Into the Widow's Web - Joe Kondrak

edited July 2018 in DesignFinder Chat

Into the Widow’s Web

Several months ago, archaeologist Sameera Sulhaddin and her team trekked into the jungle interior of Hourglass Isle, and they haven’t been seen since. Shortly after their disappearance, arachnids and other vermin on the island began to grow larger and more aggressive. Now, a cult of jungle-dwelling vermin worshippers terrorizes the island’s peaceful inhabitants. Can the adventurers rescue the missing archaeologists and save the islanders from rampaging vermin and cultists?

Into the Widow’s Web is a Pathfinder adventure for 7th-level characters. This “pulp” adventure features a simple plot and intentionally difficult combat encounters. Characters on the medium advancement track should reach 8th level by the adventure’s end. 


Sameera Sulhaddin (archaeologist 4) came to Hourglass Isle hoping to discover evidence of bygone civilizations. While interviewing an elder in Pakuli Matta, a coastal village on the island’s eastern end, she learned of a valuable treasure — a set of spherical red gems with magic powers. The elder suggested she might find them in the jungle to the west, and off she went.  

Eyes of the Black Widow:

These clear red orbs signify the eyes of a monumental obsidian spider. Once per day, when an innocent is ritually sacrificed near the monument, the orbs grant a collection of spider-themed powers to anyone who participates in the ritual. The orbs function in this manner only while attached to the monument.

When removed from the monument, each orb can grant a specific spider-themed power to its bearer once per day. When the bearer activates the orb’s magic, anyone within 10 feet who carries another orb from the set also benefits from the activated orb’s magic.

Sameera and her team eventually came upon the Shrine of the Obsidian Spider (Round 2), and she was immediately overtaken by a giant black widow spider. At the moment of her demise, Sameera disappeared, and a half-spider, half-woman monstrosity appeared in her place. The spider-woman attacked and struck down the rest of Sameera’s team, and they disappeared, too. In their places, humans resembling the spider-woman appeared.

The newcomers are members of an ancient cult of vermin-worshippers. The first to appear (the spider-woman) was the cult’s champion, Chakussa Takshu’al (Round 3). The second to appear was a long-haired woman wearing black silken robes — the cult’s leader, Shukaal Kashta’a (full caster, crafter). The others are Shukaal’s disciples (ninjas).

Before long, the cultists captured some native islanders and brought them back to the shrine to slay in ritual sacrifice. The islanders also disappeared upon their demise, and the cult now numbers at 10: Shukaal, Chakussa, plus eight disciples. All of the innocents who disappeared are trapped within the obsidian spider like a trap the soul spell.

Obsessed with vermin and wicked to the core, Shukaal plots to dominate the entire island (and perhaps beyond). Her first goal is to secure a supply of innocents to sacrifice, for without that, she cannot bless her adherents with the powers of spiders. With that in mind, she sent out several raiding parties composed of disciples and giant black widow spiders (advanced, fiendish). Shukaal also directed Chakussa to secure the area, and to send giant vermin against the island’s coastal villages. 

PC Hook: 

Sameera’s father is Farouk Sulhaddin (aristocrat 6/expert 6), a wealthy silk merchant and noble of high standing. He offers a handsome reward for bringing back his missing daughter. Bills are posted in the area’s bazaars.


1. Farouk’s Briefing [skills, map not required]

At Farouk’s estate, the aristocrat explains that his beloved Sameera traveled to a distant jungle island aboard his own ship, the Silken Star. The ship eventually returned with sad news that Sameera was lost in the jungle. If the PCs are willing to go looking for her, the Silken Star will convey them to and from Hourglass Isle. With successful skill checks, the PCs can uncover additional information about Sameera or the island and its inhabitants.

