Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reminiscing with my Inner Grognard

There are two uses of the term "grognard" in use in the gaming community today. The first is an old-time wargamer, used to playing either with miniatures (I did Napoleonics in college) or with hex-and-counter wargames. The second is a more general term for people who've been playing RPG's for a very long time (which varies, but generally traces back to at least the 1980's). Fortunately, I use the term without reservation, as I fall into both categories.

Before I came into RPGing (in fact, before I even knew what an RPG was) and long thereafter, I was an avid wargamer. The late lamented Avalon Hill and SPI game companies produced hundreds of excellent games in every period imaginable. World War II, World War III (in countless different variations), ancients, medieval, science fiction, fantasy; if it had an army on either side, there was probably a hex-and-counter wargame covering the conflict.

The first wargame I ever played was Tactics II. I discovered it at a friend's house when I was about 7 or 8 years old, and she and I tried to play. It was pathetic; rolling dice to move the counters like it was Monopoly or something. Finally her older brother took mercy on us and said "you're playing that wrong." I promptly borrowed the game, and proceeded to teach myself how to play properly one rule at a time. It was exhausting for someone with no real concept of the genre, especially whose most recent exposure to games was "Don't Break the Ice", but I persevered and eventually the world of wargames was laid open to me. I still hold a fondness for the stark simplicity of the rules for Tactics II. It (and the related Tactics and Blitzkreig) really laid the foundations for all the hex-and-counter wargames that followed (even if it did use squares rather than hexes). Zones of control, movement points, supply lines, and that ubiquitous Avalon Hill combat chart that conveniently converted combat strengths into manageable ratios for you. Everything was there. And, I might add, it was ripe for the creation of optional rules, which I produced in force. Some worked, some didn't. But it was all great fun.

I bought many wargames once I realized a) that they existed and b) I lived within driving distance of the Compleat Strategist in New York City (wheedling my parents to take me into Manhattan almost every weekend to visit that mecca of gaming, as well as Polk's Hobbies just around the corner, with its unlimited supply of Atlantic historical miniatures). But Avalon Hill's Afrika Corps got more of a workout than most. It shared the same sort of simple tactical/operational level rules as Tactics II, but the historical context gave it a depth that the other couldn't match, and the fact that the opposing forces were unequal, and were constantly changing based on an asymmetrical reinforcement schedule, made it a step up in challenge, forcing me to contend with such things for the first time. Rule of thumb; if the Germans don't win before the huge Allied reinforcements come in around 1943, they never will.

Invasion: America was the first SPI wargame I ever bought (on one of those trips into New York City, along with my best friend Tom, who bought World War 3 at the same time). Here was something a little different; a lot more special rules, much more complex scenarios, and once again my wee brain seemed to simply leap at the challenge. Here were the beginnings of randomized-strength units (the US militia units, which would usually get placed along the landing zones on the coast; what fun when some of them turned out to have a combat strength of zero) and, perhaps most importantly, multi-player capability. You could have up to four players; three of them (the Pan Asiatic League, European Socialist Union, and South American Union) ganging up on the good ol' USA and Canada. I was especially taken by the designer's notes; here, finally, was an insight into the mind of the folks who were actually creating these games I loved so much. A subscription to the SPI magazine (and game-of-the-month) Strategy and Tactics soon followed, as did a ton of SPI titles like Next War, Prestags, Sinai, Revolt in the East, and...

War in Europe. The quintessential monster-game that set the stage for all the rest. It was actually a combination of two monster-games in their own right; War in the West and (predictably) War in the East. They eventually came out with an expansion/companion game that covered World War I. This thing was indeed immense. A map of Europe that measured maybe 6' x 6'. Units were usually divisions, but some Russian corps and other regiments and brigades were represented as well. Rail movement, production (with those wonderfully psychedelic production spiral charts), an abstract air war both tactical and strategic, special rules for all sorts of units, really involved supply rules, political effects (one of the things Germany would always do is overrun a few extra small countries to bring Spain and Turkey into the war), having to juggle a vast array of forces on multiple fronts... This was not a game to either learn or play in an afternoon. My friend Tom dismantled his electric train set so we could set the map up in his basement and play over the course of a couple of months. I would alternately have it set up for months on end in my (really large) bedroom, or set it up on the wall and keep the counters up using blu-tac (which worked remarkably well until the day the map fell down and my floor was covered with German divisions). We played this all the time, not only the campaign but also the smaller scenarios (most of which centered on the Eastern Front, unsurprisingly). A true classic of the genre.

