These… they aren’t the elves you know from Khorvaire. Thousands of years ago, the elves fought the giants that ruled this land. Giant wizards captured elves and experimented on them, created their own soldiers to go places the giants could not. It’s said that they wove dark magic into the elven form, and that these are the result. The first elves call them the drow.
–Lakashtai, The Shattered Land
The conflict with Dal Quor weakened the giants of Xen’drik. In the centuries that followed, the elves rose up against the giants. In the early days of that conflict, the mages of the Sulat League created a new breed of elf. With perfect darkvision and a natural resistance to magic, the Drow were natural predators indoctrinated from birth to prey upon the rebel elves. At first the Drow were myths, spirits of the night that struck without warning and left no survivors. Even after the truth was revealed, the Drow remained a deadly threat throughout the rebellion. When Argonnessen crushed the civilizations of the giants, the Drow were caught in the destruction. Three primary cultures emerged from this time of chaos.
The bulk of the Drow are Vulkoori. Their ancestors took refuge in the deep jungles of Xen’drik and developed their own traditions. They are a primitive tribal culture; many focus their devotion on the scorpion spirit Vulkoor, while others revere a pantheon of primal spirits. Some tribes pursue an endless vendetta against the giants, taking vengeance against their ancient oppressors. Others are simply concerned with survival.
A smaller faction held to the traditions of their creators. These Sulatar held onto some of the techniques and artifacts of the Sulat giants, notably techniques involving the binding of fire elementals.
A third group fled underground, taking refuge in Khyber. There they found a source of dark power and bound their clan to it, drawing strength from this mysterious Umbra. These Umbragen are the most advanced of the Drow cultures, but they are locked in a conflict with the horrors of Khyber and they are slowly losing that war.
All of these cultures tend towards xenophobia and isolation. Explorers and the settlers of Stormreach have encountered the Vulkoori, but they know little about them. Few know the Sulatar or Umbragen exist… though an early encounter with the Sulatar may have provided the Zil with the inspiration that produced their elemental binding techniques.
Each of the Drow cultures serves a different purpose, both for players and gamemasters.
- Vulkoori Drow can be an ally or a threat for characters exploring Xen’drik. They are resistant to the Traveller’s Curse, which makes them valuable guides for adventuring parties; however, most see the people of Khorvaire as outsiders and looters who have no place in Xen’drik. As a player character, a Vulkoori Drow is an opportunity to play an exotic primitive cast into an alien culture. Xu’sasar in The Dreaming Dark novels is a Vulkoori Drow, though from the pantheistic Qaltiar tradition.
- The Umbragen are in many ways the closest to the Drow people are familiar with from other settings. They are an advanced subterranean culture centered around a dark power, and they are cruel and ruthless. They are driven by their bitter struggle with the Daelkyr, and this can make them a useful enemy-of-my-enemy; alternately, their quest for the power they need to defeat the Daelkyr could make them a threat to the people of the surface, as the Umbragen will sacrifice anything in pursuit of victory. An Umbragen PC could be an exile who turned on the dark traditions of their people, or a hero seeking the power to save them. Where the Vulkoori is a primitive, for the Umbragen Khorvaire is itself a primitive backwater.
- The Sulatar aren’t as primitive as the Vulkoori, but neither are they as powerful or malevolent as the Umbragen. They can easily be found as the guardians of giant relics or ruins, and they know secrets about the past that have been forgotten by the others.
What would you like to know about the Drow of Eberron?
How would each of the citizens of the Five Nations see a Drow?
The inhabitants of Stormreach are familiar with Drow, and there are a handful of Drow and half-Drow that have been assimilated into the general population. As a result, people in Sharn and to a lesser extent other Brelish port cities will be somewhat familiar with them; even if they’ve never seen one, they’ve possibly heard stories.
Beyond that, I don’t particularly think the reaction is going to vary by nation; a Drow would be equally unusual anywhere in Khorvaire. With that said, Eberron is a world in which people deal with a wide variety of races (Elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and even goblins) casually and are aware that they could bump into a lizardfolk or a gnoll; as unusual as a Drow is, it’s hardly the strangest thing you might see on the street. What I think the most likely reaction would be is the assumption that the Drow is some sort of one-off mutation of a normal elf. Consider the origin of planetouched Tieflings I’ve discussed earlier – perhaps this is what happens to an elf conceived when Mabar is coterminous? Or perhaps they were exposed to the Mourning? Or they’re part of a Vadalis magebreeding experiment? So: a curiosity to be sure, and not immediately seen as representative of a foreign culture. But I think less threatening than a hobgoblin or dragonborn — so more intriguing than shocking. But as always, go with what best fits your story.
