Buckle up- we’re talking about one of the most problematic things in all of Dungeons and Dragons: the drow. The drow have been a mainstay for D&D games since they were first introduced in 1977 in Against the Giants. These spider-worshipping evildoers are featured in every edition that has come out since despite their off-putting (and potentially nonsensical?) depiction. If you don’t know, the drow, or dark elves, are not called dark elves because of where they live but rather because of the coloration of their skin. That’s right, the brain trust at Wizards of the Coast (and formally TSR) made the archetypically evil race of their setting black. Yikes. Oh, and they’re also matriarchal because I guess nothing is more threatening to the average adventurer than a black-skinned race of people ruled by women. I mean, can you imagine anything more alien and strange?
There have been a growing number of people in the ttrpg community who are justifiably upset about this depiction and yet it seems there are an equally vocal group of folks who can’t imagine a D&D without the dark elves. The argument for keeping the drow in D&D as they currently are is two-fold: Firstly, they feel the drow should stay as-is because it’s tradition. Secondly, some argue that the drow aren’t as problematic as people make them out to be because there are a smattering of examples of good-aligned drow throughout history. Drizz’t is one of the good ones, after all, and so his unique goodness is evidence that the entire people doesn’t need to be retconned.
Regardless of how you feel about the above arguments, I personally will not play or allow drow at my table as they currently are. There is just too much baggage around them and I’d hate for any of my players or listeners to interpret my inclusion of the drow as tacit approval of the “black-equals-evil” messaging they represent.
So how do we fix them?
If you want to see the Players Handbook-esque entry, click here to jump to that section of this post. If you want to see my thought process, read on!
The most obvious answer is to make them not black, right? I mean, after all, you’d think people that lives their entire life in caves wouldn’t be black, they’d be albino. So why would the drow be depicted as black, given that so many creatures that exist in sunless environs are pale? Aside from their color being used to other them, you could argue that their dark skin would help them blend in with their surroundings better…if it weren’t for the fact that they also have white or silver hair. Sure, this could be covered up for stealth-purposes, but why would they evolve to have white hair if their dark skin was also the result of evolution trying to give them the advantage of camouflage?
When I was doing research for why drow are black I came a cross a post about black cave fungi. These fungi use melanin to absorb radiation from deep underground as their main source of energy since they can’t rely on things like photosynthesis. I love this idea for explaining why the drow are dark-skinned. Maybe the food is scarce in the depths and the drow evolved overtime to make use of the background radiation. In game, maybe this means that drow don’t need to eat when they are underground, or that they only consume rations at half of their normal rate. If the setting you’re using features radiation as a damage type, maybe the drow have resistance or immunity to it.
So let’s leave the drow black. Let’s just make them not inherently evil. Sure, some of the drow might be evil. There are evil and good and neutral people throughout just about every other people in D&D (we can discuss duergar and orcs another time…) so there’s no reason the drow aren’t the same. What makes them unique, instead, is their culture and how it has been shaped by their lightless world.
In D&D, dark vision renders everything in total darkness in shades of gray only. This likely results in a people for whom color has little meaning. Maybe without an emphasis on color, patterns and geometric designs have greater importance, or maybe they prize highly reflective materials that capture any small bit of light. I’m imagining clothing covered in a riot of shining patterns that glint and sparkle in the darkness like stars. Conversely, there could be a lot of color in the form of phosphorescent mushrooms and creatures which would provide the drow enough dim light that, for a creature with dark vision, would be equivalent to seeing in bright light. Now I’m imagining a world full of neon colors and glimmering fabrics that, to a surface dweller, might seem garish and overwhelming.
Moving on from the drow’s aesthetics, so much of our own culture is centered around things like feasts, family meals, celebratory desserts, etc., but what would occupy this cultural niche in a society that gets the majority of their sustenance from ambient radiation? With cooking and securing food no longer a primary concern, the drow would have a lot of leisure time to pursue other interests. Would this result in a drive to explore their surroundings, to engage in decadent vices, to pursue artistic, scientific, or militaristic endeavors? With so much spare time, and a lifespan that lasts nearly a millennium, the drow might be expected to master several disciplines over their lives. Would they value ambition or is that particular drive only important to folks with limited time to pursue goals? For the drow, mastery might be more of an inevitability rather than a thing to strive for. Want to become a master swordsman? Well…go for it. Spend twenty years mastering that skill. You’ve got time!
So far we have a stable, secure society that has adapted to its environment to the point where most of its basic needs are met without any challenge whatsoever. What does that mean for a society that is, by many measures, post-scarcity? Especially considering that all other known non-drow people in the world are struggling to secure their basic needs day in and day out. Would the drow view this disparity as a sign of their divine favor? I’m sure some would, whereas others might see this as an opportunity to act as shepherds to the less fortunate. In either case, I think the drow would be extremely proud if not explicitly thankful for their lot in life after seeing what others have to go through to just…exist. This might not be the case if the drow didn’t see the challenges faced by the other people of the world. Imagine looking at a human sharecropper spending his already short life struggling to provide food and shelter for his children. There’s no time to travel, to pursue arts, or to even enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. Would you feel pity? Would you feel justifiably superior? Now spread those feelings over an entire society to imagine how they might view the world around them.
