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The Drow: Lost in the Darkness

I recently finished reading the Forgotten Realms novel Homeland by R.A Salvatore, as an inspirational source for the Underdark adventure series I am creating for the heroes in one of my 4E campaigns.  Canny Readers might note that I said reading, not re-reading, the first book of the Dark Elf Trilogy.
homeland cover
I cannot deny it – but I have never really been a fan of D&D inspired novels.

Yes, these words are probably considered blasphemy in certain circles, but I like what I like, and I felt kind of burned as a reader after muddling through a couple of different series.  Out of politeness, I am not going to say which D&D authors’ styles I disliked, but when the chance to read Salvatore’s work came along, back in the dim and misty 90s, I opted to pass on them.

I love fantasy literature, and have been avidly reading it since I was old enough to hold a book.  But I am also somewhat of a snob when it comes to what I like to read, and I’ve never been blown away by any of the half dozen or so D&D based novels I have read – until now.

So far I am really impressed with the Dark Elf Trilogy.  In Homeland, Salvatore showed me that not only did he understand the nature of drow and their evil society, but also how well he understood the game of D&D – as it was when he wrote the Trilogy anyways.  I think it was all the little details about how the drow constructed their city to so brilliantly mesh with their own magical powers that really drew me into the story, from the infrared light of the heated stalagmite, Narbondel, illuminating the city, to the aerie-like fortresses of the drow, whose upper chambers were accessible only by levitating to them.

There were, of course, many other fascinating details about the drow that Salvatore wove into his story of the early life of Drizzt, but I wanted to mention those two in particular.  Mainly due to the fact that 4E drow do not have the abilities to actually function in their own city anymore!

On some level, I think it is a shame that when re-inventing such an ironically evil race such as the drow under 4E rules, WotC designers had to change them as much as they did.  On some level, I can understand why removing the ability to use levitation as a racial trait due to game balance, even if it was something that only a few in their society, such as priestesses of Lolth, could do.  But removing infravision as an optic sense, in favor of the catch-all darkvision, changed not only how many monsters perceived the world, but substantially altered how drow perceived one of their most (in)famous city-states.

There was something really evocative about the way that Salvatore described how the drow used their infravision in Homeland, from using magic to mask their body temperature to heating up parts of their slave-warriors armor in order to create false images and decoys.  Or even using heat to leave messages on stone is an incredibly elegant way of using a this wondrous sense in a cunning way that surface dwellers would never imagine.

Infravision’s 4E replacement, darkvision, is far less elegant and actually makes little sense to me.  How can something see in total darkness?  Natural animals which can see in the dark are really just using a form of highly-evolved and hypersensitive low-light vision, making use of what little light exists from stars or the moon.  The act of “seeing” in complete and total darkness makes no sense whatsoever, as seeing must, by definition, involve some sort of light.  Of course, one could have other senses to detect the world around it, through touch for instance, which is precisely what a sense like tremorsense is all about.

In light of my inspiration from the Dark Elf Trilogy, and in the spirit of making my Underdark adventure the way it should be, I think I am going to make a house-rule and add infravision back into D&D 4E.  While it might take a bit more work for me as a Dungeon Master, judging monsters on a case-by-case basis as I use them in order to decide if they should have infravision, low-light, or tremorsense, I think that it will overall make the experiences of the Underdark that much more of a fascinating and even creepy place.  Knowing that one’s own body heat can let a voracious creature find your hidey hole, that one’s footprints and handprints will linger for some time on the stones, and knowing that a drow might be drawing a bead on your warmly glowing back with a poisoned crossbow bolt will certainly make things much more interesting for my heroes!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


2 Responses to “The Drow: Lost in the Darkness”

  1. Brian says:

    So then, what are some of your favorite fantasy books/series? Non-D&D, I mean.
    .-= Brian´s last blog ..Dungeon Accessories- The Wheel =-.

  2. Well I like a lot of classical fantasy and science-fiction, and I started off reading Jules Vernes and H.G Wells when I was a kid stuck at my Grandmother’s house. She taught English for many years and had a pretty extensive library of classics. She also had a few dusty books on Greek and Norse mythology, so my early fantasy reading was some fairly heady prose. I went through a horror/adventure period, where I read a lot of Poe and Conan Doyle. And after that, I found The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

    As far as pulp writers, I love the various Moorcock’s “Eternal Champions” series – Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, etc. I’ve read all Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and Gray Mouser stories, as well as some fantasy short stories he wrote. I love to pick up fantasy anthologies of short stories too – there are some great stuff out there in an old series called Flashing Swords #1,#2, #3 with short stories by notables like Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, L. Sprague DeCamp, Andre Norton. And recently, I picked up the whole of Howard’s Conan series, which was recently released by Del Rey and Cook’s Black Company series which was bundled by Tor.

    Speaking of anthologies, I really liked the first 4-5 of the Thieves World series, and if I am feeling goofy, I still pick up the Myth Adventure series by the late great Robert Aspirin. Picked up David Eddings Belgariad and Mellorean series – I just love the characters in those books even if the plot was a bit predictable in parts. Edding’s later Elenium series was fun but too much like the Belgariad to be thoroughly enjoyable.

    And I am a big fan of the odd fantasy works of Neil Gaiman – American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Neverwhere are mind-blowing fantasy novels, and I just find the way he juxtaposes fantasy elements with mundane life.

    And those cover the highlights of fantasy I tend to enjoy – there’s a ton more I could recommend if we talked horror!

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