Heroes of the New Day
There is much that has already been said about the ones known as “dark” elves. They are called murderers, monsters, thieves in the night, insane, evil, and worse. And many of these terms are true for a good many of them. But this is not all that they are.
To understand the Drow and the culture that creates them, you need to know a bit about the particular insanity(ies) of the Spider Queen Lolth. You also need to know that most Drow know little of what truly motivates their mad goddess. Eladrin philosophers will tell you that Lolth is fueled by a hatred of all that she lost in the Great Elvish War: the sun, the surface, the ability to feel joy. Eladrin philosophers think very highly of their opinions, which are not entirely correct. A part of Lolth may feel this way, sure. Another may feel hatred for the elves of the surface. But deep down many forget that the Spider Queen is just that: a spider. Her actions, though seeming mad to many, are each very calculated moves to attain her own goals, whatever they may be. It is the fact that Drow do not fully comprehend this that has shaped their society.
The Drow of the Underdark fully believe that they are their goddess’s children. Because their goddess often seems fickle, they learn early on to plan multiple failsafes (like a spider with a safety line), to be aware of all before acting, and to strike quickly and with the most efficient force possible. Essentially Lolth’s incomprehensible “moods” have made her people into perfect spiders, and they have thrived as a result.
The Drow of the Underdark will talk about the insane surface-dwellers, driven mad by the burning sun baking their skin all day… but occasionally someone decides that the sun is worth seeking. Surface-dwelling Drow face a variety of problems, especially if they don’t happen to come up in an area of understanding or open-minded people (not like there are tons of those, anyway). In fact, a frequent tactic to punish those who leave is to raid a town nearby the next night, not hurting the sun-seeking Drow, but stealing babies and murdering cattle and leaving obvious Drow markings before they leave. Of those that survive, a very small percentage of sun-seeking drow choose to stay on the surface once they see the hostile receptions they receive.
But there are places where Drow are treated moderately well… or at least as well as any other unpopular race (minotaurs, half-orcs, etc). Waterdeep and Alexandria are two of those places. The nation of Ionia as a whole has a “no racial-based hanging” policy, but depending on the town, the enforcement of that may vary considerably. In recent years, with declining numbers among their own people, many elves and eladrin have been the ones opening their doors to Drow with nowhere else to go. There are even tales of magical attempts to reunited Que’ll Thellas, the “People” who spawned all three Elvish subtypes. Whether such fantasies have any hope is anyone’s guess (though the answer is likely no).