Also known as dark elves, the drow are an especially well-known variety of elf, but one little encountered upon the planes. Though found on only a few Prime worlds and, on occasion, within wildspace, their chief deity - Lolth - is influential far beyond her planar station, having influence with many demon lords and having spawned an entire caste of tanar'ri. Upon the planes, drow are rarely encountered beyond the Abyss, though most major planar cities that allow them will hold at least a minor temple to Lolth. Drow are often confused with both the svartalfar of Ysgard and the shadow elves of the Known World.
Dark-skinned branches of the elven populace have been recorded for nearly as long as the elven people themselves. At least one Prime world, Threnody, had dark elves as its primary intelligent species 30,000 years ago before its end at the hand of the yet-to-be-divine Kiaransalee. However, the drow as are commonly known did not exist until about 11,000 years ago, during an event known across multiple Prime worlds as the "descent of the drow". Resulting from a massive conflict between Lolth (who at the time had been preparing for the event for millennia by seeding her worship throughout the dark-skinned elves of various worlds, to be ready for this inevitable war) and the Seldarine, and manifesting itself in physical conflict between the elven nations, clans, or what have you of each Prime world that reflected the war, the descent itself occurred when Corellon intervened directly, cursing the worshipers of Lolth from the sun and forcing them to move beneath the surface; an act which even today shames Corellon to think of. It was there that the drow truly began, always under the watchful eye of the Spider Queen.
As a Prime people, there are any number of drow cultures to be observed, and listing the details of all would be a fruitless endeavor. However, there are certain recurring characteristics in many, especially the two most well-known: the drow of Toril and of Oerth. Thus, this article will focus on these recurring characteristics, while keeping in mind there are most certainly drow societies entirely unlike what is described here.
Drow society is divided up into a caste system. One of the more basic facts know to most about drow is the matriarchal nature of their society. This is due in large part to Lolth's influence upon their number, as she never accepts males into her priesthood. As direct servitors of Lolth, the priestess caste thus holds the highest position in society. They control all aspects of drow life, with the high priestess of each city ruling it with an iron fist.
Beneath them are the various noble Houses, each ranked by their level of influence in their city, with these rankings constantly shifting as one House gains prominence over another. Mimicking the priestess caste, the noble houses tend to be led by a matriarch, the oldest and, by virtue of surviving, most powerful member of the House. Rarely, a patriarch will take hold, but they are not often taken seriously by other Houses; thus, even when the most powerful member is a male, they will often serve indirectly, taking an easily-manipulated female member of the House as a proxy ruler. The nobility control most day-to-day matters of governing in their city that the priestesses feel no need to bother with, including managing trade with other cities, and the upkeep of the city itself. Each House has a specific duty, and often the need for this duty at a given time is reflected in that House's ranking within the city.
The lowest drow caste is the common caste, made up of various merchant clans. These clans tend to be much more egalitarian than the priesthood and nobility with regards to gender, as they quite simply do not have the luxury to restrict leadership to one sort or another; however, during any interactions with the higher castes, female bias does still manifest itself. Much as the noble Houses, each clan is devoted to a single job - fungus farming, stonework, tool crafting - and it is the duty of all in that clan to devote themselves to that job entirely. Commoners only have the opportunity to change jobs when marrying into another clan, and thus, commoner marriage often occurs relatively early in life, before the completion of a drow's apprenticeship. While a noble could easily become a priestess, a commoner rarely gets the opportunity to become a noble; rarely, a merchant clan will become nobility if their job suddenly becomes of great importance, but more often the only circumstance in which this could occur would be should the commoner manage to marry into a noble House. Even then, such a commoner rarely survives long.
Finally, below the commoners is the caste of drow slaves, seen as far below any variety of drow purely because they are not drow. Elves are treated worst out of all, but no drow slave tends to be treated especially well. Of course, below even the slaves are the driders. These half-drow half-spider monstrosities are formed from drow subjected to horrifying rituals of the priesthood of Lolth, most often as punishment for great crimes against the city. The transformation leaves their body twisted but their mind largely untouched; driders hold most of their prior intelligence, but they have little ability to communicate, and are seen as little more than animals. Driders are most often kept hemmed in a single communal pen beneath the church of Lolth, released only when their talents are needed by the city's militia. Treated even worse than slaves, driders are given no privacy or dignity, and barely fed or cared for; at times, the church priestesses will even allow the driders to feed on one another as a form of population control.
