Today’s question comes from all the way back in June 2010 – I’m sorry it’s taken so long to answer it!

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from Brett, who wrote:

“I am an extremely new DM, but I have played for 7 years now. I am looking to put my players in conflict with Drow. At one point in time you said,

‘One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race.’

Why do you do this? They are formed from the same culture that formed elves, should they not be similar? And, can you point me to some good resources about Drow?

The quote is from The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (parts 2, 3 & 4), in referring to “Drow Magic” by Mongoose Publishing.

So, Why make Drow feel distinctive? How does this reason impact the handling of other races & species in a game? And where can readers find more information on Drow and Dark Elves in general?

Because this question was actually asking me to amplify on a point made in one of my other articles, I decided to answer it myself. If any other players or GMs wants to add something to what I’ve said, the comments section is at your disposal!


Mike’s Answer:

This is a difficult question to answer, because it always seemed so obvious to me that I had never subjected the question to much scrutinity. Breaking it down, we have a specific question about Drow vs Elves; we then have a general case of non-human races in general to consider (or reconsider) in light of that specific question; and we end with a request for resources, and those will fall into four teirs: Drow, Elves, other specific races, and finally, general resources deriving from the discussion, both theoretical and practical.

That’s quite a work order, and I don’t know how far I can get through it, but nothing will get done at all if I don’t get started.

Drow Vs Elves

Americans are exactly the same as Britons. The Puritans were exactly the same as the Europeans from which they derived. Everything that changed as a result of the Norman Invasion made the Englanders of the day exactly the same as the French from which the Normans derived. Drow are just like Elves. The first three are patently untrue, so why should we expect the last to hold water?

American Independance

When the American Colonies rebelled against British Rule in 1775, there were economic and political justifications but the bottom line was that the colonists no longer thought the same way as the people from which they had derived. The act of unforced immigration itself selected for people with a particular mindset; these were either oppressed minorities seeking freedom of expression (or forcibly exiled) or opportunists seeking a better lift for themselves and their descendants. Those who survived the ordeals of colonial life were forced to become more self-reliant and less prone to look to higher authority to solve their problems for them; the movement to a more democratic social and political system was, to some extent, inevitable.

Norman Invasion of England

Similarly, the invading Normans brought French social and political beliefs to England, but these had to compromise for reasons of practicality with what was already there; the result was a hybridization of attitudes that was inevitably a little different from those of Normandy at the start, and grew more divergent with every passing year and generation. England had more space, more people, more resources, was an island nation seperated from the European mainland by the English Channel, and had an indigenous population of Anglo-Saxons. Each of these was a point of difference between the two that could not have any effect other than produce social, cultural, political, and – eventually – religious divergance.

For that matter, the Normans themselves derived from Viking conquerors, and the very fact of their assimilation into France shows that the act of seperating from a parent culture leaves a population subject to change and divergance.

The Puritans

The Puritans were extremist activists that split from the Protestant Church of England who were tied up in the first English Civil War, and who came to America seeking religious freedom. Their social practices and beliefs were immediately divergant from those of their parent culture, because that was the whole point of the emigration!


Which brings us to the Drow. Something led them to split with Elvish Society, and that was a pivital moment in the histories of both. They migrated into a completely different physical environment, which they had to conquer, and which may well have been populated by some other underground species at the time. Their social structure and practices are completely different from those of Elves. They evolved radically different religious beliefs and practices, either before, during, or after the split. There are no shortage of reasons why the division might have occurred, and how long ago, but the fundamental fact is that it happened. No matter how similar or divergant they may have been at the time of division, it’s absolutely inevitable that they think differently to Elves, that they will have radically different goals, priorities, options, standards of behavior, and in any given situation where there is room for a difference of opinion will make choices different to those of an Elf.


I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that in Fumanor there was divergance in viewpoints from long before the Division, which led to an act of Genocide against another branch of the Elvish population and consequent exile from the main population. From that point, the differences only grew more extreme.

