The Drow, otherwise known as the dark elves, night elves, or (somewhat baroquely) “The Ones Who Went Below”, are an iconic part of Dungeons & Dragons.
Over the decades, the Drow – along with the other “monstrous” races in 5e – have made the long march from irredeemably evil monsters to, well, slightly more redeemable anti-heroes.
The Drow have been a part of Dungeons & Dragons since the very beginning.
References to the Drow first appeared in the AD&D adventure Hall of the Fire Giant King, written by Gary Gygax himself in 1978 and the third D&D module ever published.
The Drow took center stage later that same year, in the adventures Descent into the Depths of the Earth, and Vault of the Drow.
Drow are a subrace of elves characterized by their darker skin, talent for cruelty, and tendency to dwell far beneath the earth.
They are known for mercilessly murdering and enslaving anyone they encounter, as well as being wholeheartedly devoted to worshipping the evil spider goddess Lolth.
Dark elves of one kind or another have been a part of folklore and fantasy for almost as long as their fairer cousins, from Tolkein’s Middle Earth, to the grimdark madness of Warhammer and, uh, the Megaman games?
In modern fantasy, Drow, like the rest of the elven subraces, are heavily influenced by Tolkein’s characterization of elves as beautiful, graceful creatures with supernaturally long lifespans.
Folk tales of the Orkney and Shetland isles off the coast of Scotland have long contained references to the squat, ugly dark elves called Trow.
These creatures actually have more in common with Scandinavian trolls than elves, but their propensity for kidnapping and small stature (Drow in D&D tend to be shorter than their high elf cousins) have still had an influence on the Drow in D&D.
Originally native to the Greyhawk setting, the drow spent the first few editions of D&D as non-playable monsters, before the appearance of the first “good” drow, a ranger named Drizzt, in a popular series of books by R.A. Salvatore, led to their inclusion as a playable race in 2nd Edition in 1992.
The drow’s inclusion as a playable race likely also had something to do with the collective fascination with “darker” themes and content that arose in the early 1990’s – influenced heavily by monster-focused narrative RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade.
In 5e, the drow have retained a great deal of public perception as monsters, murderers, and slavers.
“Were it not for one renowned exception, the race of Drow would be universally reviled. To most, they are a race of demon-worshiping marauders dwelling in the subterranean depths of the Underdark, emerging only on the blackest nights to pillage and slaughter the surface dwellers they despise.” – Players Handbook
Drow live in the Underdark, a labyrinthine subterranean world populated by carrion crawlers, mind flayers, and oh so many spiders.
Speaking of spiders, it’s impossible to talk about the drow without touching on their symbiotic relationship with the demonic spider goddess Lolth.
Lolth (often depicted as having the upper body, head and arms of a beautiful woman but the lower thorax and scuttling legs of a giant spider) is often cited as the reason for the drow’s very existence.
Long ago, the drow were high elves, living on the surface and indistinguishable from their pale-skinned, somewhat haughty kin.
A sect of elves began worshipping Lolth and, as her influence drove them to murder, cruelty, and other unforgivable practices, her worshippers were driven underground by those elves who had resisted her charms.
The drow disappeared into the Underdark where they built vast cities and temples to honor the spider deity. Over the subsequent centuries, their entire society (not to mention their physical appearance) has changed completely to reflect their bond with their dark mistress.
However, some drow choose to turn their backs on Lolth, fleeing the company (and retribution) of their own kind to seek out a life beyond the cult of the spider.
Drow culture is also strictly matriarchal and deeply hierarchical. Any drow in a position of power (particularly the priestesses of Lolth – some of whom are so blessed by their deity that they take on her semi-spidery form) is going to be female.
Male drow are reviled and condescended to, treated more like property or pets by female drow than living beings.
They live only by the whims and good graces of their mistresses, and a male drow who angers their female superior can be legally slaughtered as though they were putting down an unruly pet. It’s for that reason that the vast majority of “good” drow who rebel and flee their society are male.
Above all, drow are obsessed with rank, piety, and maintaining the order of their society – something strangely at odds with their frequent characterization as “Chaotic Evil.”
“Station: In all the world of the drow, there is no more important word. It is the calling of their—of our—religion, the incessant pulling of hungering heartstrings. Ambition overrides good sense and compassion is thrown away in its face, all in the name of Lloth, the Spider Queen.” – Drizzt Do’Urden, Homeland (2005)
Drow Traits: What Characterizes the Dark Elves
When you choose to play a drow, you take on the same traits as all other elven subraces. You gain access to the following:
- Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
- Age. An elf typically claims adulthood and an adult name around the age of 100 and can live to be 750 years old.