Why did you decide to make Eberron Drow focus on scorpion icons instead of the classic spider icons?
The basic principle is that the traditional Drow association with spiders is tied to a specific culture and to Lolth, a fiend not present by default in the cosmology of Eberron. Vulkoor provides an iconic focus for those who wish it. Beyond this, it does speak to a different culture. The spider is defined by its web, and Lolth’s Drow are subtle and treacherous; the Drow of Vulkoor are more direct predators. It also fits their tribal and often nomadic nature, as the mother scorpion carries her young on her back.
With that said: Personally, I’ve never particularly liked a solitary focus on Vulkoor. My first opportunity to deal with the Drow in depth came when I wrote my novel The Shattered Land. Here I introduced the Qaltiar as a culture who respect the Scorpion, but also revere other primal animistic spirits: the Shifting Panther (displacer beast), the Tlixin Bird, and a host of other totems… and the Sulatar, a Drow culture that has nothing to do with arachnids. So you it’s up to you whether you run with purely scorpion-focused Vulkoori, or the broader primal Qaltiar.
Where is it in canon that you speak of the Umbragen?
The Umbragen are mentioned in almost all canon sources that deal with Drow. They’re covered in most detail in Dragon 330, which included a detailed look at their culture and racial feats. However, they’re also described on page 52 of Secrets of Xen’drik, page 124 of City of Stormreach, and page 198 of the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide. To be clear, while I’ve said that they are the closest analogue to the Drow of other settings – being a culturally “evil” civilization that lives underground – they are a unique culture and due to their bond to the Umbra, not entirely Drow.
I’m a bit surprised, however, when you say that “for the Umbragen Khorvaire is itself a primitive backwater.” Could you please expend your thoughts about what, according to you, make the Umbragen so superior?
I may have chosen my words poorly, but it’s a difficult concept to distill. There are two things that distinctly distinguish the Umbragen from the civilization of the Five Nations. The Umbragen are less industrial than the Five Nations, to be certain. However, they are distinctly more magical. In my opinion, the typical Umbragen – regardless of whether they’re a soldier, a mystic researcher, a mushroom farmer or a smith – is likely to have at least one level of warlock or soulknife. Half of their government – the Vault of Shadows – is dedicated to mystical research for the benefit of their civilization. Combine this with the fact that they live in the shadow of the Qabalrin, an elvish civilization whose mystic advances matched those of the giants of Xen’drik. So they are used to a far greater degree of casual magic in the world, and the idea that the farmer over there is literally just a farmer – that he can’t conjure a blade of shadows or kill an enemy with a thought – makes him seem pathetic. Add to this the fact that the Umbragen have been at war with Khyber for as long as they can remember: a constant struggle with the terrors of the deep. So again, to them Khorvaire feels soft and weak. They whine about their losses in the Last War? They clearly know nothing of loss or struggle.
Again: taken as a whole, the Five Nations are more advanced as a civilization. The Umbragen have nothing on par with the systems of transit, communication or mass production that are part of daily life in the Five Nations. But the Umbragen are also from a smaller civilization and thus an Umbragen visitor wouldn’t immediately appreciate those things; and besides, if you need to communicate with someone far away, just speak to an Umbral sage who can send a message through the shadows.
With that said, something like Sharn should still be impressive to an Umbragen; the question is whether they’d acknowledge that. The Umbragen also tend to be aggressive and predatory, so a general attitude of “Your civilization is weaker than mine” is good for instilling fear in possible rivals.
How do the different elves view the Xen’Drik Drow and Umbragen and vice versa?
Both sides retain the most basic knowledge of the origins of their people — that they were bitter enemies in the ancient war. The elves of Khorvaire know the Drow as evil servants of the giants, while the Drow know the elves as the rebels whose foolish pride led to the destruction of Xen’drik. With that said, that conflict occurred more than twenty thousand years ago, before the modern civilizations of either elves or Drow existed. The Drow are all isolationists and know next to nothing about the modern elves, and the elves are only aware of the Vulkoori, who they consider to be the savage remnants of their ancient foes. So if a Drow came to Aerenal today, they’d be seen more as a curiosity than a bitter enemy.
With that said, the Tairnadal are deeply concerned with the history of their patron ancestors. Many of those ancestors were champions in the uprising against the giants — meaning that they fought the Drow. Such a Tairnadal might be quite excited to have an opportunity to fight one of these ancient foes.
It’s worth noting that the Qaltiar — a Vulkoori subculture — are Drow who themselves rebelled against the giants. They may still blame the elves for starting the apocalypse that destroyed Xen’drik, but they would be less hostile than others.