With the release of Spelljammer for D&D 5th Edition, I decided to break out an old Spelljammer book for some adventuring material. The second Spelljammer adventure book to be released was Skulls & Crossbows, a collection of adventures that, in the style of Infinite Staircase or Ghosts of Saltmarsh, are connected loosely enough that they can be run as a campaign, one after another, or used individually as side quests or diversions.
I'm reading through it as prep for an upcoming Spelljammer campaign, so I figured I'd give my thoughts about it over the span of a few posts. I'm going to look at it particularly with quick conversion in mind, but also for story and general usefulness.
The adventures start at AD&D level 6, under the assumption that players will have played the first Spelljammer adventure (SJA1) already.
The first Spelljammer 5e adventure, Light of Xaryxis, starts at level 5 under the assumption that players have played an Phandelver or Icespire Peak.
So either way, you have to get your players up to speed with Spelljamming, and get them into Wildspace, preferably with a usable ship. How you get them there is up to you, whether you run the introductory AD&D adventure or any old 5e adventure that happens to end with players stumbling upon a ship and a Spelljammer helm, or else they get hired as part of a Spelljamming crew.
Then you can play Light of Xaryxis. End that adventure with players on the Rock of Bral to rest and recover.
And then you can pick up Skulls & Crossbows and run it. The gap between AD&D level 6 and 5e level 8 is pretty minor, so it's a pretty safe bet.
The introduction includes just a little bit of clarification about naval terminology, which is really helpful. I don't know much about ships, and so I enjoy the way Spelljammer books, both from 2e and 5e, sprinkle in little bits of terminology across several books. They never inundate you, and instead give you a new term here and there at a pace that makes it easy to retain the information.
The new terms for this book are bearing and heading.
Bearing indicates the location of an object external of your ship, and has nothing to do with movement. Using your own ship's bow as the 0° marker, you approximate the bearing of another ship by degrees. For example, "There's a ship, bearing 45°."
Heading indicates the path of an object. Again, using your own bow as a 0° marker, you estimate where an object is heading based on its destination. If a ship bearing 45° is moving toward you at that same angle, then it is heading 225° (0° is your bow, 180° is your stern, and 45° more is 225°.)
There are illustrations in the book that help make this even clearer, so you don't have to visualize it yourself.
It's a great little introduction to the game, and then there's a surprise little starter quest right here in the intro.
This introductory adventure is only about 4 pages. Your players, on the Rock of Bral, are summoned to a tavern to meet an unknown benefactor.
There's a minor encounter at the door when the players are inevitably confronted by the ogre bouncer who wants to confiscate their weapons as long as they're inside. The potential for this to get ugly is great. Even in AD&D, a level 6 party getting hassled by a single ogre (AC 2, THAC0 12) isn't really that great a threat, so in a way it seems like an invitation for a quick 450 XP. But the book handles this encounter really nicely, with lots of options for how it can go.
Once the players have managed to integrate themselves into the tavern, they meet Jasson and Wallis. These two are members of the Pragmatic Order of Thought, a faction from AD&D Spelljammer lore that sadly didn't make it into 5e, as far as I can tell. At the time of this writing, at least, I have yet to come across any mention of factions in Spelljammer 5e, but there's more information about the Pragmatic Order of Thought on page 51 of the AD&D Lorebook of the Void. Alternately, you can just swap out a standard 5e faction, like the Lord's Alliance. It's not an exact match by any means, but it should at least assure the players that these NPCs can be trusted.
Jasson and Wallis offer the players a job: hunt down any number of infamous pirates, and bring them to justice, dead or alive. Lots of money's at stake, and so the job comes accompanied by letters of authority signed by Prince Andru himself (Prince Andru is current for Spelljammer 5e, so you don't even have to swap out the ruler's name.) Armed with this, players may confidently embark on a pirate hunt, and whatever else awaits them in the depths of Wildspace and the Astral sea.
The introduction and introductory adventure aren't assumed to be the player's first experience with Spelljammer, but if they've been riding the story rails through Light of Xaryxis, then this is a great way to get them comfortable as freebooters of outer space. There's a lot to explore out there, and a much of it's relatively unstructured so you can let your players roam the Astral sea for a while and reveal one of their bounties when you feel like it. Not all bounties require actually being caught, either, and some of them do reappear in later adventures, so it's best not to mix up the adventures too much but there's definitely flexibility. I'll discuss the first (second?) adventure in a future post.