Playing Drow Part 1 – Embracing the Evil

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 17, 2012

The Drow are an evil race. This is a fact. The overwhelming majority of dark Elves live and thrive in evil societies, and are led by the most evil of their ilk. Yet no matter how often I’ve repeated this most players who create Drow PCs choose to make them good, or at least not as evil as you’d expect them to be and it drives me crazy. I realize that this is your character and that you can ultimately determine their outlook on life as you see fit, but you’re ruining the best aspects of being Drow by making them all good. Play evil! Relish in playing evil!

All of this grief surrounding good rebel Drow adventurers can be traced back to Drizzt Do’Urden. What most players forget is that Drizzt Do’Urden is not your typical Drow. This is a big part of what makes him so endearing to his fans. The early books in the Legend of Drizzt series constantly juxtaposed Drizzt’s atypical behaviour and misaligned morale compass when compared to the overwhelming majority of other Drow. Practically every other Drow you meet in Salvatore’s books is clearly evil.

There are two reasons I think I’ve seen so few evil Drow during my gaming experiences. The first is the aforementioned Drizzt. People read about him and want to emulate him. OK I get that. But come on, it’s already been done (to death). Why recreate one of the most popular characters in Forgotten Realms lore when you can create a character so much more interesting and so much more Drow. Think about it, if not for his physical appearance you’d never know Drizzt was Drow. So if you’re going to play a Drow play them right.

The second reason I think people shy away from playing evil is that they don’t really understand how to make an evil character work. The imagined stereotype is that if you’re evil you’re going to kill everyone you meet, rob them blind and desecrate their corpse. Although these are certainly the acts of an evil creature this isn’t how most evil characters behave. Drow society has thrived and is still one of the most powerful and dangerous societies that inhabit any game world despite the fact that practically everyone is evil.

Evil characters can still have friends and families. The real distinction between good and evil usually comes down to selfishness. Evil characters will more often than not do what’s in their best interests. Period. They’re going to do whatever it takes to get what they want and to thrive. If that means killing someone then they will, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll try to kill everyone. The War of the Spider Queen series is a great read for many reasons, but it’s an excellent example of how an evil party can work together to accomplish everyone’s goals. When betrayal happens (and it does, frequently) the rest of the party takes it in stride. They’re angrier that they didn’t see it coming than that the character betrayed them for their own self-interests.

One of the most important distinctions between good and evil characters is boundaries. Good characters follow the rules and don’t break the law because they believe that to do so is wrong. They understand that the rules are there for a reason or at least they respect the powers that put the laws in place enough to trust their judgment. Evil characters only follow laws for fear of punishment if they’re caught. If they believe they can circumvent the rules and avoid punishment for doing so (usually by not getting caught) then they’re more likely to consider a course of action that is unlawful or forbidden. This is not to say that they’ll feel compelled to break the law, but they’ll certainly consider that possibility if it will get them what they want. Good characters generally see the law as a wall and try to find another way to accomplish their goals within the defined boundaries. Evil characters rarely let such boundaries get in their way.

Getting a party with evil PCs in it to work together all comes down to motivation. Evil PCs will certainly betray their allies if they have a good reason to do so. It’s up to the DM and the other PCs to make sure that there’re is an even better reason for not doing so. Finding a common goal certainly helps. As long as everyone is working to accomplish the shared goal and as long as everyone realizes that each member of the party can contribute something useful in accomplishing that goal, evil PCs can work in a traditional D&D party.

For example, the Drow Rogue may not like the party’s Dwarven Cleric but as long as they both seek the same goal it’s beneficial to both to work together. The Drow will keep looking for ways to better his own situation while the Dwarf will contently keep a watchful eye on the Drow knowing that he will eventually betray the party. However, until the party accomplishes their greater common goal, the Drow Rogue in this example will likely behave. He knows that if he acts in a way that will upset his current allies they’re likely to turn on him, booting him out of the party at best or killing him at worse. However, as Drow are usually manipulative the Drow Rogue may sow the seeds of descent within the party convincing the others that the Dwarven Cleric isn’t the only leader out there and they should consider bringing on a different healer if the Dwarf becomes disagreeable.

With the upcoming focus on Drow throughout Wizards’ 2012 product releases (see The Drow Are Coming!)  we’re probably going to see a lot more Drow PCs populating our games (especially during public play). As I already mentioned above, players can give their PC any alignment, but I implore you to at least consider the possibility of playing your next Drow PC as evil. I think you’ll find that it opens a lot of interesting role-playing doors and will make your gaming experience a lot more exciting.

Do you think that there are too many good aligned Drow PCs? By letting everyone play good Drow does it belittle the racial choice? What are your thoughts on playing evil PCs in general? Do your players equate evil with fanatical murderer or do they understand the layers and depth that evil characters actually possess?

