RPG Rants: In Defense of Good-Aligned Drow

Blasphemy!!!I admit it – my favorite PC by far is a good-aligned drow.

This makes me a horrible gamer by some Internet standards. If you look around at various D&D and Pathfinder forums, you’re sure to find at least one or two threads lamenting the existence of good-aligned drow. There are even quotes from Gary Gygax talking about how he dislikes the idea (although, to be fair, there are also quotes from Gary Gygax talking about how if you change even one single rule in your game, you aren’t playing D&D).

The existence of good-aligned drow became popular thanks to the success of R.A. Salvatore’s novels featuring Drizzt Do’Urden. Because of that very success, a lot of fantasy RPG purists out there tend to see any non-evil dark elf as nothing more than a Drizzt clone.

I would like to speak in defense of the good-aligned drow in RPGs.

In a lot of RPG discussion, the mention of good-aligned drow is met with a roll of the eyes and a condemnation of the idea. There are a few reasons given, and I find them to be pretty universally bunk. Some of those reasons are below.

It’s just a Drizzt clone!

This is one of the most common and irritating arguments. Drizzt Do’Urden is a drow ranger who wields two magical scimitars, has bright purple eyes, travels with a variety of strange companions that include a magical panther, and is riddled with angst and self-doubt over his heritage. He’s unusually noble for his race, and grew up with a good heart despite being raised among the evils of Menzoberranzan.

Maybe there’s a whole army of scimitar-wielding drow rangers out there among the legions of role-players that I’ve never encountered, but my experience with good-aligned drow PCs is that the only traits they usually share with Drizzt are alignment and race.

My own drow good guy character differs significantly from Drizzt in that he wasn’t always a noble person. He was a mass murderer whose actions eventually led to him killing his brother. He’s not out for redemption or to make a better name for the drow race, but is more or less just a guy who did the math and realized that his evil ways were bringing him more pain than benefit. Over time, him acting good eventually led to him becoming good.

For the record, when I came up with that concept, the only thing I knew about Drizzt was that he was a character in a popular book that I had not read.

If people were as dismissive of other fantasy archetypes as they are of these supposed Drizzt clones, then fantasy role-playing would be an exercise in reductive reasoning. You want to play a paladin? Pfft. That’s just a Charlemagne ripoff. An elven archer? Why not just call your character Legolas and get it over. A reluctant halfling adventurer? Okay, Bilbo.

And, just for argument’s sake, let’s just say somebody does want to play a character who is pretty much a Drizzt ripoff. Is that such a terrible thing? As long as he’s not dragging the game down with his griping and angsting, there’s nothing really that bad about it. Playing an RPG is about pretending to be somebody else and having fun while doing it. You don’t need to have the most original concept in the world to do this.

Drow are meant to be monsters!

When they were first introduced in AD&D, drow were indeed monsters only. That didn’t last very long. They were added into the game as playable characters by Gary Gygax himself in Unearthed Arcana. That came out in 1985, so it’s been nearly 30 years since they were playable characters. And since there was nothing in Unearthed Arcana forcing players to run them as evil characters, good-aligned drow were very possible that early.

Since Unearthed Arcana came out, drow have made it into the game as playable characters in 2nd edition, where they were mentioned as a subrace in the Player’s Handbook and given a whole supplement in Drow of the Underdark, 3rd edition, where they were mentioned as playable subraces in two of the core books (Dungeon Master’s Guide and the 3.5 Monster Manual) and given another supplement in a revised Drow of the Underdark, and 4th edition, where they were introduced as playable races in the Forgotten Realms setting as well as presented as an optional race in the Monster Manual. D&D spinoffs have included them as options as well – they’re a core race in 13th Age and a featured race in the Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide.

The game has also given good-aligned drow some story-based options, with settings like the Forgotten Realms introducing a goddess of good drow and Eberron treating drow in a much more neutral light.

You can try to take a purist perspective and argue that they’re meant to be monsters via the original interpretation of the game, but then you’d have to ignore that Gygax himself, the guy who co-created the game, opened the door for good-aligned drow when he wrote Unearthed Arcana. And if you really want to argue original intentions, then the only playable races should be humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings and the only playable classes should be fighting-men, magic-users, and clerics. D&D and its spinoffs have changed a lot over the years, and drow moving beyond more than the narrow definition they were given in The Vault of the Drow is part of that development.

Incidentally, I often see the self-professed “old school” gamers using the “they’re supposed to be monsters” attack, which is weird. These are the same people who defend the clunky rules of AD&D with, “You’re supposed to customize the game to suit your needs.” So it’s okay to throw out the terrible initiative system of 1st edition AD&D, but allowing somebody to play a good-hearted drow thief is somehow butchering the game?

They’re unoriginal!

