Drow Tactics, Part 1

In my article on commoners, I touched superficially on how a drow commoner might fight, based solely on racial modifiers: they’d seek safety in numbers; snipe at range, using hand crossbows; and be nocturnal and/or subterranean. But the fifth-edition Monster Manual has an entire listing for drow, including three variants: the drow elite warrior, the drow mage and the drow priestess of Lolth. And the basic drow is stronger, across the board, than my hypothetical drow commoner. So let’s say that the MM drow is something more akin to a drow guard—a trained, regular fighter or scout.

The contour of its ability scores is the same: Dexterity is the drow’s highest stat, followed by Charisma. Its Strength and Constitution are average, its Intelligence and Wisdom only marginally higher (not enough even to get a plus to their modifiers). This is the profile of a sniper. Drow are armed with both shortswords (thrusting weapons akin to a Greek xiphos) and hand crossbows, but their lower Constitution relative to their Dexterity strongly suggests a preference for the ranged weapon over the melee weapon. They have proficiency in Stealth, marking them as ambush fighters.

They also have the innate ability to cast dancing lights at will and darkness and faerie fire once per day each. The combination of double-range darkvision and Sunlight Sensitivity implies a creature that not only gets around well in darkness but is averse to light, so why on earth would a drow want to cast dancing lights or faerie fire?

The answer is that the ideal illumination for a creature with darkvision isn’t total darkness but rather dim light (if it really preferred total darkness, it’d have blindsight). Dancing lights sheds dim light, not bright light, which is perfect. And the way faerie fire limns targets (four of them, on average, per page 249 of the Dungon Master’s Guide) with a glowing outline gives the drow a delightful double advantage against normal-vision creatures stumbling around in the dark: it’s got advantage when attacking them, while they’ve got disadvantage when attacking it.

Meanwhile, darkness fills a 15-foot-radius sphere (engulfing three creatures on average, again per DMG 249) with magical darkness that blinds even creatures with darkvision. Only magical light can penetrate it, but it has to be magical light shed by a spell of 3rd level or higher. The drow’s dancing lights and faerie fire aren’t enough; the darkness will swallow them up. This spell seems to be useful only as a way of temporarily debilitating enemies—particularly spellcasters, who need to be able to see their targets.

Drow will never fight aboveground in daylight. Only in the rarest instances—and out of necessity—will they venture aboveground in daylight at all.

All drow stat blocks include some form of poison. In the basic drow stat block, this poison requires a DC 13 Constitution save and imposes the poisoned condition, along with the unconscious condition if it fails its saving throw by 5 or more. Referring to Poisons on pages 257–58 of the DMG, this is “drow poison,” which the drow manufacture themselves, so it stands to reason that they’d use it routinely. The drow’s hand crossbow bolts are poisoned; the shortsword isn’t—yet another reason to assume they prefer sniping over melee.

Incidentally, since dwarves are resistant to poison (and also happen to be their No. 1 competitors for the best underground real estate), it stands to reason that drow would find dwarves’ presence particularly irritating, possibly enough to focus their fire on them.

So here’s our profile of drow combat: They patrol their caverns in darkness, using Stealth. They can detect enemies up to 120 feet away. When enemies come near, they fan out and Hide. When the player characters wander into their midst, one drow in the patrol (or two, if one isn’t enough) will cast faerie fire to illuminate the interlopers, whereupon the rest will attack with surprise, using their poisoned hand crossbows, and paying special attention to any dwarf in the party. Between the subterranean darkness and the drow poison, once the PCs get their chance to act in the subsequent round, many of them will have disadvantage on their attack rolls, while the drow will have advantage thanks to faerie fire.

Being accustomed to underground combat, the drow will notice when one of their targets is trying to hide, and the nearest drow will cast dancing lights (action) to “chase” that PC with dim light, so that the drow don’t suffer disadvantage on their Perception checks to contest the character’s Stealth. Because the spell creates four independently movable lights, the pursuit doesn’t have to be exact, and the drow can illuminate a wide swath around wherever the PC is likely to be hiding. On the flip side, if a spellcaster is causing persistent problems for the drow, and it’s far enough away from the non-spellcasting PCs, the nearest one will drop a darkness sphere on it.

Drow may or may not take prisoners, but they are absolutely unwilling to be taken prisoner. Most will fight to the death, some will Dash away if seriously wounded (reduced to 6 hp or fewer), but none will ever surrender.

