Disclaimer: This page discusses the use of slavery in fantasy games. This vision is offered for entertainment purposes for adults only. I do not condone anything described; quite the opposite. Please read with discretion, and feel free to stop anytime. Before you use any ideas herein, please gain your group's full consent to engage the material.
Many D&D players encounter slavery in their games somewhere along the line. Usually, the player characters swoop in to rescue a convoy of unfortunates from wicked bastards trying to steal their lives. Battle commences, the adventurers win, and the prisoners go free. Victory and heroism in one! And that's about as far as many groups ever want to go with such a dark subject.
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're given what you need to know to dislike and fight the bad guys who rely on slavery, and that's it. Books like Lords of Madness, Unapproachable East, and the Kingdoms of Kalamar Player's Guide give 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. 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, 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 is that it is imaginary. We can explore things that we would never want to encounter because it isn't real and no one needs to be hurt.
The point of this discussion is to cover some of the ways slavery can be woven into a D&D campaign. Good campaigns won't be left out in the cold, but evil and neutral campaigns will be given their due because anyone can rationalize taking advantage of others. For this reason, I will also assume any character in a campaign can be a master or slave. Too many books assume that only NPCs will be slaves (to be rescued) and only NPCs will be masters (to be brought down). When your group is on board and the story is in your hands, however, it can go any way you want.
Since I don't want to tread the same old ground, this article won't focus on the fantasy races typically associated with slavery in D&D, such as aboleths and neogi. Enough has been written about them already. I'm also not going to discuss details of historic slavery, nor will I strive for historical accuracy. Forced labor is a horror; research it at your own risk. I'm here to look at possibilities in fictional fantasy produced by and for adults.
As long as everyone in a group is comfortable with how it's presented, slavery can become a more frequent part of your D&D game or explored in a new way. So the first step is to consult with your group about what you'd like to explore. If someone is opposed, their voice should be respected. Even if everyone in a group agrees to try it out, you should see how they feel as the campaign progresses. And if at any point it becomes too disturbing, stop. You're gaming with equals who deserve your respect, and they should be treated as such.
At first glance, slavery doesn't seem like a practical way to get rich or stay that way. The moral and emotional problems are bad enough (and they are considerable). When you add the time and effort it takes to obtain prisoners, make them work, and force them to stay put, the whole enterprise seems like it costs far more than it gains. And if we're talking about fantasy worlds where magic exists? Well, that seems to render the whole practice of slavery obsolete. After all, why worry about taking hostages when you can just cast prestidigitation to clean for an hour?
But people with magic are often in the top echelons of society, with the power to say what will be done with their spells. Why would they waste magic on house chores or reaping crops? Prisoners can be forced to work beyond eight hours a day, perhaps for the rest of their lives, and can't make demands. They also can't leave for a better deal, and some slaves are bound to have greater skills; just a few experts can bring in more cash. And people of many backgrounds and faiths can rationalize enslaving others.
And let's be honest: profit isn't the only reason that slavery continues. Most slave-owning societies have various motives for holding captives, and the more needs the prisoners seem to fulfill, the harder it is to give them up. So a Dungeon Master should choose at least three major reasons for a society to support slavery, and player characters who participate in the system should have multiple reasons, as well. They might just be excuses, diversions, or justifications, but there are reasons for the worst things that people do to each other. And since there are so many possible motivations to consider, I've categorized them according to the seven deadly sins.
Although overlords would never admit it, many of them take slaves out of sheer envy of what others possess. After all, lives and cheap manual labor aren't the only things that masters want, and there's so much more that a D&D character can offer. In fact, the very reputation of a people can lead to their downfall. Dwarves have traditionally been admired for their abilities with metal and stonework – and they've been raided time and again by those who want to exploit those skills. Their longer life-spans and hearty constitutions mean dwarves can be kept longer than other hostages. (It also means that they cost more to purchase.)
But envy doesn't just drive people to attack other races and kingdoms. It also compels them to take what they can from their neighbors, and it doesn't take much to summon the green-eyed monster. People who live next to natural resources are likely targets. Those who own beautiful land or possessions can be up for grabs, too. Sometimes downtrodden or mean-spirited neighbors will just be jealous that a village looks so damned happy, so warlords will attack and take slaves just to spite them.
Sometimes the jealousy of a god leads to slavery in the mortal realm. In most D&D settings, the gods are real and in communication with their worshipers - and if those who are given divine power don't obey, their abilities can be taken away from them. Deities also have their own personalities, histories, and rivalries, so clerics could be ordered to enslave worshipers of enemy gods. Not that all clerics mind, especially if they get to keep a few choice picks for themselves. But this could be an issue that causes clergy members to switch faiths or lose hope altogether.
