Menzoberranzan, City of Spiders (Upper Northdark)
Menzoberranzan is the archetypal drow city, divided by a number of noble houses and ruled by priestesses of Lolth. Betrayal and assassination are a way of life here, and a cruel and suspicious nature is a sign of good breeding.
Menzoberranzan (metropolis): Magical; AL CE; 100,000 gp limit; Assets 159,495,000 gp; Population 26,500 free; Isolated (drow 98%, human 1%; other 1%); 29,000 slaves (goblin 17%, grimlock 17%, kobold 14%, orc 13%, quaggoth 9%, bugbear 7%, human 7%, ogre 4%, svirfneblin 4%, minotaur 3%, troll 2%, gloaming 1%, tiefling 1%, other 1%).
Authority Figures: House Baenre, The Ruling Council, The Academy
Menzoberranzan has the dubious distinction of being one of the few drow cities located in the Upperdark. It lies about 2 miles under the Surbrin Vale, between the Moonwood and the Frost Hills. The city occupies an irregularly shaped cavern more than 2 miles wide at its widest point. The ceiling is 1,000 feet high, and stalactites, stalagmites, and columns litter the cavern. All of them have been worked or shaped, and the continuous effect across the entire cavern can be mesmerizing to the uninitiated. Some of the larger stalagmites have been converted to castles and homes for drow noble Houses. These sparkle with permanent faerie fire effects, creating a soft, multicolored glow that suffuses the cavern.
Slavery is legal and socially favored in Menzoberranzan, and it permeates every district of the city. The variety of slaves is astonishing. It is not legal to enslave other Menzoberranyr drow, but indentured servitude is practiced with gleeful malice.
The drow of Menzoberranzan are universally hated and feared throughout the Northdark, and they in turn regard their neighbours with condescension and hungry ambition. Their merchant system, however, is the one of the best in the Underdark. Other cities have better markets, and some have more valuables, but in terms of total gold, no other settlement in the Northdark can match the mercantile might of the City of Spiders.
This focus on commercial gain means that Menzoberranzan is open (if not terribly hospitable) to anyone who wants to buy or sell. Non drow of all races, faiths, and outlooks come here. The city caters to these foreign merchants as much as necessary to get their money, but no further. Anyone who sets foot in the city is fair game for the warring noble Houses, and visitors often become pawns in their schemes for power. Many visitors act as fulcrums for various drow plans without ever knowing how or why. In addition to the parade of Material Plane merchants and buyers, demons and devils regularly enter the Bazaar district with plane shift to buy and sell favors.
The area around Menzoberranzan is thickly laced with faerzress, which makes teleportation difficult at best and lethal at worst. Merchants with lots of cargo must either bring it down from the surface in caravans (a two-week round trip, assuming they aren’t waylaid) or bring it in through a nearby portal.
Menzoberra the Kinless, a powerful priestess of Lolth, founded the city that bears her name in -3917 DR. At the behest of the Spider Queen, she led seven drow families into the Northdark from the southerly drow holdings of Great Bhaerynden. Without an immediate external enemy, the families fell to attacking and undermining one another, to the greater glory of their goddess. In -3864 DR, only fifty years after the city’s founding, a terrible battle between House Nasadra and House S’sril led to the exile of the former (which later founded the city of Ched Nasad) and the rise of House Baenre as the First House of Menzoberranzan.
The city’s internal machinations have continued unabated for millennia. Houses that grow weak are destroyed, and new ones rise up to find favor in Lolth’s many eyes. Their full history would constitute a nearly endless logbook of treachery, spite, and naked ambition. Within the last century, this pattern has seemingly accelerated; House Do’Urden ascended to Ninth House of Menzoberranzan with meteoric swiftness, destroyed the Fourth House (DeVir) and seemed destined for greatness, only to falter in a series of disasters leading to the destruction of the House. In 1359 DR, House Oblodra, Third House of the city, was destroyed by an apparent manifestation of Lolth’s own wrath, and again the ranks of the ruling Houses changed.
