To say that the drow are governed by a matriarchal theocracy is both accurate and misleading. It is certainly true that the ruling members of drow society are the priestesses of Lolth and the matrons (and other matriarchs of the great houses), but calling them a “government” is a misnomer. Just as the drow are guided by tradition but have no formal law, they are overseen by these influential personages but have no formal government. A drow city has no duchess, reeve, or mayor; a drow nation has no empress or queen.
A drow community is governed, so to speak, through the unsteady cooperation of its three most powerful institutions. The Church of Lolth is the most influential faction among the drow. The priestesses of this church interpret and disseminate the will of Lolth, conduct rites and rituals to honor the dark goddess, and technically have the authority to demand anything in her name. If the drow were to have a formal government, it would be made up of these individuals. On a practical level, however, although the priestesses are indeed the social leaders of the drow, the church often lacks the power to take drastic action without the support of the great houses. Powerful matriarchs frequently hold power in both the church and a house—thus, what is self-interest for one must often be self-interest for the other. It is also important to understand that the church is not a monolithic entity, guided by a single voice or a single goal. It is made up of individual priestesses, all of whom are loyal to Lolth, but all of whom have the same drive to dominate the weak and advance their own cause as any other drow. Thus, although a drow priestess can bring substantial might to bear against a lone individual or small family who offends her, she cannot muster the resources of the church against an entire house, unless the house has blatantly and conspicuously turned against Lolth as a whole.
The houses of the drow hold the bulk of the community’s economic and military power in their hands. In some communities, a specific house might be a greater power even than the priestesses of Lolth, directing the activities of religious leaders with behind-the-scenes threats or open shows of force. The high priestess of a community might also be a highly ranked matriarch of a great house, using one to advance the schemes of the other. No single house has ever managed to rise to dominance across multiple drow cities, however, and few maintain a permanent position of authority even in individual communities. Each house is tied to the other houses in a complex web of treaties and conflicts, alliances and betrayals. Should one house become too powerful, others ally to bring it down (even while appearing, on the surface, to support them, playing both sides against the middle). Further, although the church usually lacks the power to single-handedly destroy a house, neither can a house afford to make an enemy of the church. Too much of the power in a community is held by Lolth’s priestesses, and a house that fails to work with those priestesses loses access to those channels of influence. Although such an occurrence is rare, the church can decree that a house has earned the disfavor of Lolth, essentially giving all other houses blanket permission and encouragement to openly turn against it. Some houses are strong enough to withstand even this sort of assault, which invariably leads to a dilution of the church’s position in the community. But more often, such a decree results in the house being weakened sufficiently for another to rise and take its place. When one adds to this already volatile mix the constant scheming of house members against one another, in the hope of gaining higher status within the house, it’s quite understandable that no single house has ever managed to hold widespread power for long.
The military is the final drow institution that, in some communities, could be a governing body. Drow communities do not have standing armies, since this would require a formal government. Multiple smaller forces make up the larger soldiery of a drow city. These consist primarily of house-loyal militias, church soldiers, and independent mercenary companies. For the most part, then, the “military” is simply the enforcement arm of a house or the church. In some rare instances, however—particularly in communities engaged in a constant war with a hostile power—the military takes on an authority of its own. Its generals, under the guise of protecting the community, usurp authority from the matriarchs who normally hold it. The house soldiers become the dominant members of the house, or at least carry sufficient authority that the matriarchs and matrons cannot ignore their input. The army might even come to guide the Church of Lolth, directing priestesses in the defense of the city and in attacks on the enemy. The generals of differing factions, such as rival houses or a house and the church, have been known to cooperate behind the scenes, artificially extending or even creating military crises to wrest supremacy from the houses and the priesthood.
It is worth noting that rank in a military unit is the only pathway male drow have to any position of authority, so they are the military officers most likely to attempt this sort of power grab.
For more information on the priestesses of Lolth, see the Religion section; for more on the great houses, see Houses of the Drow; and for more on the military, see the War header under Drow Life, all below.
Roleplaying Application: You assume that, with the exception of military rank, females hold all true positions of authority. When addressing a mixed group of nobles, priests, or similar powerful individuals, you instinctively direct your words and attention to any females present, and you are always startled when a social or political leader turns out to be male. You normally assume that any military force is, if not independent, loyal to a church or a bloodline; you’re certainly aware that other cultures have armies devoted to cities or nations, but it still strikes you as odd when you encounter it.