Monday, February 28, 2011

Spelljamming (Innnn Spppaaaaaace!)

After doing entries about the Forgotten Realms and Marvel Super Heroes, I had every intention to talk about some of the other games and campaigns I’ve worked on, but put it aside until someone sent me an email asking about the secret history of Spelljammer. I’ve said some of these things elsewhere, but this is pulling all of them together.

1)  The original concept of Spelljammer came out of a now-legendary designer pitch session at Augie’s in Lake Geneva, near the Horticultural Hall (Augie’s became Cactus Club, and is now Ryan Braun’s according to the Google Maps). Manager Jim Ward called the get-together to discuss the boxed sets for the next year. From the table conversation, the waitstaff thought we were location scouts from Hollywood (and that Jim’s assistant manager, Warren Spector, was Steve Spielberg).

2) One of the things that I came into the pitch session with was the idea that I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was.  Yeah, we had done FR and DL, but those had been written down as typical fantasy worlds. Vanilla fantasy. Default fantasy. Background static. Here was a chance to go out on more of a limb and push the envelope.  So this was the chance to do D&D in space. I’m sorry – Innnnn Spaaaaaaace!

3) Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space.  He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did.  All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

4)  Despite pitching hard for the idea, I almost didn’t get the nod to do it. The other idea that came out of the meeting was a boxed set for the far side of Krynn, in the lands of Taladas. Zeb Cook said something along the lines of “Well, I’ve never worked on Dragonlance, so I guess I get AD&D in space.” Jim Ward, bless his heart, countered with, “Since you haven’t done any Dragonlance, Zeb, this would be a great place to start”. And that was how I ended up with Spelljammer and he ended up with Time of the Dragons.

5) For the boxed sets at that time, we had a format – two 96-page books, 4 big color maps, and a bunch of light cardboard sheets. Our task was to fill that space. Sometimes the format worked, sometimes it was less successful. For Spelljammer, we used them to create the ship stat cards and standups. So that worked out pretty well.

6) So, the name. Descended from the windjammers, the old ships. In the game we used it to describe the act of moving through space magically. And it was the class of ship that moved through space. And it was the proper name of the legendary Spelljammer, a supposed Flying Dutchman/White Whale. It was a noun, a proper noun, and a verb. If I could have made it an adverb I would have done that as well.

7) The trademark guys hated the name (“So you’re the one,” said one of our lawyers, after publication). This was a regular nightmare in the office – marketing would want a name that captured everything about the product, making it easier to sell. The trademark lawyers would want the name to mean absolutely nothing, so it would be easier to trademark in a variety of fields. Spelljammer was clearly in the former but not the latter.

8) Spelljammer was initially thought of as being AD&D in space (Sorry - Innnnn Sppaaaaace!), but soon became obvious as a way to tie the existing campaigns together. One of the challenges of all the campaigns existing in the same reality, was that there are small differences like gods, for example, some of which overflow into other campaigns and others which do not. And things like the constellations of Krynn moving around . Crystal spheres, enclosing each solar system in its own container, were the answer to that.

Probably less medieval than it appears
9) The crystal spheres were inspired by the picture on the right, which was the cover of Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers. I thought it was a medieval woodcut, depicting the wise searcher of knowledge piercing the walls of reality to find the elegant clockwork beyond it. Actually, it’s not a medieval woodcut at all, but an from the late 1800s. Still, it is a cool picture.

10) The spheres allowed us to have whatever rules we wanted within the spheres themselves. Want to run a hard science version? It works that way in the sphere. Want the constellations to move around? There you go. Want a flat world resting on elephants, with iterative turtles below? Go for it. Krynn and Toril were presented as heliocentric universes, but Oerth ended up geocentric, primarily because I always felt that Oerth was the center of its universe, and here was the chance to prove it.

11) The crystal spheres also allowed us to have tactical drive and hyperdrive. This is a challenge in both games and fiction  – you want one set of rules for moving ships around in-system, and another that allows much quicker movement between the stars. Star Trek has warp drive and impulse power.  Rather than have two types of spell-powered space drives, we had two different types of space.

