Many D&D players encounter slavery in their games when their characters swoop in to rescue a convoy of unfortunates from the wicked bastards trying to steal their lives. Battle commences, the adventuring party wins, and the prisoners go free that very day. Victory and heroism in one! And that's about as far as many groups ever want to go with such a dark subject, so they leave it alone as soon as the captives have been saved and the captors have been punished.
But some gamers want a different view of slavery for their campaigns, even when they intend to work against the whole institution. They want a variety reasons and plot hooks, or at least some in-depth information written with roleplaying in mind. And for those participating in evil campaigns, slavery can become a regular theme instead of an occasional quest. It can also be experienced from the insider point of view when player characters own their own servants. So it tends to warrant a lot more thought and preparation – especially when you consider what you can find in the books.
Even though it's a long-standing part of the D&D experience, official D&D materials have largely stuck to quick references and infrequent stats. You are given what you need to know to face the bad guys who rely on slavery, but a deeper review usually doesn't happen. Books like Lords of Madness, Unapproachable East, and the Kingdoms of Kalamar Player's Guide have to give a bit more detail because they cover groups notorious for slaving. But most times, official books mention which slavers to target and move on.
The hesitation to delve into the subject it is entirely understandable, however. In the real world, past slavery haunts us and present slavery disgusts us, and disgust is the right response. Slavery isn't just one crime but many, wrapped up into one bleak experience, and no one deserves to be sold like an object. No writer or gamer wants others to think that they endorse or enjoy the thought of slavery in real life, either. The books have made the safer choices, by far.
And yet one of the greatest things about fantasy (not just in gaming, but in literature, movies, and in our own minds) is that it is fantasy. We can explore things within the game that we would never want to encounter, knowing that it is not real and that no one needs to be hurt. As long as everyone in a group is comfortable enough with the subject, it can be explored in more ways than you might realize. So the first step is to take an honest inventory of your group's opinions on using slavery in the game.
If someone is opposed to seeing it in a campaign, their voice should be respected. If a gamer wants to stick to the normal take-out-the-slavers quests, that is their choice and it's not as though they're not in good company. Even if everyone in a group agrees to try it out, you should see how they feel about it as the campaign progresses. If the experience goes in directions that the group finds disturbing, there is no reason to force the point. Using slavery – or just certain aspects of it – in a game isn't for everyone. But if you think it might appeal to you, read on.
The point of this discussion is to cover some of the many ways slavery can be woven into a D&D campaign, and not just from the heroic point of view. Good campaigns won't be left out in the cold by any means, but evil and neutral campaigns will be given their fair due. Since a broader view is encouraged, the old argument about whether the institution of slavery can be considered neutral or good won't be resolved here. So many variables and points of view are involved that the whole debate becomes an endless loop. Anyone can come up with reasons to justify it just about any old way they want, and as long as your group buys it, you're in the clear.
And since we don't want to tread the same old ground, this article won't be focusing on the fantasy races typically associated with slavery in D&D, such as aboleths and neogi. Enough has been written about them already, and one goal of this discussion is to widen the scope to include more possibilities and twists. This is also the reason that this will be written as though any character in a campaign can be a master or slave, whether they are a PC or an NPC. Too many books seem to assume that only NPCs will be slaves (to be rescued) and that only NPCs will be masters (to be brought down). When the story is in your hands, it can go any way you want.
While some groups strive for some kind of historical accuracy, this article will begin and end in fantasy gaming, though it will take plenty of inspiration from history and might use historical examples for illustration. If you are inspired to research the authentic details of forced labor in a particular period and to reproduce them in your sessions, be sure to share what you have learned. But the buyer of history must also beware: there are some things you had to be there to truly understand, and we are separated from historical slavery by a lot more than time.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Reasons For Taking Captives
Kismet's Guide to Slave Costs