The Harrowing

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 70: The Harrowing




When I began this series, I rushed through the first few entries and didn’t go into as much depth as I would later. Partially this stemmed from a desire to get to Planescape, which was really the root of what I wanted to look at, but I also just didn’t find those early D&D adventures very interesting. They’re formative, certainly, but even interplanar jaunts tended to be given short shrift at the time because, prior to Jeff Grubb’s Manual of the Planes, for the most part the multiverse wasn’t well-defined. When I say that most players’ knowledge of the other planes of existence was just two pages at the back of the Player’s Handbook, I wasn’t exaggerating. Additionally, early adventures, in particular, put so little emphasis on actual roleplaying, at least how I tend to think of it, that they barely feel relevant, even when they briefly headed to other planes. All of which is a bit of an excuse for giving the original Queen of the Demonweb Pits not even a full article of analysis. 

Oddly, third edition D&D‘s first jaunt to other planes of existence was largely a retread of that original planar journey, in that it takes players from the Prime Material Plane to Lolth’s layer(s?) of The Abyss for what amounts to a high-level dungeon crawl. Released in the January/February 2001 issue of Dungeon (issue #84), “The Harrowing” was the first high-level adventure ever published for the game’s third edition. The game itself had only been reissued in August of the previous year, so this wasn’t too long to wait, and one of the purposes of this adventure seemed to be offering Dungeon Masters a template for encounter levels they could use for their own adventures. After all, balancing a few level one and two encounters is much easier than figuring out how much a party of fully decked-out 15th level adventurers can take on before needing a rest. 


While it’s not terribly surprising that the adventure’s author, Monte Cook, decided to make this an interplanar journey given his history with Planescape, what may come as a surprise is how much “The Harrowing” is a pure dungeon crawl. Following an extremely brief investigation into the deaths of some birds, players find themselves in a spider lair that links to Lolth’s layers of The Abyss, the Demonweb1. There, they fight their way through a plot involving one of the demon queen’s daughters’ attempting to wrench power away from her mom through the ritual murder of a cleric. Also: some slaads got involved, too, which means the players have encounters with drow, demons, spiders (and spider-shaped constructs), plus slaads, giving the dungeon more than a bit of variety despite its linearity. 

Dungeon really went all out with this release, and as well as the issue’s cover art and a few pieces within, artist Stephen Daniele also has six pages (12 drawings) of booklet-style art to show players. This is similar to how things were done in releases like Hellbound, and shows a lot of love from the publisher toward what is ultimately just a dungeon crawl.

That being said, dungeon crawls interest me little in either playing or reading. “The Harrowing” served its purpose as a template well, but there’s little lore here that would ever be seen again, and if Lolth’s daughter Laveth ever makes another appearance in D&D I neither know nor really care. What I do appreciate about the module is how it takes a sort of half-finished idea from 1980 and adds much more modern lore to create something that makes more sense for the realm of an Abyssal goddess.


For instance, the original Queen module has an extremely logical map despite existing in the Abyss. Cook and illustrator/cartographer Stephen Daniele throw this away completely. While the Demonweb remains a dungeon suspended on spider webs above an endless abyss, it’s now a messy and confusing place to navigate. It feels like chaotic evil the way it should, and this is matched by the almost certain level of confusion players find themselves in when learning that even in this realm there are multiple drow factions. Players will head in odd directions throughout the webs, and eventually down into the pits themselves (which this adventure retcons to be something different from the lair above in a way that makes more sense of the layers… I think?). They’re almost certain to get lost along the way, and unlike in the original module there’s no tidy way of figuring out where to head next. 


I also appreciate that like with the Queen adventure there is the possibility of seeing other extraplanar locations. Aside from accidentally slipping into a post-apocalyptic world Lolth has already destroyed, players can also find a viewing portal that removes things from the Prime and places them in the Demonweb. Both this and the original module are linear dungeon romps, but they still do their best to hint that there may be more to the multiverse than just stomping on spiders. There are other nods to the original here as well, such as the random inclusion of boats in the Demonweb, and as a result the spirit of that old adventure is maintained throughout. 

Stephen Daniele even did the adventure’s cartography. And what wonderful cartography it is!

“The Harrowing” also adds a new prestige class to the game, arachnemancers, who kind of suck but also get to command spiders and even transform into them, so I guess it’s not all bad. There’s even a new monster entry for the Yochlol, which was written by James Wyatt and published at about the same time in the somewhat experimental Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerûn (this proved to be the only book of this sort produced in third edition). Perhaps equally noteworthy in its own way is that, unlike with previous editions of the game, there are no spellcasting or magic item alterations as a result of being away from the Prime. This is something that would stick with the game, and these colorful and surprising changes that used to be an important part of planar travel would be relegated to a thing of the past, in many respects homogenizing existence in the multiverse.


Unfortunately, as with the original Queen module, I find myself with little to say about “The Harrowing.” It’s a fight through the Demonwebs, and features some quite excellent artwork and cartography. That’s it. Fans of Cook at his most dungeon-crawl-y may be interested in seeking out a copy, but as far a planar lore is concerned the adventure does little. Were I still covering releases the way I was when this column originally began, I would’ve given it just a couple quick paragraphs the same way I did Queen. Don’t worry, though, as fortunately third edition’s Manual of the Planes came out just a year after the new edition was released, so it won’t be long before we get back into meatier planar jaunts. 

1. So are they the Demonweb Pits, or the Demonweb? And how does this work with the three layers? I came out of this more confused than ever about what the hell Lolth actually rules over.

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