Origins (I): The Year. In 2002, Wizards of the Coast came up with an innovative idea: they initiated a multimedia event called the "Year of the Drow" based on the idea that the drow were "streaming out of the darkness at an alarming rate".
Most of the action took place late in the year, beginning with the six-book War of the Spider Queen (2002-2005) novel series, which debuted with Richard Lee Byers' Dissolution (2002) in July. Wizards also co-opted the newest Drizzt Do'Urden novel, The Thousand Orcs (2002), into the event, but it was likely a marriage of convenience. The Thousand Orcs premiered in October.
On the RPG side of things, Dragon #298 (August 2002) led the way with "Dark Elves Evil Unleashed", an issue full of drow material including a Living Greyhawk look at D3: "Vault of the Drow" (1978). It was followed in September by City of the Spider Queen (2002) itself — the other major element of the event besides War. A City of the Spider Queen Miniatures Boxed Set (2002) in September complemented the adventure. Then Dungeon #94 (September/October 2002) finished things up with a final linked adventure. These publications were paired with roleplaying material on the website. It ran the gamut from an article on "drow pets" to a full (short) adventure, "Test of the Demonweb" (2002). Most of this online material also appeared late in the year, with "Test" being published on October 26th.
Wizards' short-lived Chainmail Miniatures Game (2001-2002) also participated in the event. Wizards dated this crossover to Chainmail Set 2: Blood and Darkness, an Underdark-focused expansion that appeared in January, but it was likely another after-the-fact inclusion. The real crossover came with Chainmail Set 4: Shadow of the Drow (2002) in July and Attack of the Drow: Kilsek Set 4 Faction Box (2002) in August, which together introduced the Kilsek drow of western Greyhawk. Wizards also released some drow blister packs over the course of the year, though the last few were canceled as Chainmail imploded, to be replaced by the D&D Miniatures Game (2003-2011). The drow-related Set 4 releases seem to have been partially caught in the implosion, as they appear today in very small quantities on the secondary markets.
By modern standards, Year of the Drow was a loose, unfocused event that was also pretty short, mainly running through the summer of 2002. However it was also an innovation. It returned to the crossovers of TSR's middle years, such as the Avatar crossover (1989), but moved them to a larger scale by embracing a thematic crossover rather than a specific event.
Wizards would produce more multimedia events of this sort in the '10s, including "Rise of the Underdark" (2012), which appeared precisely 10 years later and once more posited the drow attacking the surface world.
Origins (II): The War. City of the Spider Queen was one of the two cornerstones of the Year of the Drow event, alongside the War of the Spider Queen novels. The design and development team for City of the Spider Queen made sure the adventure connected with the novels, but they chose to make that connection a lighter one — not the straight adaptations of past projects such as Dragonlance (1984-1986), Avatar (1989), and the early Prism Pentad (1991-1993) novels.
To accomplish this, Wyatt focused the adventure on the same precipitating event as the novels: "Lolth has fallen silent". He then allowed the two stories to go in different directions, describing the reactions of different drow in different cities. Some further coordination was necessary to make sure the adventure didn't give away details of the later novels, but other than that Wyatt now had a free hand.
Origins (III): The Production. How long did it take to write an mega-adventure in the 3e era? Wyatt says that he began work on the adventure in June 2001 and finished on Thanksgiving Day, a total of almost six months. Developer Richard Baker contributed another six weeks of work, then editors Michele Carter and Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel spent another two months on the book. There was still final layout and production to be done; the book finally appeared 14 months after Wyatt began work.
Continuing the 3e Forgotten Realms. The 3e era (2000-2007) was not an adventure-heavy period for D&D. This was due to the dual belifs that: adventures didn't sell as well as sourcebooks; and third-party publishers would be creating adventures under the d20 trademark license. The main D&D line constrained its adventures to a single 8-book adventure path (2000-2002) and so it's no surprise that Forgotten Realms adventures also disappeared once the line proper got started with Monsters of Faerûn (2001) and Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (2001). (A few earlier adventures appeared before the Realms were consolidated as a line in 2001.)
There was just one exception: City of the Spider Queen. Being the only adventure for the official 3.0 Forgotten Realms line may have laid some weird expectations on the module: James Wyatt proudly states that he included "every new monster in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book (except the ordinary animals)".
Like most of the 3.0 edition Forgottne Realms books, City of the Spider Queen was produced as a softcover — albeit a pretty massive one at 160 pages.
Adventure Tropes. City of the Spider Queen is primarily a dungeon crawl. Or if you prefer, a crypt crawl, followed by an Underdark crawl, a ruins crawl, and a temple crawl. Some of these sections call back to the original "D" Descent series (1978). Part 2, in the Deep Wastes, is reminiscent of D1: "Descent into the Depths of the Earth", with its inclusion of episodic encounters in a larger Underdark. Part 3, in Maerimydra, seems like an even more purposeful response to D3: "Vault of the Drow" (1978) — but where adventurers in Gygax's original had to work through the tricky problem of interacting with a live drow city, invaders of Maerimydra are instead faced with adventuresome ruins.
Most players see City of the Spider Queen as a hack-and-slash adventure, but it's even more notable as a strong example of the rules-mastery focus of D&D 3e. The adventure is a tough one, requiring well-designed character who are organized into well-designed parties. Less than that can result in deadly encounters.
Exploring the Realms. The Underdark of the Realms had already been extensively detailed in past supplements like FOR2: The Drow of the Underdark (1991), Menzoberranzan (1992), and Drizzt Do'Urden's Guide to the Underdark (1999). However, City of the Spider Queen breaks new ground both with its extensive Underdark encounters and its depiction of the (fallen) drow city of Maerimydra — which had been mentioned on a drow city list back in Drow of the Underdark but had never received any detail. Some of this new material was later incorporated into the Underdark (2003) adventure
Early parts of the adventure also take place on the surface, providing some scant info on popular locations like Daggers Fall and Hillsfar.
Monsters of Note. The main monsters of City of the Spider Queen are of course the drow. Though the race had been overpowered back when it was introduced in AD&D 1e days, in D&D 3e it faced the opposite problem. Between a +1CR adjustment and a -2 CON penalty, drow could be quite weak. As Jesse Decker and David Noonan said in a later "Design & Development" columns: "At the point where I'm designing CR 3 drow with only 14 hit points, I'm asking myself, 'Are these guys going to survive into the second round?'" Wyatt solved the problem with an "amulet of dark blessing", which gave its wearer +24 hit points.
NPCs of Note. Everyone's second favorite drow deity, Kiaransalee, makes a minor appearance here. She has never returned to her 2e heights of defeating Orcus, but here her cultists try to fill the vacancy left by Lolth.
Future History. Dungeon #94 (September/October 2002) contains David Noonan's "Spiral of Manzessine" adventure, which was intended as a sidequest for City of the Spider Queen. Wizards also produced a web enhancement for the adventure on "Underdark Campaigns" (2002). A few years later, a web enhancement for Player's Guide to Faerûn (2004) offered a "Monster Update", which updates all the monsters in this adventure from 3.0 to 3.5.
About the Creators. James Wyatt started work for Wizards in 2000. He also authored The Speaker in Dreams (2001), an adventure for the D&D adventure path (2000-2002). However, City of the Spider Queen was what won him an Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure (2002).
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.