Despite the striation of caste, few drow regret their lot in life. Beyond all other feelings, pride is the chief driving force of a drow; pride in oneself, pride in one's house or clan, pride in their city, and pride in their people. While they may not be the most important, they are the best. Everyone else is seen as lesser to them, the accomplishments of others merely minor bumps on the road to drow supremacy. Even amongst the merchant clans this attitude holds true - they may be less than the nobility, but they are still of key importance to the city, and of course far more important than any other clan. This pride is in large part the reason why drow society is so treacherous: in any House, a good number of drow feel they would be a far better leader, and it's only a matter of time until that is proven true. While this would seem at first glance to lead to a massive dog pile of individuals scrambling on top of one another for dominance, the preference as expressed by Lolth to avoid blatant, explicit acts of dominance in favor of more subtle betrayals allows drow society to persist, as it encourages drow to bide their time for the proper moment in order to not just take, but hold power. Of course, there are drow that care nothing for leading, but they hold no less pride than their kin, for in every drow, abilities and pursuits are classified into two categories: areas in which the drow could easily excel should they wish to try, and areas that hold no importance whatsoever. It is this desire for subtlety, in fact, that points towards the true reason outsiders are so mistrusted; it is not because they are different, but rather because they are not yet predictable. In drow culture, the more predictable a person is, the more "trusted" they are, as they can be more easily outmaneuvered or manipulated as necessary. Thus, given enough time (and with measured enough actions), any individual could "earn the trust" of a drow.
This pride and, indeed, arrogance also expresses itself in other ways beyond just social interaction. While few cultures tend to spend a great deal of time within their histories dwelling on their failures, drow historians have a special talent for interpreting a failure as a victory. The expulsion of Lolth and the Descent both, surprisingly to many, hold a special place in drow lore, seen not as defeats but rather triumphs: in expelling Lolth from the Seldarine and transforming her to keep her beauty from influencing him, Corellon proved his weakness towards base desires, while in cursing the drow, Corellon and all the surface elves proved their claims of moral superiority were nothing but a facade. In much drow fiction, Corellon is presented as a pitiful, whiny figure of pure hypocrisy, a comic relief character bumbling and stumbling his way through life while continuing to weep and lust after Lolth even today.
Similarly, drow pride manifests itself in drow architecture and artistry, which is more often made with an eye towards form at the expense of function; aesthetic qualities are weighed far ahead of performance, with spell-work helping to shore up the faults, since certainly their work would not fail. Even their civic design expresses this: while most Underdarkers build their cities in natural caverns, or as multiple tunnels connecting open areas, drow cities are made of massively-carved caverns filled with elaborate buildings. This prioritizing can lead to some amazingly beautiful work, but without constant upkeep most drow constructions collapse in a matter of decades, or even years, and drow artistry tends to be quite fragile for its material, very hard to safely transport without magical aid. Thus there tend to be few drow ruins within the Underdark, as any abandoned city is soon buried or rendered inaccessible by cave-ins.
Of course, this does not stop the drow from having a deep appreciation for artwork, and thankfully for true connoisseurs, the most popular drow art form is quite sturdy in material. As stone-craft is for the dwarves, gem cutting is for the drow. Not merely basic oval or faceted cuts, drow gem sculptors can create wondrous work from gem that seems almost impossible to have been made. A very patient process, drow gem-work is based less on the hammer and chisel, and more on slow scrapings from slim adamantine blades over the course of months or even years; more akin to whittling than traditional gem-work.
