Rethinking Inherently “Evil” Races. (Updated 2/14/21)

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Synchronicity, being what it is, has brought together one of my blog topics and some current discussions floating around the web. In particular the racist nature of dark-skinned fantasy races that also are inherently “evil”.

Over on the RM Forums there is discussion about the dark-skin – evil duality. However I am more interested in the broader issue of evil races and if they even make sense. As a primer this is an interesting take:

Certainly a lot of progression has occurred in fantasy over the last 40 years: simplistic tropes have developed into more mature themes, the founding player base has aged and “awoken” and world building has expanded into more realistic modeling of societies.

Putting Tolkien aside, perhaps the most stark examples of monolithic races that I can remember was in David Eddings Belgariad series. Even as a young reader, the stark rigid depiction of racial characteristics was distracting. But this was pretty standard for Golden Age fantasy gaming and driven by the ideas on literature.

There are probably many driving forces for the standardization of evil races in fantasy gaming:

  1. Alignment. The introduction of alignments, and the assignment of alignments to races, monsters and creatures created a blanket behavioral type that was hard to overcome. I remember one early game where we first introduced a half-orc PC–the rest of the group was suspicious that the PC was secretly an assassin and was never trusted.
  2. Physical characteristics. Again, there is enough written about skin color, but there is also the physical attractiveness equation: ugly = bad, beautiful = good (although beautiful is also depicted as evil, but in a remote dispassionate cruelty).
  3. Story element. Every hero needs a foe, so races of inherently evil humanoids are a great standard foil. Fighting, attacking and killing any member of a evil race is just and righteous.
  4. Societal traits. Civilizations that are ambitious, colonialist, capitalist or warlike could be described as “Evil” or just immoral. Does that mean that every member of the society also holds those traits? A majority of them? Or just the leaders and powerful members of society?

Personally, I like moral ambiguity in my campaigns. It provides a more complicated ethical framework and consequences for actions. However, I realize that one of the appeals of RPG’s is it’s relief from a morally complicated reality and the escape to a good vs evil paradigm.

But even if you like a simpler framework, does it make sense to apply a blanket label like “evil” to an entire race? Is that corruption embedded in their DNA? Is it nature vs nurture? Can a societal structure create so much influence as to pre-ordain a person’s ethical nature? This is a philosophical debate, but still worth considering when using races like Dark Elves and Orcs in your setting.

One hand-wave approach to rationalizing a racial alignment is to have it driven by the race/society’s god; ie they worship an evil god therefore the people are “evil” too. Simple. In my own Shadow World campaign, the only truly evil entity is the Unlife. Dyari (Dark Elves) are simply a label for Elves that have forsaken the Lords of Orhan, and are not a distinct separate race.

There are a lot of arguments against a intrinsic evil as a racial trait. What are the argument for it? What do you do in your game?

{Update} In a related note, James over at Grognardia had an interesting post on alignment languages. It’s been decades since I’ve dealt with alignments, but the more I ponder the concept of alignment languages the less it makes sense. Based on the comments to James’ post, a lot of people struggle to define or rationalize them.

The Drow (a Rolemaster Unified Race)

A while I ago I created a direct comparison between a Wood, Grey and High Elf and a Drow Elven fighter (see my previous post on Elven races). As part of my commitment to Rolemaster Unified (RMU) I started to look at adding Drow to the list of races provided in Character Law.

The way that stat bonuses work in RMU diminishes their importance somewhat in comparison to RM2 (especially if using the Companion I background options). Gone are the days of walking around with a +40 Strength bonus. Because of this I did not really feel the need to adjust the stat bonuses as provided.

Here are the stat bonuses for a High Elf in RM2 and RMU

System Ag Co Em In Me Pr Qu Re Sd St
RM2 +5 +5 +5 +10 +10 -20
RMU +2 +2 +2 +2 +2 -4 -2

You can see that the basic concept of the elf is the same with pretty much the strengths and weaknesses lying in the same areas, although RMU elves are physically weaker it would appear.

