Game Theory – Moral Dilemmas: Slavery

30 August, 2009

Did you know this last Sunday, 23 Aug, was the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition?  Neither did I until I ran across it on wikipedia.  (Blame the convoluted title on UNESCO.)

It made me think about the role of slavery in RPGs.  Many -if not most- of the cultures used as  inspiration for those in fantasy RPGs practiced slavery (or related ways to control people such as serfdom or indentured servitude) but such features are often notably absent from game worlds.  This is understandable as slavery is an uncomfortable subject at the best of times.

Cultures in RPGs who allow slavery are often fantasy shorthand for “evil empire” but most historical cultures who had slaves did not consider themselves evil (and we do not look back on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome as primarily evil either, for example).   Slavery was never a good thing but some forms of slavery were worse than others, such as that based on physical characteristics such as skin color.  Most forms of slavery had some form of ‘out’, some way that a slave could become a free person again.  This was more effective when the freed person could blend into the people around them, leaving their past behind, and much more difficult if you are marked by your skin as a person suitable for being a slave in the eyes of the majority of the people around you.

In a fantasy world, it is easy to see how racial slavery could become common.  After all if goblins are “naturally inferior” they should be slaves, the argument would run.  How do you know they are “naturally inferior”?  Well, they are not like us, right?  And they look strange and do not speak our language, and whatever other quasi-reasonable argument someone wants to make.  Even an otherwise Good country could turn to slavery, especially during war time, if workers are needed in the mines and using prisoners in this risky work saves citizens and frees up soldiers for the field . . . and once such a system is established it become difficult to dismantle, after all, working in the mines is still dangerous.  Would it not be better to risk the lives of slaves rather than those of good citizens?

Slavery was often justified by those who practiced it as helping to civilize those taken as slaves.  What could be more lawful (or, arguably, more good) then bringing the benefits of civilization to those denied it?  It could a challenge (or an impossibility) to convince a slave holding culture that slavery is evil.  Most such cultures found ways to justify slavery as best for both slave owner and slave(!).  Working against such beliefs is difficult and, often, dangerous as major slave owners are usually wealthy and powerful people.  But that is what heroes do, take on impossible odds because that is what is right.

In other words, playing the forces of the anti-slavery cause is likely to be morally rewarding but physically and politically dangerous.  Even challenging it in small ways, such as freeing your own slaves, is likely to attract unwanted attention from those in power who rely on slavery.  Now, people might not choose to challenge slavery -either directly or indirectly- relegating it simply to a background element, albeit an unpleasant one, of the campaign.  After all, not everyone is interested in playing morality tales.

Slavery can have a place in games but if it is to be the focus of a story or campaign, it must be used carefully as it is a highly charged subject.  Consult with your players before moving slavery to center stage to make certain that it is a theme they wish to explore.

Have you used slavery effectively in your campaign?  Have you had character lead the fight against slavery?  How did it go?

  • Author’s Note: Apart from the traditional fantasy RPGs there is Steal Away Jordan by Julia Bond Ellingboe and published by Stone Baby Games.  It is a RPG where the characters are slaves the antebellum American South.  Certainly not a game for everyone but a unique perspective on slavery in the RPG world.


  1. Right now I’m in process of designing a couple of settings that both include slavery and not necessarily just by “evil” societies. I don’t really like to buy into the concept of the existence of evil societies anyhow. That’s too easy.

    One of them is a renaissance-type setting where slavery exists but is not universal, and is not based on the species of the slave. It will probably be an issue for some PCs, but doesn’t look like changing that part of society is likely to be a major plot point. I could see some PCs making it at least a subplot though.

    The other is more industrial revolution in flavor, and has powerful industrialized nations involved in colonialism and global empire-building a la the 19th century on Earth. While slavery is illegal “back home” for these folks, a lot of their colonies and proxies do practice slavery while the self-righteous or hypocritical folks back home turn a blind eye to this practice that they wouldn’t want in their own back yards. It may well become an issue in that setting, but I could see it never really being an issue also.

    • Sounds like some good campaign worlds there, hope to hear more about how they play.

      Yes, if slavery is not blatant, such as in the Roman Empire, it is surprisingly easy to ‘sweep under the carpet’ and ignore. In your industrial campaign you could, potentially, surprise the characters by the use of slavery by their own country.

