Drow are one of D&D’s most iconic foes, appearing on the covers of countless fantasy novels in the form of the Drizzt books, in television media like the infamous D&D episode of Community, and now once more on the cover of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The modern fantasy idea of dark elves did not originate with D&D—they were likely inspired by the dökkálfar and svartálfar of Norse mythology—but many of the iconic aspects of D&D’s dark elves date back to Gary Gygax’s earliest adventures. Even the name, drow, was inspired by the trow (“trolls”) of the northern British Isles.
The drow of D&D may be the game’s most misunderstood humanoid race. Are the drow all supernaturally evil, or is there some good in them? Are good drow like Drizzt Do’Urden and Fel’rekt Lafeen outliers, or could other noblehearted drow change their cruel society? The answer can be found by tracing the genealogy of the drow, so to speak, through the writings of Gary Gygax, R.A. Salvatore, and others, from 1978 to 2018.
This article contains minor spoilers for Out of the Abyss and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
Greyhawk and Gary Gygax’s Drow
The drow originated in the classic adventure module G3 – Hall of the Fire Giant King, written by Gary Gygax. This adventure was adapted to fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons in Tales from the Yawning Portal. In this adventure—the finale of the Against the Giants trilogy—a drow priestess named Eclavdra reveals herself as the true mastermind of the giant crisis. For reasons yet unknown, she planted plots of war in the mind of King Snurre Iron Belly (the dragonhide-draped fire giant who appears on the cover of the Player’s Handbook) who in turn called upon his frost and hill giant allies to muster for a war of conquest.
This, in microcosm, is the drow way. In D&D’s most classic fantasy settings of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, dark elves tend avoid all-out conflict. They would rather lurk in the shadows and manipulate the stupid, war-like people of the surface world into fighting among one another so that they can reap the rewards. Nations and tribes at war hole up in their strongholds and leave their villages and hinterlands undefended while their soldiers flood towards their borders. In times such as these, gold, slaves, and territory all flow freely into the Underdark as drow raiding parties strike from the world below.
The Underdark! This lightless, magic-suffused realm of supernatural beauty and horror is the home of the drow and countless other frightful beings. It too is named as early as Hall of the Fire Giant King, though it receives precious little description. This is because the story of Against the Giants is just the first part of a larger story. This seven-module saga, all authored (or co-authored) by Gary Gygax, came to known as “GDQ,” and began with the three “Giant” modules, then transitioned into an odyssey through the Underdark in the “Drow” series, then concluded with Queen of the Demonweb Pits, in which the adventurers battled with the spider goddess Lolth in her lair within the Abyss itself.
This iconic first appearance of the drow introduced several facets of their character that would echo throughout D&D history, particularly in stories set in the Forgotten Realms. Gary Gygax’s drow are uniformly evil, live in a labyrinthine underworld known as the Underdark, and emerge from below to sow chaos among surface-dwellers or to raid the surface world for slaves and supplies. Their subterranean society is matriarchal and theocratic, devoted to Lolth, the Spider Queen, a demon goddess who fell from grace in the elven pantheon. Every further appearance of the drow—particularly in the Forgotten Realms—has expanded upon their iconic first appearance in the GDQ series.
Faerûn and the Drow of Salvatore, Cunningham, and Grubb
Other D&D campaign settings have interpreted the drow in fascinating and unique ways, such as the tribal drow of Xen’drik in the world of Eberron. In the Forgotten Realms, however, the drow largely follow the mold crafted by Gary Gygax in his original adventures—with a few major differences, not least of which was the introduction of the “good” drow, Drizzt Do’Urden. The story famously goes that R.A. Salvatore improvised the concept of the heroic drow Drizzt when his editor at TSR asked him to change the main character’s sidekick minutes before she went to a publishing meeting.
It was R.A. Salvatore’s novels in particular that defined the drow of the Forgotten Realms. His Dark Elf trilogy—which focused on the early life of Drizzt Do’Urden and his exile from the Underdark—described the cruel society of the drow in intimate detail. Most expertly, it showed that society through the eyes of one who rejected it. This would be a common theme for drow protagonists in the Forgotten Realms. Jarlaxle Baenre, one of the Realms’ greatest antiheroes (and now an antagonist of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist) is not noble as Drizzt is, but he turned away from the cruel matriarchy of Menzoberranzan to form his own mercenary group of male drow. His rebellion was motivated by self-interest, but it was rebellion nonetheless.
Elaine Cunningham, an author of the 2nd edition days who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as she deserves, is the author of the Starlight and Shadows series. This trilogy of novels follows Liriel Baenre, princess of the great house of Baenre. Her father, the archmage Gromph, killed Liriel’s mother in order to take her in as his apprentice. (This isn’t the first time Gromph’s selfish arrogance has brought ruin upon others; he is the one who accidentally caused the demonic invasion of Out of the Abyss.)
