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The Ecology of the Giant Water Spider (unpublished AD&D 2E version)


Okay, this is a standalone story dating back to the AD&D 2nd Edition days. I was inspired to write it after reading a fascinating article about real-life aquatic spiders I found in an old National Geographic magazine in a Goodwill store. For a twenty-five cent investment, I had a bunch of interesting facts that could easily be translated into AD&D game terminology, and an "Ecology" article was born.

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The creature's fangs pierce my ribs, and I feel its venom coursing through my body, dissolving my flesh and bones in a white-hot paroxysm of agony. I scream, and I scream, and I scream...


Not yet, anyway. Dreaming again. Just a dream.

Above me, at the very edge of my field of vision, I can see the creature. Is it looking at me?[1] No, I don't think so. It's difficult to say for sure, but I don't think it's paying me any attention at all.


I close my eyes in an attempt to stop the headache that's threatening to split my skull in half, and to try to slow my racing heart. Then I snap my eyes open again, fearing to sleep, to dream. Better the headache than the dream.

I try to move again, for what - the fiftieth time? The hundredth? It doesn't matter. The webbing is as tight now as it ever was. What did I expect? That it would get brittle and pliant with age? Foolishness.

I listen to the sounds around me. The creature is silent; all I can hear is the soft whoosh, whoosh, of the ioun stone swirling about my head. It's all that's kept me alive this long.

Is that a good thing? I don't know. I just don't know.

A shadow falls across me. I look up, and see the creature approach. It scrabbles over me, its eight spindly legs straddling my tightly-bound body. Is this it, then? Has the time come for it to feed?

No. Praise be to Corellon, the creature is leaving! I tilt my head back and watch as it exits its underwater home[2] and disappears up toward the surface. For the time being, I am alone.

I dream.

1. Giant water spiders have eight eyes, but, like all spiders, no eyelids. Because their eyes are not complex, it is not possible to tell in which direction a giant water spider is looking. They have two large eyes which face forward, giving them binary vision, as well as a ring of smaller eyes which face upward, allowing the spider to see above it. Because of its underwater existence, a giant water spider's vision is geared towards the blue-green portion of the visual light spectrum.

2. The giant water spider is one of the few spiders to have adapted to life in an underwater environment. It constructs netlike webs between underwater structures - rock outcroppings, coral, or kelp and other plants - then fills the webs with air bubbles it brings down from the surface. Once the air bubbles are released from the spider's body, they buoy up the web, which fills up like a balloon. Entrance to the spider's home is thus always from the bottom.

During the winter months, the giant water spider heads to deeper waters and builds a fully-enclosed structure, where it spends the season in a motionless, hibernation-like state. Due to its complete immobility and lowered respiration, the air sealed in with it lasts the spider all season.
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I am unused to dreaming. For most of my life sleep has been spent in reverie, not entangled in the chaos-world of dreams. I am used to quietly reminiscing over cherished memories, flipping through scenes of my past like pages of a favorite book, not the confusing series of images of things-that-never-were that my sleep has become. Yet since falling overboard and being captured by the giant water spider, since being dragged down here to his air-filled web, my sleep has been a thing of torment.

Is it any wonder? True, I am an accomplished wizard; I know the dangers involved in the path I have chosen to walk. But I am more accustomed to the uncertain dangers of a misfiring spell or an ill-fated experiment into the mystic arts than to the in-your-face horror of a venom-dripping monstrosity who will soon rend me for his dinner.

In my dream, I can still hear the soft, swooshing sounds of the ioun stone as it orbits my head. It is the one magical item I openly wear when venturing out on my own. Its life-sustaining properties have proven useful, for I often forget to eat for days on end when caught up in an intriguing puzzle or a new line of magical exploration.

In my dream, though, the stone is different. The sounds it makes are harsher, more shrill. It seems to grow, gaining in size with each orbit about my head. It begins to sprout legs: first one as it passes through my field of vision, then another one the next time through. I know what will happen, but am powerless to stop it; I am as tightly bound in my dream as I am in real life.

The stone whizzes by me, growing in size as it sprouts its spindly legs. Now it is as big as my head, and now as big as my body. It has grown fangs as well, wickedly sharp fangs that spill a greenish venom as the creature wheels about my head. As it grows its orbit shrinks, and the beast gets closer and closer to me as I lay in position, unable to move. Finally, the creature has reached its full size,[3] and I feel the hairs of its body brush my face as it passes. Then there is an excruciating pain as it crushes my neck between its mandibles, and I cry out in agony....

