For years, Dungeons & Dragons has trafficked in the idea of specific racial traits assigned to its many species—a player picks a race, and they have specialized strengths, weaknesses, moralities, and ideologies. Some of those histories have, in turn, trafficked in racist stereotypes assigned to “othered” races, often with non-white skin. Changes have been underway in the game to address this, but now one of D&D’s most beloved writers is helping change it too.
Although the Drow—a race of originally black-skinned dark elves, who have, over the years since their introduction, been portrayed in different dark hues in an attempt to move beyond their depiction as explicitly black beings—have been a part of Dungeons & Dragons in its original inception, author R.A. Salvatore arguably created the most iconic and beloved member of their kind when he created Drizzt Do’Urden. Drizzt has starred in myriad novels—many penned by Salvatore—and in video games, and he and his feline companion Guenhwyvar plaster the booster pack art for the D&D-themed Magic: The Gathering set Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, releasing this week. The Drow ranger hero has, in many ways, become a sort of public face for Dungeons & Dragons as iconic as either, well, dungeons or dragons for the tabletop game’s fantastical world.
But as a Drow, Drizzt has always been cast as an outsider, no matter how legendary or heroic his deeds, immediately judged and recognized for the color of his skin. His people, up until very recently within D&D’s lore and mechanics, have been defined by a major racially coded trait: the Drow are inherently cruel and evil people, restricted to certain villainous moral alignments, prejudiced against. Which, as a major, dark-skinned group of people in the D&D setting, in turn casts racial connotations against one of its major non-white species, and has done so for literal decades.
The people who make D&D now understand this. Last year, in the wake of a statement addressing the global outcry and response to the murder of George Floyd, Wizards of the Coast announced plans to make sweeping changes to the way racial traits worked in the current fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons—years after homebrew developers and fans took the concept into their own hands—specifically highlighting the Drow and races like the Orcs as a part of character creation where the company had long failed to avoid playing into racially coded stereotypes. The promised changes to character creation arrived later in 2020 in the form of the sourcebook Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which provided D&D players with an alternate character creation process—designed to either replace or complement the original 5E system—that allowed players not only more choice in crafting their characters, but removed specific defining traits from each of D&D’s playable races that defined them from moral or physical standpoints.
But now the step is being explored beyond just mechanics, in the stories Dungeons & Dragons tells beyond the tabletop. Speaking to Polygon about his upcoming novel Starlight Enclave—the first in a new series called Way of the Drow—Drizzt’s creator R.A. Salvatore addressed how he’s changed as an author since creating the character, reflecting a desire to both acknowledge the mistakes made in the past with Drizzt’s Drow heritage and expand the Drow species beyond their original categorization as untrustworthy villains simply because of their race.
“I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten over the years, from people who have said, ‘Thank you for Drizzt.’” Salvatore told Polygon. “‘I finally have someone who looks like me.’ On the one hand, you have that. But on the other hand, if the Drow are being portrayed as evil, that’s a trope that has to go away, be buried under the deepest pit, and never brought out again. I was unaware of that. I admit it. I was oblivious.”
“Nothing’s being dictated to me, I am not retrofitting or retconning the Drow. I am expanding the Drow… These aren’t game books, they’re novels,” Salvatore told Polygon. “Novels are supposed to reflect the time period they were written in. There’s no reason to [make any changes to past Drizzt books], because there’s nothing in my early books philosophically that’s different than who I am today. I’m just more aware of certain things in the books that became problematic. But philosophically, that’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been. I just try to be better.”
Starlight Enclave will explore Drow society to build out two other factions of Drow previously unseen—first detailed by Wizards of the Coast earlier this year—beyond the Udadrow that Drizzt descends from. The Aevendrow in the north of Faerûn, for example, rejected the Spider Queen Lolth’s demonic teachings and corruptive influence embraced by the Udadrow, while the Lorendrow will be separated even further from either faction as druidic, jungle-dwelling elves who practice a symbiotic relationship with the natural world around them. But beyond these lore-based explorations, Salvatore hopes that the new series will show audiences that he stands with the moves to change the Drow—and that he as an author has changed as well.
“This is something I hope more younger people can understand,” Salvatore added. “You’re seeing all this stuff and it’s obvious to you. If you grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it wouldn’t have been obvious. Some things are obvious, but it’s the subtle things that you learn about as you continue to grow and learn. And now, finally, we’re seeing it being played out there in the correct way with people saying, ‘This is bullshit.’ And I love it, and I feel like I’m growing.”
Starlight Enclave will release on August 3.