Previews05/03/2007


Previews for May and Beyond



Appendix: For Player Characters

The drow make for a frustrating and deadly foe for player characters with their gamut of magical abilities, twisted plots and manipulations honed and refined by their own society, and tricks and traps that have had centuries to be developed and perfected. In addition, they are typically found in one of the most hostile environments in a campaign world -- the Underdark.

The dark elves have been the bogeymen of the Dungeons & Dragons game since their first appearance in 1978's Dungeon Module G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King. Since that time they have consistently both captivated and terrorized players ranging from the vilest of villains to the noblest of heroes. Unlike the majority of this book's material, this appendix is for the players. Its purpose is to help players handle encounters with hostile drow and live to tell of it as well as help them to successfully roleplay drow as player characters.

DROW AS FOES

The dangers to a party of adventurers in the Underdark come from all quarters and in every size and shape imaginable, but never far from the mind is the omnipresent threat of the drow. Nothing brings forth loathing and fear like the thought of an encounter with the dark elves in the cold tunnels of the earth, and it is well known that in their own environment an unexpected encounter with drow is likely to end badly for adventurers. Nevertheless, although most adventurers say a prayer to their respective gods for avoidance of the drow before plunging into the endless night, those wishing to trust to more than luck or the whim of a deity have given long thought and used battle-tested experience to come up with countermeasures against this implacable foe of all surface dwellers.

Adventurers prepare before
a sojourn into the Underdark

From the deep halls of fire giant kings to mountain passes of dwarf kingdoms to great cities hidden in cysts below the earth, the drow can be found in just about any setting at any time and always represent a terrible danger. However, it is widely known that as formidable as they are if encountered on the surface, the drow are much more to be feared when in their natural environment of lightless caverns and constrictive stone passages. Therefore, this appendix will primarily deal with methods for countering the drow in an Underdark environment where they are at their greatest advantage. These methods can largely be transferred for use in surface encounters as well, where the light of sun or moon and the great wide-open expanses unknown in the Underdark further reduce the dark elves' effectiveness.

First and foremost in combating the drow is the need for sight. Unless a party is full of characters who have the Blind-Fight feat and are ready and willing to miss on a significant portion of their attacks due to concealment, then they are going to want to be able to see in the dark. That said, Blind-Fight is an excellent feat to have as a backup in case things don't go according to plan and a character does find himself fighting in the dark.

To counter the effects of darkness, the party should come equipped with darkvision, either naturally or through use of magic. Low-light vision is useful but probably will not cut it in the lightless environment of the Underdark. A must for all adventurers who are or might be facing drow is the daylight spell. It provides an incomparable advantage against the dark elves, rendering them blinded for the first round and dazzled every round thereafter that they remain within its area. Every ambush on drow should begin with a daylight spell, and even if the party finds itself on the receiving end of a drow ambush (a much more likely prospect), the first thought even before taking cover should be the use of daylight, because it buys time and reduces the ambushers' effectiveness. However, a single daylight spell is probably not enough, since it can be countered by deeper darkness or by a single ambusher with a readied action to disrupt spellcasters. Therefore, preparation of multiple daylight spells is a must. The inexpensive daylight pellets (see page 101) are especially useful in this regard.

Unearth more advice about exploring the Underdark.

The Unprepared Party

When battle with drow begins, tactics differ depending on whether the PCs were prepared for the encounter. If they are in the Underdark, they should be prepared and at the very least have a daylight spell available. If a party has not prepared, then an organized retreat is usually the best option unless the characters are able to quickly discern that they are facing an inferior force that is easily dealt with. And with drow, if it looks like you're facing an inferior force that is easily dealt with, then that's probably just what they want you to think, and they actually are not. Retreat, preferably covered by a daylight spell, is probably the best option.

If the party is able tell where the leader of the drow force is, then some sort of ranged area effect just to keep her busy might be in order as a parting shot. A spell such as cloudkill is ideal in that it does not allow spell resistance, it forces the target(s) to move to get out of its way, and it provides concealment to retreat under. In conjunction with a daylight spell, this attack can be particularly effective against a temporarily blinded drow who is unaware of its approach. Its Constitution damage might likewise prevent the drow from pursuing while instead seeking out a restoration spell.

To cover the retreat, spells such as fog cloud and obscuring mist are good because they are unaffected by spell resistance. In addition, if the drow have just encountered a cloudkill, they are much less likely to charge into another roiling cloud of mist. The retreat is an excellent time to summon any expendable monsters or allies to send back along the trail and hamper any pursuit. Once again, spell resistance doesn't help against a hungry fiendish dire wolverine. And it goes without saying that the versatility of spells such as fly, expeditious retreat, and pass without trace is valuable in such endeavors.