The drow elite warrior differs from the regular drow in four respects. First, its stats (except for Intelligence and Charisma) are higher, with above-average Strength, Constitution and Wisdom  and exceptional Dexterity. Second, it can cast levitate on itself once per day. Third, it’s a more proficient melee fighter, with Multiattack (not usable with its crossbow because of the weapon’s reload time) and Parry; also, its shortsword does poison damage on top of its piercing damage, for a painful total of 4d6 + 4 damage on every hit. Fourth, it has saving throw bonuses in all of the big three—Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom—suggesting that it laughs in the face of magic-wielding foes.

When a drow patrol ambushes a party of trespassers, it will undoubtedly become apparent to the drow that one or more of those trespassers are going to pose a particular problem; dealing with this problem is the drow elite warrior’s job. For this reason, while the regular drow launch their surprise attack, the drow elite warrior holds back, Readying a Dash action triggered by a PC’s drawing his or her weapon and moving toward one of the drow crossbowmen. The drow elite warrior uses this Dash action to interpose itself between the PC and his or her target, the drow elite warrior positions itself between the crossbowmen and any PC who might charge them, so that the PC will incur an opportunity attack if he or she keeps going. The drow elite warrior then engages this PC in melee, Parrying (reaction) an attack roll of 18 to 20. If another PC joins the melee against the drow elite warrior, it Dodges (action) while its regular drow allies focus their fire on whichever of the drow elite warrior’s melee opponents seems like the greatest threat, at least until it’s moderately wounded (reduced to 49 hp or fewer) or all its opponents are poisoned or blinded. At that point, it stops playing games and starts Attacking again.

A unit consisting entirely of drow elite warriors will stage an ambush in the same fashion as regular drow, except that they’ll all Attack (minus the one who casts faerie fire, of course) with their crossbows in the surprise round. Then, in the following rounds, any warrior that’s succeeded in poisoning its target (or is attacking a dwarf, since he or she is going to be too hard to poison) will rush in and Multiattack with its shortsword to finish him or her off. One or more of them may also use levitate to stage their ambush from above, although the one that casts faerie fire can’t do this, because both spells require concentration.

Drow elite warriors are disciplined fighters that will serve as a rearguard to allow regular drow to escape and will not stop fighting as long as they have regular drow allies fighting alongside them. If they have no regular drow allies and are seriously wounded (reduced to 28 hp or fewer), they’ll Disengage (action) and retreat, except for the last, who will always fight to the death.

Next: Drow mages.

13 thoughts on “Drow Tactics, Part 1”

  1. I’m building a Drow encounter and just came across this text what drew my attention:
    “The drow elite warrior holds back, Readying a Dash action triggered by a PC’s drawing his or her weapon and moving toward one of the drow crossbowmen. The drow elite warrior uses this Dash action to interpose itself between the PC and his or her target, so that the PC will incur an opportunity attack if he or she keeps going.”

    The target won’t get an opportunity attack since it uses your Reaction to Ready and Action.

  2. Hand crossbow have Range 30/120. So the drow’s would attack normal against faerie fire targets and the party will attack with disadvantage (assuming that a party have a torch or a darkvision character and the drow’s wants to be distant)

  3. “One or more of them may also use levitate to stage their ambush from above, although the one that casts faerie fire can’t do this, because both spells require concentration.”

    Ah yes, but when Levitate ends, “the target floats gently to the ground if it is still aloft.” Presumably at the same rate as normal altitude adjustments using the spell (though the exact speed isn’t crucial).

    Levitating drow could thus stage the ambush from above, with one dropping concentration so as to cast Faerie Fire as they all float down.

  4. A particularly nasty drow party may use guerrilla tactics when facing stronger opponents, trying to dry them out of resources and disturbing any rest attempt, so they end up exausted and have disadvantage on con saving throws, before going and performing the real ambush.

  5. dim light does not impose disadvantage on attack rolls, only perception checks. drow want to fight in total darkness since it works like dim light for them (no disadvantage on atk) and total darkness for humans (disadvantage on atk).

    1. That’s assuming that attack rolls are the only things that matter. The drow also need to be able to detect enemies who may be sneaking up on them. The perfect arrangement, of course, is for the drow’s enemies to be in dim light while the drow are in darkness themselves.

  6. Heej Keith,

    I am a big fan of your work.

    Drow work hard to increase their internal standing. They dicpice weakness and betrayal is common.

    I think this makes for some intresting behaviour. Even though they are intelligent enough to help eachother, they problably wouldn’t. It is their fault for needing help in the first place. Also it wouldn’t hurt them if some of their allies die (they might rise in rank, and they didn’t trust them anyways). Ofcourse there are exceptions, if they are about to lose they might help an ally if it directly benefits them, but it would be a last resort.

    What are your thoughts about this?

      1. Unless that person is in their way of advancement. Such as a second son helping the first born, he would likely allow him to die (or even going as far as to assist in his demise). Or a lower ranking priestess allowing her superior to bite the dust.

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