Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits
Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits is an adventure module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition, the one and only entry into the Q line. Herein the party travels to the Demonweb Pits of the Abyss and battles Lolth, Demon Princess of Spiders and Goddess of the Drow. It is canonically the sequel to the Drow Trilogy Adventure Path, making it the ultimate conclusion of the campaign/super adventure known as Queen of the Spiders, after its omnibus format.
|This article contains spoilers! You have been warned.|
The theme of this module is "let's look at what's behind DOOR NUMBER FOUR!". A whole school of red herrings await the party down here.
This module's Demonweb is three interlocking Moebius-style strips of pavement (Q1 calls them "pathways", sometimes "level"), in a plane where geometry itself is not on our side. The pavement is made of the damned; they carve tunnels in the Elder Chaos. The party needs to get under those pathways to the fourth pathway. The top three connect to interdimensional chambers, like rooms in a dungeon. Some of them are teleportation rooms which are, of course, guarded; that's where the module directs the PCs.
The party could just walk off the pavement to skip all that, to a "lower" pathway but... they're interlocking. That party might end up back in a higher pathway. And the pathways all look the same.
And not all the doors lead to teleportation. Gygax used the first pathways of this 'web to bring in, arbitrarily, what Gygax loved best: traps and tricks to frustrate players into violent rage. We'll have to call out the Magnetic Chamber. One wall is a yuuge mirror which, in fact, is a "lodestone". So if anyone is wearing any iron (or, we suppose, nickel or cobalt) - that iron is getting yanked into immobility. And then you get swarmed by thirty bugbears with, you guessed it, wooden weapons. On the "plus" side, these rooms are the only way to tell Pathway One from Pathway Two or Three - if you've been to that room before, you know you've been on that road before. "A maze of twisty passages, all alike."
Once on that fourth and last pathway you know you're getting somewhere. The doors on this one connect to whole new worlds, or maybe planes, in the Prime Material. Here the party learns that Lolth has schemes on many worlds, some of which schemes have basically won. Among the planes is Caer Sidi from "Three Hearts and Three Lions", and a pink ocean which will appear again in 2e classic Die, Vecna, Die!. One standout is the Nightworld of Vlad Tolenkov, which is exactly what it sounds like, long preceding Ravenloft.
The module features page after page of how this chaotic and evil plane affects magic, making the template for the Manual of the Planes special-rules. We'll see such rules in Planescape, Beyond Countless Doorways and whatever Mongoose Publishing was up to. BCD incidentally owns Q1's style of game-show design, in The Maze.
Then comes Lolth's lair itself, the Spider Ship on its yellow-sand desert under that violet sky. It all starts amusingly enough. This is closer to the Chaos than the Web, so deck-of-many-things hilarity may ensue at any moment. A "Type V" (marilith) Matron holds the reception-desk, which she feels overqualified to do, and is further stymied by all the chaos. You can see why Paul Kidd wanted to keep her! But then, meh. Just another castle, really.
Design-wise overall... rate as, "half baked". Structurally Q1 is supposed to be the endgame for the D series. It needs linearity - which the 'Web sort-of provides; but to liven all that up there's only one trick Gary can offer, which is the Red Herring Door. The new planes on the fourth floor are just more herrings, but bigger (though admittedly better). There may be a defence for this design. We are, as of yet, unaware of an effective defence.
Small wonder later designers of the Demonweb Pits have just scrapped Gary's design and started over. He and his editors should have spent another two years over it all. After he'd learnt to listen to his editors.
Smarting like crazy over her absolutely humiliating defeat in Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, and over all the other demon lords passive-aggressively making fun of how stupid her losing because the protagonists tricked her into getting drunk in the climax of the novel really was, Lolth is out for blood. She gathers all her forces across every world in the multiverse to prepare for a mass invasion of Oerth, gets her decimated drow followers to set up planar portals and find her a vampiric pool, digs up the corpse of the Justicar's old teacher/rival to turn into an overpowered unique undead creature, restores Escalla's scheming sister to her full power, and then promptly kits them both out for bear, pumping the former full of swamp troll blood so he'll regenerate and giving him a vampiric super-weapon, and the latter a shitload of chained wretch henchmen and access to said vampiric pool, so that they can serve as minibosses.
This is the setup, by the way. Spoilers abound from here!
The first half of the novel is absolutely epic, as the Justicar's party fights in a huge war sequence, trying and ultimately failing to defend against Lolth's massive horde of minions as they storm and overwhelm a frontier city, slaughtering and devouring the inhabitants, while also fending off assassination attempts from the minibosses. Henry also comes into his own as an adventurer in his own right, when, with every other member of the party that's not literally a piece of equipment or a talking animal incapacitated (and the one who's both in bad shape), he not only defeats both minibosses with quick thinking and skill checks, but gets through an entire adventure without much besides shockingly-helpful advice from the NPCs and manages to save the lives of everyone else.
It also continues to show off Kidd's flair for characterization, with Lolth and her marilith secretary Morag (the Matron in Q1, hereby named) in particular being two absolute standouts. Lolth is the best Lolth ever, as the worst sort of spiteful, bratty, impulsive teenager with a certain amount of raw intelligence and power but absolutely no chill or class. Morag would really rather be off with her incubus beau reading poetry and has to handle all the "boring" but important stuff for her boss, and knows she's indispensible but also that she will be killed instantly if she mouths off too hard, is a great chessmaster unsubtly trying to guide them through the dungeon so they can kill her boss and she can get out of her dead-end job she hates. And it addresses a major criticism of Descent by having Enid the sphinx as a full-fledged member of the team rather than a glorified supporting character, kicking ass and taking down names in dramatic fashion while showing off plenty of personality.
