(Posted for day one of Words in May)
Ah, the drow — those underground-dwelling, chaotic evil matriarchy-having dark elves of the Forgotten Realms setting for D&D. They present so many problems to modern sensibilities, and yet, there’s still so much amazing worldbuilding behind them.
In this post, I want to talk about what some of the problems are, and how (I think!) they can be reformed and redeemed.
I’m an elf fancier, as everyone knows, but I reserve the greatest of my love for dark elves across all media. I jokingly refer to them as “murder elves,” due to how grimdark they are often portrayed; many of them came out of the 1990s, which was a decade that loooooved its gritty reboots.
My favorite murder elves are probably the Dunmer of The Elder Scrolls series, but my second favorite are the drow.
When I was a teen in the 1990s, I played a lot of AD&D 2E, which is the version where the drow first appeared. The first splat book I ever bought for D&D with my own money was Drow of the Underdark for 2E, by Ed Greenwood. I also read a bunch of the Drizzt novels, which were just starting to get popular.
For reasons you are probably aware of (if you follow me literally anywhere on social media), I have renewed my fascination with them, due to my playthrough of the 5E adventure Out of the Abyss. The game starts with you being imprisoned by the drow and takes you on an adventure to escape the Underdark — and then back into it, for reasons that become clear along the way.
Through a combination of factors, my druid character ended up with a drow boyfriend.
Aaaaaaand I ended up writing 56k words of fanfic (and growing!) about my character’s relationship with said boyfriend as they make their way through the Underdark,.
So every time someone talks about The Problematic Drow ™, I get sad, because I’m still that 15 year old girl who fell in love with Drow of the Underdark.
… and that 40-year old woman who can’t stop writing emotional hurt/comfort about her fictional druid’s fictional boyfriend.
So what’s so problematic about the drow?
There are three main areas where the drow are problematic:
- Racial sensitivity, i.e. the “elves in blackface” problem.
- Its weird perspective on women.
- The whole concept of an “evil race.”
I’m actually going to talk about this one the least, as the most glaringly obvious — but also the easiest to address.
The drow are traditionally dark-skinned — in 5E words like “charcoal” and “obsidian” are used to describe them. It’s intended to be dissimilar to any real-world skin tone. But it’s not quite so simple, is it?
Color — and here I mean the light phenomenon — is perceived differently by different people in different circumstances. And that’s reflected in language: Japanese uses the same word for blue and green (aoi), French stop lights are orange, not jaune (yellow), and what the hell did Homer mean by the “wine-dark sea?”
So what happens when fans bring something that was born in the world of text out into the world of light and color? Nothing good. When drow started being portrayed in person, through cosplay or in larps, we started to see something that looked a HELLUVA lot like blackface. Sure, it didn’t look like any real skin color… but it was eerily reminiscent of the blackface makeup of the deeply-problematic late 19th/early 20th century minstrelry.
(Google it. I’m not gonna satisfy your curiosity).
My point: despite your best intentions, your “charcoal” may look to a BIPOC person like blackface.
Basically, we’re not in FaerÃ»n, and it seems facile to ignore that and just say “oh lol fantasy” when there are real people playing this game and being affected by it.
This choice of drow skin color also interacts poorly with how the drow are portrayed — as largely evil. Most of them worship a chaotic evil deity-turned-demon, Lolth, with all that implies. That goddess has systematically wiped out any competing deities, and her temple promotes some pretty evil behaviors.
The magic number I’ve seen bandied about places — I think it originally came from Drow of the Underdark — is that only 15% of drow are good-aligned.
The concept of an “evil race” is a problem on its own, which I’ll discuss in a bit. But first: anywhere that blackness = evil? Not cool.
The next problem is gnarlier…
Weird perspective on women
This problem is a lot less obvious, but it’s also hard to solve without stripping away a lot of what makes the drow interesting.
Drow society — or at least Lolthite society — is a matriarchy. It’s also, as I mentioned above, centered around a chaotic evil spider goddess. The society kind of falls in line with that, which means that there are a lot of women in power doing evil things.
I guess the first, most obvious objection that comes to mind is why does a matriarchy have to be evil? Is this meant to imply something about women in positions of leadership?