  2. I play a large-scale live-action game where there’s lots of nations represented. Some of the nations have slavery as part of their culture, although none of them have slavery of another race or slavery of an ethnic minority.

    I’m often amazed at how ingrained the “real-world” dislike of slavery spills over into the fictional world. My character comes from a nation which endorses slavery, and his response has always been “I really don’t know how you do without slaves” when the subject comes up. That said, he is part of a multicultural group and holds no slaves of his own (he’s stoney broke.)

    I’ve often wondered about the idea of setting up a slave-market in that game, and actively buying and selling slaves. It strikes me as a fascinating concept to role-play, and given the knee-jerk reaction of “slavers=evil” I’m sure there’d be a lot of interesting interactions.

    • Yes, characters within a different world would have differing views on slavery from us. Many would not even think about it, it is just the way things are.

      It would be interesting to see a highly principled slaver in that sort of situation, i.e. one trying to ensure his slaves end up in positions that are suiting to them, treating them well, and so on. A good and honest man in what many see as a evil trade.

  3. I am running a campaign (D&D 3.5) where one of the nations has a long-standing system of inherited debt coupled with indentured servitude. Most, but not all, of the “servants” are human and all of the “owners” are elves. The system was once more widepsread, but over the centuries a competing political/economic system led to the development of a merchant/middle-class for humans, and is now restricted to a single country.

    The heroes found themselves in the middle of a political struggle between the BBEG, who is an elven lord from the slave-owning country and his former slave, who is leading a rebellion in a recently-founded “free” state to the south. Although one of the players is, in fact, a former slave (though not of the main bad guy), the political struggle is not their own – they have nothing vested in ending or hindering the slavery practice.

    They stumbled upon the conflict by investigating a missing ship and finding that it had been waylaid because the BBEG knew that his former slave’s 12-year-old daughter was on it. They, of course, rescued her, and said BBEG’s attention turned to them.

    One of the decisions they had to make as part of the campaign was whether turn her over in order to ensure the safety not only of themselves, but also their own loved ones. It really was a no-brainer, because with one exception none of the characters would even consider it, and I knew that none of the players would be willing to do it either. But I’ll give them credit, they role-played the debate thoroughly – it wasn’t just a declaration that, “No, of course we wouldn’t do that.” They weighed the possibilities of what could happen to them, or to their own family members or allies.

    In the end, although all the characters would like to bring down the system based upon the inherited servitude, they all recognize that there’s really no feasible way for them to do it. The best they can do is to stop this one elven lord, and possibly make friends within his circle in an effort to undermine him. But he’s not even the guy in control, he’s just one of many, and as a result it is an intractable problem with no solution available to them. Along the way, they’ve had to confront the fact that at points they’ve been killing slaves who have been forced to fight, and ones who aren’t willing to simply turn and run away because it means leaving family members behind to take their punishment.

    And now, more than half a year of weekly gaming sessions, they’re starting to see that the “new” political system, of a league of “free” trading cities, isn’t all that morally superior, with exploitation of the “free” underclass, colonialism, and the like.

    • Sounds like a good campaign. Contrasting moralities is always fun. For an interesting historical example, the slave-holders of the Antebellum American South argued that their slavery was better than the “wage slavery” of the North. It should not be hard to find some of their arguments if you want to have the some of the elves debate the morality of the “free state”.

      • One of the PCs is a priest of a church that condemns both the systems and advocates the responsibility of the hale and wealthy to aid the sick and poor. I would find it difficult to run an NPC who argues for the moral rightness of the servitude (my lawyer’s training to play devil’s advocate only goes so far), but I can show that the “good” system isn’t all that great either. The tension is a developing undercurrent even if it is not at the forefront.

  4. Interesting topic. Thanks for putting it up.

    I’m currently playing a character in a 3.5 D&D game who’s an escaped slave. The GM has set up a world where slavery is illegal in the Northern area of the world and legal in the “Free States” of the Southern area. My character escaped from the south to the north and lives in dread of being taken back.

    It would’ve been easy to create a character who is blindly “anti-slavery”. Instead, I looked at history. Just about every culture of the world has practiced some form of slavery at some time or another. Galen was born a slave — to him, slavery is as much a part of the world as death and taxes and just as impossible to eradicate. He’s still trying to figure out how the Northern countries function without it.

