A few times in the past, I’ve written articles about elements of the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons homebrew world I’m building (which I’m temporarily calling Gladius). One of my earlier D&D creations was the aatier, a half-tiefling half-aasimar race. Not to long ago, I shared all 24 of my deities in two parts, hoping Nerdarchy’s readers might find more value than the options currently available. My D&D game Tales from the City Watch with Staff Editor Doug and Staff Writer Drew is set in my world. For today’s article, I wanted to share my reimagining of the darklings.
The beginning of a D&D world
Perhaps some explanation is required. I’ve decided to do a little more work for my world, including redesigning some facets of the game’s structure. Not the mechanics, but a few things the books take for granted that exist their way. The one most directly related here is I’ve scrubbed the Underdark in favor of my own setting, known as the Umbravale.
The Umbravale isn’t a part of the world, but a separate plane of existence, which was created during an event commonly known as the Great Divergence. During a cataclysmic event, part of the prime material plane was shorn away, creating a separate plane of existence mirroring the geography of the time, and actually pulled people and creatures through as the planes were torn apart. About a quarter of the world’s population were lost to the Umbravale during the Great Divergence.
One of most significant defining characteristics of the Umbravale is it’s in perpetual darkness. Not like the Shadowfell. More akin to a state of neverending nightfall. Those who survived this less forgiving plane evolved over time to adapt to it. The elves, having started out in a different plane of existence to begin with, adapted to it the fastest, becoming the drow (or dark elves) and became the dominating race. They enslaved the smaller races, and built formidable cities on the backs of the oppressed.
Many of the races are represented. Some are tagged as being from the Underdark in the books, while others have been reshuffled. In my world, the fallen aasimar, as an example, come from the aasimar who were taken from the Great Divergence. Like most things, everything else stays the same. Not all are, though. The humans were not developed enough at the time the Great Divergence to impact them enough, so they have no Umbravale equivalent. In fact, their power swelled as they began to fill vacuums left behind. Others, like the darklings, are being reworked and repurposed in a way that makes sense.
Since then, there have been some tears in the fabric between the two planes, and trade has long been open. For the drows’ part, they patrol the portals between worlds, which keeps trade open, forcing some of the kingdoms of the prime material plane into the uncomfortable position of not interfering in the affairs of the Umbravale.
The rise of darklings
All of the races and creatures under drow control are treated abhorrently. The darklings are still treated like an inferior race, but they’re granted comparative elevated status because they were bred into existence. Interbreeding between the drow and other races was attempted, even with the aasimar, but nothing was successful. However, halflings were discovered to be a viable match. Through centuries of selective breeding the darklings were born.
The darklings’ small stature, uncanny sight, natural nimbleness, and uneasy ability to blend into crowds makes them perfect assassins, which the drow take great advantage of. In the Game of Houses, darklings are often known as the hidden blade. As a result of their usefulness, darklings are afforded some luxuries, and some even command a modicum of respect. Darklings who prove their worth can hope to achieve a subordinate status, while a few have even been granted a minor House of their own.
Make no mistake, despite their ancestral heritage, darklings share very little in common with their distant cousins, the halflings. They have long since forgotten the halfling language, instead being taught to speak only Elvish and Undercommon. Very few of them even know Common. Nothing about them is kind, happy, or carefree. Some things were retained, however. Their innate bravery and luck seems to have survived somehow.
I’ve gone back and forth about what makes a darkling a darkling. They have a super cool feature, death burn, which is an eruption of light that can blind anyone within visible range when they die, and actually cause damage. As a matter of mechanics, I would limit the ability to a short or long rest, they wouldn’t erupt in flames, and it would be based on unconsciousness, not death. But it’s a super cool feature giving the party time to bring them back from the brink, and rebukes attackers.
I also like their rather insane stealth bump, especially for a CR 1/2 and 2. It plays into the +2 Dexterity they’ll get as a player race, but part of me wanted to create something closer to the lightfoot halfling’s Natrually Stealthy ability. Perhaps even something as simple as they gain expertise in Stealth. These things play into the idea behind the race, so it would be a natural fit.
In the end, I landed on the idea that they rely very heavily on their senses in the darkness. The monster race has decent Passive Perception, superior darkvision, blindsight, and a high Perception bonus, which is equal to their Acrobatics. Basically, they’re designed specifically to pick you out from the shadows within the darkness.
I will say those who are interested in playing as the Gloom Stalker or Mastermind out of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything might find this race very intriguing, if your Dungeon Master allows it.
Even though I’m designing the darkling to be a halfling subrace, I’m including the whole text for the halfling, because I’m changing some of the flavor text, as well as a few other things. Secondly, this should be considered playtest material. I’m experimenting with the bounds a little, because the skills I’m giving them have generally inherent balances, and I think the practice vs. assumptions aren’t going to be the same.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: As a player in the Tales from the City Watch game, I was both thrilled and terrified to encounter darklings. They’re scary, especially in their native environment the Umbravale!]