What really defines the races are their racial talents. I have never used talents before. I believe they first emerged in Talent Law, a RMSS book I do not own and have not read. RMU also uses Talents and as a way of defining the particular specialism of one fantasy race over another they do work very well. RMU gives every race a number of bonus development points (DPs)  as a one-off bonus, the more the races talents benefit the race the less bonus DPs, the less bonuses or even if the Talents are actually flaws then the more bonus DPs you get.

The RMU elf is the most talented race in the starting line up and as such get the least bonus DPs. There talents are immunity to disease, meditational sleep and nightvision. OK I am happy with that, that is exactly what you would expect to find if you opened up an elf and looked inside. So how do you turn a generic elf into a Drow?

Firstly the Drow are well documented as being totally insensitive to light. They live in the underdark and if they do ever venture to the surface they only ever do so at night. RMU usefully has a light sensitivity ‘flaw’. I have given the Drow a -75 when operating in full daylight.

Secondly nightvision is not going to get you very far in the underdark but RMU has the option of Darkvision. This allows you to see in any natural darkness. This is just what a Dark Elf needs to stop it falling over the furniture so we have that.

According to all the sources on the Drow they have two innate spell-like abilities. Levitation and creating Darkness. You can add innate spells to a race by buying them of their spell level. In this case Levitation is 4th level so 8 points and Darkness is 5th level (Dabbler base list).

That is it. The Elf now looks exactly like the Drow in the books and given the net pluses and minuses of buying talents the Drow get 7 bonus DPs.

The first character I will be rolling up will be our Drow warrior from my previous post who in RMU terms will be a Drow Reaver Fighter. I will attach a character sheet as soon as I have one!

Looking at the RMU playtest discussions on the ICE forums one of the issues seems to be a lack of monster stats for running a test campaign. This Drow race gives anyone wanting to playtest the new RMU an evil race to use in addition to the goblins and trolls provided in Character Law.

One Thursday I will be giving you the Quaggoth and Boogin races meaning you run adventures set in the underdark.

The Drow Slaves and Subjugated Races

You have just got to love those Drow. They are the very model of political correctness and inclusivity, in fact they will make a slave of almost anyone!

Well actually that is not entirely true, they blame surface elves for almost everything (as do I) and the only good elf is a dead elf in their eyes. You see even Drow have standards!

To be more specific you should expect to find Quaggoths (more of them another time), Orcs, Half-orcs, Boogins (half Quaggoth, half Orc), goblins, bugbears, dwarves (one of the Drow Slavers all time favourites), gnomes and just about anything else that can see in the dark.

I was going to give you everything you need to know about Quaggoths and Boogins this time but two things have happened, firstly I have had a really irritating cough and cold this week which has slightly cramped my style and I have decided to throw myself into Rolemaster Unified (RMU). I am only just reading the new Character Law right now and I have just read the bit about creating your own races. Wouldn’t it be really cool to not just tell you about Quaggoths and Boogins but to actually create the race in RMU for you. Well I thought so. So the long and the short of it is that I will just give you a brief pen portrait this time but in a future post I will give all the stats and numbers.

Quaggoths surround a Drow Raiding Party

So down to business. The Quaggoth are a large hairy beasts who prefer great swords or huge clubs in battle and stand about 11′ tall as adults. They are of relatively low intelligence but most importantly they have a natural affinity to spiders of all sizes. Seeing as the Drow worship the spider goddess Lloth you can see the attraction here I hope. The Drow do like to keep Quaggoths around to train giant and huge spiders, a task they can do on long shifts as guard to stop them getting bored. You may as well kill two birds with one stone if you have the opportunity wouldn’t you say? The Quaggoth do make a ver good drow slave!

A boogin is a half Quaggoth, half Orc. One would assume the Father was the orc but I wouldn’t put money on it. Boogin are generally physically smaller but proportionally more intelligent and make better overseers of Quaggoth guards. They also retain the affinity with spiders. which makes them favoured by Drow. To be honest a Drow would never lower themselves to speak directly to a Quaggoth but a low-born Drow may value the spider services enough to speak to a Boogin or at least to an orc that knows a Boogin.

There is one more aspect of these two races that I want to keep back until I can give you the full stats and numbers but in my opinion these guys are the perfect monster to throw at a first level party and next time you will see why!