I could go on for hours about these sorts of games, and there are literally dozens of favorites I haven't mentioned here. Avalon Hill's Dune is still probably the best-balanced game I've ever played, given that the forces are all completely asymmetrical in abilities. Diplomacy goes without saying, and Kingmaker also saw its fair share of play late into the night. Among the hundreds that graced my shelf were Fulda Gap, Next War, Mechwar, Squad Leader, Starfleet Battles (and, in my mind, the far superior offering from FASA; their Starship Tactical Combat Simulator-- those miniatures were amazing!), OGRE/GEV (which I still play to this day, both counters and minis), and the truly fun Creature that Ate Sheboygan.

Unfortunately, most of the games in my once-vast collection are no more, lost to various moves and the various vicissitudes of time. Every once in a while, as I scan through eBay, I see one of my old favorites and put in a lowball bid, hoping to catch a bargain. Once in a while it works, and I get to revel in a little bit more of my childhood, and reminisce about battles long since past.

Implied Society in AD&D

For years I've felt that there are some societal structures hard-coded into the AD&D rules, in particular the class system. While it is certainly possible to bend and twist things around to create a campaign world that bucks these otherwise built-in strictures (Dark Sun comes to mind), it's very difficult to do without either scrapping and/or adding classes from the standard mix. I think it is because of this that so many of the published campaign worlds (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) seem somewhat of a similar mold, and it should be pointed out that one of the most successful to buck that trend, Dragonlance, does so by precisely taking out classes (clerics) and shuffling around some of the powers of those that they retain.

Take, for example, druids. We are told exactly how many druids there are, the details of their heirarchy, the process for selecting their leaders, and so forth. They are deemed a sub-class of clerics, but are clearly practitioners of a different faith than the standard cleric, with spells not only having a different emphasis but a different origin as well. You can certainly make a world in which druids function differently, but they would most likely not be the same druids.

Thieves and assassins are in a somewhat similar boat; campaign worlds are simply expected to have Thieve's Guilds, a Grandfather of Assassins, etc. Take them out (or change them) and the classes becomes either weakened (if there are no guilds; no support structure to counterbalance the forces of the local law) or at the very least changed. A "standard" AD&D campaign should have provision for druidic circles, assassin's guilds, bardic colleges, etc.

The "typical" cleric is another case in point. Many others have written about the quandry of having priests of different deities having almost precisely the same powers. A cleric of Thor is pretty much the same as a cleric of Osiris, who is the same as a cleric of Lolth, down to weapons restrictions and spell selection. This is a function of the origin of the cleric class in D&D coming from the tales of Roland and so forth, and is somewhat mitigated by affording clerics of certain deities some bonuses or other changes (clerics of Trithereon being able to use a spear, for example) or custom spells.

But when it comes down to it, the cleric class as presented implies a generic version of the medieval Christian church. Holy water, holy symbols (which were, iirc, explicitly crosses in the original D&D booklets), the very spells themselves (with their clear inspiration from both Biblical sources as well as miracles ascribed to Christian saints) all bespeak of a watered-down Christianity in a somewhat medieval mold. By rights, a cleric of Lolth should look absolutely nothing like a cleric of Blibdoolpoolp, and yet there they are, each with mace in hand casting cure light wounds.

Later editions attempted to get around this problem, but ineffectively, at least to my mind. (Second Edition's class kits were possibly the best attempt, but they have their own idiosyncracies.) The bottom line is that there are certain things implicit in the design of the cleric that point to all clerics sharing the same faith, and point to at least how that faith should "feel". A "standard" AD&D campaign should, by implication, have but a single faith for clerics to belong to (which does not necessarily mean a single unified church; a campaign could certainly have its versions of the Protestants and Catholics).

Personally, I think the answer is to come up with unique classes for priests of each faith, but that could turn into an enormous undertaking (although in my own Greyhawk campaign, I have been giving some thought to how an "imam" class would work for the Baklunish lands as a substitute for Suel/Oeridian/Flan clerics).

These assumptions could well have sprung from the original Greyhawk campaign, or were incorporated into the campaign after they had been written down as rules; I am unsure of which came first. But someone wanting to put together a "standard" campaign needs to take these implications into account, or they will run into problems as your high-statted fighter who multi-classed to thief starts wondering where to find the local bardic colleagues, and when your monk gets high enough in level to start looking for the Grand Master of Flowers for a one-on-one...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Witch Preview #3: Familiar Names


Below are a representative sampling of names that can be used for familiars and other otherworldly servitors of witches.

