Crystal Spheres: Part 2 – How Crystal Spheres Can Improve Your Game

Crystal spheres are one of the unusual features of Spelljammer that set the game apart from other fantasy space roleplaying games. Last time, in “Crystal Spheres: Part 1 – What is a Crystal Sphere?” I wrote about the in-character rules and beliefs that come with crystal spheres. This time, I’m going to explain why I think they can be a really interesting feature.

Why crystal spheres?

As I said last time, there are other fantasy space roleplaying games out there. Other games do not have crystal spheres and the phlogiston. So why do we need to use this stuff that Jeff Grubb created?

I believe that all the strange things that Jeff Grubb created for Spelljammer – including the crystal spheres – are actually solutions to problems.

In an attempt to convince you, lets take them away for a moment and go with a more “realistic” (or science fiction) approach, instead. I’m on the surface of the Earth. Around me are many different stars. And each of those stars is like our sun. Some are bigger – some are smaller – some are closer and some are further away. That works for other space games, so why is that a bad idea for Spelljammer?

One of the other core aspects about Spelljammer is that it is built around Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms. So in theory Jeff Grubb could have put Krynn around a star where Alpha Centaurai is, Oerth around a star where Barnard’s Star is and Toril around a star where Wolf 359 is. The real-world star experts have worked out how far apart those stars are, so it would seem to be logical enough to grab those distances. That is easier, isn’t it? Or is it?

The problem is what you are actually doing is giving yourself a mapping problem. For every new fantasy world you add, you need to pick new real-world stars to give them a position in space and then keep track of all these places so that you can work out the distance and travel time between any one planet and any other planet. And that is only half the problem. The other half is that you need to work out what stars are visible in the sky from every world.

That stuff is fine for other space games, but with Spelljammer we need Krynn, Oerth and Toil to carry on working exactly as they did before Spelljammer existed. And if you are going to be using real-world star positions, how are you going to get the constellations of Dragonlance to line up with the ones of Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms? Suddenly, the real-world thing stops being “easier” and starts being a liability.

And here is where the crystal spheres solve those problems…and more.

Stars stop being far-away suns and become a localised object, visible only from within that sphere. You can plot stars, if you want to, but you no longer need to worry about 3D mathematics. In fact, if you go with the raw rules from the AD&D Adventures in Space boxed set, you do not even need to map the locations of crystal spheres. It can be done, but you do not need it.

What more can crystal spheres do for your game?

Assuming you accept that crystal spheres are a solution, rather than a problem, you might be wondering what can they actually do to make Spelljammer games better? I think we can actually start to work that out by going back to the AD&D Adventures in Space boxed set.

We already know, that stars can be many different things in Spelljammer (including useful portals into the Phlogiston or deadly portals to the Plane or Radiance) but lets have a look at the three settings that Spelljammer is built upon: Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk.

All three of these campaign settings have some stuff in common, but all of them also have bespoke rules. They have their own sets of gods, but they also have unique monsters and other themes. I think that it is logical to extend those themes out to the crystal sphere wall, so that a crystal sphere becomes a reality barrier, as well as a physical barrier.

Greyspace as a case study

Lets have a look at some of the themes of Greyspace:

  • Geocentric
  • Large number of deities
  • The Grinder

The Geocentric nature of Greyspace makes Oerth its primary. That makes this world a lot easier to navigate to than worlds in other crystal spheres.

The large number of deities in the sphere means that it is more likely that a non-native cleric worships a deity that is already here. But even if their deity is not here, they are more likely to find a similar deity that they can “borrow”.

The Grinder is an entire shell of asteroids. It functions as a physical barrier making it harder for ships to get to the core of the sphere, where they can visit Oerth. But if you added up the surface area of the asteroids, you have yourself a celestial body that is so large that it could never be fully explored. An entire campaign could probably be run from this one feature.

Krynnspace as a case study

Lets look at some of the themes of Krynnspace:

  • Small number of deities
  • An overgod
  • Moon Magic
  • Tinker Gnomes

The small number of deities is the opposite of what we have in Greyspace. This means that it is a lot harder for non-native clerics to already be worshipping one of the gods that is found in this sphere. It is not impossible, and as we know that the Dragonlance gods came from elsewhere, there must be some other spheres where one or more of the DL gods is known. But generally, it would be harder for clerics to find a friendly god here. More spacefaring clerics would need to cast the Contact Home Power spell here than elsewhere.

Dragonlance has a powerful being called The High God, who invited in the gods and who stepped in to stop them fighting with each other in the past. It seems that this overgod has since abandoned this post. In recent times mortals on Krynn have challenged the gods and were struck down with The Cataclysm. In previous times an entire planet was destroyed in another cataclysm. The High God does not seem to have gotten involved in either of those events (unless he actually caused them).

Three gods associated with Arcane Spellcasting are said to live on the moons of Krynn. In some parts of Krynn people believe that these Moons of Magic are not actually gods. However you look at it, the movement of these moons affect spellcasting across Krynn. The way Moon Magic waxes and wanes is a bit like a simplified system of astrology. I personally think it makes sense for the power of these moons to work within the entire crystal sphere.

