Art by Stephen Garrett
The Drow have had personal attention from an insane goddess who claims the race as her own and blesses them in a number of ways. From natural-born abilities to visions, creatures, and tainted magic, Lolth has given the Drow what they need to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. But she has not done so through generosity and the spirit of sharing. Her "gifts" are an extension of herself - cruel, potentially lethal, and utterly unsparing, but with the potential to be immensely satisfying. And her favor is never equally distributed or given in the sense of fairness.
Drow society is an extension of the goddess and the social order follows the pattern of her character. Lolth is the fickle mother at the heart of everything, the fat spider at the center of a vast web of Drow that feed her bloody thirst with belief and sacrifices. She makes no secret that her favorite children are female and that the males will never quite measure up, but she plays all of her children against each other. And despite her hard ways, many Drow yearn for her approval - even the males.
The cruelty and injustice of Drow society are utterly familiar because they are constants, from the womb onward. Drow mothers punish and manipulate from the start, and Drow women rule each household. Typically, nobles are divided up into houses which jockey for position in the city, and each noble house is headed by a cleric of great skill. A wise matron mother will have several cleric daughters to ensure that her line and influence continues, but she will watch them carefully. Inheritance is passed through daughters, with children ranked in importance by gender, and then by age. A matron will guard against her eldest daughters and pit all of her children against each other to ensure her own survival.
Some Drow cities are headed by a council made up of the most powerful matron mothers in the city (Menzoberranzan of R.A. Salvatore fame had such an arrangement).
The Drow highly value magic. Female wizards are afforded high respect. Male wizards are at least afforded fear and held tongues, which is enough incentive for many males to pursue the wizard's path. Wizards produce the magic that keeps Drow society running, and they are a major key to Drow security.
The Drow train fighters and rangers of frightening efficiency. The longer a fighter lives and the greater his kills are, the more respect he is given. Both genders are trained as fighters, but a male must be great indeed to be afforded any respect. Male fighters are often sent out in packs for weeks at a time to patrol the area around the city, while the women can at least petition for better posts.
Drow rogues are given respect for their abilities and their connections. The business of being a rogue in Drow society is amazingly perilous, and elder rogues are granted respect regardless of their gender. A rogue who has been caught and formally charged may never be able to gain respect in the eyes of anyone. An assassin is rarely caught more than once.
Drow bards are afforded a bit of respect. The breadth of their knowledge combined with their limited spells makes them useful. Music is a specialty of the Drow and those bards with the greatest skill can fetch quite a price. Of course, performances commanded by high females are done for free.
Below the nobility are the Drow of means. The merchant class is strong, but it pays homage to Lolth as much as any other class. Merchants will often pay great sums to have a cleric call on Lolth's favor. The rich of Drow cities rule over the lower classes and, of course, the slaves.
While slaves are plentiful in any respectable Drow city, the noble, the rich and the government control the bulk of them. The resources to feed, house and control slaves are not small sacrifices. The prices for slaves depend on their age and abilities. Rare creatures with exotic, innate abilities are auctioned off for fabulous prices (or, in the case of one auction, a favor from a high cleric of Lolth). While large organizations can afford to work slaves to death, smaller businesses have to make their slaves last.
A guild of slavemasters exists in nearly every city to train (read as: mentally break) slaves for their owners. Drow involved in commerce do not usually have the time to waste on training, so they will hand their slaves over in lots for conditioning. Slavemasters have been known to charge less for particularly stubborn slaves, as training them is their pleasure. Anyone skilled at torture may be a slavemaster, and slavemasters are respected by the merchant class most of all. Slavemasters are not generally sexual taskmasters - they have too many slaves to deal with, and time is money.
The lower classes of Drow are herded into the general toil of a Drow city. They produce the items sold and the services the upper classes enjoy. Advancement is possible for lower-caste Drow; indeed, it is commended if a dredge of society overcomes her betters. Some poor Drow enter into military service in order to better their station. Motherhood is revered at all levels of Drow society, and even poor women with many children are praised.