...and awaken with a scream.

Alone. Still alone. Good.

I look about me at my underwater prison. What else is there to do? What else, save count the moments until my death?

I am in an air-filled chamber, ovoid in shape, perhaps 20 feet long at its longest side. The bottom of the ovoid is open, and it is through this opening that the spider enters and exits his dwelling. I have been webbed up and stashed along a wall, upside-down, with my head pointing in the direction of the entrance.

The walls of the dwelling are not very thick,[4] nor can the structure be too far below the surface, for enough light filters in to allow me to see, without resorting to infravision. A few shiny objects glitter along the walls of the structure. They may be coins; I am unable to tell from here. If I tilt my head back, I can see strands of webbing jutting away from the opening.[5]

The air I breathe is stale, and becomes even more so as I breathe in panic-induced lungfuls. I wonder if it might be possible to suffocate before the spider returns. Would it be better to die of asphyxiation than to be pierced by the spider's wicked fangs? I'm willing to bet so.

I am distracted by a movement from the corner of my eye. I look down at the entrance and see the spider's legs scrabbling for a purchase. It finds its way into the dwelling, and I am amazed by what I see. A gigantic bubble of air surrounds the creature's abdomen. As it pulls its body fully into the web-structure, the bubble is released into the tiny atmosphere it has built here for us.[6]

And still it does not attack me. It kicks off the bubble of air, then turns around and exits the way it came.[7] Am I being saved for later, or does it just wish to torment me with the anticipation of its gruesome feast?

I no longer know nor care. Exhausted, I sleep. And sleeping, I dream.

3. When fully grown, the giant water spider reaches a full 8 feet in diameter, about half of which is made up of its legs. As a web-spinner, it has a rather plump abdomen and thin, spindly legs. There is also a larger version, the giant marine spider, which reaches an overall diameter of 20 feet, half of which is body.

While it has been commonly believed that giant water spiders live only in freshwater lakes and giant marine spiders live only in the sea, there have been documented cases of both species living in each environment. This only makes sense, for the spiders are not actually breathing the water around them; therefore, it makes no difference whether they live in fresh water or salt water. This also gives the DM the flexibility to use whichever aquatic spider is more appropriate to the PC party's general experience level (the giant water spider has 3+3 HD, while the giant marine spider has 7+7, and is therefore more suited for a higher-level adventuring party).

4. The webbing of a giant water spider's dwelling, while thin, are amazingly strong, but can be cut by slashing weapons. Individual strands are treated as AC 8, and take 6 hp damage before breaking. The walls of the structure are AC 6, and take 20 hp damage before forming a hole large enough to allow air to escape. Of course, if the spider is inside its dwelling, it will feel the vibrations of any attack on its home and will immediately come forth to defend its dwelling against the intruders.

For obvious reasons, abandoned giant water spider structures can be a godsend for drowning PCs.

5. The air-filled dwelling is anchored by these webs, but they also serve a second function: a creature brushing against any of these webs causes a vibration that can be felt by the spider while inside the structure. The webs are not sticky (in fact, the giant water spider is unable to produce sticky webbing), and so do not incapacitate the creatures brushing up against them; instead, the spider must exit its home and catch the prey on its own.

6. There is a real-life water spider, scientific name Argyroneta, which builds an underwater home in the fashion mentioned above. It fills its home with air that it brings from the surface, one air bubble at a time. The water spider is less than an inch in diameter, though, and the air bubble clings to its body due to a process called capillary adhesion.

The giant water spider is simply a much larger version of Argyroneta, and the giant marine spider an ever larger version still. These monstrous-sized creatures have developed a magical equivalent to capillary adhesion; while the tiny Argyroneta can form an appropriately-sized air bubble by simply slapping its abdomen quickly below the surface of the water, the giant water and marine spiders must rely on magic. They have the innate ability, usable at will, to form air bubbles around their abdomens when above the surface of the water. These air bubbles are then transported down to their underwater dwellings, or kept around their bodies as they explore.