- Alignment. Elves love freedom, variety, and self-expression, so they lean strongly towards the gentler aspects of chaos. Drow are an exception; their exile into the Underdark has made them vicious and dangerous. Drow are more often evil than not.
- Size. Elves range from under 5 to over 6 feet tall and have slender builds. Your size is Medium.
- Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
- Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light.
- Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.
- Trance. Elves do not sleep. Instead they meditate deeply, remaining semi-conscious, for 4 hours a day. After resting in this way, you gain the same benefit a human would from 8 hours of sleep.
- Keen Senses. You have proficiency in the Perception skill.
- Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Elven.
Then, as a Drow, you gain the following additional features.
- Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.
- Superior Darkvision. Your darkvision has a range of 120 feet, instead of 60.
- Sunlight Sensitivity. You have disadvantage on attack rolls and Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of the attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight.
- Drow Magic. You know the Dancing Lights cantrip. When you reach 3rd level, you can cast the Faerie Fire spell once with this trait and regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest. When you reach 5th level, you can cast the Darkness spell once, and regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells.
- Drow Weapon Training. You have proficiency with rapiers, shortswords, and hand crossbows.
Because some entries are explanatory, and others are universal to all of elvenkind, we’re not going to break down everything, but rather focus on the traits that require a closer look, or have interesting implications for the ways in which you play a drow character.
Ability Score increase: All elves get a +2 bonus to their Dexterity thanks to their otherworldly grace and poise. While it might seem strange that such a reviled subrace would get any sort of bonus to their Charisma, drow get a handy +1 bump – a choice that seems to have similar design thinking to the Tiefling’s +2 Charisma bonus.
While there are no explicitly Dexterity + Charisma-based classes in D&D, your bonuses basically mean you’re free to go with a class that focuses on either, since Dexterity is probably the best stat in the game (it’s used for some melee attacks, ranged attacks, stealth, your AC, breaking grapples, and is the most common saving throw you’ll be making), and Charisma is the basis of your social interactions (one of D&D’s three core pillars of gameplay).
Size: While 5e doesn’t differentiate between drow and other elven subraces in terms of height, earlier editions of the game stress that dark elves tend towards being about six inches shorter than their high elf cousins.
Alignment: Due to, well, just about everything about drow society, dark elves tend towards evil alignments, and playing a drow who hasn’t renounced Lolth pretty much guarantees you’ll fall somewhere between Lawful and Chaotic evil.
However, given the fact most drow PCs tend to be at odds with drow society, you could just as easily play a Neutral or even Good-aligned character too.
Superior Darkvision: All elves see in the dark up to 60ft, but centuries of adaptation to living beneath the earth and only venturing out at night has left the drow with a darkvision range of double the elven average.
This is huge, and has the potential to make you a highly-effective scout, particularly if your party is made up of useless humans with their crappy human eyes.
Sunlight Sensitivity: And here’s where the other shoe drops. Because drow are so well-adapted to life in the dark, their ability to see and function in direct sunlight has been severely compromised.
Disadvantage on attack rolls and Wisdom checks that rely on sight is a huge drawback, requiring careful planning to negate, especially if your party is full of humans with their stupid human skin and stupid perfect tans.
Drow Magic: Any innate spellcasting is a huge benefit, and Drow Magic gives you free access to some really great spells – with the exception of dancing lights, which your Superior Darkvision renders about as useful to you as a sacrificial dagger made of cheese.
Drow Weapon Training: Given your added Dexterity, access to rapiers and hand crossbows (shortswords are kind of meh) is a huge buff to your character at early levels.
What Classes Are Well Suited to the Drow?
Any class that uses either Charisma or Dexterity as its primary attribute is your friend, and any class that uses one exclusively will probably be able to make use of both.
Below, we’ve broken down some of the classes that synergize best with a drow character, both mechanically and thematically.
Rogues are sneaky, dextrous, and do their best work in the dark (remember, Mr. Sunlight Sensitivity, the dark is your friend), and therefore make an excellent pairing with a drow.
Your +2 Dexterity bonus is great and, if you choose the Swashbuckler archetype at 3rd level, your Charisma bonus pairs really well with your Rakish Audacity.
