The first non-evil Drow

With Wizards of the Coast’s initiative to strip monsters and fantasy races of their default alignment preferences, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the first non-evil drow character.

No, this isn’t about Drizzt Do’Urden, although you might be forgiven for thinking so. I present to you, Nilonim, from the dungeons of the temple of Lolth in Vault of the Drow:

To either side of the altar are small silver cages. Into these are thrust additional sacrificial victims when an especially great offering is demanded by the demoness, and Lolth will paralyze these victims and then take them to feed upon at her leisure. In the right hand cage there is a Dark Elf male fighter/magic-user of 4th/4th level (H.P.: 24; no armor; 12 strength, 18 intelligence, 9 wisdom, 18 dexterity, 15 constitution, 13 charisma) placed into captivity yesterday and paralyzed by the spider demoness. He is Nilonim, a dissident Drow captured in Erelhei-Cinlu where he led a band of rebels attempting to overthrow noble rule. He is of neutral alignment with a slight tendency towards good deeds.

According to Gygax,

He was there to test the players, to see if they were in a kill first and talk later mode, and to call their attention to such mindset if they found and slew him. It was to provide some role-play and questioning opportunity outside the city encounters as well. Nilonim was placed where he was, in peril, to sort of give the PCs a hint he might not be Evil to the core as most in the place are.

And this, I think, brings up a very good point as to why having default alignments for creatures isn’t a bad thing. Even though drow in 1st edition AD&D are listed as being chaotic evil, that in no way prevents the DM from introducing other drow of different alignments, as such can be done for very specific in-game reasons. Without having a city full of evil elves worshiping a demonic spider-queen, the opportunity to have a golden exception to the rule is lost. In a city where any dark elf can be of any alignment, having a Nilonim present loses any sort of specialness. The same goes, of course, for heroic characters such as Drizzt. He is heroic and exceptional precisely because he undermines the expectation and cuts across the norm. The norm being, in the case of the drow, that they are evil, treacherous, and depraved.

Without a standard present, it’s impossible to undermine that standard to create interesting characters.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “The first non-evil Drow

  1. A few of my own thoughts on the issue:

    -I really struggle to see the analogy between orcs* and real-world people of color. For one thing, the whole claim that adventurers are killing orcs and taking their stuff overlooks the basic fact that the orcs almost always got that stuff by killing someone else and killing them in the first place. If anything, orcs are more a representation of colonizing imperialists than they are of any culture that was colonized by Europe!

    -I’d be a big supporter of breaking the equivalence between real-world people of color and orcs by showing that these real world peoples’ cultural equivalents are in just as much danger from orcs as any European-based ones. In Greyhawk terms, that means that the First Nations-inspired Flan, the Arab-inspired Baklunish and the African-inspired Touv have all had to fight attacks from orcs and monsters in general long before they ever met any lighter-skinned humans. It also shows that those darker-skinned cultures give rise to just as many heroes as the lighter-skinned ones too, which could also answer the desire for more diverse representation among protagonists…

    -A question for Joe and anyone else who was in the OSR scene back when I would have been in diapers-how big a part of the 1E game in practice was carving out one’s own territory and acquiring followers? I’ve seen critiques compare this to real-world colonization, but since it was de-emphasized in 2E and dropped altogether from 3E onward, it sounds like it wasn’t even that integral to a lot of tables.

    -I know that the words ‘Critical Role’ probably make a lot of OSR fans break out in hives, but I like the way they handled it in Exandria’s lore. Orcs were corrupted by the influence of one of the Betrayer Gods, which makes them inclined to evil…but it’s been discovered that when they’ve been resurrected after being exposed to a certain otherworldly artifact’s light, the corruption is completely removed. They no longer struggle with evil inclinations, and can otherwise choose their own paths. I’ve seen this in other worlds too, with it being heavily implied that the only reason orcs are as bad as they are is because of their gods’ poisonous influence. The Sikkhet’hul goblins of Krynn were affable folks who were more interested in philosophy than bloodshed and had good relationships with their neighbors, while 2E’s Monster Mythology has Meriadar act as a guide to those humanoids who can shake off their gods’ vile influences.