Even worse, Menzoberranzan recently tasted its first defeat on the battlefield in centuries uncounted when the dark elves attack on Mithral Hall was thrown back with great loss, and House Baenre lost its Matron Mother. Matron Baenre had governed Menzoberranzan with such cruel subtlety and perfect evil for so long that House Baenre’s preeminence had seemed completely insurmountable. When her eldest daughter Triel became the mistress of House Baenre, this situation changed.
Triel Baenre is clever and completely devoted to Lolth, but she lacks the utter confidence, resolve, and strength that her mother possessed.
Menzoberranzan contains several distinct districts. Business takes individuals of all kinds to different districts, but hanging around in the wrong district can lead to unfortunate cuts and bruises.
Donigarten: This area supplies much of the city’s food. The center of Donigarten is a small, deep lake of the same name whose shores are surrounded by slave-tended fungi farms. The lake is stocked with eels and fish, and deep rothé are kept on an island in the middle. The district isn’t exactly off limits, but the guards here pay very close attention to what goes on, especially since the uprising.
Braeryn: This would be considered the “rough” part of town in a surface city, home to out-of-favor drow and low-class members of other races. Poor craftsfolk, laborers, peddlers, and rogues of all description crowd the tenements and stinking taphouses of this district.
Eastmyr: Drow commoners, mercenaries, and lesser merchants live here. The noble Houses are heavily engaged in many of the businesses in this district, and Eastmyr regularly falls in and out of favor as a bolt-hole or springboard for various schemes.
Duthcloim: Common drow with money and connections live here, alongside important nondrow merchants.
The Bazaar: This area is where the city’s open trading occurs. Members of nearly every race on Faerûn pass through here as either traders or slaves. Any item or service with any value at all can be bought, sold, or at least arranged for here. Visiting merchants know that trading with drow can be as dangerous as fighting them.
West Wall: Older noble Houses occupy this area. The schemes of these Houses are so subtle that they can rarely be traced back here, and the area is slightly quieter than the low murmur in the rest of the cavern.
Narbondellyn: Newer, brasher noble Houses burning for power line the wall beneath the Qu’ellarz’orl plateau. The riskiest gambits come from these Houses, who claim to want nothing other than to serve their goddess by killing their superiors.
Ou’ellarz’orl: This raised plateau on the southern end of the cavern known as The Place of Nobles. A forest of giant mushrooms hides activities on this plateau from the lower parts of the city. The Houses of the Qu’ellarz’orl are the oldest and wealthiest of the city.
Baenre Plateau: The highest point in the city, situated above and behind Qijellarz’orl, this plateau is home to House Baenre. Overlooking the city, House Baenre rules with unmatched political finesse. Once Baenre was strong enough to fight any three lesser Houses and win, but the death of the old Matron Baenre has left the House more vulnerable than it has been in many centuries. For the first time in living memory, the Matron of House Baenre cannot simply govern Menzoberranzan by personal fiat.
This academy sits proudly above the floor of the city in a side cavern. All nobleborn drow, and many nonnobles who show exceptional promise, spend many long years studying here before returning to their Houses. Tier Breche consists of three separate schools: Melee-Magthere, the school of combat; Sorcere, the school of wizardry; and Arach-Tinilith, the school of clerical magic. The current mistress of Arach-Tinilith is Quenthel Baenre, and Gromph Baenre, as Archmage, heads Sorcere.
This thick column of stone near the center of the cavern is a major landmark in tha city and the only bit of stone that remains in its natural form. The column is a fixture of daily life. To mark the end of an old day and the beginning of a new, the Archmage lights up the stone with creeping fire from bottom to top. This ritual is the closest thing Menzoberranzan citizens have to a clock
Menzoberranzan’s location places it near several areas of interest, but the two described below are the most famous.
