Dark Elves in Gygaxian D&D
The Drow or Dark Elves as originally envisioned by Gary Gygax et al. have dark skins, despite living underground, and are (almost) Always Chaotic Evil. Humanoids with dark, sallow, or unnaturally colored skin being morally corrupt is a trope that goes back to Tolkien, even further to H. P. Lovecraft, and ultimately back to white people trying to justify enslaving Africans. For that reason I hate this trope with a fiery passion.
Modern RPG players with social awareness grapple with the implied racism. R. Salvatore invented Drizzt Do’Urden, the one Dark Elf who rejects evil, and in recent editions of D&D Dark Elves are just another player option. Some hark back to “Queen of the Demonweb Pits” to insist Drow are evil only because of Lolth/Lloth warping their minds. I’ve seen other explanations, some serious and some humorous, of why underground creatures would have dark (or gray or purple or blue) skins.
Some published works revisit the concept of “dark elves” without unfortunate implications.
GAZ 13: The Shadow Elves
Underneath Basic D&D’s Known Realms dwells a subterranean albino sub-species of elves. Soul Crystals enhance their mystical might. At the bidding of an Immortal named Rafiel they guard a deadly artifact pulsing at the center of their realm.
Other under-dwellers underground learned from hard experience not to venture into tunnels that the Shadow Elves guard. Denizens only venture there, briefly, to abandon weak or defective offspring. They would be surprised to learn that the Shadow Elves rescue these infants and raise them.
Dark Elves look like any other elves. The darkness lies inside them: xenophobia, elf supremacy, an abiding hatred of anything or any being Not Elvish.
Ages ago, the Elves shared their world Yrth with only Dwarves and Orcs. A cabal of Dark Elves gathered to work a mighty spell that would erase these hated enemies from their world. The spell went awry, turning the site of the spell into a desert where no magic works. Worse for the surviving Dark Elves, the resulting Banestorm brought humans, goblins, and other creatures from dozens or hundreds of parallel worlds. And they keep coming …
Misty Islands of the Eld
In the not too distant past the Eld – pale, over 7 feet (2m) tall, and strange – arrived from Beyond the Veil with arcane technologies and conquered a chunk of the world. In the lands they ruled they built vast estates tended by the beings they enslaved. All that survives of them are ruins, tombs, and bitter memories.1
multiplexer’s (former?) Dungeonomics blog explores economic ramifications of fantasy role-playing game tropes. In one post she posits that the “Deep Elves” set up fake dungeons so murderhobos can plunder to their hearts' content without disturbing the Deep Elves' real homes. This gave them time to develop magical technologies like the Underdark Wide Web. Deep Elves later decided to Web-cast the antics of murderhobos in the fake dungeons. One enterprising marketing executive repackaged it as a game show.
My take on Dark Elves
For what it’s worth, here’s my revisionist take on Dark Elves2.
I. The Sundering of Light and Dark
Long before the Age of Man the Elves fought a vicious war with their ancient enemy.3
During one battle, warriors of Clan Mordhri4 chased the Enemy into deep caves. There they discovered a vast world full of wonders and terrors previously unknown. At this dark world’s heart lay a threat to the world of Light. To save the surface world required all warriors of all Elf Clans.
The Queen of the Mordhri and her advisers explained this threat to the Council of Twelve Clans and their elected High King. But Council and High King alike had tired of war. When she protested, the Council expelled her from their midst. The Queen, frustrated and angry, descended into to the Underworld to save an ungrateful surface world, alone if need be. All the Mordhri followed her; they, too knew their duty. Regardless, upon hearing of her defiance and that of her people the High King pronounced the Mordhri and their Queen NOT ELVES, forever barred from the Western Paradise should any find it again.
In following centuries the Council of Clans broke, the last of the High Kings was overthrown, and many ageless Elves met their end in wars over land and power. Written histories burned. Memories of the living faded or altered to expunge unpleasant truths. Only a few now living even know of the “Dark Elves”. Diligent scholars discovered only the fact of their banishment, and they speculate endlessly about what horrific crime could expunge names from the Roll of Clans.
