So here we are, ready to talk about the biggest bad in the whole adventure. Or is he? We still haven’t talked about the goblins yet…we’ll get to that in the next episode. Let’s dig in to the villain known as The Black Spider.
The Black Spider, like the wizard Glasstaff that we talked about in Part 5, is portrayed as a very 2-dimensional Big Bad. First of all, he’s a drow on the surface. If you know anything at all about drow, you know that they are permanent residents of The Underdark–that deepest of all deep realms underground. But we are given no backstory or history on the drow–not even a paragraph, not even a sentence. So we have no idea why he is even up there on the surface–was he outcast? Did he exile himself? Did he run away from something? We aren’t told anything.
Supposedly, he wants to find Wave Echo Cave. In fact, he’s looking for the Forge of Spells. But we aren’t told why he wants the cave or the Forge. We aren’t told how he even knows of the Forge, though we are told that his spies were following the Rockseeker brothers when the dwarves found the entrance. But this brings us to an even bigger question: if Black Spider’s spies saw the dwarves find the entrance…what does The Black Spider need any of the dwarves for? This is a really big plot hole, which continues to be dug deeper as you read more in the adventure. First the goblins kidnap Gundren. Then they send Gundren to Cragmaw Castle, where presumably The Black Spider is supposed to collect him. But The Black Spider is at Wave Echo cave already! According to the text, he already knows where the entrance is, and he already knows where the Forge is, although he can’t get to it because of some pesky undead.
Now, I realize that there is a grand tradition in D&D of having adventures or dungeons that make no logical sense whatsoever. But…this is a very modern adventure. It supposedly has a plot, a series of events that take place and a primary villain behind the whole thing. But…this makes NO SENSE AT ALL. At least, it doesn’t the way it is written.
Let’s look at some other things about The Black Spider. According to the text, both the Redbrand gang and the Cragmaw goblin tribe are working for The Black Spider, but we aren’t given any clear reason why. What’s in it for them? They aren’t getting anything out of that arrangement as far as I can see, aside from the Redbrands getting a handful of goblinoid enforcers apparently loaned out by the Cragmaw tribe. There seems to be even less of a reason for the Cragmaw goblins to be working with a drow wizard. He seems to be using them as menial labor–but we aren’t told that they are magically compelled, and they don’t seem to be slaves–so what exactly are they getting out of this deal? We don’t have any real idea of what The Black Spider thinks of the Redbrands and the Cragmaw goblins, or what his relationship is to them or his other henchmen (such as the doppelganger in Wave Echo cave).
Lastly, there is the cave/mine, and the Forge of Spells. When you read the description in the dungeon key, it says that the Forge is broken. There is no explanation given for how or why it got that way. There is no explanation of how this mystical “forge” was powered, either. Supposedly it was built to create powerful enchanted weapons. But why do you need a super special magical forge to do that? All that’s left is literally a simple brazier that can put a simple enchantment on any weapon that is placed inside it. Pretty wimpy if you ask me–certainly not worth all the trouble The Black Spider and his henchmen have gone through to get to it.
Well, where do we even start? Here’s a list of problematic questions that were raised by this very thin description of the main villain.
- What is a drow doing on the surface?
- Why does he want with Wave Echo cave, or what does he want with the SpellForge?
- Why are his minions digging for treasure in area 18–what does he think he’ll find there?
- If his spies know where the entrance is because they were following the dwarves when the entrance is found, then why does The Black Spider need Gundren in the first place?
- So why did The Black Spider have Gundren kidnapped by the goblins?
- Why did the goblins take Gundren to Cragmaw Castle if The Black Spider needed him?
- When the PCs get to Wave Echo cave, The Black Spider and his henchmen are already there. So again, why did he even need Gundren at all?
- How does the Forge of Spells (or SpellForge–I think that sounds cooler) work? What powers it? How was it broken, and how can it be fixed? What does The Black Spider want to do with it?
First of all, I gave The Black Spider a different name. Have I mentioned before how ridiculous the names in this adventure are? I think I have. I looked up some web pages on the drow language, and came up with Valochar. Which literally means “black spider” in drow. Hey, it’s not rocket science. I still think Valochar is better than Nezznar.
