Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980)
David C. Sutherland III (TSR)
Lvl 10 – 14
Q1 is the Return of the Jedi of the GDQ series. Still well liked by some, it is obvious to any but a casual observer that the final episode of the great AD&D Epic that started with G1, both in tone and in overall quality, is widely divergent from the rest. There are good reasons; in the foreword Gygax himself states his pre-occupation with the DMG, as well as his conception for the DemonWeb Pits being far too similar to his idea for Temple of Elemental Evil as fine reasons for not delivering on the project himself. One day Sutherland approaches him about an idea for a dungeon, and Gygax throws up his hands, says ‘fuck it!’ gives him executive control over the crème de la crème of his epic series before speeding off on his motor-cycle while doing a wheelie, and there are we, left with the wreckage and the broken dreams.
I am perhaps a little mean-spirited. If Sutherland had made something along the lines of Q1 as a standalone project it could have ended up somewhere in the lower ***s for being not spectacular but not quite broken either, but rather, it is the stellar heights of the preceding entries, the supernova collapse of its potential and the bizarre 180 tonal shift that gives an unpleasant tang to the whole. A master has appointed a mere journeyman to finish his magnum opus.
In D3 Gygax had already set up the seeds for a final confrontation with ole Spider-puss, and the opening is effective. A mysterious platinum egg sealed by powerful wizardry that can be opened only via a remove curse, filled with more cryptic objects, proof against divination, with its own mystical protections that lead the opener back to Erelei-Cinlu, to venture into the gateway and enter the DemonWeb. There is an ENTIRE journey back into the Underdark and a second run into Erelei-Cinlu that precedes this adventure that is implied and not even tackled. All the prep-work has been done to make this a fucking homerun. But if your initials are not E.G.G., those are some pretty big fucking boots to fill.
We start off with a big list of spells whose function is altered in the Demonweb Pits. This doesn’t HAVE to be bad and figuring out the properties of the place before it kills you can actually be an interesting challenge. It is perfectly legitimate to introduce in one’s adventure obstacles to limit characters’ ability to use missile weapons, wear armor, use weaponry with an area of effect, fight on horseback or whathaveyou so why should it be prohibited to introduce complications that affect character’s ability to use magic? The Demonweb pits is an ultimate realm of evil and as such characters face some pretty severe penalties to their summoning, divination and more holy magic and if you play as a druid in the demonweb pits you are frankly shit out of luck. There are interesting permutations; Imprisonment cannot be reversed in the Abyss, all Shadow monsters become hideous and disgusting in appearance and god help you if you were planning on using polymorph. Perhaps more crippling is the blanket -2 reduction the Abyss inflicts on all your +something weapons and armor, as well as the inability for clerics to regain more then their level 1 or 2 spells. But this is exactly what is necessary for Lolth Boss Fight V2. The party has defeated her on an equal footing, and now you face her in her own realm, where she has all the advantages, and you are fucking crippled.
What is NOT good is the Demonweb pits themselves. You are unceremoniously dumped on a looping maze of giant web strands, 4 levels total, with fog outside it (don’t step in or you will die), random anelids and the much cooler Driders of increasingly large size on the random encounter table and doors at random intervals. So! Disorienting environment, one that CAN be navigated in different fashion, as it is possible to hop from lower strands onto higher strands or vice versa. However, different ‘bands’ of the web are alternatively above and below each level, with the exception of the 4th and last level, so the most practical method is simply to explore each looping maze as a whole, open all the doors (yes there are doors on the side) until you reach the one that will, if you present it with the right ‘key’ object from the egg, teleport you up to the next level. It’s video-gamey but it could be a forgiveable.
