On the Intersection of Gonzo and Awesome

Welcome to Spelljammer Week!

If you think Spelljammer is dumb, you are missing out!

Do you know why?

Here are some peoples comments:

"I thought it a ridiculous concept. The idea of putting Forgotten Realms in Space into a game just seems wonky for lack of a better description."
"I was in my teens and thought it was so far fetched that it was stupid."
"I didn't like it mostly because it lacked imagination. The complete rejection of any kind of science or tech turned it into MAGIC IN SPAAAAAACE!!!! When you already have the means to magically create a stable wormhole between two worlds, why would you ever need a magic ship to fly there?"

Sounds terrible right? It's not. I'll tell you why.

People complain about Gonzo because it isn't 'rational', 'doesn't make sense' and is 'stupid'. What makes this an ironic statement is it describes every property they are a fan of . Here, let's try it.

A farm boy is actually the son of the galactic emperors second in command and he ends up not only destroying their impenetrable fortress by shooting it with his eyes closed, but also learns to fight with lazer swords and is responsible for convincing his father to slay the emperor who can shoot lightning from his fingers. He's a member of a secret group of psychic ninjas.

Hm. Maybe again:

Ok, so the world is actually a computer simulation and in the real world people fly around in squid-like ships and avoid evil robots while in the computer a messiah can fly around and fight like superman against evil programming code. Also, for some reason, humans are batteries and have to produce more energy then they consume.

There is one difference between gonzo that's stupid and gonzo that isn't, and that's how well it is presented.

George E. Williams IV says it best:
I think the reason some people hate it is the silly elements, which are not overbearing or constant. Giff, the hippo men, are hilarious but have you ever seen an angry hippo? They are terrifying. 
Dungeons and Dragons by it's nature and design is gonzo and absurd. Look at the clothing styles! Talking spellcasting dragons! Magical yet medieval societies!

When you present gonzo features as deadly serious then it becomes awesome.

When a pirate giff pins your character to the wall with 800 pounds of muscle, and his mouth is open and against your face, not to eat you, but because the labor of crushing your ribs is causing him to exert himself, and his thick blunt teeth are tearing the skin of your face off as you choke on his fetid breath, then it ceases to become absurd.

Spelljammer did have a presentation issue as Thomas Fitzgerald (of Middenmurk) points out:

"It was something we approached with conservative teenage gamer orthodoxy and found it unplayably bland. My impression is still of an intriguing premise let down by lacklustre execution and a weird genericism of aesthetic. The fact that it lacked a DiTerlizzi or a Brom was unfortunate. It coulda been a contender."[1]

So, really, beyond actual presentation skill, the failing of modern gonzo comes down almost exclusively to how seriously it is presented.

What people are actually saying when they say "Property X is stupid because it is gonzo" is "I couldn't imagine a way of presenting that in a serious or dramatic fashion." That's a failing in the viewer, and not the property.[2]

Some more praise of Spelljammer:

by Jennell Jaquays
"Played it, loved it, and I still own the boxed sets, books and grid maps. Spelljammer was UNIQUE, at that time there was nothing in 2nd Edition that touched it." -Jesse Fulgoni
"Love the idea and have pulled bits of it in to games before, never got to play it straight." - Eric Aubey
"My group loved it . . .If I would run it knowing what I know now, I'm confident I  would rock it." - Jasper Polane
"Loved it. Got dozens of stories. It took my players awhile to adjust to the setting but once they did we had a blast." - Michael Fuller
"My first experience with Spelljammer turned into a campaign that lasted more than...geesh... 3 years and counting now. Once you get into Mind Flayers and Drow in space and Giff carrying guns as big as some of your team it can turn quite serious if you want it to." - Emily Vitori
"Neogi are among my favorite enemy monsters, and having them appear in a campaign on one of their spider-like ships doing some slaves'n'food pillaging is usually exciting!" -Carl Niclas

[1] I believe Jennell Jaquays could have been this person.
[2] Before you get all riled up; this doesn't mean a property can't be 'not to your taste'. I don't particularly like Yu-Gi-Oh as a matter of taste, but not because it's gonzo. I can imagine ways that I can take and present that property seriously -- I just won't because I don't like it. When I asked about opinions on spelljammer, I didn't receive responses like "I wasn't interested in wavecrawl type adventures." Or "I prefer smaller scales" The responses were as those in the beginning of the post. ALSO: this doesn't mean the property can't be bad or dull or boring. It's certainly possible to ruin any idea or setting by doing that.

