Meet the creative team behind City of the Spider Queen! In this month's exclusive interview, designer James Wyatt and developer/creative director Rich Baker discuss adventuring in the Underdark, dealing with terrifying drow villains, and the benefits of owning numerous scrolls of resurrection. . . .
Wizards of the Coast: The scope of this adventure -- civil war in the Underdark and a quest to stop a drow priestess from raising an enormous undead army to invade the surface world -- is breathtaking and epic. How difficult was it to take a story concept developed in novels and introduce it to the adventure format?
James Wyatt: One of the things we definitely did right was making sure that the adventure connected to the novels but did not in any way try to parallel the events of the novels. It's set in a different geographical region, and really its only connection is that it and the novels are sparked by the same event. So in that sense, it was easy -- as easy as it could ever be to plot out an adventure of this size, that is. It took a lot of hashing out, for sure.
Rich Baker: James and I were present in the original planning sessions with Bob Salvatore, Richard Byers, Thomas Reid, and Phil Athans as the whole War of the Spider Queen plan was hammered out, so the game guys and book guys were able to put together a common plot that everyone was happy with. That said, we hit an early snag when we realized that the adventure's original setting would give away the plot of the second book in the War of the Spider Queen series, but James came up with an alternate location for the adventure that worked even better than the original site.
Wizards: Does the wealth of previously published material about the drow help or hinder the creation of an adventure like this one?
James: Frankly, both. Too much established information can get in the way of one's creativity, but on the other hand it makes it easier to construct new things upon the established foundation. I chose to avoid most of the downside by exploring some previously uncharted territory, both geographically and theologically.
Rich: I'd like to add that James did a great job in converting and updating some of the great ideas from 2nd Edition products such as Drow of the Underdark. You'll see some old favorites like the death lance or the spiderstone golem in the adventure, redone for 3rd Edition.
Wizards: Based on the timeline you offer in the introduction, you seem to anticipate the adventure might take as much as two months' game time to play out. What challenges does an adventure covering that much time present?
James: The biggest one is the problems involved in allowing characters a chance to spend their ill-gotten gains. Beyond that, you need to allow for events to progress beyond the immediate surroundings of the PCs, which is what that timeline is there for. It's possible that if characters take too much time getting to the conclusion of the adventure, things could go very badly for the world at large. And it's important for the players to realize that -- so they know that what they're doing is important.
Wizards: Irae T'sarran is quite a detailed villain, and she seems extremely intimidating. In designing and developing NPCs, how do you determine that fine line between providing enough detail and providing too much so that a DM can't develop the character him- or herself?
James: It's always the DM who breathes life into the characters in an adventure. I think it's my job to try to evoke the kinds of feelings I want associated with the villain --primarily loathing, I guess -- so the players will hate her by the end and the DM will have a good feel for how to run her.
Rich: Irae grew into such a cool villain that we started looking for ways to get even more mileage out of her. Todd Lockwood's partially responsible for that, as he created a wonderful cover painting of Irae that just knocked our socks off. The trick is to give the villain an opportunity to make her presence felt before the heroes have a chance to confront her, without creating artificial barriers that block the heroes from acting in order to rub their noses in the fact that it's too early in the story for them to mix it up with her. We've got a few nice surprises waiting in that department.
Wizards: A healthy number of subplots make this adventure feel even more like an epic novel. There also seem to be numerous opportunities for additional adventures to follow. Without giving away too much about the overall adventure, what are the most exciting subplots/follow-up adventures?
James: I'm tremendously excited to finish running this adventure so that we can take these 18th-level characters and advance them to epic levels pretty soon. I haven't exactly figured out yet where I'm going to take them. Part of me wants to get them out of the Underdark for a while, just for a change of pace, but to such a large extent they've built their characters to be Underdark explorers that we may just stay down in the depths. There are higher-up drow villains I want them to meet, and I think it would be really interesting, someday, to have them face the drow demigoddess who's behind all this. As epic and breathtaking as this adventure is, boy, it's really just the tip of the iceberg.
Rich: Kurgoth Hellspawn is a very cool villain, and it's possible for the heroes to inadvertently help him in his own path to power by taking on Irae. Where did he come from, and what happens if the heroes don't deal with him? That's a great follow-up to City of the Spider Queen.
Wizards: With something this elaborate, what's the playtest process like? Do you run the adventure beginning to end, or do you break it up into smaller pieces?
James: Both. In-house playtest groups ran small sections of the adventure over the course of several months. At the same time, several RPGA playtest groups ran the adventure. Closer to home, we had two DMs -- myself and David Noonan -- running the adventure for our regular gaming groups. It's been a little strange, since my regular gaming group includes both Dave and Rich Baker, who both had a lot of inside knowledge of the adventure! They were great at separating their player knowledge from character knowledge, though, and we've all had a lot of fun. Of course, we're just finishing it up now, after seven months of play!
Wizards: For the would-be designer . . . how long does it take to complete an adventure this grand, from concept to final draft?
I started writing the adventure in June of last year, and finished my work on it right around Thanksgiving (about 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, I believe). Writing an adventure of this scope is an absolutely monumental task, and not for the faint of heart! Of course, finishing my work on it was a long way from the final draft: Rich put in an enormous amount of work to make the adventure even better, putting in another six weeks. Then the editors, Gwen and Michele, had it for another two months. And so on, getting it ready for release about 14 months after I started writing.
Wizards: What's new or updated for this adventure -- magical items, spells, creatures -- that players might not have encountered before?
James: Several new monsters. I'll tantalize you with names: quth-maren, blood fiend, Abyssal ghoul, keening spirit, silveraith. Also a number of old monsters updated to the new D&D rules. Likewise for magic items, a mix of new and updated. I'm weirdly proud of the fact that every new monster in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book (except the ordinary animals) appears somewhere in this adventure.
Wizards of the Coast:How do you expect players will react to the final adventure?
James: If my playtest reports and experiences are any indication, players are going to have a great time kicking a lot of drow rear-ends and saving the world! Further, I expect players to learn the importance of improving saving throws, to develop clever strategies for reaching the surface world, and to deeply loathe a certain drow cleric.
Rich: Really, you just can't have enough death ward spells and scrolls of resurrection. That's the big takeaway I expect for most players.
Wizards:Any plans for a follow-up adventure?
James: As I mentioned before, I do plan to run these characters for a while longer, so we can all have a taste of the new Epic Level Handbook's rules. I expect the earth to keep shaking for several months to come. Whether anything, in print or online, will materialize for public consumption, I can't predict.
Rich: I know that Dave Noonan's working on a Dungeon magazine piece that can be used as a side-mission based on City of the Spider Queen. Other than that, if you survive the City of the Spider Queen, well, your characters deserve a little break.