This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixty Seven on 26 May 2021.
Ryu: Okay, so thank you all for meeting. I have an…uncomfortable subject to discuss.
Lennon: Look, sometimes the outhouse is just too far to walk to and someone’s been in there forever and it’s really an emergency, and the scrying pool is self-cleaning anyway. I mean, we’ve all done it, right?
Ryu: Um…what? No? Please don’t be talking about what I think you’re talking about.
Lennon: Oh, um…no, I wasn’t. Just…sorry, what did you want to talk about?
Ryu: So I think KayDee’s been doing research.
Ostron: Oh that can’t be good. I wonder if she’s been using ROSTRO for it too?
Lennon: I haven’t noticed you passed out on the floor any more than usual.
Ostron: I…I usually sleep in my bed…
Ryu: Not important right now. I think KayDee was in a hurry and ran into one of the research beholders and it knocked the hat off. I was suddenly standing in the Annex holding all these file folders and a couple of books.
Lennon: All right, put them down, spread them out, let’s have a look.
Ryu: Right, um…well here’s a bunch of maps-
Lennon: Ooooh! Gimme!
Ryu: Yeah, and um, there’s lots of dates on these. Maybe dates anyway.
Ostron: I’ll take a look.
Ryu: And I’ll read through this.
Lennon: Wait the elevation numbers on these can’t be right, they’re all below sea level…actually some of them are below the seas.
Ostron: Hm, there are meta references here to different planes. Oerth, Faerun…here’s something on Eberron.
Ryu: Um…there’s lots of drawings of spiders on everything here. Oh drat…why would she be looking up Lolth?
Ostron: Uh oh.
Lennon: Yep, that explains these maps.
Lennon and Ostron: Drow.
Ryu (worried): Why is she researching the Drow? I mean, why didn’t she just ask me?
Ostron: I think we probably have to go through all this to find out. If she needs information about the Drow and she’s not asking you that definitely worries me. It looks like she started with most of the basic info anyway but we’d better review to be sure.
Lennon: But…I mean everyone knows the basics, do we really have to go through all that?
Ostron: Since we have no clue why the Killer DM was going through this I think we’d better review everything to be sure. If she focused on something specific it might give us a better idea.
Ryu: Do we have time for all this?
Lennon: I feel like we should probably take the time, don’t you? I’d rather not wake up tied to a spider statue with a bunch of half-naked women lighting fires and screaming in elvish again.
Ostron: Weird Lennon backstory later, Killer DM research now, please? Lennon, I think you ended up with the start of the basics.
Drow are one of the most iconic races, or technically subraces, to exist in D&D that aren’t part of normal fantasy tropes, or at least they weren’t when they were first conceived of. Even though the fantasy genre wasn’t quite as popularized as it is now, most people in the 70s and early 80s at least had a mental image pop into their head if you mentioned Humans, Dwarves, Elves, or Goblins, thanks mostly to J.R.R. Tolkien and a few other fantasy cartoons and movies.
Nowadays that list includes Drow, and according to Ed Greenwood of Forgotten Realms fame, it’s Gary Gygax’s most influential fantasy creation outside of D&D itself. Indeed, the visual design of dark elves in popular fantasy games like Everquest, Warcraft, Guild Wars and several other game and book franchises either copied or were heavily influenced by the visual design of D&D Drow if nothing else.
But let’s start with their origin. Drow, particularly Drizzt Do’Urden, are usually associated with the Forgotten Realms and Faerun, largely because of the individual just mentioned, but they were an original creation of Gary Gygax for 1st edition D&D, and started in Greyhawk. For those that don’t remember or didn’t know, Greyhawk began life as Gygax’s personal campaign world and it’s often hard to tell in the early years if Gygax’s concepts began as elements for his campaign or as new additions for the D&D game. Either way, Gygax said the Drow were initially created because he wanted there to be a large, hostile humanoid society that served as the major power in the Underdark, or the subterranean network of caves and caverns under most of the campaign world.
There’s no solid consensus on where he got the ideas for their look or their name. At various points in interviews he cited a few books on fairy mythology, as well as Funk & Wagnall’s Unexpurgated Dictionary, some editions of which reference “Drow” as a word associated with old Scottish folklore, and the term also appears in references on Norse mythology.
