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A Tangled Web
The Origins of the Drow
James Maliszewski

W ith the Rise of the Underdark campaign underway, this year has been one of drow incursions against the surface world—playing out right now in both the current D&D Encounters season and D&D Lair Assault. To further discuss the role of the drow within the game, Grognardia's James Maliszewski returns for this installment of D&D Alumni.


While the dark elves of Dungeons & Dragons are original to the game's co-creator, Gary Gygax, they nevertheless have a basis in real world mythology. According to the folklore of the Norse-influenced islands north of the Scottish mainland for instance, nocturnal fairies were known as either “drow” or “trow” -- a variant of the more common word “troll.” In his column entitled “Books are Books, and Games are Games, and Never the Twain...” in issue #31 of Dragon (November 1979), Gygax further explains that “Drow are mentioned in Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology, as I recall (it might have been The Secret Commonwealth—neither book is before me, and it is not all that important anyway), and as Dark Elves [are] of evil nature, they served as an ideal basis for the creation of a unique new mythos designed especially for AD&D.”

This is typical of Gygax's approach to monster creation: looking to legend for inspiration and then letting his imagination run wild with it.

Dark Elves Enter the Game

The drow's first formal appearance in Dungeons & Dragons came in 1977, with the publication of the Monster Manual. There, under the entry for “elf” is a brief section discussing these now-legendary villains. The section states that the drow “are only legend” and “purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface of the earth in a strange subterranean realm.” It goes on to say they are “as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good.” Other than the fact that they are “weak fighters but strong magic-users,” the Monster Manual has nothing else to say on the matter; the book does not even provide specific game statistics for the drow, leaving that up to the individual Dungeon Master to decide.

It's in the G-series adventure modules published the following year that the drow truly stride onto the roleplaying stage. Written by Gygax, these modules enjoy the distinction of being the first of this type of product ever published by TSR (standalone adventure modules, not to mention the first linked scenarios as well). They tell of giants who “have been raiding the lands of men in large numbers, with giants of different sorts in these marauding groups.” Local authorities task the player characters with dealing with these giants, but also “to expect a secret force, some motivational power behind this unusual banding of different races of giants.” Little direct evidence of this motivational power is found within the first two modules in the series, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, but the third module, Hall of the Fire Giant King finally reveals that it is the drow, led by an evil high priestess named Eclavdra, as the puppet masters behind recent events on the surface world.

Hall of the Fire Giant King offers up a full Monster Manual-style description of the dark elves, which, in addition to detailing their abilities, powers, and equipment, provides some insight into their history and society. As portrayed by Gygax, the drow were on the losing side of an elven civil war in “ages past” and fled into “lightless caverns and endless warrens of twisting passages and caves hung with icicles of stone.” Schooling themselves in magic, the drow plotted for centuries “in order to work out their schemes and inflict revenge upon those who inhabit the world above.” They thus made perfect masterminds for all manner of nefarious plots against the surface world.

Looking back on the entry in module G3, it's amazing to see how much of the iconic image of the drow was established by 1978 -- from their consorting with demons; to their decaying cloaks, armor and weapons; to their female-dominated society. The primary element that's missing is Lolth, the dreaded demon queen of spiders. In Hall of the Fire Giant King, there is not a single mention of Lolth. Indeed, Eclavdra and the drow under her command are instead shown to worship a strange deity called the Elder Elemental God. It is not until the publication of the D-series of modules later in 1978 that the full picture of the dark elves is revealed, including Lolth herself.

Descending into the Depths of the Drow

Module D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, discloses that the drow, true to their Chaotic Evil nature, possess a fractious society, divided into feuding clans or “houses,” each with its own insignia and agenda. One of the first houses the player characters encounter is Despana, its symbol “a golden spider with engraved runes that say in Drowic, LOLTH, DEATH QUEEN MOTHER,” making it the first reference to the infamous Spider Queen. Module D3: Vault of the Drow, expands upon this information by introducing the drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu (its name derived from the beginning letters of the first names of each of Gary Gygax's children: Ernie, Elise, Heidi, Cindy, and Luke). There we meet all the houses of the drow, including Eilservs, whose members have turned away from Lolth to serve the Elder Elemental God. In addition, the Eilservs seek to make their mistress, Eclavdra, “Queen of All Drow.” Needless to say, this puts them at odds with most of their fellow drow and which explains their interest in forming an alliance with the surface-dwelling giants.

Vault of the Drow is a remarkable adventure module, presenting a vast subterranean environment where the player characters are able to explore, do battle, or almost anything else they desire -- provided they are careful not to draw too much attention to themselves. Gygax's portrayal of the dark elves as power hungry and, therefore, riven with internal conflict gives them both depth and versatility; it opens the door for Dungeon Masters to use the drow as they see fit, with even details as seemingly integral as the worship of Lolth open to individual interpretation. Gygax even introduces the idea of non-evil drow in the form of “Nilonim, a dissident drow ... [who] led a band of rebels attempting to overthrow noble rule. He is of neutral alignment with a slight tendency towards good deeds.” Remember that Nilonim appeared in 1978, ten years before The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore gave the world Drizzt Do'Urden, perhaps the most famous drow in the history of Dungeons & Dragons.

Like the modules in which they appeared, the drow quickly proved very popular, becoming favorites of players and Dungeon Masters alike. Over the years, they’ve continued to appear in numerous D&D products (including their ‘canonization’ of sorts in the 1st Edition Fiend Folio) across nearly every edition and campaign setting. In the current edition of the game, for instance, the drow have clearly maintained sufficient traction as to merit Wizards of the Coast’s current Rise of the Underdark campaign (starting off with no less than online updates to the Against the Giants series).

Yet however the drow have continued throughout the game, each presentation has drawn upon the foundation laid by Gary Gygax thirty-five years ago, adding to the legend of the dark elves.

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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