Sunday, March 13, 2011


I know people hate the whole discussion of killing orc babies and genocide and whatnot.  I understand folks not wanting their imagined worlds getting so heavy.  And luckily with fantasy, the "personess" of orcs can be avoided by having them vat-grown or hatched or such.  But many, many human cultures had slaves and eventually my players will run into a similar culture in my game.  I was wondering what your experiences have been in your campaigns where players encountered slaves.

Did players purchase and own slaves?  Did they want to free all the slaves and get frustrated when they realized how impossible that would working against a whole culture?  Or maybe that became the point of the campaign?

Here is an unrelated color pic for your time.  Public domain.


  1. I'm one of those people that de-humanize the humanoid monsters in my game. It's not to remove the serious elements of people being inhuman to each other; I actually prefer a game that gets to deal with those situations where the conflict is human vs human. Having a human culture with issues of slavery is within bounds. Having an orc empire with human slaves makes it too easy to just hate the orcs. Adults should deal with adult issues without monsters in man-suits removing the complexity.

    (The other issue, valid when gaming with kids, is not having to deal with kids roleplaying adventurers chopping up orc mommies and babies, which just doesn't belong on a table with 8 and 9 year olds).

    On the issue of modern gamers dealing with cultural norms of a different era - I'd have a frank out-of-game conversation with the players and ask how they want it go. Do they prefer to assume it's part of the expected morality of the setting or would they rather play as outsiders to those cultural norms?

  2. I ran a short campaign once based on a fantastic version of the Roman empire. The players there saw human and humanoid slaves and just accepted it as a cultural norm. They neither attempted to free the slaves nor bought any; although that may have happened, I guess, if the campaign had been longer running. They were more annoyed at the perceived restrictions on women and their rights within a classical setting.

    I have a history of dealing with the adult ethical issues in my worlds in a pretty frank way and, as much as they may not have liked it, my players have accepted committing acts of genocide against irredeemably evil creatures from time to time, based on the concept of greater good.

  3. I ran a pretty long campaign in a human only world modeled after the Conan-o-verse. Slavery was everywhere. The players had some interesting involvement.

    Seeing slaves running around, fetching water or harvesting crops, didn't really phase them. However, when they killed some big important rich evil guy, it got them involved. Some of the more rowdy states had traditions in which when you killed someone, you legally acquired all of the property they owned. This included slaves.

    Suddenly the players owned slaves. Many they freed at a cost. Letters of manumission had a substantial cost - the powers that be had no interest in freeing slaves. But there were many slaves who had no idea how to survive when freed. The players kept running into people they had 'rescued,' that were on the streets, begging for scraps, and cursing the names of those who had granted them 'salvation.'

    Eventually, the players settled on giving the ex-slaves buckets of gold to go get trained in a trade that could actually make them money. That worked well enough to ease the player's consciousnesses.

    Freeing slaves never became a focus of the campaign - just a side effect of killing bad guys. Their activities did destabilize entire areas though, throwing economies out of wack and allowing raging barbarians to invade and take advantage of the situation. For every one good thing they did, ten bad things resulted. But then again, it wasn't supposed to be a nicey-nicey campaign. :)

    They never did actually purchase a slave, though.

    - Ark

  4. In my current campaign, one of the guys is an ex-slave. He is fiercely opposed to slavery, so he kinda dominates the group's decisions when slavery comes up. It hasn't had a huge impact though, since they haven't yet traveled into areas where slavery is practiced.

    The rest of the group doesn't really seem to have too many problems with it, but they respect the wishes of the ex-slave.

  5. Player Characters in my game enslave monsters and npcs left and right. That and steal horses. It's more lucrative than adventuring, also less risky.

  6. Played in one campaign and pretty much ruined it when I (playing a lawful cleric) purchased a slave captured in war brought him to the sea and drowned him as tribute to the sea god...most of the other players flipped out. The DM was cool with it as it fit the culture he had presented but some of the other players couldn't deal with it at all and fractures between that games reality and the one they wanted to play in brought the campaign to a close within a few sessions.

    When DMing I usually paint slavery as the brutal and awful thing it really is myself.

  7. My current campaign has slavery as common practice. My players didn't know how to take it at first and kept wanting to free them. I had to explain to them a few times that their characters grew up in a society where slavery was normal and that they wouldn't think twice about it. A couple of players insist their characters still feel uneasy about it. I've yet to have any PCs purchase a slave, although they did recently sell some bandits into slavery. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the other players if one of them does buy a slave.