Darkling race details
Windshard, infamous even among the drow, tightened his grip on his dirk. He could almost taste his kill. Some noble. He didn’t care. Just another name on his master’s list in his vie for power. He was offered his own minor house once, but Windshard wouldn’t even know what to do with his freedom. The only thing he knew was servitude in the honor of his master, and it’s the only thing he could imagine. As his target came into view, two bodyguards in tow, Windshard readied himself. Only a slight breath of wind to indicated his presence. His dirk exited the target’s throat. Two purses of gold hit the ground, and he moved on to the next name on his list.
Servitude to the drow is the darklings’ primary goal. Though most darklings spend their lives in in the homes of their drow masters, there are some who serve in drow guards or armies.
Small and practicalThe diminutive halflings survive in a world full of larger creatures by avoiding notice or, barring that, avoiding offense. Despite their size, standing about 3 1/2 feet tall, darklings are imposing and intimidating. They are more slender than most halflings, weighing between 30 and 35 pounds.
Darklings’ skin ranges from gray to pale, and their hair is usually blueish-white. They have red or white eyes. Halfling men often sport long sideburns, but beards are rare among them and mustaches even more so. They have no facial hair, and little body hair.
Darklings practicality extends beyond their tactical clothing. Due to the few extras the drow provide for them, they have little concern beyond basic needs and simple pleasures, and no use for ostentation. Even the wealthiest of darklings tend to not keep treasures, instead investing their earnings into the tools of their trade. They have a knack for finding the most straightforward solution to a problem, and have little patience for dithering.
Cold and calculating
Darklings are solemn and quiet. They cherish the sanctity of silence before the kill, as well as the comforts of their master’s home, harboring few dreams of gold or glory. Adventurers among them usually hire themselves out as cutthroats, sellswords, and assassins. Halflings are easily motivated by hate.
Blend into the night
Darklings are adept at fitting into shadows, making themselves valuable assassins. The combination of their inherent stealth and their frightening nature helps darklings develop ferocious reputations.
Most darklings live in drow cities, granted small spaces in the Great Houses. They aren’t allowed to build kingdoms of their own or even be granted houses. They are fiercely loyal to their drow masters, even over their own families. In return for their extreme loyalty, drow will grant them rewards and creature comforts. Those who strike out on their own tend to stick to urban centers in the light world (what they call the prime material plane), constantly fearful of being returned to their old masters.
DUTIFUL AND VIOLENT
Darklings consider themselves second only to the drow. That includes those not under drow oppression.
Drow. “Drow are my masters. They are to be feared and respected. Never question their orders.”
Duergar. “Duergar are the lowest race. It’s their duty to die in the volcanic mines for the betterment of our drow masters.”
Svirfneblin. “Svirfneblin are disgusting. Their faces, their music, their smell, and all. It’s like they stepped out of a pit of infinite despair. But there’s no telling what’s going on inside their heads—surely nothing at all.”
Fallen aasimar. “I don’t trust any free race, but I trust the fallen aasimar least of all. They’re nearly as cunning and violent as the drow, but they don’t have as sophisticated of a society. A little pruning of their dark wings might be called for.”
Darklings usually set out on the adventurer’s path on a mission, to escape their drow masters, or explore the light world. For them, adventuring is less a career than an opportunity or sometimes a necessity.
Darkling names are earned. They aren’t given any kind of true name by their drow masters, but they are granted names for their accomplishments in their duties to their masters’ houses. Darklings who haven’t earned a name are referred to generally, without any identity whatsoever. Earned names granted to them may or may not have any kind of gender identity.
Earned Names: Shadowstrike, Darkfaith, Souleater, Poisontip, Deathrage, Twinblades, Bloodspear
Your halfling character has a number of traits in common with all other halflings.
Ability score increase
Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
A halfling reaches adulthood at the age of 20 and generally lives into the middle of his or her third century.
Most darklings are neutral evil. As a rule, they are cold-blooded killers, and live under a constant state of oppression. They are also very orderly, always being obedient to their drow superiors.
Halflings average about 3 feet tall and weigh about 35 pounds. Your size is Small.
Your base walking speed is 25 feet.
When you roll a 1 on the d20 for an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw, you can reroll the die and must use the new roll.
You have advantage on saving throws against being frightened.
You can move through the space of any creature of a size larger than yours.
You can speak, read, and write Elvish and Undercommon. Darklings have long since forgotten the halfling language, because the drow didn’t allow them to learn it during captivity and selective breeding. You don’t know Common as a racial trait. You can learn Common or Halfling through other means, including feats and backgrounds, but neither are a natural language to darklings.
The two main kinds of halfling, lightfoot and stout, are more like closely related families than true subraces. Choose one of these subraces or one from another source.
As a darkling, you can easily hide from notice, even using other people as cover. You’re inclined to be hide in the shadows. In Gladius, darklings tend to be found only in the Umbravale and in urban settings, often at the bidding of their drow masters.
Ability score increase
Your Wisdom score increases by 1.
You have blindsight with a radius of 30 feet.
Your darkvision has a radius of 120 feet.
You have disadvantage on attack rolls and on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight.