So far as I know, 1980's Queen of the Demonweb Pits is artist David C. Sutherland III's only published example of game/adventure design. It's also (again, so far as I know) the first official example of planar adventuring for Dungeons & Dragons. Both these facts are important when looking back on this module and its impact.
Dave Sutherland is known primarily for his illustrations, particularly during late OD&D and early AD&D. His artwork laid the foundation for many of the artists who followed by establishing the look of iconic monsters, such as demons, orcs, and mind flayers. As any reader of this blog knows by now, I am huge fan of Sutherland and, while I readily concede the technical flaws in a lot of his pieces, I also see a lot of joyful exuberance in them that contrasts powerfully with the more sterile perfection of later D&D art.
But apparently Sutherland had ambitions outside of illustration. He certainly wasn't the first artist hoping to try his hand at writing and, unlike many, Gary Gygax gave Sutherland a chance. (It's worth noting that Dave Trampier also wished to break into game design, writing a game of monster battles called Titan, eventually published by Avalon Hill after TSR expressed no interest in it) According to the preface to this module, Gygax had trouble coming up with a proper capstone to the Giants-Drow series of modules. All his ideas were too similar to ones he was considering for the Temple of Elemental Evil, so he rejected them. After Dave Sutherland showed him a twisting, intertwined dungeon he'd created based on the design of a placemat, Gygax suggested he write the module, using the dungeon as the home plane of Lolth, demon queen of spiders.
The end result was a very uneven module, equal parts gold and dross. The central premise of the module -- confronting Lolth on her home plane -- remains a powerful and attractive one. Likewise, the design of the Demonweb itself is extraordinarily clever. It is certainly one of the more unusual dungeon designs I encountered back in the day and, even now, I think it holds up pretty well. This is a good case for allowing individuals with artistic sensibilities to draw maps in my opinion, because the Demonweb seems like an idea that only an artist would conceive.
The module's encounters are quite a diverse lot, which I think is a good thing, overall. Oddly, very few of them seem to include either demons or drow, which you would expect to find on the Abyssal plane that's home to the demonic ruler of the dark elves. Instead, you get lots of chaotic and evil creatures -- dragons, trolls, lycanthropes, undead -- that don't quite "fit" with the assumed theme of the place. I remember as a kid finding the inhabitants of the Demonweb to be not quite what I was expecting, so I replaced many of them with demons and horrid spider-things and similar nasty stuff. Somehow, I didn't find a black dragon to be appropriately "Lolth-y," if you know what I mean.
Of course, there's something to be said for defying expectations. I've always been a fan of "pulling back the curtain" to show that the world as seen through the eyes of adventurers isn't the whole story. So, for example, Lolth's having a giant, steam-powered, mechanical spider ship never bothered me the way it bothered many people. To me, it's exactly the kind of bizarre turn that seems right when dealing with otherplanar beings, even demons (perhaps especially demons). There shouldn't be anything ordinary or predictable about their natures or behaviors. Similarly, I really liked the inclusion of gateways to other Prime Material Planes, including one cribbed from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur -- the sense that one's home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you've only just begun to plumb its unknown depths. Module Q1 actually does a decent job on this score and so set future planar adventures down the right path.
On the other hand, I'm not a huge fan of the module's many pages describing how differently spells and magic items operate in the Demonweb. This smacks of overkill to me. Don't misunderstand me: I see the logic behind it and I endorse it in principle. I simply found the specific implementation of it in Q1 to be more persnickety and detailed than suited me. Nothing slows down play than having to fumble through a module to see how a certain spell or item functions in the chaos of an Abyssal layer. Something along the lines of generalized guidelines would have served me better back in the day; goodness knows that's what I would do if I ran the module now.
One of the most praiseworthy things about Queen of the Demonweb Pits is that it's open-ended, allowing the referee to use it however he wishes. The presumption is that the PCs intend to confront -- and slay -- Lolth on her home plane, but the module supports more than just that one approach. It could be used as a springboard for plane-hopping to other layers of the Abyss, alternate Prime Material Planes, and similar dimensional jaunts. That alone endears it to me. I also appreciate that, while the battles will be unforgiving, it is possible to destroy Lolth forever. I find that refreshing, even if I know that the likelihood of its ever happening to be slim. I rather strongly favor the possibility of slaying demons, devils, even gods, in D&D so long as doing so represents a genuine challenge to the players' skill. Why include stats for them at all if they can't be defeated?
Q1 catches a lot more flak than it deserves, simply because it wasn't written by Gygax. Sutherland probably wasn't the greatest adventure designer, but he's far from the worst and, as I've shown, there's a lot to like here. I see it as a diamond in the rough rather than a jewel in the crown of the Golden Age. Sometimes, I prefer things a little rough around the edges; it gives me an excuse to roll up my sleeves and make it shine.