2. Vermin Attack at Pakuli Matta [combat, skills, map]

After a long journey, the Silken Star weighs anchor at Hourglass Isle’s eastern end, just offshore from the fishing village of Pakuli Matta. As the PCs row ashore, they see and hear that the village is under attack by numerous giant vermin. Many of the village’s thatch-roofed houses sit over the water atop wooden stilts, with ladders descending to the water’s surface. Wooden walkways connect some of the houses to each other and to the shore.

If the PCs defeat the vermin, they can trade and interact with the thankful villagers. They might learn about the island’s geography and history, and that Sameera and her team went west into the jungle.

After presenting them with a minor reward, the village’s patriarch, Mogassa Tamuka (adept 4/warrior 2), asks the PCs for help with an urgent matter. He recently sent a group of his people north to some caves to gather obsidian shards, but they never returned, and he fears the worst. If the PCs can save them, he will hold a three-day-long feast in their honor.

From here, the PCs may head toward the caves (#3, #4 below) or follow Sameera’s trail (#5, #6).

3. Mantis Ambush at Hazardous Crossing [combat, hazard, skills, map]

On their way to the caves, the PCs must cross a deep chasm in the jungle. The only way across is a slippery fallen log (falling hazard). Chakussa trained several giant mantises (advanced) to guard the area. Some hide among the trees, and 2 of them cling to the chasm’s wall, hidden by foliage. If a mantis on the chasm’s wall grabs a PC, the PC risks falling upon escaping the grapple. The mantises in the trees fly in to attack at any sign of commotion.

PCs who can fly or use dimensional travel can bypass the hazard, but the mantises in the trees attack whatever they notice, including PCs who happen to fly by.

4. Obsidian Caves [combat, hazards, skills, map]

At the caves, several cultists (ninjas with spider-powers and poisoned weapons) hold the islanders captive. Several giant black widow spiders (advanced, fiendish) are on the scene, too. Finding the captive islanders requires navigating a small network of tunnels, some of which are trapped with webs. If the PCs free the captives, they can claim the feast Mogassa promised them (though they may want to follow Sameera’s tracks before actuallyclaiming it).

The PCs may be able to convince one or more captives (warriors) to accompany them, to serve as guides or allies in combat.

5. Hostile Jungle [combat, hazards, skills, map not required (generic jungle map)]

As the PCs approach the Shrine of the Obsidian Spider, they might have one or more random encounters, the likelihood of which are influenced by the results of skill checks. The encounters might be with vermin, cultists, Chakussa, or combinations thereof (plus web traps). 

If the PCs avoid all of the random encounters, or if none included Chakussa, the PCs must still face or sneak past her before reaching the shrine.

6. Showdown at the Shrine [combat, hazards, map from Round 2]

At the shrine, the PCs encounter Shukaal, who stands atop the obsidian spider, plus several disciples and giant black widow spiders (advanced, fiendish). The disciples menace a web-entangled villager with their obsidian daggers, while the spiders hide above, clinging to the pillars flanking the monument. 

Upon seeing the PCs, Shukaal bellows forth maledictions, and she and her minions attack. Shukaal casts offensive spells from atop the monument if possible (with gloves of sublime gesticulation, Round 1). Ascending the monument’s legs to reach Shukaal is difficult (falling hazard), and there are a number of web traps around the shrine. Before and during combat, the disciples dip their weapons in an hourglass-shaped pool to apply red hourglass poison (Rounds 2 and 3). The monument’s fangs and spinnerets are proximity traps (poisoned attack and web, respectively).

With detect magic and/or a successful Spellcraft check, the PCs realize that 10 souls (and their bodies) are trapped within the obsidian spider, and that destroying it will set them free. The monument’s body has a pool of hit points, as do each of its legs. Destroying three or more legs causes the monument to collapse, which damages the body and anyone underneath it. 

While it is intact, retrieving the monument’s eyes (eyes of the black widow) requires a successful Strength check, but once it is destroyed, they can simply be picked up.


Concluding the adventure requires defeating Shukaal and her minions, and destroying the obsidian spider (possibly during the showdown). 