Shards Of Divinity

In my Shards campaign, the Drow are a radicalized subversive terrorist cult within Elvish Society. There are Drow Enclaves which are extremely divergant from mainstream Elvish society, but most are indistinguishable from Elves as a deliberate act of Subterfuge on the part of the Drow. There has, as yet, been no Division between the two, in terms of their history. They came close at one point, when there was a Civil War between the racial branches, but the Cult was smashed, driven underground, and (seemingly) supressed.

Drow recieve a slightly different education, and recieve specialist training and theological instruction, but the major difference between the two is in the way that they think. They are currently experiencing a resurgance and gathering strength, as a result of the PCs getting in over their heads early in the campaign; they released an Elvish Prince who was Drow – the original leader of the sect, in fact, who had been seduced by Lolth, who had led the attempted coup, and who had been confined for his crimes, a thousand years earlier – and then, under his direction, awakened an Enclave of his subjects who had been confined at the same time. Both had been subjected to a form of Stasis that had slowed time to a crawl for them, so they have not yet done anything with their new-found freedom, but 10,000 radicalized Drow and their once-charismatic leader are now infiltrating Elvish Society.

In other words, the Drow are on the path that will eventually lead them to become the Drow of the game sourcebooks, but who have yet to commit an act so unforgivable that they will become the Mortal Enemies of Elvenkind. Right now, so far as most are concerned, they are nothing but an occasional public nuisance.

Manifesting The Differences

There are three spheres of activity in which these differences should manifest. Roleplayed encounters with individual Drow, Adventuring within a Drow domain, and Battle.

Individual Drow

The first usually casts the Drow in question as a spy, sleeper agent, or subversive element of some kind, formenting trouble for whatever reason. Overtly, their behavior would and should be indistinguishable from those of any other Elf (or whatever they are pretending to be). Until revealed, their “Drowness” lies hidden, and is more about motivation than anything else; when revealed, their true nature should become manifestly obvious because it telegraphs that motivation to the players. His mindset and loyalties should obviously become distinct from those of “ordinary” Elves at that point.

Yes, Drow will always have some characteristics in common with the parent race, but that only means that the points of distinction between them should be emphasized.

In A Drow Place

One of the themes through the original “Magician” by Raymond E. Feist and the subsequent “Empire” trilogy co-written by Feist and Janny Wurtz is the awareness on the part of the protagonists of the collisions of cultures. “You only get to see us as we are in your world, subordinated to your culture; at home, we are very different. If you respect those differences, you will come to value aspects of our culture that would, if replicated in yours, benefit you and your people,” to paraphrase this recurring theme.

If there is anywhere that Drow can be Drow, it’s when they are at home and the PCs are the interlopers. This is where and when any admirable characteristics of Drow Society can be made manifest rather than simply serving as motivation for troublemaking amongst a society that is alien to them.

Why bother going to the trouble if Drow are exactly the same as Elves? You want to emphasize and play up the differences between the two so that the viability of the adventuring environment is manifest to the PCs. The price of obtaining the benefits may be too high for the PCs to countenance, but there should be such benefits that can be respected, and even admired.

It might be the sense of peace that comes from knowing exactly your place in society, your responsibilities, and the rewards that fulfilling them will bring. It might be a deep sense of faith that comes from being convinced that you have all the answers. It might be the efficiency that results from a total ordering of society. In order to be truly arrogant (and Drow are nothing if not arrogant), you have to have something to be arrogant about!

Drow are not Elves. In order to manifest the differences in their society and habitat, you have to understand the points of distinction that differentiate between the two, then emphasize them so that they can be communicated to the players in a relatively efficient manner. Doing so, in turn, helps get into the heads of the individual representatives of the race when you roleplay them.