Outside gem-work, drow artistic interests tend to lean towards the more visible expressions of skill - tailoring, landscaping, and other ways of displaying the artisans contained within one's House or clan. Amongst the noble Houses, the amount of art produced by its own members even tends to be part of the ranking of prominence, with some seeking to lure especially skilled artisans out of their born Houses through promises of marriage and excessive dowries. Each House is expected to at minimum hold a gem cutter and a tailor within their ranks, and it is considered quite embarrassing to be seen wearing clothing or accessories not woven by your own House.
As mentioned above, priestesses of Lolth are held above all others in drow society. On the other hand, priestesses of Kiaransalee hold no special prominence above other drow, ranked only as their House or clan dictate, despite the fact that her worship is grudgingly accepted by Lolthites. And of course, worship of the other major drow deities - Vhaerun and Eilistraee - is strictly prohibited within nearly all drow cities at threat of banishment, drider transformation, or death. As for the other means of mystical power, sorcerers are somewhat accepted amongst females, and vaguely put up with as useful when the art manifests in males, most often as servants - such natural magical arts are seen as gifts from Lolth, regardless of their actual origin. Wizards are rare and distrusted, their flavor of the arcane seen as too surfacer elf to trust; any who study the art of the wizard are taken at a certain point in their studies by the church of Lolth and put through massively invasive mental examinations to ensure there is no sign of betrayal within their minds. Those that hold even the slightest inkling are immediately taken to be made into driders, while even those that pass will end up banished more likely than not should they continue their studies.
In the more scientific domains, no field is given greater prominence than alchemy. Not purely in the realm of poison-craft, though indeed many top poisoners are drow, alchemy of all sorts is quite important to the drow. Indeed, nearly all the largest drow cities would not survive without the aid of their House of alchemists, their fungus farms simply being insufficient to sustain their population.
Given their adoration of Lolth, the role of spiders in drow society is hardly surprising. Spiders tend to serve much the same role that cats serve in human or elven society, kept as both companion and pest control. No drow would ever dare to harm a spider except in self defense, even a normally-sized one, and while the larger spiders are not truly worshiped, they are held in high esteem. Many drow cities have an entire clan, or even a House, with the duty of spider husbandry, silk weaving, or poison milking.
As part of the curse that banished them to the Underdark, drow are very sensitive to light, blinded by anything above a lantern and barely able to function its presence. However, they have very sensitive sight, as well as hearing. Their sense of touch is similarly quite keen, to the point that most drow are taught a braille-like alphabet alongside the standard written when being raised, to allow short message to be chipped into tunnel walls where even their darkvision might not function. Their senses of smell and taste, however, are quite weak compared to most humanoids, in large part due to the spores found all across drow cities from their fungus farms. As a result, drow food tends to be extremely pungent and very strong-tasting, to the degree that it can be hard to stomach for others.
In general form, drow resemble most elves: long, swept-back pointed ears, with a smaller build than the average human but a natural grace to their movements, though they tend to be a bit shorter and more slender than even them. Female drow on average are slightly taller and stronger than men, but few drow are outright muscular, instead holding the lithe builds of most elves. Drow skin ranges from light bluish-purple to deep purple to pure black, and nearly all have white hair, with a rare few having a very pale blond shade. As they age, a woman's hair begins to yellow, while a man's hair usually grays. Drow eyes are a single pure color like their elven kin; most often pure white, but on occasion amber or gray. Some drow have black eyes like surface elves, but this is almost always a sign of recent surface elven blood in their lineage.
Drow clothing is almost always made of spider silk or thick cloth, with cooler colors or blacks most popular. The most fashionable drow clothing usually either resembles spider webs, or bears a spider web motif across it. Accessories tend to either show off the elaborate gem work of the individual's house or follow the spider motif in some form, and many drow include elaborate metal head dresses woven through their hair. While the fairly seductive and stereotypical dress of priestesses and noble drow, both female and male, is well known, commoners tend not to follow suit, dressing far more simply. They usually do not have access to the same quality of spider silk of the higher classes, instead making their clothes out of a far lower quality spider satin.
- Dragon #129 - Children of the Spider Goddess, pp.21-23
- Drow of the Underdark
- Pathfinder Bestiary, pg.114