Upon the monument’s destruction, 10 individuals appear — Sameera and her team (3 experts), plus 6 islanders. They each have only 1 hit point and 1 point of Constitution, and describe their captivity as a horrible nightmare. Giant vermin in the area disperse, too, so the PCs can escort Sameera and the others back to Pakuli Matta and the Silken Star without further ado.

Farouk is happy to pay the PCs their full reward upon Sameera’s safe return.


  • edited July 2018

    Hey, Joe! Welcome to Design Finder…and salutations from a fellow RPG Superstar alumn, as well. I haven’t followed along with every round of the competition so far, so my feedback on your adventure proposal will be as succinct as I can make it (i.e., without a lot of looking back at what you did in prior rounds…though, I am aware the rules required you to reuse some elements of your other submissions). So, without any further ado, let’s get down to brass tax, shall we?


    Into the Widow’s Web

    Title: I kind of like the name. It invokes multiple mental images for me. It has the potential to be both location-specific (i.e., a “Web” that can be figurative or literal depending on how your plot and locale comes together) and it can also be villain-specific (in the sense that the “widow” could reference your villain or some other sinister connection to a black widow spider). As I read further into your proposal, I can see it’s a bit more of the latter than the former on that last part. The title is basically a reference to the black widow spider statue that has trap the soul elements to it…ergo, a figurative “web” that entangles the souls of those who die near it. On the whole, it works.


    Villain: This part leaves me a little less enthusiastic. I think your adventure presents several adversaries, but no true villain behind it all. The transformed spider-Sameera/Chakussa Takshu’al is clearly a big antagonist and so is the cult leader Shukaal Kashta’a (and are they meant to be driders? I couldn’t tell for sure). But, despite that, I kind of think the Obsidian Spider may be the “villain” of this tale, as its presence and dark magic are what’s creating all the trouble, thereby allowing the cultists to emerge and replace those who die near the statue. It’s a fine line to walk with a less tangible adversary like that…and maybe too fine of a line, because when I’m looking for a VILLAIN (all caps intentional), I’m looking for something truly sinister. As proposed, the Obsidian Spider comes off more like a cursed locale that’s just creating some mayhem for the PCs to unravel (though you do make it clear they have to destroy the statue to release the trapped souls). But, it’s a little less impactful because of that, and I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity for you. If there were a way to make that statue have a truly evil (and constantly sentient) presence within it…i.e., maybe even independent of the cultists…like an undead spirit tied to it (which might refer back to a local legend), I think that would give you a more complete VILLAIN behind everything. In other words, something convinced those cultists to follow it. What was it? Because that’s probably the true villain in this adventure. And, instead, we just get the cult’s leader (Shukaal), champion (Chakussa), and few more cultists returned to life, and I don’t know very much about them, their aims/goals/motives as-written. And I certainly don’t know what kind of spider-godling is inspiring them.


    Locale(s): You guys are going to be a bit constrained on map space for your adventure. And, at 8K-12K words, you can really only get away with 1 full page or so of maps…maybe 2-3 half-page maps…which is about the same as you’d find in a Pathfinder Society scenario. As proposed, you’re going to take the PCs through a vermin attack on the seaside village (which presents a neat tactical battle if it takes place over the thatched huts and walkways above the bay). Then, you’ll need the map for the chasm crossing and mantis ambush, followed by the obsidian caves and the cultist battle to rescue the captive islanders, and then the battle royale at the main shrine with the spider statue. That’s 4 maps. And, all in all, it may stretch your ability to do those locations justice. But, if you use a smaller scale on some of your maps, you can probably get by. Regardless, I think the locales themselves are all interesting and do present some difficult terrain/tactical situations at the game table.


