DriveThruRPG Reviews: Voidjumpers of Space

Spelljammer is the best D&D setting ever. 

That’s right, I said it and I mean it.  Read it again.  Best.  Setting.  Ever. 

Does it have some ridiculous elements?  Sure.  I’m not going to deny that the Giff and Space Hamsters aren’t jokes, though I believe both were intentionally meant as jokes.  And yes, physics are different from what we know, but then every D&D game includes people throwing fire and electricity from their hands and the possibility of a person surviving a fall at terminal velocity.  And what D&D setting doesn’t have its ridiculous elements?  Dragonlance has not one, not two, but three distinct races which can only be called comedic relief.  If someone argues that they can play a Kender seriously, kick them out of your game and gaming group.  There are more layoffs and re-orgs in the Forgotten Realms pantheon than in a telecom company and almost as many employees.  It seems that the warforged in Eberron were made specifically to shut up that one player in every group who actually wants to play sci-fi rather than swords and sorcery.  And if I wanted to play Mad Max in D&D I would play Gamma World, not Dark Sun.

For those of you who don’t know the glory of Spelljammer, it was a campaign setting in the early 90’s which took D&D into space.  Through magic and some alternate interpretations of physics (just because that’s the way gravity works in our reality doesn’t mean it has to work that way in the D&D universe) players were able to take their characters off their home worlds and send them adventuring throughout the vast expanses of space, allowing them to fight dragons and explore dungeons on all manner of worlds.  At its best, a Spelljammer campaign can combine the best elements of Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Lord of the Rings.  At its worst it can be Starship Troopers crossed with Cutthroat Island and, any of the D&D movies.  

Though there is a distinct possibility of awful, there is a good chance for awesome with Spelljammer.  To this end, I’m always happy to see people adapt the Spelljammer concept to new systems and that is exactly what Voidjumpers of Space does.  Voidjumpers drags Spelljammer into the new millennium by adapting the idea for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

Voidjumpers is not just an update of the old rules for a new system, however.  There are a number of features in Voidjumpers that are not brought in from either the original Spelljammer campaign setting or from 4th edition.  For instance, while the helms from Spelljammer continue to be the method by which space faring ships are moved, in Voidjumpers, they require something called an Illumar to power them rather than simply a spell caster.  These Illumars are living creatures that are carefully controlled by a particular house much in the way that the Arcane controlled the creation of helms in the 90’s version.  The Illumars also negate the need for a spell caster to give up all his spells for a day just to power a space travelling ship for a few hours, although a spell caster must still control the creature.

Gravity in Voidjumpers is also different from what was given in Spelljammer.  And, of course, gravity in Spelljammer was different from gravity in our world, but that is a subject that is a bit more complex than needs to be developed here.  In Voidjumpers, gravity on a ship is produced by the Illumar which is powering the ship.  While this is no more abstract than the idea from the original setting that all objects have gravity, it is the expansion of the concept that leads to some trouble.   Namely, only objects that are actually touching a ship are influenced by the gravity of the ship rather than there being a sphere of gravity surrounding it.  This means that objects that are released on a ship do not fall to the deck.  Worse, a person would have a hard time running as, at some point, both feet would be off the ground and jumping would hurl the off the ship entirely.

Voidjumpers strays from 4E in a couple of ways, too.  First, it adds two new classes of creatures, Mooks and Colossal creatures.  Mooks are essentially slightly tougher Minions.  Where minions can be killed with only one hit, no matter how much damage it does, mooks can take two hits, though a critical hit will kill them outright.  Colossal creatures, on the other hand possess several sets of hit points.  These massive creatures are not treated as a single encounter; rather they are treated like a set of skill challenges with a combat aspect included.  Each challenge plays into the next, making it either easier or harder to overcome until the final challenge is completed.  The system is quite reminiscent of the video game Shadow of the Colossus in both concept and execution.  Of course, Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent concept so this is far from being an insult.

Voidjumpers also adds a number of new creatures and races that are specific to the setting, as would be expected for any supplement.  One of these new races is the Mechanical Men.  They greatly resemble the Warforged from the Eberrons setting but are even more robotic.  In fact, when they are subject to a control bolt (which sounds distinctly like something very similar from Star Wars) they are forced to obey Asimov’s Robotic laws.  And much like the robots in Asimov’s writings, they regularly go rogue, proving the idea that even created sentience seeks freedom.

Another prototypically familiar space race from another setting are Incubators.  These creatures bear a striking resemblance to a certain group of aliens that Sigourney Weaver has faced I a few movies.  They would work well for a space horror campaign or even to throw an element of horror into any other story, but are a bit dark for a more heroic, fantasy campaign.