1. Able
2. Beelzebub
3. Bessie Bald
4. Bessie Rule
5. Fancy
6. Griezzell Greedigutt
7. Holt
8. Ilemauzar
9. Jarnara Sacke
10. Mak Hector
11. Newes
12. Peck-in-the-crown
13. Pickle Nearest
14. Pyewackett
15. Red Reaver
16. Robert the Jacks
17. Rorie
18. Stowt
19. Sugar
20.Thomas A Fearie
23.Vinegar Tom

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Film Review:The Dark Knight

Loved it.

I'll try to make this as spoiler-free as I can.

Let's get the bad out of the way so I can keep on gushing about the good. I found Heath Leger's performance to be exceptional, but not quite the "oh-my-god-movies-are-forever-transformed" experience that the hype has indicated. The Joker got a little preachy in places; he talked just a tad too much about his philosophy. I would have preferred that his motives were a little more opaque. Certainly not a deal-breaker, though. Two-Face was wasted, in my opinion. Why, oh why do they insist in squeezing multiple villains into these movies? They had set up the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character so well that he could have carried the entire next movie; if you didn't see any more of him after the scene in the hospital, it would have been just as good a movie. Better, perhaps. Alas. The soundtrack was good, but not exactly compelling. And I wish they could have dressed up Chicago (where the movie was filmed) a little more to make it less Chi-town and more Gotham. I like a more... Gothic... Gotham. This could have been any city, and the generic feel of the city detracted from the overall feel of the film. And why does Batman need to growl every line he has?

And now the good.

Heath Leger is as good as folks have been saying. He truly redefined the role from the Jack Nicholson interpretation. This is the Joker from "Killing Joke" rather than "Laughing Fish".
Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are brilliant as Lucius Fox and Alfred as they were in the first movie. It has a lot of commentary to make relevant to the current tension between individual liberties and the necessity of gathering information to thwart terrorism (as well as the practice of "extraordinary rendition" of suspects in other countries), and I think they managed to work it in without being completely ham-handed about it. They resisted the impulse to do a big special-effects-laden chase until 90 minutes into the film, and while it was obvious that it was an obligatory scene, it fitted well into the plot and feel of the film as a whole. The suspense was incredibly well set-up, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they were able to make the audience really like and connect with the characters. I found myself really *caring* what happened to them in the final scenes, and that is a hard trick to accomplish. Very unexpected character death; well done. And the magic trick with the pencil is just... priceless. "Presto!" Hehehehe.

Perhaps what I liked most about this movie was the fact that Batman is hardly in it. It's not a "comic book movie" or a "superhero movie". It's a gangster / crime movie that happens to have a few extraordinary characters in it. It has that vibe, and I loved it.

Oh, and I saw a couple of people who brought their very young children to see it. I think, with my own seven-year-old daughter who loves both Batman and the Joker (ever since she "saw him" in person at the Shore Leave costume contest two years ago) as the benchmark, that it is definitely not a suitable film for young kids to see. The Two Face effect is creepy enough, but the Joker manages to pull off some definitely disturbing things, even if they cut away just before the blood, and I can really see it instigating some nightmares in young minds. I won't be letting my daughter see this for a few years at least.

I'll definitely be seeing it again, and I am officially spoiled when it comes to the Michael Keaton films. This one expands the milieu so much, and notches up the emotion and power inherent in the characters and setting, that the older films look cartoonish by comparison (and I mean the first ones, not the later more campy ones).

Give it four stars out of five.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Witch Class Preview: Evil Eye

Evil Eye (Conjuration/Summoning) Reversible

Level: 1

Components: S, (M)

Range: 30’

Casting Time: 1 segment

Duration: 1 day/level

Saving Throw: Neg.

Area of Effect: 1 person

Explanation/Description: One of the most famous of all witcheries is the evil eye. The unfortunate person struck by this evil is struck by one of the following effects (the caster chooses):

BAD LUCK — Recipient receives a -5% or -1 (whichever is appropriate) in any circumstance which relies on chance, including gambling, use of thief abilities, chances of random encounters, etc.

