Monsters Mastered: Drow
For everything good in D&D, there is a dark reflection. For the gods, there are archfiends. For every angel, there is a devil. For dwarves and humans there are duergar and hobgoblins. And for the graceful, magical, elegant elves? Well, we have the insidious, demonic, sadistic drow.
Unlike the orcs and kobolds (covered in previous articles) Drow are supremely civilized, organized, and urbane. They study magical arts, construct their own cities, craft weapons and armor, and even engage in politics and discourse… and that’s why they are so dangerous. Unlike many other groups of enemies in D&D, drow possess many of the advantages that the party has access to: magic, martial prowess, and the wherewithal to plot and scheme. What’s more, their entire society is based around satisfying the capricious whims of a demon queen, making them unpredictable and cruelly evil.
This week we will learn some basics about Drow culture, ways to improve their kit, and how to maximize their potential in your campaign!
As with many monster races, understanding their history and religion plays a key part in playing them well, so we must begin with Lolth.
In the ancient days, elves of old were engaged in a civil war. Charitable and righteous elves stood against their kin who were vicious and vile. However the war started, it ended when the selfish elves were driven out of elven lands and into the dark places beneath the earth. Abandoned by their former gods for their transgressions, the drow sought succor with the only elven deity that had not turned its back on them: The Demon Queen of Spiders, Lolth.
Lolth is a fickle and capricious goddess at the best of times. Her existence in the Abyss has been filled with bloodshed and deceit, and Lolth would have it no other way. She is a dangerous foe and a nearly equally dangerous ally if she sees that she has something to gain by using or betraying her affiliates. She bears no love for her elven worshippers, believing their worship of her as nothing more than appropriate. She offers gifts and favor to those she believes will serve her aim of increasing her power and influence across the planes, and retracts them the moment they would be better served elsewhere. Her unpredictable and unscrupulous whims make her a mysterious mistress indeed.
Lolth is known to summon promising warriors to her side in the Demonweb Pits to test their mettle. Passing her trials will earn you great boons, but failure could mean a terrifying transformation into a spider-hybrid creature resembling an arachnid centaur. Driders, as they are known, are considered failures by Lolth and her dark elf servants, shunned as outcasts from society to live alone among the dangers of the Underdark. This is merely one example of what might become of a servant of Lolth, and serves to display the dangers that might befall even her most loyal devotees.
Fickle though her favor may be, Lolth is the only pseudo-divine source of power the dark elves can rely upon, so they seek it tirelessly. The spider and web iconography that signifies her worship is woven throughout drow apparel, weapons, armor, and architecture. Spiders themselves are used as pets and mounts by the elves, and are milked for their deadly venoms. Great temples have been built in her honor far beneath the suntouched lands, and her priesthood is held in the utmost regard by drow society.
Lolth’s religion celebrates femininity. She readily offers her gifts to her female followers, and that power lifts them to the pinnacle of dark elf politics and culture. Therefore, drow culture is strictly matriarchal, with male drow always subservient to women. Any social status that a male drow achieves in its lifetime is awarded to him by the matron mother of his house or one of the Spider Queen's priestesses. While some drow chafe under this sexist society, it is often advantageous to fly below the radar, as cutthroat as dark elf politics can be.
Dark elves are loyal first and foremost to their House, bloodlines of elite Drow that date back eons to the schism that separated them from other elves. Whether or not a drow is a member of such a noble lineage, they and their families might serve one of these illustrious Houses. Lords and ladies, vassals, soldiers, spies, captains, consorts, servants, and slaves… a house is composed of much more than just its aristocracy. Each house is led by a matriarch, the female drow of noble blood with the most power and influence (usually also the eldest, but not necessarily). Called by the title of matron mother, the heads of these Houses are constantly struggling to keep their positions once they have been earned. Not only must they defend themselves and their House from other Houses wishing to assimilate them, but they must beware upstarts and treachery from other elves within their own House that would have her position for themselves! Having to constantly watch their own backs and preempt treason from their followers leads most matron mothers to paranoia. The paranoia leads them to give rash and inane orders to their followers in an attempt to protect their status, which makes their followers suspect of their orders, in turn encouraging them to dethrone their matron mother and ascend themselves, only to fall prey to the same fears as their predecessor… It is a self-perpetuating cycle with a history as old as dark elf society itself.
As with many cultures focused on personal power rather than the good of the whole, drow society is limited by its own ambition. They have not reached their potential due to their lack of ability to cooperate with one another on a grand scale. Few leaders have unified large numbers of dark elves to pursue particular goals, and that is a good thing for the other races that share their subterranean homes. Even fractured as they are, they are one of the most dangerous forces in the Underdark. Unified, they would present a threat not only to the world below, but to the worlds of men.
