Ten millennia ago, the elves inhabited the surface of Golarion. But when the aboleths called down calamity from the heavens, wrapping the world in eternal night, the majority of the elves retreated to their mysterious homeland of Sovyrian, there to remain until the time was once again right.
A sizable part of the elven population, however, refused to abandon Golarion. Instead, they sought shelter amid the depths of the earth. As the world burned and turned to ash above, they delved deeper, seeking ways to survive. Untold thousands died as they journeyed deep into the world’s deadliest wilderness. Preyed upon by unimaginable horrors and enslaved by forgotten races, they endured woe and suffering like none they had ever known. Their travails made them colder and crueler, and their prayers went unanswered by their distant gods. In the end, it was savagery and demonic bargains that steeled them against the darkness, and bitterness and dreams of revenge against their cowardly brethren that drove them to survive. Over the centuries, pain and hated and dark magic erased all that made these orphans elves, and replaced it with a new cruelty known as the drow.
Decades after the elves of Sovyrian returned to Golarion, they were shocked to discover that their distant relatives had survived and the degree to which their brethren had savagely changed. Fearing contamination and corruption of their own bloodlines, the leaders of the elves sought to conceal the drow’s presence in the world, both from their own race and all others. The drow, however, see tenacity and necessity where their one-time kin see savagery. They view themselves as the true descendents of the elven heritage; they have done what they needed to in order to survive, despite the scars that now eternally mar their society, their bodies, and their souls.
The drow of Golarion are a class-oriented, patronage-based, matriarchical society that dominates large reaches of the sprawling Darklands. The greatest concentration of dark elves dwell deep beneath Avistan in the underground metropolis of Zirnakaynin. In this collection of interlocked caverns, the drow seethe and scheme, readying their revenge on their brethren above. Beyond this deplorable vault, though, there are other communities, ranging from vaulted metropolises to small family outposts throughout the Darklands’ central reaches of Sekamina.
The basis of drow society is the family, with each being by a matriarch who is typically the most powerful female. In the dark times of the Abandonment (as the drow refer to the centuries immediately following Earthfall), many of their number fell to battles with dwarves, orcs, derro, and fouler subterranean creatures. The greatest damage was inflicted early in their migration below, with males suffering the greatest losses. As a result, women came to control more and more of drow social life, and it was they who came to dominate the great nobles houses and bargained away their families’ services to the princes of the Abyss.
In the years that followed, the gender split continued, such that today an individual male drow may be prized for his intelligence, battle prowess, or comeliness, but is still considered secondary to females in social class. Drow women are decision-makers and rulers within the family and society at large. They are treated with respect, and drow males are expected to carry out orders for the good of the family.
The concept of marriage or long-term relationships broke down over the long years of wandering the Darklands, such that descent and inheritance are determined only through the female line. Drow women take lovers regularly and are restricted only by their own desires, which may vary from a lengthy affair with a confidante to a quick succession of relationships. Drow men are allowed the same supposed freedom, but there is societal disapproval of a male that takes multiple simultaneous lovers, as his ultimate loyalty may be called into question.
The more powerful and successful drow families maintain harems of males who serve as bodyguards, escorts, and chambermates for the ruling females. Such groups may vary from a council of advisors, to a troupe of youthful entertainers, to a unit of elite protectors, but it is generally accepted that such groups are used as available resources for the idylls of the matriarchs.
As a result of this, along with the long lifespans of elves, drow genealogy is a complete and utter tangle, and best ignored. One’s mother is known, and one’s father is generally assumed. Children are raised by the entire extended family. Even children of the same mother refer to each other as “cousin” as a term of endearment and fact. Young female drow are taught how to rule and control by their aunts. Male drow are taught how to follow orders. Both genders are taught how to fight and protect their people. Among her offspring, a matron chooses the most promising, bestowing upon them the titles of “first daughter,” “second daughter,” “first son,” and so on. Such titles are usually granted at the matriarch’s whim and create an obvious hierarchy within a drow house. The first daughter is the assumed heir to a matron’s throne should the leader not choose another, with other daughters serving as their mother’s lieutenants and emissaries. In the case of males, it’s not unusual for a house to have no titled sons, as many matrons look down upon the gender. When the title first son is granted, though, it’s typically to a male of exceptional talent, though no son—regardless of his rank— may ever command one of his sisters.
