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D&D General The Gygaxian Origins of Drow and Some Thought on their Depiction As Villians

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I really, really want a whole lot more evil Wood Elves and High Elves-- and maybe just aspects of their cultures that just edge on evil and easily become slippery slopes for them to become villains.

As mentioned earlier, read the Mazalan Book of the Fallen. Specifically the Tiste Liosan - the "light elves", the children of the light. They are so "good" that they are effectively villains. Unfortunately they are not a major protagonist.
 

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Greenfield

Adventurer
I once did a lookup/translation of the phrase "dark elf" once, in a variety of languages. In the Scandinavian tongues it becomes Dakalfar, very relatable to English. In another language (I can't remember which) it was Trow. I think that may be the origin of the name. It wasn't Gaelic or Welsh, I remember that much.l (I use those languages a lot when I need an interesting name.))

In all of the cultures, however, the "dark elves" existed in one form or another. In all cases they were considered evil. (Note that the German word for Elf is "Kobold" :) )

So Gygax and company may have coined the phrase we know, but they didn't invent the concept. It's been there for a long time.
 


Voadam

Legend
But I think that's less that I necessarily want less good Drow so much as I really, really want a whole lot more evil Wood Elves and High Elves-- and maybe just aspects of their cultures that just edge on evil and easily become slippery slopes for them to become villains.

I think Dragonlance is the biggest example of that. Its been a while but I think the Qualinesti elves there kept other elves as slaves and really played up the noble arrogant jerk angle.

In AD&D the Grugach wild elves from Unearthed Arcana and MM II were Chaotic Neutral elven xenophobes who could be assassins and all had the ability to set traps.

From UA "Wild elves, or grugach, shun outsiders even more fervently than other elves, and are xenophobic even with regard to other elven races."

From MM II "They are completely xenophobic, distrusting even other sorts of elves"

Wood elves were noted as being more neutral than other elves.

Gray elves "never associate with any other humanoids, other than elves, for long — or with frequency." and are described as noble elves so running with the noble jerk trope is not unreasonable.
 

Arduin has Deodanths they eat Drow and other elves. - Deodanths the party member who ask, "I thought you guys where the Iron Rations?"

Mystara has Shadow Elves - very misunderstood elves.

Arcanum has Druas Everything Drow should of been. (unfortunately not in Arcanum 30th Anniversary due to copyrights)

Druas are now only in Talislanta
 

Also in Dragonlance, the Dark Elves were just elves that had been exiled for misdeeds real or perceived (Dalamar being the most prominent). When I was a kid, those were the first Dark Elves I came across, so the Drow in Unearthed Arcana were a little confusing at first.

I think Dragonlance is the biggest example of that. Its been a while but I think the Qualinesti elves there kept other elves as slaves and really played up the noble arrogant jerk angle.
 



"No.

It's connecting ethnicity with morality that's the main issue."


Fair. So the skin colour of the Drow, is actually irrelevant to the problem, correct?
 

MGibster

Legend
Fair. So the skin colour of the Drow, is actually irrelevant to the problem, correct?
I would be in disagreement with that assessment. The bulk of the complaints I've heard regarding drow over the years are specifically centered around the elves with the darkest skin being the evil ones. Connecting ethnicity, if that's the right word for this, to morality is a much more recent issue.
 

Would Drow have been acceptable if absolutely nothing about them was changed except that their skin colour - from inception - had been silver?
They would have been more acceptable. They still wouldn't have been great.
  • They'd still be connecting ethnicity to morality pretty directly
  • They'd still read as if about a third of them were written by someone with only one hand on the keyboard and another third by a man going through a messy divorce.
 

Libertad

Adventurer
I posted it in the other drow thread, but it's canon in the Complete Book of Elves and Forgotten Realms that drow skin color was a divine punishment meant to denote their wicked natures. Hope nobody minds a double-post!

I feel that the problem with drow is that their existence in the most popular D&D settings posits in which racism based on skin color is not only a thing, it's a thing that's justified 99% of the time. In Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk the drow are the only major elven subrace that is written as uniformly dark-skinned and depending on the writer either biologically inclined to evil or hopelessly under the thumb of Lolth and destined for evil. People like Drizz't are literal one in a million exceptions to the rule. The other elven subraces such as Faerun's moon and sun elves are described with pale and tan complexions. There are dark-skinned non-drow elves such as some portrayals of wild elves and wood elves, but they aren't anywhere near as common an option for players or have as much lore written up about them as the high elven equivalents.

There's also the fact that the Forgotten Realms setting and the Complete Book of Elves imposed a Curse of Ham style affliction on the drow elves. When they rejected Corellon and rebelled against their cousins, they were given black skin to mark their wicked natures. In the 4th Edition of FR drow who redeemed themselves reverted to a more human brown complexion.

While 4e FR and CBoE are both widely loathed, the fact that such books were written in the 90s and Aughts and not the 60s and 70s shows just how slow and resistant to progressive change TSR/Wizards can be.

I don't think that getting rid of drow is the answer. Having them be another elven group who can be good or evil rather than uniformly evil is a good means of rectifying past mistakes. Also retconning that stupid Curse of Ham thing. Also more portrayals of dark-skinned elves that aren't drow.

