Before he came along, they were at least somewhat mysterious. And not entirely predictable, either: despite their long association with The Forgotten Realms, it’s often overlooked that the dark elves first appeared in the The World of Greyhawk setting, and that the first published drow villain wasn’t a worshiper of Lolth the Spider Queen, but of the Elder Elemental Eye. For many years, the drow were an effective bogeyman that DMs could pull out and give their players the creeps.
Then came Drizzt and his ongoing adventures. These stories both pulled back the veil on the dark elves, and entrenched canon about them so deeply that it’s next to impossible to form a D&D group where someone doesn’t want to play a renegade drow modeled on Drizzt’s example. It’s getting to the point, it sometimes seems, where there mustn’t be too many evil dark elves left in the world.
But I have to confess, even before all of this, I wasn’t a big fan of the drow. I filed them under, “great concept, mediocre execution.” My biggest gripes against them were the two things that have become most iconic about them: the spider -worship and the sadomasochistic matriarchy.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from thinking how I’d use them differently. So here are a few ideas:
1) Define Them By Their Absence
That is, remove them physically from the campaign setting, but litter traces of them all over the world.
In this set-up, the drow are a lost civilization of the Underdark, who vanished before the beginning of recorded history. Only the ruins of their cities and temples remain; and their power niche in the Underdark has been filled by other races who don’t get enough attention — the duergar, the deep gnomes, or even more esoteric subterranean denizens like medusae, minotaurs, or ghouls. With this option, the entire canon of who and what the drow are (or were) all about can remain unchanged. Drow artifacts and other magic riddle the Underdark and surface world, but the drow themselves have vanished entirely.
Oh, and Lolth is dead. Really and truly dead, never to return. Ever.
2) Give Them A Different Iconic Animal
The Eberron setting did this… a little bit. In that setting, the drow are jungle-dwelling scorpion worshipers: an interesting choice, but one that didn’t go nearly far enough for my taste. What can I say? I like arachnids.
When it comes of cave-dwelling, dark-crawling animals, I’ve always preferred bats over spiders. I came very close to designing a campaign in which the drow civilization was ruled by a werebat priesthood of Raxivort, and their favored class was barbarian.
I still might do that.
3) Make Them Masters Of A Different Magic
Necromancy is the obvious choice, but I find elementalism — especially Earth-focused elementalism — a lot more interesting. This could be tied into the first option, making the drow into a lost culture of Earth mages whose achievements in sculpting the Underdark have never been rivaled.
This option has the appeal of maintaining some loose ties to canon; perhaps its an alternate reality where the Elder Elemental Eye supplanted The Spider Queen as patron of the dark elves.
4) Change Their Alignment
I’ve always thought the drow’d be much better off, and much more plausible as a civilization, if they were lawful evil.
5) Change Their Environment
Again, Eberron did this to some extent, and again, I’d go further. Maybe the drow and the sea elves are one and the same race, thriving in the darkest depths of the ocean and its Underdark connections, and either allying with, serving, or opposing the aboleth. Like their canon cousins, they could be masters of poison, associating totemically with nematodes, anemones, sea snakes, and various venomous fish species.
And you just know who they’d worship, right?