The party should stay together, however. One heroic soul who intends to hold the tunnel behind his retreating comrades is asking for trouble. First, the party should assume that character is lost and make plans to defend without him, since there is a good chance he will never be seen again. To some this might seem a noble and self-sacrificing end, but to experienced drow-fighters it just means one less sword arm to defend the party when the drow finally catch up. In addition, this sacrifice might be ineffectual. In the labyrinth that is the Underdark, the drow probably know a half-dozen tertiary tunnels to reach the same place, so guarding one is unlikely to be particularly helpful. Finally, there is a good chance that the noble hero might not just be defeated but captured alive as well. Then it becomes a contest between the captive's will and the captor's inventiveness during the torture that is surely to follow to determine if the character spills his guts and reveals sensitive information about the party's plans, location, strengths, and weaknesses.

During the course of the retreat, the PCs should stay together until they reach some easily defensible position -- scouted in advance for just such an occasion, if possible. If traps have been prepared in advance, that is even better. Just retreating beyond the area of the encounter is a bad option, because drow encounters usually fall into one of two categories. More than likely such an encounter is either a drow raiding party -- in which case unless the drow have some better target in mind, they are going to pursue and ambush the party again. Otherwise, it is likely to be a patrol or guard post for some drow stronghold -- in which case the drow are going to call for reinforcements and then pursue and attack again. If the characters are entrenched, though, the drow might find them to not be worth the trouble and withdraw. It is imperative in these defensive positions that the party keeps the approaches well lighted and has the characters with the highest Spot and Listen modifiers watching them. From this position, the party can then either retreat to the surface or prepare itself to face the drow for a rematch on more equal terms.

The Prepared Party

A prepared party enters the Underdark wondering not if but when it will encounter drow. As mentioned, this party always has plentiful daylight spells and daylight pellets at hand. Wands of daylight and staffs of illumination also fit the bill nicely. These items should be distributed among different party members who are able to use them, in case any certain individual might become disabled early in the battle.

When going into a battle with drow, battlefield intelligence is key. Knowing who you're up against, how many, and where they are located is essential to effectively combating the tactical skills and martial abilities of the drow. It is always a good idea to identify leaders and spellcasters (often one and the same). That brief round when a daylight spell is activated is a good time to quickly take stock of who is around and where they are positioned. If the encounter is with a small or poorly deployed force, an immediate charge might be the thing to do. However, it is likely that there are troops providing a buffer between the party and it primary targets and/or the leaders are in some defensible position. In this case, a quick tactical withdrawal might be in order.

A withdrawal just a few hundred feet up a corridor, perhaps with a few of the retreating tactics mentioned above, is probably sufficient. If the drow are overzealous, the party might be able to lure them or some of their underlings into an ambush themselves. If not, at least it gives the party time to prepare its own buffing spells and take stock of the situation to decide if they are up against a force they are capable of defeating or if an alternate route is preferable. The key to this tactical withdrawal is to not take too long -- not more than a minute or so. During this time the drow, if not foolishly pursuing, are either using their own buffing spells, organizing their defenses, or sending for reinforcements. If the party intends to attack them, it needs to do so before any reinforcements arrive and possibly while some of the defenders are fetching those reinforcements.

Enemy Spellcasters

First and foremost in a party's mind when battling drow must be determining the number and locations of spellcasters. Typically, raiding parties and small guard posts have only one or two major spellcasters (perhaps a wizard as well as a cleric of Lolth). Although any number of the underlings -- especially other drow -- might have some levels as spellcasters, these spells are typically used for buffing or for minor attacks or effects. The principal focus must be on the main drow spellcasters to offset their more devastating spells that are often used in conjunction with their underlings' tactics to good effect.

To combat these deadly spellcasters, it is a good idea for a party to have a spellcaster of its own tasked as a dedicated counterspeller. This individual should have plenty of dispel magic spells on hand or preferably a wand of dispel magic. Once the primary drow spellcasters have been identified, this character readies an action to counterspell whenever a spellcaster begins to cast. In some cases, more than one counterspeller might be a good idea when there are two or more major spellcasters in the drow group that the party is facing.