As for the comparison of drow to black people...well, there's the Curse of Ham thing I mentioned above, but people outside D&D subcultures have noticed inferences. The wildly popular South Park video game the Stick of Truth had the kids LARPing as two different factions: the Kingdom of Koopa Keep (read the initials) lead by Eric Cartmann fighting the drow elves lead by Kyle.

Also Jim Ward, one of TSR's luminaries, had an interview with RPGPundit and Venger Satanis where he claimed that drow are black people in his view. Granted he's a reactionary crank telling other reactionary cranks what they want to hear, but it's far from an isolated incident.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
No.

It's connecting ethnicity with morality that's the main issue.
Im not sure how this is an issue for the game - every race in DnD is given a definitive morality. Why is Drow evil bad but Githyanki evil is okay?

The one time I have used Drow I imagined them as insectoid elfs with a black chitinous exoskeleton (I used 3.5s insectoid template a lot)


Trow is from the Orkney and Shetland Islands, a mischievous fairy of some sort AFAIK.
Drow is a form of the word Trow that derives from the Shetland Norn (Norse) language. In Orkney Drow specifically refers to the devil
 
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Im not sure how this is an issue for the game - every race in DnD is given a definitive morality. Why is Drow evil bad but Githyanki evil is okay?
Universally evil githyanki isn't great either and should get tossed as well. Universally evil monocultures justified in-setting is bad, full stop. It's just that drow tend to come up more often than githyanki because they're included in more settings than githyanki and they get more products and stories focused on them than githyanki, so they're a lot more visible; hence why they're often the first or second example (after orcs) of D&D's biological and cultural essentialism that get brought up whenever this discourse happens.
 


10. "The description of Erelhi-Cinlu as a pit of vice and decay reminds me of the state of many cities in the 1970s, such as New York. Possibly, American urban decay may have also influenced Gygax?"
It’s Melnibone - or the Dreaming City of Imrryr to be exact.

One of the reasons it has become difficult to talk coherently about D&D and its inspirations is we have people ranging from 15 to 70 with vastly different cultural references.

Anyone who had read Michael Moorcock’s Elric books in 1979 (and a great a many D&D players at the time would have, including of course Gygax himself), would recognize that Drow were essentially underground Melniboneans. Sophisticated, decadent, magic-infused, cruel, slave-owning, demon-worshipping, arrogant, ruthless, backstabbing, elf-like baddies. The resemblance is so strong I suspect the reason Gygax didn’t explicitly mention it as an inspiration is he was worried about being accused of ripping off Moorcock.

As for urban decay, Moorcock was a scenester in Swinging London, so he’s far from anti-urban. Portraying civilization as decadent and corrupt is a standard theme in the pulpy sword and sorcery tradition Moorcock was writing in - and that Gygax was inspired by.
 


Dire Bare

Legend
Im not sure how this is an issue for the game - every race in DnD is given a definitive morality. Why is Drow evil bad but Githyanki evil is okay?
Always-evil githyanki are not good, but . . . githyanki are not black/dark-skinned, so we don't have the black skin = evil trope, and githyanki are actually a cultural subgroup of gith, they don't represent the entire race.

And, as with many of the always-evil races in D&D, githyanki have at times been given more nuanced and less stereotyped portrayals. It goes back and forth, but the ultimate issue of specific racial/cultural group always (or usually) being evil is still a big part of D&D . . . for the drow, the githyanki, the orcs, and many, many other races.

We talk about drow most often because, 1) drow are popular, both as antagonists and as heroic options, 2) the obvious dark-skinned aspect, 3) and are just the most obvious example of D&D problems with race, not the only example.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I think Mystara's Shadow Elves were sort of Drow except that they were pale skin. But I think 5e just stated that they're Shadar-Kai after the retcon of what the Shadar-Kai to an Elven subrace.
As a Mystara fan . . . where in 5E are the shadow elves of Mystara even mentioned, much less equated with the shadar-kai? There are some similarities in skin tone, and both elvish cultures are referred to as "shadow elves" . . . but I missed where they were said to be one and the same.

Shadar-kai are shadow elves because they live on the plane of shadow. Mystra shadow elves are named such because they live underground, in "the shadows". We also have the sith arak from Ravenloft, shadow elves who live in the Shadow Rift . . . these three groups aren't really the same thing, despite the names and skin tones.
 

The Glen

Hero
As a Mystara fan . . . where in 5E are the shadow elves of Mystara even mentioned, much less equated with the shadar-kai? There are some similarities in skin tone, and both elvish cultures are referred to as "shadow elves" . . . but I missed where they were said to be one and the same.

Shadar-kai are shadow elves because they live on the plane of shadow. Mystra shadow elves are named such because they live underground, in "the shadows". We also have the sith arak from Ravenloft, shadow elves who live in the Shadow Rift . . . these three groups aren't really the same thing, despite the names and skin tones.
Aside from living arrangements, shadow elves and drow have nothing in common. Shadow elves have no real special rules aside from a boost to dark vision below ground, they don't even suffer from being above ground and certainly don't get bonus spells. The biggest difference between them is that most people don't even know the shadow elves exist because they are isolated. And for the ones that do find out about them, they don't care. They were given a line of balderdash by their leaders to make them hate the surface elves, and the threat of that lie being exposed is a major plot point to their background.

 

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