19 comments:

  1. I started my current campaign with thoughts of letting it become a Spelljammer game later on. I've dropped little hints about ancient heroes that fought evil on the moon, and about how no one knows where elves depart to when they become too old for this land. I also had them run in to some talkative mind-flayers, but the party ended up running away and sealing that cave up rather than help them back to their ship (Though, who can blame them for that?)

    The group is pretty invested in things on ground though, so it will be interesting to see if they actually do take the bait and lift off to explore the solar system when the chance is presented to them.

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    1. The idea of old elves travelling into Wildspace is an interesting one.

      I've not seen anything in Spelljammer canon to support this, but I suppose it would not be too hard to create some sort of space-paradise to fit in with this. But if the same thing happens on all worlds with elves on them, that is going to be a lot of old elves for the Elven Navy (and perhaps the Sindiath Line) to transport.

      Maybe elves fade away over time, but you still might need an entire "retirement sphere" to provide enough space for all the elven nations on all the elven worlds in all the elven spheres.

      You also have the fact that the Elven Navy probably does not hook up with all elven nations.

      Maybe old elves first go to an elven paradise region on their own world and that region eventually passes on the epically old elves to go to an off-world paradise.

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    2. I don't really care too much about adhering to Spelljammer Canon. Metaplots, product canon, and setting details are great if I don't have an answer and need to supply it to the players in short order. Otherwise, there is no reason for the players to take anything that doesn't come from the horse's mouth (in this case I'm the horse) as gospel.

      Even with that, when it comes to big mythology, historical, or scientific fact, my answer is usually "this is how I think it probably works" than "this is fact". I think that works to make a world a good deal more mystic. So when it comes to elves, what I suspect is that when Elves have lived for a significant period on the planet that my game takes place on, they leave that planet for lands beyond. They probably use a shuttle of some sort, probably a craft more spacious than a Flitter, but not so sturdy as a Man-o'-War. Once out of the atmosphere I am not entirely sure what happens to them, because I haven't heavily fleshed out the spelljamming culture of this sphere.

      My thought is that the spelljamming culture in this sphere is either heavily regulated (otherwise why haven't the players seen more signs of it?) or relatively small. In either case, I do see an Elven Navy being a strong regulatory presence in the sphere. What happens to old elves though?

      Well, my players have learned that elves don't necessarily go to the same afterlife that everyone else does (because when you're too low level for Raise Dead sometimes you just have to pull your fallen comrades from the hands of death a bit more directly). The elves that they've encountered have a curious relationship with death. They don't really bury or burn their dead like humans do, but you don't see elven bodies decomposing everywhere.

      Elves don't have to have to be regular biological creatures like humans. Maybe they are mystic, and immortal. I know that no one has seen an elf die of old age, or even be hindered by it for that matter. Maybe the elven navy in this sphere is made up primarily of elves who have lived long enough to have centuries of insight. Maybe their departure from the planet is just the beginning of a new life.

      Or maybe they are granted the ability to live life anew. They are able to wipe the centuries of experience from their mind and begin a new existence literally millions of miles from anyone or anything that could recall their earlier life.

      Or maybe there is an elven space graveyard, a black hole or distant star that old elves fling themselves into, preferring a swift death to centuries of sickness and dementia.

      Or maybe it's all crazyness. Maybe it's a misunderstanding, and old elves don't actually go to space, but elven nations do have occasional communication with an elven spelljamming navy. A simple mistranslation of an elven text, or misunderstanding of a ritual, could cause a non-elven observer to draw tons of mistaken conclusions. Why, they might even believe that all life on the planet was seeded in ancient times by an advanced civilization of space-elves. Though, since we are talking about D&D and spelljammer, they could be right.

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  2. The thing about presentation is that it is an easily shared experience. Lacking that, every viewer has to independently be on the same wavelength. This can be difficult even with a fantastic game master, and even if possible can require that a lot of information be conveyed in other ways (which runs into the standard problems of information overload).