Drow Weaponry

To illustrate this post I wanted a nice image of a Drow with their stylised hand crossbows which is the absolutely iconic drow weaponry. Every image I could find that was useable seemed to be anatomically challenged.

demon_hunter_diablo_3___talia_by_shikamaru_no_kage-d31op84 photo demon_hunter_diablo_3___talia_by_shikamaru_no_kage-d31op84-2.jpgSo here is our ‘internal organs probably relocated elsewhere’ drow sporting the crossbow of choice.

Before I get into the actual game mechanics of the drow weapons I want to say something about their construction. The material of choice being Adamantine, a jet bacl metal allow of Adamantium and other metals. It reputedly has a green sheen when seen in normal light but a purple/white sheen in magical light. Adamantite is very light and very strong, most of the time.

In play all Adamantite weapons are at least +10 non-magical due to this alloy but when exposed to sunlight they start to decay and corrode losing at least +1 per day of exposure plus and aditional +1 for every combat they are used in. This loss does not stop when the weapon loses its +10 but continues as the weapon degrades until it breaks (normal breakage rules apply).

This, along with the drow’s poor eyesight during the day accounts for why drow surface raids happen mostly at night!

S drow weapons are black alloy and don’t like the sun, lets get to the weapons.

The Hand Crossbow

In play I normally rule this to be a light crossbow but put the maximum damage threshold at 140. To compensate I take 1 round of the reload times.

The point of the drow crossbow is not actually the raw damage inflicted as you will see below more about being a poison delivery system than a killing weapon.

The Longsword

The drow weapon of choice is the longsword and you will often find this used in a two weapon combo with the hand crossbow.

The Spear

Anyone who knows me as a GM will know that I think the spear is the almost perfect weapon (there is probably a good blog post purely on why the spear is so perfect but that is for another day).  The drow use giant gecko-like lizards as mounts. In this situation the spear serves as their lance and this is the only time when using a shield is the norm. Mounted lizard combat should be considered a 3D venture with walls and ceiling being entirelly valid planes of attack.


The drow love poison. Their preferred poison comes from their beloved spiders. It is a level 2 mild reduction poison. (on a failed resistance roll it takes effect after 10-100 rounds causing great pain and causes 4hits/round until the victim falls unconsious) This is the ideal vehicle for collecting slaves and for a drow patrol to take on forces much greater than themselves. Obviously the Use/Remove Poison is a highly valued skill amongst the drow warrior class.

All drow weapons should be considered envenomed at the start of a combat.

There you have it, the accessories the well dressed drow is sporting this year, longsword on the hip, hand crossbow on the thigh and spear and shield on the gecko parked outside.

How Drow Elves compare to other elven races

In the Forgotten Realms there are five races of elf, High, Grey (or Moon), Green (or Wood), Sea and Drow Elves. For most people I guess the High, Grey and Green equate pretty much with Moldar, Sindar and Silvan. For the purposes of this discussion I am going to ignore the Sea Elves as they are not typically found in most MERP or Rolemaster campaigns.  The others most players or GMs, I would have thought, wil be familiar with.

What I have done is create a basic 1st level warrior/fighter character. I personally prefer characters with a wider range of skills than loads of boxes in just a couple of skills so that is what you will find here.

The guy has learned his weapon left and right handed, has two weapon combo (with long swords), light crossbow (a preferred Drow weapon), blind fighting, disarm foe (armed), iai strike, tumbling attack, tumbling evasion, ambush and general perception.

I have attached all their character sheets below so you can do a direct comparison but you can see there is not much to tell them a part except that even at first level the combat skills of the Drow are typically a point or two better than their brethren.  It is not always on the OB, sometimes it is on the reverse stroke, iai and tumbling skills, sometimes it is mainly on their OB.

The Drow trade off OB for Hits

The trade off is that the drow elf gets the least #Hits. In this example he gets a total of 49 compared to 51-53 for the other elves. It seems they may be a bit more fragile and better able to deal out damage than take it. These totals are based upon exactly the same dice rolls for all four characters.