Courtesans of both genders are often seen in the possession of upper-level Drow. Courtesans are far more than slaves or prostitutes. They are trained in a multitude of subjects, from music to history to fatal poisons. They serve as entertainment, release, servants and more. They are bought, sold and given as gifts. Sometimes, the most rare slaves are trained as courtesans. Some beings are stolen as children to be raised in such a way. Other courtesans are comprised of particularly attractive Drow. Female Drow are sometimes made to serve as courtesans as a punishment for falling out of Lolth's favor. To possess so finely honed a jewel is seen as a sign of utmost wealth and power.
It is seen as a good sign for a baby to feed on its mother until blood is drawn. Those babes that drink blood along with milk are thought to show the most promise. Children who learn to speak and act first are given most of the attention of their parents. A household takes responsibility for the young, however, and Drow mothers are not saddled with her children; the skills of a Drow female are too valuable to go to waste. Some Drow mothers have been known to tend duties for hours and face the squalling hunger of their unfed infants with anger.
Drow children are not coddled. They are raised together and sent to schools with high standards of conduct. Drow children are trained to compete with one another and to show no mercy. Some children do not survive the intense childhood games. Females are not given any advantages by instructors. They are taught that they must know how to beat the males on their own. During adolescence, females are given private instruction by elder Drow women in how to control men. Their first conquests are generally for practice. In later years, young female Drow "hunt" males for sport.
The laws of the Drow are unspoken but known. They are impressed upon Drow as they grow up and are enforced by group consensus. Those who are caught breaking the rules deserve to be punished and/or to die. The Drow are murderously subtle in their dealings with each other and other creatures of the Underdark. Brash actions are condemned as being in bad taste or bad form. The laws themselves are not important. The challenge, however, is. The goal is to get what you want without discovery.
There are various high holy days of Lolth that must be observed by all within the city (and outside of the city, if devout females are present). Production of goods and services does not cease on such days. The ceremonies are held after the workday has ended, and Drow in charge of protecting the city are not allowed to observe the holiday until they are given leave to do so. The Drow cannot afford to leave themselves unprotected, even for an instant.
Most surface races believe that the Drow have no taboos - that anything goes, no matter how horrific. This is not strictly true, however; every society has a taboo of some sort, no matter how small or strange. The Drow are no exception. Below are some of their greater bans on social behavior:
Love: Whereas other races have taboos about things like cannibalism, the Drow have strong social taboos about love, and about acting for the sake of love. Sensual contact as an expression of love is considered to be the sign of a suicidal Drow.
Equality: Drow may not treat other races as equals at any time, unless they are doing so as a means of deception. A Drow must never think that other races are equal to their own. In some Vhaeraunian encampments, however, this taboo is altered: all elves are superior, and non-elves, including half-elves, are to be disdained.
Other Gods: Lolth is a jealous deity, and in her cities the mere mention of other gods can be grounds for punishment or death. The worship of other gods is absolutely forbidden.
Sexual Position: A great amount of fear is attached to any sexual position that has one Drow turn their back fully to another. It is said that such positions invite death.
Torture & Punishment
The Drow are infamous for their torture practices, as well they should be. Among the elves of the beginning times, they were the first to experiment with the sensation of pain. They have honed torture into science and psychological treatment. Drow parents will punish their children with pain and humiliation in very tactical ways. Drow students are publicly punished in front of their fellow students and class clowns are rare (although pranks for which no one was apprehended are remembered by Drow students as legends of a sort). Drow adults are not all masters of torture, but they have seen enough pain to know how to make others hurt.
Not all Drow use physical pain as their modus operandi. A good many are adept at humiliation and terrible mind games. Some slaves are so broken mentally that all they can do is concentrate on the task at hand. Some Drow actually do not like to put forth the effort that torture requires and would rather kill someone than waste their energy. The worst punishments are said to come from those closest to Lolth - the yochlol and the clerics. They are whispered to be divinely inspired and their punishments are sometimes sought in extreme cases by the merchant class.
