Thursday, April 25, 2013

More on Gygax's Drow

Following up on the topic this week of Gygax's dark elves as they were introduced in the AD&D GDQ modules -- as I prepped & ran the D1 adventure the other week, I got a chance to recollect and reflect on a few weird or surprising things with the Drow there, which I wanted to document here. Before anything else, there is the issue of little or no guidance as to how Drow initially confront or react to surface adventurers in the underworld (attack? challenge? ignore? ask for documents?) -- see the last post and comments at the end. But beyond that:
  1. Gygax went super-long with the monster description (obviously lots of loving care for it; at 1½ pages it was surely the longest monster writeup up to that point), and the details are arguably too fiddly; lots of +1 or +2% bonuses here and there.
  2. Likewise, you're in the territory where Gygax can be criticized as making overly long spell-like ability lists that are hard to remember, use, and don't have much theme for the DM. Between the base abilities, high-level abilities, and powerful female abilities, there's 9 different possible effects to track. It's pretty easy for me to then forget about the actual wizard/cleric spell lists and major magic items when I'm trying to juggle all the little-to-big special abilities every drow has. And if drow hate light and have exceptional infravision, then why give them both dancing lights and faerie fire? That's hard to make sense of.
  3. That said, for the record-setting length and density of the encounter writeups (different levels, abilities, lists of magic and exceptional items, spells, etc.) the drow are indeed "weak fighters but strong magic-users". The majority are, after all, just 2nd level fighters with reduced hit points, and I'm always surprised when they start falling to the 9th-level adventurers with one or two hits. (I shouldn't be, but for some reason based on detail and page-length, I still am.) The various and sundry +1 arms/armor/dexterity bonuses really don't make much difference against PCs of that level; the drow footsoldiers go down real fast, regardless of the TLC taken on their lovingly detailed descriptions.
  4. My mental image going in is that encounters will start with the drow using their darkness abilities and then the rest of the fight will be in the gloom. (Note: In my game darkness just extinguishes light sources and spells in the area, doesn't create persistent globes of anti-light, and thus doesn't inhibit drow or others' infravision; this is generally complimented by my players.) But the thing I failed to take into account was the fairly deep resources of a high-level party; usually there's a wizard who can counter-cast a new light spell or someone lighting a new torch every round. So over a half-dozen round melee, we were mostly just flipping the light switch on-and-off every round from PCs to NPCs.
  5. The other thing I didn't quite consider is the high likelihood that, at this level, both parties will have effectively invisible or somehow undetectable scouting leads on each side. What happens when scouts from both sides actually pass each other by, and the two parties are effectively intermixed when combat begins? Did you properly account for all the interactions of sight, light visibility (both within and without), infravision, and range of missile and spell attacks as you set up your deadly ambush? That can get really complicated and convoluted really fast.
So what's your opinion on that (esp., if you've run the classic D1-3 series)? Is the rather sizable amount of detail in the writeup and encounters too complicated or fiddly for the amount of impact the (effectively) Ftr2 drow mooks are making? Did you ever get surprised by how fast the dark elf warriors went down, granted how much buildup there was for them?


  1. When I ran D1 back in the '80s, I was surprised at how easy it was, compared to G1-3. In the Giants series, PCs routinely take down dozens of high hit dice giants. In D1, they mostly face 2nd level fighters, troglodytes, and other low hit dice creatures. I wasn't a tactical genius at age 13, so I'm eager to run D1 again as an adult to see if better tactics make D1 more of a challenge for players, as it appears to have been for the group you recently ran.

  2. You're right : the drows are quite weak (without their ACs and their magical powers).

  3. I guess one thing I would say at this point is to prioritize the tactics of the high-level spellcasters first, using the low-level warriors as screening agents where you can. The writeups that start with long lists of low-level stuff tend to get the leader-types lost in the text.

  4. Drow are, for me, when D&D jumped the shark. Suddenly everyone was a badass drow...

    1. Well... I would agree that when Drow were allowed as PCs, and everyone became that, and all the novels were about, it was a legitimate jump-the-shark moment. When they first appeared as mysterious, depraved villains (some 10 years earlier) it was exciting, poetic, and compelling.