Wherever they came from in the real world, their start in D&D came with the first edition Monster Manual, where they were listed as a subrace of the elf species, but only ever mentioned as rumors and rarely seen. Their society and temperament were not detailed, nor did they have a separate stat block. The only unique identifier for them was that they tended to be poor fighters but strong magic users.
The first instance of Drow getting more attention was in a series of adventure modules from first edition published in 1978. Beginning by pitting adventurers against an alliance of giants, it’s eventually revealed that the Drow were the driving force behind the alliance. A following series of adventures takes the characters down into the underdark in pursuit of the source of the Drow, and eventually leads them to Erelhei-Cinlu, a large Drow city in a module titled “Vault of the Drow.”
That module has a detailed description of the Drow city, and either explicitly or by inference establishes many of the main features of Drow society and behavior, which we’ll cover in a bit. That was the only official source of information on the Drow until the publication of the Fiend Folio in 1981, which included the general information about Drow as a species, even if it didn’t go into detail on Drow society. Following that, players had to wait for the Unearthed Arcana (which was the title of a sourcebook, not a source of untested concepts like it is today). Published in 1985 it was the first opportunity for players to actually create a character that was a Drow.
Information about Drow society was largely expanded by novels. Gygax himself penned four books that featured Drow, from 1986 to 1988, but those aren’t what captured everyone’s attention.
By 1988, the Forgotten Realms were a thing thanks to Ed Greenwood, and he put Drow in Faerun along with most of the other races and creatures that existed for D&D. That opened the door for mister Robert Anthony Salvatore. The Icewind Dale trilogy released from 1988 to 1990, and did three things: It funded Salvatore’s retirement, made players think “broody edgelord” was the coolest character concept ever, and made Drow one of the most recognizable races in D&D.
The trilogy and the literal dozens of follow-up novels featured a male Drow, the aforementioned Drizzt Do’Urden, who forsook his chaotic evil nature, oppressive society, and underground environment to make himself a heroic adventurer and central figure of many major events in the Forgotten Realms. Regardless of your personal opinion of the character or novels, they sold exceptionally well and are arguably the most read materials related to D&D. Eventually many D&D fans took material in Salvatore’s novels as canon, and anything he wrote about how the Drow or their society functioned was treated as definitive.
Meanwhile, as far as the actual game was concerned, second edition was rolling along and the Drow made their statistical debut in volume two of the Monstrous Compendium, which also introduced the Drow monstrosity, the Drider. The Drow of the Underdark, a resource penned by Ed Greenwood, went into great detail about the society, religion, politics, and all other aspects of Drow society as it applied to the Forgotten Realms. While they are separate planes, there’s never been much need or desire to make Drow in Greyhawk different from Faerun Drow, so that resource filled in the gaps for anyone trying to make Drow a bigger part of their campaigns. As he often did, Greenwood claimed the information in the book came from a discussion he had with Ellminster and Susprina Arkhenneld, a Drow who’d apprenticed to the master wizard. The Complete Book of Elves allowed 2nd edition players to make Drow characters by 1992.
From 3rd edition onward very little has changed about the Drow until very recent discussions around 5th edition. Part of that is most likely branding and marketing. As mentioned, the Drow are one of a few D&D creatures that have actually transcended the game and crossed over in various forms to other fantasy media. Salvatore’s novels, among other sources, have also made them recognizable as Drow to people who may not have ever played the game. Their influence is so strong that Paizo Publishing, a company at one time responsible for printing D&D resources, claimed that any D&D books that had Drow featured as cover art actually sold better than similar resources over the same time period.
Ryu: Okay so I’m not seeing anything that would be interesting to KayDee here.
Lennon: Maybe the focus on the first time they showed up? Would she have any reason to try to remove Drow from existence?
Ostron: I can’t see any way that would help her, especially since that would remove Ryu from existence too.
Lennon: Maybe she wants the hat to have been taken by someone else? She’s been looking for an in with RaeRae recently.
Ryu: I feel like if RaeRae wore the hat she’d just pass out from the internal conflict and then one of them would end up destroyed. I can’t honestly say who I’d bet on there. Either that or they’d instantly ally and then there’d be some sort of Killer RaeRae supermerge.
Ostron: While obviously not something any of us would want I think we can also agree it’s not likely since she and Ryu get along well. Is any of this seeming off to you?
Ryu: No, it all makes sense so far. Let’s see if things get weird in her notes about actual Drow? Physically, Drow bodies are much like any other elves, with slender bodies and average heights that are slightly taller than humans. After that, though, their bodies diverge from the norm quickly. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first.
