17
\$\begingroup\$

I have been working on a custom campaign setting for D&D 5e for a while now, and one of the key themes of the setting is "the races aren't what you think they are at first glance".

The drow in particular are not the standard Forgotten Realms drow. They're nomadic, caravan-forming, heat-averse desert dwellers. They're charismatic with strong written, musical, and dance traditions. They're not light-sensitive nor are they evil, but they still use poisons, albeit like modern rat-poison, not sleep poison or paralytic. They engage in peace and trade, have magical affinity, and navigate by the stars.

However, they still revere spiders strongly, and have domesticated some ground-hunting spider species for vermin control and as enormous pets, so a deity whose imagery is based around spiders makes sense for them to have. Furthermore, hunting/war, eternal vigilance, healing and magic, and defending freedom and the weak are the main themes I am working with, considering the roles spiders play in their society as protectors of food stores and wardens against disease; furthermore, they already have deities of the sun (Pelor, covering Life and Light), of trickery and the arts (including weaving and stories) (Olidammara, due to bards being common among them, and covering Trickery), and of the stars (Celestian, covering Knowledge). Rites include insect-offerings and dances while small, unattended shrines are commonplace in their homeland.

So, I ask: how would I make make the lore and imagery communicate to the PCs that this Chaotic Good spider-god is clearly distinct from Lolth, to the point where my players do not jump to the (wrong and quite detrimental) conclusion that these drow are also Lolth-worshippers, with all the Evil-aligned baggage that deity entails, upon seeing spider-themed religious images for the first time? I do wish to communicate this in-character for the sake of immersion, and also as a "backstop" for players who may not pay full attention to out-of-character cues.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ ...is it just me, or are all the posted answers not actually answering the question? They focus on how to create a new, distinct diety but if I'm reading this correctly, that's not the problem; the problem is how to keep the players from jumping to conclusions and slaughtering all the Drow because "spider = Llolth = evil". \$\endgroup\$ – Sandalfoot Sep 8 '15 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Edited and reopened. I think a large number of people were unclear about what you were trying to get. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Sep 8 '15 at 23:13
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused. You're deliberately making a setting where things regularly aren't what they seem on first glance, but you want to avoid misleading your players with these things. What is your goal? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 9 '17 at 12:57
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe -- I want them to be open to exploring said new things, not completely misled to the point of murderhoboism. \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Jun 9 '17 at 22:16
23
\$\begingroup\$

Some common “spider” tropes to consider, based on various attributes of spiders; many of these can be played up and portrayed in a positive light.

Web Weaving

Probably the most noted characteristic of spiders is their (mostly) unique ability to spin webs. Spider silk is tremendously strong for its weight (to the point that modern attempts have been made to domesticate spiders for the purpose of harvesting the silk), and the webs that spiders produce are often beautiful.

Spiders as artisans

The most direct association with web-weaving is to that of craftsmanship. A spider god as artisan god is no great stretch, and the beauty, strength, and utility of spider webs makes for a solid demonstration of the association.

In real-world folklore, the story of Arachne is probably the most famous. In Ovid’s version of the tale, following typical Greek tropes, Arachne was punished for her hubris, but even the enraged and humiliated Athena left her able to continue her beautiful weaving. In another, Athena does win the contest, and by the rules Arachne could never again touch a loom or spindle again: there, Athena transforms her into a spider so she could continue weaving without a loom or spindle; a consolation prize.

Spiders associated with fate

Because weaving is associated with fate (specifically, the Fates of Greek mythology), and spiders with weaving, it is no great stretch to associate spiders with fate. I am not aware of any real-life folklore that makes such an association, but the opportunity is certainly ripe and should resonate with players aware of both “the tapestry of fate” and spiders’ weaving.

As noted below, spiders (and their venom) are associated with assassination, which is itself often associated with fate (cf. religious assassins acting as the hands of fate).

Spiders associated with stories

Weaving doesn’t have to be literal: we often speak of weaving tales and stories. The careful, crafty nature of a spider is also a good metaphor for the way a storyteller spins a story (and the choice of verb here is very much intentional).

From real-world folklore, Anansi is an African god of stories. He’s smart and clever, and is one of the most important gods in that tradition. Particularly in the Caribbean, he is associated with slave resistance and survival. Definitely a possibility for a CG god.

