Although 1992 would see the last of the Gold Box games, and after a few criticisms over how stale the engine seemed after so many titles had come out using it, SSI branched out into tapping the final frontier for inspiration. TSR’s take on Buck Rogers made sense. But how about traveling into space in AD&D? Wait, what?
TSR had a setting called Spelljammer which used AD&D 2ed rules and found a way for players to explore space — but this was space painted over with high fantasy. Star systems were enclosed in cosmic “crystal spheres”. A rainbow colored ether that was also highly flammable filled the space in between each crystal sphere. Ships flew thanks to a arcane device that allowed casters to “spelljam” their way into space using magic as fuel.
Everything that ye olde folklore thought space had looked like was game for the Spelljammer setting. Flat worlds, flying space pyramids, orcs in space ships that looked like giant mammoths, asteroid bars… It was a place where fantasy could run wild. It also opened a big can of worms.
Because Spelljamming was so out there, not many people on traditional worlds such as the Forgotten Realms’ Toril knew about it. Those that did, such as wizened sages with a specific idea of what the universe was supposed to be like, had to go through several stages of denial and acceptance before moving on. The gods were always tight lipped when it came to spelljamming, or the mysterious arcane who sold the magical helms to whoever had the coin and whoever could find one. It was a touchy subject.
But for those in the know, it opened the door to worlds beyond the sky, adventure the likes of which they had never seen on the ground, and the potential for exotic riches that had no equal. Or a fast death at the hands of neoghi spider ships.
The game wasn’t a Gold Box title and the gameplay was significantly different from its formula. For one thing, players didn’t roll up a party.
Instead, they created a captain character that would go out to hire a crew of officers that would make up their party. Crew would also need to be hired to man the ship and, of course, act as an army to board those that might not like cut of their jib. But crew, outside of the officers, were mostly nameless cannon fodder.
Ships could fly into space thanks to the helm powering them (and the mage that ran it) which usually took the form of a chair. It would also generate the envelope of air and gravity that kept people breathing and from flying off of the ship into space, though in the PnP version, it was possible to jump off and drift away and out into the vacuum if a player was that determined. Hiring a minimum number of crew was important to keep the ship running, but hiring too many over the limit could quickly foul the atmosphere and endanger everyone onboard.
The point of the early game was simple — survive long enough to get together swag so as to upgrade your ship to something a bit more intimidating, gear up, and ready yourself for an eventual confrontation with the half-spider, half moray eel neogi who plan on conquering Realmspace (the crystal sphere that you are in that is home to the Forgotten Realms’ world of Toril). Easy, right?
Fortunately, many of the ships found in Realmspace are of the friendly sort and as players fly between planets and visit ports of call, they could undertake different jobs which usually require the player to ship cargo or act as a space taxi for travelers. Ports of call were mostly menu selections of specific locations where you could stock up on supplies, find rumors at the local bar, hire crew, or head right back up into space. Anyone hoping to actually step beyond the confines of Waterdeep or explore a new planet will be sorely disappointed.
The game was split into different phases. There was the space travel portion as the player traveled from planet to planet in first person, or automated it by picking a destination and simply letting your helmsman spelljam everyone over instead.
Then there was the space combat which pit you against an enemy ship in first-person space combat though you could only pan left or right as opposed to diving or ascending in loops as you might in other space sims. Catapults, ballistae, and even cannons could be brought to bear on the enemy if you had them ready.
The third part was the actual ship boarding combat. Your officers were each separate characters while the crew was represented as icons with a number showing how many ‘crew’ were lumped into one. This allowed for familiar tactics from the Gold Box series, maneuvering around, encircling the enemy, flanking their sides, and raiding the ship for loot.
Graphically, the game was actually pretty impressive. The tactical combat, in particular, looked like something lifted out of Ultima VII – though it was still very much turn based.
The game looked a lot like it used the Gold Box engine, but actually, it was programmed mostly by an outfit called Cybertech Systems who started the project from scratch. They made the most of their contract making the game stand out from the rest of the SSI lineup with its simplified combat system, space battles, and detailed VGA graphics. It looked great, played decently well, and offered an amazing new setting for players to dive right into.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it apparently didn’t do very well much like the actual Spelljammer setting that TSR eventually began reducing support for around roughly the same time that the game came out.
It didn’t even have a sequel. Spelljammer came out for the IBM PC crowd and as you can see from the ad above, was slated for the Amiga but never arrived on the platform. Today, it exists as abandonware floating on the ‘net. An official site dedicated to all things Spelljammer, specifically that of the AD&D 2ed rules, has even set up a page describing the game and containing links to resources and more.
It’s really too bad. Cybertech seemed to really bring out some of the best ideas from the Spelljammer setting but whether the game was too ‘strange’ for AD&D die-hards to be appealing or whether it didn’t seem “Gold Box” enough are anyone’s guess. It had a solid soundtrack, simple to grasp mechanics, and took AD&D into a strange and alien place that could have been the start of a new series. Krynnspace, Greyspace, and a host of other crystal spheres waited beyond Realmspace.
And after all, who wouldn’t want to try being a pirate wizard in space?