The Face of Evil
What do the Drow look like? How do their bodies age, presuming they live long enough to show the signs? These are questions that everyone answers for themselves. Most people rely upon the artwork and descriptions found in books. The Drow typically are listed as having dark skin and hair of light colors (white, silver, yellow). They are said to have eyes very light in color. The third edition artwork shows the Drow with rather ugly white hair and eyes that appear to have no pupils. Beings with high Charismas should not look like Drizzt in the Faerun setting book. Woof!
I see the Drow as being dark skinned, but more like stone dark than the African dark we have in the real world. You could even have families of Drow that are darker than others and thus thought to be of a better pedigree. There is no reason for the Drow not to have the full range of hair colors open to elvenkind (white, silver, yellow, black, brown, red, and gold). The same goes for eye color (brown, black, blue, silver, green, hazel).
The denizens of the Underdark use darkvision (formerly infravision) to find prey, which does not rely on color. A Drow with white hair would be seen just as readily as one with red hair. And who says that being underground has to leech the color from you? The Drow are heavily influenced by magic and selective breeding. The Drow could encourage certain color strains and magically create others. Imagine a Drow city in which red-haired baby girls are thought to be blessed by Lolth. Or, conversely, a settlement in which blonde girls are thought to resemble surface elves too much to be tolerated.
The Drow can live to be several hundred years old. As younglings, Drow are lithe and slender. The third edition books state that they are smaller than normal elves by a small margin. I don't visualize them as being smaller, but I do see them as being very slender. Their natural dexterity and their hard work to survive would lend to their small waistlines. Drow with extraordinary strength do not necessarily look like hardbodies. Drow frames are compact. I have some affection for the idea that the females are proportionally larger than the males, as with spiders. You could work with that idea on a smaller scale, if you wished: only the clerics of Lolth may have such a discrepancy, as a part of their divine blessing.
There are bound to be people who find my conclusions unacceptable, since they have different rules in mind for the Drow. I encourage people to go with what they can visualize with the least difficulty. The final call is up to the DM. In my game, I used Drow with varying colors and they seemed all the more exotic to my players. I liked giving them an image of the Drow that they hadn't considered before; little touches can mean so much. Matron Mother Triel had straight, long, deep red hair, and spidery black irises that made distinguishing her pupils impossible. She owned the player characters for a while and before their eyes sacrificed a member of their party to Lolth. I know that the group will not soon forget her capricious cruelty and her imperious dark glare.
Art by SnowSkadi
The Drow believe that they are superior and are out to prove that fact to the rest of the world. For many Drow communities, the goal of expansion is not just on the agenda - it is an absolute. Just think of the greed for land that the early settlers had in America, and the drive that the fledgling nation felt to spread from "sea to shining sea." It wasn't that long ago that manifest destiny was the doctrine of the United States, and we did everything we could to complete our task. We bargained and killed and cheated our way across the plains. It did not take three hundred years for our mission to be completed. Just imagine what the Drow have been up to during their long lifetimes. The yearning for land is a common one, and no doubt the Drow share it, so long as the land is worth something to them. The Underdark is full of defensible positions, water sources, veins of precious metals and stones and perhaps even rarer things. The Underdark is also full of other species who hoarde and steal and battle amongst themselves. The Drow send spies where they can, and other times they wait for wars between two species, so that they can move in on the battered victor. The Drow might even spread their forces too thin in places. Lolth could challenge her priestesses to capture certain settlements in order to spread the glory of her name, and what choice would the clerics have but to obey? Expansion in the Underdark is no easy task, but I see it as one that commands a lot of Drow attention.
There are various races that are known to share the Underdark with the Drow, however unwillingly. The deep races often war with each other but there are times that are too dangerous for attacking. I hesitate to call such pauses "peace." When they are not killing and dominating everyone they can, the races of the Underdark sometimes do business together. It is hardly unheard of. But what do the Drow think of the other races? What are they taught about illithids, beholders and the rest of the lot?