Lennon: Is RaeRae walking around wildshaped again?
Ostron: Ignore him, keep reading.
So Drow are black-skinned. Now, this does not mean the same thing it does when people are describing darker-skinned ethnic groups in the real world. Drow skin is total absence of light, obsidian black. However, in certain early publications the Drow were merely described as “dark-skinned.” Also in those early publications, most of the illustrations were black and white, and the artistic style used to depict the Drow was very similar to how black and white illustrations of black individuals were often done in publications of the time. The combination of the language and the illustrations, as well as the fact that Drow in early editions were always chaotic evil, is part of the reason many people are pushing for revisions of the race in 5th edition, especially as it pertains to player character options.
Apart from that, the other prominent physical characteristics of the Drow are their hair, which is described as pale and usually depicted as pure white, and their eyes. Originally Drow eyes were solid red with only a black pupil, but lately that’s evolved so they have pale eyes with a variety of pastel hues. The eyes also give all Drow darkvision, and an interesting note from lore of earlier editions is that Drow darkvision was described not as their eyes being better able to make use of dim light, but actual infrared vision. Essentially all Drow were walking around with thermal cameras for eyes, and their eyes were actually hotter than their bodies, so viewing a Drow with the same vision would show someone a very indistinct body with two brightly glowing eyes.
That and several other things also made it problematic for Drow on the surface. In early incarnations they were uncomfortable or even downright frightened of sunlight and the surface above the underdark, and in many cases incurred mechanical penalties for doing things above ground. Also any Drow-specific equipment would deteriorate or actually disintegrate in the sun. In more recent incarnations the fear of sunlight is downplayed and penalties aren’t as severe and only apply in direct sunlight.
All Drow are said to be accomplished with magic, something that’s been depicted in various ways through the editions. In most cases it means the Drow characters have a certain number of spells or spell slots they can use without extra cost or taking up resources, and racial bonuses to statistics tend to favor Charisma and Wisdom.
Notable but not unique aspects remaining are the overall physiology of males and females. Though there are always exceptions, on average female Drow tend to be larger and physically stronger than male Drow. That may or may not have been a result of the direction Drow society took after the split from more mainstream surface elves. However, regardless of gender, Drow in general are also considered more attractive than average elves. Unfortunately this isn’t something innate to the species; early in Drow history, there was a multi-generational selective breeding program that weeded out bloodlines and individuals that didn’t adhere to their goals of beauty.
Lennon: So I don’t see anything worrying about this.
Ostron: You don’t see anything wrong with aggressive eugenics?
Lennon: No, no, no. Not that part. I mean, in general, that information; the Killer DM doesn’t seem to be focusing on anything specific. Thankfully. I don’t want to think about her in charge of a breeding program. And now it’s stuck in my head…Please get it out?
Ryu: Maybe the magic stuff? But, I mean she’s already better at magic than most of the people in the Guild House.
Ostron: Maybe it’s a genealogy thing and she’s trying to figure out if she was originally a Drow?
Ryu: What do you mean originally?
Ostron: Well…I mean it’s possible she’s a manifestation of the hat’s personality that evolved over centuries through magic but it’s more likely she was originally some sort of sapient being that either got trapped or maybe even placed her own consciousness in the hat.
Lennon: So you’re saying she’s a lich?
Ostron: No; liches definitely have their own separate body. They may use magic to dominate others but they don’t usually possess them as a matter of course. And they wouldn’t leave a phylactery hanging around. Anyway, can we get back to the notes? We’re getting into the longer section now.
The history of the Drow is complicated and contradictory, as it is with most societies that have suffered a major split. One thing most sources agree on is that originally the elves were all a fairly cohesive, single race. After that, accounts vary.
All of them come back to Lolth, arguably the most prominent god of the Drow, and a fight between the premier elf god Corellon and Grummsh, the god of orcs. Versions of the story that try to isolate the elven deities (most popularly spread by Mordenkainen) say Grummsh managed to wound Correlon and as he bled, lesser elven gods formed from the blood. One of these was Araushnee, the goddess who would eventually become Lolth. She believed in encouraging the primitive elves and the elven gods to be more ambitious and direct in achieving supremacy, causing enough of a stir that a council was called. During the council, which included most of the elves alive at that time, Araushnee attempted to assassinate Correllon. The elves split into camps, most with Corellon and some with Lolth, and there was a battle fought. Lolths’ followers eventually retreated with her. Corellon was dismayed that anyone from his blood resorted to fighting and made all elves mortal, banishing them to the Material Plane, Feywild, and Shadowfell.