12) One thing we avoided was aether, which was an old-time theory of how the universe worked. It goes as follows - if light is a wave, then it has to travel through a medium, so there had to be a medium between the planets that did not slow down the planets but allowed light to propagate. Aether was conceived as a substance that had to exist to make the theory work. Mock it if you want, but nowadays we talk of dark matter, which has the same sort of odor wafting off it. We ALSO (in the real world) once had phlogiston, which came out of theories of how fire worked. The French theorized that fire was extremely fast oxidation. The English mocked the French and declared that items had an inherent “burning-ness”, called phlogiston, which was undiscovered by clearly made their theory work. So that’s where we got phlogiston in the game, and why it was so explosive.

13) The ships of Spelljammer were created by an interesting process. I would give broad art suggestions to Jim Holloway (“Give me a squid ship. How about a translucent butterfly? OK, have about a chambered nautilus?”) Jim would draw them up, we would select the ones we liked (mostly all of them) and Dave (Diesel) LaForce would do the deck plans, according our rules with the gravity planes. This accounts for a lot of the diversity of the ships.

14) Jim did four or five beholder ships, and we liked all of them, so we married that idea to the fact that a lot of artists have done different takes on the beholder over the years. So the beholders became genetic racists, each clan of which believing they were the “real” beholders.

15) The best ship was the Nautiloid, which pretty much cemented the mind flayer in the setting, which makes sense since a ray-gun wielding illithid was in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks way back when. The mind flayers were so identified with Spelljammer that later, when we wanted to do them for Ravenloft, marketing pushed back, worried that we would take something cool from Spelljammer.  We had to show that mind flayers predated Spelljammer.

16) The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs. The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddlewheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of DRAGON) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster.  So I’m not taking the fall for that one by myself.

17) The giff, however - hippo-headed humanoids with a penchant for explosives, are my fault. They join the thanoi of Dragonlance and the yak-men of Al- Qadim in that animal-headed humanoid department of things I have done.

18) The neogi came about because, if mind flayers were slowing getting more background and depth (and in doing so, becoming a bit more domesticated), I needed a new really bad-guy race. And a marriage of the moray eels and spiders was great. Plus the fact they kept umber hulks (another criminally underused race) as slaves. In the original the Neogi were much more fragile than their slaves.  I think 4E did a good job with them.

19) The clockwork horrors were daleks in different skins. Oh, and with different colors. You realized that, right?

20) Unlike the Realms or Tekumel or Greyhawk, Spelljammer did not have a previous life before being incarnated as a game. I think this had an effect that we didn’t have a heritage to lean back on, to point at and say “this is how we did it.” So we had some strange structures grow up as numerous other creatives got involved. I would have named the Scro something else, for example. And I wouldn’t have put battleship guns on the bottom of the Rock of Bral (whose origins are the ROCK of GiBRALtar – again, I will take the blame for that one).

21) But my big regret is that I didn’t salvage the nautiloid model we had made for demos for the game. When we retired the line I tried to get hold of it, but was told it was going to be used to try and sell in a theme park ride. And then that during the presentation, someone had dropped it, smashing it into pieces. And then because it was broken, they threw it away. Sigh.

22) I’m happy with both how the product ended and up, with my contribution to it, though I was deeply engaged only in the original set and the Legend of the Spelljammer, and overseeing the first year of product before moving on to new challenges. Years later, Andy Collins revived the concepts, shed some of the sillier stuff, and put out Spelljammer: Secret of the Spider Moon. I thought that was pretty good as well.

23) And the whole thing about stretching the boundaries of D&D? It turns out that, after doing so, people STILL considered D&D to be “generic fantasy”, but now “D&D in Space” (Innnnn Spppaaaaaace!) was considered generic. Typical, vanilla fantasy. So what I learned was that D&D so dominated the market that ANYTHING we did was considered part of the background static. Not that this would keep me from doing it again.

More later,