[Review] D3 Vault of the Drow (AD&D); Heart of Evil

D3 Vault of the Drow (1978)

Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 10 – 14

D3 Vault of the Drow (1e) - Wizards of the Coast | AD&D 1st Ed. |  Adventures | AD&D 1st Ed. | Dungeon Masters Guild

Everyone put on your big-boy pants. This is it. The real deal. The pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow. The black, beating heart of evil at the end of a 70 mile slog (at least!) of monster-infested underground caverns. The cradle of the evil intelligence that stirred up the Giants to eradicate mankind and gain control of the surface world. The Vault of the Drow. Ehrelei-Cinlu. Dark Elf Motherfucking Central. A viper’s pit of cruelty, abomination, depravity and treachery, with at the end a smackdown with none other then the Demon Queen of Spiders herself! So put on your make-up, dust off your copy of Les Miserables, and let’s get this Thespian Wankathon started!

One could argue Gary Gygax knows how to end a series. D3 isn’t the end of this mega-campaign, that honor would fall to the later, and much less well-regared Q1, but D3 FEELS like a conclusion. We started off with careful infiltration and information gathering, leading to a properly epic smackdown in G3. AND THEN the Underdark opened up. Suddenly you have a vast, unexplored labyrinth of caverns, filled with creatures hitherto unseen. Fear and wonder.

Gygax can be coy at times, especially to a modern audience. One is expected to pick things up and retain and correlate information quickly. Throwaway sentences can hold key information. As one progresses through GDQ, the focus becomes broader, perhaps the GM is expected to be able to apply the principles that have been demonstrated in the preceding parts. To flesh out in its entirety the underground realm that is presented is a task that would take up hundreds of pages. Instead we get a skeletal structure, given life by the inclusion of a few critical and evocative details. Nowhere is this principle more in effect then in D3. Ordinarily this is where most adventures go wrong; by focusing on broad outlines they neglect to give us anything gameable. This mistake is never made in D3. Names, appearance, history, artistic flourishes, these are often neglected, but in terms of the capability of the 12+ factions that inhabit D3, Gygax is meticulous in the extreme, listing the exact number, level of fighters, magic items at their disposal, number of slaves etc. etc. etc. The result is something that is not always a fun read BUT CAN BE USED TO MODEL HOW THE FACTION RESPONDS TO THE PCS AND TO ITS ENEMIES IN ACTUAL PLAY, WHICH IS WHAT A GAME IS MEANT TO DO.

Before the city proper is unveiled, we get three more encounters, complex enough in its own right but straightforward in their nature as obstacles. One is an invested gate, manned with warriors, and presented in a neutral light, as something that can be tackled straightforwardly or bypassed via trickery. Compared to the earlier checkpoint in D1, it is relatively light, and should not prove much trouble for a party that has survived multiple engagements against the Drow. The second is what I think is an oldschool design staple, or should be one, the seemingly innocuous encounter in an incongruous location that hides deadly danger.

A riddle! You are off to a convention game but while you are waiting for the subway Fiona Geist beckons you into the subway tunnel with promises of playtesting the new OSE module. As you descend into the cob-webbed underground, already pulling out your dice bag and rolling 3d6 in order, the monster’s facial limbs unfold to reveal an astonishing number of shark-like teeth and you die screaming and unmarked in the foetid darkness, your cries of agony drowned out by the grinding of the passing subway car. Did you deserve your awful fate, or should you have picked up on the incongruities before you chose to take the situation at face value? This is the question these types of encounters ask, and they are very effective if used sparingly. Gygax makes extensive use of these types of encounters in the EX series, particularly the conclusion. It resonates with something. There is an element to faerie-tales and myths, where the protagonist is confronted by danger in an innocuous guise, that is being channeled here. A succubus and a vampire, cursed lovers whiling away eternity in some lonesome abode by luring travelers to their doom. But what you see is a glade, its ceiling open to the sky, a beautiful statue of a nymph surrounded by a luscious garden.