This one stems partly from the Drizzt complaint above, where there are apparently so many good-aligned drow PCs out there that it’s become cliché. Again, I guess this is all happening in some other part of the world than where I play, because I’ve never run into more than a handful of good- or neutral-aligned drow.

The thing about this complaint is that it really doesn’t hold water in the larger scope of the game. D&D and its spinoffs even encourage unoriginal archetypes to an extent – elves get bonuses when using bows, dwarves are almost always bearded and axe-wielding, and so on. So having an axe-wielding, beer-guzzling, mountain-dwelling dwarf is supported and encouraged in the game but having a dark elf that plays against type is an abomination?

Heck, I would actually argue that making a good-aligned drow requires more originality than some other character types. Since you’re playing against the mechanical and flavor aspects of the race, you’re going to have to come up with a backstory to explain why your character is what he is.

Good drow make the rest of the race less cool!

This one is actually somewhat valid, in that it really boils down to a matter of opinion rather than logic. For some people, drow are the ultimate bad guys and should be portrayed as wholly and fantastically evil. Personally, I think that making an entire race of pure villains runs the risk of hitting the Nazi Syndrome.

The Nazi Syndrome is a term that I just made up to describe how some group goes from being totally despicable to comedic butt-monkeys. Nazis are, in the popular mindset, the worst evil that our world has seen in the past 100 years or more. There can be no redeeming qualities about Nazis, because they are connected to some of the worst atrocities of the modern era. (Nevermind that many Nazis didn’t commit those atrocities and had no knowledge that they were going on – fiction doesn’t care about clueless stormtrooper A.) But because they are so universally reviled, they have also become the butts for many different jokes. From the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers to Mel Brooks building a career on making fun of Hitler, Nazis are approaching the point where they are used more in jokes than as serious antagonists.

I think that drow run a similar risk, in that if they’re just there to be villains their stereotyped behavior becomes more of a caricature. Being a fictional race, they’ll never be matched up with the atrocities that the Nazis committed and thus there will never be the cathartic joy that comes with making them the butts of our jokes, but that endless menace does still wear down over time.

In my opinion, some of the most successful examples of drow as villains come when non-evil drow are involved. A good example would be Viconia from Baldur’s Gate II, who isn’t even a good drow but is either Neutral Evil or maybe possibly True Neutral by the end of the game. Regardless, she is a drow exile and quite an interesting character if you follow her romantic storyline. When she finds herself attacked by drow assassins years after leaving the Underdark, it’s a real sign of how obsessive, petty, and despicable the drow can be. I find that scene actually more effective in showing off how bad the race is than the entire chapter of the game that you spend disguised as a drow and walking through a society that basically consists of people saying, “Let’s kill stuff and have lots of sex because EVIL!!!!”

They disrupt the game!

This can actually be a decent criticism. In some campaigns, having a dark elf walk into a city means a bunch of fighting and the plot grinding to a halt. This is also a problem if you have somebody who wants to play an orc, goblin, or tiefling character.

However, I do think it’s worth noting that a lot of the gameplay problems of playing a drow can be overcome by just having the GM and the player talk about things ahead of time. I also think you can handwave problems away by having the drow wear a helmet or something else that can conceal his face when in a populated area.

Even if a drow does just walk into a city, I would bet that a realistic response would be more fear and apprehension than outright violence. Sure, you could say that the reaction would be akin to a black man walking around in the post-Civil War era south, but the hypothetical black man doesn’t have innate magical abilities, a demonic appearance, and a mastery of many poisons. I’m not saying drow would be given no trouble at all, but most commoners would probably keep their distance rather than going for outright violence. The general apprehension and occasional confrontations could be good role-playing opportunities, as long as both the GM and the player accept that this is going to happen.

You can pretty must take my ranting about good drow and apply it to other character types that get unfairly railed against in fantasy RPGs (“Warforged are robots!” “Dhampirs are just angsty Twilight vampires being shoved into Pathfinder!”) While saying, “This concept doesn’t fit with where I want my game to go” is always a fine option, the sheer amount of vitriol against some PC types is over the top and basically boils down to a group of people telling certain players that they’re having the wrong kind of fun.

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3 Responses to “RPG Rants: In Defense of Good-Aligned Drow”

  1. IndirectCell Says:

    many exelent Points as usual 🙂

  2. ValidParadox Says:

    Wonderful rant! Enjoyed it thoroughly.

  3. timothyjbaker1 Says:

    One of the PCs in the campaign that I run is a good drow, and his character has been a lot of fun to include in the story.

    I thought I’d note that D&D 4E supported drow PCs as a core race in the Essentials line. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms was essentially one of the two Player’s Handbook substitutes for 4E Essentials, and features the drow as a playable race.

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