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1 Zero_Armada April 17, 2012 at 10:24 am

Honestly, I think the main reason that Drow are played as “not evil” is because the party is comprised of “not evil,” and most games are played with a “not evil” cast. My DM has a restriction on evil characters in the game, and D&D influences characters to play “not evil” characters pretty often; I know it’s in one or two PHBs (the evil deities get a small mention in the 4E PHB). People want to play Drow, but don’t want to be evil because it doesn’t fit with the campaign style; thus, “make Drow ‘not evil'”.

2 Rick Deckard April 17, 2012 at 11:09 am

Great Point about evil. I’m running a dark sun campaign right now for mostly first timers and the veteran player is playing an evil Teifling. All the new guys during character creation were like, “will this work?” I simply said that while he’s very likely to take an assassination contract while everyone is shopping in town for the money or to take advantage of someone for personal gain, he doesn’t go around seeking orphanages to go on murder rampages.

3 Mike Karkabe-Olson April 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Interesting read. I really enjoyed this article, and I agree with you for the most part (in theory). But I do think it takes more experienced players to successfully role-play evil characters in a campaign, especially drow, as well as a more experienced PC players in the party in general (ones who won’t metagame and just automatically do everything they can to destroy your character because they know its evil). you also need to have an experienced and fair DM to pull it off. I suspect that is one of the main reasons why you see so few people attempting it.

4 Sentack April 17, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I haven’t seen anyone play evil very well at all and I’m beginning to doubt it’s actually doable at all. To me, specially with a mostly good aligned group, an evil player would have to be transient. He couldn’t stick with them for long. That means the player would have to roll up something new once his character left the party. If it was a group of evil players, I think it would be relatively the same. Once you took advantage of a situation, you would a) kill another player for power or b) so screw over someone, you’re better off NOT being there.

It’s a neat idea but for all my years of playing it just doesn’t seem like a long term option.

As for Drow, I can’t stand how they are portrayed. Perhaps because they, of all the races, break my suspension of disbelief the most. Something about being an evil self centered race just leads me to think that they couldn’t possibly survive for long as a society and nobody has convinced me well otherwise.

5 Al April 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm

I wouldn’t really encourage the promoting of “evil” characters for public play. In such limited play it only leads to such disruptive play as stealing the inn blind, pickpocketing anything that moves, killing npcs for the smallest of perceived slights, etc to demonstrate how “evil” one usually is.

As to the wussification of the drow in the latest version, remember in 4e FR since the cataclysm there are more drow who have made their way onto the surface for various reasons. This allows them to be used as PCs and lessens their old beliefs so that there can be drow PCs of all alignments.

Historically they were an npc adversarial race which leads me to try to answer Sentack, the drow are very much like the old Roman Empire only underground and instead of a senate they have houses vying for power and position. They also tend to be more sadistic towards their slaves than Romans.

6 donalbain April 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm

i think that there are too many godd aligned pcs in general but that is most likely because we still have our morale compasses even with our pcs.

7 Joe Lastowski April 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I don’t know. Giving free rein to players to play “evil” characters can go very wrong, especially with organized play. Most pre-printed adventures are written with the assumption that the players will act in a generally good manner. When they don’t (or even when there are no good folks to guide the morals of an otherwise unaligned or ill-informed party), things can go very wrong.

For example, in the Neverwinter D&D Encounters season, I had an amoral drow wizard who kept wanting to kill the main female NPC (Seldra) in every session. Of course, that NPC eventually became an antagonist and one of the last villains to fight… but in trying to run it as an organized play thing, where every table needed to have certain things carry over week-to-week, I couldn’t allow the most important NPC to be killed so early in the season.

The same thing happened in the current (Elemental Chaos) Encounters season, even though no one was specifically evil. The first session had the party arriving at a town of folks infected with a disease that could occasionally turn folks into demons if left untreated. Since there were no clerics or wizards in my party that week, the only information about the disease the party got was a low streetwise check, which told them it was a demon disease. The unaligned, striker-heavy party decided it was a good idea to slaughter anyone who’d been infected, just to be sure, and I had to spend a long time with the one village cleric trying to convince them not to commit townicide.

I’m very wary about evil PCs in any kind of organized play, because there are never enough “if/then” sections written-up. The adventure designers don’t write in a “if your party kills the orphans” option… they just assume that rescuing the orphans’ caretaker will be a motivation that will work for good-minded PCs.