Given the drow don’t need to struggle to meet their basic needs, what’s to stop them from pursuing their manifest destiny and spreading throughout the world’s dark places and establishing an empire beyond compare? Nothing, really. Unless we add a wrinkle. In my world, the drow have an incredibly low birth rate. Some believe this is a byproduct of the ambient radiation, others believe it is a concerted effort by the non-drow gods in order slow their growth and prevent them from overrunning the world. In either case, over the course of their lifetime, a drow woman might be lucky to give birth to two or three children.
Children are the scarcest resource for the drow, and as such are prized above all else. They are so valued that raising them cannot be left to chance and so, shortly after their birth, the children are taken to be raised by the government in communal homes to ensure they are brought up correctly. This removes the need for nuclear families and, as such, marriage and long-term partnerships are rare if not unheard of among the drow. Children are raised not knowing their heritage and thus have no loyalty to anything but their city and themselves. After receiving a basic education up to the age of thirty, young drow are free to pursue their own interests and make their way in society however they see fit.
This dissolution of the family unit and freedom to pursue ones interest means that, ideally, only the most able drow rise to leadership positions in society. Without nepotism elevating the unfit or familial pressure forcing people into roles they aren’t interested in, drow society is a true meritocracy. Sort of. Power corrupts, and the drow are not immune to its effects. Politics can be as vicious and cruel for the drow as they are for all people. The drow understand this, and so they have taken steps to ensure their leaders make decisions through debate and agreement and not through decree. Each drow city is represented by fifteen counselors, each of whom is equal in power to one another. Debates are public and decisions are a matter of majority rules. Every year, the three longest-serving counselors are replaced by three new drow, all of whom must be over the age of 100 and are chosen via lottery. The drow vote on who is included in this lottery, with the top 50 vote recipients forming the pool from which the new counselors are selected. Former counselors cannot serve again.
I’m feeling pretty satisfied with how I’ve salvaged the drow, but now I want to take all of this information and distill it into a useable 5E Player’s Handbook-esque entry. So, without further delay, I present to you:
Shemis had no trouble following the path the outsiders took through the twisting caves but, from the look of it, they were struggling mightily. Boot-crushed blue and orange mushrooms leaked their phosphorescence into the slick stones, forming a clumsy path towards the Blasted Place. Good. The fact that they were still glowing meant her quarry wasn’t far off now. Shemis gripped her spear and re-balanced the pack on her shoulders. She had to stop them.
An few hours later, Shemis saw the harsh light of their lantern pouring out from around a bend in the cave. She smiled. She wasn’t too late. She sprinted forward, turning around the corner and squinting at the bright light. The figures spun and brandished their weapons at her, shoving the lantern forward to get a better look at her.
Shemis shielded her eyes and turned away. “Please,” she said, the foreign words felt odd in her mouth. “Put the lantern down. And your weapons. I’m not here to hurt you.” She dropped her spear, knowing full well these half-starved interlopers were no threat to her with or without it.
Slowly, the party did as she asked. She saw now that there were four of them, two humans, a halfling, and one of her surface-dwelling cousins. One of the humans stepped forward and bowed, the filthy sleeves of his once fine jacket scraping the cave floor. “My name is Lord Esthermount and my party and I are seeking the Ruins of Ainek.”
Shemis smiled. “Yes, I know. Our scouts spotted you three days ago. We thought you would have turned back once you ran out of food but you are…persistent, it seems. You’re also heading towards your deaths.”
“Hah!” the elf said. “We do not fear the ghoul-infested ruins! Save your breath and your warnings.”
Shemis smiled again, though this one had none of the warmth of her previous grin. “Cousin, you are mistaken. This path leads only to death, not the ruins you seek. I would be happy to show you the way to the ruins, though you will need to resupply first. Also, there are no ghouls. My people make sure the ruins are kept safe for any pilgrims who seek them out.” She turned then to face Lord Esthermount, letting the elf marinate in his own foolishness. “Follow me, my lord. We have prepared a place for your party to rest. We will bring you to the ruins after you sleep. Oh, but first, here.” She reached into her backpack and brought out a small, carefully wrapped bundle. “Dried fish, vegetables, and mushrooms. You must be…” Shemis struggled to think of the word. The very concept of it was foreign to her. “Ah yes. You must be hungry.”
With that, Shemis casually flipped the spear into her hand using the toe of her boot and turned to walk back toward her home. Slowly the interlopers began to follow.
Though the drow share a common ancestor with elves, they are as distinct from their surface-dwelling kin as the gnomes are to the dwarves and the halflings are to the humans. Countless millennia spent not just surviving but thriving in caves soaked in arcane energy has changed the very nature of these so-called “dark elves”.
Shaped by Darkness
Similar to how plants use the sun’s energy for photosynthesis, the drow absorb this ambient radiation instead of relying entirely on food for sustenance. Though this ability has rendered food little more than a frivolity, it has also changed the drow’s appearance. The drow’s skin, hair, and eyes are pitch black, allowing them to absorb the maximum amount of this radiation. They are also smaller than surface elves, averaging around five feet tall and weighing between 75 and 125 pounds.
