03 April 2013

Review of Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits

David Sutherland III is well-known in Old School RPG circles. He contributed quite a few illustrations to first edition AD&D manuals and was the TSR cartographer for many of the early modules. Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits is his first and perhaps only credit as a module writer. And as a writer, well, he makes beautiful maps.

Q1 was supposed to be the conclusion to Gygax's great adventure cycle that begins with G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Gygax even makes a lame excuse in the intro to Q1 about why he couldn't finish this one last module even though he had notes and everything.

Whatever, dude.

Sutherland takes a big swing at a high-level adventure. He attempts to bring in the high weirdness of astral travel and marry that to the brooding evil that one would expect from a dungeon on one layer of infernal Abyssal Planes. Heck, there are even some prototypical steampunk elements in the form of Lolth's insane spider ship.

And then there's that EGG...

All these elements are inventive, I grant you. However, some poor slob has to run this weak mess for a players. Does the module stand on its own?

Let's ask some basic questions about this adventure's quality. Is this a location-based adventure that can be fairly free-form? Is it a railroading exposition? Is there a clear objective for the PCs? Is that objective interesting? Does the module make getting to the objective interesting?

Q1 cannot be considered a location-based adventure. The previous module, D3: Vault of the Drow, certainly can be played in a variety of ways. The PCs can even visit the Drow city regularly, should they wish. But, dropping in on the Spider Queen for tea can only be done once. She is a minor god after all.

Which brings us to a big problem. The module's main objective seems to be implicitly: kill Lolth. I don't really think there is room for negotiation (but perhaps there is room for capitulation). Killing gods really is problematic for adventure play. If gods are weak, they become little more than "end bosses" in a campaign. If gods cannot be killed, then PCs have no hope of challenging them or their will. Gods are probably better handled as mute, magical mechanisms for plot.

Plot. There is a lot of whimsy in Q1, but not a lot of coherent action. Players sort of swing from one crazy location to the next without a lot of connective tissue. Not only will the party travel through the "demonweb pits" (which are more like inter-woven corridors), but the PCs may also visit various parallel worlds that Lolth is attempting to conquer.

She's a busy lady.

Sure, there are the nasty spiders, but they are kind of boring. Tolkien knew how to make spiders vile and fearsome. There are demons who are, like the spiders, fairly bland in their presentation. There are quite a few bugbears and gnolls. That Lolth must have a great recruiter on her staff.

What exactly does Lolth want? She wants to enslave all humans everywhere and then...I don't really know. She's a demon after all. I mean, she's a god. Or a mad steampunk scientist. OK. I really can't tell you what Lolth is, what she stands for, or what she wants for Christmas. She is just a big ball of sexy spider-evil who likes to leave the keys to her realm where high-level PCs can find them to kill her.

I may have seen her profile on Match.com once.

As much as I find Q1 nearly unplayable as module, it is an amazing source for getting the flavor of D&D in the late seventies. It's a bit more gonzo than S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

If Sutherland failed to deliver a solid RPG adventure, he certainly crafted an iconic artifact for the hobby. I suppose that is exactly what we should expect from an artist.