Recently there has been a very amusing image going around on facebook, which I also shared I admit, of this sign:
A particularly lovely image evoking the horrors of nuclear irradiated critters, which have in numerous movies in the past had a habit of going on a murderous rampage against humanity. The anti-spider propaganda has quite a history and one of the most notable horror movies featuring spiders, Arachnophobia, actually did use real spiders – albeit of a considerably smaller size. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately for humanity, we shouldn’t have any worry of this irradiated gigantic spider invasion as the sign is a fake.
None the less, spiders are a fantastic and easy way to spice up any roleplaying game with some horror. Spiders have numerous advantages for a DM who wants to employ some interesting tactics, ideas or just build some tension. Most players don’t have to imagine being afraid of spiders and when these spiders are the size of a Volvo getting “In character” for filling ones pants is quite straightforward. Thankfully spiders can’t get this big in real life or we might be in trouble, but unfortunately for the protagonists of many roleplaying games spiders often can get big.
One of the best ways to use spiders is tactically. They have numerous tricks up their sleeves in many games to immobilize players with webbing, they can climb up all manner of surfaces trivially, set ambushes, see things in pitch black darkness and in some editions of DnD, like 4E/5E can easily perceive otherwise hidden characters easily. Subsequently you can build some really interesting and unique encounters around what they can do. For example you can immobilize the normal tanks or front line characters, so the more vulnerable mages/non-combative types in the back can be swarmed or attacked.
In the case of 5E, I used some giant jungle spiders to sneak up the side of a cliff and ambush the party. Their webs could immobilize the party in place and keep the fight where I wanted it, while simultaneously generating advantage (due to the restrained condition) for the Yuan-ti archer. Likewise another DnD game I ran, in 4th Edition, used spiders heavily and their extremely high mobility to get behind the front line fighters/defenders into the rearmost delicious wizards. By combining different kinds of spider, some that jumped, some that used webs and others that could even teleport (DnDs Phase Spider), I made some memorable encounters.
Especially that wedding said spiders crashed where a gigantic jumping spider ended up pouncing into the cake by mistake…
For a horror game, which may not have such a focus on tactical elements, spiders are still equally scary opponents. Remember that a trick some clever spiders have developed is to slowly slide down from above on a single strange of silk, carefully maneuvering themselves behind an unsuspecting prey item and then *boom* grabbed, bitten and lunch (or possibly dinner). Then of course there are all the fascinating uses of silk, as trip lines to alert the monster someone is coming to being weaved into nets to immobilize prey from above. In my Trail of Cthulhu game when my players visited Leng, the entity there (which is somewhat spider like) used its silk to stay well out of sight and vibrated the strands to produce “Human-like” speech.
Likewise if you really want to make people paranoid, I always liked the idea of mixing up the “werewolf” concept. Instead of turning into a part man part wolf creature, the afflicted individual instead became a bloated, vicious and nasty looking gigantic spider. The Ananasi from White Wolf’s Werewolf the Apocalypse I always thought were fantastic for this reason. Especially the particularly strange, gross and outright weird human/hybrid war form they spotted. Personally while you could actually play as these creatures, I always thought they made for much more interesting villains and potential antagonists.
Of course IMO the best way to get ideas on spiders is to watch them in real life. Jumping spiders move very erratically but intelligently, following your movements and will pounce at reflective objects (thinking there is another spider there). Orb weavers have a very graceful but rapid movement towards whatever flies into their web, rapidly spinning it around with their limbs while encasing it with silk. Huntsmen and Wolf Spiders brutally chase down their prey, overpower it and then tear it to pieces. The noble trapdoor stays near the top of their burrow and then rapidly envelops prey, dragging it straight down to its doom.
So hopefully you have some ideas about using the wonderful fact fantasy lets us have our giant spiders to terrify your players. Well, at least until someone does build a nuclear plant right next to a gigantic spider farm.
Then we’re just as doomed.