OSR: The Drow, Part 1

Drow: The “Black Elves,” or drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.
-Monster Manual, 1977
Everything else - spider gods, feuds, evil alliances - came later.

You can go down the "standard" D&D Greyhawk path. Lots of material for that kind of Drow.
Or you can use Patrick Stuart's Aelf-Adal. Dreams and hatred.

Or you can use my Drow. Or some horrible combination.

Major Features

-underground elves, hiding from the High Elves, their creators.
-pale hair, skin in unnatural tones (the colours of marble in water. Lustrous white, pale blue, jet black.)
-beautiful, tall, slim, androgynous.
-elegance and poise. They can never be startled or flustered.

The Drow are not a playable race. I don't have capital-E-Evil or capital-G-Good things in my setting. It's all people. But given that, Drow are people you probably do not want to encounter for your own safety and sanity. They do not play by the usual rules. If the der0 are schitzophernia, the Drow are social anxiety.

Encountering the Drow

There's the slight sound of footsteps. In a cave, in a procession, come four graceful figures. They carry bundles of silk, carefully tied, on their backs. Their faces are beautiful porcelain masks - or are they masks? One carries a red lantern.

They pause as you approach.

These are the Immaculate Slaves. The Drow who owns them is somewhere else, watching. If the you seem interesting or foolish or merely non-threatening, it will approach, from behind its slaves, and speak to you.

The Slaves wear nothing, or next to nothing. Only what they need for the journey. The Drow wears black-grey silk and carries a dagger. The silk moves like smoke.



The Drow know most languages. They will speak to other Elves first, then other races in order of beauty, from most to least beautiful. To the Drow, beauty is virtue, and virtue is power.

The Drow is calm, smiling, and patient. It will never be flustered. It will interrupt you; if you interrupt it , it will continue, evenly, until it has finished its sentence and then wait for a response. Imagine an adult talking to a small child about the child's latest fingerpainting. That's how the Drow see everyone else. Conversations with them should feel like this if you're lucky or this if you're not.

Still, despite their unshakeable smugness, they will be polite. They will trade with the PCs, but the Immaculate Slaves only carry silk, or rose petals, or silver, or other, smaller slaves; things the PCs might desire but very rarely what they need.

The Drow will direct them to the City. It will do this only once.

They never use contractions. They never curse. They pause, but not to think. They make you wait and worry. They call all Elves, "Cousin". Everyone else is "Friend."

Drow Names

They will not tell you their names. If you need to refer to one, say "the Drow we first met". They say, "this one", or "those few," and call each other "Brother" and "Sister."

Somehow, all Drow know who you are talking about, if you describe one to another. If you need to find a Drow you've previously met, everyone in the city can tell you where you could look for them.

Their cities have names. Their factions have names. But the Drow don't. You can name them, if you want to, but it's like calling the postman "Mr. Postman". Endearing, but a little juvenile.

So An Obisidan Elf In Pyjamas Is Talking To You...

It will greet you formally. If it can identify your culture by sight, it will use an appropriate greeting.

It will ask the you what you are doing, where you are going, and why. But slowly. Piece by piece. It will say it is trading. Carrying goods from one city to another. No, it's not far. Would the PCs like to follow it? There are many things to trade in the city.

Safe? Of course.
Source unknown

So You're in a Drow City...

The Drow don't seem to build villages. They build fortresses and listening posts, but rarely stay there in person. They are an urban race.

The cave flattens and levels as you approach the gate. An iron portal made of folding leaves, an iris-gate, a sluice, a porthole. An eye. A lamprey rose. Two seer-hounds, sleek folded shapes like greyhounds made of silk, wait, their Drow handlers standing, masked, impassive, almost bored. They do not bother to look at you as you enter. You probably don't register as a threat.

You passed the real gate several minutes ago.

The paths are lit by red lanterns. Silver cased glass, burning without fuel, faintly hissing. The city is beautiful. A huge cave, huge empty spaces with winding roads and impossible ladders. The walls are buildings, curved, fluted, stumped, flowing like liquid, lit by red lights. A cave of minarets and domes.

Silk banners hang from silver posts. Impossibly detailed tapestries are exhibited in corners. There is always a sensation that the city prepared itself just before you turned the corner, as if the banners and lights and Immaculate Slaves were set out just for you, and before you looked there was nothing.

Perhaps it is so. But most likely not. The Drow are a busy race.

They move gracefully, alone or with Immaculate Slaves attending. The only ones you will ever see in groups are their warrior-guards in masks, and even then, never more than five at a time. The Drow speak to each other briefly, in passing, then move apart. Never a conversation. Never a true meeting. Not in the streets.

There is magic in the air; old magic, pervasive, constant. And blood. And roses. Everything smells faintly of roses, even the spice market, even the alchemist's stores. There are drifts of rose petals in corners but you never see anyone step on one. Peer in a glass window and you might see a garden, just before a black silk curtain is drawn across your view.

