And now, we begin the meat of the series. Actual application instead of just cerebral Gamemastering Theory. I’m hoping to begin to cover the specifics of how and why various common sorts of enemies would engage an adventuring party non-lethally.
“Wait, aren’t drow notorious for being homicidal and worshiping demons?”
Well, yes. But they’re also notorious for having an entire society in which the primary commodity is slaves, and where there is perpetual vicious infighting for which noble house holds the most power and wealth. This is the reason why, despite having cornered the market on spider venom, the iconic drow poison simply renders the victim unconscious. If you aren’t drow yourself, you’re almost certainly of more benefit to them and their family as a servant than as a corpse, and a typical drow will go to great lengths for anything that will give their house (and by extension themselves) an edge vs other drow. It’s probably faster to list the circumstances in which a drow wouldn’t try to take captives than to list the reasons why they would, so I’ll do that in a moment. And if drow have captured you, while it’s certainly not a good day, you’ll still probably see the end of it. Drow might be callous and have no problems killing a captive that is slowing the group or proving to be too much trouble, but once you are in their clutches, they’ll see you as gold already in their pocket which they won’t much wish to lose, either. A drow who has a habit of needlessly damaging the merchandise will soon be discovered dead after a tragic and not at all suspicious knife sharpening accident.
Reasons Why Drow Might Not Take Prisoners
First and most obvious is if they are outnumbered, backed into a corner, or similar. If their own life is at stake and they don’t have an obvious advantage due to numbers, ambush, favorable battlefield conditions (such as darkness), they aren’t going to gamble their own safety unless they’re desperate. However under these circumstances drow usually would prefer to slip away from the conflict until they can gain the upper hand, anyway, so these clashes are generally when combat happens on the party’s terms.
Second is if you are another drow. The same social intrigues that make every resource a drow house has important to their survival make drow very quick to introduce each other to a crossbow bolt in the back. No individual in drow society will survive for very long if they aren’t paranoid and treat every other drow as a rival simply waiting for the best moment to strike, even if their interests coincide in the short-term. But even in this case, proving dominance over living drow, or capturing them to be brought to “justice” formally can send a strong message to others that one is too dangerous to pursue while ingratiating oneself to those above.
Third is if you appear to be spies or agents loyal to other drow. If they think you might be a cat’s paw for a rival house, and don’t think they can turn you to their own ends, they’d rather deprive their “true opponents” of a tool. However, there may still be exceptions to this one, as many drow would prefer the symbolic victory of “disarming” their rivals and demonstrating mastery. I suppose it depends on how dire they view their conflict with the rivals they perceive you to be serving.
Fourth, religious fervor (which given their preference for Lolth and/or demon worship, is almost the same thing). If they view killing enemies as a part of a sacrifice or pact with a demon or evil god, there’s not much that will hold them back. The especially zealous among the drow usually view their status with whatever patron entity they serve as more valuable than temporal wealth or a large army of arrow fodder, though even then they generally prefer to bring captives alive to a temple or dark altar somewhere for a ritual.
Fifth, outright war, but even then only against an opponent they don’t have the time, resources, or ability to enslave. Most drow conflicts with other species are really just glorified slave-capturing raids, but in a genuine war, they’ll do what they need to do to win, and often that means killing possible scouts they encounter when on the march rather than risk an escape that would inform their enemies of their movements and plans.
And finally, madness. It’s not outlandish for a hermit, cultist (even by drow standards of religion), or other still-evil reprobate from drow society to prefer murder to enslaving enemies, but they’re also a wildcard and could have any number of peculiar motivations for not dealing a death blow as well.
Drow Capture Tactics
Poison. The eponymous drow poison causes unconsciousness instead of additional damage, but has to be delivered directly into the bloodstream by some sort of injury. It is usually applied to arrows and crossbow bolts, since those are weapons the drow prefer to use and are well suited to poison application, but it can also be delivered in a variety of other ways, such as just about any kind of trap that is designed to wound rather than kill. For an especially subtle and cosmopolitan drow, you might take a cue from Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories and give her a spiked ring that she can scratch a target with while appearing to be unarmed. Depending on the rule system you are using, the poison may take a while to fully take effect so captors relying primarily on this poison will probably strike from hiding and stalk the target until either they succumb or make it clear that either more poison or a different approach is necessary.
Surprise. Drow prefer surprise and stealth as their approach to just about everything, so it is only natural they would favor ambushes. Between their ability to produce clouds of magical darkness, darkvision superior to that of most of their prey, and sophisticated sign language, they are the iconic ambush predator of the underdark. They are also accustomed to dealing with ambushes by other hostile drow and are often trained specifically in recognizing an ambush and turning it against the ambushers without giving away that they saw the trap.