  8. Chaotic evil, henchman-abusing magic-user in the party. It's only a matter of time before some hapless NPC gets enslaved. And slavery is definitely part of the overall culture. I like how Ark's scenario played out.

  9. I find this a very interesting subject to introduce into the game and have been looking forward to the reaction when it comes up. Just to put a finer edge on it, in our current setting, the only slaves allowed are young orcs (they have a fine nose for rooting out a local delicacy). They're routinely "put down" before reaching full adulthood.

    I would think that the question of slavery would be naturally tied to the question of how women are viewed in that setting as well.

  10. This conversation is now skirting dangerously close to a discussion of John Norman's GOR novels.

  11. Any time I deal with it in my games, I'm careful to illustrate the vast difference between what a modern American thinks of when confronted by the term and what the reality was in the classical world. Slaves in Rome could own property and save up money to buy their own freedom, and many entered into it as a method of absolving debt.

    Also, one must remember that women's rights in the 19th century, 13th century and 1st century were extremely different from each other. In classical Rome, for example, women could own any type of property and often did.

  12. The local area of my campaign, like northern medieval Europe, is very much depopulated, and so with labor at a premium, slavery isn't really a factor. The slavery is more economic. Peasants are tied to the land and enter into a feudal patronage relationship with the local lord.

  13. I've played in games where slavery was a live issue and we've mostly just agreed to play in the world as it's presented. Personally I love to start a campaign with the PCs on a chain gang or similar and then the first order of business is to escape, but that kind of escape narrative is very different from the PCs owning slaves, and I've never had that happen.

    OTOH, I've found it very easy for the players to relax into the structures and attitudes of the worst kinds of plantation slavery: you just have to play Vampire or Amber or any one of those "small world" games, where only a few people matter and everyone else is fodder - ad generally in these games it's not written anywhere in the setting that non-specials are to be treated as chattel, but it happens all the time. And I've played in a really interesting game where both nobles and non-nobles were represented among both the PCs and NPCs (in a kind of hyped "medieval fantasy" setting), and I got a really clear sense of how dangerous is it to interact with people across a large power distance.

  14. I run a whole gamut of unequal labour practices (indentured servitude > serfdom > chattel slavery) IMG. That kind of thing is mainly in the cities though.

    Some of the players buy into the idea that "this is normal here"; some go more for the Spartacus "No man a slave!" schtick. None have elected to own other people, even though the option is there.

  15. Thanks for all the substantial responses. I'm digesting them.

    Overall, I want a dark gritty world. But as you allude to richard, I want no part in a game that underscores what I'd probably call evil behavior unconsciously

    Oddly, I see no problem making my world gender-equal, or relatively so. Characters and hirelings can be male or female with no penalty either way.

    @Beedo, I like what you say about not needing Orcs to stand in as simplified humans in regards to morality or ethical decisions. But that makes me curious what you see as the role of orcs in your world.

    And I don't mean this in a argumentative way. I think I'm on the same page as you and that's why humanoids and demi-humans have so far been MIA from my world. Except the weird other-worldy kobold-types.

  16. Many of the cultures in my current campaign practice slavery, it is an accepted thing among most of them, and types of slavery very widely. My players are accepting of the world as it is, some oppose slavery, some do not think about it but all know that it is a deeply seated part of the world and will not change easily.

    I talked about the problems of gaming slavery in my journal as well:

  17. Thanks, seaofstarsrpg, that was a thoughtful post and I think got to something that is at the root of my question (though I didn't know it when I asked), and that is many of the slaves that were treated better and even allowed ways out of slavery could "pass" in the slave owning culture. Unlike the slaves of our south and unlike orcs, goblins, and basically any fantasy humanoid/demi-human race. The difference in appearance is a huge factor.

  18. I posted a bit about how this works in my game over on Trollsmyth's. It didn't really seem to fit here, as this is stuff that no players have seen yet.

  19. Did I ever mention to you how very deadly middle passage slavery was for the slavers, as well as the slaves? Marcus Rediker says that mortality among slaves on the ships was terrible (they attracted trains of sharks, that became habituated to the slave passage routes) but that mortality among the slavers was at least proportional - smaller absolute numbers, of course, but similar life expectancy aboard.

    Something to consider in a world that derives its slaving from cultural distance: exotic slaves may mean exotic infections.

    BTW, it's heartening to see such a complex view of slavery around the gamerverse. This is a very special tribe.

  20. Thanks for the comments. Yeah, a nice bunch of folks to converse with.