In Battle

Drow have different abilities, equipment, objectives, motivations, and attitudes to those of Elves. This means that they should behave differently in combat, making different choices that reflect their personalities, which in turn exist within the context of the points of distinction between the two.

Does anyone remember the old “dungeon bash” computer games of the 80s and 90s, where the only differences between encounters were the numerical differences of stats – so big, so strong, so much capacity for damage? “There’s an [X] in the room. It draws its weapon.” – “I attack the [X]!” Same thing every time with different stats.

Why bother? You may as well just play cards, or dominos – they at least have more tactical options.

The big difference that existed between a by-the-numbers computer game and a tabletop RPG were the points of individuality and distinctiveness that characterize each race, and the capacity for interaction and freedom that players had with the game. These days, computer games have become more sophisticated, and are now roughly the equivalent of a “play by numbers” adventure book – they are better at simulating differences in personality on the part of the encounters, and different choices on the part of the player can yield different outcomes in the game. There are often no more right or wrong choices in terms of getting from “A” to “B” within the adventure. But you are still dealing with either a random element, or with a set of fixed plotlines, no matter how well hidden; the capacity for the players to influence the style and direction of a campaign remains the greatest point of distinction between computer RPGs and tabletop RPGs.

That’s why World Of Warcraft became such a huge success; most of the encounters were with other “live players” and the results of these encounters were always unpredictable; multiply them ten-thousand-fold and they can reshape the game world. In effect, the gsme software and those responsible for it became the GMs, with thousands of players.

Unless you properly distinguish Drow from Elves, encounters with either will be more shallow than it could be, and so will your game.

The Bigger Picture

Four aspects of the bigger picture, i.e. the entire campaign, are directly affected by this reasoning: Longevity, Creativity, Background, and Adventure Potential.

Campaign Longevity

One of the reasons why my campaigns last as long as they do is that they have enough depth to support many years of play without the players getting bored. They are complex, rich in detail and ideas, and designed to offer opportunities for adventure. Why? Because those are the types of Campaign that I like to play, and like to GM. This philosophy manifests in an imperative to distinguish one race from another as clearly and succinctly as possible. If you don’t, the campaign won’t last. And that general statement is exemplified by being able to differentiate between Drow and Elves as readily as you could Dwarves and Mermen.


I’m always looking for ways to exercise my creativity in creating campaigns. The differences between races is an obvious avenue for exploration. Even if you use exactly the same map for every campaign, they can all be rendered astonishingly different by interpreting the races differently. But that won’t make any difference unless those interpretations manifest in differences in play, so that the players can percieve and interaction with the differences.

Campaign Background

The split between the branches of Elves is one of those pivotal iconic moments that is so profound, in terms of making a difference to the current status within a campaign that it must always be considered. Yet it offers so much room for variation that it can reflect even the most abstract differences in campaign concept, through changing the reasons for the split, how it occurred, and how those abstract and philsophical distinctions manifest within the game that it can be used as a cornerstone of the entire campaign – it’s an event with concrete outcomes that is sensitive to nuances in campaign concept and background.

It’s always possible to have a campaign concept that has absolutely no impact on the campaign background or on the day-to-day circumstances exprienced by the players. It’s always possible to have a background that doesn’t reflect the concepts apon which the campaign has been based, or that makes no difference to the environment in which the adventures take place. Both waste the potential of these ingredients, so I am always looking for intersection points where these things will yield tangible differences within the game. The differences between Elves and Drow are one of the few such that are always “there”, so it makes a natural starting point for connecting game with background for the players. And, as I noted in the preceding subsection, it makes a great jumping-off point for the creativity of the GM, forging a path into the game world for the players to follow.

Adventure Potential

A campaign goes nowhere and does nothing without adventures. The best adventures aren’t tacked on, they grow out of the campaign’s foundations of concept and background organically. The differences between Drow and Elves and inherant potential for conflict between them is an obvious source of adventures within the game, something not to be thrown away lightly, which is what would happen without highlighting those differences.