Dark elves are master tacticians, preferring to win fights before they begin in earnest. They prefer their foes to be at their weakest before the engagement begins. This can be accomplished many ways: by damaging the morale of their opponents by intimidation and scare tactics, by striking while the foe is sleeping or at camp, by waiting for their prey to weary themselves against other threats, or by attacking when their enemies are low on resources or already injured… to name a few. But a drow’s favorite method of weakening their foes is through their signature weapon: poison.
Poison and dark elves are as synonymous as dwarves and Mining, gnomes and tinkering, and halflings and second breakfast. Their culture has perfected harvesting and distilling poisons from even the most monstrously venomous creatures in the Underdark, and their warriors often coat their blades and ammunition in these injurious tinctures to bring their enemies low. They may also add poison to an enemy’s drinking water or wine, exposing greater numbers to the noxious agents.
Until their poison has begun its work, drow prefer to keep their distance. Most drow know at least a sampling of magic, and those that don't often carry some type of thrown or projectile weapon that is effective outside the reach of their enemies blades. Only when victory seems certain do drow move in for the kill, Oftentimes with short, quick blades ideal for assassination. Such weapons allow a dark elf to make use of their natural dexterity and fluidity of movement to maximum effect.
Because of their subterranean origins, Dark Elves eschew sunlight. Its radiant gaze makes it difficult for them to fight at their best. As such, drow prefer to keep in the shadows, a biological predilection that pairs well with their love for subterfuge and ambush tactics.
Though they are a proud race, dark elves know when to admit defeat. When they lose their advantage, most would prefer to make a tactical retreat, regroup, and scheme for another assault. They might even be willing to negotiate or compromise (at least temporarily) with the enemy if it means getting what they want. A successful mission is more important than an overwhelming victory.
On that note, a success in battle rarely means slaying their enemies outright for a drow. Lives are resources too precious to waste. They prefer to capture than to kill, putting their prisoners to work in service of their House. Live captives can also be interrogated for information, a valuable commodity to the insidious elves, or ransomed back to their enemies in exchange for treasure or artifacts. As such, a drow executing their enemies is very uncommon.
All that said, most drow would prefer to avoid open conflict. Cultured and urbane killers, most drow would rather turn their enemies against one another with some well-placed incriminating evidence, forge inflammatory correspondence, or bribe others to do their dirty work for them.
The drow of modern D&D are characteristically vile, fiendish servants of a demonic queen of the Abyss who employ their wiles and subterfuge to accomplish their inscrutable goals. They make excellent masterminds, spies, tacticians, and assassins. They employ thematically appropriate, mechanically advantageous, and narratively justified spells, tools, and weapons to bring their enemies low, and are very good at what they do.
What’s to improve? They’re practically perfect in every way.
As they’ve been around for many decades in D&D’s history, and are pretty well understood by anyone familiar with their tropes, the fun can come from playing with those expectations. A House of elves helmed by a Patron Father, for example? A splinter group that worships a good deity rather than Lolth? A group of barbaric drow that trade the race’s typical elegance and subtlety for vulgarity and brutishness? Or a lone dark elf with dual scimitars that fights with a great panther at his side…?
There are many ways to alter the formula to surprise and delight your players, but don’t stray too far. Their drow player characters will stand out all the more when they contrast a typically odious group of villains who are suspicious even in the best of times.
In Your Campaign
Compared to other creatures we have examined in this series to date, Drow are cautious, calculating, and coordinated. They are capable of planning ahead, and creating sophisticated schemes to achieve their aims in the world at large. Also, they are more manipulative, capable of achieving their goals without resorting to bloodshed. They are open to compromise, ready and able to ally themselves with others, and not afraid to retreat if it means fighting another day.
While a small group of drow makes for an interesting combat encounter, they achieve their potential in greater numbers and outside the arena of combat. Drow that pluck the strings of political leaders, criminal kingpins, and social savants are far more dangerous than ones that wield blades.
When they must operate alone, drow assassins are incredibly effective. With their talents for stealth and familiarity with poisons, they make lethal infiltrators. While a party of seasoned adventurers would almost certainly kill them, they may be able to slay their target before they are stopped.
One of the more versatile and exciting enemy groups in D&D, drow make wonderful antagonists for the party! In small numbers, they make good canon fodder at low levels, and are still effective in the endgame of a campaign with their high-level spells and nefarious tactics. If you’re looking to challenge your players with villains that have to be outsmarted rather than merely battered with swords and spells, look no further than these iconic enemies!
Did you learn anything new about Drow? What makes them great antagonists in your opinion? How have you changed them to better fit your world? Tell us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or in our growing Discord!
Rob Franklin (@thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.