Like all spiders, giant water and marine spiders breathe through air-holes in the sides of their abdomens. For this reason, they can breathe normally with an air bubble surrounding their lower abdomens even if their heads are completely submerged. Often, the rearmost pair of legs will be wrapped around the air bubble to keep it in place.

If the spider remains quietly in one place, an air bubble can provide it with enough air for several hours.

7. Much like a human swimmer holding its breath, a giant water spider can exit its dwelling and float to the surface without an air bubble surrounding its abdomen. Its air is then limited to what little it has in its lungs, so it will rarely go anywhere but immediately to the surface in such a fashion.
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I awaken, screaming, to find the spider next to me. It is halfway through the passageway at the bottom of the dwelling, with its two front legs perched on two of the anchor-lines. It is perfectly still, as motionless as a statue. As I look closer at its abdomen, I can see it breathe, slowly, slowly. What calm it radiates, when compared to me, its future meal! My heart still pounds with the speed of a woodpecker's tattoo upon bug-infested wood.

I can make out the coloring of the creature's abdomen: it is gray, like that of a wolf, and covered in short hairs. As it nears the beast's head, it becomes lighter in color, almost the tan of a newborn fawn. I can make out darker markings upon its back, and the uniform black of its unblinking eyes. There is a reddishness about its mouth organs, the wicked fangs that protrude from the front of its head. Oddly, though, it is not the harsh red of blood, but a gentler hue, like that of the sky at sunset. Almost beautiful, in its own way.

I amaze myself by being calm. Once I forget that this creature will no doubt eventually kill me, once I put that from my mind, I can begin to see it objectively, and it is, in fact, quite beautiful. Graceful, even, in its movements.

I can even begin to appreciate what it has accomplished. It is a spider, a creature of the earth and of the underearth, and yet it has managed to carve a niche in this hostile environment, living underwater amongst the fish of the lake.

And it has not killed me yet. Perhaps it will not. Dare I hope?


I feel my heart rate slowing as my thoughts travel in these strange directions, as I remove myself from the all-encompassing terror of my own mortal demise. I am an elf, and have lived for over six centuries. If I am to die today, could I truly say that I have been cheated? I allow a quiet calm to fall over my entire being.

Then the spider makes a darting motion, and my heart jumps a beat. I scream out in terror. To the Nine Hells with tranquillity, I don't wish to be eaten by this fiend!

Fortunately, I am not the object of the creature's notice. It leaves the dwelling, and I am again alone.

I think about my knife. I wear a small blade in a sheath on my belt. It was there when I fell overboard, and should be there still. But the webbing is too tight, and I cannot reach it, with my arms pinned to the sides as they are. I curse in frustration. I can feel the knife's hilt press against the inside of my left arm. Only a few inches away, and yet it might as well be a mile.

The spider returns, and I see the reason for its haste in leaving: it detected a fish brushing up against its webbing, captured it, and brought it here. The fish flops feebly in the air of the spider's dwelling, but these twitches slow as the creature dies. The spider's venom has entered the fish, for I can see some dripping down its sides. How I envy the fish! He was captured and immediately devoured; he did not have to live the agonizing torture of anticipation!

The spider is not wrapping the fish in its webbing as it did me.[8] Instead, it is dribbling its venom onto its meal, liquefying it as surely as if it had poured acid onto the poor creature. I am glad the fish is dead, glad that it suffocated before having to live through this; I can only imagine the pain involved in such a fate.

Imagine? I have done little else since my capture!

Still, the question arises: why is it eating the fish, instead of me? Not that I'm not grateful, but it doesn't make sense. Is this perhaps an indication that I am not to be eaten after all? Or am I being saved for a later meal? But if so, why?

That is the real question: Why? But my sleep-deprived brain can summon forth no answers.

Exhausted, I fall asleep to the gentle swishing sounds made by my ioun stone, and the horrible sucking sounds made by my eight-legged captor at his meal. In my dreams, I have become the fish.

8. If hungry, the spider will immediately consume any prey it catches. If not, the victim will be webbed securely and stored in the creature's web as a future meal. In either case, most victims are brought back to the web to be consumed. The bite of a giant water spider causes 1d4 hp damage, and the victim must save vs. poison or be immediately slain.

