Article Header Image
The Underdark
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll and Steve Winter

Intrepid explorers brave a strange realm beneath the surface of the world, where they encounter an evil race of dark-skinned elves…

Sound familiar? It should, if you're a fan of folklore and mythology.

This month sees the release of 4th Edition's plunge into the Underdark, the dangerous world beneath the world. In this installment of D&D Alumni, we look back at the game's initial forays into the Underdark as well as its first incarnations of the famed dwellers there: the drow.

Historical Background

Illustration by Bill Willingham

To reiterate a point made in a past column, part of the game's wonderful depth can be attributed to a world populated from a diverse mix of sources (world religion, horror stories, medieval bestiaries, and of course the designer's own, unique creations). Naturally, other sources included myths, legends, and folktales. In the European tradition, these genres made frequent use of fairies and their fairy kingdom—a land often depicted beneath or otherwise hidden within the mortal world.

The fairy kingdom may have reflected the Dark Age superstition of a still largely untamed wilderness in many parts of the world; in any case, it featured prominently during the later Romantic period with a nostalgic view of things natural and fantastic. The fairy kingdom was a place that mortals entered sometimes willingly, sometimes not. There they encountered beings at best mischievous, at worst outright dangerous (consider Puck, a typical citizen of the fairy world, in A Midsummer Night's Dream). In more recent years, Neil Gaiman's Stardust (and the film based on his novel) did an admirable job of taking readers to his version of 'Faerie'.

In Norse mythology, faeries included (and in some ways, were synonymous with) elves—a race of beings divided into the light elves and dark elves. Light elves occupied Alfheim, while the dark elves occupied Svartalfheim, thought of as an underground realm. The dark elves may also have been synonymous with dwarves (who in Norse mythology were called, perhaps not surprisingly, duergar). In Dragon Magazine #31, Gary Gygax himself mentioned the literary connections, at least as far as the use of the term drow.

Whether this subterranean realm was a fairy kingdom or the home of the dwarves, it did not bode well for mortal travelers to visit there. Strange events—sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible—unfailingly took place, presided over by aloof and haughty rulers with great magical power. In short, it made a fascinating setting to convert for use in Dungeons & Dragons.

The Original Descent into the Depths

For a great many players, their original descent into the Underdark came from the massive GDQ1-7 module series. It began with Against the Giants and led adventurers to the ultimate source of the evil corrupting Oerth. First came mere hints of the drow, but then the action passed through the heart of the drow realm before finally culminating with an assault against their goddess Lolth herself. (As a side note, in the same article in which Gygax mentions the literary background for drow, he also mentions the novel The Incomplete Enchanter as influencing the Giants series.)

To start with, here's a quick quiz. How did adventurers first reach the Underdark in the Giants series?

  1. An alcove appears empty but if examined with care, there is a 1-in-6 chance per person examining the area that they will note a thick iron bar protruding from the wall at about 10 feet above the floor. If the bar is moved downward, whatever or whoever is standing on the floor of the alcove is transported to a spot within the Underdark.
  2. In the southwest corner of a room is a broken barrel. Actually, the barrel is an illusion; it's really a well-made and watertight cask that contains a map to the Underdark and an obsidian box. In the latter is a chain of weird metal (adamantium alloy) along with instructions which show that the chain is a magical device to be looped into a figure 8. Thus shaped, it will transport up to six persons to the Underdark.
  3. Equipment for a pair of hoists (derrick-like machines with straps for cargo of any sort, even large animals) can be found in nooks on either side of a river. It will take several hours to set these hoists into working position, but once done they will not be disturbed. Adventurers will be able to move supplies and pack animals across the river where they can continue the adventure within the Underdark.

Need a hint? What if we said that the river in #3 was actually a river of lava.

So yes, of course the answer is #3, as adventuring parties traveled from the Hall of the Giant King into the cavernous bowels of the world. (For the record, #1 was the means to travel from the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl to the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief; #2 took you from the Steading to the Glacial Rift.) In the original series, this underground realm was not yet known as the Underdark; in fact, the first adventure there was entitled Descent into the Depths of the Earth—an oddly real-world reference for the game if ever there was one.

Once entered, the following passages first described these caverns beneath the world:

The rock is of all colors, although grays, browns, and yellowish tan are most common. Parts of the route are worked, but much of the tunnels are natural passages, caves, galleries, and so forth. The route always descends. The darkness is not total; there are sometimes patches of phosphorescent lichens, lighting the way with a faint glow (almost like faerie fire).