Other accounts kept by many elven historians tie the elf gods more into the overall pantheon and paint a picture of a larger war that wasn’t as much of an internal affair. Those tales say that Araushnee and other lesser elven gods were already around, and Araushnee helped Grummsh in his attack on Correllon, which was the only way he managed to wound the elven deity at all. When that failed, she tried to get Malar, god of lycanthropes, to kill him, but that didn’t work either.
Eventually Araushnee encouraged a whole host of lesser gods to ally and launch an attack on Corellon, painting the elven deity as weak and ripe for attack. She had a cursed scabbard made for Corellon’s sword. She would give it to him as a gift, but it was enchanted to attract arrows shot by her daughter Eilistraee, making her daughter the scapegoat for when Corellon fell. Another lesser elven god discovered her plan, however, and despite Araushnee trying to imprison them, the plan was revealed and Corellon did not die. Araushnee was banished along with her children (Eilistraee had a twin brother Vhaeraun, although her children are still technically recognized as members of the elven pantheon of gods while Lolth was made a full Demon.
Regardless of which tale you believe, in the end Araushnee gave up her elven name, took on the moniker Lolth, and proceeded to descend and take over the 66th level of the Abyss, now known as the Demonweb pits.
Where the Drow got involved is also a matter of contradiction. The internal version of the story holds that the Drow are simply the descendants of the elves who chose Lolth’s side, and the various physical and metaphysical changes are a result of their migration to the Underdark mixed with their devotion to Lolth.
In the version where Lolth organized a divine conspiracy and a war, the Drow were actually still surface elves by the time of her descent. However, they were darker skinned (brown hues rather than black) and had issues with the lighter skinned elves in a series of conflicts known as the crown wars. Lolth’s son, Vhaeraun, eventually got involved with the dark elf faction, encouraging them and lending them some of his power. When his mother finished conquering her level of the Abyss, she noticed what her son was up to and encouraged him to push it farther. He helped the dark elves enslave other creatures to fight for them, including some dragons. When Corellon noticed this, he allowed his elven clerics to essentially curse the dark elves, changing their bodies into what Drow are today and driving them underground.
Once down there, they immediately started fighting with dwarves and with each other, creating a whole scattered set of city-states that remains to the present time. This is when the eugenics started and when noble houses started rising to power and worshipping Lolth, eventually setting the stage for modern Drow society.
Today the city states are arguably the most organized and civilized areas of the Underdark (unless you count colonies of mind-controlled minions, in which case the Illithids have the Drow beat all hollow). Either way they are certainly the largest; Drow settlements can reach over 10,000 permanent residents, with another several thousand coming in and out through trading caravans and general travel. The cities have thriving marketplaces, mostly based around buying and selling slaves, and multiple unique buildings; Drow build most of the buildings in their cities by hollowing out stalactites, stalagmites, and full cave columns, building everything within those and then connecting them with artful and decorative suspension bridges. Many of the buildings are supported by magic, so elimination or failure of the spells often causes significant destruction. All Drow cities also feature heavy walls around them with designated gates and a number of defenses including magic traps, nonliving guardians, and both creatures and soldiers protecting their borders.
There are debates on the disposition of individual Drow, but most people agree Drow civilization as a whole is not a great model to aspire to. Slavery is a major and integral part of the Drow society. Those 10,000 people I mentioned living in the city? Up to two thirds of them will be slaves or otherwise indentured individuals, either working for masters within the city, waiting to be sold in the market, or being processed from just being captured by Drow raiding parties.
The reason we started with Lolth when discussing Drow society is the two are inextricably linked at this point. Lolth encourages an extreme “survival of the fittest” mentality among her followers, and the Drow have embraced that wholeheartedly. The minority in Drow society that qualify as commoners are less extreme about it, but the noble houses would put the Lannisters to shame. The houses are constantly in violent and deadly competition with each other for supremacy and control of more territory and slaves within their cities, but the houses are also fighting within their own ranks as well. The only real method of advancement in a Drow noble house is to kill the woman above you and take their place, and that person is often your own mother or older sister. The girls have roughly until puberty to figure out how to cement their place in society, and if they haven’t figured it out by then they likely won’t live to drinking age. Also the actual mothers are too busy plotting and scheming so raising of children is mostly done through hired help and maybe any sisters that are the right age to think helping a younger sibling is worth it.
