Friday, December 30, 2016

Spelljammer - Rocks of Shardspace

The day singers of Chapel Crag sing the World Lay in ten hour shifts, rejoicing and wallowing in the beauty of the world when it was whole: water, air, greenstuff and plenty.  The toilers along the Crag's terminator take solace in the songs as they cut the pumice soil with worn hoes and nurse every seedling with monastic care.  The night singers face out apertures in the opposite side of the towers of song to cry the Dirge of the Fall of Man into the unforgiving night. The Dirge's endless re-imagining of the great shattering, and the first childlike cruelty of the infant god's hatching, echo from the slumbering ruins and cracked cold earth, haunting the dreams of scavengers and outcasts who struggle on the Nightside.

Aiming for not Quite Fantasy, not Quite Sci-fi
- Chris Foss

My ship, "The Groomsman's Demure", floats among the rocks and crags, it's old hull of spun night silver over hard iron ribs, a frigate cut down, razee to a 24 port sixth rate, 89 souls aboard, but well founded and with sturdy tanks, newly tarred to allow us to cruise long among the shattered crags of the Shardcloud.  A letter of mark from Brawl Rock gives us the justification to seize what we will, but more it is a pass to travel where we wish, and pick the rich bones of the shattered world.  We seek rare prey, Dread Spindral or Boward's Luck, a bastion world of the 3rd Arcane Integrem, plundered once in a cursory manner 80 years ago by Captain Boward of the "Lark", before retreating again into the deadly cold space of the Licheside. The Spindral hurtles back now on a long elliptic and with Boward's notes, the services of a Red Sage, and the visions bought dearly from the Night Singers, I know where she'll cross the Green Belt.   

Sci- Fi Psychedelia
- Colin Hay
The world was shattered, the infant god bursting forth an eon ago to crack the surface, scattering the high cities of man and his creations into the blackness before the newborn deity slipped into slumber.  Light and energy radiates outward now from both the sleeping child-god and the dim old red sun to fill the sails of a thousand ships that ply the space between the shards.

Shadow and light. Gravity and motion. The heat of the stars and the cold of the depths. These rule what is left of life in the universe, arcane technologies from before the shattering and their crude modern equivalents trapping air and water on the larger shards of the broken world, forever slung in orbit around the new sun of the slumbering god.

Ten Shards:

1. Brawl Rock - I was sold on to a bulk trader here as a boy of eight when the tower priest recognized that I had some inkling of Word within me.  I have been back to its rich loam and forest of iron tree many times since to trade and sip yellow wine in Brawl's honeyed gardens.

2. The Red Archive - They trade in knowledge, sealed in their airless spire of crimson glass, they buy children and old writings. The Sages are said to be immortal and their religion is a religion of secrets. They loathe to part with any scrap from their hoard.

3. Chapel Crag - Lopsided and locked in a fixed orbit, the Crag is one of the largest of the shards and it has been made livable only by the Singer's creed, the stories of human greatness and divine failing that drive the Crag's toilers to work ever harder with ever less. The Crag supplies many outlaying rocks with grain and raw material.

- Chris Foss
4. Dead Port - At the edge of the fixed ring, barely in the temperate zone where the light of the Infant fades, but before the killing cold. Great grey caves quays of the Dead Princes yawn open to welcome living traders. A reminder of the Licheside's great power out in the cold dark, the dead constantly swarm across the rock, brittle and frozen, carving the entire shard with images of death's dominion at the command of their masters. Trade here is often the dull exchange of corpses for water ice, sustaining both the dead and the living, but even the dead have their vices that a savvy trader can profit from.

5. Sulfur Gate -  The Gate guards the way to the Sunside, where the ever present heat of the Red Sun makes human life near impossible on the fixed shards. Armada's of the Dead and sometimes their living allies have shattered on the the fleet King Hell stations here and the great bastion world of the Gate. A spindle of black stone shimmering with the sun's heat and bristling with batteries, hidden ports and shipyards.  Yet the devils of King Hell trade to, in the small, greedy way of their people, and it is not unusual to see a trader or two taking red gold and devil liquor in exchange for the despondent or insane who wish to make arrangements with the predatory Devils.

7. Castle Green Glare - Honeycombed with fortification and giant wasp hives, the surface of this small artificial sphere world is intensively farmed by enslaved war captives kidnapped by the Castle's piratical wasp knights. Spell warded armor allow the mad knights and their insectile mounts to travel through the black deeps.  The knights have little industry and their desires for luxuries and manufactured goods mitigate their plundering nature at least enough to indulge traders.