D&D has a complex food chain and although slavery is a part of it, eating prisoners doesn't necessarily involve cannibalism (although it can, if your group is prepared to go there). Some creatures, such as aberrations, are infamous for keeping larders full of sentient beings waiting to be consumed. Escapees might be horribly traumatized, depending on how much they saw and how people were chosen for the feast. Some heinous masters rely on the slaves to choose the day's victims, or set up games to settle the matter, making prisoners feel guilty for the part they were forced to play.
By comparison, hostages taken for sacrifice might seem better off, depending on the deity and clerics involved. They could be killed quickly or tortured for days beforehand. Some gods require sacrifices on a regular basis, with few specific requirements: anyone faithful to a rival god might do. Sacrifices demanded out of the blue lead to frantic slave raids and sloppier tactics, since the god must be appeased right now.
But evil deities aren't the only ones who require living sacrifices. Neutral gods of the forest might require the ritual killing of any who harm the woods. A good god could ask their aged clerics to offer their lives to fuel rituals that benefit the community in rare, powerful ways. For good and neutral faiths, sacrifice is framed as a holy occasion and a great honor to those who lose their lives. Slaves calmed with drugs, fed well, and addressed with respect. Good and neutral deities prefer to rely on a minimum of bloodshed, so only one or a few captives will be kept at a time.
This can lead to some very interesting places in storytelling. If a species needs to consume sentient beings to live, is it evil for them to do so? Perhaps a neutral creature pays handsomely for a village's elderly or for their worst prisoners. Is a dragon's maw more evil than a death sentence carried out by an axe? And if a society knows that the gods demand lives to keep the crops growing and the sun burning, what else can they do but obey?
A thirst for coin and luxury is only the beginning of greed. Inanimate objects can be wonderful and flashy, particularly in D&D, but they can't really react to their situation. (Unless they're sentient, and most objects aren't.) The desire to own sentient beings is an intoxicating reason to hold others against their will, because going against their will is the whole point. It's a declaration of ultimate power to have control over someone's life and death, and the thrill of that power might not wear off for a while. If it does wear thin, there are always new people left to conquer and control.
Some slavers work as kidnappers first, grabbing noteworthy targets and holding them for ransom. A few slavers intend to keep their captives no matter what families can pay, along with anyone sent to bargain for their release. Other kidnappers would rather get the gold and be done with it, so they only set the ransom so high. Gauging the correct amount can involve skill checks, but if the price is too high, the target could end up enslaved permanently.
Greed-driven overlords often operate on extreme ends of the spectrum between miserliness and conspicuous consumption. On one hand, there's the mistress who is stretching her budget thin or who just wants to spend her money elsewhere. She sends out poorly equipped raiding parties to grab the easiest targets and spends the bare minimum on her prisoners' upkeep. Every captive is closely monitored, and any escapee faces terrible punishment for making the mistress spend extra gold to hunt them down.
On the other hand, there's the luxurious magnate who uses chattel to highlight his wealth. He funds organized and trained hunting parties who only bring back the cream of the crop (after selling the lesser catches for top dollar along the way). His slaves are then garbed and trained to be the envy of guests and other slaves, who think that captivity might be bearable when surrounded by such finery.
Sexual access is a well-known reason for keeping prisoners, but it's also one of the most potentially damaging to bring up in a game. Why? First, because sexual abuse does awful harm in real life, it can elicit powerful reactions, even in a fictional context. Second, enslaved people can't fully consent to activities with anyone who takes advantage of their condition (owners, guards, townsfolk who may turn them in, etc.): they can't safely say no or expect their wishes to be respected. This continues to taint the topic. Trying to reframe the issue to make it more bearable, such as casting it in a romantic light, can do more harm than good. But if people are held against their will, sometimes for generations, the issue will come up eventually. As I've discussed elsewhere before, you should talk it over with your group before it comes up during play.
Sexual interaction doesn't have to enter into the equation of forced labor at all, if you don't want it to. You could decide that the overlords don't wish to deal with pregnancy, sexual diseases, or other complications with their vassals, so sex with them is forbidden. Harsh penalties could keep it from happening very often. You could create a cultural taboo that makes the idea of sleeping with slaves contemptible because they are so much lower in status. Accusing an owner of sleeping with his slaves in that society would be a dangerous insult – perhaps to be avenged with duels and blood.
But if lust is a major reason for keeping captives in your campaign, then you can start with historical precedent and work outward from there. One of the more famous images of slavery is that of the harem, which holds women in service to a powerful man. In a fantasy setting, a woman of means can keep a harem or a wealthy couple could share one. A powerful group, like a guild, could maintain its own to serve members in good standing. Owners could grant access to their harem to whomever they wish. Only the wealthiest can afford to keep a private group of slaves just for their own sexual and entertainment purposes, however.
