About six months ago, I wrote about my conflicted relationship with the Forgotten Realms setting, and mentioned that I might like to rebuild Menzoberranzan and the conception of the drow as a whole. My problem with them is that the Menzoberranzan boxed set is written to support an urban, all-drow campaign, but the drow style of kitten-eatin’ evil is just not interesting to me. My three-word pitch for a revamped Menzoberranzan: arcanopunk inverted Venice. My approach won’t be for everyone, but that’s fine – I like what I like. Unrelentingly evil villain protagonists are overdone at this point – and even Walter White would not have been compelling if the show had started with the tone of Season 5.
Important Note: I began collecting FR material somewhere round 1994, and stopped collecting FR material right around 2005 or ’06. The finished work won’t cleave to canon, so don’t be surprised when I miss some points in discussion along the way. My primary sources are the aforementioned boxed set and Drow of the Underdark (the 2e one, not the 3.5 one published on ’07).
Second Note, Far More Important: This post is going to discuss religion, including real-world religion. It may be searingly offensive to readers who identify with the religions mentioned. Offense is not intended; where it results anyway I offer my apologies, as I have an outsider’s ignorance on religions and spiritual traditions other than Episcopalian Christianity.
My starting point is the Queen of the Demonweb Pits and her priesthood. Menzoberranzan is the “default” drow culture and city of FR – other drow city-states define themselves by their difference from it. For example, the cult of Lloth rules the city with absolute control, as she is often said to do for all dark elves – but if I recall correctly, Vhaeraun has his city, Ghaunadar has its city, and Eilistraee has a camp or something. (I am not checking the whole of FR’s text for this.) I digress; the point is that it doesn’t make any sense to change Menzoberranzan without changing the character and the religion responsible for its madness.
The Lloth in the text isn’t overburdened with motives that one could reasonably parlay into results. She encourages constant murder between the drow Houses, ruthless racial purity and supremacy, capriciousness (a dodgy virtue by any standard), and total matriarchy. I do believe that one could write a setting with a very active god (as Lloth is described as being – she’s apparently in avatar form all the frickin’ time) who is almost completely unpredictable. Actually, TSR did this, three years later, and the way they did it is the start of my model for Lloth 2.0.
So what if Lloth were inscrutable rather than capricious? In final form, the actions can be relatively similar – the Lady of Pain is described as Mazing people for any visible reason, or none, and flaying people just by casting her shadow over them. Untouchable, awful power fits in fine with inscrutability; by virtue of having stats, Lloth must be a step down from the Lady of Pain. (Whether or not gods or the avatars of gods should have stats, and thus be possible to defeat in combat, is another argument; let’s briefly short-circuit it by saying that FR’s answer is a consistent Yes, throughout the product-line.) Making Lloth seem inscrutable requires little more than giving her a guiding purpose – an alignment shift to be sure, but I have a sufficiently low opinion of alignment rules that I am not attempting to maintain consistency with a classic Chaotic Evil alignment.
What purposes might Lloth pursue, and direct her priesthood to pursue, that would put a more believable twist on Menzoberranzan as presented? As a goddess, it’s pretty clear that she sees the drow as her personal domain – if she could twist their polytheism into monotheism dedicated to her, that would be a good start. This fits with how worship grants power to the gods in FR. That degree of deific competition is less interesting than it could be, because a party split between Lloth-worshipers and Vhaeraun-worshipers can’t function.
It would be more interesting, I think, if the gods of the drow pantheon could coexist at least a little; it would also sharply reduce the evil-because-matriarchy tone of drow culture. The drow gods should have their various goals, but recognize that they need each other. In FR, everyone knows that each god has a limited portfolio within their control – it’s a major metaplot event when a portfolio element changes hands. So maybe the approach is a riff on Santeria and Candomblé: each person’s nature directs them toward one of the gods of the drow pantheon, and the gods more or less respect that that’s what’s right for them. It helps that Candomblé has a light touch when it comes to statements about good and evil.