The third encounter is perhaps even crueler. Giant Black Widow spiders ambushing the party unless they are properly disguised as Drow (and they should be at this point), all of them with save or die poison, is par for the course in a module for 10-14. Any group worth its salt will have at least one neutralize poison spell on hand. But to find, behind the corpse of the bloated queen of these monstrosities, a golden idol of the spider queen, to receive its strange boon, and to be ensnared by its deadly enchantment. This is another matter. The occasional viciously cursed item, with powers of minor artifact status, can be found between the ludicrous piles of treasure within this module and of all the myriad traps and tricks of the D series I can see these claiming their share of incautious adventurers. Does the cursed idol subtly hint at the immense power of the Spider Queen herself?

But these are hors d’oeuvres (or if one will have it the southern way, Horse de Ouvruh), the main course, the crown jewel is the Vault proper. A locale that inspired decades of drow-fapping, a teraton fantasy-explosion whose shockwaves have not yet dissipated.

If there is a definitive module for a fantastic city it must be City-State of the Invincible Overlord. Nothing approximates, nor comes close, to the scale, the breadth, the brilliance. The City as a place of both adventure and refuge. Ehrelei-Cinlu is its evil twin, the definitive vision of the City as antagonist, and is written in such a fashion. Though deception, information gathering and negotiation are NECCESITIES for gaining access to the Greater Sanctum of Lolth, the PCs are nevertheless in constant danger. Whether it is a chance encounter with a night-hag in the back-alleys of Ehrelei-Cinlu proper, or perhaps the Characters are using JUST the stolen broaches to identify themselves to a Soldier of the same house? The characters are immersed in danger and if they stand out they will be devoured by it.

I rush myself. Let us begin. The language used to evoke this fantastic city beneath the earth is hypnotically beautiful, surely Gygax’s best, and surely few have eclipsed this vision of an underground Elf lair since? Gaze upon magnificence, ye would be module cobblers!

Bathed in the rays of alien ores and exotic lichens, our heroes make their way into the Vault proper.

Then follows the surrounding area, defined almost exclusively by random tables.

These are not the puny tables of your sons, or your fathers, with single throwaway ideas and evocative descriptions, good for one use. These are the mighty tables of your fathers fathers, towering, immense, separated into four different types of terrain [1] and containing within them entire subsets. The fascinating thing is that the entire landscape, and the interaction between its inhabitants, is defined not by paragraphs of description, but inferred via these tables.

Suddenly the mind opens with the fungus covered plantations, inhabited by slaves and work-gangs, of savage raids staged by the merchant houses, of parties of decadent nobles, riding great lizards, out to hunt escaped slaves for their own decadent amusement. By the river await Kuo-Toa spies, risking a hideous fate if they are discovered. Wholly randomly generated Slave revolts, monstrous predators lurking at the periphery, caravans, warbands.

Warbands is the proper term. Forget 1-6 orcs. These are BIG parties. Bugbear trackers, Displacer beast hounds, 8-12 of the cruelest and the fairest of the drow race, riding war lizards, wielding all manner of adamantine weaponry, and their leader a mighty Death Lance! You can infer the bugbear and troglodyte tribes living in caves surrounding the city proper are vassals, paying tribute to the might of these lords of the Underdark without it having to be spelled out directly.

One does not simply walk into Mordor. The hints of different broaches and medallions dotted throughout the preceding modules are now going to pay off. This is a social module but one that is nevertheless antagonistic. In order to penetrate this hostile culture you must learn its ways, use them against them, and work your way closer to the heart of power. This approach is tackled in an open-ended fashion which, like Lux’s In The Name of the Principle, is probably the only way you are ever going to encompass the full spectrum of different strategies the PCs are going to try out. Later modules would do more handholding, to the detriment of the module’s immense potential. The superior Module Cobbler defines the properties and general disposition of each enemy actor and makes it broad enough so it can react to any number of crazy schemes the players are likely to try.