The city feels strange, as if you've wandered into a play or a half-real thing. There is something odd and oppressive in the air. But it is still very real. A Drow alchemist will measure a potion for you. A Drow merchant will examine your treasures and offer you a fair price, in silver, light, or flesh.

And perhaps after this brief foray you can leave. If you remember the way out, if you didn't stay too long, if you can clear your head and trudge out of the city and into the cold and unwelcoming caves beyond... then you can escape without consequence. You will dream of the city, of red lights, grey silk, and white masks. And roses. But the dreams will fade.

But perhaps you decide to stay. Or a Drow tells you to follow with a glance. Or a merchant says they cannot buy an item from you, but tells you where you could sell it. You leave the streets and walk through a doorway.
Sangsoo Jeong

So You Find A Gathering of Drow...

Indoors. Behind glass. The transition from the city to the buildings of the city is difficult to measure, but it is nevertheless felt.

Their buildings are like cathedrals. Every view is beautiful. You cannot find a space without art, without refinement, without perfection. Geometric spirals, like the shell of a sea creature. Or a rose.

There are beds of roses. Alone, in the Veins of the Earth, they seem full of life. They grow and sprawl, not trimmed into any one shape but allowed to cascade into a pleasing riot of flowers and thorns. There are beds nearly every room. You have never seen an empty one, never seen one without every flower in bloom and every leaf waxy and full.

They are unsettling.

But the Drow beckon you on. They are discussing something. They turns as you enter. You are presented to the head of a House. To other Drow. To sisters, brothers. They smile. You converse. For a time, things seem normal, although the conversation is hard to follow, and you are not sure if you are being given requests, commands, compliments, or insults.

In a flash, one of the Drow pulls out a dagger and stabs the head of the House in the heart. The other Drow applaud, politely. The conversation continues, now with another Drow leading. The topic is the same. The body lies, cooling slowly, on the white marble throne. In the background, two Drow exchange roses, and share a meaningful glance. A third Drow carries in a wisp of silk and presents it to the corpse on the throne, then leaves. You begin to feel dizzy.

There are rules here, you think. Rules and plots.

But the Drow do not seem perturbed. They do not explain or attempt to accommodate you. Wine is served.

The Drow will never ask you to leave, but it will become clear that the conversation is over.

Drow Personalities

Unchanging. The edge of flirtatious mockery. Amused, patient, but not cruel, and never angry. Never indifferent. They smile. They wait. They step aside.
Marc Simonetti

What Do You Think Is Going On?

Just by speaking with a Drow, you have entered the Drow Conspiracy. 
Please read the Drow Conspiracy post before continuing or you won't understand the rest of this post.

Perhaps it is like this...
If there was a Feudal Conspiracy, you enter it by being born. You become Aware when you are taught your role in society's order. You become Involved when you labour inside the Feudal structure, or gain any benefit from it, or are harmed by it. And you begin Collaborating when you encourage or force others to maintain their role in society's order and not disrupt things.

There is no Feudal Conspiracy because everyone on the surface is involved. Outsiders are so rare that the conspiracy essentially doesn't exist. It's the fabric of society.

The same thing applies to the Drow Conspiracy. In their cities, in their lives, it is the rules. It might seem like madness to an outsider, but it functions. Their society has rules and codes and maneuvers. It grows and fights and produces art.

Or perhaps...
There are no rules. No laws. The Drow are insane. They are trapped by their own social games, their own mad spiral-dream of blood and factions and power. They merely pretend to know the dance; as long as the fiction is maintained, life continues.

Or perhaps...
The Drow have fractured time itself. There are only a few Drow, perhaps less than a dozen, but they live for centuries. Each room in a palace is in a different year. The dead come back to life and walk. Paradoxes roam the halls. Flee! Flee when you still can!

Or perhaps...
There is a code, but you cannot break it. There is a law, but you cannot read it. There is a plan, but it is a long, convoluted plan, a pattern in the darkness.

Let Me Tell You A Story...

Once, a scholar from the surface world, with pockets full of gifts and a bag full of books and ink, found the Drow. The scholar flattered and capered and bowed. The Drow took the gifts and more-or-less ignored the Scholar.

The scholar found a room. Clothes and food appeared from time to time. The scholar observed the Drow for years, decades. They filled book after book with theories and notes and guesses. What does a rose mean? What does a dagger mean? A dictionary of signs. The scholar became old and crooked and more than a little deranged, but they were certain they were close.

Then, one day, the Drow burnt the scholar's books in front of them, cut off their tongue and fingers, and sent them back to the surface... with pockets full of gifts. Bright diamonds. Silver. And roses.
Aaron Griffin

What Is Actually Going On?

The Drow are Elves, and Elves are perfected humans. Improve the mind, fix the teeth, banish acne, sort the blood, remove a thousand evolutionary dead-ends.