Okay, let’s say you accept Lloth and crew more as patrons than competitors. All by itself, that opens Menzoberranzan to more playability – one of its major problems is Lloth’s total (but insane) control. Making her priestesses more about countering malignant forces working against the city and the various Houses, rather than rigid-but-unstable orthodoxy, makes them PC-playable, I think. Sure, some of them are still malicious and grasping, but it really helps if the PCs see Menzoberranzan itself as something worth saving.
Menzoberranzan could also benefit from decentralizing its religious hierarchy, taking another page from Candomblé: there are multiple temples and hierarchies, some more rigid and formal than others. Treating every House as a unique priestly hierarchy might work, but it’s probably more ideal to make the Church divide priests along different lines than secular politics do, because that gets them working together in different recombinations.
If total decentralization doesn’t work for you, Menzoberranzan could be divided by a tripartite religious schism – roughly analogous to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Three-way conflicts are just better in games, because it means that probably no one ever wins decisively. Each House aligns with one of these sects, based on the authority of the most senior priestess within that House. A House’s junior clergy may disagree with the senior priestess’s decision, but it has become customary to present a unified front to the other Houses. On the other hand, this means that the death of a senior cleric and ascension of a successor may move the House into a new sect and shifting the balance of power across the city.
It’s not like I want to get rid of cloak-and-dagger conflict in Menzoberranzan, after all. Fantasy Venice (and Florence, for that matter) involves plenty of street violence and political clashes between the families. It just needs to be identified as a violation, rather than overtly being business-as-usual – especially if it is business as usual. Drow society is so casual about murder that you can’t really call it a society – and the drow nobility are so outnumbered by commoners and non-drow servants that an us-versus-them mentality that highly valued the drow noble blood should have emerged. It’s not for nothing that all of the behaviors ascribed to drow are things we call antisocial. I get that it’s supposed to be a decadent and Evil society – I just think that the drow need to focus more on the politics than the slaughter, and keep in mind that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally (they already seem to have a death-grip on the inverse).
Anyway, getting back to Lloth directly, I’m proposing the following commandments issued to her clergy.
- Unify the drow under one banner. (Note: A command with the best of intentions, guaranteed to cause maximum carnage.) It is permitted to serve both Lloth and other gods of the drow pantheon, but it is forbidden to all drow to forsake their compact with Lloth.
- It is forbidden to take the life of drow of noble blood, of clergy devoted to any god of the drow pantheon, or of spider-kind, except as permitted by a holy tribunal. The sentence for such a blasphemy is death. (Note: Obviously, drow still do this; it is necessary to get away with it, and pay off or foil investigation.)
- It is forbidden to take the life of drow commoners, or of property belonging to another, except as permitted by a holy tribunal. The sentence for such a blasphemy is a blood-price assessed by a holy tribunal.
- A blasphemy against Lloth must be punished by a holy tribunal. The sentence is permanent disfigurement or blinding.
- Let there be no kings or queens over the drow; the Queen of the Demon-Web Pits permits no rival to her power. In times of crisis to the church or the state, the Curia may designate a Champion to coordinate defense and counterattack. (Note: As mentioned above, there may be three conflicting Curiae in Menzoberranzan…)
- Upon death, if resurrection is declined or unsuccessful, a drow soul is scoured of its faults and sins, and rewoven by Lloth into a new cloth. Deeds done by her command cannot be sinful; if you must bear mortal punishment for them, she will reward you. Serve her in life, and she will preserve you even against the Abyss.
- The flesh of the dead is nothing; necromancy of the flesh is no sin. Necromancy worked upon the soul is permissible only with the blessing of the Curia.
- The dignity of noble blood comes from Lloth, and only she may exalt the common or debase the noble. She has granted a lasting dignity to the feminine principle by taking a queen’s form; priests and priestesses alike may sit in a holy tribunal, but only priestesses may join the Curia. (Note: Because the point of this exercise isn’t to replace matriarchy with patriarchy. Also, I’m playing with shifting drow society from a theocratic oligarchy to a kritarchy.)
That’s pretty much what I’ve got at this point. If you have additional ideas for how to “humanize” the cult of Lloth in FR so that the drow make a little more sense and become a lot less kitten-eatin’ evil, I’m interested to hear them.