In my developing campaign plotline, there is an imprisoned ancient black dragon who wants to break free so he can resurrect his generals and then conquer the continent and restore the ancient dragon empire from eons past. Valochar was a drow studying magic, and he was fascinated with the lore of the dragon empire. He was certain there were long-forgotten magic secrets from that era–secrets that would make him the most powerful mage in the Underdark. At some point he begins to hear telepathic whispers from the imprisoned dragon. He starts to chafe under the restrictions placed upon him by the matriarchal drow society. Finally, he turns away from the worship of Lolth and pledges himself to the dragon, who becomes his patron. He exiles himself from the Underdark to avoid being put to death (or worse) by the priestesses of Lolth.
On the surface, he finds a way to reliably communicate with his patron. He begins to develop a network of spies and an army of henchmen. He is looking for two things: how he can help his patron break free of his imprisonment, and how his patron can resurrect his generals and begin his war. Valochar has discovered a secret–that a key artiface, The Philosopher’s Stone, can perform this mass resurrection. But centuries ago, the artifact was broken into three pieces, with each piece being hidden away by a separate hero. Valochar’s current goal: find all three pieces, and then find a way to join them back together. His research has led him to Wave Echo cave, because the SpellForge is one of the only ways such a powerful artifact can be repaired.
His relationship to Glasstaff and the Cragmaw goblins is a little trickier. We’ve already spoken of how I’m adapting Glasstaff: he is actually a spy from The Lord’s Alliance, who has infiltrated the Redbrands gang. His arrangement with The Black Spider is predicated on an agreement that The Black Spider will teach Glasstaff more alchemical recipes. This ties in with the goblins, too. I’m actually replacing the Cragmaw tribe with another customized group of goblins: the Bile Spider tribe. This is based on an article in Dragon magazine #364 called “Alchemical Imbalance”. Ziguarz, leader of the Bile Spider tribe, has discovered a way to mutate his people, and their monstrous pets, through alchemy and dark magics. As a result of this, the Bile Spider tribe has grown large and powerful. But Ziguarz is always thirsty for more alchemical and magical secrets. So The Black Spider gives alchemical knowledge to Glasstaff, and gets eyes and ears (and fists) inside the village. Glasstaff, in turn, makes an agreement with Ziguarz and says he will share his new alchemical knowledge with the Bile Spider tribe if they will forge an alliance with the Redbrands and leave the village alone.
As you can see, my solution provides a reason for why Valochar is on the surface, gives him a motivation for finding Wave Echo cave and the SpellForge, and elaborates on the deals he made with Glasstaff and the Bile Spider tribe. Replacing the Cragmaw tribe with the Bile Spider tribe makes a neat circle of allies who are all interested in alchemical and magical lore from the ancient dragon empire. Each one has their own agenda and their own ultimate goals–which may actually pit them against each other in the future–but they can gain power and knowledge from helping each other in the short term.
Find Your Solution
Here’s some questions to ask yourself as you try to solve these problems for your own campaign.
- Develop Black Spider more. Give him a backstory, with things and/or people that are important to him. Figure out why he is on the surface. Or, change his race entirely. There is nothing in the adventure as written that requires him to be a drow, after all.
- What does Black Spider want? Why is he really here? What is his ultimate goal or agenda, and how does this cave and the SpellForge help him achieve that goal?
- What is Black Spider’s relationship to the Redbrand gang and the goblin tribe? What do each of the factions get out of the relationship/alliance?
- Why does he need Gundren Rockseeker? Maybe Black Spider didn’t actually have spies following the dwarves–maybe he just heard a rumor or legend and is in the area to see if it is true. Maybe the map is magically sealed somehow, and only a Rockseeker can read it. Maybe Black Spider does know where the entrance is, but the map shows exactly where the SpellForge is.
- Who is the Black Spider connected to? Who will step in to accomplish his goal if Black Spider is killed? Who might even want him dead in order to advance? What’s the bigger picture? Look especially at the doppelganger henchman. Maybe he will take the shape of Black Spider and sacrifice himself so the real Black Spider can escape from the PCs. Or, maybe the doppelganger flees the battle and takes Black Spider’s place after the PCs have killed the real one, so the doppelganger carries on Black Spider’s work. Or maybe some other underling or henchman takes over? Placing Black Spider within a larger organizational framework will allow you to either turn Black Spider into a recurring villain (if he escapes), or allow someone else to carry on his work after Black Spider’s death. If you do this, you can establish a complex and interwoven series of villains and evil cults and conspiracies that can take you through your entire campaign. And isn’t that more interesting than just another boss fight?
I hope you’ve found some interesting tidbits and ideas in this article that will help your own campaign. Stay tuned for the next installment, where we talk more about the goblins!