I’m not overly familiar with the real-world folklore surrounding Anansi (having only just read the Wikipedia page), but for an interesting portrayal of the character, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys deals with him (though he is not the central character of either). Good reads.

Spiders as mages

Like stories, spells are often described as woven. Spiders are also frequently associated with secrets and arcane knowledge, which obviously fit hand-in-hand with spellcasting.

For instance, spellweavers in D&D itself are eight-limbed (two legs, six arms) humanoids with considerable mastery of spellcraft. The association with spiders should be apparent.

Venom

All spider species, save for one family that lost its venom glands over the course of evolution (262 species out of appoximately 40,000), produce venom of some kind, and almost all actively use it in predation or self-defense. Most spiders are strictly predatory, though new research has revealed that plant matter is involved in the diets of a fair few species and access to plant-based food sources improves their longevity.

Spiders as healers

Spider venom can have medicinal properties, and spiders have been associated with potion brewing and the like. Furthermore, because of spiders’ associations with knowledge and secrets, a spider might very well be the place to go for the secret remedy to an ailment.

For a real-world context, I’m actually going to draw a parallel between spiders, and another famously-venomous animal: the snake. Snakes have long, in our world, been associated with medicine; one of the most well-known symbols of medicine is the Rod of Asclepius, a staff with a snake wrapped around it. Perhaps for this culture, in this world, that association fell to the spider rather than the snake: after all, only some snakes have venom, but (almost) every spider does.

Spiders as freedom fighters, defenders of the downtrodden

Venom is, in many ways, an equalizer: a way for a smaller, weaker target to defend itself from a larger, stronger foe. That is how many spiders use their venom, and it has historically been an aspect of poison for humans as well. Some historians have even posited that the negative association of poison, above and beyond other lethal weapons like swords, has as much to do with it being a threat against the establishment (who can protect themselves against more visible threats).

Thus, in a smaller, weaker race, spiders may be seen as mentors and guides, cunning tricksters who know how to best stronger foes. Anansi, mentioned above regarding storytelling, is this; in the Caribbean he is celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance. Mephala, mentioned below in the section on assassins, is also, the daedra who taught the dunmer how to protect themselves and eliminate threats.

Spiders as assassins

An extremely common trope, though usually one of the stand-out “evil spider” tropes, poison’s use in assassination and the well-known venom of several spider species makes for a very frequent pairing.

That said, positive portrayals of assassins exist in fiction. The concept of carefully eliminating one source of evil, killing one to save a thousand, etc., shows up from time to time. Definitely a controversial sort of good, and probably not enough to justify a Good label for a spider goddess in the eyes of players, it’s still worth considering, perhaps as a darker facet of a generally-wholesome goddess; even Good needs to go to war sometimes in D&D.

Furthermore, many somewhat-positive portrayals of assassins show them as being agents of fate. Again, due to the whole tapestry of fate thing, spiders fit into this motif exceedingly well.

For an example, I’m going to point to the Morag Tong of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, where the traditional assassins’ guild is a cult to Mephala, a daedric “goddess” who is revered in both the traditional daedric cults of the dunmer and in the Tribunal religion that dominates the province in the time of the game. Daedra certainly aren’t good, but the dunmer generally viewed her positively – Mephala taught the dunmer how to defend themselves and destroy their enemies. During the time of the game, the Morag Tong was effectively the way in which battles between the Great Houses were fought, rather than open conflict; this was seen as saving many lives and much destruction. Compared to the Dark Brotherhood and Cammona Tong, the Morag Tong definitely has a more positive portrayal in the game.

Living in darkness

Spiders are one of the most immediate “creatures of darkness” in the human mind, along with bats. While certainly something played up quite a lot in negative portrayals and associations of spiders, it can have positive aspects too.

Spiders and secrets

Spiders are often associated with secrets and information-gathering. One does not need to look far for a spymaster called “The Spider” or similar. Varys in A Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind first for me, but he’s not alone.

Secrets are often dark, and those who trade in them often depicted as sleazy; Varys is certainly such an example. And yet no one would discount the importance of secrets, and to many cultures, particularly fictional ones, secrecy may be critical to survival. Certainly the Elder Scrolls dunmer, mentioned above, appreciated Mephala’s ability to keep them hidden.

