Q is for Queen of Spiders

Had I been born two years earlier, I’m certain I would’ve played in Tactical Rules Studies (TSR)’s Queen of Spiders adventure for Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition. But I’ve never played it; Nor will I likely ever play it. I did, however, manage to snag a used copy at the Griffon, my Friendly Local Game Store, for $3. It was missing the maps, but, I figure I won’t likely run it, so instead I can mine it for ideas. During that visit I also purchased Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, which was heavily influenced by the underlying adventures of Queen of Spiders.

So there I sat with two adventures in hand, both about the machinations of the wicked Drow, evil subterranean elves, and their demonic goddess Lolth. The differences are noteworthy. The production quality of the newer adventures (including the Expedition to the Demonweb Pits) is better; Color printing, glossy paper and hardback improve the visceral experience. The layout has evolved as well. Whereas Queen of Spiders uses a three column newspaper-esque layout, Expedition uses a two column, textbook-esque layout with a slightly larger font face.

The biggest difference, however, is the presentation and framing of an encounter. In Queen of Spiders, each of the encounters is “inline” with the rest of the content. A “Guards at the Gate” encounter includes 3 paragraphs of text to describe the room, it’s inhabitants and features. There are an additional three short Non-Player Character (NPC 🔍) stat-blocks, each 4 lines long. On a given two adjoining pages, there are often 4 to 6 combat encounters, and another 4 to 6 “empty” room encounters. Some of stat-blocks instead reference a page in the monster manual.

Contrast this with Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, where a single encounter takes up two adjoining pages. One encounter that I am referencing Giant at the Black Gate (p78-79) has sections for Tactical Map, Setup, Tactics, Conclusion, Supplemental information (i.e. hazards or things in the room) and a massive single stat-block at 50 lines long! Most things needed to run the encounter is contained within these two pages.

The page size of each adventure’s encounter highlights an evolved understanding of what an encounter is. Breaking the presentation into Tactical Map, Setup, Tactics, Conclusion, Supplemental, and Stat Blocks helps the game master digest what is going on. By including this information, however, instead of the greatly simplified encounter of Queen of Spiders, the expectations of the encounter are more clearly defined. That is to say, the more words used to describe something, the less interpretation required, and the more constraining the encounter; You can certainly “wing it” but why? there is so much information already there for you to use.

An interesting by-product of the Tactical Map is that encounters in Expedition to the Demonweb Pits start within the constraints of the 2 pages. Characters start an encounter, in my opinion, far too close to the action. The Expedition encounter format, as well as a lack of separate overview map, lends itself to stark transitions from narration to set-pieces (i.e. battlemat). I have found that there is very little “lets keep quiet” as we travel through the dungeon, because, “we are going to start the encounter on the tactical map.” I understand that this is meta-gamey, but the reality has been observed.

Contrast with Queen of Spiders where the entire map is separate. This means the dungeon master can more easily get a sense of where things are in relation to each other, the transition from narration to set-piece happens more organically. In particular if I’m using the battle-map to draw out all of the character’s progress.

The other interesting effect of having the very large encounter format in Expedition, is that the adventure itself has a whole lot less encounters. A single encounter in Expedition is likely to last notably longer than a single encounter Queen of Spiders. So each encounter in Expedition must carry it’s own weight better; It requires more thought to the design. After all if I’m going to invest an hour for a single combat (or more), there should be interesting options during the encounter. Whereas, if most Queen of Spiders encounters are 15 minutes, those options need not be there.

All told, I’m extremely thankful for my $3 purchase, as I got to see how the older adventures were written as well as witness an evolution (e.g. change over time) of adventures.