ILLNESS — Recipient is 25% more likely to acquire disease or infection (see AD&D, DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE). If already ill, there is a 5% chance the illness will last to maximum duration.

IMPOTENCE — Recipient is incapable of sexual intercourse (if male) or conceiving a child (if female). If the recipient is already pregnant, the evil eye will result in a 10% chance of miscarriage.

The effects of the evil eye are not cumulative. The evil eye can be dispelled by a remove curse spell. The reverse of the spell is used to remove the evil eye from someone already afflicted.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Dark Knight: Pre-Review

I am a huge fan of Batman, although I've never bought a single DC comic book.

I watched the old ABC show in syndication as a kid, not really understanding until later that it was supposed to be a comedy. But once I saw the first Michael Keaton movie, with that wonderful Jack Nicholson Joker, I was hooked. Then Batman: The Animated Series came out, and its sequels and associated spin-offs, and I was loving every minute of it. Hell, I even still watch Batman and Robin (the last, awful one with Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy), because it does have a couple of redeeming moments.

I absolutely adored the restart of the franchise with Christian Bale, and have been looking forward to the sequel The Dark Knight with great anticipation. I have been scouring the web for reviews, and haven't seen a bad one.

Until now.

Stephanie Zacharek at seems to have a bit of an issue with the film, as she did with its predecessor, and if you go through some of her other reviews, you'll be treated to an incredibly condescending view from atop the Ivory Tower (which assuredly doesn't exist in Gotham City). Hell, she didn't even like the inescapably terrific WALL-E. Her liberal/feminist credentials come out in full force in her reviews, and it's sad, given that she is supposed to be giving opinions about films, not about how they interact with her particular socio-political views.

I'll have a full review of The Dark Knight after I see it this weekend. I cannot wait to see Ms. Zacharek's review of the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. Dollars to donuts she uses the phrase "I'm conflicted" at least once.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wisdom of the Eternal Great Gamemaster

It is less constraining to create an adventure without attempting to make it such as the explanation for it will suit virtually all campaigns. That is a no-no these days, and an author is castigated for not treating GMs as unimaginative and non-creative clods whose hand must be held at all times. Rather akin to how some think players' characters must be coddled in regards to perils in adventuring. --Gary Gygax on EnWorld, March 2007.

If anything describes the old-school approach to commercial adventure (and setting) design, that does.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

DMing into the Depths of the Oerth, Part III 1/2

I had what I consider a much more interesting plan for the conclusion of the G-D series, one in which the PC party could loose the Elder Elemental god or send him into deeper isolation, thus assisting Lolth to become more powerful. By very astute play, they could have thwarted the designs of both evil entities. The Demonweb Pits were indeed envisioned as maze like, but there were to be no machines therein. -- Gary Gygax on EnWorld, August 2006

My outline for the whole was for a demi-plane outside of the Abyss, a great spiderweb with encounters at junctions along the way to the center, Lolth's abode there in the middle. The PCs would need to gather pieces of an artifact based on the four elements in the web in order to be able to face the demoness and send her packing back to the abyss. Of course, that would have called back the Elder Elemental God from his place of banishment... -- Gary Gygax on EnWorld, June 2006

Before I even start this, repeat this in your mind, over and over. "The Elder Elemental God was not ever, ever, worshiped in the Temple of Elemental Evil." I'm going to delve into a bit of obscure Greyhawk lore here, and it will be much easier to digest if you keep that simple fact in mind. Now to the case at hand...

I will eventually get around to a full-blown treatment of module Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but I found the above quotes as part of my research for the Greyhawk Lore project, and found them just too chock-full of implications to let pass by.

First off, it gives a much more logical reason for the PC's to visit the Demonweb pits. They're not there to fight against Lolth (as in the published version of Q1), but rather to hurl the Elder Elemental God (about whom I have written previously) even further into obscurity (presumably blocking the Eilservs faction from receiving higher-level clerical spells from it) and possibly thwarting the demonness Lolth into the bargain.

That, of course, implies that the Elder Elemental God does, in fact, exist; not a ploy of the priests of Tharizdun, as was posited in the quite forgettable module Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Earlier, Gygax had said that he envisioned "a link between the Drow modules and the ToEE, mainly in my head, and after Q1 came out I rather lost interest in developing the former, as the EEG was not released from his banishment to a distant star (ala Set). I would have devised some other scenario to accomplish that..."

