Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Slavery as a Moral Trap

Today I will provoke you with an issue that goes completely below the line of sight of most Game Masters and players. What’s that issue? Slavery.

Slavery is common for most fantasy RPG systems. In fact, many fantasy worlds are some variation on medieval or ancient times, when slavery was more or less accepted. Slavery appears in these worlds in a variety of ways ranging from classic slavery and indentured servitude to the semi-slavery of serfdom, binding common folks to the land.

Considering the length of recorded human history, slavery has only really been outlawed by most of the civilized world fairly recently (the last 200 years or so). That said, slavery exists even today in the modern world in dark places ruled by the power hungry and even to a certain extent in some modern corporations.

Most people raised in Western culture are sensitive to human rights. As such, we recognize slavery as diametrically opposed to the concepts of freedom and liberty for all. So today, as opposed to 200 or more years ago, slavery is very wrong to us.

But let’s jump back to how characters in fantasy roleplaying games perceive slavery.

There’s a strange paradox in RPGs. Most players accept slavery as a part of the world their characters exist in as long as it doesn’t affect them directly. These same players who silently accept slavery in a fantasy world, will fight against it when they will have opportunity to interact with it in the real world.

Typically, slavery is connected with a character’s background in some way. For example, if a PC is an escaped slave, he has plenty of motives to support every aspect of freedom for others while protecting his own. This kind of character can be useful to the GM since he or she will oppose almost every sign that freedom is being deprived from another intelligent being. An escaped slave will defend the rights of the weak against the goals of the strong because might does not make right.

A character like this can make keeping the game moving fairly easy, but these characters can also be very difficult to run. Any sort of fanaticism creates space for possible complications. But… what if you as GM could use slavery in a slightly different way.

Put your players in a situation that involves slavery, but let them decide what to do about it. Even if none of the PCs were affected by slavery directly, they can deal with it in a more subtle way.

I did it to my players once. And story goes like this.

It was a campaign with two players, both of whom had difficulty accepting slavery during the game. But even though their characters had no opportunities to interfere with ongoing slavery in the world, they believed much the same as we do today: slavery is wrong.

They came to the home of an older, 50+ year old NPC. He owns a big house & plantation in the middle of a country which sees slavery as something normal.

He is an amazing host – generous, funny, intelligent and well-mannered. In my group, both of the player characters had different backgrounds: one was a thief and the other a knight. And even though each had a different point of view, after many sessions they started to recognize that each had a kind of code of honor. And this was the basis for a relationship in which they could trust each other.

So the host appeared in much the same way to the characters. For the knight he had stories about great battles he once fought; for the thief he had interesting philosophical observations.

And slavery? It was still there in the background, but after a few days on the plantation the players forgot about the slaves. After not seeing any brutality or terror so often connected with the treatment of slaves, they started to treat them as… normal servants. The characters dove into the world of their host – comfortable, full of joy. And they really started to like the guy quite a bit.

And then, one night, the slaves rebelled.

I put my players in a difficult position. Will their characters support the violence of the slave uprising? Or will they defend the house of their host and his family?

To the player characters, the slaves were a completely unknown group of people – largely faceless and nameless. And now those same people were an angry mob trying to destroy the life of their friend the slave owner, burning his home and killing his family. If the situation was different, the players may have joined the rebelling slaves because their fight was just.

And the slave owner had become a friend to the PCs – a person they got to know quite well while spending a few days with him and his lovely family.

So the PCs (and their players) were left in a predicament. Would they support the slaves’ violent bid for freedom? Or would they support the slave owner in quelling the rebellion?

I did not leave the players too much time to decide. I convinced them that the rebels would be dangerous for them as well. Why? Well, they were guests in the house of a slave owner. The mob of rebelling slaves was angry and bloodthirsty. There was no time for negotiations. But the PCs knew that their host had quite a big group of guards. There was a slim possibility he would be able to defend his home, without the PCs getting involved.

And what did my players do? They decided to… run away. They described their situation and point of view to me with very angry words.

Did they act like heroes during this adventure? What do You think? What would you have done differently?

Consider using moral traps like this to force your players’ hands from time to time. It offers a great chance for roleplaying and a little taste
of the brutal reality some of the fictional situations might bring about.

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3 comments to Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Slavery as a Moral Trap

  • Rod Batten

    This is an issue that I have mixed feelings about, not the existence of slavery in ancient times and fictional settings, but using a game situation to to put players in a morally uncomfortable situation.

    Personally, I like your scenario. I agree that slavery is wrong, etc., but it’s a historical fact and can provide an interesting social perspective in a fictional setting.

    On the one hand your players already knew the situation vis-a-vis the existence of slavery in the milieu, so they’ve already signed up for this and should expect some situations to be morally uncomfortable. On the other hand, I disagree with putting the players in moral situations which make them upset. It’s still a game and games should be about having fun, not about real-life moral crises.

    They did have fair warning, though. In the end it’s not about whether the characters acted like heroes or not, it’s more about whether or not the players had a good time, and they may have to sort through a few feelings to figure out if the experience was rewarding.

    The characters with a sense of honour should really have tried to rescue their host, though.

  • It is a difficult subject. It is easy to forget how common and widespread slavery has been in history, even existing in medieval Europe as echo of which is the default fantasy setting.

    I wrote about this subject in my Game Theory series: Moral Dilemmas: Slavery

    As to the players in your setup there, it is hard to say how one would have reacted without having played through the game. But, by not taking action and running away, they did not act much as heroes though it is difficult to know what would have been heroic there.
    Sean Holland recently posted…RPGNow Discounts – Through early DecemberMy Profile

  • Digganob

    It is important to me that a player can separate himself from his character. Realize and understand that what is happening in the game is fictitious (the specific events you’re playing out; not the whole reality of slavery), and have your characters react as they should based on their personalities. Of course, you first have to design a character who isn’t you.

    What I see as a problem (others would disagree) is that too many players think of their character as “Me with special powers”. I think the characters should have their own moral obligations, goals, beliefs, hopes and dreams, completely detached from those of the players. Understand that playing a character who isn’t always a “good guy” (however you personally define that) doesn’t make you a bad person, any more than writing a book about an evil overlord. Actors don’t [usually] play themselves in movies, and writers don’t always write about characters with their own set of ethics and principles.

    Have fun exploring the questions of “What would this type of person do in this situation”, and play it out in character. It won’t turn you evil . . . Really.

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