All of that only applies if you’re a woman, by the way. Lolth is also very much into the kind of feminism that says “women are smarter, stronger, more intelligent and actually worth something as individuals, while males live only to service their betters and can and should be discarded whenever it’s convenient.” The only way men advance in a noble house is to attach themselves to a woman (sometimes literally as women leading men around with chains and collars is not uncommon). The male rises in prominence as the female does, but the man can never reach the top spot; the heads of noble houses are also priestesses of Lolth and it’s rarely possible for a male to hold that position because Lolth usually just kills any man who tries.
Side note: nuanced gender politics is not a thing in Drow society. If you aren’t immediately identifiable as a woman who should be in charge of things or a man who should be serving a woman, you are an aberration and imperfection in society and eliminated as soon as possible.
As one might assume from the arrangement just described, romance isn’t really a thing with most Drow either. Lolth encourages hedonistic behavior and wants all of her followers to pursue beauty whenever they can. Women will therefore take the most attractive men they find as consorts up to and until someone better looking or smarter or whatever comes along, at which point their current flavor of the month or week or day is cast aside and the new man is elevated…Usually…it’s also possible the woman in question will just keep a few men around at a time, and the men better be okay with that. Or they’d better get good at making murder look like an accident.
Oh and men trying to catch the eye of another girl to move their way up is a very risky proposition. If Drow women are fighting over a man, it’s not unheard of for the one who has him to announce they’re tired of them by skinning the man and delivering what’s left to the doorstep of the woman competing to possess him.
As for laws and so forth, trial by combat is pretty much the only rule and it’s not organized. It’s just assumed if you’re alive, you’re doing things right. The only caveat there is that the death of members of a noble house, particularly high ranking houses, is seen as a sign the house is in disfavor with Lolth and that makes the house look vulnerable, so planning a major coup is a delicate operation until it’s time to pull the knives out. There are theoretically laws in Drow society, but the only judicial system in place is bringing people before the Lolth priestesses and they’re not primarily concerned with justice.
In addition to killing anyone you disagree with and sleeping with the rest of them, as long as you’re a woman, worship of Lolth involves a lot of sacrifices, preferably of thinking beings. The dedicated clerics and priestesses of Lolth who aren’t heads of households perform rituals of sacrifice and bloodletting to show devotion to and gain power from the spider god. The sacrifices are usually prisoners of war, Drow considered too useless, deformed, or worthless to society to remain there, or slaves that are either deemed worthy for some reason or go unclaimed. Also, as we just mentioned, guess what the most popular sentence is when priestesses are passing judgement in a trial?
While all Drow have some innate magic, many of them obviously explore that further. Most divine casters get their power from Lolth, obviously, but regular wizards and sorcerers are around as well. The priestesses of Lolth are in charge of making sure all of the clerics and casters maintain an appropriate devotion to Lolth and the goals of the Drow, and so at a certain power level they undergo a Test of Lolth, either because the priestesses decree it or, rarely, when Lolth takes an interest in them and summons them to the Abyss herself to administer it. If they pass the test, they increase in power and favor with Lolth. If they fail, they’re painfully transformed into a Drider; a half Drow, half spider creature who is either exiled from Drow society to wander the Underdark and contemplate their shame and failure, or corralled in a Drow outpost to be unleashed against invaders as front line suicide attackers. They retain most of their knowledge, intelligence, and power from when they were an actual Drow, but the combination of that and the sense of failing Lolth and the Drow tends to make them a bit mentally unstable.
Lennon: Okay, no, that’s enough, we need to stop this.
Ostron: Stop the worship of Lolth? Okay, fine. Do you want to start with the cults and the entire civilization of Drow that worship her or do you want to just head down to the Abyss and take her out directly?
Lennon: No, no, I…hang on, can we do that?
Lennon: Fine, anyway, I meant we found it. Look; religion where women rule everything, hedonism and random fatal violence, survival of the strongest and no real laws to speak of. Tell me this isn’t the Killer DM to a T.
Ostron: Well she probably agrees with some of it but I don’t think-
Lennon: Okay just stop; this is no time for your rational skepticism, we’ve got an emergency here. Do you really want to be walking around chained to a crazy homicidal woman for the rest of your life.