The content of the rooms are, however, all fairly boring. 10 trolls that try to pull you in and attack. A lvl 9 CG cleric keeping watch over some babes that are actually werewolves (the adventure uses the damsel-in-distress-is-actually-a-monster trick ad nauseam, see also jackalweres, succubi, Handmaidens of Lolth), gnolls in a barracks, bugbears with a magnet room, drow in a room with a bunch of doors with glyphs on them, ogres in a room with a mirror of life-trapping. Demons of various types in the teleportation room. It’s funhouse slaughter map time. And there isn’t much funhouse to be had. Granted the adventure throws you some curve balls by introducing environmental complications, or sometimes it will pull a fast one (a room with bones and gold will have ghouls and ghasts burst from the dirt to attack you) but this is not the stuff of legends, the sanity-blasting horrors that one was meant to face when one ventures into the horror of the DEMONWEB PITS.
Level 4 is a bit different and shows more promise. Here every door is instead a portal leading to a different prime material plane, where Lolth is up to no good. This is a fantastic concept, ripe with possibility, but the author needed to have the immense creative juice and the design chops to immediately throw something down that is recognizably different from the plane we know, to use each different world to perhaps illustrate or showcase some aspect of Lolth that might be interesting or relevant to the PCs and possibly to introduce various complications or gains from exploring each world. And he needs to do this in less then half a page. Bingeread Moorcock’s Eternal Champion and good fucking luck to you pilot.
Of the 8 worlds, he succeeds properly in 2. Caer Sidi is an elven kingdom of neutral elves (the Pharisees) with evil tendencies, allergic to iron and silver (yaaaay!), whose slave armies wage war with Lolth’s armies of gnolls and ogres (boooh!). The elves have a deliciously cruel faerie edge to them without coming across as duplicates of the Drow or anything else we have seen before. They remind me of Poul Anderson’s interpretation of elves in The Broken Sword. You can ally with them and receive some help from their Duke Alfric. There’s some random encounter tables and there you go, perfect seed for the GM to spin into 1-2 sessions of play, clear reward in book magic items for making an alliance with Alfric, clear penalty for failure. Moving on.
This one is also of note.
This gate looks out across a small desert plain. Although the land is brightly lit, small stars glow on the horizon. Five small suns shine overhead, ranging in color from red to white; the sky is black. Standing about 200 yards away is a large giant-type figure, bone white in color, about 30′ tall. On the ground behind it sits an iron cage holding a man-sized figure. There are no other signs of life.
Who else is interested? A unique menace, a captive that can be freed that delivers some cryptic advice and aid, this is more like it.
Ideally you would expect different realms to have different attributes; one could function as a red herring, one a place where you meet an ally, one a death trap, one a possible place of succor etc. etc. But even if every entry had been like the above one, it would have been fine. Instead most following entries are more vague, and less interesting. A winter realm that has as its only contents fortresses with evil ice creatures and a random encounter table. A great sea realm (great!) with only a sentence or two to flesh it out before we delve into random encounter tables. The Labyrinth of Arachne provides a portal to a realm of infinite tunnels, inhabited by spiders and what few doomed refugees remain alive. A suitably impressive hell, but here the actual encounters are relatively light-weight. Vampire castle allied to Lolth. Last City of the Dwarves engaged in brutal siege with army of evil humanoids thousands strong (I mean this is good, but there’s no payoff or anything beyond that one idea). I think I would have enjoyed a clearer tie-in with the Lolth slaying quest proper.
Speaking of which, the last gateway leads one to a desert realm, where Lolth’s Wild-Wild-West steampunk spider fortress resides. Speaking of tonal fucking 180. As you approach you are greeted by two mocking gargoyles, and a confused marilith tries to write your name in a ledger (which she keeps misplacing) before escorting you to Lolth proper (unless you try to escape). Lolth will be in a giant throne room, but it will actually be illusionary Lolth, while the real one is peeking out at the PCs from a secret peephole Wizard of Oz style.
Tonally it’s a mess. Is this the stronghold of the supreme demon goddess of the sovereign race of evil? Lolth in Q1 is a twirling moustache villain, complete with quicksand, trapdoors and dastardly escape routes. I halfway expected her to have an escape route with a hot-air balloon in the shape of her own face. The concept of a clockwork spider is alright, and the map, while not brilliant, does have multiple ways to explore it, secret doors, illusions, dispel-magic zones and the works. The supreme interaction with this mechanical death fortress would have been to include some provisions for the characters to enact sabotage in order to cause some form of distraction, but fiddling with the machinery mostly has a chance to inflict damage on the PCs or trigger investigative random encounters.