Swarms of fire beetles pass now and again, and their glowing abdomens shed sufficient light to see clearly. Cave bats flutter overhead periodically, huge ugly things which have forsaken the clean air of the upper world for the foul atmosphere of the subterranean. Now and again a current of dank, cold air can be felt moving downwards and bearing a musty scent throughout the corridors of this dismal underworld.

Should the party ever remain still and listen, they will note many strange sounds: twitterings, squeakings, scrabblings. Various and sundry tiny noises can be heard, noises which are disturbing despite their muted sound.

It's rich narrative, which often made these adventures such glorious reading for the DMs (regardless of how much detail was passed on to the actual players). James Maliszwski, author of the Grognardia blog, noted as much in his "High Gygaxian" article, describing similar language used later in the series for the Vault of the Drow.

Then as now, travel within this underground realm offered plenty of hazards: fatal crevasses (110-130 feet deep), sinkholes (10-80 feet deep), and of course its denizens. In the D-series, these included the Warrens of the Troglodytes, the Shrine of the Kuo-Toans, an ungodly assemblage of wandering monsters—and all that before even reaching the vault itself:

The winding, torturous maze of underground tunnels leads finally to this capitol, the last mighty bastion of the drow race on Oerth. All that has gone before was but a prelude, a series of tests; for herein, deep amidst the realm of the dark elves, dwells the dark Queen herself."

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Drow

Again, the first hint of the dark elves came in the Giants series via notes and mysterious temples, finally resulting in a run-in with emissaries from the drow revealed to be "the primary motivating force behind the entire giant uprising." Eclavdra, the drow priestess, offered players their first look at this fascinating and enviable race.

Described as "black-skinned and pale-haired," the drow soon became one of the game's most famous villains (Grognardia boasts a more extensive pictorial). Their presence could be oddly contentious, triggering endless debates over whether their name should rhyme with "wow" or "woe." (As far as we're concerned, and going back to the earliest days at TSR, the "wow" pronunciation is correct.)

Bringing things back to their folktale counterparts, the following backstory appeared in their 1st Edition Fiend Folio entry:

Ages past, when the elvenfolk were but new to the face of the earth, their number was torn by discord and those of better disposition drove from them those of the elves who were selfish and cruel.

However constant warfare between the two divisions of elven kind continued, with the goodly ones ever victorious, until those of dark nature were forced to withdraw from the lands under the skies and seek safety in the realm of the underworld. Here, in lightless caverns and endless warrens of twisting passages and caves hung with icicles of stone, the dark elvenfolk—the drow—found both refuge and comfort. Over the centuries they grew strong once again and schooled themselves in arcane arts. And though they were strong enough to face and perhaps defeat their former brethren in battle, the drow no longer desired to walk upon the green lands under the sun and stars.

They no longer desired a life in the upper world, being content with the gloomy fairyland beneath the earth that they had made their own. Yet they neither forgave nor forgot, and even now, above all else, they bear enmity for all of their distant kin—elves and faeries—who drove them down beneath the earth and now dwell in the meadows and dells of the bright world. Though they are seldom if ever seen by any human or demi-human, the drow still persist, occasionally entering lower dungeon levels and consorting with other creatures in order to work out their schemes and inflict revenge upon those who inhabit the world above.

Much of the drow's attraction did not come from their resonance from folktales, of course. They simply made compelling adversaries in the game, with their hidden society, and—let's be honest—no small amount of weapons and armor that every adventure simply drooled over: adamantite chainmail, elven cloaks and boots, and of course their novel hand-crossbows armed with potent sleep poison. All of which was rendered quickly worthless, once taken back to the surface (as worthless as fairy gold, a further hint of their folklorish connections).

In later products and editions, the drow would become a much-detailed and celebrated race, helped in no small part by the appearance of one dark elf who rejected his Underdark society and made his way to the surface world. But that, perhaps, is a topic for a future column.

About the Authors

It is possible that Bart Carroll is a relative of the beholder, for there are remarkable similarities between the two species. Bart dwells only at great depths of the ocean, floating slowly about, stalking prey. He has two huge crab-like pincers to seize its victims and a mouth full of small sharp teeth. His primary weapons, however, are his eyes. The author has a large central eye which emits a blinding flash of light to dazzle and stun those in its unless a saving throw versus death ray/poison is made. The author also has two smaller eyes on long stalks with which he is able to create an illusion; or, acting independently, the small eyes are able to cast hold person and hold monster spells respectively.

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.