Ryu: I think RaeRae and I could get behind that.
Lennon: See! She’s already got the conspiracy started!
Ryu: Oh I was kidding…mostly. Anyway, calm down. I know KayDee, I’m 90% sure…well, 70% sure…okay I think if she were going to start taking over like that she would have at least given me a heads up. And besides all of this means worshipping and devoting yourself to Lolth. Can you honestly see KayDee worshipping anyone other than herself?
Lennon: What if she fakes it until she’s ready to take over?
Ostron: The Killer DM is the most straightforward being I’ve ever met. She never bothers to deceive anyone; she just forces them to deal with whatever’s going on and then if they get too nosy she kills them.
Lennon: She keeps secrets all the time!
Ryu: Sure but she doesn’t lie about them. If someone finds out one of her secrets she owns up to it right away.
Ostron: And then the killing.
Ryu (annoyed): And then usually the killing, yes. Anyway, if she were going to start a cult of Lolth we’d already see spider statues everywhere in here. Trust me, that’s not it, now can we keep going?
The other thing Lolth priestesses get to do is command cadres of specially and highly trained male fighting units who are fanatically devoted to Lolth. These groups are used for purges; if a group, noble house, or even an entire city is judged to be insufficiently devout in their worship of the spider god, the priestesses will send in their attackers to begin a purge. The purge may or may not be accompanied by demons the priestesses summon through their connection with Lolth.
If this whole Lolth gig doesn’t sound like a good time, unfortunately there aren’t a lot of other options for the Drow, and all of them will put them at odds with the main group.
You remember Vhaeraun, Lolth’s son from back when the Drow were becoming Drow? Worshipping him is very popular, particularly with male Drow and Drow on the surface, because he is less focused on making sure the women are in charge and everyone’s beautiful and just wants all Drow to work together and reestablish their dominance on the surface, aka back when he was in charge of the Drow. It’s said he desperately wants to wrest control of the elven subrace from his mother. Whether that’s what his followers are also after or if they’re just attracted to the idea of ruling things on the surface and maybe not enslaving an entire gender just because depends on the individual Drow.
The followers of Vhaeraun and the Underdark Drow devoted to Lolth sometimes get along…but mostly they don’t. The only time they really ever work together is if they somehow perceive a threat to Drow as a whole and the Underdark Drow need more support carrying out missions and things on the surface, something the Vhaeraun Drow are more accomplished at. They don’t trust each other even when they’re cooperating, but then again the Lolth worshipping Drow don’t even trust their own relatives so that’s not really a surprise. And if you’re wondering what the Vhaeruan Drow want from the Drow that they can’t get on the surface, the answer is poison. With assassination being a way of life for most Drow, they have become experts at crafting all kinds of liquids, oils, gels, and coatings that make simple cuts or pricks on the skin a fatal proposition.
The only other group of worshippers of any size among the Drow are those that follow Eilistraee, Lolth’s other child. She alone in the Drow pantheon is a god that has some amount of positivity. Officially she is a representation of chaotic good, and most of the Drow who try to resist the influence of the church of Lolth and the worshippers will devote themselves to her because she doesn’t represent a total departure from Drow society; one of the goddesses’ primary tenets is to find and encourage beauty wherever possible, and as mentioned the Drow are very interested in making and owning things that are beautiful. As a result, many of the followers of Lolth’s daughter who remain in the larger Drow society make their living as artisans, creating beautiful clothes, pieces of art, or architecture.
Of course the actual priestesses of Lolth don’t tolerate competition, so anyone caught worshipping Eilistraee is usually killed or sacrificed as soon as possible. That makes exile a much more appealing prospect for most of her worshippers, particularly because the goddess has always promoted the idea that Drow should return to the surface and the forests of their ancestors. If a Drow is living outside of an Underdark settlement and doesn’t seem to be regularly hunting around for people to sacrifice or enslave, and also doesn’t seem to be interested in killing other elves and reestablishing a kingdom, it’s very likely they are or were followers of Eilistraee at some point.
While Lolth’s teaching about making the Drow constantly fight each other to make sure only the strongest survive is good in theory, in practice it does little to promote Drow society as a whole. Drow birth rates aren’t any better than other elf subraces, and it’s even worse because any child that isn’t objectively perfect is killed as soon as possible. That means that while the Drow would like to establish complete dominance of the Underdark and eventually everything else, mostly so they can enslave more people and sacrifice them to Lolth, they lack the numbers and cohesion to do it. So they’ve established a sort of equilibrium with the rest of the world.
