Recently WotC has dipped a toe back into the Spelljammer universe with the publication of a Spelljammer d20 'mini-game' in the Polyhedron #151 (found pasted to the back of Dungeon #92). The mini-game attempts to update Spelljammer for the d20 system and create a Spelljammer setting as well. The mini-game is divided into five chapters detailing the various aspects of spelljammer and the 'Shadow of the Spider Moon' setting.

The first chapter deals with character rules. First it deals with the standard races, attempting to give each a new take based on the Spider Moon setting. This isn't particularly horrid, but seems like wasted space. Providing space for non-standard races would have been a more interesting use of space, since the differences from the 3e Player's Handbook are minimal and easily extrapolated from the descriptions in Chapters 4 and 5.

The basic classes are also described, as well as a handful of new prestige classes, skills, backgrounds, and feats. Some of these are obviously out of balance (like the 'Craft Spelljammer helm' feat) and some of the skills/backgrounds seem odd (why does 'No identity' appear here instead of a more SJ appropriate background?) but these must be helpful for those trying to convert their Spelljammer campaigns to 3e. All in all, the first chapter is workman-like but not brilliant.

The second chapter deals with space and spelljamming specifically. Right away the designers make all the mistakes the online community has been dreading. The basic physics of Spelljammer have always been confusing and inconsistent. The new d20 game doesn't attempt to fix it, it erases the past and introduces its own new set of poorly written rules and inconsistent rulings. Gravity becomes confusing with a complicated mathematical formula for defining the power of 'Natural Gravity' and air is provided by the helm. Yet when the helm goes down the air doesn't just disappear. 'Wonky'. The authors should have either kept the original physics (perhaps just fine tuning the rules) or gone to total 'real world' physics where all of the dangers of space are overcome by magic. Instead the created simply another confusing, poorly designed spelljammer physics system.

Ship combat is more complicated then in the original but not particularly poorly done. The most noticeable change is that everything is scaled down in size and speed so that Spelljammers are not totally out of line with terrestrial speeds of dragons, naval vessels, pegasi, ect. This is a good thing; Spelljammer tactical speed never needed to be so fast. On the other hand, spelljammer speed is replaced by 'crusing speed' which is represented by a random number of days to travel from world to world. In other words, it's meaningless and GMs will have to fall back on the old 100 million miles a day speed.

The ship designs are not particularly poorly thought out but they stole names from the old game and used them for new ship types, and the ship's artwork is astoundingly bad. The Archelon, for example, is supposed to only hold a maximum crew of 80, yet from the image it would seem to hold thousands. Even by Spelljammer standards (the old SJ ships were notorious for not matching stats with deck plans) the ships are extremely out of whack with the stats. Moreover, the ships just look bad and many old fans are horrified by the new depictions of ships like the Hammership (which now looks like a pregnant puffer fish and bears no resemblance to a shark or hammer of any type) and Armada (which now looks like a flying slug instead of the majestic, beautiful terror of space). There are a few positives here, such as the Elven Arrowing and the Illithid Boreworm both of which are interesting designs. Of course, the lack of deckplans make all the ships much less useful then they might have been. Fewer, better designed ships with good art and deckplans would have been much better. [side note: The online community has come to the rescue here with some great deckplans for these ships available at Beyond the Moons on the d20 Spelljammer page.]

The third chapter is pretty short and deals with spelljammer equipment and magic items. Gunpowder weapons are given more space then spelljamming helms, which seems a reversal of perspective but nothing particularly good or bad appears here. The equipment statistics are useful and the magic items are sufficient.

The last two chapters describe the 'Shadow of the Spider Moon' setting specifically. It seems to be a pretty standard sphere (though crystal spheres are never mentioned one way or the other in the articles at all). It's fairly pedestrian though the economics, politics, and ecology of the setting are poorly thought out. The setting establishes foes and societies, but never explains why anyone would spelljam at all [aside from the rapacious illithids duping the drow into conquering the other planets for them]. Is there any trade, and if so between which planets? What goods are they exchanging? If there is no trade then why did the humans develop spelljammers at all? Still, the setting is quite salvageable by a GM willing to put some work in.

'Spelljammer: Shadow of the Spider Moon' is in many ways like the original Spelljammer accessories. Unfortunately, the similarities are with all of the originals weakness: poorly designed, confusing physics, inconsistent and illogical settings, and sparse, inadequate rules for creating unique characters and equipment. The wonderful weirdness of the original is missing, replaced with a typical 'fantasy-punk' feel which fits better in Dark Sun or Planescape. The game seems unplayable by anyone who does not own the original Spelljammer, yet the authors clearly intend it for a non-Spelljammer fan audience. On the other hand, at $5 with a Dungeon issue included it is a pretty good deal. You get what you pay for.

I've read worse products, but I can't help but feel sad for what might have been. Spelljammer has always seemed like a setting that could be quite wonderful with just a little solid editing. This product isn't it and it will not be adding new fans to the setting, but those existing Spelljammer fans who want 3e are better off then they were.

Post-script: In the Polyhedron #151 editorial Erik Mona respond to the criticism he received for his attack on classic Spelljammer in his Polyhedron #150 editorial. He seems to have been so busy feeling victimized he missed the entire point. Spelljammer fans did not need Giff in the setting in order for it to be Spelljammer, but we didn't see any reason for them to be dissed either. His approach wasn't irreverent; it was insulting.