One of my favorite bits is actually at the very beginning. You walk into this immense cavern, and one of the first things you see is a smooth black tower, overseeing the Cyst from an elevated rock platform. Fuck that, you think, and take one of the roads around it. As you get to the city gates without any sort of identification, you are peppered with poisoned hand-crossbow bolts. What did I do wrong? Ask you? You tried to fucking sneak into Drow City without at least figuring out how to fucking go about that is what you did wrong!

Interaction and information-gathering are facilitated by bottlenecks. You cannot realistically enter the city without figuring out the normal way visitors go about it (i.e. by having business in Ehrelei-Cinlu and being able to demonstrate this), and failure or rulebreaking is met with violence. I fucking love it that the tower has a garrison but that the scenario as written MORE then takes into account the possibility the PCs will just try to take the tower by storm, and has plotted out a city response already. If the PCs hang tight to await the response they have one last chance to break through a pretty hefty cordon, after which the module flat out tells you that you die in a heroic last stand. You aren’t going to fucking take on the city from your tower. Nice.

This idea that you are in an alien environment that is adapted to maximize your enemy’s strengths is also emphasized in subtle ways. The eerie radiance of the Cyst is not enough to see by unless you have infra-vision, but Drow will quickly and with anyone using Continual Light or Torches. Did you ever figure out that some Drow wear polished crystal lenses that enable them to see by these soft alien radiances as though it were almost daylight? A subtle detail that can again mean the difference between life and death.

I think I once advocated as my cure for the state of OSR dnd an elixir brewed from two ingredients; the first being a healthy dose of Appendix N and its mythological substratum, just what the doctor ordered, the second an equal helping of history. Ehrelei-Cinlu is a fantastical place but thought has been put into how it would operate if it were a real place. Almost no one does this in module design. Warehouses, warrior societies in separate fortresses (one male, one female), merchant villas outside of town, each allied to a separate noble house. It is easy for a casual reader to look over D3 and come away with it thinking ‘so fucking what, it’s all lists of 2-14 level 2 drow warriors with a +2 shortsword, +2 buckler and a +2 chain with a total AC of -2 etc. etc. but its the underlying reality, the fully immerse and interactive reality that is generated by all this detail, detail which would be unintelligible if all of it would have to differentiated, that is the true measure of this module.

The City proper is a thing of beauty, brought to life by a few paragraphs and encounter tables, a depraved, degenerate, evil cosmopolis, where Nighthags, demons, high level mages rub shoulders with the common drow, overseen by the arrogant noble houses from their high plateau, accessible only through a single flying bridge, carefully watched by the elite. Hell yeah. Walk around if you dare. Perhaps you will befriend a group of drowish rakes, looking for trouble, or you will get murdered in an alleyway, or any of a dozen other permutations, too numerous to go into.

Perhaps the holiest of holies, even beyond the noble houses can be found the Fane of Lolth herself, Demon Queen of Spiders. What is perhaps a bit puzzling is that as written, once your characters get to Ehrelei-Cinlu, they don’t really have a fixed goal in mind. They can try to murder Eclavdra in the hopes of preventing the surface ambitions of the faction she is allied too, but it would take absolute fucking batshit insanity to stick it to the drow and invade the holiest of holies, right under the nose of a dozen dark elf noble houses with enough retainers to make you break out the fucking Warmachine System. Which, if they made it to level 10, IS the proper PC mindset, but be aware that the module does not naturally lead one to Lolth’s fane.

Here too we see Gygax has a gift, an undeniable gift, for setting-up a scene. I cannot do it more justice then the words of the big man himself.

Who else just shit themselves [2]? This screams HOLY FUCK DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GETTING YOURSELF INTO? How do you make that pay off?