    Plot: The “story” of the adventure meanders through some interesting stuff. I think it comes across as a kind of hybrid-sandbox/railroad kind of adventure. And, by that, I mean there’s a way of getting from point A to point B (and C, and so on), but the PCs also have the freedom to go off the edges a bit, while still getting the story to play out sufficiently enough. It’s got a nice “pulp” jungle mystery element going for it. However, some of the plot that I’m missing, is more specifics about the Obsidian Spider and the cultists themselves. You’ve got this missing archaeologist who chased down an ancient legend only to fall victim to it…and the PCs are provided with a monetary motivation to go rescue her…but I think you still need something within your adventure’s “story” to tie together the ancient civilization (i.e., the cultists)) and whatever new goals they might have for the present day. If you can elaborate on that, I think you’ll punch up the tension a bit more for the GM and players so it becomes a fun tale to roleplay at the gaming table. The best way to do that is to shine a bigger spotlight on your villain. And, once you have their motivations in place, the plot will flow from there.


    Minions: I thought you did a great job here. Lots of templates to boost some giant insects, plenty of cultists, spider-themed traps, hazards, and so on. They’re all recurring enough that we can see just how much of a threat they pose to the island. As I was reading, my mind started looking for an allied ettercap to make an appearance. Or maybe some other minions (a local tribe, perhaps?) duped into serving the returned cultists. Something like that would show the increasing reach of the followers of the Obsidian Spider, and present a growing threat the PCs need to stop. Outside of those suggestions, you’re on some pretty solid ground here, though.


    Rewards: Aside from the money promised by Sameera’s father, there’s a chance the PCs get to make off with the eyes of the black widow…and, while they’re less powerful away from the statue, they could still prove useful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good sense of what they do…or if they’re even appropriate for (or desirable to) 7th level PCs. If you win the competition and get a chance to publish this thing, I’d recommend you work closely with your developer to punch this up into something truly memorable. You’ve even got the potential to weave in some of the rules for item corruption, if you like, to make it a cursed item (in some ways), but also a powerful boon if you’re willing to endure the changes it inflicts upon you…changes which the cultists probably know all too well, for instance.


    Recommendation: Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you. Generally, there’s some interesting tidbits of stuff in your proposal. It isn’t all tied neatly together yet, but I think you can still weave in enough unifying elements to round it out. If I were a developer receiving this pitch, I feel confident you could turn this scenario into something great. As such, I DO RECOMMEND this adventure for consideration as the winning proposal for the final round.

  • Hi Joe; congrats on getting to the final round of DesignFinder. I'm excited to check out your adventure pitch and see what we think.

    The Title: I think this works, giving enough hints to the arachnid nature of the various plot elements while being general enough that there's not going to be much confusion for readers. This is the third adventure pitch I'm looking at with alliteration in the title, but I don't think it's overly done here.

    The Plot: As the pitch notes, this is a straight-forward plot, but in a smaller module, I think that's OK. It seems like a fun, pulp-y adventure that could easily be inserted into a lot of campaigns.

    The Details: I'm going to go through the adventure and give some running commentary as I go, things I like and things that may be problematic.

    * The background seems straight-forward enough, fitting with the pulp feel of the overall adventure.

    * Eyes of the black widow is awfully vague in terms of the new magic item. I do like that it's intrinsically tied into the adventure, but I wish we knew a little more about what powers it would grant. There's a lot of possibilities out there in the realm of spider-powers. I also don't love "of the" names, though maybe it fits with the pulp feel.

    * Shukaal is a full caster, but that's a bit vague at this point: Is she a wizard, sorcerer, cleric, something else ... ? (I'm also not sure crafter is a great choice, as that's not something that's really going to come up during the adventure. They're going to have the gear their given in the stat blocks and won't be making more based on the PCs' actions...)

    * The hook feels plausible. I think we could probably find some more too -- rumors of/a map to the treasure itself, like attracted Sameera -- but there's definitely a way for PCs to get interested in this.

    * I don't know if the briefing really counts as an encounter. I'm assuming the skills are basic Knowledge checks? It doesn't feel like Farouk would be trying to keep information from the PCs.

