More Drow Tactics (Module D1)

Back in April I ran a convention session of AD&D Module D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth (Gygax, 1978), and the ensuing discussion of what was intended for Drow behavior, reactions, and tactics has been continuing up through the time that I write this. When I ran that session I was afterward somewhat unsatisfied with how I'd run the initial encounter between PCs and the first Drow watch area. Today I thought it would be illuminating (no pun intended) to compare the ranges of the many special abilities that would be at play in a standard encounter such as that in module D1. Ranges below are in scale inches, with values shown for both AD&D and OD&D rulesets (for AD&D, based on minimum necessary caster level; sorted from high to low by AD&D range):

Ability or Spell Range Range
Drow female move 15 15
Slow spell 14 24
Drow infravision 12 12
Drow male move 12 12
Dispel magic 12 12
Javelin & atlatl 9 9
Staff sling 9 9
Lightning bolt 9 24
Ice storm 7 12
Magic missile 7 15
Hand crossbow 6 6
Continual light radius 6 24
Darkness range 3 12
Detect invisible 3 3
Light radius 2 3

One of the lessons that we can take away from this is that seemingly minor changes to a ruleset (in this case, fiddling with numerical values for spell ranges) can really make enormous difference in gameplay upon close inspection. Consider the situation in the D1-3 modules, where much of the action happens as a high-level PC party (with my players always carrying continual light without fail) navigates a mostly wide, straight, arbitrarily long tunnel in the underearth, and encounters various Drow watchpoints. I assume that we run the situation tournament-style, and that the Drow are tasked with automatically ambushing any intruders (perhaps flagged by anyone carrying a bright light source into the dark underworld):
  • In AD&D, the continual light radius is only 6". Hence, the Drow can use any of their longer abilities such as dispel magic, lightning bolts, ice storms, magic missiles, javelins, hand crossbows, etc. at range, by surprise from the darkness without needing to enter the area of light, pretty much at will. 
  • In OD&D, the continual light radius is a large 24". Therefore, at best the Drow can use slow or lightning bolt at the very edge of the illumination – and to use anything like a dispel, darkness, hand crossbow, etc., requires that they commit to actually entering the light radius (and thus being revealed and suffering numerous penalties) before making their attacks.
In other editions, you're likely to have still other permutations of these abilities, and thus different feasible tactics for the Drow under those rules. (Although note that in both editions above, darkness is at exactly half the range of continual light, and thus cannot be used without entering the light sphere; although the range is always greater than the standard light spell).

Other thoughts: Running my game under OD&D-like rules, I initially presumed that the party depending on a continual light spell would be to their detriment – that it would be darknessed away at the first encounter, and then they would be nearly blind for the fight. But closer inspection here shows that (again under this ruleset at least), it's a very effective way to keep the Drow at bay, and mostly beyond the range of their attacks without them actually entering the light, being revealed, and suffering penalties. Also: A high-level party will have so many resources with which to re-create their magic light, that the illumination battle will likely just switch back-and-forth every round.

In addition to all that, my high-level players customarily use an advance scout with infravision and invisibility out in front of the main party (and its light source), so that even if the Drow are alerted to the intruding light, the advance scout will likely be in their midst and need adjudication for what they can perceive (at the very least, noting unusual geographic formations, side cave entrances, etc.)

Perhaps the final lesson is how complicated all the special-ability interactions can get when Gygax went into lavish-magic-on-everyone design mode. In particular, I have a really hard time wrapping my head around the thematics of why, for all their light-hating and vulnerabilities, Gygax also gave every Drow trooper the dancing lights and faerie fire abilities. (Faerie fire isn't even visible as far as the Drow infravision range, so I'm not totally sure what the point was there.) Got any ideas for how that makes sense?

Last thing – To give myself a better idea for the proceedings, I took the encounter map in module D1 and actually noted the locations of individual NPCs and their expected ambush tactics. If I run it again I think that will give me a much better grip on where all the many moving parts will be to these encounters. (The result winds up looking a bit like late 3E/early 4E encounter design, and for that I apologize.) Obviously, if you're planning on playing through this adventure (specifically AD&D Module D1), then you should skip the following link because it does contain SPOILERS. Otherwise, comments or other ideas welcome:

AD&D Module D1 – Tactical Detail Notes (PDF, 200KB)


  1. Don't apologize for writing out your tactics like that. It's a) a good idea and b) has a lot of AD&D module precedent. ;)

    The tactics are pretty good, given the limitations of the drow weaponry and spells. It seems like it should work pretty well, especially if some melee while others stay at range to contribute offense without getting grouped together as a fireball target.

    As for Dancing Lights, the only thing I can figure is they use them for signalling and for lights for their dark-blind slaves and allies. Faerie Fire - I don't know, I guess they like the bonus to hit more than they hate the light.

    1. Thank you! You're right of course that dancing lights gets used in D1 as a signaling device. As far as the small number of above-ground (infravision-less) slaves goes, my image was that it was more terrifying to actually keep them in blackness all the time...

    2. Another thing I thought of - it might make sense for the drow to let unwary enemies pass into their midst and then attack from all sides, instead of coming out from the front and sides.

  2. It's fun to read over your tactics for the drow. I usually make the mistake of not thinking things through this much. The players don't complain, but I guess being impartial means I shouldn't "waste" the opposition's lives as carelessly as I sometimes do.

    1. Thanks! I think you can get away without it for unintelligent goons like a gang of orcs or giants... but for supposed hyper-intelligent master villains (with lots of spells/abilities/magic items), then I feel compelled to try to make the best use of their resources that I can.

  3. Faerie Fire can be cast upon an item to create a diversion so when the PCs check it out the drow attack by surprise.

  4. Faerie Fire gives them +2 to hit within 8", or 4" if the party have a light going, which at least cancels out their penalties from light. They can also keep dropping Darkness and not worry about the transition time of Infravision (albeit just 2 segments).

    It also helps any charmed humans to go on the offense.

  5. I'd like to know your thoughts on the prima facie-contradiction of the tightly disciplined, highly organized nature of the Drow and the fact that they are listed as being a Chaotic Evil race?

    1. Well, it's pretty insoluble if you take it literally. On the other hand, if you go back to first principles and just interpret "law vs. chaos" as good vs. bad guys (keeping the OD&D one-dimensional axis) then it gets a bit simpler. You can look to literary forebears like Anderson's "Three Hearts and Three Lions" or Moorcock's Elric, where the societies are likewise imperial and hierarchical, but called "chaos" in the sense that they are fey, sorcerous, unnatural, and opposed to mankind.

      And obviously Gygax pitches the whole "factional subterfuge males vs. females, clan-vs-clan, noble-vs-noble" angle to make sense of it, too. Good question.

  6. I've always looked at the underground races' use of f.f. and Dancing lights as typically artistic or cultural, and used in combat/technology only as a second use. Others have already pointed out the utility of the abilities for signaling or 'tagging' slaves.

    Why are they there?
    Since they're spell-like abilities, I think of them as innate/inborn, psionic, and thus evolved. The Drow's use of sign presages the possibility that proto-drow might have used Dancing lights as a form of language. On the other side of the coin it's possible that the ability has something to do with their moral corruption of their fey/otherworldly elven nature, that they can displace the 'inner light' temporarily and torture it into doing tricks. This idea I like best, since it fits with the Drow's distaste for light.