Monsters are either straightforward combat encounters, or variations of the Succubi gambit, where evil shapechangers attempt to look like hot babes and then kill you. Monster selection is, again, a mess. You expect some sort of evil-uber realm of demons, spiders, spider-demons, drow anti-saints, driders, spidrow, and spider-constructs made of black glass with red rubies for eyes. Instead it’s ettins, ogres, gnolls, demons, gargoyles, giants, salamanders, were-things, dragons and just about every standard antagonist you can envision, most of them straightforward combat encounters. The fortress as a whole lacks an organized response to the intruders. It’s just such a giant step back from the peak lethality of D3.
Treasure too, GONE is ultra-treasure-trap-curse-asshole-mode. GONE are the occasional unique items or flourishes. The art objects are barely themed, there’s some glyphs of warding half-heartedly thrown on things here and there, ZERO yes you read that correctly ZERO poison needle traps, or contact poison traps, or ultra-hidden treasure troves. WHAT THE FUCK? Characters are lvl 10-14 and they are stealing Lolth’s fucking wardrobe and there isn’t at least a comb with a deadly plague vial or a cursed nipple piercing among the damn things? Also an asshole move, Lolth’s coffers contain the abyss equivalent of Faerie-gold, meaning that the GM gets to scam the PCs out of a shitton of money, and Lolth’s hoard is less then your average adult red dragon. What the fucking fuck? Some minor points for having a showdown where Lolth can activate some statues to fight on her behalf but does a demon goddess really have to manually flick switches so 6 HD marble statues OF KNIGHTS IN ARMOR can fight for her? Points for having a one-way planar gateway as an escape route, at least Lolth is not a complete dummy.
I can’t imagine running everyone through GD and then unleashing this band of high-strung, ultra-sharp, mega-cautious fucking KILLERS on Q1 and that turning into anything but a slaughterfest for the poor ole’ demons. Sutherland doesn’t have the deviousness, the nastiness or the inventiveness to really hammer this one home. The result is an anti-climax, a facsimile, fan-fiction.
There’s some new monsters, mostly different varieties of spider or near-spider, the Driders get a belated introduction but are somewhat wasted, and the intriguing hand-maiden of Lolth and its annoying gaseous form ability are thrown in, a suitably irritating and brutal challenge that can only be the hand of the master reaching out and helping this poor soul. The last page has some ideas for extra rooms in the demon-web pits to spice things up, most of which are just more monster encounters, some of which are simple but nice, like this one.
14. HALL OF FATE. In this small but ornate room an old man sits at one end of a polished wooden table shuffling a deck of many things. This man will place all the cards of the deck, face down, in front of any person who sits at the table. Treasure: wand of wonder
17. HALL OF STATUES. This hallway contains 20 “statues,” actually shadows. The door at the end of the hallway is the same doorway that the party came in. When all of the shadows have been destroyed a black opal will appear on some statue pedestals. Treasure: 6 black opals (1,000-5,000 gp each)
Q1 is a coverband, a Brandon Sanderson, a placeholder for an epic confrontation that never did take proper shape. After the meteoric heights of D3, to reduce the showdown with a plane-spanning evil to such a farce feels in many ways like a travesty. It is for this reason that I am less lenient, and that I cannot do anything other then award Q1 two stars. Those who are gearing up to run their epic Greyhawk T(-)GDQS(??) mega-ultra-chocolate-and-fudge-coated campaign are better off just dropping Q. For a high level adventure, it’s not that good. For an exotic plane-hopping adventure, even the flawed Crystal Barrier was much stronger then Q1. What good ideas it has are largely unconnected to the preceding series, are underdeveloped and Sutherlands dungeon design skills need an injection of Slaught. No.