You know, when I wrote the first post in this whole series, I said straight out that I wasn’t going to do separate posts for subraces, which was absolutely about my stomach-turning reluctance to try to write drow personalities that are remotely playable in group environments (but aren’t all clones of R.A. Salvatore’s dude). As I’ve gone along in the series, I’ve had readers request a drow writeup, and I’ve also gotten more comfortable with writing personality features that make you a bit… thorny to deal with in play.
Edit: Please note that this post has been re-edited and released in Through Their Own Eyes, now available on DriveThruRPG.
I started working on making the drow a little bit more okay – that is, PC playable without being clones of that one character – back in this post on Lloth. I meant to keep working on that, and… well, now I have. My general angle is that there are a lot of current and recent cultures or subcultures that we would describe as little-e evil, and a few that we would describe as big-E Evil. Yet in real life, more than one hero – or at least compelling protagonist – comes from those cultures. My goal is to turn the drow from nonsensical evil to understandable evil. Some of the references I’ve made may, therefore, offend the shit out of people. If so, I’m willing to have a conversation about it.
Even so, I think there are a lot of different combinations of these features that amount to a pretty good person who incidentally comes from a dangerous and grimdark culture. These tables assume that the great majority of your adventures don’t take place in drow-held territory, and most of the rest of your party isn’t drow. This is important because it seriously undermines the standard drow arrogance. Now I could write a whole post just on character arrogance in games, as someone who has both played it and been on the receiving end of it. For brevity’s sake, let me just remind you that your first obligation as a player is to everyone else at the table, and it is never okay to ruin someone else’s game.
|1||I grew up in a sybaritic lifestyle, and now I just enjoy making surface-dwellers squirm.|
|2||All of my relationships are based on clear, contractual obligations.|
|3||Hospitality is sacrosanct, and there are no rules when it comes to avenging a violation of it.|
|4||I couch every kind of unpleasantness in euphemisms.|
|5||I never say two words when one will do, and never one when a gesture would suffice.|
|6||I don’t see why other races are so bothered by the undead. It’s every individual’s decision to make.|
|7||I collect artwork obsessively, moving from one culture or artist to another on a whim.|
|8||Having lived decades underground, the open sky unnerves me still.|
|1||Pleasure: I am an excellent host, as I dedicate myself to the physical comfort and pleasure of others. (Good)|
|2||Greed: Everything has been taken from us, so everything is ours to reclaim. (Evil)|
|3||Deception: I don’t owe the truth to anyone except clergy or my direct superiors. (Chaotic)|
|4||Independence: I left the laws of my homeland behind, and they can do far worse to me than surface-dweller laws… (Chaotic)|
|5||Vitality: Death lurks around every corner in the Underdark. Enjoy life while you can. (Any)|
|6||Honor: My honor is my House’s honor, and I am prepared to defend both with my life. (Lawful)|
|1||We lost the war against the surface elves. It’s time we got the hell over it, rather than re-fighting it each century.|
|2||My enemies among the drow are the most important people in my life.|
|3||Anyone who cheats me will learn the error of their ways with a swiftness.|
|4||I want to show other races the truth: surface elves have manipulated everyone.|
|5||I want to build a new and glorious legacy for my people to follow.|
|6||When our mad goddess plunges into the Abyss for the last time, then I can rest.|
|1||The Matron of my House has spies everywhere and judges all of my actions. Paranoia is just a good start.|
|2||I recognize that my homeland is a nightmare, but I look back to a probably-fictional noble past.|
|3||I dismiss anyone I find lacking in social graces.|
|4||I have a hard time adapting to ways of doing things that are less than a century old.|
|5||I risk death, and surrender to temptation, just to stave off ennui.|
|6||Once I have a goal, I abandon other needs in my life to pursue it.|
As always, these features aren’t intended to replace all of your Background features – either replace just 2-3, or go ahead and have two or so extra features. It probably won’t break the game to have two extra ways to gain Inspiration. It’s critical to remember not to load up on features that push you to act like a douchebag to other party members. For that matter, the DM will get tired of it real quick if you use your features to justify being a jerk to every NPC you come across. I find this to be one of the great undiscussed areas of IC/OOC bleed. Just… try to remember that not every NPC is an antagonist. (If you’re the DM and all of your NPCs are antagonists, stop that shit right now!)
I obliquely mentioned some of this post’s influences up above, so I’ll call them out a little more specifically here: Flaw 1 is about North Korea, Flaw 2 is about the Southern Lost Cause narrative, Flaw 3 is about the dark side of Southern manners, and Flaw 5 is from Michael Moorcock’s Melnibone. Bond 1 is about any culture on the losing side of a war, while Bond 4 is about conspiracy theorists. Several features are about cultural decadence. Trait 7 is about Nazi Germany. Notably absent is a feature about keeping your head down in times of trouble, as so many did in those times and places – but these features are for playing a PC, and keeping your head down is fundamentally inappropriate.
Ultimately, drow society is a place where there probably was rule of law at some point, long ago, but internal and external pressures have caused it to fall away. It’s just that they have so much inertia and magical might (also, longevity) that they can continue on as a failed state for a long, long time before a revolution brings some new order. The overwhelming and oppressive presence of Lloth puts strict controls on how they could possibly institute reforms.
Late 15th-century Rome, with the utter decadence of the papacy preceding the Reformation, is a great model – Lloth is somewhat the Pope and somewhat the deity, while the Matrons of the Houses are the College of Cardinals. Menzoberranzan probably gets a lot more interesting if the Matrons are constantly throwing massive galas to outdo each other and draw attention away from their utter corruption.
Or, if that doesn’t work for you, put the drow in the midst of their great and bloody revolution – Realms canon certainly suggests that they are in a permanent state of purge, just waiting for one powerful figure or whole House to get denounced as heretics against Lloth and dragged before a cheering crowd of commoners for execution or transformation. I would absolutely recast the French Revolution into Forgotten Realms, and run it as bizarro fanfic of A Place of Greater Safety. (…I’ll be damned, I just realized that Jarlaxle is my Danton. Well, maybe.)
Still not sold? Sheesh, tough crowd. Fine, cast it as present-day Pyongyang. Menzoberranzan has almost no voluntary trading partners, though their trade embargo comes more from their arrogance than from the sanctions of an international community. They have what they can produce from their own holdings, and what they can steal from others. People who speak out against the Matrons just get disappeared, new and bizarre decrees get handed down all the time, and the only way to get ahead is to inform on your neighbors. The more Orwellian you make it, the better, and divination magic can cover a mighty lot of Big Spider-Mother’s surveillance needs.
All of these concepts serve both to make drow society more understandable (since you can do historical research to learn how people survived in such times and places) and more compelling as a place to set adventures (because the Revolution might end and leave something new in its place). They all get away from drow being racially evil, and instead emphasize drow society as having corrupt and failing power structures. They even toss out matriarchy, per se, as the source of the problems.
Finally – I’d like this series to be finished someday, but if you have other races you’re dying to see broken down into personality features, I’m all ears.