Which leads us to a common reason slavery: forced prostitution. For some pimps, it's not enough to manipulate sex workers until they hand over most of their money and are too scared to leave. Taking a person hostage, moving them away from their social ties, and stealing their official documents makes it a lot more difficult for them to flee. Owner-pimps can offer taboo people and services that earn more money and keep most of the profits for themselves. Those with upscale operations have to spend more to maintain their stable's attractiveness; those with everyday or rundown locations spend more or less than the minimum to keep their slaves alive, depending on many factors.
As long as your group is on board, your game can reflect different kinds of master/slave relationship. Lustful overlords may be kinder to those who provide their entertainment. Pleasure captives might be held in higher regard than most other vassals, kept healthy and safe, and have influence with their owners. They may be more likely to be freed after a term of service an owner's death and given rich parting gifts. They could be freed by producing children with their owner
Some slave owners are thoroughly convinced of their own superiority and assume that it's their birthright to rule over others. So they become kings of their own castles and take slaves instead of serfs. This motive also leads them to believe that they must take control, since they know what's best. Many conquerors twist the idea of noblesse oblige to include the need to take care of "lessers” who cannot handle themselves.
Wealth and noble titles aren't the only things that can lead to delusions of superiority. After years of adventuring, a party could have become powerful enough to take over a town – and all of the people in it. Perhaps they raise their children to follow in their footsteps. Or a group of evil wizards might believe that those of good alignment are naturally weak, pathetic fools. When children are registered with the wizards at the age of 10, they are tested for alignment and good kids are immediately enslaved. The prisoners are tested for alignment once a year until they reach the age of twenty; if they are evil for three years in a row, they are freed.
But the mechanics of D&D complicate this issue because not all characters are created equal – mechanical superiority can be measured through things like statistics and level. It's a cold, hard fact that some species in D&D are born with more abilities and bonuses than others. While it might take these races longer to develop), they start out on stronger footing. They could see their natural gifts as proof that they are meant to dominate weaker races, and when we consider the system, it's can see why. And sometimes, statistical superiority will win out.
Some slave owners would much rather leave the heavy lifting and dirty chores to someone they don't have to treat fairly. Sure, they could pay a free person to do it, but why? Slaves often maintain fine houses and keep things running smoothly so their masters can enjoy lives of leisure, and that leisure is important enough that the owners see it as their right, not a privilege that should be paid for.
Sloth is a strong motivation beneath some of the more decadent slave-faring societies, and it can definitely influence how they operate. Perhaps free men are paid for specialized labor, but lesser tasks (requiring less than 5 ranks in a skill) are unworthy of coin. Such masters might also pay little attention to what vassals are doing so long as their work is done on time and they are present for the morning roll call. After all, constant monitoring would require too much effort.
It doesn't take much effort to rationalize why one caste of society has to do the most work, or the worst kind. A creation myth can be turned against a group of people: since they were made last, they get to pick up the tab. Maybe clerics blame a local tribe for offending the God of Plenty and declare ownership of the tribesfolk for 50 generations to work off the insult. A band of refugees could end up enslaved just for showing up on the wrong doorstep looking for protection. Truly slothful slavers will make any excuses they need to obtain prisoners close to home.
Taking slaves to humiliate them is an ancient practice and was a potent fear in historical wars. Andromache, the wife of the Trojan hero Hector, had every reason to be afraid of her husband's death and even more reason to fear enslavement if her people lost. As the wife of Troy's greatest warrior, she was already a target for those who wanted to strike against her husband. When Troy fell, her infant son was thrown from the walls; Andromache and Hector's brother Helenus were taken prisoner. They're an example of just how conquered the Trojan people had become, and how slavery can be featured in your game.
Historical armies were also known to press people into service, whether they wanted to be involved or not. Anyone they could grab was put to work rowing in the galleys or fighting in whatever conflict was going on at the time. Prisoners might not be combat-ready but their lives were certainly expendable, and any extra labor would help ready all of the supplies that were needed. When battles were done, survivors might be given a choice between death or continuing to fight on behalf of their conquerors. If they are offered freedom, it won't be until after the war is over, and it might not happen even then.
Wrath-based slavery may not last as long as some other types. The mortality rate of slave-soldiers is high, especially since citizens usually get first dibs on healing. Prisoners can also escape in the fray of a battlefield more easily than just about any other circumstance, although prized vassals (like Andromache) are known too well to sneak away. Hostages kept for humiliation might be freed through bargaining after the thrill of tormenting them is gone.
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