One of the major contributions that Dragonlance makes to Spelljammer is the tinker gnomes. This gnomish sub-race has taken its strange inventions and various breeds of giant space hamsters to many other crystal spheres. But this sphere is the home sphere of this group and their god, Reorx. You may want to use gnome technology somewhere on almost every world in the sphere.

Realmspace as a case study

Lets have a look at some of the themes of Realmspace:

  • Large number of deities
  • Forgotten Realms sub-settings have bespoke gods
  • An overgod
  • Weave and Shadow-Weave spellcasting

Like Greyspace, Realmspace has a large number of deities. So the sphere is as “friendly” towards non-native clerics as Greyspace is rather than as “unfriendly” as Krynnspace is.

Several subsettings have been created on the same world as Forgotten Realms. Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur and Maztica have their own bespoke rules for clerical magic. That level of customisation could easily be applied to the other worlds of Realmsapce.

Like Krynnspace, this sphere has an overgod, in this case called Ao. Ao seems much more likely to interfere in the workings of Realmspace than The High God. During The Time of Troubles the sphere was sealed off by Ao and no ships could get in or out. This means that the spacefarers of the sphere must have carried on in isolation during that period.

Magic in Forgotten Realms comes from the Weave, but there is also a Shadow Weave. Shadow Weave users are not mentioned in other campaign settings, so it makes sense for the Shadow Weave to end at the crystal sphere wall.

House rule your crystal spheres

Looking at the above examples, there are a lot of things that you can do to make every crystal sphere feel different. But you do not need to stop there. There is no reason why every crystal sphere can not be given some sort of customisation to make it feel special.

The local deities (and/or overgod) are a good way to sell any changes as “laws of nature”. Here are a few ideas to start you off:

The god of death in a sphere gets imprisoned and mortals in that sphere who get killed stop dying and leaving their bodies. Worshipers of the god want to restore the natural order, but armies of dead people are willing to fight to remain in the living world.

Spelljamming is favoured by the gods and spelljamming speed is doubled within the sphere.

Air is naturally super-enriched within the sphere. Air envelopes take twice as long to go foul, but explosions and fires are twice as destructive.

The stars on the wall of a crystal sphere function a bit like magic jar spells imprisoning wildspace critters or even ships that come too close. The PCs get asked to rescue a trapped ship and need to discover how to defeat the magic.

The gods within a sphere grant spells to lay-priests. Anyone worshipping one of the gods gains a single 1st level spell every day (and true clerics gain an extra free 1st level spell). All lay-priests can spelljam as a 1st level cleric…so long as they do not leave their own crystal sphere.

A sphere has no gods. Instead elemental rulers grant divine spells and all spells are divided up into four elemental spheres/domains.

Spellcasters do not loose the ability to cast spells when they take the helm. Instead they gain the “helmcasting” ability. They can cast all personal spells, as if the ship is their own body.

That is just a few ideas. But there are many more things you could do. Of course, not all spheres need to have funky rules. You could make some more subtle.

2 comments on “Crystal Spheres: Part 2 – How Crystal Spheres Can Improve Your Game

  1. Well-written, Big Mac! I see the crystal spheres much as you do; solutions to problems. Pocket universes also make it possible to include worlds that otherwise do not do well mixed with D&D. Through the magic of crystal spheres, our Spelljammer crew has visited Athas, Space 1889 (Earth and Mars,) Shadowrun Earth, the worlds of Mechwarrior, Azeroth, the World of Darkness, the many worlds of Star Wars, Valdemar, Pern, and three or four homebrew campaigns, to name but a few.

  2. The problem is what you are actually doing is giving yourself a mapping problem. For every new fantasy world you add, you need to pick new real-world stars to give them a position in space and then keep track of all these places

    Non sequitur. See also: Star Wars, long ago and in a galaxy far away.
    There’s no need to bother with real stars.
    Tracking which ones are visible is not necessary either, but it’s easy if anyone wants to do it, since that’s just clearing threshold of Brightness ~ Luminosity/Distance² when distances within a near-flat Galaxy are fairly easy to track, and distances to most things outside it are >> size of the Galaxy, and as such can be assumed constant. And it’s almost as easy (if you got a calculator) to find apparent magnitude m = M – 5 + 5*log₁₀(D) rather than just “yes/no” visibility. Adjust for intervening objects like dust clouds, and everything is set.

    The real troubles are how game mechanics works with lack of barriers and incompatibility with unconventional cosmologies.
    The solution “just contain them in sealed jars” is pretty solid. Whichever way you chose to move between between any 2 Prime worlds, the path crosses 2 planar barriers, unless specifically stated otherwise (i.e. they are in the same sphere). So in one sphere you can have a geocentric system, or those glowing beetles for stars, and this affects absolutely nothing outside that sphere, unless you want it to.

Out with it then!

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