II. The Dark Empire
As civilizations of the surface world fell and rose anew more than once, the Dark Elves waged a War Unending deep under the earth with Things even deeper under the earth. As Dark Elf warriors shed blood and their Queen forged distasteful but necessary alliances5, the Mordhri became the Dark Empire, and their Queen an Empress.
Ages in their light-less world changed the Mordhri physically, mentally, socially, and culturally. Dark Elves born after the Sundering are shorter and smaller than other Elves, perhaps due to cramped quarters and scarce food. But that was just the start.
About 85% of Dark Elves dwell in sprawling townships, usually tunnel complexes around a large central cavern. Townships produce the food, arms, armor, and other matériel need for the Empire’s literally endless war. (More on them later.) Dark Elves in these townships tend to have pale, seemingly bloodless skin. Over a few centuries continuous exposure to strange emanations6 of the Depths, even through solid stone or metal7, gives their skin a pale bluish or purplish hue. Older Elves' traditionally blue-black hair likewise lightens over time to shades of brown, auburn, or sometimes gray.
About 14% of Dark Elves serve the Empire as warriors. Every warrior takes at least one tour of duty in the Depths if not directly at the Front. More direct exposure to the Depths gives all but the rawest recruits the bluish or purplish skin and lighter hair of older civilians. Veterans typically turn dark purple or charcoal even as their hair lightens further. When they’re not actively fighting nameless horrors, trained warriors guard the upper tunnels, patrol township borders, maintain supply lines, heal the wounded, build fortifications, train young recruits, and otherwise do what soldiers have done since wars began.
The last 1% of the population is the Empress’s jarls and thanes: her wisest lieutenants, ablest warriors, and companions through the centuries. All are a deep shade of gray, blue, or purple, most with silver hair. Those born before the Sundering stand taller than the purest bred Elves of the surface world. They spend the worst of their hours fighting hand-to-tentacle with the Things Beneath, and the rest trying to forget.
When not in battle the Empress’s jarls attend to matters township governors and frontier commanders cannot, or at least do not. A single but highly trusted source suggests the Empress and her jarls live ascetic, austere lives almost identical to her subjects. The few luxuries they permit themselves include scrolls, musical instruments, and tools for whatever crafts bring brief joy between battles.
The Empress herself is towering, glorious, with jet black skin and the pure white hair of an Elf thousands of years old. She battles horrors alongside her thanes, and meets in council with her jarls only when strictly necessary. On very rare occasions she receives diplomatic visitors. Whatever else she does is for her and her alone to know.
III. The Question of Slavery
Undoubtedly the sight of pale humanoids doing drudgery under the command of oddly hued “masters” led to myths that Dark Elves raid the surface for slaves. Surface worlders who survive territorial dwarfs and angry trolls and ignored numerous signs in Dwarf runes, Troll signs, Shadow Script8, and Elder Sigils9, have on occasion wandered into the Dark Empire. According to reputable accounts, Imperial sentries send “trespassers” back if they remain respectful and avoid restricted areas.
A minority of scholars speculate vanishingly few outsiders stay, one hopes voluntarily, to become fathers and mothers of future contributors to the War Unending. How else to explain the Dark Elves slowly expanding population during an endless war? In comparison, surface Elves have few children in human history, usually with humans; over the ages they’ve grown ever more rare and reclusive.
The bodies of interlopers who aren’t respectful or explore too deeply reappear, days later, in neutral tunnels between the Empire and the interlopers' domains of origin. Those who show disrespect for laws of the Empire would logically make poor slaves.
IV. Life During the War Unending
The War Unending changed Dark Elvish culture and society, even for the majority not actively fighting.
Each township in the Empire has between a few hundred and a few thousand inhabitants. In a township farmers cultivate fungus10, spider-herders wrangle monstrous native spiders11, craftsmen build various goods from scarce materials, miners delve for ore and space, and smiths forge elf-steel into arms and armor. Each occupation has its own local guild run by experienced members of the profession, to train new members and ensure continuity even in crisis.12 Members of the Mentors' Guild, male and female, watch over the township’s children, teach them essential arts, and steer them toward a guild apprenticeship or military service as each child’s mentor deems appropriate.