It might be argued that devoting a spellcaster to counterspell duty is detrimental since it removes a primary offensive component from the party in the battle. This is largely untrue, because engaging in a spell duel with a highly spell-resistant foe is likely to lead to disaster, and drow are on their home turf when it comes to spell duels. In addition, the other tactics presented in this section offset the temporary loss of the offensive powers of the counterspeller by eliminating the threat of drow spellcasters early and then freeing the counterspeller up for more deadly use of his power. To further alleviate that loss of offensive capability, a wand of dispel magic in the hands of the party's bard or a rogue who has ranks in Use Magic Device goes a long way toward allowing the wizard or sorcerer to make other more versatile attacks.

Finally, if there simply is no spellcaster of sufficient power or magical resources available to complete this task, then a character skilled with ranged weapons can serve in a pinch. The various abilities provided by the Order of the Bow initiate[CW] prestige class serve well in this capacity. The key to success is being able to hit the drow's probably high Armor Class and doing enough damage to overcome the drow's probably high ranks in Concentration. A potential benefit of this tactic is that doing damage to the drow spellcaster and thwarting his or her spellcasting attempts has a good chance of breaking that individual's morale and ending the battle as discussed in Negotiating a Surrender, below.

Player Character Spellcasting

The great equalizer in battles where the enemies outnumber the party is typically the varied and deadly spells available to the party to even the odds. A few fireballs usually settle down a horde of orcs pretty quickly. However, with drow this tactic becomes problematic, since they prove to be resistant to a significant portion of the spells cast at them. Nothing is more demoralizing then seeing those same fireballs launched, only to witness the enemy drow soldiers walking through the carnage unscathed. Worse, for a sorcerer, that spell took up a slot that could have been used for a different, more effective spell later.

The obvious solution to this problem, unless the party spellcasters are already engaged as counterspellers as discussed above, is to use spells that are not subject to spell resistance when battling the drow. However, this is easier said than done when one peruses the lists of spells favored by player characters and sees that entry stating "Spell Resistance: Yes" again and again. The Spell Penetration feat becomes invaluable in this case.

However, many useful spells that do not allow spell resistance can be of great assistance. A prime example is the lowly glitterdust, which can reveal an entire group of sneaking drow and render them blinded at the same time. Other low-level spells useful against drow are acid splash and Melf's acid arrow to cause damage and disrupt spellcasters and snare, web, stinking cloud, entangle, animate rope, or grease to disable or otherwise hinder them.

Spells such as cloudkill, acid fog, creeping doom, incendiary cloud, Evard's black tentacles, and insect plague can damage entire groups of drow as well as hinder their spellcasting. The druid spell repel stone or metal can put a group of armored drow to flight. Reverse gravity is effective against well-entrenched drow. In addition, most illusion spells are unaffected by spell resistance and can be used to outwit the drow or to manipulate the field of battle (hallucinatory terrain). The mislead spell is valuable for its ability to escape or outflank drow opponents. Forcecage is an excellent way to contain a particularly troublesome drow warrior or spellcaster.

Most divination spells are unaffected by spell resistance, and the use of a simple clairaudience/clairvoyance can greatly help in gathering intelligence on drow adversaries. Even detect poison can be useful in determining if any drow, known for wielding poison, are concealed beyond a closed door. In addition, a simple alarm spell on a campsite can foil attempts at infiltration by drow assassins.

On the battlefield, other spells that do not affect drow directly are still of great use in combat against them. Beyond the buffing spells that assist characters in combat, a spell such as blink can put even the greatest drow weaponmaster at a disadvantage by reducing his chances to hit by half, and sanctuary can be useful for moving around the battlefield to aid others. Also, spells that affect the field itself are extremely useful. Most of the wall spells (wall of stone, wall of force, and so forth) are unaffected by spell resistance and can be used to restrict the movement of drow foes and isolate them as necessary. In the often natural stone surroundings of the Underdark, soften earth and stone can impede the movements of drow combatants, and a well-placed transmute rock to mud on a cavern wall or roof can play havoc on drow positions. Even control water can be used to overflow a nearby stream or pool to flood out a drow strongpoint.

Finally, transportative spells can help party members circumvent the drow front-line fighters and get directly to the leaders and spellcasters as described in greater detail below. The spells of use for this purpose are the obvious choices such as dimension door and teleport or the less obvious ones such as spider climb, jump, fly, or passwall.