The Drow instinctively fear being made into driders and will sell the souls of their children rather than be confined to such a state. The drider curse is worse than it appears. The true terror is not in becoming half-spider, for is not Lolth herself associated with them? The true fear is not in being half-Drow. It is about being in the full sight of Lolth at the instant of the curse, swallowed up in the gaze of her multitudinous, crazed eyes. It is the full weight of her madness. And then, when one has been broken in her sight, the offender then awakens to the world: the Drow is then a reviled monster, in the shape of a spider as a reminder of Lolth. Driders are most often allowed to live... as a fitting punishment.
The Drow tend to keep a multitude of slaves, so that in most Drow-dominated cities the masters are greatly outnumbered by their captured servants. The Drow have several powerful advantages in keeping their slaves in place and productive, however. First of all, slaves tend to be weaker than most Drow, since they are humanoids, peasants, and the like. Those that show special abilities are often disabled in some way (spellcasters will be prevented from getting enough sleep to replenish spells, for example). Many slaves have little working knowledge of the Underdark around Drow cities, so a long-term escape is unlikely.
On top of this, slaves are generally given only what they need to survive, and sometimes not even that. If food becomes a problem the Drow will probably have no qualms about letting slaves kill each other to eat. This means that most working slaves are not in great physical condition, being slightly worn down and fatigued at all times. Added to this is a continual regimen of mental manipulation. While Drow masters are cruel most of the time, they tend to play games with their slaves by interspersing episodes of kindness and generosity. You can't take candy from a baby without giving the candy first. After enough time, the will to flee is greatly eroded and only the instinctual will to live remains. All of this can be done with no magic, or little magical intervention.
Slaves are often acquired through raids of settlements on the upper level of the Underdark, and on the surface. The "goodly races" are enslaved as regularly as possible. Slaves are also taken in any war the Drow are involved in, provided that the enemy in question is not too difficult to control. It is easier to keep deep dwarves than beholders, for example, with much less wear and tear on security. Fast-breeding humanoid races are probably the most common Drow slaves, since they tend to be weaker and their reproduction is something of an asset to slavemasters. Not only are humanoid races fertile, but they also have lower gestation times and tend to reach maturity quickly. They more than replace the numbers of their dead.
Special Drow slaves are particularly unfortunate, since they stand out from the main and receive extra attention. Elves and half-elves are almost always considered special slaves and subjected to the harshest treatments, stemming from Drow relations with their surface cousins. The Drow rejoice in obtaining slaves of the more rare elven races, especially the nearly extinct avariel. Aasimar are also treated terribly because of their celestial blood. Clerics are also considered special slaves because of their ties to enemy gods. The more rare and pleasing a slave is, the worst their lot tends to be. They are paraded and driven on leashes, hung up as decorations, and used as grand offerings in rituals to the Spider Queen.
Most Drow communities depend on slave labor to function well (although they would deny it). Thus, most Drow slaves are kept to perform certain tasks. Many slaves are rounded up and used in battles as cannon fodder; they are expected to provide cover for elite forces, not to live. Other slaves are put to work in large projects such as the tending of food sources. The Drow keep herds of rothe (Underdark cows) and those with good sources nearby also strive to gather fish. At the same time, there are mushrooms and other plants to be harvested. This work is not considered fitting for a Drow to do, but it must be done for the population to eat. Slaves are also used in mining, another important activity given the Drow need for weapons.
But slavery isn't just a means to a labor force - it is an outlet for the rage of a whole race. It is only when confronting other races, really, that Drow males can enforce their will. They will not be punished for doing as they please, and Lolth won't care if they take power from races that are not hers. There is nothing like crushing someone beneath your heel when you've been feeling the same pressure from above for years. The slave races in particular bear the brunt of Drow grudges, and they have no way of understanding why at first. Only if they live long enough to see the cycle of Drow life do they see that they are just stand-ins. When the Drow cannot strike at those above them, they strike at those who are too far below them to count.
Some people think that the Drow having slaves, especially surface slaves, makes no sense. But it does when you consider that without their toys (and the journeys to acquire more), the Drow would have even more time to tear themselves apart.