Drow city states are very much separate entities, and if you survive and are granted an audience to ask a prominent citizen what they think of other Drow settlements, they’ll dismiss them as clearly inferior. However the city-states maintain regular trade back and forth for supplies and only usually fight each other when there’s been a major slight or if there’s some sort of religious purge, as mentioned earlier.
Everything else in the Underdark is fair game for either enslavement or elimination, with a few exceptions. Troglodytes and most of the barely sentient beasts are regularly enslaved by the Drow, with the exception of purple worms because nothing in their right mind tries to do anything with them except run away from or kill them.
Some Drow will try to take beholders as guard creatures or servants but that gets…tricky; they have the right level of paranoia for Drow but the random insanity can get problematic so it’s more common for the Drow to drive them away from their territory. The Drow don’t try to enslave Deep Gnomes because they think it’s much more fun to make a bit of a sport out of hunting down and killing them.
There are three major groups of Underdark creatures that are exceptions to the Drow’s usual M.O. Duergar don’t really get along with the Drow but they have roughly equal strength (the Drow’s magic proficiency is offset by the Duergar resistance, for example) and their societies often find themselves with enemies in common so they have been known to occasionally ally for convenience’s sake. Illithids get a pass from the Drow as well because the Mindflayers can often get access to places and resources in the Underdark that are difficult for the Drow to reach, and they’re another good market for unruly slaves. Finally deep or purple dragons are sometimes known to work with Drow on a temporary basis. The Drow find it easy to arrange an alliance because the deep dragons can be bought off with a simple promise of maps to unknown caverns in the Underdark. However, the purples are even better at manipulation and scheming than the Drow, not to mention their breath weapon that can just flat-out dominate other creatures, so they don’t seek out those allies often because everyone involved tends to come out of it even more distrustful and paranoid than when they went into it.
Every other race from the surface the Drow know about are generally dismissed as people to be killed, enslaved, or both, most especially elves and dwarves. The elves they don’t like because even if they don’t follow Vhaeraun’s dogma they’re still kind of bitter about the war way way way back when and don’t mind getting some payback. Their beef with the dwarves comes from when they first traveled down to the Underdark and had what could be called an eminent domain dispute with the dwarves that were actively mining in some of the best spots. Those resource issues flare up every now and then and can also be a reason for the Drow to ally with Duergar if and when a group of Dwarves is being particularly annoying or stubborn.
One thing Drow will acknowledge is that many of the surface races make better slave stock than the ones in the underdark; if nothing else all of them smell much better than the troglodytes do, so surface raids by Drow are definitely a thing. It’s also another point where the Vhaeraun and Lolth Drow find common ground; some Vhaeraun Drow may get into capturing beings as slaves who can be traded to the Underdark settlements in exchange for authentic Drow equipment, poisons, or other resources it’s harder to get on the surface.
Those raids are often the only thing many surface dwellers will know about the Drow if they aren’t scholars. There will be rumors or stories of dark or black elves that come in the night to kill and steal people away, often without any knowledge of the larger Underdark civilization. Even if people have heard of upstanding or morally upright Drow like Drizzt Do’Urden in Faerun or Landis Bree in Greyhawk, they often assume they escaped from a small band of Drow raiders, not Underdark cities with their own culture.
A brief note about Drow in Eberron. Along with Orcs, Drow received one of the most extensive alterations to their disposition and character as compared to how they’re portrayed in Greyhawk and the Forgotten realms.
Without going into an extensive history of Eberron, because Ryu and Ostron are giving me looks, in that setting all elves were at one time a slave race under the control of giants. The dragons of Eberron had taught the giants a lot about magic to help defeat the Quori invasion of Eberron, but the Giants essentially got mad with power. The dragons stepped in and, with the help of the elf slaves, basically destroyed Giant civilization.