Liriel Baenre became a wizard of great power, and traveled all across Faerûn seeking the secrets of magic. Her betrayal of House Baenre made her great enemies, and she suffered terribly at the hands of her own kin even as she bore the prejudice of the people of the surface world. Liriel has not had any great adventures in the fifth edition era, but the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide does confirm that she yet lives.
In the Forgotten Realms setting written by Ed Greenwood and adapted to D&D rules by Jeff Grubb (and many others in the decades after him), the drow worship many gods, not just Lolth. The terrible Spider Queen is still their chief deity, and her cruelty drives much of the evil in Menzoberranzan. Lolth’s High Priestesses vie for power with the great houses’ Matron Mothers, and despite the chaos that follows this mad struggle for power, it somehow only reinforces the rigid hierarchies of drow society. Chaos is Lolth’s plan, and the cruelty and misery born of such chaos turns ever more drow to her worship, for it is the only stable power they can take faith in.
Lolth and her faithful even enact this madness on a small scale. The driders are testaments to her capricious sadism. Like a Greek god, Lolth turns her judgment upon all those who displease her, twisting their minds and warping their body, replacing their lower half with the body of a giant spider in a cruel mockery of her own demonic form. Despite being remade in their goddess’s image, the drow revile driders. They hurl stones at them and drive them from their cities, forcing them to live in monstrous exile in the tunnels of the Underdark. They know too well the fate that would befall them if Lolth witnessed them showing pity to those she marked for judgment.
But the gods of the drow are not all evil. Though Lolth’s power seems all-consuming, there are deviant cults to a drow goddess known as Eilistraee. This goddess of dance, song, goodness, and beauty is the patron goddess of surface-dwelling drow. Eilistraee guided Liriel Baenre on her quest of exploration and self-discovery, even as Lolth and her minions pursued her and sought to turn her back to the cruel and jingoistic ways of their underground society. She is Lolth’s opposite in many ways, championing freedom, free thought, and altruism in a society of elves who value only the enslavement of others, the domination of wills, and cruel selfishness.
Modern Drow: Timeless and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
September 2018 is a great month for fans of the drow, for it has seen both the release of a new D&D adventure with a major drow component—Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which includes Jarlaxle and his roguish Bregan D’aerthe mercenaries—and Timeless, a new Drizzt novel that continues the long-running story of the most famous drow of them all.
In Dragon Heist, Jarlaxle’s crew are self-serving mercenaries, save one. Fel’rekt Lafeen is a drow gunslinger with a heart of gold. His journey of self-discovery seems guided by Eilistraee herself, for his struggles against the drow matriarchy revealed to him his true self, and his rebellion brought him to Jarlaxle, who he now serves with reckless loyalty. Something in this young drow’s heart allowed him to face the injustices of his land and be transformed not into a cynic, but into a rebel. Maybe even a hero.
It’s easy to discount the drow as a race of evil psychopaths with a few scattered good eggs. It’s easy to read into them as racist caricatures; an entire race of people born irredeemably evil. But this is not the lesson to be taken from the serially misunderstood drow. Their story is one of individual redemption. It is a story of end of totalitarianism by rejecting propaganda and learning the truth with your own eyes. The society of the drow is an autocratic theocracy ruled by a literal demon god, stratified along gender lines in a perverse, funhouse-mirror reversal of real-world patriarchal gender roles. It is a deeply sick and dysfunctional culture, propped up by an eternal war machine of raiding and pillaging. Yet people in this culture are blind to its evils, for they are too busy surviving their own oppression (often by way of oppressing others) to see the full picture.
Drow like Drizzt, Jarlaxle, Liriel, Fel’rekt, and the goddess Eilistraee have seen the truth of their ailing realm. In the case of all but Drizzt, they have chosen to reject it and flee, rather than return and save it. Drizzt may see something worth saving in the fetid, opulent husk of Menzoberranzan, for he has returned countless times. He will return again in Timeless.
The depiction of the drow in D&D has been handled by dozens of different authors over the years, with varying degrees of quality. But I can say without doubt that the modern depictions of the drow in fifth edition D&D are the best they’ve ever been. Anyone with even a passing interest in the nuances of drow history and society should read about the history of the drow in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and those interested in delving deeper should read Drow of the Underdark, a third edition book which takes a close look at the politics, hierarchies, and day-to-day workings of drow society.
There are fascinating stories about self-identity and the concept of nature vs. nurture to be explored within the drow. You can be the one to tell these stories, either as a player enacting it on a personal scale, or as a Dungeon Master on the scale of a campaign with dozens of NPCs. If these stories excite you, grab on tight and run with them. D&D has given them to you. They’re yours now.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two midnight raiders, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.