Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Gonna talk about something a little bit different today.

One of Marvel comics’ greatest assets has always been the intricate in-universe setting that all the characters exist in. It can become an addictive habit, sitting around, examining all of the ties and connections between the characters. All those little easter eggs. It’s no big secret that I’m still an old-school Dungeons and Dragons fan. In fact, probably WAY before I broke into Marvel comics I sat around and listened to my older brother goof around with his friends while they played D&D.

What people might NOT know is that sooner or later TSR (the predecessors of Wizards of the Coast) got around to making their line of ‘settings’ for games in the 80’s all in-universe, very much in the Marvel comics tradition. I mean, this wasn’t entirely an unexpected move. Regardless of whatever version of D&D you were playing goblins were goblins and dragons were dragons.

They had the same stats in every setting (unless some special rule applied). The core game and stats were the same in every campaign setting, so it made sense that D&D was all taking place in one big universe.

Interesting sidenote- TSR picked up the license to publish a Marvel Superheroes RPG around 1984. This was a very underrated and cool effort to game in a comic book style and it’s still one of my old favorites to page through. But I can only wonder if some of Marvel’s ideas ‘bled’ into the D&D universe.

The catalyst that really brought the D&D-verse together though was a game called Spelljammer.

Man, where to begin? Spelljammer was sort of DD’s answer to science fiction. The essence of the game was to somehow incorporate space travel into the scope of a Dungeons and Dragons adventure without losing the ‘feel’ of what you expected in a D&D game. How to do this?

Well if you want to make a science fiction game that incorporates the essence of feudal/fantasy societies probably the best place to start is with a feudal-era/ fantasy cosmology. Space in D&D is not space the way we think of it. It isn’t a vacuum, for starters. It’s more like it's just open, actual space.

If I had a ladder that could extend thousands of miles into the air I could literally climb a ladder INTO space. That’s just the start.

All of the universe’s cosmology in the game is based on an archaic greek Ptolemaic theory. The essence of this kind of theory had to do with the motion of planets orbiting an object (or the motion of stellar bodies orbiting the Earth- the idea was that the Earth was the center of our solar system, back then). Spelljammer takes these ideas to their ultimate extreme in surrealism.

Solar systems exist within ‘Crystal Spheres’ thousands of light years in diameter. That is, if you actually sailed to the very edge of a solar system your ship could crash into a barely visible crystal ‘bubble’ that the solar system was contained in. Oh, and I did say sail. That’s how you get around in Spelljammer.

Magic powered sailboats traverse the spheres, literally sailing through space. Solar systems are like cosmic snow globes. Planets are like floating islands suspended in space.

Outside of these spheres? A vast array of flowing rainbow-colored chaos- essentially the equivalent of a raging river on a cosmic scale. You never knew where the flow was going to take you if you and your crew ended up taking a wrong turn into it. Bizarre, right? But it gets better.

There were ways to get to all (okay, okay- MOST) of the other D&D properties. Moving from one crystal sphere to another is no easy trick- only the most powerful wizards are going to be able to make the trip. But it COULD be done, in theory. Some of the places you could travel in the D&D universe included:

Krynn (Dragonlance)

One of the most loved of all the D&D settings, the damage caused by Krynn’s ‘Cataclysm’ would be abundantly clear to a Spelljamming crew in orbit. Essentially, the Gods of Krynn punished the inhabitants by flinging a huge asteroid into the planet. Even from space the fractures in the continent lines are very apparent.

Oerth (Greyhawk)

An underrated setting for D&D (and actually the first every published), some of the most classic and well remembered D&D stories took place on the fantasy world of Oerth. Actually, Greyhawk has become more of an amalgam of play and dungeon master input over the years than any particular individual’s creation. Although, it should be noted that Gary Gygax, D&D founder, originally used this world when playing the game with his own friends.

Toril (Forgotten Realms)

These days one of the most popular D&D settings, Toril is loaded up with fantastical creatures and magic items to explore. As it name implies, many strange and mysterious things have a way of gravitating towards Toril. As if somehow, across time and space, Toril is a crossroads for all things mystical. Of course, Toril has a wide variety of continents to explore.

These include Fae-Run (the D&D proper setting), Kara-Tur (an Eastern style continent entrenched in mythology drawn mostly from asian cultures) and Zakhara (a Middle-Eastern style land reminiscent of Arabian Nights, complete with genies and spirits). My personal favorite though?

I was particularly enthusend to discover that one could not travel to the world of Ravenloft. A long time favorite of mine, Ravenloft commits your D&D game to an old-school gothic horror flavor. You’re more likely to be eaten by a werewolf in Ravenloft than you are to save a princess from a dragon. Wooden stakes and holy water are more useful than swords and bows.

Ravenloft doesn’t exist as a WORLD it turns out- it’s a DIMENSION. The mist that encases Ravenloft sometimes seeps out into the universe and picks up nearby travelers--Spelljammers for example--and transports them there, whether by accident or as part of the design of some unknown evil force. But that’s part of why Ravenloft is such a bad place to be. It exists in a place that’s literally INFUSED with evil.

On a sidenote- Athas (Dark Sun), while an enticingly majestic landscape to play DD in, is not exactly charted on any Spelljammer’s map. The inhabitants of Athas live out a desolate and brutal existence on a harsh, sand-swept world. The massive sun that Athas orbits dominates the skyline, but it’s also appeared to be slowly darkening over hundreds of years.

To be fair, Athas does work better as a remote and unreachable destination, leaving its inhabitants trapped and fighting for survival. I’d like to think that some Spelljammer crew that got off course could end up here.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little ‘tour’ of the old school D&D universe. It’s very reminiscent of Marvel, isn’t it? The intricacy and surrealness of how it all comes together?

One last thing, about comic books. Wouldn’t a Spelljammer comic be a lot of fun? There isn’t a lot of cool and original ideas left out there, but couldn’t something this weird be a nice change of pace? The Spelljammer itself is a gigantic, manta-shaped vessel that appears to have an entire city living on its back. It comes and goes like a cosmic ghost ship, sort of like the Flying Dutchman.

No one really knows where it comes from and what its purpose is. Just sightings. Doesn’t that sound like a comic book story worth telling?