The Dark Dominion
The tunnels in a 5-mile radius around Menzoberranzan are known as the Dark Dominion. Drow patrols wander the area constantly, but nearly any creatures are allowed in, even wandering monsters. The patrols might or might not challenge creatures found in the Dark Dominion, depending on their whim. Patrols are less likely to hassle caravans and much more likely to challenge anyone who even looks like a surface elf.
More than a hundred known tunnels link the Dark Dominion with the surface. The most famous is a long but fairly safe route up to Mithral Hall in the Silver Marches, which goes right past the front door of Blingdenstone. Another, on the western end of the High Forest, is a continual bane for the rangers and treants of that wood.
Dead Dragon Gorge
Because of faerzress, anyone who wants to teleport to the city usually aims for Dead Dragon Gorge, a large, faerzress-free chasm about six days’ travel from Menzoberranzan on foot. Numerous tunnels connect this gorge to the Underdark, and a nearby waterfall provides free water for all.
Tier Breche, the famed academy of the dark elves, sits on a high plateau at the western end of the city, protected by guardians and fell magics, the Academy consist of three structures, Arach-Tinilith (The School of Lolth) Sorcere (The School of Wizards) and Melee Magthere (The School of Fighters). Presided over by the Matron Mistress of the Academy, all drow both common and noble are required to attend the academy. Students’ length of education is dependent on their sex and occupation. Male Fighters will spend 10 years, male wizards will spend 30, and female priestesses will spend 50 years learning their profession. The majority of time is spent within their specific school; however each student will spend a portion of their last year at each of the other schools, gaining a basic understanding of the strengths and weakness of the other classes.
The School of Fighters is a pyramidal structure located on the east side of Tier Breche. Here males learn the art of swordplay, and individual and group fighting tactics. Beginning students spend their first sixty days unarmed under the instruction of The Master of Lore. Here they are indoctrinated against surface elves and non-drow. This racist propaganda provides a ‘safety valve’- extra aggression can be turned on the surface folk, rather than (completely) on the Drowish hierarchy. Their junior years are very harsh, but conditions improve as they grow older. Students in their 9th and final year serve as guards for Tier Breche, as well as participating in practice patrols within short distances outside of the city cavern. Each year, in order to establish a hierarchy within the class, the Grand Melee is held. During this event the students are set loose in a maze chamber outside the city cavern, wielding simple wooden poles as imitation weapons. The last male standing wins. In the tenth and final year, fighters will spend their first six months in Sorcere studying magic, and the final six months within Arach-Tinilith learning the precepts of Lolth- most importantly, the inferiority of males in her eyes.
The School of Wizards is housed in a many spired stalagmite tower on the west of Tier Breche. Males will spend 30 years in study of the arcane arts, learning to channel the strange and unique magic of the drow that emanates from the Underdark. Acceptance as a student at Sorcere is highly coveted by young males as magic is the only path to any kind of real power in their matriarchal world. Masters of Sorcere are arguably the most powerful group of males within Menzoberranzan, headed by the city’s Archmage. Not only are they responsible for the training of future mages but also for regulating the use of arcane magic for all drow within Menzoberranzan.
The School of Lolth is one of, if not the most important, holy sites within the church of Lolth. Standing at the center of Tier Breche, the school resembles a giant obsidian spider, sporting eight legs and a large central hall. Female clerics will spend 50 years in study under the Mistresses of Arach-Tinilith, learning the deeper codes, beliefs, and dogma of Lolth’s faith. Some of the most powerful holy artifacts of the drow are stored within the halls. It is here that students will undergo the graduation ceremony, often involving demon summoning and sexual orgies between the new clerics and male wizards or fighters, reinforcing the subservient role of drow males. The Matron Mistress of the Academy resides here and serves both as head instructor as well as the leader of the academy. Currently the Academy is presided over by Matron Mistress Quenthel Baenre, who succeeded her sister Matron Triel after the death of their mother.