In current Eberron, Giants are mostly confined to a continent called Xen’drik. Almost all Drow live there as well, mostly out of a belief they are entitled to the ruins and power of their former masters’ civilization. They travel throughout Xen’drik in tribal groups, scouring the surface for artifacts and magical items, and worshipping a scorpion god named Vulkoor. This is except for a group called the Sulatar, who believe they should carry on the teachings of their masters and one day ascend to the plane of fire. The Sulatar maintain a permanent settlement on the surface, where the other Drow settle underground if they settle at all, and tend to be a little more aggressive and prone to evil activities than their brethren. They also have more advanced knowledge of magic than almost any other group in Eberron apart from the Dragons, at least where fire is concerned.
Because of how large and how inextricably tied to the histories of certain races Drow are, it is very easy to work them into a campaign in almost any way you like. Starting with the common trope of a village coming under attack from an unknown force, the unknown force could very easily be Drow. Most official resources for D&D have assumed for decades that if a group is headed into the Underdark they will encounter at least a few scouting patrols of Drow, even if they aren’t the main focus of the group’s trip underground.
As mentioned in the notes, any large settlement of dwarves or elves that are close to underground ruins or caverns has a decent chance of being in a conflict with Drow ranging from border skirmishes to full on war-level conflicts, so if you want a campaign or an adventure centered around two warring factions, putting the Drow on one side makes it pretty easy to determine the “why” of a conflict breaking out.
That is one thing to note in light of some discussions happening around modern D&D. Drow have always been one of the races where it’s been easy to go to them as a guilt-free group of intelligent but evil opponents where there’s minimal if any debate about motives or justification for eliminating them, simply because they’re Drow.
More modern interpretations of the race are encouraging a holistic approach that focuses on the fact that worship of Lolth and the level to which the religion’s philosophy has suffused most of Drow culture is more of a factor in their behavior and outlook, rather than it being some innate part of their being. This is not to say the Drow are simply misunderstood and unjustly vilified; 90% or more of their race make deceit, murder, slavery, and living sacrifice a central part of their lives and do it gladly. But the existence of Eilistraee’s followers among the Drow is proof that it’s not something all Drow are required to or want to believe or follow as a lifestyle.
Ryu: Well you know I think KayDee’s all right but even I can’t see her trying to start a movement to reform the Drow.
Lennon: Maybe she’s trying to ally with a group of Drow raiders to attack the guild house and establish her reign of terror.
Ostron: You really need to let that go.
Lennon: Hey, it’s still the most plausible theory I’ve heard coming out of this. Do you have a better one?
Ostron: I have to admit this all seems pretty straightforward. I can’t figure out what angle she has, if any.
Lennon: See? My point exactly. Ryu, do you have any insights to share?
Ostron: Uh oh.
Killer DM (angrily): WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY THINGS!?!
Lennon: Ryu found them! She brought them over!
Ostron: She asked us to have a look-
Killer DM: Get out! Drop the papers, and get out of my sight!
Lennon: If I could just ask…you don’t have any spider idols on order do-
Killer DM: NOW!
(Lennon and Ostron exit hurriedly, slamming Gnomish Workshop door)
Ryu: KayDee? It’s really not their fault. I found the papers.
Killer DM: And you didn’t think maybe they were private and I wouldn’t want the kidney battery and the map moron looking at them?
Ryu: You don’t do research, KayDee. It was odd. And…I mean, I like them and you aren’t always nice to them. I was a little worried.
Killer DM: Well fine, just forget it, you don’t have to worry about anything, I’ll just go back to my usual things.
Ryu: Don’t be like that KayDee. If you tell me what you were doing I smooth it over with them and they won’t bother you.
Killer DM (mumbling): Trying to get you a birthday present.
Killer DM: I was trying to get you a birthday present! I don’t know anything about Drow except how they look and how to kill them! I don’t know what you would like, I thought figuring out more about them might help.
Ryu: Awww. KayDee! That’s so-
Killer DM: If you say that’s sweet, I’m selling Peaches to a halfling tribe in Eberron.
Ryu: Well…I appreciate the effort then.
Killer DM: I suppose you have to go round up Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Stupid and go check your mail or whatever?
Ryu: I have seen RaeRae peeking out the door a few times in the last couple of minutes.
Killer DM: Well, go on then. But tell them you had to talk me off the ledge from dismembering them and feeding them to the mimic or something.
Ryu: Your secret’s safe with me. I’d give you a hug if I could though.
Killer DM: I can still detune myself and go find another creature to bond with, you know.
Ryu (sing songing): But you won’t.
Killer DM: Ugggh.
Ryu (genuinely confused): Hang on…what do you mean feed them to the mimic? KayDee? Hmm…