Remember that in the "Secret History of the Temple" in T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil, we are told that "many drow visited the Temple after its fall" and were responsible for some of its denizens turning to the worship of Lolth.

So, in the original Gygaxian conception...

1) The Elder Elemental God is banished to a distant star
2) An artifact that could release it from said banishment is in pieces in Lolth's demiplane outside the Abyss
3) There's a connection between the Elder Elemental God and the Temple of Elemental Evil; the latter related to the release of the former from banishment (yes, I am aware of the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil module, but let us leave it aside for now).

Could Lolth possibly have had something to do with the banishment/ imprisonment of the Elder Elemental God in the first place? Why else would she be in possession of the key to its release? Perhaps there was an ancient rivalry for the loyalty of the dark elves somewhere in the depths of history.

Now, the natural inclination as to why the drow were visiting the Temple of Elemental Evil is because it was, at its heart, a cult of the Elder Elemental God. But recall my plea at the beginning of this article; that idea flies in the face of what we are told in the module itself, that the idea of "elemental evil" was a sham concocted by Zuggtmoy and Iuz because it had more potential for recruitment than Zuggtmoy's "beloved fungi". Clearly the force behind "Elemental Evil" is not the "Elder Elemental God", despite the fact that both have the word "elemental" in their name. But how to explain those drow?

Well, quite obviously, those were not drow of the Eilservs faction. If they were, they would not be in the business of persuading the remaining temple faithful to worship Lolth. And let us not forget that Lolth is putting her webby digits into the pie as well; she has apparently taken an interest in Lareth the Beautiful, master of the moathouse and the "dark hope of chaotic evil". They were, in fact, the Lolth-faction of the drow. Perhaps their intent was to seek a counterbalance to the surface influence of the Eilservs? Were they perhaps even responsible for Lareth's rise to prominence?

We are still left with a connection, in the original Gygaxian idea, between the Elder Elemental God and the Temple of Elemental Evil. What the heck could it be? Could it, just perhaps, be that the Elder Elemental God was looking to thwart the machinations of Lolth, and her expansion in the area? There is a certain symmetry to the idea. In G1-D3, we have the forces of the Elder Elemental God seeking to expand their power in the Depths by gaining power in the surface world. Once the Lolth-faction started to do the same thing, could not the Elder Elemental God, now freed (presumably by the incautious actions of the PC's in the Demonweb Pits), not seek to do thwart them as it itself was thwarted? The mind reels.

Man, if I ever run Hommlet again, it'll be a very different experience.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Savage Worlds

I've heard excellent things about the game "Savage Worlds" by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. It looks to be a very rules-light, setting-heavy game which plays very fast and relies a lot on the game master to resolve potentially complex situations with the very minimalist rules systems that it provides. Sound familiar?

I bought the rulebook today and have spent much of the afternoon reading through it. One enterprising fellow over on Pinnacle's web forums (curiously called the Great White Games forums, a company which is mentioned in the rulebook but whose relationship to Pinnacle seems to be somewhat nebulous at first glance) has already set about the task of converting Greyhawk to the SW system.

I've not actually played or GM'ed the system, so I cannot pretend to give a review here. But based on what I've seen in the rules, I like it. It gives the GM a lot of freedom, but under the rubric of a generic and universal system. It's not class-based at all, and the leveling system is rudimentary, but that's intentional. After all, the designers were going for quick and adaptable, not trying to make a 0E/1E emulator. And yet, in taking the approach they did, they do seem to have captured some of the wide-open feel of the very oldest games. My inner jury is still out, and I doubt that I'd use this particular system for Greyhawk (which, to my mind, wouldn't be the same without a Vancian magic system and a more developed leveling structure, which seems to be necessary for the sort of megadungeon environment that Greyhawk embodies), but I might well find this an ideal system for some other games I've had lurking about in the back of my mind. I've been wanting to do a wild west game ever since I saw "The Magnificent Seven" for the first time a couple of months ago. And a mafia-like crime game. Mad Scientist Tries to Take Over the World seems like a natural for this game.

Those, of course, would be limited in scope, rather than years-long campaigns. And maybe that's the best fit for something like Savage Worlds. When you need a break from (or something to go alongside) your traditional game of choice, the plethora of settings and adventures available for Savage Worlds might be just the ticket.

Plus it's got a wide-open license for fan products that are not sold for profit. Seems like they're pretty lenient with for-profit professional licenses, too, as long as they have decent production values. I like that sort of corporate spirit. They gave one to the Evil DM, as a matter of fact!

