Written by Jonathan Wojcik
As a child, I repeatedly glossed over this monster for looking like such an unimpressive dog-faced humanoid, never noticing just how creative they really were. The name "Ettercap" is a distortion of "Attercop," which depending on who you ask is either an archaic Yorkshire term for a spider or J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional Middle Earth term for a spider. The name fits, as the Ettercap are, themselves, cryptic distortions of spiders. Though their original designs are quite clearly mammalian, the thin and hairy creatures have both venomous fangs and silk glands. They are spider people who are not at all spiders, and that's actually really damn cool. I definitely enjoy creatures who fit the template of completely different creatures, like how moles are just a vertebrate take on the ancient Gryllotapidae. Their original Fiend Folio entry is rather slim, ending on a footnote that they "get along well with all types of spider."
By their next major printed appearance, the Ettercap had become experts in setting traps, especially traps incorporating their silk, and lived in symbiosis with spiders of all sorts, keeping smaller arachnids as pets while giant, monstrous spiders served as hunting companions. Diterlizzi's design improved a great deal on the original - it's spiderier, but still in a manner suggesting some sort of convergent evolution, rather than literally being part spider.
Now, I believe this 3rd edition design by M.W. Kaluta is around where the Ettercap first became a more explicitly arachnoid monster, and might be one of the only cases ever where I'd actually rather something not look more like a giant bug. It feels like Wizards just didn't get what the original Ettercap was going for. It's just so predictable for spider people to look like spiders.
...On the other hand, this version of the Ettercap is fucking precious. I don't swear a lot on Bogleech, but look at that little guy. Really look at him. I don't care how big of a pansy arachnophobe you are, you can't not love that little face. I suppose I just wish this was something other than an Ettercap revamp.
Beth Trott's Ettercap, published in 2007, amps up everything snuggle-able about Kaluta's design by having the little bastard playing with his spiders. Good god. I want to throw up on a kitten.
Alas, the D&D environment continued to distance itself from the whimsical as Wizards commissioned increasingly pugnacious looking Ettercaps, with these purple guys by Wayne Reynolds becoming the bog standard for quite some time. Not bad, I do like the simplicity of it but they're neither cool spidery-dog-goblin people nor roly-poly hugglebuggies. Ettercap are now said to be the descendants of mad, spider-worshiping druids, who struck some sort of deal with a powerful demon to acquire their own spider-powers. What was wrong with being spider-like just for the hell of it? It's like everything these days demands an injection of Lovecraft.
Finally, someone somewhere just said "screw it, they're totally bug guys now," and the Ettercaps grew both chitinous plates and an additional set of limbs. I do like this design fairly well, with its almost Solifugid-like face, but it's so far removed from the original concept, why even keep the original name at all? I suppose I can think of one good explanation: while design changes are rarely a part of the storyline, the Ettercap's artistic evolution is easy to interpret as an actual, canon evolution from that supposed "spider-cult" to the creatures they are now, every generation born just a little less human and a little more spider. One day, perhaps the Ettercap are destined to become full-blown giant spiders....but maybe they'll just keep on changing from there, into something nobody has seen before. Something even spidier than spiders.
I guess in the end, there's something I like about every iteration of the Ettercap, but the second and third incarnations here really hit something special for me. If there's one thing that can be said for Ettercaps in general however, it's that I really, really think they should have made it one of the basic player races. I might be way more keen to play the game if I were entitled by default to pick a spider-guy, and it's not even as over the top as half-demons or dragon people, both of which are now core player options in 4th edition. You listening, wizards? You've already pandered to the dragon and demon geeks, you've no excuse to give arthropods the shaft.