With the release of Spelljammer for D&D 5th Edition, I decided to break out the second AD&D Spelljammer module Skulls & Crossbows. I'm looking at it particularly with quick conversion in mind, but also for story and general usefulness. Chapter 3 is entitled "Starfaring races," and this post covers the adventures "Time capsule," "The Outpost," and "Jihad!"
Like the previous two adventures, this trilogy is another mini-campaign divided between several adventures. And like the previous story arc, it's strong and inspiring material. The only catch is that it's up to you as the Dungeon Master to structure the components provided into a campaign. You can't run these three adventures one after the other, both because the plot points would just feel too conveniently close to one another and also because the third adventure requires several months to have passed since the first.
Even allowing for the difference in play styles since this book was published over 20 years ago, I feel like this is supremely awkward. It's inconvenient to have these three connected adventures grouped together when they explicitly cannot be run together. This whole book is inconvenient that way, though, so obviously these are building blocks for a campaign, and there's a lot of work required of the DM to figure out the best way to assemble these adventures (along with other adventures not contained in this book, because I don't feel like there's enough for a satisfying campaign.)
The story is good, though, and I'll summarise here.
In the "Time capsule" adventure, the player characters, by chance (that's the only way anything happens in this book, so no surprise there) stumble upon a stone statue floating around in the phlogiston (Wildspace, in 5e.) Assuming they bring it aboard, they eventually discover that it's not a stone statue at all, but a thri-keen who's been preserved by the phlogiston for thousands of years. Once the thri-keen thaws, the player characters can chat with him and learn about his past.
The thri-keen's name is Tiktitik, and he was a holy warrior from centuries ago. Apparently, the thri-keen of a millennia ago believed that their god, the Celestial Mantis, wanted them to spread their faith all over the universe. So Tiktitik was essentially a crusader out to convince any society he encountered that the Celestial Mantis was lord of all, and that the thri-keen were the only enlightened species.
After he dumps a bunch of lore, the player character vessel is attacked by several Ephemerals (these are specific to 2e, but in 5e they'd essentially be ghosts or some wicked creature from Ravenloft, maybe, just as long as they can possess player characters.) These Ephemerals are the spirits of some humans the thri-keen crusaders slaughtered (because they wouldn't accept the Celestial Mantis as their personal saviour) and are still pretty mad about that. Assuming an Ephemeral is able to possess a player character, it immediately targets Tiktitik.
Assuming Tiktitik survives the encounter, he asks the player characters to take him back to his homeworld so he can re-acclimate into society. If they don't do that, then he'll request to be dropped off somewhere so he can hitch a ride back home.
As far as the players know, that's the adventure. Tiktitik was a minor NPC, provided some lore about ancient thri-keen culture and religion, and they'll likely never hear from him again. Collect some XP, move on.
In the outpost, the player characters are hired by a mind flayer antiquarian to take him to a place so can see a thing. That's almost literally what he hires them for. He's extremely vague about his destination and purpose, but he pays well and seems sincere.
Personally, I feel like this would be a hard sell. On the one hand, a single mind flayer against an appropriate tier of player characters is probably not that threatening, but then again it's a mind flayer. I've read Forgotten Realms lore. I've experienced the horror of mind flayer colonies in books like the Dark Elf Trilogy. I can't imagine a circumstance in which I'd trust a mind flayer.
And that's the strength (and weakness?) of this adventure. The uneasy alliance between the mind flayer employer and the player characters is expected to generate a lot of drama. For this to work, though, I think the PCs need a ship crewed with a bunch of henchmen, because this adventure counts on morale ratings and even a potential mutiny serving as plot points.
I love the tension, but I do feel like there's a lot being left up to chance in the writing. If your players decline the job, then this is over before it starts. If your players aren't afraid of the mind flayer, then it's a pretty boring trip. There are some clever plot elements worked into the story in an attempt to generate tension. For instance, the mind flayer has a kobold companion he's traveling with. That seems charming, and I can see player characters growing fond of little Ja-Te-Jak. I can also imagine their disappointment when it's revealed that Ja-Te-Jak was only loyal to the mind flayer because he'd been charmed, and that 8 days into the journey the mind flayer eats the kobold's brain and tosses the carcass overboard.
But then I keep going back to the questions of why player characters would accept this job in the first place, and how long they'll refrain from murdering the mind flayer. If things go poorly, then the PCs are unlikely to reach the intended mystery destination, and if they don't get there then the third part of this story is rendered useless.
Anyway, assuming the mind flayer and the PCs all survive the journey, they end up in a hollow asteroid from millennia past. They have to figure out how to fill it with air, and that's ultimately solved by the mind flayer who has a magic crystal that provides several tons of air (so why was it posed as a problem in the first place?) Inside the asteroid, they find a bunch of ancient records of a race known only as The Elders. That's all the mind flayer wanted: proof of the existence of The Elders, so he's happy.
The party also finds an ancient ancient holy text concerning the thri-keen, in which it specifically does not say that the thri-keen are destined to spread the good word of the Celestial Mantis. That renders Tiktitik's (remember him? he's that crusader the PCs found way back in that other adventure that is definitely not just a page before this one) belief flawed, because his holy texts would have been copied from this one. That seems significant. Luckily, Tiktitik went back to his homeworld and is probably living a quiet life as a retiree.
Turns out Tiktitik has spend the last several months convincing hundreds of thri-keen that the Celestial Mantis has chosen him to spread their religion and culture again. The thri-keen are now on their way to starting a holy suggestion that everybody in the D&D universe should worship their god. It's up to the PCs to gain an audience with Tiktitik and show him those ancient texts they found in the asteroid, proving to him that the thri-keen do not have a holy manifest destiny.
This adventure, sadly, is even weaker than the one before it. First of all, it's entirely dependent on the previous adventures. It assumes that Tiktitik doesn't die in "Time capsule," and that the players definitely took the job with the mind flayer to find the ancient site, and that they understand that the book that doesn't mention the thri-keen manifest destiny is the perfect way to persuade Tiktitik to call off the holy war.
Also, the adventure seems to want the holy war to not be a holy war. Despite the name of the adventure being "Jihad!" and there being outposts and settlements under thri-keen occupation, the adventure persistently reminds you that Tiktitik is actually very reasonable. He'll absolutely call off the entire thing once the player characters show him the more-ancient-than-yours holy texts from the hollow asteroid. No harm, no foul, and all of his followers agree.
It just feels like this adventure sets up some huge stakes and then expects the players to accept that several acts of war by the thri-keen are taken in stride once the thri-keen admit they were mistaken. I think I'd have to rework this, because it just doesn't make sense. I'd probably do away with "Jihad!" entirely, and just have Tiktitik (not the mind flayer) hire the player characters to uncover the ancient texts. Or maybe I'd work it in so that Tiktitik partners up with a mind flayer, who maybe is the only creature who knows the location of the asteroid, and use that as the source of the tension in "The Outpost" adventure. Introducing a plot point of an intergalactic holy war is too severe for a 3-page adventure, and I just think it's better left in the hands of a more cohesive work.
By pure coincidence, I happen to also be reading the Attack of the Swarm adventure path by Paizo, written for Starfinder. I'm not saying it would be an exact fit for Spelljammer, but I am saying it could be well worth using as a blueprint. Attack of the Swarm is a 6-book module series typical of Paizo's adventure paths, covering lots of levels and taking the players through some pretty amazing scenarios, including exploration, social, and combat. I haven't finished reading the whole series yet, but the books I've read up to this point have kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. If you really want to introduce the plot of a humanoid insect incursion, Attack of the Swarm is 100% absolutely the way to do it.