The Duergar at large were turned to evil after being enslaved by the illithids for generations. The deep dwarves managed to overthrow their masters, however, and don't think that the Drow didn't take notice. Battling the illithids is painful work, even for the children of Lolth. The Duergar have remained in the Underdark and have shown themselves to be talented craftsmen, but they don't tend to make much that they Drow don't make for themselves. While the Drow might hold a few Duergar slaves, I imagine that the Drow would be more likely to humor the dwarves by trading with them. High-maintenance slaves take up too much time and energy, and the Duergar have overcome some of the worst masters. The mind flayers are likely to attack their old pets before aiming at the Drow, and the Drow can use all of the cannon-fodder they can get.
The svirfneblin (or deep gnomes) are too paranoid for the Drow to resist tormenting. The gnomes were once sent running from the city of Blingdenstone when the Drow overran it with demons. The svirfneblin that didn't make it to the surface were no doubt swept up by the Drow and herded to work in the mines. I can see the Drow taking pleasure in rooting out the svirfneblin from their hidden homes and chasing them like foxes through the Underdark. The svirfneblin can run and hide, but they don't have the strength to hold off the Drow once they're cornered (the race gets a negative Strength modifier and a terribly high level adjustment).
Occassionally, the Drow are able to make deals with their illithid neighbors. The mind flayers are an evil to be feared and admired. They have razor-sharp wits and excellent tactics. Illithids appreciate slavery, magical items and secrets - all of which are interests of the Drow. It takes a great deal of skill and luck to survive interacting with the mind flayers but a few notable Drow have made links to certain illithids. Each race has used and betrayed the other in the past but that only proves to make new ties more exciting. There have been instances of particularly twisted Drow becoming "partners" of illithids, drawn in by their power and alien beauty. Just how deep the "partnership" goes depends on how close the Drow is willing to get to the illithid's terrible maw. Some Drow get close for knowledge and others get close in order to feel the height of anticipation. Some Drow even survive their relations, but they don't share the secrets that they court death to receive.
Beholders do not deal well with their own subspecies and they have no tolerance for "lesser" races. The Drow may not view themselves as inferior to beholder-kind, but they have to admit that the beholder's rays can be very effective. And the Drow have no love for the beholder's antimagic ray. The Drow avoid beholders when they can and kill them when they have a strategy to minimize losses.
The Drow have an interesting affinity for the aranea. It seems only too convenient that the aranea are a race of shapeshifting spider-folk with magical abilities. The aranea have a humanoid form, a spider form, and a hybrid form. The Drow believe that the aranea are distant children of Lolth and worthy cousins. Quite a few aranea near Drow settlements come from Drow stock and have a Drow form. When aranea reveal themselves they are often revered as blessed by the goddess and are accepted into Drow society. It is an honor to mate with an aranea and shapeshifting children are raised to be magnificent spies.
Drow like to use chokers to guard little-used passages that might be found by... unwanted guests. The Drow will capture chokers and place them in corridors where they can hide and attack those who pass beneath. The Drow will use chokers as part of a security system but by no means as a last or only method of defense. Some rogue guilds will use them in tests and feed them with slaves and the inexperienced.
The Drow try to take note of where cloakers lair so they can lead enemies through. The Drow have made contact with a few cloaker packs over the years and established beneficial relations. A few Drow settlements are guarded by cloaker flocks, which are fed well on would-be invaders and enemy spies. Arrangements between the two species are rare but ongoing in certain regions of the Underdark.
The Drow have long dealt with demons and devils in their history of magic use. Some Drow have the Improved Familiar feat and have acquired quasits or imps as familiars. At the graduation ceremonies of priestesses, demons are often summoned to partake in the merriment. The head of the class might be blessed with the honor of receiving a demon's seed. Should the seed take root, the cleric will be seen as blessed and given great respect for carrying a half-fiend draegloth. Drow half-fiends are not killed at birth as they are in good human societies; instead, they are raised as proud and gifted children of Lolth. They are revered for their heritage rather than scorned, but a half-fiend who fails might be killed even more quickly than a pureblooded Drow because of the expectations they live up to. Any half-fiend that shows too many signs of softness or weakness will be put down - they are too powerful to let loose.
