Slavery in RPG Campaigns: Making a Case for Inclusion

Slavery in RPG Campaigns: Making a Case for Inclusion

Slavery.

slavery
A master leading his slave. [“Iron Ring Slaves” art by Jason Engle]
I want to let that hang there for a minute, because this is going to be a pretty serious topic. I want everyone to know this is going to be held with extreme gravity.

Slavery is a thing that’s been a problem throughout human history as much as it is exists in modern a fantasy tabletop RPG campaign like D&D.

It’s not necessarily everywhere, but it’s in there. Slavery is a subject included in these entries in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual: on page 5 (under towns and cities), and described in the aboleth, azer (the efreeti attempted to enslave them), beholders, bugbears, devils, red dragons, driders, duergar, drow, fomorian, genies, fire giants, gith, grimlock, hags, hobgoblins, jackalweres, kuo-toa, lamia, mind flayers, mummies, salamanders, yuan-ti, and even the commoner.

It’s in there.

Before I start, I also want to note I don’t condone slavery, in any form. Slavery isn’t just the forced bondage we think of that existed in ancient Egypt, Rome, and in the United States until December 18th, 1865. Slavery also includes things like human trafficking and child slavery. There is also wage slavery, which includes sweatshops and victims of caste systems.

Make no mistake, there is still slavery in the contemporary period, in all of its most vile forms. It’s something we all, as human beings, need to ensure is finally eradicated in every form, but this isn’t the forum for that.

Despite that, I do believe slavery has its place in tabletop RPGs. As I mentioned in a previous article, tabletop RPGs are good for social exploration. They allow us to experience things in a safe environment. It’s in that safe environment we can confront the worst parts of humanity, and allow us to decide how we’re going to react to it. Not just how we act in the face of confrontation, but what our emotional reaction is, and what we take away from it.

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Duergar from fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons

Moreover, at least in the fifth edition D&D Monster Manual, slavery is associated with the evil alignments. It’s presented in the most negative light.

The duergar go from slaves to slavers, “darkening their spirits to make the duergar as evil as the tyrants they had escaped.”

This also establishes the moral stance that evil begets evil, and your actions have consequences beyond the decisions you make. Each of the entries in the Monster Manual that include slavery has some similar morality lesson about the evils of slavery. D&D, in this way, is continuing a tradition of providing cultural values through storytelling that has long since been intertwined in myths, legends, and literature, especially as its extension of the foundations set forth by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Making sure it fits the campaign

As a whole, I highly encourage GMs to include those very negative aspects of humanity. But I say so with a caveat – the group has to be able to accept it. There are many barriers involved in including content like slavery in an RPG campaign from being effective. Not everyone is going to be able to effectively handle it, nor is it always appropriate. And there’s no one single reason why.

Before you start, make sure inclusion is right for your campaign. Make sure it fits the tone. If your RPG campaign is mostly light-hearted, with lots of idyllic adventures and scenarios, introducing something dark may be counterproductive. It’ll be unsettling and off-putting. Your players won’t accept it, and it frankly won’t fit the truth of the world you’ve built.

Making sure RPG players fit

If you’re going to have slavery in your game, consider whether your group is mature enough to handle it, or whether they’ll outright reject it. People may surprise you, sure, but the effect is lost if no one considers the gravity of the situations being presented, or if they don’t take them seriously. Also bear in mind that age doesn’t equal maturity. Yes, you want to be precarious with younger players, and consider how you’ll present some subjects if you include them at all. But being an adult isn’t an automatic pass into maturity.

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Also, if you’re thinking about including things that are potentially traumatic, which includes slavery in all its various forms, make sure that everyone is comfortable with the content that you want to include.

Talk with your players, but don’t do it in an open setting. What you want to include may not be something they want to deal with in public. If a player is very sensitive about child abuse, for whatever reason, they may not speak up in the group. It may be too painful, and they may feel embarrassed to talk about it.

I would highly suggest that if you’d like to include those kinds of themes, sit down with each player one-on-one in a comfortable, and private, environment, and ask them questions about the kinds of things that they’d prefer to not see in an RPG campaign. Don’t announce in advance it’s something you’re considering to the whole group. There’s a chance that your players may be on the lookout for missing subjects if no one speaks up in the group, where it seemed like everyone was okay with the direction in public. That might cause undue tension or discomfort.

Making sure everyone’s on the same page

Since my style is to include many different facets of the human condition, positive and negative, and to pull from as many sources as I can, I prefer to talk with my players before session zero. I talk with each of them and work out what they’re comfortable with.

Notice that I didn’t say what they can handle. What they’re comfortable with. I start by explaining to my players that I’d like to include things that could make some people uncomfortable in my campaign, like slavery. But I don’t want anyone to feel that way, so I’m asking what they would prefer I avoid.

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Demons in D&D can make great villains. But humans can be just as cruel and evil on their own.

Especially if they don’t say anything, I’ll start listing possible scenarios, like maybe they’ll notice a child that’s trying to cover her bruises, and you investigate, finding out she gets them when trying to protect her younger brother from being sexually abused by a trusted local hero. Maybe I’ll make that hero be possessed by a demon, or he’s actually some evil race in disguise. Or maybe he’s just an evil person that does good things to cover up all the bad he does, and maybe to bring everyone’s guard down around him.

If a player doesn’t start listing things then I’ll check in with them one more time at our sit-down, and a few more times after that, to give them a chance to mull it over.

If I don’t get any pushback, then I’ll move forward, but I’ll never stop being on the lookout for whether I’m starting to cross a line when negative scenarios start popping up.

Be careful how you handle slavery

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American History X by New Line Cinema, starring Edward Norton

You can’t include those things all the time. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the darker, and more evil, a topic is, the less frequently they should be included. I love exploring the darkest depths of humanity as much as the next guy, but even I have a limit on how much of it I can handle.

As an example, I love the movie “American History X.” It’s a masterpiece of American cinema, but it’s a hard film to watch, and I’ve only seen it maybe two or three times. I’ll gladly sit down and watch total fluff like the “Fast and the Furious” series, and my personal favorite movies are both volumes of the “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

In fact, I would say that I watch at least 70 percent light-hearted films, about 25 percent faux dark films (like the Dark Knight trilogy), and the last 5 percent are the things that delve into parts of ourselves that we’d rather not face.

If I watched nothing but things that made me hate being a human being, I wouldn’t be able to have any perspective. Not to mention that part of narratives are to reinforce positive values. While shining a light on the negative aspects, and making sure we understand why they’re bad, there’s only so much of it we can really take in at a time.

Make sure when you’re presenting something dark like slavery in an RPG that you do it justice. Please do the research. These are things real people have had to go through in the past, and things many still do. Slavery, in all its forms, just like the other truly evil aspects of humanity, needs to be taken seriously in your game.

Make sure you have a clear understanding of the form of slavery you’re going to include in your RPG campaign, and the system that sustains it. It has to ring true. If it’s hollow, then there’s no point in including it, and it ruins the overall effect.

I hope this is something that you consider for your game, even if what you decide doesn’t work for you or your group.

Until next time, stay nerdy!

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Despite looking so young, I’m in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life’s direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor’s in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I’m turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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