Sunday, March 8, 2015

Let Them Play Drow

A recurring element I see in the Dungeons & Dragons fandom is one of apprehension when it comes to drow, namely the inclusion of them as a playable race.  The most recent example witnessed was while browsing Paizo's Pathfinder forums, but they're far from the only player base to do this.  I find the issue rather peculiar for several reasons, which makes it rather different than a player desiring a goblin, orc, or similar antagonist-race PC.

First off is the classic Drizz't conundrum, of gamers copying mostly or whole-sale from an existing fictional character.  Understandably many players have a problem with this, although I think it's less due to a lack of originality (basing PCs off of existing fictional characters is nothing new) so much as the repetition it engendered across the decades of play.  Secondly is the problem of an antagonist/monstrous race in a party of humans, dwarves, halflings, and the like.  The fact remains in most published campaigns the drow are pretty much universally vilified.  PCs with one in their group are going to encounter torch-wielding peasants and armed militia whenever the party sets foot in a town or city.  Barring that, the other assumption is that a non-Drizz't drow PC is going to be played like a backstabbing sociopath who is eventually going to offend or turn against the rest of the party.  In short, the baggage is such that the mere option of wanting to play a drow causes lots of groups to jump to the worst conclusions.

And yet that very same fandom can't get enough of them; drow are just plain popular.  They're common antagonists in adventures both modern and classic.  The Drizz't saga is one of the most popular D&D book series.  There's a lot of third party sourcebooks devoted to them as villains, PC options, and cultural detail from Green Ronin's Plot & Poison for 3rd Edition to Barrel Rider Game's Dark Elf base class for Labyrinth Lord.  At least six adventure paths center on them in some way: TSR's Against the Giants series,  Wizards of the Coast's City of the Spider Queen, Paizo's Second Darkness, Adventure-a-Week's Rise of the Drow, Mongoose Publishing's Drow War, and Fire Mountain Games' Throne of Night.  They've been an option for playable characters in official material as early as 1st Edition's Unearthed Arcana, and 3rd, 4th, and now 5th Edition makes them available in setting supplements or even as "core options."  This is not even touching fan material like Drowtales, a webcomic which got popular enough that the creator can make a living off of it.

So this ties back into a common conundrum.  You got all this material for players and DMs alike, scattered across Editions about an elven subrace that a lot of gamers find appealing for various reasons.  And given they're humanoid and have several neat aesthetics (spider motif, underground cities, a magically advanced society, etc), it's inevitable that people are going to want to play as them.

I think we should let drow be playable options.  More than that, I think that we need more original settings and material to make it so they aren't near-universally reviled and evil, as well as tackling the above-mentioned problems.  The thing is, a huge amount of D&D material goes out of its way to show them off as a depraved society.  Orcs and goblins raid and kill, but depictions of drow  have them torture for fun, engage in rape and pedophilia, lack a conscience, and is mentioned in various sourcebooks (like 3rd Edition's Drow of the Underdark) that their society is so unstable that it would fall apart without Lolth micro-managing everything and intruding into her followers' lives.  In some material (Complete Book Elves, 4th Edition Forgotten Realms) the text even links their physical traits like skin color as proof of their evil taint.  This is part of several problems regarding related uncomfortable subject matter underlying their portrayal, as has been noted by others.

Like I noted in my Pathfinder/OSR monstrous PC books, the society of a PC belonging to an "evil" race needs to be more nuanced and three-dimensional beyond the whole 'depraved, violent, and wicked' aspect in order for smoother games.  Otherwise every trip to a non-drow town becomes a potential series of combat encounters.  In my current magic school campaign setting I made the decision to make drow non-evil, or at least as evil as humans are.  They still live underground, have a fondness for spiders and the like, but the major difference was that they were another fantasy civilization in a cosmopolitan metropolis (albeit in the undercity).  They belonged to an old clan of elves who once lived in the mountains, but had to retreat underground from a surface-world disaster.  One of the teachers at the magical academy is a drow, Professor Shadershin, responsible for teaching the Amateur Adventurers obstacle course and gearing the PCs up with equipment.  Another is Gazerlin, a martial artist who wears a mithril power suit in battle; she came to the city avenge the people of her city who were slain by the machinations of Theopolis, a surface-world crime lord.  Other than these two characters, drow have not really played much of a role in my games.  However, the characters I designed were meant to be more than just a straight trope.  Even Gazerlin, who seeks vengeance, does it because everyone she knew and cared about was taken from her by the ambitious greed of one wicked man.  A more typical drow wouldn't feel sorrow for the loss of her fellows.

I think we're at the point where a societal face lift would be the best option forward, both to feed the demand for drow PCs as well as assuage the common fears of DMs and play groups of coping with such an option.  Perhaps we can make their societies varied.  One stalactite city might be under the iron fist of a fascist tyrant whose upper class follows the God(dess) of War.  Another community might live amid a mushroom forest, where their druids and alchemists use the fungus for delicious food, giant specimens hallowed out to live in, and even dangerous mold as weapons against invaders!  A few isolated cities might preserve the old ways of surface elves, worshiping the pantheon like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.  Not only does this move the majority of drow beyond 'elite cannon fodder' and 'evil geniuses in training,' it also adds more variety to the potential backstories of drow PCs beyond the typical rebel/sociopath schematic.