    • Yes, that is much what my research found, that slavery has a long and widespread history.

      I ran an escaped slave who was strongly anti-slavery but that came as much -if not more- from his religious views than his experiences as a slave. But he was wise enough not to attack the system directly but by undermining its legitimacy through his preaching and mastery of theology. A very fun character.

  5. Slavery was included in the first edition of Tunnels and Trolls with rules for acquiring slaves to serve as servants of the dungeon delvers. Almost nobody ever bothered with it. It quietly faded out of all the following editions. Although, the world description for Trollworld clearly states that the Nagas keep human slaves, and the slaves are proud to be servants there. The far easter lands of the gargoyles and humans are all slave. They all serve the dragon ruler of the land, but within their slavery they have as many classes as would exist in a normal society.

    The problem with slavery is that it usually requires guards. Delvers and adventurers can’t afford the effort to be guarding their slaves down in a dungeon–that would get them killed one way or another. Hence, slavery and standard frp gaming don’t really go together very well.
    –Ken St. Andre

    • Mr. St. Andre, thank you for commenting.

      As an aside, I used to play the hell out of the T&T Solo Adventures and played briefly in a pbm T&T game you ran, many years ago.

      As the Empress would say, “Of couse the dragons rule, anything else would be unthinkable.” A good point about the adventuring lifestyle and slaves.

  6. […] There is an outstanding post on the institution of slavery in an RPG over at Sea of Stars; check it out by clicking here. […]

  7. I came over from Crime Scene Sunday.

    I just recently read a bit on slavery in the Roman Empire. It’s fascinating, and hard to wrap your brain around. According to the author (I’m not widely enough read on the subject to know if this is well-supported), slaves in that time weren’t considered human. So, they were not accorded human rights. By our standards, they were used and abused horribly. But, by the standards of the day, it wasn’t bad. No worse than hitching a horse to a plow and whipping it to make it break the ground, say.

    I’ve toyed with the notion of slavery in my campaign world. One nation, an Amazonian feminism-gone-terribly-wrong place, has a law that any woman who sets foot on the islands is instantly free. Any man is instantly a slave. For many years, most of the leadership of the nation was made up of women who had escaped terrible marriages or abusive slavery, and so they had an understandable hatred of men.

    One nation has an interesting arrangement. Slavery is legal. And, further, the nation will take prisoners from the other nations, as slaves to work in the massive salt mines.

    Another nation is very Celtic in nature, including Celtic notions of slavery (which is relatively egalitarian, and most importantly is not inherited).

    A couple nations decry slavery and outlaw it. And, yet, practice the kind of serfdom and wage slavery that is different only in that, technically, the people can choose to leave at any time. Of course, they would be incredibly lucky to have any money, and are unlikely to have any skills that would help them survive. But, they are technically free.

    The one topic I keep shying away from, though, is sex and slavery. One of the topics in the essay I mentioned above was that masters could, and almost invariably did, use their slaves as sex toys. Even freed slaves would still carry that stigma, that they had been forced to do all sorts of things that were taboo for citizens. I feel like avoiding the issue is just whitewashing the situation. And, yet, I think the issue is likely a little too tricky and sensitive for a gaming situation.

    • Both the Greeks and Romans were of the view that slavery reflected poorly on the morality of the slaves(!). After all, if they were truly strong moral people, they would never have let themselves become slaves, right? Even freed slaves suffered from that stigma that they were somewhat less that full people.

      Slavery is always an evil, but there are worse forms of it than others.

      Honestly and sadly, history is full of abuses by those in power against those with none and that often includes sexual exploitation. It is difficult enough to confront in history, let alone in a gaming situation.

  8. I’m not running anything currently, but if I do soon it will certainly include mamluk type slavery and debt-bondage. And slavery reflecting poorly on the morality of the slaves(!) is certainly a terrible thing, but (a) very human and (b) fraught with roleplaying possibilities.

    An often overlooked aspect of middle passage slavery is how very dangerous it was for the slavers, many of whom were hardly in enviable situations themselves: Marcus Rediker says survival rates among slavers were at best proportional to those of the slaves (although obviously there were far fewer slavers dying if you look at absolute numbers, since there were fewer slavers than slaves). His The Slave Ship is an extremely interesting, though far from disinterested, account.

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