This objection doesn’t trouble me too much, though. Perhaps it’s because I find a lot of assumptions about women in leadership go too far in the gender essentialist direction — “oh they’re women so they must be caring and gentle and they never go to war.” But the drow matriarchy doesn’t put the ability to have babies at the CENTER OF EVERYTHING, and I enjoy that as a change. Drow women are also allowed to be openly sexual without it being unusual or stigmatized, and it appears to be (mostly) a society that isn’t too hung about marriage or monogamy.
(I recently decided to read one of the newer Drizzt books — Timeless, from 2018 — and was disappointed to discover that these aspects are less and less true, alas).
So a wicked matriarchy by itself doesn’t bother me, for the same reason I don’t mind playing villainous women in historical or fantasy larps — because villains are rarely bound by real-world gender roles.
The second problem is a lot of the evil and cruelty of the matriarchy reads like some guy’s BDSM fantasy. The drow matriarchy has a lot of the same problems of the patriarchy in the real world, in that it actively and passively marginalizes the opposite gender. (And yes, I know, gender isn’t binary, but tell that to the writers of the 1990s). Which in some cases is actually quite interesting to read, as a woman!
But sometimes it goes too far, and it becomes absurd; when the show of dominance goes into the realm of the far-fetched and the violence is over-sexualized. And it’s moments like that when I say, “Is this believable? Or is the author just a frustrated sub?”
(I returned the book to the library, so no quotes for you, but there’s a section in Exile, the second Drizzt book, which reads kind of like Malice is a pro-domme and Rizzen is her sub client with a service kink).
Which brings me to another aspect of the matriarchy that bothers me. Sometimes it feels like an extended “bitches be crazy” joke. I get it — it’s a chaotic evil matriarchy. Hence there’s a lot of irrational screaming and undeserved punishments and unusual cruelty.
But considering that this sort of “irrational,” emotion-driven behavior gets pinned on women a lot in the real world? It can definitely be grating to see it writ large in fantasy.
(I had a sidebar here about how this ties into consent in the matriarchy, but then I realized this could be a post all its own. Maybe some day I’ll write about that!)
Sooooo…. there’s a big problem underlying a lot of ethical quandaries in D&D, and it’s alignment.
In D&D, a character’s moral compass is called “alignment,” and it reflects a spot on two axes — lawful -> chaotic, and good -> evil. So you get alignments like lawful good, chaotic evil, or true neutral (neutral on both axes). When I refer to Lolth being a chaotic evil deity, it’s this alignment it’s referring to.
Alignment is an observable fact in the world of D&D. No matter how much Wizards pretties it up and makes it sound like it’s about moral choice, it has to do with how you are aligned relative to the Great Wheel of the multiverse — the gods and fiends and the outer planes where they live. In previous editions, alignment was something that could be sensed by spells; even in 5e, certain magical items require a certain alignment to use.
Alignment’s not all bad. It makes sense for gods and fiends, as primal absolutes. I have absolutely no problem with describing Lolth as chaotic evil. And sometimes makes sense in with actual players, too– it guides how your PC acts in response to events in the campaign.
But the major problem with alignment is: it’s from an outside POV.
This is most clear when you’re talking about the good-> evil axis. While I can imagine someone describing themselves (accurately) as “lawful,” it all breaks down when it comes to evil.
Fundamentally, no one thinks they are evil. Even the worst of humanity — murderers, slavers, genocide enthusiasts — think they are doing the right thing given their circumstances.
This comic is a great segue, because orcs are another example of an “evil race,” at least in previous editions of D&D, where they were pretty much only monsters you could kill in dungeons, not sentient beings with their own culture. I remember distinctly — having played a half-orc in 3.5e — that it was pretty much implied that half-orcs are all products of rape, which is wiiiiiiild and how did that get into print?)
In 5E, you can play an orc, but then sometimes you get slammed with text like this:
No matter how domesticated an orc might seem, its blood lust flows just beneath the surface. With its instinctive love of battle and its desire to prove its strength, an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2018)
Drow, unfortunately, don’t get much better than that: see the “only 15% of drow are good” factoid above.
And when those races are coded in ways that are reminiscent of real-world racial inequalities? It’s even grosser.
And what do we do about it?
Fixing the “elves in blackface” problem.
I feel like this first problem has the easiest fix: make the drow skin color one that is further away from real-world connotations.