There is a…style, a method to do good ominous buildup and it utilizes QUIET. GIVE THE PCS TIME TO GET TENSE. Before the fane of Lolth is a security checkpoint filled with evil priests, depraved drow priestesses, and tapestry porn. Maybe the PCs will blast through, maybe they will sneak through. Regardless, the Greater Fane itself…is very quiet in the beginning. No monsters no traps. Just horrific, unearthly imagery, treasure there just for the taking, scenes of immense evil, terrible power.  It does not disappoint. On the first floor alone there is an opportunity to get yourself sped to the DemonWeb Pits, there to either Die, or await the GM’s purchase of Q1 for a more satisfying conclusion.

There’s stuff to do in the Fane for those interested in mere burglary, but probably of most interest to the party will be opportunity to FIGHT FUCKING LOLTH. LOLTH IS THERE. In a shroud of flame-proof webbing, ole’ spider crotch herself makes an appearance to put the fear of hell back into the PCs. With a measely 66 hp she would definitely be among the least of the demon lords, but in Lolth’s defence, AC -8 and heal 3/day does invest her with some reserve. And it’s foreshadowed on the one hand but on the other hand who the fuck expects to actually physically encounter the God of the Temple they are breaking into for a beatdown.

There is potential for one of the coolest escapes of all time, sailing away on a demon-possessed ship crewed by ghouls and ghasts over the underground river and onto the Sunless Sea. There are some hooks tying the PCs to the next part, mostly involving Geases, because who in his right mind would voluntarily venture into the Abyss itself?!?

D3 is an absolute classic of that rarest sort, and while imitators of B2 and the G series are fairly common, I have yet to see anyone try to tackle something so massive, open-ended, intricate and fucking lethal as this. Change the face of underdark politics. Lead a slave rebellion into a doomed last stand on the ramparts of the Black Tower, then run away when things get too hot. Get drunk and contract leprosy from a beggar in Erenlei-Cinlu. Kill Eclavdra’s Clone. Kill a god. Free the insane boytoy of the highpriest of Lolth and restore his sanity so you get the best retainer ever.

Man I love DnD.

One can quibble over the overuse of +something weaponry but this is mere kvetching. Vault operates on such an immense scale that exhaustive customization would not improve the work overmuch. This is one area where I am inclined to give the D3 some serious slack. I can envision some sort of second random table to divine the motivations of the various drow factions but this would be elaboration, not necessity. D3, despite its vast scale, is highly discerning in what information it chooses to convey.
There is no question that D3 is a challenging work, that it is obtuse, requires re-organization and that it gives you a very powerful outline to work from, but that the GM is going to have to come packing some serious mojo. Are you that type of Dude? Are you ready to put your party to the ultimate test, to face not just a band of villains, but the might of an entire civilization of evil?

The Vault that launched a thousand tie-in novels. The high-point to an epic series.


[1] And that is not counting the city tables proper
[2] Answer only if this is a deviation from the norm

6 thoughts on “[Review] D3 Vault of the Drow (AD&D); Heart of Evil

  1. Lolth’s armor class is -10, not -8. You’re thinking of Demogorgon.

    [sorry to be a nitpick, but one has a hard time forgetting the first time he laid eyes on a “monster” that justified a combat matrix’s highest AC]

    I will readily admit that, as a young lad, running D3 was entirely beyond my skills as a DM. I may have tried running it once, maybe even twice, but I simply could not “get it,” even as a teenager (and I started playing D&D around the age of 9). I played a character that tackled Q1, but Demonwebs were reached via an Amulet of the Planes, not via the Lolth’s Fane, nor any infiltration of “Drow Central.”

    D3 is an adventure with tremendous potential…and no instruction manual for how to use it. It is to AD&D adventure modules what OD&D is to…well, to other games. An amazing tool, that you need Gygax’s tutoring (or mind) to run. Or 30+ years of experience with D&D. I could run it today (38 years and counting, baby) but I’d probably feel disappointed with myself if I didn’t spend a solid week or two organizing the thing. I mean, it CAN be run “off-the-cuff” (and probably SHOULD be!), but you have to have a firm grasp of all the concepts present in the thing. And I’m not just talking faction politics! You basically have to play amateur sociologist, picking through all those random tables, encounters, etc. to decipher Drow culture…what it looks like, how it acts, its ethics and mores, acceptable behaviors, etc.