Secrets also tie into both spellcasting and stories; Anansi, the spider god of stories above, is also god of secrets.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ +1. Very cool writeup. I am pretty sure that GoT Varys is called "The Spider" due to another trope associated with spiders. One you didn't mention. Casting the wide net and sitting in it's center and knowing when something touches it. It overlaps with weaving, knowing sevrets, etc., but I feel that it could be distinct enough to merit it's own paragraph. \$\endgroup\$ – Nox Jul 7 '16 at 14:49
12
\$\begingroup\$

I think this problem lies not in the creation and attributes of the spider god, but rather how his players are going to interact with this world the DM has set up.

Teach them through experience

Your players need to understand first-hand that this world is different from the DnD they know (or perhaps that even their characters know [please let me know if their characters are native to this world]). To do this, you need to show them how different it is WITHOUT punishing them if they misunderstand. Let's look at video games for a good example. Many great video games often "explain" a gameplay technique by showing it to the player in a harmless or closed-off environment. For instance, if the game designer wants the player to understand that a certain type of platform will fall when stepped on, they force the player to interact with the platform in such a way that misunderstanding the platform the first time does not result in any negative consequences (at least not a lot). Then, they show you the real challenge after you've understood what they are. No one wants to be explicitly told how the game functions, they want to see it and do it themselves. You need to do the same for your party.

One way you can do this is by taking a commonly accepted good-aligned creature/god/creature-god and reversing it much in the same way you've done with your spider. Put them in a situation where they assume a village worshipping, for example, a unicorn is a good-aligned village. In actuality, they are an evil people. Make them understand that judging a book by its cover is not going to work here. Make it really obvious once they spend some time with these people that they are evil. Once they realize their mistake, force them into combat. That way, they can right their wrongs. We want the mistakes to be realized here in a closed environment; they can't un-kill the spider-worshipping people but they can un-be-nice to the evil people. Then, when they do interact with your spider-worshippers, make it really obvious how good they are. This can be suspicious on your part as a DM, but the tone of your voice and how you describe things can help in this.

If all else fails, let them know what their characters know

If they aren't asking the right questions, you can and should take the wheel at some point and let the players know what their characters might know. If their characters know that the spider-worshippers are good people but the players treat them as evil, you should interject if this is uncommon behavior for the character (like a lawful good paladin killing innocents on a hunch). This is less desirable because, as you said, you want it to be immersing to the players. However, this may be an acceptable "loss" to keep the story going properly.

One final caveat

As much as this is an adventure for you, it's even more so an adventure for them. If they really want to go off-rails and treat this world differently than you want them to, you're going to have to accept that. Don't push too hard against your players. It's your job as the DM to facilitate fun above all else.

\$\endgroup\$
10
\$\begingroup\$

Just tell them*

*Assuming your player characters are from this world, the drow aren't commonly viewed as evil, and Lolth doesn't actually exist in this world-or at very least that no one is going to confuse her with your spider goddess. If it's reasonable for the characters to think that the drow are all evil or that they worship evil Lolth, none of this answer applies

You say you want to do this in-character to avoid immersion issues, but this isn't an in-character issue. The characters who grew up in this world already know that "dark elves" aren't evil and that the spider goddess isn't sinister. The players don't know this, and can be expected to act based on out-of-character knowledge that isn't applicable here-this is "metagaming" in the negative sense. Therefore, you need to address your players rather than their characters. Tell them at the beginning that the drow aren't evil, and when they run into worshipers of the spider goddess remind them again that this isn't Lolth. Remind them again if they act like the drow are Forgotten Realms drow, and have NPCs respond appropriately if they persist.

Don't do it all at once

There's no need to go into the whole history of your world's dark elves and the worship of the spider queen with your players-that's likely to be boring and ineffective. Instead, just say that the drow aren't evil and the spider goddess is good. If they want or need to know more in-game, they can do so either through Intelligence(Religion) checks or by investigating in character.

\$\endgroup\$
7
\$\begingroup\$

Let's take Tuaregs as a real-life example.

Let's say your elves have a pastoralist lifestyle. I'm thinking cashemere goats for example.

Your goddess is normally depicted as a beautiful (beauty is generally percieved as good) elven woman (or maiden, also a good sign) with four arms and four legs. Clever players may notice that eight is the number of legs of arachnids.

She's threading wool with her left hands and holding water (water is life, moreso in a desert environment) in her upper right hand while the lower right is stretched out in an helping gesture.
There are extra eyes on her forehead, but her face is serene if not smiling.

Her portfolio is Craft, Protection, Water, Community, Healing, Animals... you name it.