The Drow have contact with chromatic dragons when they bother to have nonviolent contact with dragons at all. Relations with black dragons are risky but often profitable; for enough gold, the Drow have purchased nights of claws and acid to use against enemies. The Drow would rather work with blue and green dragons when they can, as they tend to be more reasonable. The Drow shun white dragons for their weakness. Drow have been drawn to red dragons before, given that the reds are the most intelligent (and rich) of the chromatic dragons, but disasters have resulted more than successes. There have been half-dragon Drow children in the wake of some deals, but the details of their conception are kept quiet. It is enough for the Drow have greatly strengthened their numbers for generations to come.
The Drow adore efreeti, since they can grant up to three wishes per day and are as devious as the Drow could wish. The Drow will trade happily with efreeti whenever the genies visit the Material Plane desiring goods. The Drow go through great pains to make every deal with the genies successful, since genies do not die of old age and are likely to remember insults. Wishes are too great a temptation to be thrown away.
The Drow will trade with kuo-toan communities for objects as much as sport. They do not in the least respect the kuo-toas but the aquatic race pays good prices for whatever the Drow choose to offer. The Drow will randomly kidnap and kill kuo-toas just to remind the race of how fragile they really are. But relations will mend and trade will continue, as assuredly as the tides move. Drow wizards especially enjoy the different spell components that come from the greater oceans.
There are Drow yuan-ti in existence and while they are not spider-based, they are undeniably strengthened by snake blood. The Drow-born yuan-ti will not always kill human-born yuan-ti because of the snake blood they hold in common. The yuan-ti in Drow communities are used according to their abilities and are honored for their prowess.
Drow will not deal with lycanthropes except to kill them, and any Drow who succumbs to lycanthropy will be put down if they are not healed. Drow will gladly be given the belladonna cure, which does not always work. Drow can purchase the remove disease or healing needed but the spells must be cast within three days of infection. Drow can try to purchase the remove curse or break enchantment spells, but most clerics of Lolth will only try the spells three times. If, after three tries, the infected can't make the Will save they are dismissed as being unfit to survive. Few Drow are important enough to continue working on. Natural-born Drow lycanthropes will guard their secret with their lives. Drow wererats can be some of the most efficient assassins and spies and they rely on their shapechanging for cover.
Lolth is not the only deity available to the Drow, although she is the only goddess in most Drow settlements that is available for public worship. Lolth does not like to share the spotlight. Nonetheless, the Drow are willfull creatures and some have the courage to place their faith elsewhere.
Lolth's direct and divine children are a disappointment to her. Vhaeraun is her son by Corellon Larethian and he opposes his mother by subtle means, so as not to be destroyed outright. Male Drow who are sick of female dominance often worship Vhaeraun and try to find a way to the surface. Half-drow sometimes turn to Vhaeraun as well. Indeed, on the surface the number of Vhaeraun's worshippers are increasing. He encourages tactical violence and actual Drow unity without the burden of enforced female leadership. Why Lolth tolerates the quiet rebellion Vhaeraun encourages is anyone's guess - she may have her divine eyes turned elsewhere. It's not as though Drow males and the lesser half-drow are very important to her. She might find the rebellion of her son amusing. Vhaeraun is evil just like his mother and teaches that the Drow are superior - so how far from the tree has he really fallen?
On the other hand, Lolth's daughter is a shining beacon of goodness. Eilistraee insisted that she be banished with her mother and brother after the attack on the Seldarine. Corellon Larethian wanted his daughter to stay, but she wanted to be a light in the dark. Eilistraee is the only good deity of the Drow and she offers her hand to any who will take it. Drow who are outcast might seek solace in worshipping her and Drow on the surface might worship her before choosing a non-Drow deity.