Giant water spiders, in the fashion of most arachnids, do not eat their prey so much as drink them. Having no teeth with which to bite or chew, they begin the digestion process before entering their meals into their bodies. Once the venom has begun dissolving the prey, the spider sucks up the liquefied organic "soup," leaving only a dried husk behind.

Occasionally, among the remains of previous victims there might be a few coins or gems, and the giant water spider uses them as decoration along the inner walls of its underwater home, seeming to derive a simple pleasure in the way these items sparkle and shine. Other items (weapons, armor, and so on) are seen as valueless, and are often discarded by the spider.
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I awaken, alone. I struggle at my bonds, but they have not loosened since I lost consciousness. How long ago? I do not know. It is darker now, but there is still enough light to see that I am alone.

I spend the next several hours - if my sense of time can be trusted in the state I'm in - alone in the web-dwelling, contemplating my fate. I regret the choice of spells I currently have memorized; they either will do me no good or require the free motion of my hands in order to be properly cast. I regret never having found a mate; it never seemed important when compared to my magical studies, and, truth to tell, I never seemed to find the time...of course, perhaps it is best that I have no mate, considering the circumstances.

Most of all, I regret coming out here on the lake alone. I had heard that there was a nixie community here in the deepest part of the lake, and, like usual, decided to investigate. I thought I was prepared: I had my potions of water breathing, and my comprehend languages spells all ready to cast...if only I had told someone of my intentions, they might be looking for me right now. But that has never been my way. Always the loner, I. And now I am to pay the price for my aloofness.

My sad thoughts are interrupted by the return of the spider. It heads straight for me, mandibles open wide. I say a quick prayer to Corellon, hoping there will be no pain. To my surprise, there isn't. The monster picks me up gently, almost tenderly, in its mandibles, and turns me around so that my head is pressed up against the underside of its abdomen. Its back legs do a little twitch, and then we head out of the dwelling and into the waters of the lake.

The coldness of the water surprises me, and I instinctively hold my breath before I realize that I don't have to. My head is inside a bubble of air that the creature has generated around its abdomen. He seems to be going out of his way to keep me alive. I allow myself to begin to hope. Perhaps he is taking me back to the surface, setting me free?

We make good speed through the water, traveling faster than I would have guessed.[9] I am unable to make out much of the passing underwater scenery, for it is still dark, and the air bubble distorts the view of the world around me.

All hope leaves me when I catch a glimpse of our destination, though. It is another underwater dwelling, much like the one we just left. Is my captor simply moving me to a new home? Where is the sense in that?

He scrabbles into the new dwelling, and a burst of movement catches my eye. There is another spider in this dwelling! It is smaller than my captor,[10] but still big enough to tower over me. I now have twice the horror to face!

I am placed down on the floor of this new dwelling, again, almost reverently. The smaller spider faces me, coming close but stopping short a foot or so from me. It moves its head slowly from side to side, as if watching something intently.

And then it hits me! The ioun stone!

Of course! I had noticed what I thought to be coins in my captor's web, and now, looking at my new surroundings, I think I can make out a few here and there as well. If these creatures like the glint of metal, how much better is a shining, spindle-shaped crystal that flies around in the air? I have to laugh - the stone sustains me in the absence of food and water, but now it has actually saved my life! Had I not worn the stone, no doubt I would already be liquid in the great spider's belly.

But why bring me here? To show off its prize to a friend?

Once they start mating, I understand. I am a betrothal gift, or perhaps a bribe, or a fee. Who can say? I don't care, so long as I am left alive.

My captor leaves as soon as they are done. It looks as if I have indeed been transferred to the smaller one, the female. She busies herself at the top of the dwelling for a few hours,[11] during which time I doze fitfully. I seem to be safe, but for how long? Will the female keep me as a decoration, or will she need fresh food for her eggs? I have horrible thoughts of being injected with eggs, so that the newborn spiders can feast on my flesh when they hatch....

Blissfully, I lose consciousness for awhile.

9. Giant water spiders travel at a Movement rate of 15 when underwater or when on land, much faster than other giant spiders. However, they are unable to travel over other spiders' sticky webs (not having the capability to create sticky webs themselves), and are just as susceptible to being caught in such webs as any other potential spider prey.