As a Charisma-focused class, Sorcerers and drow are a good fit. Also, given the fact that Sorcerers (along with Wizards) have some of the lowest hit point pools in the game, and tend to favor ranged weapons, your Dexterity bonus won’t go to waste.
Bards are perfect for the mixture of Charisma and Dexterity drow bring to the table, although you’ll end up double-dipping into your rapier proficiency, which is kind of a waste.
If you go down the College of Swords route at 3rd level, your bard becomes just as focused on swashbuckling with finesse weapons as they are focused on social interaction and utility spellcasting, making that +2 to Dexterity even more useful.
Drow Appearance: The Dark Elves
As mentioned before, drow tend towards having dark skin in hues ranging from black to gray to deep blue (as well as purple), with pale white, silver, or yellow hair, and any color of eyes you choose.
Their elven grace means that drow tend to be inherently stylish, making the most tattered garments look regal, and they tend towards dressing in black with silver accents.
Many drow who remain devoted to Lolth wear their hair in braids with spiderweb accessories. Basically, they have one of D&D’s most heavy metal, Saturday morning cartoon villain-esque aesthetics.
However, it’s worth bringing up some of the discourse going on in the D&D (and wider tabletop RPG) community right now around some of the stickier ideas that have persisted since the earliest days of the hobby – when the whole community was more or less made up of sheltered straight white men, and deeply rooted in very Northern European ideas of fantasy.
As the hobby has grown larger and more diverse, its community has become more willing to tackle some of its more problematic aspects, one of which is the idea of bioessentialism (“all orcs are brutish thugs” with a +2 Strength, “all Dwarves love gold”, and all drow are evil sadists) that often maps uncomfortably onto the juxtaposition between the civilized (read: white) humans and high elves, and the exoticized “monstrous races”.
Even the word race is up for some debate.
It can be a thorny and contentious issue for some, and I don’t presume to solve it in this article, merely to raise it as something worth reading more about.
There’s a great essay in this supplement for the game Five Torches Deep: Origins that tackles it, as well as countless blog posts and forum discussions throughout the fandom.
Personally, the drow in my own games aren’t outright evil (nothing is) but rather a deeply authoritarian and brutally theocratic state that blends tropes of Louis XIV era France with a little USSR, with just a touch of the Cardassians from Deep Space Nine.
For another great alternate presentation of drow culture, check out Spire: The City Must Fall by Grant Howwit (of Honey Heist fame) and Christopher Taylor, which presents them as a people cursed by their high elf overlords, locked in eternal servitude, who live in communal creches and reproduce by laying eggs – it’s great.
Drow Names: Male and Female
Like other elven races, drow have both a first name and surname taken from the elvish tongue. While they’re still quite melodic, drow names tend to also feature more hard Z and V sounds than high elves, for example.
It’s also worth noting that, within the meta-lore of D&D, drow naming conventions are undergoing an etymological transformation somewhat akin to the great vowel shift in English.
As the drow matriarchy becomes more and more entrenched, male drow names have become increasingly feminine over time.
Example Female Drow Names: Balya, Briza, Drada, Ereliira, Kiaran, Laele, Malice, Myrymma, Narcelia, Nidria, Pellanistra, Phaere, Quiri, Sabrae, Saradreza, Talice, Triel, Ulvirra, Urlryn, Umrae, Viconia, Vornalla, Waerva, Zarra, Zelzrima, Zilvra
Example Male Drow Names: Alton, Balok, Baragh, Coranzen, Dantrag, Elendar, Elkantar, Filraen, Ghaundan, Istorvir, Kalannar, Malaggar, Nyloth, Quevven, Sorn, Torrellan, Vorn, Vuzlyn, Welverin, Xarann, Zaknafein, Zeerith, Zyn
Example Drow Surnames: A’Daragon, Abaeir, Argith, Baenre, Beltaulur, Blaerabban, Coloara, Cormrael, Dalael, Dryaalis, Duskryn, Dyrr, Elpragh, Faertala, Gallaer, Glannath, Hune, Hunzrin, Illykur, Jhalavar, Jusztiirn, Keteeruae, Lhalabar, Lueltar, Naerth, Nirinath, Omriwin, Philiom, Quavein, Rhomduil, Rrostarr, Seerear, Ssambra, T’orgh, T’sarran, Tuin, Uloavae, Vrammyr, Vrinn, Waeglossz, Xiltyn, Yauthlo, Zaphresz, Zauviir