I might very well put a game together in some non-fantasy genre. If and when that happens, I'll report back here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

DMing into the Depths of the Oerth, Part 3

CAUTION: This series of articles contains many spoilers concerning the modules D1-3 and should only be read by DMs and those players who will not be actually playing through the series at any time in the future. Failure to observe this caution will lead to a marked lack of enjoyment in the adventures.

D3: The Vault of the Drow

Ah, the masterpiece. It gave us our first comprehensive look at the Drow, and was thus the inspiration for all the work that followed, Drizzt Do'Urden included. The pinnacle (or nadir, perhaps) of the work is the drow city Erelhei Cinlu, the ultimate inspiration for Ed Greenwood's creation Menzoberranzan. It is the last module in the series that Gary Gygax created, and found by many to be vastly superior to the final module in the series, Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits (although more about that later). Even the cover (of the monochrome version) is evocative; an evil High Priestess, curved dagger held aloft, is about to send a soul to Lolth (who is hovering overhead) atop a pile of skulls while a Mezzodaemon looks on. Priceless.

There are three minor encounters that lead to the city of the Drow, but in truth only one of them is really necessary to penetrate the capital of the dark elves, and surely if the party has by this time made allies of the subterranean dwellers here, they will know this. (Although it is interesting to note that on the players' map, the second encounter area does not exist; it merely shows a tertiary passage. Surprise!)

Speaking of the players' map, the glyphs that are marked thereupon should not be overlooked, especially as some of them repeat. The map itself is gained in module G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, and if the PC's are clever in figuring out the clues, they will profit. Three of the are marked with eyes, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The first one was a Drow checkpoint, manned by soldiers. The second is the major cavern in D1, which contains, well, a Drow checkpoint, manned by soldiers. Any guesses as to what the third one will contain? If nothing else, the PC's should put together the fact that there are Drow in the first two encounters, and expect to see them in the third. And encounter them they do.

The main path to the Drow city is a gatehouse, for want of a better word, manned by dozens of Drow soldiers. PC's which have figured out that infiltration tactics work best here will probably have some sort of plan already in place to get past such obstacles, posing as merchants, prisoners, allies, or somesuch. They might have some of the Drow clan emblems, and could bluff their way through the encounter. The DM should allow and even encourage such tactics on the part of the PC's! As I've stressed, it's the best (and perhaps only) way the party can conceivably succeed here. Needless to say, the DM must afford the party the chance to do so here. This is not a combat encounter unless the PC's want it to be! The Drow may very well be on alert for the party (depending on how they have comported themselves hitherto), in which case the sentries and their officers will afford them a much greater level of scrutiny than they otherwise might. A very paranoid group of PC's, seeing the Drow fortification, might even decide to split up and approach it hours apart, figuring the Drow would be looking for a group of eight, rather than two groups of four. The DM should absolutely reward such thinking.

The second encounter area is interesting because it is the only one that is not marked on the players' map. Silussa and her lover have set a bit of a trap for those who want to approach the Drow city via the less-used path. It's a fairly standard set-piece encounter, and one that could be theoretically transported into any setting or dungeon. But note that there is no explanation of the relationship of Silussa and Belgos and the regular Drow establishment; herein lies the path to greatness for a seemingly pedestrian encounter.

Do the Drow of Erelhei-Cinlu know of the cavern so close to their doorstep? How could they not? Why do they allow them to dwell here? Do they value their use as guardians of the "end run" around the standard gateway? Let us not forget that there are many factions within the Drow realm itself. Are Silussa and Belgos allied with the Eilservs faction or the Lolth faction? We know nothing, which leaves the DM free to answer those questions as they best serve his or her own campaign. Is Silussa a servant of Lolth? That could yield some very interesting possibilities, if she finds out that the party is there to thwart the ambitions of the Eilservs (rivals of the worshipers of Lolth, remember). And just what clan did Belgos belong to before he died? That could be vastly significant as well. Again, for the alert DM, there are many possibilities that could turn this seemingly-pedestrian encounter into one which drives the plot forward and is a potential source of either great aid or great hassle for the PC's.

The third encounter area really doesn't lend itself to a furtherance of the plot line, and seems to be included as another way that the PC's can find their resources taxed. Nasty spiders, and a potentially nasty treasure at the end. Given the geography of the map, if the players waste their time getting here, they deserve to get pummeled. It's a classic distraction/drain encounter, and the DM should milk it as such.