Also in a darker vein are the Pain Lords who seem to be inspired by the Cenobites from Hellraiser and the Goushok which seem to be much like the Gene Stealers from Warhammer 40,000 or the creatures from Dead Space.  All around, the setting borrows heavily from many space themed stories and sources, not all of which quite fit into the feel of a classic fantasy game but can be used to tailor a game to a gaming group’s preferences, especially if those preferences are darker or of a more horrific bent.

Or course, the standard races from 4E are updated and expanded for the setting, giving each of them a flavor appropriate for fantasy adventures in space.  Many of the races that existed when Spelljammer was active are given the same roles that they had in that earlier setting and each of the newer races, such as Tieflings and Dragonborn which are common to 4E are given appropriate roles.

To provide further flavor for campaigns in space, two Themes are also provided for the setting.  Fort those not familiar with 4E or who have only the earlier books, Themes are sort of secondary classes that characters can take in 4E that include powers and skills that can be taken in place of the usual powers and skills of the character’s standard class.  At each level, the player decides if he will take the power from the character’s base class or the power from the theme.  The two themes provided in this product are the Space Pirate and the Void Arcanist.  The former could easily do without the “space” portion of its name.  The swashbuckling powers and skills provided would be just as appropriate in any seafaring campaign s it is here.  While it is very pirate, it is hardly space at all. 

The Void Arcanist has a better feel for the space aspect of the campaign but seems underpowered.  It deals heavily in the madness and strange stuff that is common to many space stories and even hints at an almost Lovecraftian space beyond reality.  Unfortunately, the powers don’t seem very effective.  This seems to be a common complaint with Controller classes so it might be a perfectly legitimate theme, but it just does not seem to be as effective as the Space Pirate or most other classes.

Of course, no fantasy in space setting would be complete without ships and Voidjumpers includes rules for both ships and ship combat.  Both sets of rules are kept relatively simple and ship combat is effectively carried out as though each ship were simply a character in a normal combat encounter.  This makes ship to ship combat almost too simple.  The tactical challenge that occurs in other combat games, even in a combat encounter in D&D is largely eliminated.  Though a bit disappointing, this helps keep the focus on the characters in the campaign and away from large scale battles where their actions become negligible.

There is an extensive, though simple list of common ships and their usual weapon loadout so DM’s can quickly put together encounters without having to turn to the ship building rules.  Of course, the ship building rules are so simple that it would take little time to develop a customized encounter for the party to face or a custom ship for the party to use.  Several categories of ships are given with a range of sizes, crew sizes and weapon slots within each category.  Again, this is kept immensely simple and there are not even prices given for either these hulls or the weapons that can be loaded onto them.  Another missing bit of information about these ships is the cargo capacity.  This is understandable given the focus in 4E on combat, but it somewhat limits the ability to tell stories that focus on trade instead of war or piracy.

One thing that is not limited about ship building is the weapons options.  A wide variety of weapons are presented and each one possesses powers just as though they were a creature.  These weapons fit with the high magic style of 4E and most of them fire some sort of magic or another rather than ordinary ordinance.  There are only a few mundane weapons like catapults and ballistae while lightning casters and fireball throwers are common.

One flaw with these weapons is that they are written in such a way that they have the same attack value no matter who is firing them.  Whether a 1st level minion is manning a ship’s catapult or a 30th level fighter is aiming it, it has the same attack bonus.  Again, this makes things much simpler, but takes some of the variety and granularity out of the system.

After the ship information, Voidjumpers includes a section of possible encounters characters could face and a variety of organizations that dominate the void.  The organizations section is nicely fleshed out, with an example character for each and a good description of their goals and resources without being boringly extensive.  The same cannot be said of the encounters section.  Many of the encounters are nothing more than a title and are not at all fleshed out.  While it would be possible to provide too much information, what is given is often not nearly enough.  A sample foe or two or even a list of potential monsters from a sourcebook would go a long way to completing this section.

This miss in the encounters section as well as a number of smaller issues like a stat block clearly placed under wrong name and section in the races section are all examples of the lack of polish involved in this product.  Voidjumpers of Space is clearly a work of love and the product of a small press and, unfortunately, it shows.  It may be unfair to hold something like this up to the standards of a RPG juggernaut like Wizards of the Coast or even a respectable publisher like Pinnacle, but that does not mean that a certain level of professionalism and editing shouldn’t be expected and required by the people paying for the product.  A simple read through with a critical eye would have eliminated the editing mistakes and just a bit more time put into expanding a few sections would have made the book far richer and more useful.

Overall, Voidjumpers of Space is a fun idea done well.  The few complaints about the book are easily overlooked and if nothing else, it forms an excellent bedrock to be built upon.  Another book or two of the same size that expand some of the ideas presented would make for a nice, tight system.  If nothing else, GM’s can use it as a new direction to take their players in when they get tired of kick the door in dungeon crawls and they can easily create vast, star spanning epics with their players as the stars.

One comment

  1. [...] just spotted this review of Brent Newhall‘s Spelljammer 4e hack called Voidjumpers of [...]

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