If PCs have access to sources beyond the core rulebooks, Spell Compendium is priceless, opening up whole new realms of options for spellcasters. For evading and flanking the drow, spells such as superior invisibility and amorphous form are invaluable. In addition, both are great spells to use to escape drow or withstand concentrated attacks from them. Amorphous form in particular provides immunity to flanking, poison, and critical hits -- all favorite tactics of the drow. Offsetting the disadvantages of fighting in the Underdark are spells such as blacklight, blindsight, mass darkvision,deeper darkvision, and scent. Spells that can turn the Underdark surroundings and creatures with which the drow are so comfortable against them include earthlock, ooze puppet, and slime wave. Finally, enough cannot be said for the spell assay spell resistance, which quickly levels the playing field for spellcasters who are engaging drow targets.

In addition to spells from sources outside the core rulebooks, some feats are available in these secondary sources that serve particularly well when facing drow opponents. Fortify Spell[CAr] increases spell penetration, and Mage Slayer[CAr] is extremely effective if a character is able to close with drow spellcasters, because it provides some resistance to their spells and prevents them from casting defensively if threatened. Races of Stone contains a number of feats that prove advantageous in an Underdark environment. Earth Sense and Steady Mountaineer provide greater awareness of foes and bonuses for movement in earthbound terrain and caverns. Tunnel Fighting gives an excellent advantage when forcing battle in a confined tunnel space, and Stoneback provides extra protection from any superior maneuverability that the drow might use in order to obtain flanking positions. Like Earth Sense, the feats Hear the Unseen, Blindsense, and Scent from Complete Adventurer provide additional sensory perceptions to locate and pinpoint the ever-elusive targets presented by drow in their natural environment.

Cut off the Head

A common tactic that has been used in battle to great effect is the concept of decapitation of the enemy chain of command. Nowhere is this tactic more useful than when fighting the drow. Unlike with typical armies where the order of the run-of-the-mill troops breaks down when their officers or war leaders are killed, the warriors of drow society are usually extremely well disciplined and capable of executing their own battle tactics with finesse and deadly effect. The decapitation of the drow battlefield command structure often works for a different reason.

Due to the chaotic and inherently evil nature of drow society, teamwork is not considered a virtue, and heightened self-interest rules the day. Many drow warriors follow their leaders out of fear or greed. Seeing that leader go down can cause the drow underlings to realize that their opponent is more to be feared than their leader was, that they no longer need fear their leader and no longer fear the consequences of retreat, or have seen that without their leader they no longer stand to gain from this battle and thus no longer have a stake in continuing it. This often leads to the withdrawal or outright flight of the lower-level drow warriors.

Oftentimes, the front-line fighters of a drow patrol or guardpost are not drow at all, but are thralls or slaves -- bugbears, trolls, quaggoths, troglodytes, and the like -- forced to fight for their drow masters through fear or magical compulsion. If these lesser troops are avoided initially and the drow leadership of a given group is destroyed, at the very least this approach can result in demoralized troops. Just as likely will be an all-out rout or even surrender and potentially the acquisition of allies against the drow. Even if these lesser troops continue to fight after the drow leaders and spellcasters have been eliminated, the party spellcasters are then freed to up to use their more traditional mass destruction spells to quickly cut through their ranks.

Negotiating a Surrender

As mentioned, greed and self-interest are two of the most prevalent traits in drow society. Only the most fanatical drow will throw away his or her life in hopeless combat if an escape presents itself. If a drow leader's life can be quickly threatened, its underlings avoided or neutralized, its peers dead or incapacitated, then a surrender might be negotiated. The most important thing to remember when negotiating such a situation with a drow is that it is not simply looking for escape; it has survived in drow society too long to settle for simple status quo survival, and it is still looking for the maximum gain from the situation -- whether that is escape to return for eventual revenge or how best to use the situation against its enemies.

Keeping this in mind, parties negotiating a surrender should offer the drow more than simply its life, but a chance for the drow to profit as well. The party does not have to keep its word on any such negotiations unless alignment strictures require it (the drow certainly will not do so), but in the short term the characters can end the hostilities and remove that particular drow or group as an immediate obstacle. But the party had best beware on any return trips through the area. Any drow who were left behind will more than likely renege on any deals that were made, unless the agreed-to consideration was just too irresistible, and those same drow will now be much more familiar with the party's composition, strengths, and weaknesses.

Some negotiated deals that can hold a drow's interest long enough to ensure cooperation are helping a male drow gain wealth or power in a matriarchal society, elimination of drow from a rival house, or an agreement to help in the destruction of some enemy of the drow that they dare not tackle alone (for instance, a nearby illithid colony or surface-elf explorers). It is of note that any agreements entered into with a drow are likely to be inherently evil in nature or at the very least on the shady side of things. Paladins beware.

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