember that physics change between crystal spheres (mini-universes,) so maybe the mechs don’t work anywhere else; or at least, not on their campaign world of origin.
This is not to say that it’s completely ridiculous. There’s some deep themes in there if you know where to look. The whole history of the Unhuman Wars (elves vs. orcs in space, how cool is that, Warcraft fans?) is comparative to the events of the Napoleonic Wars and WWII, and it’s full of such themes as genocide, destruction of worlds, biological weapons, and more. This is why I like to write in the setting, and this is why my “Toy Solder” story grew out of it.
A third edition conversion fizzled and died when Wizards was taken over by Hasbro and fourth edition was released, but the word is that they’re bringing it back for D&D Next. I imagine the dedicated and stubborn community of fans who has stuck with it for all this time might be the reason behind that!