The lightless landscape has also given them superior dark vision, even compared to other underground people. Still, though their world is dark, it is not as dull and colorless as one might think. The drow love color and patterns, utilizing reflective materials and bioluminescent plant and animal life to make their clothing and architecture shine. Visitors are often shocked by this, just as drow visitors to the surface are surprised by just how many shades of…brown…there are.
An Embarrassment of Time
Without the need to work to secure and prepare food, the drow have a lot of leisure time day-to-day. Spread this extra leisure time over a lifespan of nearly 1,000 years and you have a people who will inevitably master whatever they attempt. From martial prowess to artistic pursuits, if a drow wants to become proficient in a particular area, they simply will. It might take ten or twenty years of practice but mastery is almost certain.
This means that, by their twilight years, an individual drow might be a veritable library of skills, information, and experience. The drow understand this and as such revere the eldest members of their people for being amazing sources of knowledge. Conversely, the elders understand their twilight years will likely be spent consulting the younger drow to ensure their knowledge is passed down.
A Rare People
Though the drow have ample resources to support a much larger population, they cannot grow their numbers fast enough to take advantage of this abundance. Drow women who choose to become mothers rarely give birth to more than two or three children over the course of their lifetimes. Most drow believe this low birthrate is caused by the ambient arcane energy that sustains them but other, more suspicious drow believe this curse is divine in origin. They believe the gods have inflicted this upon them to stop them from flooding the dark places of the earth and displacing the other subterranean people.
Regardless of what caused this, the result is that children are precious above all other things to the drow. As such, rearing the young cannot be left to the whims of parents who might make mistakes and waste the resource. The city removes the children from their mothers shortly after birth and raises them for the next thirty years in communal houses. The children are not told who their parents are, nor are the parents able to learn who their children are. The nuclear family, marriages, and even long-term partnerships are all but unheard of in drow society. As such there are no family loyalties or expectations, freeing each drow to pursue their own interests upon release from their communal homes.
Drow are given names by the heads of their communal homes upon reaching their first birthday. Upon graduation, a drow will choose a surname indicating what role they will pursue in society. If they choose to change their occupation at some point in the future, they will change their surname at that time.
First Names: Azdos, Cuor, Donnin, Fovis, Iotra, Jival, Nulin, Shemis, Thysah, Wynin
Surnames: v’Canarat (the spear-wielder), v’Doriax (the child-rearer), v’Falan (the astronomer), v’Hiliun (the clothier), v’Lylinis (the diplomat), v’Nosusa (the counselor), v’Oloita (the sculptor), v’Sorolan (the engineer), v’Tacili (the pathfinder), v’Ynalon (the merchant)
Drow are like all people, a variety of skills, experiences, and tendencies. The information presented below is meant to reflect many drow, though not all or even most. Work with your DM to change the following information as you see fit. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything provides rules for swapping out features as needed.
Ability Score Increase. Your Intelligence score increases by 2, and one other ability score of your choice increases by 1.
Age. Although drow reach adulthood around 20, they are not released from their communal houses until their basic education is completed at 30. Even then, they are not seen as truly mature until their 100th birthday. Once drow turn 600, they return to their communal houses to instruct the next generation of drow using their centuries of accumulated knowledge. Drow rarely live past 700 years of age.
Alignment. Drow prize their freedom and protect it at all costs, believing each individual should be free to pursue what they will provided it does not harm themselves or those around them. This focus on not harming others pushes them towards good, however their extreme self-interest pulls them back towards evil in equal measure. The net result is a carefully balanced neutrality.
Size. Drow are between five and five and a half feet tall and weight between 75 and 125 pounds. Your size is medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30’
Darkvision. Darkness is as familiar to you as the air you breathe. You can see in dim light within 120 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern colors in darkness, only shades of gray.
A Flexible Mind. You have gain proficiency in two skills of your choice.
Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.
Radiosynthesis. The ambient energy of your underground home is enough to sustain you without much food. When underground you only need to consume one pound of food per week to avoid exhaustion. You have advantage on checks to avoid exhaustion due to starvation when underground.
Trance. Drow don’t need to sleep. Instead, they enter a trance for six hours a day. When in a trance, they are aware of their surroundings and, if uninterrupted, gain the same benefit that a human does from 8 hours of sleep.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common Elvish, and Drow. Elvish is a graceful, sweeping language perfect for poetry and song. Drow, on the other hand, is a hushed, simpler language meant for clarity and conciseness. Many people learn Drow as a stepping stone to learning Elvish as it is much easier to master.
Light Sensitivity. You have disadvantage on attack rolls and on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in bright light. Drow understand this limitation and can replace one item from their classes starting equipment with tinted glasses/goggles to avoid this issue.
Drow Martial Training. Drow are used to fighting in narrow caves and tunnels and as such understand the value of a spear-and-shield wall for sealing off passages. You have proficiency with shields, spears, and pikes.
And there you have it! A (hopefully!) un-problematic version of the drow to use at your table. If you have any questions or concerns, I’d love to hear from you about it so please feel free to Tweet at me via @podofblunders or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.