The drow are ruled by great noble houses, each one named after a family who protected the race during the dark days of Earthfall. Each noble house has an cloud of lesser families, mercenary companies, commercial fronts, and other puppet groups that makes up its supporters. While one faction might gain ascendancy within house politics, and internal purges and blood feuds are common, a noble house maintains a monolithic appearance of a unified family to outsiders.
While every noble drow owes fealty to its own family and matriarch, within the larger structure of the race the various family matriarchs owe their loyalty to no one. Each of the noble houses has its own matriarch, who is also called “great mother” by her subordinates. The noble matriarch is responsible for distributing largesse and patronage among her supporters, settling claims and arguments, assigning rights and privileges, promoting the worthy, demoting the unworthy, and eliminating the disloyal. To each family among the drow, the favor of the matriarch is highly sought.
Outside of the various noble families, most common drow seek fortune and power by allying themselves either with nobles or other significantly powerful groups. Many common families act as extensions of the noble houses, providing manpower, resources, gold, and slaves as their masters demand, without question or recourse. In return, they supposedly gain protection, opportunities, and prestige among their common peers, though the whims of nobles often prove fickle and one-sided. There have been rebellions through the years of families bridling against the demands of a noble house, often at the agitation of a rival noble house. Against a force as monolithic as a noble house, though, common families typically stand little chance in an out-and-out conflict. Dissension and espionage prove more useful forms of rebellion—selling the secrets of a cruel mistress to her family’s rivals—though such disloyalty is often punished by the annihilation of an entire house. Survivors of such failed rebellions and shadowy coups might be murdered, taken as slaves—one of the rare times drow might become slaves of their own people—or turned over to fleshwarpers and remade as driders as a warning to others of the punishment for unsuccessful rebellion.
In addition to controlling the actions of her house, the great mother also parleys with the house’s demonic patron. In the darkness, the drow had been abandoned by their gods as well as their people, and as such sought out new beings of power to aid them. They found them among the demons, and each in turn bound its loyalty to a demon lords of the Abyss. The lords vary from amused to demanding, from relatively benign to unforgiving, as is the nature of demons. In general, the demon lords have accepted the veneration and make few demands beyond regular sacrifice, in turn providing what support they can spare from their own battles and intrigues.
Each great mother has an heir, usually a direct child or grandchild, almost universally female. The heir sits at the matriarch’s right hand and is expected to know the precise state of the family’s fortunes, threats, and relative strengths in regard to the other noble houses. Although typically the first daughter of the house, matriarchs look for heirs that have the bloodthirsty ambition to survive familial intrigues, but who also possess sufficient loyalty and wisdom that they will not themselves seek the reigns of power without permission.
At the matriarch’s left hand is the favored regent, a position for the alpha male of the family. Deferring to the matriarch, the favored regent can be a transitory lover or a long-time advisor, and may even be the birth father of the heir. Some matriarchs keep the same favored regent for years, such that courtiers seek out his aid in petty intrigues. Others use the position to send a message to others about which faction or family within the house is particularly in favor or disfavor.
The great noble houses are themselves extended families that cover myriad generations, given the longevity of the elves. As a result, there are always related factions that seek control of the houses for their own gain, either through political intrigue, assassination, or full-fledged internal rebellion. Thus, drow politics are extremely fluid, and smart matriarchs often play multiple contenders off each other to maintain a balance of political power. However, while the houses appear to be united, they are in truth fluid, the great mothers holding power as long as they control the bulk of their own family and the house’s supporters. This makes for exciting court life and deadly gossip as individuals jockey for position and power.