    * The first vermin attack feels like it could be a lot of fun; very interesting encounter space. I'm wondering if the love of vermin extends to water striders? They're low CR (though could get a couple templates too), but feel like they would be a fun addition to this encounter.

    * I love the three-day-long feast as a reward. It's not got tangible benefits in terms of gear, but I think that's something PCs could brag/reminisce about and a great opportunity for role-playing. If this gets developed, I think a good paragraph describing what's served at the feast could be great to include.

    * The mantis ambush feels like a good, solid encounter. It's going to be far more memorable if at least some PCs don't have access to some form of flight, which is possible at 7th level.

    * The obsidian caves feels fun, but I'm wondering if perhaps the villagers should merely be trapped inside, holding the spider-folk at bay? Otherwise, I'm not sure why they wouldn't have been brought immediately to be sacrificed. I think that's a pretty minor change, and can add one more challenge for the PCs to try to persuade the villagers that they're there to rescue them. I also wonder if Mogassa should be less willing to help before the villagers are freed. If the PCs aren't interested in the feast, they could skip a good chunk of the adventure otherwise (guide them in the right direction by making it worth their while to help out instead of just wandering through the wilderness looking for Sameera).

    * This feels like a satisfying conclusion, though I wonder if there's some way to help foreshadow Shukaal earlier. As is, she doesn't feel as much like the big villain of the piece (along with Chakussa) so much as just another guardian for the obsidian spider shrine. I think if her role can be amped up, what promises to be a memorable fight can be even more so.


    Overall, I think this is a strong, fun adventure that would certainly be manageable to fit in this space. The one big development concern I have is finding a way to pump up Shukaal/Chakussa's role so the players will feel a little more accomplishment at defeating them, but I think that shouldn't be too difficult to do. I do recommend this be considered for the inaugural DesignFinder contest winner.

  • Note for readers: I added links to the contestants' work in previous rounds in each of the pitches.
  • Hi Joe, and welcome to the final round of DesignFinder! My comments will be briefer than Neil's and Jacob's and will hit the highlights and my overall recommendation.

    You provide a solid hook to drive PCs to invest in the adventure. I like the background, and there are clear stakes to defeating Shukaal and rescuing Sameera and the trapped villagers. Your encounters are appropriately thematic, and you introduce some wonderful set pieces to help make the encounters more memorable. I had an issue with the mantis ambush, which felt like an expanded random encounter and could have been included in the next section. I think it would have worked better to have cultists (or ettercap allies, as Neil mentioned) using their superior skill at climbing to gain the advantage over the PCs. Chakussa and Shukaal blended together when I read through the pitch, but I think something as simple as a name change would help delineate the two villains. The conclusion works well, and the PCs gain a potential treasure in the eyes of the black widow. Obviously, the reward offered by Farouk would need to be spelled out in development, but I'm fine with leaving it vague for the pitch.

    I enjoyed this pitch, and I think it would make a great adventure with a lot of fun elements. While I recommend this be considered as the overall winner, I personally give a slight edge to Nicholas Hite's Skinfin Murders.
  • Joe,
    I think the title is okay but not strong enough to distinguish it from other spider adventures. Similarly the background and summary doesn't grab the reader. From a publisher standpoint I want a pitch to communicate this is a must have adventure, something that really sets it apart from other adventures. I felt that was lacking. The plot is very straight forward and felt a little one sided on the combat side. I would like to see more variety in the adventure than just straight combat. I also felt like the hook could have been much stronger. Perhaps instead of having her father search/rescue her, the hook could weave in the fact that the party was suppose to acquire some knowledge or item from the archeologist who turns up missing and the pcs must question her dig crew. This would add a level of investigation work for the pcs in order to land on the trail of their missing alley. This adventure feels more like a hack and slash than a rescue mission. Overall there was a certain vagueness to several aspects which made the adventure seem flat. For these reasons I am not recommending this pitch for the win. 
  • Thanks, judges, for your insightful commentary. 
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