10. Female giant water spiders are smaller than the males, which is unusual amongst spider species.

11. After mating, the female lays 50-100 eggs, then wraps them in a protective layer of webbing and seals it at the top of her underwater home. After a few weeks the eggs hatch and the spiderlings eat their way out of the webbing. Usually, they stay in the female's web-bell for the first few weeks of life, during which time they molt twice. After that, they exit in different directions to make their own webs.

Some head directly to the surface and cast a single strand of webbing into the air; when long enough, it is picked up by the wind and the spider is carried aloft. Such a process is called "ballooning," and giant water spiders will only do this immediately after leaving their birth-home, for after that they grow to be too large to be carried aloft in that fashion. A ballooning spiderling can be carried for many miles before touching down.
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I am awakened by movement. My eyes are blurry and filled with sleep; my brain is fuzzy and unable to think - what is going on? It has grown lighter: the sun must be up. I see shapes darting by the outside of the web. The female spider has gone out of the web in order to confront the attackers - what are they, fish? It was her movement that woke me.

I hear voices. It takes me a moment to understand the significance of that simple fact.


I cannot make out what is being said, but I cry out for help. At the top of my lungs, I cry out "Help me! Please, help me!" in Elven, then again in the common tongue of the region.

A figure enters my field of vision. At first, I believe him to be an elf, for his ears are as pointed as my own. Tears fill my eyes, and his form blurs before I get a really good look at him, but I see that he holds a dagger in his hand.

"You're an elf!" he says to me, using the common tongue. "I thought you were a human."

"Does it matter?" I ask, blinking to see through my tears.

"Well, yes. A human would fall under my charm quite easily; you, on the other hand, won't be so easy."

I can see now that this is no elf before me; his skin is a soft shade of green, and the hand holding the dagger is webbed. I have met my first nixie.

I need little time for thought. "Release me, and no charm spell will be necessary," I tell him, "for I will willingly serve you for a year." I have heard tales of how nixies used captured humans to do their heavy labor, and such a fate is infinitely preferable to the one in store for me if I stay with the spiders. Besides, what is a year in the life span of an elf?

"Your word?" he asks.

"My word, freely given."

It is enough. The dagger slices through the webbing that has kept me prisoner for the past several days. I am weak from immobility, and stumble. The nixie must help me out of the spider's dwelling, for I cannot do it alone.

At a touch, the nixie imbues me with the ability to breathe water. I see the nixie warriors have tangled the spider in a net; otherwise, it surely would have killed a few of them, for they do not seem to swim as fast as the male spider did when he brought me to the female.

Surprisingly, the nixies depart without killing the spider. "She has her uses," replies my rescuer. "We occasionally trade with giant water spiders, giving them fish or shiny objects in return for silk.[12] This one is particularly bad-tempered, though, so we don't usually engage in trade with her, although sometimes, like now, we rescue her victims. They don't get eaten, and we get bond-servants. Everybody's happy."

I certainly am, as I look back at the giant water spider, hopefully for the last time. She has escaped from the net, and is returning to her air-filled web.

I watch her go, then turn to accompany my new nixie companions. My curiosity is already overwhelming me with questions.

It should be an interesting year.

12. Giant water spiders are somewhat intelligent (for spiders), and can recognize a beneficial relationship. Many lake-dwelling giant water spiders do engage in trade with nixies, and giant marine spiders occasionally enter similar arrangements with ocean-dwelling races such as mermen or locathah. In general, most aquatic spiders can be approached with offerings of food, and can usually be bargained with by use of such spells as speak with animals or speak with monsters. The spiders are often used to guard caves full of treasure or hidden entrances to living quarters in exchange for a steady supply of food.
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And there we have another one. This one quite obviously dates back to the AD&D 2nd Edition days, as evidenced by the references to infravision and spell memorization and now-quaint game terms like "3+3 Hit Dice" and "save vs. poison." According to my records, this one was mailed to Dragon on 7 Oct 97. It was rejected partly due to the writing style (I recall the line "In my dream I have become the fish" being specifically pointed out to me as an example of what didn't work), and partly due to the creature being kind of bland and boring. Oddly enough, I would later write an "Ecology" article about the steeder, which is again nothing more than a larger-than-normal version of a terrestrial spider, and that one did get published (in Dragon #245).

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...And somewhere along the line it looks like I reserved one post too many in this thread. You'd think I'd have learned to count to 7 by now, wouldn't you?

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