There are a lot of options for this. Colors like dark blue and dark purple have been suggested. Some folks say “they live underground; they should be pale or albino,” and I can buy that. Recent official art, in the 5E sourcebook Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, depicts them as a sort of silvery-grey.
Personally I picture my drow as looking like the Dunmer, with grey skin. While it is still possible to shade into something uncomfortable with that, I also think ESO — and Elder Scrolls cosplayers — have set a good example with this.
Of course, this is my Very White opinion on the matter, so take this all with a grain of salt. But if your primary objection to the drow is the similarity to blackface, that’s the easiest of these problems to address.
But it does need to be addressed at a higher level than it currently is — it needs to come from Wizards of the Coast itself.
How do you solve a problem like a chaotic evil matriarchy?
Well, for one, you tone down the chaoticness and extravagance of their evil.
Does this alter the fundamental interest of the drow as a people? I don’t think so! Personally, I’ve always found it hard to believe that any society could be maintained for long under that level of chaos. Lolth may be chaotic evil, but I think individual drow are going to shade more lawful or neutral evil.
Indeed, Menzoberranzan is astonishingly lawful — what is the Way of Lolth if not a law? Even their overwhelming “don’t get caught” attitude towards crime is a sort of law, even if it’s not justice.
Your average drow, regardless of gender, does what they have to do to survive. They’re not (for the most part) sadists; they’re not going to go out of their way to come up with elaborate tortures for their enemies.
But if someone stands in their way, the knives come out.
(I also think this connects to social class. The higher your house is ranked, and the closer you are to Lolth’s chaotic orbit, the more extravagant evil you will see, because you will become an obstacle to other houses. But when you are lower in the hierarchy, who cares? What do you have that anyone else wants?)
Personally, I subscribe to the Kantian theory: evil is using other people as a means to your end, not ends in and of themselves. By this definition, evil is banal and common. It isn’t the Menzoberranzan equivalent of Snidely Whiplash, tying poor hapless menfolk to altars to sacrifice just for funsies. It’s thinking, “eh, it’ll please Lolth and gain me prestige if I sacrifice this guy, so I don’t see a problem with it.”
Congratulations, you have just used a person as a means. That is the heart of evil (says Kant).
I could say SO MUCH MORE on this topic, but I’ll save some of it for another post. (Maybe a drow headcanon post?) I’ll wrap this up with: make the matriarchy more interesting by focusing on the banality of its evil.
Fixing the concept of an “evil race”
… can we just say, “don’t?” Is that enough?
Again I’d encourage folks — by which I mean WotC — to take the inside view. No one is evil inside their own head. Certainly not an entire race.
And if you have to make an entire race evil, can you not code them as real-world marginalized people?
Getting rid of alignment, and replacing it with something more nuanced would also go a long way. Like, say, a better version of the half-assed Personality/Bond/Flaw/Ideal system that everyone skips over in character creation? (New rule as a DM: I screen players by whether or not they fill that shit out).
Because ultimately, who we are as people is largely determined by more than our alignment along cosmic axes.
It would “lead to richer plots and themes,” as they say.
In fairness to WotC, they have made some baby steps in this direction — see: their “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons” article, which promises to depict drow and orcs differently, fix some errors of racial sensitivity, allow customization of racial backgrounds, and improve the portrayal of the Vistani, a Roma-like people from the Curse of Strahd adventure. They’ve followed through with this, too, as far as I know.
… and yet they do things like butcher the work of a BIPOC author without his knowledge or consent. *sigh*
In conclusion, I absolutely see the problems and the implicit bias in the most common depictions of the drow. But I also believe there’s good worldbuilding here that can be salvaged. Worldbuilding that asks questions like:
- How do you live in a world of complete darkness, where heat vision provides most visual cues?
- What sorts of language might develop from a culture based around worship of a chaotic evil spider goddess?
- How does a matriarchy work, and how does it marginalize men?
- What role does separation from the surface and the other Underdark races play in drow culture?
- What are the consequences of a judicial system that boils down to “don’t get caught?”
And really, these speak to some fundamental human questions, don’t they? What is morality? What is marginalization? How does our experience of the world inform our language?
This is the stuff that intrigues me about the drow. I’d rather not throw it out wholesale.