She can be offering food or protecting food instead of holding water, your choice.

Her sacred spiders are white-ish or sandy yellow for camouflage; they are not black and poison doesn't drip from their fangs.
Not all spiders are poisonous, big snakes are not poisonous, big spiders may not be, or may have a bland poison. They don't need it. Make them strong, fast and able to make long jumps with powerful jaws like ants.
No dryders, no human sacrifices.

Write her an enemy, an evil scorpion (also an arachnid but always poisonous) god who plagues her people with sandstorms. This deity has half-human half-scorpion cult followers (maybe).

You mentioned unattended shrines: are the players coming in contact with this goddess through those shrines? Make one have a poem or a song engraved on it, as an offering from your not-so-dark elves to the goddess, in which she is described as bountiful.

Make the clerics female only (wink wink) and the holy symbol would obviously be a spider made of some rare stone found only in this particular desert. This symbol is embroided (woven) into their vests; add a white tattoo on the back of their hand.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ Correction: the common ancestors of all spiders was venomous, and thus all spiders, excepting one family that lost their venom through evolution, produce venom. Not all of them produce venom effective on humans, and only a very few produce venom dangerous to humans, but outside of that one exception (262 species out of the approximately 40,000 species overall) all spiders produce venom, and almost all actively use it in predation or self-defense. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 8 '15 at 20:46
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ That said, venom is a precious resource for spiders and most are loathe to use it unnecessarily; many spiders will attempt a warning bite with no venom used if forced to defend themselves. Additionally, most spider species are shy and reclusive by nature, and will run and hide rather than bite in most cases (cf. the Brazilian wandering spider, one of the exceptionally aggressive species that just so happens to have one of the strongest venoms, and thus is often rated as the deadliest spider in the world). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 8 '15 at 20:49
6
\$\begingroup\$

If you're trying to give the impression that this spider-goddess is not like Lolth, just have her do things in an opposite manner to Lolth.

For instance, have her followers do the following:

  1. Wear white and gold robes instead of purple and black;
  2. Promote order and trust instead of seeding deception and rewarding betrayal;
  3. Be completely intolerant of slavery and racism;
  4. Spread donations and healing magics in places of need;
  5. Basically anything in keeping with goodly characters; most importantly
  6. Have males in positions of real power (something Lolth does not permit) or have a joint rulership with a King and Queen; and lastly
  7. Have imagery of both males and females as prominent figures spread equally.

The easiest way to avoid associating a spider worshipping drow with Lolth is to simply have them not fit the typical description of a drow from the underdark. Which means stay away from dark colours, being covered in weapons, having sunlight sensitivity and being completely dominated by females.

That's by far the easiest method to not give the wrong impression. Would somebody automatically assume that a male cleric who is in charge of a church on the surface be a follower of Lolth? Not if they knew anything about her.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Are the robes gold & white, or black & blue/purple? ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Sep 10 '15 at 2:25
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Adeptus This is why all the different races of elves war on each other. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Apr 17 '19 at 4:36
5
\$\begingroup\$

So, I ask: how would I make it so their spider-god is clearly distinct from Lolth, to the point where my players do not jump to the (wrong and quite detrimental) conclusion that these drow are also Lolth-worshippers, with all the Evil-aligned baggage that deity entails, upon seeing spider-themed religious images for the first time?

You could use reverse psychology: have an NPC point out how obviously evil the drow are — they worship a spider goddess, for Pelor's sake!

Remember that arachnophobia is a pretty deep-seated feature of the human psyche, so it's perfectly reasonable for there to be prejudice against your spider-worshipping drow, no matter how good and noble they may actually be. To some people, anything associated with spiders will seem scary and unnerving on a visceral level, and such a negative first impression can easily grow into full blown prejudice and distrust.

When portraying your spider-hating NPC, feel free to make his fear and outrage a bit over the top, just to drive the point home. Make it clear that he's used to people ignoring him or arguing against him, by having him belabor the point even if the PCs initially tend to agree with him. If necessary, have him pull out increasingly outrageous rumors, scary stories and conspiracy theories to spin on the PCs, as long as they're willing to listen. You may wish to prepare a couple of particularly nasty ones in advance, e.g. by drawing on real-world xenophobic myths.