Our example elf here is trained in Chainmail (AT13) which is not an unreasonable armour type for a first level character. As it happened his stats were not particularly brilliant and he didn’t get that many development points (just 32). If I had had a few extra developent points I would have liked to buy a box in Stalk/Hide and probably at least one box in Use/Remove Poison for the Drow warrior which for the others probably would be better spent on Herb Lore.

The most striking difference between the four elves is the Drows weakness in Intuition. The Drow do not make good thieves or channeling users.

Here are the four character sheets for you to have a look at.

Drow and Drow Culture

In my opinion the Drow are an almost perfect villain. As they are a race you can pitch them at almost any level and you can have as many or as few of them as you like whenever you like. I found their rolemaster stats in Companion I, page 45. The problems is though that the companion does not convey even one percent of the essence of drow that make them this perfect foe.

For starters lets take drow culture.

The best way to describe it would be the decadence of Rome under Caligula crossed with the fascism of the third reich. That is isn’t far from the mark. To start with the Drow worship a spider goddess called Lloth. This puts a female drow at the head of the family, known as the Matron or Matron Mother. Only the Matron Mother is allowed to have children and any others will be sacrificed to Lloth. It is perfectly acceptable and indeed normal for the Matron Mother to sacrifice the father of her own children to Lloth after mating, taking a different partner for each child. Although if she thinks the father is a good specimen or has some other value he may be allowed to live for a while longer.

A drow using one of the hand crossbows for which their race is well-known. (Image taken from the Dungeons & Dragons WikiAll of drow society is ruled by the matron mothers of the eight most powerful houses in council and the way to become one of those is by wiping out one of the houses above you in social ranking. If you try that and fail then it is almost certain death as the ruling eight close ranks. No one in power likes the idea of a powerul usurper trying to upset the status quo after all!

The worship of Lloth is everything to the drow. All drow females are enrolled into the church and the number of priestesses and high priestesses is a matter of pride to a house. The men are allowed to be warriors or magicians but are by far the lower class. Few live long enough to attain great power because should they be seen as a threat then the church will dispose of them. The drow maintain academies for warriors, magicians and the church and upon completion of their studies every drow is tested. Those that fail are sacrificed to Lloth although not killed, Lloth has other plans for them.

Below the matron mother’s children are the other drow not part of any recognised family. These could come from houses not wealthy enough to maintain an entire ‘noble’ household so family members are forced to work for other houses. This could be as housefld soldiers or other more refined rolls.

For drow that cannot be supported by their family or find employment in a more powerful house then to them goes the title of renegade. These are often mercenaries employed by houses as and when needed to bolster a families defences or even for an attack on another house or for  more subtle duties. to most though the very thought of the renegades is distasteful but renegades are not the bottom of society.

The drow economy runs on slaves, slave labour and limited trade with cultures that do not outwardly object to slavery. Slaves farm the mushroom groves, work the mines and build the aquaducts that bring in the water. Slaves carry messages across the city and carry out most of the other fetching and carrying for a household. The drow will happily force any intelligent race into servitude except surface dwelling elves whom they would rather kill on sight especially elvish children.

The drow carry forth an almost innate hatred for the surface dwelling races. This is taught to every drow from birth and reenforced at the academies. It was, to hear the drow telling of it, the surface races that robbed the drow of their right to inherit the surface world and forced them underground. Drow not infrequently mount surface raids by night to capture slaves although they prefer to take races that live below the surface such as orcs, goblins and bugbears. If on a raid they encounter surface elves they will do their upmost to leave no survivers. Anything that can survive living without the sun and can be beaten into submission is prime slave material in the drows’ eyes.

To human eyes what we are most likely to see are the remains of Drow fortresses left over from the last time the drow ruled parts of the surface. These are often magically raised or at least desiged and built with powerful magic in mind. They often include landing platforms for flying troops and whole levels or balconies that can only be reached by air and not from the ground or by non-flying or levitating troops. Each fortress is then connected to the underdark and to each other by passages that run underground, normally miles underground, so that each can be reenforced from other fortresses without the need to move on the surface.

Although most if not all of these fortresses are now abandoned or lost to the drow you can be assured that they are not forgotten and the loss will be avenged.

Next time I will tell you some more about drow weapons and equipment and their love of spider venom.