Kiaransalee is a demigod associated with vengeance and the undead. Drow necromancers would be the most likely to worship her but her cults are small. Kiaransalee does not like being in servitude to Lolth but doesn't have anywhere near the power she would need to strike against the Spider Queen.
Selvetarm, however, serves Lolth willingly and might even be worshipped in public in some places in conjunction with his grandmother (he is the son of Vhaeraun and a lost goddess). He inspires the will to fight and hate in all who love to kill - and many Drow like to murder a whole big lot. Most Drow males are educated as fighters in order to serve the security of the city as a whole. Worship of Selvetarm could start with the packs of Drow males sent to patrol perimeters, or the ones sent further out to scout. Some groups spend weeks and months away from their city, where they might just speak of a god they can all relate to. Some Drow might not even know that Selvetarm is subservient to Lolth - how amusing it would be for them to believe they were striking out at the Spider Queen by being faithful to a male.
Evil Drow, in the Underdark as well as on the surface, may turn to outsider deities for power. It is unlikely that most Drow would respect any deities who ascended from the mortal, sunlit world, because of the inferior stock from which they came: a human is a human, regardless of their feeble claims to power. There are many gods outside of the Underdark gods that would suffice, however. Malar is associated with Lolth and represents a savage impulse that many Drow might identify with, even if they are not lycanthropes. A Drow who values knowledge above all else might worship Oghma (and clerics of Oghma can be of any alignment). Shar could easily appeal to the Drow because of her inherent ties to darkness and the place in which they live, but her taste for intrigue might be what draws a good deal of followers to her. Beshaba, goddess of mischief and misfortune, might also appeal to Drow who are used to fearing their goddess, as her worship is largely one of fear. Both Shar and Beshaba are deities that were formed in the primordial divinity of the Forgotten Realms; they were never human, and they have both been labeled black sheep by the goodly sunlit races. Talona might be the perfect goddess for those Drow who often work with poisons and know the power of disease. The Drow are often associated with pain and torture, and it may be through these things that a Drow can discover the call of Loviatar, the Maiden of Pain.
Gods can and will be worshipped in secret by the Drow, at the very least to spite Lolth, if not out of genuine sentiment. The Drow are taught early to recognize and appreciate power, and some Drow might find Lolth more of detriment than an aid to power. They might come to identify with what another god represents, or they might have a religious experience in which they feel the presence of a deity other than Lolth... a presence that fills them in places Lolth-worship never reached. They might enter into worship as a part of a secret society or some other bid for power. They might even be brought up to worship a deity other than Lolth.
Most beings in the Forgotten Realms worship some deity or combination of deities; they not only have the drive to be religious, they can also find immediate proof that the gods exist. The Drow are no exception. Think of the lengths to which people have gone in order to worship their own gods in their own fashion in the real world. Now think of the lengths to which the Drow would be willing to go to worship who they please. There wouldn't just be rebel printings of outsider holy texts and covert distribution of worship materials. There would be hidden holy symbols, magically-warded worshipping rituals, perhaps encrypted speech to hide the content of worship. The names of deities might be changed or encrypted to throw off spies. Murder would be the very least amongst the worries of a Drow worshipping an outsider deity; compared with the constant flow of lies needed to maintain the facade of Lolth-worship, murder would be a rare occassion. Yet for their gods, the Drow will risk discovery, pain and death - and they will defend their worship of any deity with the same spilling of blood that Lolth so often requires.
A "Good" Drow
Will the real Drizzt Do'Urden please stand up? There are too many characters who are not just patterned after Drizzt, but taken pretty much whole cloth from R.A. Salvatore's depiction of a good Drow ranger on the surface. Since Drizzt is a very popular character, the player characters who follow his pattern might be thought of as nothing but Drizzt clones. There is a reason for this: Drizzt is the rarest of the rare as far as Drow characters go. Good characters do not tend to survive for long, in Drow society and the Underdark. It is very tempting to make the greatest exception to the rule when you're making a character. But is it the best choice?