Popa Paul also knows what you like; lots of monstergirls, even compared to White Plume Mountain, with the Justicar and Escalla finally settling their sexual tension and resolving to get married once they kill Lolth (and many lulzy jokes about her being grumpy about having to use up their potions of giant size on actual adventure rather than the honeymoon), Henry turning out to not be too afraid of being called furry to chase after his heart in matters of winged half-lion women, and Morag joining the team very reluctantly during and after the climax to pay off her dream home with her incubus lover.
It also incorporates all kinds of stuff from the module, as is tradition, when the gang finally infiltrates the Abyss to do her in for keeps, including a giant mechanical spider in the third act, the confusing layout of the Demonweb Pits, and a stopover in another world through a portal so the party can rest and get their spells back, briefly interrupted by a fight with a bunch of vampires. Also, before the positive section ends, let there be no bones about it: unlike most such novels, which are worried about disrupting the status quo too much, the party no-bullshit, no-backsies, and no-fakeouts outright kills Lolth for keeps, which while destined to be undone or ignored was a ballsy move. (While it also arguably falls into the opposite extreme, where NPCs cooler than you do all the work, the novel's conceit and the modules' age both take the sting out of it, since in context it's supposed to represent a party like yours doing the dirty work.)
Unfortunately, it's not perfect either. Unlike prior novels, where things started kind of slow and picked up in a hurry once the actual module got underway, here things actually slow down and become less interesting once they get to the titular Demonweb Pits. While the module is well-known for design issues, Kidd seemingly resolved this by literally having Morag give the party a map, supplies, and advice for getting through it. She even helpfully killed the master vampire on Nightworld in advance for them. The one time the rest of the party revolts against the Justicar's speedrunning strats and opens a random door to try to adventure, they get caught in that asshole "magnetic walls and bugbears with wooden weapons storm out to beat you up" trap, as if to illustrate why Kidd is barely bothering to adapt the module beyond the bare essentials.
Also, while Escalla has a few good moments, and is never at her worst, she's rarely at her best either, and the entire climax largely boils down to her stopping time for a bit so she can resolve everything on her own with minimal help from the rest of the group. And the resolution to both miniboss fights is lackluster, Escalla's being settled in extremely perfunctory fashion and the Justicar's final emotional resolution with his old teacher lacking emotional nuance, even if it's got some badass imagery. Hell, the simple fact that said teacher is written very poorly before his death, as a one-note vainglorious asshole, and the Justicar realizing he was always a one-note vainglorious asshole as a resolution to his personal emotional turmoil, are both deeply-unsatisfying exceptions to Kidd's usual skill with characterization.
Oh, and while Lolth gives a good account of herself in the final battle, she goes down pretty easily considering she's a literal goddess, though this at least is consistent with the module, where Lolth is a pretty bitch-ass god. (Only 66 hitpoints! First edition hitpoints no less!)
The party also gets out of a ridiculous number of dangerous situations by just having everyone but one party member pile into a portable hole while said party member swims/turns invisible/flies/etc. out of or past trouble. It works alright the first two times, when half the party is half-dead and dying of illness, and first the Justicar has to swim out of danger, using it as a makeshift aqualung, and when Henry is literally the only able-bodied non-badger party member and needs to come into his own as a man, but by the time they literally kill Lolth with it (in an admittedly badass scene that'd work great if not for that item's prior overuse), you'd think the DM'd've asked them to cut that shit out before he throws a disenchanter their way!
And there's a lot of Star Wars references. Like, a bizarre number. None of them are quite as unsubtle as the villain in White Plume Mountain literally shouting "I'll get you Justicar! And your little dog too!" during the climactic pre-boss fight, but still. It gets weird after a while.
Finally... Look. Kidd's work has always been strongly anti-religion, and that's fine. Man's entitled to his opinions. Justicar has always been a misotheistic character, and that works given his anti-authority streak and trauma in the Greyhawk Wars. Escalla being a misotheist because she's a fairy is just fair enough. But this is the point where it gets out of hand, with entire conversations devoted to how much the D&D afterlife sucks, how there's no such thing as a "good" god and even the "good" ones abuse and enslave their followers in the afterlife as egos run amok, with every worshipper being a deluded pawn for whose well-being they care nothing, and so on. The finale isn't even them killing Lolth, but having to battle Thoth and the population of the Egyptian afterlife to free Enid from miserable eternal slavery as a drudge in one of his libraries, since their forces inexplicably refused to let a devout adventurer get raised for no reason! It's unnecessary, and crosses the line from characters espousing views to the author using them as mouthpieces. And again, while there's nothing wrong with atheism (and while the concepts the D&D afterlife uses are certainly not above criticism), literally being the last thing you'll read in the novel is a bit much.
But, overall, while flawed, it's still a cracking good read, and a good finale to all the characters' roads. There's also a buncha smart running gags I won't spoil that pay off well, and hell, Morag's character arc has got a brutally funny joke at Escalla's expense in the middle of the final boss fight.