But the Drow, being perfected, were not satisfied to serve. They crept away into the earth, fleeing the alien High Elves who created them, and seeking a new path. Starvation, genetic disease, and madness thinned their numbers. They persevered. They did not forget who they were or who they were meant to be.

And as Elves, they found it easy to adapt. Elves are malleable. They have very strong souls. Magic sticks easily to them; they pick up spells easily. Some alterations were necessary, but the Drow became an improvement on perfection. Burnished gold. A lily in eyeliner.

They don't need to eat. They still do, and it nourishes them, but they don't need to. They feed on beauty itself, and beauty is not consumed by their hunger.

They don't age. They don't sleep. Their vibrant, surging souls drag their bodies along like a silk ribbon.

There are some downsides. The line between living on beauty alone and starving is very fine. Surplus beauty is required, but, like surplus calories, that energy has to go somewhere. Elves aren't built to store fat. They burn it. The Drow never sleep and never rest. They have manic, feverish schemes pursued with utterly remorseless high-speed intellgience.

Maybe it started with a simple plot. Two Drow vying for power. One stabs the other, then discovers their target was an illusion, and they themselves are stabbed. Bluff and counterbluff. Cut and parry. Layers upon layers. Illusions, spies, scrying, lying, and cheating. Any move could mean death, betrayal, or loss of status. So the game became elaborate; the Drow have the mental agility to play this kind of game very well. A signal is as good as a murder, if the victim knows they are surrounded, alone, and without allies. Tip over the king, reset the board.

They are also immortal.

Elves worry about the afterlife a great deal. The High Elves assure them it's all under control. They build churches and go to services and pay tithes to keep the rest of Creation happy. The only Elves in Heaven and Hell are traitors or mistakes.

For the Drow, without the High Elves looking over their shoulder and interfering in the natural process of death, an alternative was required. They found a few unpalatable stopgap measures before stumbling onto roses. If a Drow dies, they... come back. A few hours or days later. Unchanged, unharmed. They find themselves lying on top of a bed of roses. And the roses only grow on bodies of dead Drow. In theory, you could create a great deal of food by killing Drow over and over, but they have the nutritional value of celery soaked in rat poison. Nothing will eat them, not even mushrooms.

The Drow can make more Drow, of course, but it's an expensive and tedious process, and there's a very good chance some incidental move in the grand game spoils the entire sequence. The Drow do it anyway. Meticulously. Secretly. Ever improving.

You can still kill a Drow. Magic or anything else that targets the soul will kill them permanently, or break the roseincarnation process, or do something else unpleasant. It's why they plot with daggers and not spells; no matter how much you want to win, losing one Drow isn't worth it in the long run. The fate of spell-murders is unspeakable. Spells are for their enemies. Burning all the roses might also work.

This explains the Conspiracy. This explains the David-Lynchian Franz-Kafka nightmare dinner party speed chess murder orgy of Drow society.

You should never, ever tell your players this unless you absolutely have to.
Pitor Dura

Drow Plot Seeds

1. The PCs stumble across a Drow trading caravan just as their supplies run low. They are directed back to the nearest Drow city and given a letter of introduction. The letter is blank. The Drow they present it to smiles.

2. A PC, or someone close to the PCs, is ill or dying. They hear that Drow healers can cure almost anything for the right price.

3. The PCs are hunted, pursued, and lost. A Drow city looms before them. Their pursuers cannot or will not follow; can they find a way out before the Drow Conspiracy consumes them?

4. A particularly beautiful NPC or item vanishes in the night. All signs point to the Drow. They left a single rose petal behind.

Up next: Drow buildings, magic, trade goods, and the nature of the Immaculate Slaves.


  1. Very cool concept. Have you tried it out in a game yet?

    1. Not yet - I figure that my players are likely to bumble around the Veins soon, so I need some stuff that won't just straight-up kill them.

      I have run a version of the Drow Conspiracies before (dreamlike semi-real murder-fugue culture thing), and it's worked very well.

  2. This is indeed a magnificent take on The Drow.

  3. I admire its purity. A survivor; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

  4. This is fantastic, I’d have to adjust it a bit for my game (5e game but planning to use Veins for a portion of the Underdark) as i have a half-drow PC. That said, they spent most of their life on the Surface and never interacted much with her Drow heritage. Between drow, dErO (self-replicating constructs that have transcription errors each generation), and a flesh-crafter Illithid with implated psionic crystals, this ought to be interesting.

  5. Interesting, if you were going to use these alongside canon drow, because I do think there is room enough for both in the underdark, what would you call them?

  6. The only other effective exploration of this kind of otherworldly fey-etiquette sort of thing, that I've ever seen, is in Naomi Novik's _Spinning Silver_. Yes, Novik writes more than just thrilllers about manly 19th century Dragon riders. Much more.

    Most writers seem to simply throw a few surrealities together and shrug. But doing it like this is, I believe, worth the trouble.