The drow were driven underground into a domain without sunlight, their numbers reduced nearly to the point of extinction. In addition, they fled into occupied lands, the ancestral homes of dwarves, orcs, and other subterranean creatures. They survived, but only by using every resource available to them and bargaining with powers beyond sanity. The drow make no apologies for that survival.
The Darklands are host to their own myriad ecologies, which vary according to depth and location. There are calcium-rich seas ringed with limestone shores, bog-like understories and caverns filled with luminescent fungi, columned chambers fertilized by the guano of blind, bone-white bats, and entire civilizations living within the crumbling halls of still-older and greater domains.
The drow conquered all of that in order to survive.
Taking ancient elven skills for shaping wood and plants and turning them to other goals, the drow gradually became masters of subterranean life—improving some, eradicating others. With deadly patience, perverted elven arts, and Abyssal magic, they warped their new realms to their liking. Fungi were altered to serve as guardians and sate a spectrum of culinary desires; blind, albino beasts were bred and improved to be used as pack animals, mounts, and food sources; and potent unguents and the eerie light of a forgotten rainbow were coaxed from grotesque vermin. What they couldn’t create or recreate, they stole. From the vegepygmies, the peaceful mushroomherding people in the depths of the earth, they stole their fungal flocks and groves of ancient arcana-infused molds. From the derro they took ancient alchemical secrets and demonic lore, in the process of discovering methods of working the bones of the earth and perverting flesh.
And so, deep below the world they once knew, the dark elves made themselves masters of a lightless paradise. But for all they took, the drow needed something more: manpower. The drow exiles were beset on all sides by natives of this land—derro and skum, deep gnome and orc—who resented the intrusion of refugees. Given their situation, it was little wonder that the drow turned to enslaving their neighbors, waging war not out of selfprotection, but out of necessity.
The drow maintain a number of slave races, typically referred to as “servitors.” These servitors range from creatures serving under lash and chain to those who have been molded, in body or mind, into more serviceable forms. Those that require overseers are given the most grunt-like tasks: mining, spore gathering, herding the giant vermin useful for food, and beating the underground forests and flushing out prey for more capable drow hunters. Those that can be trusted that have the capability are often promoted to butchers, cooks, basic tool-makers, and builders. In large conflicts, these more trustworthy servants drive hordes of their chained brethren forward to smash against the front lines of the drow’s enemies. The drow care little if such units return, only that they end the day with more slaves than when they started.
The most trusted servitors are those who have adapted to the drow way of thinking. These are curiosities, kept in the courts as novelties and traded as flashy trinkets. A creature with a good voice, a not-regrettable face, or a quick wit might be adopted by a family who has need of such a creature. If said creature embraces the drow way of life and does not need to be blinded, hobbled, or partially trepanned, so much the better. Willing slaves are always the best. Promising slaves might be branded with the mark of their owners if the drow think they will survive more than a year.
To drow mores, anything and anyone who is not a drow is a candidate for slavery. Their word for servitor is anquestra, while their word for outlander is jenanquestrok, which means “not yet a slave.” Sentients that are spoils of war are always considered slaves, especially if the purpose of the war is to gather more servitors. Similarly, non-drow trespassers can be declared anquestra, and this can happen even to non-drow offered protection from a noble house, should another noble house want to enslave them.
Most slaves are tools to be used, and if a tool is stolen, the umbrage generated depends on the value of the tool. Lowlevel vermin herders are regularly rustled from one family to another with little consequence, even if they are branded. A highly-trained, non-drow courtesan liberated from a powerful noble house, on the other hand, can be used as a pretext for war. The drow feel that their enslaving of other races is part of the natural order, and that less-enlightened civilizations fail to recognize its advantages. Drow view the capture and enslavement of their own kind as anathema, the work of barbarians. Captured enemy drow are treated as guests and ransomed back at the end of hostilities. That is not to say that, should negotiations break down, said guest will not be returned in pieces as a sign of a matron’s displeasure.
Although the dark elves do not enslave their own, many drow willingly seek to serve other, more powerful drow. Particularly among the houses of drow nobles, scores of dark elf servants might attend to the whims of cruel mistresses. Such servants have a better lot than slaves and suffer the barbs and tantrums of their employers for the opportunity and respect afforded those close to nobility. Drow nobles, however, often forget the difference between servants and slaves, however, and many drow guards, handmaidens, pages, and attendants bear the lash marks of their mistresses’ furors.