If you want, you can also also give the drow-hating NPC a bunch of like minded friends, or even a certain level of general support among at least some parts of society. Just make it clear that the people who believe such things do so with little if any direct evidence, so that they need to draw on rumors and gut feelings to justify their aversion.

\$\endgroup\$
2
\$\begingroup\$

Making a New God

Start with core ideas, in this case a lets say Neutral Good Spider deity. Picking a gender, appearance, symbol, and doctrine of that god could be done now or later, when ever you feel is best.

Expand from the idea thematically. As you've already linked, spiders are hunters so this god or goddess could have hunting in their purview. Spiders have a close association with Weaving, and through that some crafts. You could perhaps extend this into Fateweaving, or even the position of god of the Hearth, the one who makes houses into homes. Spiders webs are also examples of perpetration and traps, which are other areas you could delve for themes and purview for this deity. I'll assume that the spider's poison is too evil to be referenced strongly by the religion.

Now that you have a basic shape of this deity, imagine stories behind them. Were they always the spider deity, or did they gain that distinction after being the hunting god, the home making god, the trap making god, etc. Who among the other deities are their allies, their enemies, their family, their romantic counterparts whether two sided or one? Do they have a legendary follower, some monster who they find abhorrent, some deity who wishes their power? Write what snippets of 'lore' come to mind, and don't worry about it not forming into a massive narrative all at once, most deities man has ever made have had disjoint stories.

By the end of this, you should have a new deity distinct enough from Lolth for your needs.

Option Two: Make a New Lolth

If you drow are different from people might expect in this setting, why can your Lolth not be different as well. Create a Lolth that was brave enough to end a bad relationship, despite the fact her boyfriend Corellon Larethian was the head of her pantheon and as such she was putting her standing and existence at risk. A Goddess that bears the curses that her slighted ex has saddled her with and attempts to be the best she can anyway.

Have worship of her, including tributes of foods, wines, and animals, be to attempt to ease her suffering, to give her the strength to contain Corellon Larethian's vitriol so that it does not spill out on those who followed her. Have her followers take in run-aways and the down trodden, as her old enemy Gruumsh took her in when she had no one else to turn to.

Sure she'd still be and advocate cunning, but as a tool toward the greater good. If a mercenary company would not go to free a town from a hobgoblin siege, she might move her followers to ensure the company is within the towns walls when the siege begins.

If this is a game with the theme that "thing aren't what you think they are at first glance", a Good Lolth might make more of an impact than some other spider deity.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ The second path would need some reworking to fit my world -- a Corellon vs. Lolth situation wouldn't make too much sense in my world (the elf/drow split in it comes mainly from environmental considerations/evolution, not any creation-story) and Gruumsh isn't around either (the orcs in this world worship different deities altogether, such as Tritherion and Fnarlanghn, as they are herdsfolk) \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Sep 7 '15 at 17:11
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't have access to all your notes, so I couldn't have predicted that. But I just wanted to show that it would be possible to without changing everything about her to flip Lolth's character in a direction that the PCs might not expect. \$\endgroup\$ – The Amused Muse Sep 7 '15 at 17:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, I see -- I agree with you there -- although I'm waiting for some reopen votes and/or more opinions to come in, as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Sep 7 '15 at 17:39
1
\$\begingroup\$

Be ecumenical.

None of the other gods you mentioned seem particularly monomaniacal. Celestian is a little standoffish and Olidammara is someone to watch your back around, but neither really demand exclusivity from their worshippers, and of course, the sun shines on everyone.

It's likely people in this culture actively participate in the worship and practices of more than one of these gods. And it's in this context that you can most productively introduce Legally Distinct From Lolth, and emphasize the distinctions.

The Pelorite laying the dead to rest binds them with spidersilk. The Olidammaran tending bar has a spider devotional by the back room, because who wants to drink a scorpion? ...yes, yes, fine, but who wants to drink an unexpected scorpion? The Temple of the Sun and Stars has a spider shrine that clerics of both gods lead small services at.

If this is an evil spider schemer of a goddess, why are even devout followers of other gods fine with her?

\$\endgroup\$
1
\$\begingroup\$

Set the first impressions by making obvious visual differences.

  • Brightly-coloured, exuberant spider art, maybe with gems.
  • Male or non-binary, not female.
  • Choose a different symbol, say a spider eye not a spider, or a silk rope not a silk web, or a 8 legs radiating from a point instead of a a spider body.
  • Have actual spiders being treated like friendly pets not ominous threats.
\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.