Dirty Tricks. Fair fights are anathema to drow combat tactics. In addition to the aforementioned poison and ambushes, they are naturally well equipped to mislead and gain advantage. Their dancing lights ability can be used to make prey believe a group of torch-bearing humanoids are just out of sight, luring them in. Fairy Fire can be used to turn the general disadvantage to all sides of total darkness (which darkvision treats as dim light, which provides enough concealment to hide in still) into an uneven battlefield in favor of the drow.
Magic. Drow also utilize wizards, clerics, and the occasional warlock to provide the magical equivalent of a handful of sand in the eyes as well as their obvious use as artillery to soften up hardened targets. Drow mages typically employ illusions of various sorts, web, and invisibility. Priestesses of Lolth commonly summon spiders or demons to tire more powerful targets and leave them thinking they have fought off the threat before even realizing the drow used the noise of combat to slip into position. Either one might have access to spells like hold person, charm person, or suggestion as well. Magical sleep spells might be utilized, but since it is not a reliable strategy against other elves, it is less common.
Minions. Larger groups of drow slavers will often have favored thralls, often brainwashed or made loyal in other ways, to do the brute work of subduing challenging targets as well. They commonly employ quaggoths, duergar, orcs, ogres, kuo-toa, minotaurs, bugbears, and hobgoblins for this purpose, but any species they have access to might be used.
Spider Webs. With the number of giant spiders at their disposal, it is not difficult for the drow to trap an area by covering it with non-magical webs.
Special Shock Troops. Some groups of drow have unusual and powerful assets that can assist in overwhelming and subduing travelers. Fey’ri (elven tieflings) and Draegloths are two likely examples, as well as lesser demons bound by magic to serve a summoner. They might train umber hulks or press a drider into service. Ettercaps usually live on the surface, but due to the shared connection with spiders, some may live on the fringes of drow society. Web golems and other unusual constructs are occasionally used as well.
Escaping Drow Captivity
Drow have made somewhat of an industry of capturing slaves, so they will likely already have infrastructure. If a traveling party has the manpower to keep slaves guarded they may either take them immediately to an outpost with something akin to a prison, or simply bring the slaves along until they are finished with whatever task they are pursuing, if they have a higher priority than returning with their ill-gotten “loot.”
The easiest time to escape from drow slavers is while in transit, since the captors have fewer resources at their disposal and cannot rely on cells or walls to keep prisoners in. Drow put a high price on slaves, but not nearly as much as they put on their own skin, so often the easiest way to escape while in transit is to slip away when the drow are faced with something that makes survival more important to them than some extra cash. They may even send their captives in to fight the threat while they escape themselves.
Because drow do not sleep and need little rest, it may be difficult to sneak away, but individual drow are paranoid and prone to infighting, so it may be possible to trick them into fighting among themselves until they no longer have the personnel necessary to reliably escort a group of captives, at which point an adventuring party could overpower them or take advantage of being poorly guarded to slip away, or the drow may simply cut the captives loose, though in that case the player characters will likely need to pursue and ambush them to retrieve their possessions and rations. In an established outpost, turning the drow against one another is likely the best approach. Protagonists may even be able to cut a deal with a lower ranking drow eager to make her superiors look incompetent.
Also, if you have a magical source of sunlight, drow will be severely disadvantaged thanks to their sunlight sensitivity.
What’s in it for the Players?
As I established in Capture, Don’t Kill II: How, it is a good idea to establish a social contract about captured player characters that both opportunities for escape and benefits to compensate for the inconvenience are guaranteed. In addition to the standard storytelling rewards like clues to a bigger plot and game mechanics rewards like xp for the captors thwarted, I’d like to list some of the possible benefits a party could gain from rescuing a captured party member or escaping as a group from captivity.
Magic Items. Drow are far more likely than many other adversaries to be carrying enchanted gear. Larger groups are typically led by a spellcaster of some sort, who can possess a variety of objects, and the most favored soldier or two may have a magical weapon or piece of armor. Likely choices of magic loot include spell scrolls, adamantine medium armor, mithral armor, +1 light armor, boots of elvenkind, bracers of archery, a quiver of ehlonna, slippers of spider climbing, a wand of web, a cloak of elvenkind (called a piwafwi when drow-made), a rod of rulership, magical short swords or hand crossbows, and magic ammunition
Other Unconventional Loot. From spider silk fabric or rope, to exotic poisons, to trained giant spiders, drow may be in possession of a wide variety of exotic valuables an enterprising escapee can liberate on their way out. They may also be more likely to carry art objects of religious significance.
Thankful NPCs. It is likely that any group of drow capturing slaves will either already have captured a few others or will do so in short order. If the party is already planning a jailbreak, a lot of those captives would eagerly assist the party in exchange for being freed.
Favor. The Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, and many other organizations, will eagerly reward those who undermine slavers, especially ones that are difficult to root out like the drow. Furthermore, those who defeat priestesses of Lolth may be smiled upon by deities like Corellon, Eilistraee, Ilmater, and Moradin. The party may even gain the appreciation of a rival drow house, although this is probably a mixed blessing at best.