Aside from drow, certain creatures are considered too powerful for enslavement. The aboleths and neothelids are best avoided, or at most treated with respect when they rouse themselves from their dreaming infinities. The brain-like intellect devourers are similarly treated cautiously and as potential enemies. Demons, the servants of the fiendish patrons of the noble houses, are a special case. They are not drow, and by normal conditions many lesser fiends would be considered enslaveable, but they are spared as they are the representatives of more powerful Abyssal lords. As a result, many demons are considered slaves, but slaves on loan from a fearsome ally. As a result, most drow order about allied demons at will, but they tend to do so politely, just in case.
The drow are ruled by great noble houses, each one named after a family who protected the race during the dark days of Earthfall. Each noble house has an cloud of lesser families, mercenary companies, commercial fronts, and other puppet groups that makes up its supporters. While one faction might gain ascendancy within house politics, and internal purges and blood feuds are common, a noble house maintains a monolithic appearance of a unified family to outsiders. While every noble drow owes fealty to its own family and matriarch, within the larger structure of the race the various family matriarchs owe their loyalty to no one.
Each of the noble houses has its own matriarch, who is also called “great mother” by her subordinates. The noble matriarch is responsible for distributing largesse and patronage among her supporters, settling claims and arguments, assigning rights and privileges, promoting the worthy, demoting the unworthy, and eliminating the disloyal. To each family among the drow, the favor of the matriarch is highly sought. Outside of the various noble families, most common drow seek fortune and power by allying themselves either with nobles or other significantly powerful groups. Many common families act as extensions of the noble houses, providing manpower, resources, gold, and slaves as their masters demand, without question or recourse. In return, they supposedly gain protection, opportunities, and prestige among their common peers, though the whims of nobles often prove fickle and one-sided. There have been rebellions through the years of families bridling against the demands of a noble house, often at the agitation of a rival noble house. Against a force as monolithic as a noble house, though, common families typically stand little chance in an out-and-out conflict. Dissension and espionage prove more useful forms of rebellion—selling the secrets of a cruel mistress to her family’s rivals—though such disloyalty is often punished by the annihilation of an entire house. Survivors of such failed rebellions and shadowy coups might be murdered, taken as slaves—one of the rare times drow might become slaves of their own people—or turned over to fleshwarpers and remade as driders as a warning to others of the punishment for unsuccessful rebellion.
In addition to controlling the actions of her house, the great mother also parleys with the house’s demonic patron. In the darkness, the drow had been abandoned by their gods as well as their people, and as such sought out new beings of power to aid them. They found them among the demons, and each in turn bound its loyalty to a demon lords of the Abyss. The lords vary from amused to demanding, from relatively benign to unforgiving, as is the nature of demons. In general, the demon lords have accepted the veneration and make few demands beyond regular sacrifice, in turn providing what support they can spare from their own battles and intrigues.
Each great mother has an heir, usually a direct child or grandchild, almost universally female. The heir sits at the matriarch’s right hand and is expected to know the precise state of the family’s fortunes, threats, and relative strengths in regard to the other noble houses. Although typically the first daughter of the house, matriarchs look for heirs that have the bloodthirsty ambition to survive familial intrigues, but who also possess sufficient loyalty and wisdom that they will not themselves seek the reigns of power without permission.
At the matriarch’s left hand is the favored regent, a position for the alpha male of the family. Deferring to the matriarch, the favored regent can be a transitory lover or a long-time advisor, and may even be the birth father of the heir. Some matriarchs keep the same favored regent for years, such that courtiers seek out his aid in petty intrigues. Others use the position to send a message to others about which faction or family within the house is particularly in favor or disfavor. The great noble houses are themselves extended families that cover myriad generations, given the longevity of the elves. As a result, there are always related factions that seek control of the houses for their own gain, either through political intrigue, assassination, or full-fledged internal rebellion. Thus, drow politics are extremely fluid, and smart matriarchs often play multiple contenders off each other to maintain a balance of political power. However, while the houses appear to be united, they are in truth fluid, the great mothers holding power as long as they control the bulk of their own family and the house’s supporters. This makes for exciting court life and deadly gossip as individuals jockey for position and power.