    I'm not saying it can't be done, or that Spelljammer is inherently flawed and unplayable, but the lack of strong aesthetic effectively raises the barrier to entry. I admit to not being a huge fan, though the eponymous Spelljammer ship (the big manta ray one) is an interesting abandoned space hulk and might make a fun mega-dungeon campaign.

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    1. I think that one of the disadvantages that Spelljammer faces compared to previous TSR campaign settings is that the previous settings used a number of things that were "the same as on Earth" and that cut down the amount of world-bulding a designer required a GM to do. The designers of those worlds did not have to go into long explanations about how those things work, because players have seen them at work in the real world. Give a world a 24 hour day and a 365 day year and the players never even think to question it. Settings like Greyhawk, Mystara, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms are built on lots of these assumptions, leaving the designers plenty of space to explain the interesting new themes of those settings.

      But Spelljammer introduces a lot of new concepts, including helms that convert mystical energy to power ships, air envelopes, almost universal gravity that allows PCs to walk normally in most places in space, reverse-gravity on ships and asteroids, a number of geometric shapes for worlds, the idea of beholders, illithids and neogi being important civilisations in space, crystal spheres and the phlogiston. That is a lot of stuff for people to take in. And I've seen a lot of people questioning one or more element. I've also seen GMs trying to replace one or more of those elements out of Spelljammer with their own "replacement" concept.

      Asking questions about how Spelljammer works can be a good thing (as it shows that players are interested in understanding the setting) but I'm interested to see how nobody ever asks why a flying carpet in an ordinary setting flies and why people on the carpet don't get blown off by the wind. Just as you can have "information overload" (which is bad) you can also have people being pretty resistant to suspending their sense of disbelief and assuming SJ works instead of assuming it is somehow broken and picking at the rules looking for flaws. (Or to put it another way, a lot of people seem to start with the assumption that SJ is broken and ask to be convinced that it is not, instead of starting with the assumption that it works, but that they do not understand why it works.)

      I think that all settings have flaws. And while you didn't say that Spelljammer was inherently flawed the setting certainly does have its fair share of flaws. I think the biggest problem is that the canon of the setting is scattered across different products and details on some important things are so thin that fans all have to guess what those bits mean. There are gaps in the history of SJ's worlds, races and organisations. It isn't even clear where some of them originate from. And details about the legendary ship Spelljammer are not explained in the RPG products - you need to turn to the Cloakmaster Cycle novels to learn its story.

      But I do think that Spelljammer had (and stilll has) a lot of potential. If it had been given a second chance those gaps could have been filled in. The Astromundi Cluster and Spelljammer: Spider of the Shadow Moon tried to "fix" Spelljammer, but they were more reboots than restorations. To me, they threw out the original setting and replaced it with something else. But I think that if SJ had returned as a 3rd Edition campaign setting with the same sort of treatment that Forgotten Realms got from WotC or that Dragonlance got from SP and MWP (or even as a Living Campaign with the same sort of treatment that Living Greyhawk gave to the Flanaess) a lot of these barebones details would have been pulled together and presented in a way that gave players something substantial to read up on and use as the inspiration for their PCs.

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  3. I think the main failing of Spelljammer was that it was too tied to the existing AD&D settings of Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Planescape. If I were paid to rewrite Spelljammer today, I'd set up a situation similar to Earth's Age of Sail - a few heavily populated "Core Worlds" as the home base for several colonial empires, a larger sphere of colony worlds surrounding them, and finally "wildspace" - beyond civilization, where anything goes.

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    1. This sort of rewrite thing has already been done twice. The first time was the Astromundi Cluster and the second time was Shadow of the Spider Moon.

      Neither of those reboots have captured as much of a following as the original setting. In fact there was a bit of a fan backlash against Shadow of the Spider Moon. (An unfair backlash, in my opinion. It isn't Jeff Grubb's SJ, but it was never meant to be.)

      But you have a valid point. I like Greyspace, Krynnspace and Realmspace, but they do require a SJ GM to buy a lot of Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books to fill in the details of those groundling worlds. If these spheres were "options" instead of the core of the campaign setting, it would be a lot easier for a GM to ignore them and do the sort of thing that you would have done.

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    2. Dragon Magazine #159 had an article called Void Jammers that was riffing on Spelljammer, It came out about a year after Spelljammer and was almost the same theme but set on the Astral Plane. I have the article but haven't read it in years.