    You’re pretty right on when you talk about hundreds of pages being needed to “flesh out the thing.” Probably, somewhere, there is a person who has made it his/her life’s work to “understand” Ehrelei-Cinlu…I imagine this person is much like a J.R.R. Tolkien or M.A.R. Barker. Probably, they have developed an entire Drow language, complete with a bugbear dialect, slave patois, and kuo-toan loan words used as especially noxious curses. That person (whoever it is) is an amazing human being…albeit one without much of a life. I both envy and pity that person.

    Running D3 in a way that does it justice would be a tall order. My ambitions don’t reach that high.


  2. Erelhei-Cinlu is a deathtrap; a deathtrap that can only a handful of DMs can properly run.

    Drow can see as far as characters that wear the eye cusps…the module says 240 yards (720 feet), but the DM needs to reconcile that with the info found in the DMG…making it 480 feet. Demi-human PCs with infravision can see clearly to 240 feet, and humans out to 120 feet. So, equivalent to midnight with some stars in the sky.

    How do you run a 6th level drow assassin? …that can see your 10th level paladin from afar? …that wears dark elven cloak and boots? Even if said assassin doesn’t surprise your character, she’s going to be able to hide in shadows and move silently with about 80% success…She’ll eventually get around to stabbing your paladin in the back with a poisoned blade…

    That 7th level drow thief…she’s going to backstab you about 90% of the time…

    How hard would it be to run properly? So hard that even Gygax couldn’t do it…he developed half the rules to do so AFTER the module was published.

    It is the ultimate challenge for an AD&D DM.


  3. This review captures the excitement a certain referee felt nearly 40 years ago…..
    Definitely worth five stars, and I agree with the above comments as well. Indeed I cheated a little by talking about D3 in the D2 comments section. What I will now address is are there any remotely similar modules, and tools they have that
    might help the fledgling DM? Two modules of much narrower scope, but still of the mission in an enemy city but not immediately hostile unless unmasked type: WGR6 City of Skulls (maybe the best 2e adventure) and the fairly recent KIdnap the Archpriest. City of Skulls is set in Dorakaa, capital of Iuz, and the PCs are tasked with rescuing Holmer of the Shield Lands: good aligned PCs breaking out prisoners sticks out like a sore thumb, so the PCs need to use stealth, disguises mundane and magical, speed, etc. There is a Notoriety system to track how much unwanted attention they draw, and at certain scores Hit Squads of increasing strength seek them out. You could modify this for use in the Vault. (If memory serves, one of the pregenerated D series characters is a Paladin: how on earth do you disguise this?) The setting of Kidnap the Archpriest is less of a demonic city of horrors, but Black Endoguards may appear. There is some discussion of tactics and responses, but less in the way of formal guidance compared with City of Skulls.

    Back in the mists of time, a young referee did the best he could with a skilled group of players. They made good use of Drow brooches, cloaks etc, and styled themselves as “Schwee of the House of Tormtor and her retinue”, hoping to never actually encounter anyone from that House. They did get to the Fane, have a battle with Lolth, and take heavy casualties. A couple escaped.


  4. Gygax’s prose is Lovecraftian to me. Great stuff. I bought this new, with the original purple cover….and it was too much for an inexperienced mind. Like JB said above, maybe now I could manage it (with a ton of prep). But good for EGG in delivering the straight dope and not watering it down for juveniles. But…oh!…just a short Dragon article on how he’d DM’d it for his crew would have been pure gold.

    Lastly, I need to point folks to Joseph Bloch’s D4: City of the Spiders—an homage to D3 and his attempt to flesh it out a bit more in a compatible manner.

    It’s free:

    Thanks for stirring the old blood with an inspired review Prince. Your prose ain’t so bad either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A small addendum: I think an escape from Erelhei-Cinlu after an attack on House Eilservs (or the Fane) would have made for a compelling chase. The whole D-series taken in reverse.


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