Crime Scene Sunday: Slavery

One regular feature of this Web log is Crime Scene Sunday, in which the author examines some form of criminal activity, considers how a villain may use that particular crime in a Dungeons & Dragons game, and provides one or more examples of that particular misdeed in a D&D campaign setting. As the name implies, such entries are posted on Sunday.

This week’s crime is slavery, in the forms it took during ancient and Medieval history.

The Merriam-Webster online Dictionary defines the term slaver as “a person engaged in the slave trade,” without mentioning whether or not the slave trade is legal. During the Ancient and Medieval periods, there were numerous ways people could end up as slaves, some of which were perfectly legal, such as becoming a slave to settle an unpaid debt; such circumstances are not the topic of this post. Rather, we will focus on the criminal taking and trafficking of slaves, which by definition can only take place in nations where the practice is illegal.

For a D&D villain unconstrained by the bindings of morality, forcibly taking otherwise free creatures as slaves provides certain practical benefits. First, keeping captured slaves is a very cost-effective way of augmenting a villain’s work force, as no funds were spent to acquire them and no funds must be paid to retain them, apart from meager sustenance requirements. A second option involves not retaining possession of the slaves at all; by selling them to unscrupulous third parties, such as the races of the Underdark, humanoid slaver gangs on the surface or representatives of evil nations where slavery is legal, a villain can develop an income stream for unrelated purposes.

In a D&D game, slaving operations can appear in a wide range of sizes, from an opportunitistic bandit gang on a minor road willing to sell live captives as slaves, to a clandestine international slaving empire, operating under the very noses of the governments that seek to eliminate it. Regardless of size, every illegal slaving organization has the same basic needs:

  • A source of slaves. This seems obvious, but selecting the source of slaves is an important consideration for a villain. In order for the slaver gang to prosper, it must be able to capture slaves quickly, but in a manner that will evade detection by ruling authorities. Typically, sources include impoverished folk living in outlying areas or the poorest city quarters, those least likely to be noticed missing. Some slave captors instead wait for opportunities to attack when victims are isolated, such as when traveling on a desolate stretch of road, or on a ship upon the high seas.
  • A method of capture. The most common method is brute force, but there are other approaches. A corrupt ship captain may voice a willingness to take passengers to an overseas destination, then simply sail right to a slavery ring’s island to sell them. Another option could involve a slaver agent pretending to hire a large group of workers for an imaginary construction project, then clamping them in irons as soon as the caravan leaves town. In a D&D setting, magical compulsion may even be used.
  • A secret place to hold slaves after capture. This is also obvious, but a necessary factor for the dungeon master (DM) to consider, as heroes intent upon stopping a slave gang will eventually have to visit this place, either as captives or liberators.
  • A method of transport. The slavers must find an unobtrusive manner of transporting slaves through territory where it is illegal to possess them, en route to either their holding facilities or to buyers. Commonly, this activity is done during off-hours, under cover of darkness, or through terrain rarely traveled, but an especially well-connected slaver may have standing bribes for trade officials willing to look away while the slaves are transported through otherwise legal channels.
  • One or more buyers. The DM must also decide where the captured slaves are sold, as heroes questing to stop the slavers may seek to free the slaves from their new owners. For some slaver organizations, one buyer is enough; Underdark races need an endless supply of slaves for excavation, for example. Other groups, especially the largest slaver rings, may have multiple buyers, including gladiator schools, brothels, slave dealers from evil nations or pirates.

Involving the heroes

A party of D&D heroes can encounter illegal slavery at any point in their adventuring careers, with the slavers as either the primary adversary (as was the case with the “A Series” of modules from the first edition of the AD&D game) or as a secondary threat (as it was in the “H Series” of modules for the current edition). In any case, heroes can become involved when they learn of a slave gang’s presence and choose to go after them, when the slavers abduct someone important to the heroes, or if the slavers attempt to capture the heroes.

The DM must also decide if the taking of slaves is the primary or secondary motive of the villain. In one of this writer’s campaigns, for example, the heroes spent their first seven experience levels pursuing and breaking a ring of slavers, only to discover that most of the profits from the slaving operation were channeled to an evil wizard, who was using the funds for very disturbing research that could lead to the collapse of kingdoms.

(edit, nine hours later)

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


4 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Slavery

  1. max.elliott says:

    nicely done.

    In our current game the PC’s are good aligned and from a city that has a system of slavery, mostly half-orcs. One of the gnome PC’s keeps a “manservant” (she refuses to call him a slave) mostly for the purpose of keeping him out of harsher circumstances. One of the PC’s is extremely bigoted, reflecting the attitude of the city around him. They’re going to have to deal with the implications later on, but it promises to be a deep game.

  2. Slavery can be a difficult issue but it is one of the evil that has existed throughout most of history. It does make an excellent crime though as it is something that most people want to stop.

    If an evil overlord uses slave labor, it will cost a bit more than you imply as he will have to assign guards to keep the slaves controlled. Just a minor nitpick. *wink*

    I wrote on the moral dilemma of including slavery in a game here:

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