Bregan D’aerthe is a drow mercenary band based in the drow stronghold of Menzoberranzan. Founded by Jarlaxle Baenre as a means for houseless rogues to survive in Menzoberranzan, the group has thrived and expanded greatly since its inception.. This band of societal malcontents consists of approximately 150 members (though at times known to employ many more, having nearly one thousand agents at work with the Calimport initiative), mainly houseless males. Bregan D’aerthe has been very influential in the chaotic happenings of Menzoberranzan and has connections with Blingdenstone and has agents in Ched Nasad as well as major cities on the surface, most notably Luskan, Waterdeep, Calimport, and Heliogabalus.
The city exported poisons, mushrooms, riding lizards, spell scrolls, wine, and water (clean water could be hard to come by in the Underdark). Other goods included body dyes, chains, everdark ink from deep dragon scales, giant slugs, herbal medicines, kayaks, musical instruments (flutes, drums), obsidian carvings (often used for sacrifices), perfumes, spells, spiced sausages, stone sculptures, surgical services, textiles, tortoiseshell goods, and ulaver wine.
The city imported produce (surface and Underdark), shellfish, slaves, and textiles.
The neighboring drow city of Ched Nasad provided fully half of Menzoberranzan’s goods.
Various currencies were accepted in Menzoberranzan. Coins came in many shapes, including round, square, triangular, ring-, and spider-shaped coins. The greatest dozen houses in Menzoberrzan minted the coins. For example, House Baenre minted their own coins with the Baenre emblem, which were accepted throughout the city.
The city had many different factions, or Houses, all of which vied for power. As it was a matriarchal society, however, only females truly held power. Officially, the city was under the rule of the Ruling Council of Eight, composed of the eight matron mothers of the first (and most powerful) eight houses. For many centuries — as long any living drow could remember — it was under the indirect rule of House Baenre which was governed by Matron Mother Quenthel Baenre, daughter of Yvonnel Baenre, also known as Old Matron Baenre, perhaps the most powerful de facto ruler the city ever saw. House Baenre had been the First House of Menzoberrazan for centuries of uncontested power.
Although drow culture was matriarchal, a few male drow in the city held some political power, including Gromph Baenre, the archmage of the city, and Jarlaxle, leader of the mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe, which was often utilized by House Baenre.
A separate council of mages dealt with affairs of the arcane — but as its members were all male, it is wholly within the grip of the matron mothers.
The worship of Lolth was prevalent, and the worship of any other deity was forbidden. However, there were a number of secret (mainly male) worshipers of Vhaeraun.
Food and drink
Local food was primarily produced in and around Lake Donigarten. The Isle of Rothe in the lake housed the city’s rothe herds, managed by House Hunzrin, which provided rothe cheese and meat to the city. The area in and around Donigarten also housed moss fields, giant mushrooms, fungus farms, fish, and orc and goblin slaves.
Pyrimo, a type of aggressive fish similar to piranhas, was prized, despite being deadly if not prepared in the correct manner.
Cheap street food in Menzoberranzan included sausage and rolls, which could be bought from street vendors in the Braeryn slum, and pickled sausage. Finer foods included rothe steak, raw mushrooms with creamy dipping sauces, wine, and a salad of black, red, and white fungus.
Alcoholic beverages found in Menzoberranzan included green ulaver wine and a type of sweet dessert wine. There was also lace fungus brandy and some drow favored duergar brandy.
Entertainment was perhaps not the most obvious word connected with Menzoberranzan, but the city nevertheless provided recreation and relaxation (as much as possible) to its (drow) inhabitants. Taverns were plentiful and brothels could be found if one looked hard enough. The Bazaar offered food, shopping, street performers, and even a game tent or two. “Houses of delights,” massage parlors, and public bath houses, all of which were usually manned by slaves, offered their services.
Well-to-do drow, particularly nobles who were not busy plotting to overthrow their rivals or guarding against usurpers of their positions, were fond of wild parties and dances.
Sava was a popular chess-like game that represented war between noble houses. It was often played in taverns.