Homogeneity gains you nothing but blandness. Accentuating the differences creates interest and excitement, a foundation for originality and adventure.


Which brings me to the hard part – resources. Why so difficult? Because I never – well, hardly ever – use them directly, or as written. Instead, I absorb as many ideas as I can from many different sources and then extract ones that go together, matching the general concepts that I have decided to put in place within the campaign.

I have well over 200 RPG supplements and sourcebooks, but there are very few that I can point at and describe as a “Great” sourcebook, especially with topical restrictions. But I’ll do my best….

I started formulating concepts for Drow from long before I ever heard the term with things like Warner Brothers cartoons and Enid Blyton fantasy like The Wishing Chair, Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tales, and so on. You see, Elves & Drow in D&D owe about half their natures to stories of the “Little Folk” of English, Irish, Scottish, French and German Myth (see ” Fairy“), with transfusions from Nordic/Scandinavian Myth; and about half to Tolkien, the concept of Orcs as “Corrupted” or “Fallen” Elves, with infusions of the Goblins in The Hobbit.

Put all of that in a blender and push “Puree”, then filter out the bits that were turned into Fey, and all you’re left with is the basic concepts.

In later years, the Elves and Moredhel from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga also played a major role. Readers might also find value in Feist’s Faerie Tale, though I usually use it for Fey inspiration.

Then there are all the D&D referances – you can start with just about every link on this Wikipedia page (including the page itself); and then there are the pages on this list, which will fill in most of that mythology that I mentioned earlier, and this page on Dark Elves In Fiction, which is the last link on the list I just mentioned.

A little closer to home, large parts of the Orcs and Elves Saga here at Campaign Mastery should give ideas; both Elves and Drow are central to the plot. There are also some specific articles here that I can point at.

In The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (part 5), I made a fuss over Dezzavold, Fortress Of The Drow from Green Ronan, and in part 2, Drow Magic from Mongoose Publishing made the top twenty.

I used a Drow Spy encounter from my Fumanor Campaign as an example quite extensively in Ask The GMs: Rubbing Two Dry Words Together. And I can’t recommend Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans highly enough when it comes to a process for creating a new interpretation of Drow for yourself.

Elsewhere on the web, a Google Search for “Drow” turns up 1,390,000 referances, no doubt including the Campaign Mastery articles listed above. From the front page of listings, I found nine sites that might be useful, with everything from SRDs to Name Generators.

Of course, the referance that cannot be left out or ignored is Underdark, but everyone uses that as a foundation.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface – if I started listing books and supplements about Elves, Dwarves, and other races, we’d be here all day, and for the most part they don’t matter anyway – because I use those referances in exactly the same way as I do the referances regarding Drow. It’s all just grist for the mill.

The Wrap-up

I started this article with one of my readers quoting me:

‘One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race,’

and asking the question “Why?”

The answer is because making Drow differ from Elves creates far more opportunities than it does headaches, is often outrageous fun in the creative sense, and helps tie a campaign together; and making the differences manifest from the point-of-view of the PCs also makes them available to the Players, and that gives the players a connection through to those abstract, philosophic, and conceptual campaign underpinnings and the campaign background that has resulted. Those are potent rewards for doing something that’s fun.

Of course, there’s another side of the coin, too. I haven’t played in a D&D campaign for a while now, but if I did, one of my first objectives as a player would be to find out how the GM was handling Drow. It’s going to far to describe the “Drow Proposition” as a representative exemplar of the GM’s entire style, but there’s more truth than fiction in such a statement. The first step in understanding how the characters are going to relate to the game world is understanding the GM and where his developmental focus lies, and this is a great tool for at least embarking on such a journey of exploration.

And that’s why, if asked the question, I would have to answer, “Why wouldn’t you!?”

About the contributor:

Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you read at this site. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.

Next in this series: What’s the best way to convey campaign background to players?

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