Monster of the Week: Dark Elf

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series Monster of the Week

This week we look at the Dark Elves, known as Drow in D&D. Like many of the creatures, Dark Elves have their history in mythology. Norse mythology places Dark Elves as evil underground creatures, which is exactly what Drow generally are in D&D.

The Drow have had a hard time getting into our general knowledge. The First Edition Monster Manual has but four lines on them, under Elf. Slowly, however, the players grew curious about these creatures. The 1E Fiend Folio has them as monsters, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide had something on their culture.

Dark Elf

Image by Olderkat, used under CC BY-NC-ND licence.

The lore on the Dark Elves expanded. From starting as simply evil underground Elves, they became a powerful force of evil. The Underdark, a warren of underground cave systems, became their home and battleground, fighting with fearsome creatures and carving out an empire. Many stories have been written of the home of the Drow, their lust for power at any cost. Writers gave Drow an assortment of powers, both for literary effect and to provide a challenge for players.

The power and awesomeness of Dark Elves led players to desire them as a playable race. The first published rules were in the 1E Unearthed Arcana; the rules were mainly concerned with restricting all the ridiculous abilities that the Drow as foes had. Amusingly, 1E UA comments: “A dark elf player character is considered an outcast from his or her homeland”, which led to most PCs being Chaotic Good outcasts struggling against their evil brethren. Statistically, they’d probably be struggling against the horde of other Chaotic Good outcasts.

Anyway, this is all well and good, but why include them in a game? Too overused, too cliche, you might say. Never! There’s a reason that the Dark Elves have become cliche: they’re perfect for D&D.

Drow are, to an extent, the ultimate enemies in D&D. They’re intelligent, they’re well equipped, they’re tactical… they’re almost… PCs! When a D&D party goes up against Drow, it’s like fighting another adventuring party, but the drow are cooler, better, faster, stronger, are better equipped, are magic resistant, and have a pile of special abilities. Drow are not like Dragons: as a foe, Dragons mainly require a large application of brute strength to defeat. If the DM does it properly, Drow require thinking. They’ve got class levels.

Traditionally, fighting Dark Elves was something you’d only do at high levels, when the DM started pulling out the big guns, as such. 3E changed everything. With proper rules for monsters with class levels, Drow suddenly became easier to use, and deadlier. Suddenly, well-equipped, smart, tactical, magic resistant foes are available for any experience level. 4E’s simplicity unfortunately works against them, with only a handful of mid-level Drow in the MM, although there are rules for monsters with class levels in the DMG.

So, with all that, you want to put Drow into your campaign. How? Well, assuming we’re going for the traditional antagonistic approach, there’s a few features of the Drow that fit really well into a campaign.

Firstly, the simplest method: the Underdark is like a giant dungeon. Put some lame excuse in front of your the players, and they’ll gleefully leap into an area full of all the best (really dangerous) monsters in the MM. There’s a lot of source material on Underdark societies, and there’s always opportunities for random encounters.

But what if you don’t want them traipsing into the Underdark? This is particularly problematic if your campaign setting doesn’t have an Underdark (mine doesn’t). Well, no worries, because Dark Elves are raiders. Drow are known to have quite a large number of slaves, and they also happen to like random violence. Bring them to the surface and have the Drow kill some people, and then the PCs can trace the killings and hunt down the Dark Elves.

Alternatively, you can expand the Drow into a more involved plotline. A popular one involves the drow invading the surface: they have the motive (desire for power, violence, and slaves), and they have the strategic skills to pull off a quite complicated war. Here’s a sample of a  part of a simple plot, which you could use as a springboard to incorporate a Drow invasion into your campaign:

The people of the city are called together. The duke speaks, and criers spread his words. Over the following hours, nearly the whole city have heard the news: the duke’s daughter has been kidnapped. Such an act has been immediately blame’s on the duke’s political enemies, but the cause is secondary to the panic. The duke calls for anyone with any information to report to him.

Game history has taught us never to let the goal of the quest be in the first place you look. It makes the game too short.

Remember: Game history has taught us never to let the goal of the quest be in the first place you look. It makes the game too short.

The player characters begin to investigate. Following the path of the kidnappers, they find the trail leads to an abandoned mansion outside the city. A small tribe of orcs seems to be occupying the house, but upon clearing it they find no trace of the duke’s daughter. However, by some method, be it a note from the Drow, a single drow leader, or another captive, the players find the orcs were either slaves or allies to Drow, who seek to use the duke’s daughter as a sacrifice to summon a great demon upon the city. In the demon’s chaos, the Drow will then attack and enslave or kill the whole population of the city.

Anyway, following this lead, the players can delve into the underdark and find the Drow task force. Then, by either force or stealth, they must rescue the duke’s daughter from an army of Dark Elves, and return to the city. As a final touch the the story, surviving Drow can try to summon the demon anyway, or launch a final desperate attack without it, creating a huge challenge for the players.

Always remember: use the Dark Elves’ intelligence, equipment, and special abilities to make every fight hard for the players. Drow don’t go down without a fight, and you shouldn’t let them. If you really do it right, the players will start to fear encounters with them. Creatures this awesome shouldn’t be pushovers.

Stay tuned for another monster next week!

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About Duncan

Ellisthion is currently loving 5E D&D, whilst still running the original 1st Ed AD&D Temple of Elemental Evil. He's also spending way too much time playing Dota 2.
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