Good aligned Drow stick out like sore thumbs in Drow society. Too much occurs on a regular basis in Drow culture that would offend or sicken them, and someone is bound to notice their emotional reactions. Drizzt was the son of a matron mother and most players do not start out play in such a position. Drizzt was coddled as a child by the machinations of his sister and his father. If he had been raised in the main of Drow culture, Drizzt would have seen the truth of his people before he could think to deny it - in his earliest years. Drizzt's apparent weakness would have warranted his death, had his mother been less of a fool.
Think on it for a moment from the perspective of your average, evil Drow. Matron Malice let Zaknafein live because of his skill with a sword and as a lover. She knew he was rebellious about certain parts of Drow culture and faith, but she let him in effect raise her son through their swordplay lessons, which were unsupervised. Matron Malice let her daughter Vierna raise Drizzt during the earlier stages of his life, but she did not see how her daughter went easy on the young boy. Drizzt was tainted during the years he should have learned his deepest lessons, for what pains rival those of childhood terrors? Matron Malice sacrificed Zaknafein and thought she could use Drizzt as a replacement swordmaster, so she didn't kill him as she should have. Zaknafein had been found wanting, and Drizzt had showed nothing but weakness as a Drow. She did not have to honor her promise to Zaknafein to spare their son. She should have sacrificed them both and dedicated her treachery to Lolth.
Drizzt's circumstances were too specialized, in short. There were too many exceptions and bad choices. A Drow from humbler roots would still be watched and tested. A good character would not be able to countenance the evil of Drow culture for long and remain sane.
One could argue that people often make Drow characters who are not in the Underdark anymore, but on the surface. That is just fine - but do people have to make good aligned Drow in order to traverse the surface? There's more to the Drow than chaotic good and chaotic evil. What about lawful neutral Drow? Or chaotic neutral Drow? Surely there are lawful evil traders and neutral evil wizards. All of these possibilties seem far more likely to me for player characters. Not every Drow is a priestess linked to Lolth, and even her clerics have the option of being chaotic neutral.
And why is it that a Drow on the surface has to be a ranger, like Drizzt? There have got to be some kickass Drow bards out there, with music and stories never heard on the surface. Just think of the impression a Drow bard could make, if given half a chance. Bards can also sneak around quietly and heal themselves, if they choose the right spells. A Drow bard wouldn't even have to be seen, then, if he didn't want to be. Drow clerics are common enough. Hell, consider the possibilities of a Drow druid. What a terror a Drow druid could be, with the ability to change shape and sling spells like entangle. Drow fighters should be pretty run of the mill. Most Drow males are put through training to fight because of the perils of keeping a settlement alive in the Underdark. Every sword is needed. But oh friends and neighbors, think of the trouble a Drow monk would be! And need I mention Drow rogues, sorcerers and wizards? There is so much variety that it is sad to see so many people opting for the same old thing.
If you don't want your Drow character to be accused of being a Drizzt clone, you might want to actually try something different. Don't rely on the Drow cookie-cutter mold. Sometimes the best Drow is the one you don't expect.
Are secret societies within Drow society redundant? I don't think so. There are plenty of secrets for the Drow to want to share and hide at the same time. Many secret societies are centered around magic, prophecy, and religious cults that rival Lolth. Secret societies are likely to spring up when Drow are eager to pool resources or information away from the public eye, or to share ideas that they might be persecuted for. It can be difficult to keep a secret in a city full of talented rogues and spies, but it can be done. The first step is to avoid suspicion as much as possible. The second step is to secure your secret with all of the magical means that you can. Meeting places can be found or even made. Religious symbols must be hidden and any texts must be kept secret at all costs. I can imagine Drow memorizing religious texts instead of having them in tomes or magically warding forbidden materials. Drow might belong to different secret societies at once - a cult devoted to Shar one night, a cell of wizards devoted to finding a legendary magical component the next night, and so forth. There might even be secret societies that act as fronts for others. There's no end to the layering of intrigue that can be done with the Drow. Never forget that the Drow are not a unified race, and that secrets abound wherever the Drow live.