      I don't know anyone who actually used it, but I suspect there would be fewer questions about physics if you did. For whatever reason players seem to accept gonzo stuff in the Astral Plane that they might not in a realm attached to the prime material.

      Even if its a prime material with magic and monsters that already defy logic.

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    3. Yay! I found the article!

      Oof... it's... not very good. Flat and boring actually. It takes the concept of ships roaming the Astral Plane powered by the disembodied brains of mind flayers and reduces it to the minutia of an overly-engineered taxi service.

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    4. That Void Jammers article sounds very similar to what I've heard about the 4e Manual of the Planes version of a spelljamming ship.

      There are a lot of individual SJ articles (and RPG books) that have flaws, but they mostly have great ideas in them. The Pirates of Gith raid Wildspace from the Astral Plane, so the Void Jammers article might be a good way to allow spacefarers to get onto the Astral Plane and attack a Gith base. IIRC, they had a base on the head of a dead god in an article that was on the WotC website. So put that together and you have a micro-campaign environment. :-)

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  4. Part of the problem I think is that it came at a time when D&D had become self-referential. Many players of D&D at the time had little or no exposure to Appendix N type imaginative fiction. Just "D&D novels." So stories from ER Burroughs and RE Howard and PJ Farmer, let alone something like Mark Twain's "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven", were not part of their conception of D&D's DNA.

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    1. IIRC, one of the articles in the magazines featured a crystal sphere built around Space 1889. So that sort of thing was done at least once.

      I think that the fan community could probably build crystal spheres around those other concepts. The SJ fans over at The Piazza seem to be open to any sort of concept D&D or not.

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  5. My current game has some references to Spelljammer over the years (I'm all about the beholder hive ship), but I don't know if any of my players have picked up on them. I'm tempted once we start up the new campaign to throw a bit more in ... an inspiring post to revisit material that I'd previously written off.

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  6. In the Dwimmermount/Devilmount setting, there is an astral ship parked in the big magic mountain that is designed to be one of the concluding areas of exploration, I believe. Talk about a great segue.

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    1. There are a lot of references to Spelljammer hidden in other campaign settings. I have started to call it "secondary canon" for want of a better term.

      Forgotten Realms has a product called Undermountain: Stardock, which is an excellent way to get from the Realms into Realmspace. Greyhawk has a neogi adventure called Neogi Nest in WGR2: Treasures of Greyhawk and WGR1 Ruins of Greyhawk has a hidden SJ reference too. I've recently been researching some Dragonlance tie-ins that send people from Krynn to Lunitari.

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  7. I really like the premise and core aesthetic of Spelljammer. It's pretty awesome and whether a potential player agrees is a good litmus test of whether he'd be a good fit for my group. The problem, though, is that after being caught up in the promise that the art and core concept holds, once you get to the actual text it's dull dull dull. A huge letdown. The choices the authors made about the cosmology, the science of the spheres or whatever you want to call it, are terrible. The presentation is incredibly banal. For example I remember coming to the part about what a spelljammer actually is. What a let down.

    I haven't read all the books or even any book all the way through but I didn't see any good advice about structuring adventures. And most of all while the art is pure gonzo, gonzo is nowhere to be found in the text.

    On a positive note I think it leaves an enormous vaccuum for someone to come along and do Spelljammer, but live up to the promise of it.

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    1. I thought of cloning Spelljammer once. I went as far as working out how to replicate the main features of the environment without using WotC's IP. I figured that if I did create a system, I would release the core rules as a document similar to WotC's SRD, so that I could make a Open Content fantasy space system that everyone wanting to build solar systems could work with.

      But ultimately it would never be Spelljammer, because I could not clone the Elven Navy, the dwarven citadels, the scavvers and many many other elements that have no real or mythological source and could only be inspired by the work of Jeff Grubb. And, right now, I would rather create fanon content for Spelljammer, that create some sort of "Clonejammer" universe.

      Have you looked at Hackjammer (the Hackmaster version of Spelljammer)? That was written by three Spelljammer fans and you might find that it addresses some of the things you are unhappy with.

      (Of course you might actually have to read Hackjammer all the way through to work out if you like it. :-P )

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  8. Someone forgot to tell me it was Spelljammer Week. I'd have put it in my diary if I knew. :-)

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