We now come to the Vault itself. One interesting note on the geography of the Vault; it is a dead-end, except for the river. No tunnels lead to it other than those stemming from the first (and second) encounter areas. It's a strategic cul-de-sac. I would infer that makes the river all the more valuable as a transportation artery from an economic point of view, and will have a bit to expand on that later. But perhaps it says something of the psychology or geopolitical calculations of the Drow that they would choose to locate their city in a place that was so inaccessible.

This is a module that really rewards a lot of prep work on the part of the DM. A full-blown city map of Erelhei-Cinlu would not be remiss. Bear in mind that the streets are regularly patrolled, but the back alleys are as dangerous as any dungeon. The place is more than a mile in length, and boasts a population of some 25,000 individuals, making it the equal or envy of many cities above ground.

Once the PC's arrive here, they are likely to encounter the inevitable question. "Why are we here?" The answer to that hinges on the question of whether or not they have figured out that only a single faction of the Drow was responsible for the deprivations of the giants, and whether or not they know which one it was. If they still think "the Drow are behind the giants, and we should stop them" then they have effectively declared war on the entire city. Wish them luck, and I hope they have 4d6 handy to roll up new characters.

Every encounter should reinforce the notion that the Drow are riven with division. That doesn't mean that there are allies on every side-- quite the reverse. The Drow version of the old saying could well be stated as "the enemy of my enemy is my tool." Every encounter with a bunch of rakes or a patrol of the Servants of Lolth should be a prime opportunity for the DM to have an NPC make a point of a clan pin pointing to inferior stock, or some ancient rivalry.

It should never be forgotten that the political situation among the Drow is not obvious. House Eilservs was behind the uprising of the giants, as a way of gaining power once their ambitions in the Vault were thwarted. Once the priestesses of Lolth turned against them, they in turn abandoned the worship of Lolth and took up that of the Elder Elemental God (more about whom can be found here).

That sets up a whole dynamic of rivalries, mixed in with religious animosities, which is explained in fair detail in D3. It must be stressed that the DM must give some opportunities for the PC's to get involved in those conflicts, as a way of resolving their own mission. Hiring on to the Eilservs is probably out of the question unless they do so through a third party (and wouldn't THAT be a difficult game to play-- almost more fun than rescuing a bunch of FARC hostages in Columbia), but not impossible.

One can hope that after a short time in the Vault the party will figure out that there is more than one faction amongst the Drow, and that they aren't all behind the giants' campaign on the surface. (Hopefully they will have picked up on enough of the DM's clues that they will have already figured that out before even getting to the Vault.) But even if they do, there are two possibilities that the DM must be prepared for:

1) "We need to stop the Eilservs once and for all, to halt their ambitions against the surface world"

2) "We need to stop the Drow once and for all, because they are evil and are ultimately a threat to the surface world."

The first attitude bears with it the implication that the Drow factions can be parleyed with, and used against other Drow factions. The second attitude implies that the party should be looking for some way to collapse the Vault itself. Think of all the x.p. from killing 25,000 Drow! (For the record, if any DM allows this to happen, he is entitled to a free cock-punch.)

The module, of course, implies the first option. If the PC's seriously contemplate the second, the DM should not forget that the Drow will mobilize against a threat to them all across all faction lines, and in such a case they should be dead in short order. The party can try the second, but unless the DM is being uncommonly generous, it should fail.

Which brings us to the whole question of Lolth's role in this module, and thus the role of Q1. Since Lolth's minions were never a part of the plot to incite the giants to action, it stands to reason that there would not be a reason to visit the Abyss to confront Lolth. If anything, the PC's should be Lolth's allies, at least in the limited sense of opposing the Eilservs. "The enemy of my enemy is my tool," so goes the saying...

I firmly believe that there is no reason to include a trip to the Abyss to confront Lolth. The PC's can achieve their goals (stopping the force behind the giants) by simply trashing the Eilservs and their allies. In fact, the adherents of Lolth might actually help them in doing so, since the Eilservs and the Lolth-worshippers are enemies within the Drow culture.

As DM you must play into all the politics, factionalism, and so forth that the module implies. At the same time, you must allow your players to use that to their advantage. Do so, and you and your players will have a grand time. All the political set-up in the world doesn't mean anything if the PC's can't make use of it.