In thinking about how to take my campaign to the next level of epic-ness, topping the last session that involved crashing a flying cloud castle into an ancient undead white dragon, there's only one thing that comes to mind as inspiring even crazier antics: Spelljammer.
Spelljammer is essentially high fantasy in space. To give my perspective on the key points of the genre, as differentiated from regular D&D style fantasy:
- The party, plus a few named or unnamed minions, crew a flying ship capable of space travel though converting magical energy of spell casters.
- The ship is owned by the party, not a single character, and should be able to be upgraded, traded in, damaged and repaired.
- The ship is frequently put in danger, beyond just typical danger to the characters. This includes both ship to ship combat, and non-combat encounters like magical asteroid fields, the Phlogiston, and collapsing gravity wells. Combat should flow seamlessly between ship/ship combat, boarding actions and character/character combat.
In my view, the ship is what provides the difference in genre, rather than just being an environment that the characters find themselves temporarily. Although I understand the ship-as-dungeon perspective in which the ship provides a set of challenges to be overcome (a front, in *W terminology), and for a fantasy firefly setting would be perfect, I don't feel that it captures the essence of Spelljammer.
In Apocalypse World derivatives, there are a few ways that the ship can be modeled in the system: Gear (like the car for a Driver, or Animal Companion for a Ranger); as a Stronghold or Steading (in DW and *W, or similar to a Holding in AW); as a shared character with its own playbook; or as a dungeon, environment or front. This post discusses my thoughts on that choice. Next time I'll post the custom moves that integrate the genre and system.
Ship as Dungeon
As above, this doesn't fit my idea of Spelljammer as opposed to just adventuring in space. The party explores the ship and overcomes challenges derived from it, but the ship isn't theirs in any meaningful way. You don't upgrade a dungeon, and it doesn't get damaged. The dungeon provides danger to the characters, it isn't put into danger itself. The only advantage to this option is that it doesn't require any additional rules.
Ship as Character
For a mecha game, where either the character or the mech is in use and each character has a mecha, this might make sense. For Spelljammer, where there is a single ship, and the characters are intimately and individually engaged in piloting and defending it. Characters can be upgraded, but when does the ship gain XP? Assisting a ship with Bonds/Hx is very strange. There's doubtless a reason that this isn't a common pattern in any game. The main advantage is that the ship can be upgraded while stil using basic moves such as Attack, Defend and Defy Danger to resolve conflict.
Ship as Gear
This one, although attractive from a rules re-use perspective, violates the tenet that the party, rather than a single character owns the ship. In AW the driver has nothing away from their car, and a pilot playbook/advancement tree would be just as tedious. It places the burden of improvement on a single character to spend their XP rather than the party as a whole. So while the rules exist, the ship would have stats that can be improved, this option doesn't quite hit all the targets.
Ship as Steading
And the winner is to use the Steading rules, in *W thanks primarily to @ColinJ76's great stuff from Living Dungeon World. This allows the party to contribute to the ownership and upgrading of the ship via the Treasure rules and rolls. This seems significantly more appropriate than a shared character with their own XP, or a single character responsible for both the ship and their own personal advances. It can provide additional moves to PCs that are on board, and thus differ from ship to ship. The ship could also provide free advancements to those moves, in the same way as Steading improvements can advance certain moves. Additional stats might be needed to model damage and repair, unless damage is simply temporary modifiers to the moves that the PCs make while on board (imagine ship inflicted debilities).
As always this came out of further thinking from a discussion on twitter, including @ColinJ76, @DMGallo, @Mease19 and @Clonebot; all definitely worth following!