The Empire has no merchants and no “economy” to speak of. Imperial mints in each township, usually adjacent to the local smelters, produce coins of tin, nickel, and lead13 to track and settle debts. The Haulers' Guild transports goods from one place to another, usually to the Front but sometimes to other townships facing shortages. In the Empire all activity supports the War Unending, the population’s survival, and the pursuit of excellence in one’s chosen endeavors, more or less in that order.
A Township Council handles all local civilian matters. Theoretically a “consensus” of residents elects council members. In practice Guild Masters and local veterans influence the choice of council members and strongly ensures compliance.
Council-appointed magistrates judge workers accused of hoarding, malingering, breaking curfews, harming other workers, and other offenses against order. (Military tribunals hear cases involving soldiers and their camps.) In either type of court a representative from the Guild of Advocates argues in favor of he accused. It seldom does any good. “Civil suits” as such don’t exist, since all wealth belongs to the Empress and the Empire, and workers have leave to use Imperial property only to the extent it aids the War. Theft from a storehouse is theft from Her Imperial Majesty; the only question is if it harms the War Effort directly or indirectly.
The Empress appoints a military Governor to each township, almost never a native. The Governor commands local sentries, appoints members to military tribunals, oversees production, and relays the Empress’s orders from the Front. Councils and workers attempt to accommodate all Imperial orders to the best of their abilities, but by all accounts a Governor would rather fight nameless horrors than angry workers.
V. A “Reward” After Life
Nothing in a buried civilization changes more drastically than funeral customs.
When a warrior falls and Elves can recover their body, morticians use beetles to strip off any remaining flesh. Sorcerers then animate the fallen warrior’s skeleton, dress it in a spider-silk tunic, and hangs upon it a plaque commemorating the fallen warrior’s name and deeds. The skeleton then returns to the fields or the mines, where it, silent and tireless, aids the living in their toil.
While these funerary customs may seem grotesque to surface-worlders, they free up the living to fight in the war. This custom also honors the promise in an ancient song, which loosely translated means at war’s end I will return to the fields and never touch a weapon again. One might ask whether these skeletons would save more lives on the front lines, being already dead. Such a question would horrify a Dark Elf: for the fallen, the War Unending is finally ended.14
They’ve been compared, accurately, to the British Empire. ↩︎
Based on an idea by Gary McBride of Fire Mountain Games (personal communication). ↩︎
Orcs, dragons, trolls … take your pick. ↩︎
literally “Dark Ones”, their true name having been expunged. ↩︎
mostly with less terrible monsters against more terrible monsters. ↩︎
The radiation that (sometimes) lights the Underworld and sustains its bizarre flora slowly kills most surface dwellers over time. Curiously, Elves merely gain an eldritch tan. ↩︎
Spider silk and leather affords some slight protection, which creates misleading “tan lines”. ↩︎
Letters of the Dark Empire resemble Elf Runes, with unmistakable differences. The language they transcribe, Shadow Tongue, is an Imperial state secret. ↩︎
In the Trolltooth Mountains, the center of the Dark Empire, explorers have found glyphs unknown to any of the Elder Peoples. The Empire has sometimes claimed regions with these sigils on the unstated pretext that they’re a warning about something. For this reason, Dwarfs in the Trolltooth Mountains often claim Elder Sigils are “natural patterns”, and chip them off when no one is looking. ↩︎
Fungus is a staple of Dark Elf diets. Edible game is scarce, so, unlike many surface cousins, Dark Elves are almost always vegetarian. ↩︎
Dark Elves raise spiders for their silk, leather, and poisons, and in rare circumstances as beasts of burden, but NOT food. Despite alchemists' best efforts spider meat is poisonous and putrefies quickly. ↩︎
Unlike guilds in human lands, members pay no dues, although they assume responsibility for shared space and property. ↩︎
i.e. metals of limited use for weapons, armor, tools, and fortifications. ↩︎
Necromancers also know that hostile sorcery could seize control of an animated skeleton and use it as a weapon against its former masters. ↩︎