8. Pendulum - A wanderer, pendulum is a spindle of stone that whips though the cold black night of the fixed shards for a decade before spending a few years in the spin-ward reaches. It's citizens sell the hoarded crafts and the ancient treasures they have recovered during their long night among the lost fragments and Liche Princedoms for great quantities of green stuff, livestock and root-stock to replenish their underground gardens and prepare them for another orbit into the dark.

9. The Treacherous Eye - An artificial sphere world of considerable size, uniquely hollow its light and heat provided by a great orb of magical fire.  A potential paradise, but the light of its false sun is unwholesome and corrupting, warping those who live in it.  The twisted man-things of the Eye are fine craftsmen, despite their pitiful malformations.

10. Hard Gravel -  A cluster of small shards, most barely large enough for a single family to survive on. The people of Hard Gravel are clannish, insular, feuding, and utterly interdependent, making the small hops between their home shards in flimsy antiquated dinghies or even air suits. They have little to trade but are desperate for goods, magic and even necessities like ice and air, so Hard Gravel provides a welcome enough port for traders, and its residents are surprisingly numerous, making it a good port to take on green crew.

Spelljammer as we All Wanted it to Be
TSR - Brom - Spelljammer Module Cover
The above setting fiction is an effort to think about how I'd run Spelljammer, TSR's early 90's D&D setting about space exploration in wooden ships shaped like fish.  The original settling has one amazing core idea of fantasy spaceships, but it is thoroughly poisoned by the early 90's TSR approach to world-building.  All wonder is drained from the magic and weirdness that fantasy allows by making every strange device or odd power a jerry-rigged mess of spells and magic items. Magic becomes mundane in Spelljammer as written and far too much time is spent trying to justify things that don't need explanation. Additionally the original Spelljammer focuses so much on a mechanism for designing crystal spheres (star systems) that it has few pages left for the weird wonderful elements of D&D in Space.  Rather then build a fantasy world where space travel is possible through magic it tries to build a space opera universe and substitute magic for super science with limited success.

My own efforts lean away from Spelljammer's epic high-fantasy, though the setting would have to remain high magic, rather then a collection of space going empires growing and prospering across a universe (partially so that one could run a campaign in multiple TSR D&D settings I think) I've settled on
a smaller space, the ruins of one magically advanced world, reduced to an asteroid belt, around the new sun of a infant deity that slumbers away radiating magical energy and light.  The broken shards of the world form a disc half spinning closer to the gravity of the infant god, and half  fixed - either frozen in that sun's shadow or burning in the heat of the system's original baleful sun.

Then They Ruined It with Details
TSR - Spelljammer Ship Card
This sort of setting allows less need for light speed and similar science fiction conventions and space-craft can be Jerry-rigged tubes of metal, stone or wood, filled with gardens and powered by less drastic magics, solar sails and alchemical rockets, justifying somewhat smaller crews (closer to party size) and setting up a universe where the salvage of ancient magics from drifting fragments of the ancient world, derelict craft, or failed shard colonies allows the players to be treasure hunting buccaneers.

Additionally, both because entities immune to the vacuum and with no need for temperate climes or water make sense as powers in a space based-setting, and because I like the grey v. grey morality it creates, the powers in the setting are the liche princes of the undead and the diabolical tyranny of King Hell, who war with each-other but mostly trade or plunder the humans trapped closer in to the sun.


  1. The 'Attribution Unknown' painting (third one down) looks like Chris Foss' work. I saw a lot of it as a kid when OMNI magazine was a thing people could buy.

  2. Also, R.D. Reed ( if it's still around) had a great Spelljammer setup using white-box OD&D. Our ship was a wizard's tower, and essentially we were members of the first kingdom to build something using some rediscovered lore from an Ancient society (Xylbocx Starcult, if I remember). The two missions I participated in all revolved around recovering more information and star charts (which were scrolls with astrogation directions to other Xylbocx strongholds in space). We visited an asteroid ruled by a crazy-ass gnome vampire in one game, and another where someone was using the embryo of a huge demon as a power source or something. It was ridiculously fun, even if my m-u had to sacrifice his helm of comprehend language to get us back home in one.

  3. Gus, incredible! I'd play this in a heartbeat and would love to see it fleshed out a little more. This Patrick Stuart post could definitely be mined for Licheside ideas:

  4. The first picture is Chris Foss's concept sketch for the Nostromo of the first Alien movie. The second is by Colin Hay, who was heavily influenced by Chris Foss. The third is by Chris Foss, for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by Robert Holdstock.

  5. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  6. That's some beautiful prose. Especially the first two paragraphs.