8 Philo Pharynx April 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Don’t forget Eilistraee. Most of the good drow I’ve seen have been more influenced by her than by Drizzt. You have to admit that dancing naked in the woods with a huge sword is better than some boring sermon. One of the games I play in had the PC’s rescue the survivors of a destroyed drow community and bring them to the surface as long as they kept orderly. Several decades later they have a drow community that is mostly neutral and good. (though you can get some interesting items at the apothecary…)

And you have several good points about evil. I’ve had somebody say that drow society is office politics with cyanide. People talk behind each other’s backs and wait for moments of weakness. You only take action when you have enough of an advantage that it’s a sure thing. Acting and failing is a weakness to be avoided. Trust is a relative thing. Even somebody that hates your adversary will get power by taking you out. It’s not a campaign to be taken lightly – many people don’t find this fun.

Even a good or neutral drow that grew up in drow society would be paranoid and secretive by surface standards. It’s something they would need to learn in order to survive.

@Sentak, it depends on the scale of evil. A character that kills babies because their blood makes good armor polish wouldn’t last. But imagine somebody whose family was tortured by the big bad of the campaign. They are working with the party for revenge and have no reason to betray them as they are the most likely way to get to the big bad.

9 B.J. April 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I would love to give an evil Drow (or character for that matter) a spin, but the DM for our group and a few members are dead-set against evil characters. Drow seem a natural fit for such play.

10 Philo Pharynx April 17, 2012 at 6:57 pm

@lots o’ people, playing evil with strangers is a bad idea.

@BJ, Perhaps your people could be convinced to do an “amoral” campaign instead of an evil campaign. One example would be to have a Mafia-style thieve’s guild. They may be evil, but they aren’t sacrificing people to demons. They’re just trying to get loot and power. There’s also an organization that can keep them in line if things get too bloodthirsty. The guild has it’s own system of honor and customs.

11 TheGreenKnight0 April 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Honestly, I don’t see the issue with having an all evil group. Many of us have grown up with perfect models of how all evil groups may be able to work perfectly in a RPG setting in the form of some of the past few decades’ cartoons such as He-Man, Transformers, Thundercats and any number of other show. All of these shows have groups of evil villains working together for a goal, typically under the tyranical rule ofsome big baddie. I actually think it may be easier to DM a game using this template. Imagine Cobra Commander, Mum-Ra, Megatron or Skeletor as a NPC the DM controls that sends the PCs/evil minions to do his bidding, adventure hools can be just as easy as that. Go do what I say and you better not screw it up or you have me to answer to. In all of these settings the characters are undoubtedly evil yet even with their disperrate backgrounds they manage to have reasons to work together and in a game nothing requires them to be best friends and live together they may just be summoned for particular missions/adventures.

12 BeanBag April 18, 2012 at 8:46 am

I am just entering Paragon tier in my 4.0 Drow campaign.
I am the DM, running 5 PC’s, 4 are evil, one unaligned.

I think the keys to an evil campaign are:
Mature players. Not for public play. If you are going to play like a seven year old, that is fine. You will kill someone, then get killed for it.

Chaos vs. Evil. You dont have to be crazy or stupid to be evil. PC’s need to “find their evil” and actually do evil things.

DM Work: Most of the adventures and DM work is from the wrong side of the fence. Evil PC’s dont save the princess, return the ring, or help the needy. It takes a lot of work to write these all from the ground up.

Reputation: Actions matter. If you kill a guard, all the guards kill you. But if you do actually save the princess, you will get a big favor from the king. I have Reputation tracked along each faction.

I think the “Joker-style” villian seems to be the best example of the worst evil character to run in a campaign. Most evil, especially Drow, are cold, calculating, shady, double crossing, methodical… and then evil.

Its a lot of fun tho.
First scene: Gathered in an underdark tavern. Our duergar takes offense with the bard singing the praises of the dark elves and smashes his mug over his head. A little intimidation and diplomacy later, the party is back at the table when…

13 david schwarm April 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Great Article. I think one reason we see so many Good Drow may be because the character motivation is baked into the Race–like an Adventuring Drow has shunned his evil society and is walking the Do’Urden Path almost by definition. And D&D Players identify with that “Discard Cultural Norms & walk your own path” ideology. Finding similar ideology’s and baking them into the Race I think is a very good idea within D&DNext–4E tried to do this in the Fluff of the early player books, but I think the answers were to pragmatic & clearly not as focused as the Drow. Why do Elves choose to pick up a bow & go orc hunting rather then just living in the paradise that is the Fey? What would bring a dwarf out of his mines to crush troglodytes in a swamp? Why in the world would a Halfling ever even consider entering a dungeon? For a Drow character questions like these are easy–for other races the player has to do a lot more work, I think.

