Updated: Apr 7
This essay takes a look at the role of the Demon Queen of Spiders, Lolth, and the rival god-worshiping drow villains in the classic D&D "Drow" module series.
By R. Nelson Bailey
The book, Designers & Dragons – ’70 to ’79, details the history of role-playing game companies that were founded during that period of time. In the section concerning TSR — the company that gave us the Dungeons & Dragons game — it notes the creation and release in 1980 of the module Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits, written by Dave Sutherland with Gary Gygax (1). This section mentions something that I was not aware of — that thwarting and destroying Lolth was not the ultimate objective started in G1-3 (the “Giant” series) and followed up with D1-3 (the “Drow” series). As is noted in Designers & Dragons (p. 49): “Sutherland had even changed the final antagonist of the series from the servitors of the Elder Elemental God to Lolth — and the result didn’t necessarily make a lot of sense.” (2) This brings up many questions about the role of the "drow servitors" vs Lolth and her followers in the series. What are the objectives of the renegade drow houses that started the giants’ war on humanity? Who is the Elder Elemental God and what are its aims? Could it be that Sutherland rewrote the culmination of the module series by elevating Lolth to the role of the final enemy? More importantly, is there any merit to this claim? I will look at answers to these questions by examining the text of the source materials (i.e. the original six modules written solely by Gary Gygax and released in 1978).
First, what are the aims of the "drow servitors" in the series? In the G1-3 modules, beyond the destruction and looting of the human kingdoms, no motivation is given. The module B3 Vault of the Drow spells out their motives and goals in fairly clear language, however. The prime movers of the series are House Eilservs and their leader, Eclavdra. As the top-ranking noble house in the Vault, the Eilservs wish to establish an overlord that would rule all the houses of the Vault (D3, p. 18). That “absolute monarch” would be one of their own, thereby ensuring their grip of power on the nobles of the Vault. However, the priestesses of Lolth nixed this plan, as it would threaten their own power base (and would be too lawful for the chaos-loving drow). This reaction caused the Eilservs to shift worship from Lolth to the mysterious Elder Elemental God. This rift has caused a power struggle between the noble houses of the Vault. Presumably, House Eilservs instigated the giants’ war on humanity to increase their own power base (3).
What role does the Elder Elemental God play in the modules? Well, not much (4). The motivations, beliefs, and sphere of influence of the god and its followers is never addressed. Beyond that the Eilservs began worshiping the god to oppose their Lolth-worshiping enemies, nothing else is directly mentioned. As noted in D3, a temple dedicated to the worship of the Elder Elemental God exists in the Vault. However, this temple is not detailed for the player characters to explore (5). The god seems to be associated with darkness, tentacles (with the altar, wall, and rods), insanity, and uses eye motifs (6).
Is Lolth the final objective of the player characters in the module series? The module directs the party to investigate the Fane of Lolth (i.e. by the rakes on p. 16 of D3), instead of the barely mentioned temple of the Elder Elemental God. The Fane, unlike the god’s temple, is highly detailed and ready for the party to explore. That Lolth is the actual objective of the series is self-evident in the modules, as this is mentioned on two separate occasions on p. 21 in D3. In area 14 of the Fane of Lolth, it is noted that here they can travel to the Abyss to confront her in her Demonweb, while in area 5 of the dungeon level, it is noted that player characters will have need the EGG of LOLTH if they do so. The module points out that the vague significance of the EGG and traveling to the Abyss will be detailed in Q3. Furthermore, the statistics for Lolth are included in D3, and that the final module is titled “Q3 QUEEN OF THE DEMONWEB PITS”. Were the final objective actually the drow servitors of the Elder Elemental God, one would think it would be titled something that pertains more to that objective.
With all of the textual evidence found in the module series, it seems unlikely that simply destroying the Eilservs and their Elder Elemental God power base is the penultimate objective of the "Giant/Drow" series. They were the protagonists that set the events into motion in the first part of the series. However, all the evidence shows that Gygax switched this to Lolth, Demon Queen of Spiders, as the final enemy and goal of the series as a whole. Maybe that was the Eilservs plan all along.
1: In the introduction to Q1, Gary Gygax states that he was too busy to write the module, that was, at the time, two years overdue. Gary notes that: “…my ideas for DEMONWEB, it suddenly struck me that what I had sketched out was far too similar to another module 'rough' I was committed to: the TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL…” Instead, Dave Sutherland came up with an alternate Demonweb, and used Gary’s “brief” notes and advice to write the adventure. Some commentators have noted that Q1 is weird and not very “Lolth-like”. This insinuates that the goals culminating with Q1 is mostly Sutherland’s invention, not in line with Gygax’s vision of what it would have been had he wrote it. Some have even gone as far as writing up their own version of what they believe to be a more “Gygaxian” version of the Demonweb.
2: Whenever Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits comes up in a post on social media sites, invariably someone comments in accordance with this statement. ("Actually, Lolth isn't...)
3: The module GDQ1-7 Queen of the Spiders notes this very sentiment (see p. 4).
4: The insignificance of the god’s role is noted by the fact that it is only mentioned a total of three times in six modules (G 1-3 and D 1-3).
5: The god's temple was added to the GDQ1-7 Queen of Spiders module, however.
6: It is apparent that the Elder Elemental God has a strong Lovecraftian influence. August Derleth even associated some of the Cthulhu mythos gods with the four traditional elements of air, water, earth, and fire.
Applecline, Shannon. Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry – ’70 to ’79. Evil Hat Productions, 2014.
Gygax, Gary. D1-2 Descent to the Depths of the Earth. TSR, 1978, 1980.
Gygax, Gary. D3 Vault of the Drow. TSR, 1978, 1980.
Gygax, Gary. G1-2-3 Against the Giants. TSR, 1978, 1981.
Gygax, Gary. GDQ1-7 Queen of the Spiders. TSR, 1986.
Sutherland, David C., III; Gygax, Gary. Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. TSR, 1980.