Another particular past time in Menzoberranzan was the plotting and carrying out of pranks.
Because the drow worshiped Lolth, the Spider Queen, killing spiders (even unintentionally) was punishable by death by the law of Lolth.
By law, parties had to end at start of new day (the Black Death of Narbondel, or midnight). Dancing while armed was considered an insult (as well as being hazardous), so dances, particularly the frenzied nedeira, were usually performed sans clothing.
Death (usually by intrigue) was widespread in Menzoberranzan. The dead were usually placed in airtight stone crypts in the solid rock north of the city cavern so that they could later be reanimated as battle fodder. Only priestesses were cremated to prevent such a thing occurring to their corpses.
“Rock, knife, and parchment” was game in Menzoberranzan after the manner of "rock, paper, scissors.”
The Braeryn (“Stenchstreets”)
Sick and outlaw drow lived here, along with the many non-drow inhabitants of the city. This was definitely the slum of Menzoberranzan. Drunken drow sometimes hunted in this area, killing any and all who couldn’t hide themselves.
Home of the well-off commoners of the city, as well as wealthy non-drow. Tradesfolk and their shops/businesses were mostly found here. Most Menzoberranyr came from this area and it was the most varied and tolerant district in the entire city. It was located near Tier Breche.58 House Auvryndar was located here.
Most commoners, including mercenaries and lesser merchants, lived in this neighborhood. While better than the Braeryn, Eastmyr was still where you would find many poor and outlaw drow and non-drow of no discernible means. Despite the lack of wealthy residents, House Hunzrin and House Kenafin were based here.
Narbondellyn (“Broad Streets”)
This was the home of the wealthy and up-and-coming drow houses. No fewer than seven existing powerful noble houses and several of the most luxurious and profitable of businesses were located in this neighborhood. The best gems and perfumes could be found here, as well as the city’s moneylenders. Narbondellyn was stretched out in front of Qu’ellarz’orl.
Qu’ellarz’orl (“The House Loft”)
This plateau was located in the southwestern corner of the city and was screened from the rest of the city by a forest of giant mushrooms. Contrary to the rest of the city, Qu’ellarz’orl was spacious and bare, no crowds were found here, nor any businesses. The space that was occupied was dominated by the most powerful noble houses: House Baenre, House Mizzrym, House Barrison Del’Armgo, and House Agrach Dyrr.
The West Wall was covered in the fortresses of more minor noble houses and the proudest of the non-noble drow families. Elstearn’s Escorts provided attractive drow of either sex to escort those who desired them or to act as tour guides to visitors. Menzoberranzan’s embassy with Ched Nasad was located in the West Wall.
A rocky outcropping shaped like a claw on the end of a long arm situated between the Bazaar and Eastmyr. The ancient tunnels and walkways dug into the rock were used by House Oblodra to house their hundreds of kobold slaves, but was later infested by undead. Bregan D’aerthe maintained a base here.
A permanent market located in Duthcloim. Nearly anything could be bought here, for a price. It was also the location of many unlicensed and illicit activities. Traders in the Bazaar had to shift locations every 66 days.
Ruling Council Chambers
The council chambers were located in a small cavern off of the main city cavern and were where the Ruling Council met to discuss important matters. In the council chambers was the Hall of Petition. Outside that was a waiting room. Only those commanded to come were able to come. The floor was made of black marble and on the walls were friezes of Menzoberranzan’s founding.
This freshwater lake lake in the eastern side of the cavern was the source of almost all of Menzoberranzan’s food. Rich fungi farms, beds of moss and giant mushrooms were tended to by slaves. A small amount of fishing was done in Lake Donigarten and, on an islet in the middle of said lake, the city’s supply of Deep Rothe were kept, looked after by orcs and goblins. House Hunzrin tended the rothe herds on the Isle of Rothe that fed the city.
A few twisted passages and side caverns accessible from the main cavern could be found in the Mantle, actually part of the Dark Dominion but close enough to the city proper for residents to build homes.