14 Mik Calow April 19, 2012 at 7:04 am

I havent played an evil drow since my 2e days when I had a Priestess of Lolth accompanying a monk of the Earth Spider in my friends oriental edged campaign. Ah, I can still here the cries of the samurai as his flesh gently melted after trapped him in a web from my house emblem then after levitating to safety, setting it alight with my darkfire. Surprisingly, after that the rest of th party gave the skinny black-skinned gaijin a bit more respect.

In most of the 4e I’ve ran as DM most alignments have been either unaligned or good as they’re usually public play, though the rouge in my FR campaign is definately on the path of the darkside.

I would have loved to take part in the recent “Kalarel’s Revenge” game ran in Nottingham that used all evil pc’s, apparantly the pregen character motivations were excellent.

But with regard to drow I think too many people just think “I’ll be just like Drizzt” which is truly a shame with the fanastic roleplay options the race alone opens up.

15 Alton April 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I tend to agree with you Ameron. Drow should be evil, plain and simple. The Drizzt stereotype has been overplayed and is sometimes hard to stomach. I have had players come in with good drow and what can I say…boring! Same stuff all the time. I want to be Drizzt some to mind when they play.

As for evil campaigns, I tend to agree with the overall majority, that it depends who is at the table with you. I have played and evil character(not by choice) and it was fun for me, but it created too much conflict in the group. Like others say, some only want and excuse to maim and kill, and this does not sit well with most group so they kill that character. Then that person cries.

16 David Argall April 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Sidepoint – Neither good nor evil is seriously interested in boundaries. Both will casually obey or violate the law depending on their own interests and opinions. They differ based on those interests and opinions, not because of any difference in concern about whether the action is illegal or not. Our evil guy regards others as simply a resource, to be used or destroyed as is useful [and their pain can be an absolute good.] Our good guy deems the other as ultimately on the same plane as himself, with damage or benefit to either being equally important.
There is frequent confusion between lawful and good despite everybody being aware of Nazi Germany. The obvious point is that the law is written by the self-interested, who is already defined as evil. Any conclusion that the result will be good is clearly suspect.

Now the Drizzt type is overdone, but there are good reasons for the PC [and rarely the NPC] to follow such morals. Playing against type can be fun, and as others have noted, it is very easy for evil PCs to be quite disruptive and a drag on the game. The living games often just ban it outright.

@ Sentack – Keep in mind that we have a lot of evil societies & cultures in D&D, and quite a few in reality too. So we just have to accept that cities of evil drow, or other creatures, can exist and prosper.
As to drow in particular… Well. we drow are so superior that if we didn’t kill each other, we would rapidly overrun the underdark and exterminate all these lesser races, and then who could we have as slaves?

17 Sentack April 30, 2012 at 11:16 am

@David Argall, Call me cynical, but name me an ‘evil society’? There have been evil rulers, even the occasional evil association, but the people typically have been good with bad leadership. I won’t even go into WW2, because you can interpret that a lot of different ways but as an evil society I wouldn’t say, just a very very evil leadership. The way Drow are evil just doesn’t click with me very well and I still haven’t been convinced otherwise.

18 Madfox11 May 30, 2012 at 11:01 am

@Sentack: Well… all canon material admits that drow society would have either changed or died out long ago where it not for the fact that Lolth makes absolutely certain it doesn’t. She also steps in actively when things go out of hand and mortality rates rise above birth rates. It is an unnatural situation kept in place by an unnatural being.

@Joe Lastowski: The Elemental adventure makes no assumption about what you do with the infected victims. In fact, it gives the PCs a choice with two good aligned NPCs arguing either position. It really does not matter for the adventure whether or not the patients are killed and as the author I never said one desicion or the other was evil (although killing the victims is definitely not very heroic) – that kind of discussion is not really something to be done in a D&D game though, way too sensitive.

19 Svafa May 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Drow society has always bothered me because it seems so unrealistic, but I think that’s largely the fault of the nine-point alignment system. If it’s described as simply a power-hungry, treacherous society where the strongest rule, then I can get behind it. It’s when it’s described as Chaotic Evil or simply Evil that I struggle with it. The Demon and Devils are difficult as well, for similar reasons, though they’re easier to stomach because they are embodied evil, rather than mortal beings who have the choice of morality.

20 Michael July 10, 2012 at 1:57 am

I have to disagree with the good-drow bashing here, specifically because it makes as much sense as bashing elven rangers or dwarves with battleaxes. Most of us come to the game with characters already in our heads from the fantasy books we read or (more recently) the movies we watch. When we play, we get a chance to put ourselves (successfully or not) into those roles; Drizzt is one more example.

This isn’t to say they can’t be overdone, but so can evil drow. Any character type can wear out their welcome, especially if they’re poorly picked (yours truly once tried introducing a paladin to a gang of thieves . . .), poorly played, used as an excuse for wrecking party dynamics or boring the DM to tears.

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