    -Building on Joe’s original point, Unearthed Arcana’s rules for drow characters flat-out and very openly said that drow PCs are not automatically evil, and came out in 1985. Drizzt Do’Urden was fully compliant with 1E alignment rules the moment he was created. If anything, the only rules Drizzt broke at the time were the ones on class-swapping and level limits!

    * I am using orcs as a placeholder for ‘evil’ D&D humanoid races in general for this comment.

  2. WotC are simply tiring. Embedding social messages in a fantasy adventure game just doesn’t seem like escapism to me.
    There is alignment and there are reaction rolls and there are exceptions to the norm.
    Next up we have tea with Demogorgon – what fun!

  3. Hello Joe, I couldn’t agree more. I feel like the adults are not in charge anymore at WotC.

  4. I’ve been playing over 43 years and always used alignment (as well as other rules) as a guideline, and just assumed other DMs did the same. I always thought it was a fantasy game, and was meant to be played for fun and creating engaging heroic stories of adventure.

  5. I sincerely believe Gygax was pretty even-handed and egalitarian, though he certainly had his biases and was the product of his time, for good or ill (an Islamophile he was not, for instance). Of European descent himself, his disdain for the Suel Supremacy of the Scarlet Brotherhood was evident in the gaming materials and novels, and I feel it obvious that if the drow were meant to be black people, a racist would not have made them incredibly intelligent and beautiful.

    Leveling charges of racism at the game and at fantasy literature in general has been around almost as long as the game itself– one of the first reviews of the Greyhawk folio, in Dragon Magazine itself, took issue with the “racist” depiction of the peoples of Hepmonaland or the Amedio Jungle as cannibals (a trope Gary subverted in the gold box by making them sunburned white folk–Suel descendants– instead of African or Carribean analogues).

    I have always taken the alignments of the various monster species to be a reflection of their dominant culture… we know not all dwarves are lawful good, because they’re a character race and thus can be any alignment… yet there in the Monster Manual it dubs them “lawful good” because culturally they’re clannish and in favor of helping others have a pleasant life; not every elf is chaotic good, but their culture is decentralized and doesn’t recognize much, if any, hierarchic authority, though, again, they’re willing to help a brother out. I extend this logically to the monsters… not every drow is going to be self-obsessed and uncaring about the well-being of others, but the culture of Erelhi-Cinlu and its environs certainly encourages that outlook. Similarly with orcs, goblins, kobold, etc.

    Gygax perhaps believed a little bit more in the intrinsicism of the evil races than I make out; I seem to recall him writing somewhere that even an alignment-changed orc would be in constant danger of backsliding into its evil ways, but I don’t have a citation and might be conflating his opinion with someone else’s. In the novels, Leda has to fight against her inherent evil nature (though that may be more about being a clone of the wicked Eclavdra rather than merely being a drow), Keak the elf is portrayed as dangerously unbalanced. Only Obmi the dwarf is portrayed as evil without some excuse for being so, but his existence argues against the idea that the game insists there’s something uniquely weird about deviating from the mores of your species’ listed alignment. Nilonim is just a reflection of that reality.

    Certainly a race having a default alignment but individuals within that race being able to choose whatever they like… well, that’s as old as the AD&D 1E Monster Manual and Players Handbook, and probably further back than that.

    WotC/Hasbro would be better served by writing better source books and modules and leaving the critical species theory to the academics, IMO.

  6. Orcs are the boogieman. They represent crassness, and our bases tenancies, and as such are better portrayed as beast-men and not noble savages (i.e. World of Warcraft refugees). They are not suppose to be human beings in any way shape or form. They exists solely as a counter-point and game antagonists.

    Drow are more nuanced, perhaps, but a good villain is hard to come by and it’s a mistake to explain away their circumstances and/or allow them as PCs. Greedy players are seeking to appropriate their power and mystic as a D&D cheat-code. It’s pure gamesmanship and shouldn’t be allowed, IMO.

    Drizzt Do’Urden was a massive mistake.

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