The Subjugation of D&D Species

TRIGGER WARNING: This article includes subject matter relating to subjugation and slavery. The content below refers exclusively to the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game and does not reference or discuss real-life situations or historical events. However, while the world of D&D is fictional, those who find the subject matter distressing may wish to avoid reading further.

Put plainly, D&D has a subjugation problem. Though not in the way some may think. Without question, slavery is a terrible real-world issue, and we would never say otherwise. Certain players may find the concept of enslaved people triggering, and as a result, DMs and player groups should be respectful and make those topics and story paths off-limits.

However, with D&D’s reliance on slavery as a tragic history trope, avoiding it can be difficult. Nearly every race or species in the game has a history of enslavement, either as the victims or the aggressors. Hadozee may be the most widely known due to unfortunate real-world correlations and subsequent appropriately negative publicity. Still, their encounters with Spelljammers make up only a tiny portion of the enslaved peoples of Dungeons & Dragons.

Species like Hobgoblins, Grung, Kobolds, Lizardfolk, Orcs, and Yuan-Ti have enslaved nearly every other species or monster they encounter. In some instances, like Hobgoblins, there is an awful hierarchy of enslavement. They oppress Bugbears and Goblins, who in turn dominate all manner of lesser species, usually preferring the unique skills of humans. However, while Humans fall victim to the slavery of almost every species at one point in time—including whole cultures like the Mulani—they too have taken Goliaths, Gnomes, Locathah (a species whose existence revolves around enslavement for some reason), Lizardfolk, and Tieflings. Humans, along with other species, even sell Tabaxi into slavery just for their pelts.

Mind Flayers or Illithids were also avid slavers. Perhaps most notably from Baldur’s Gate 3, they are known for subjugating the Gith. However, Illithids and Drow also have a long history of enslaving Deep Gnomes, Duergar, and Minotaurs. Other evil creatures like the Fomorians stole away Firbolg and Gnomes, while Giants subjugated Dwarves and Goliaths. Dragons enslaved Dragonborn, Primordials took Genasi, and Rakshasa controlled Kenku. It just never seems to end.

So what do we do? Do we scream from the rooftops of Reddit and Twitter? Should we post angry cancel videos on TikTok about the tyranny of Wizards of the Coast? Well, the internet is going to internet. But before you take that leap, try taking a step back to consider a few things.

While it is undoubtedly an offensive topic to many and a played-out concept from the world builders of Faerûn, from a storytelling standpoint, subjugation can become a definitive driving force behind evil intent within a campaign. If your table is open and willing, few things can more quickly and succinctly paint a story’s villain as detestable and cruel than the concept of slavery. Still, while a reasonable motivator for vengeance and righteousness, we can likely do better. And I stress, we.

One should always express themselves if the frequency of this narrative device within the game is bothersome. However, I hope most can also see this as an opportunity for creative exploration. One of the most incredible things about D&D is the limitless possibility of a group’s creativity. Each player has the power to change a species’ history or behavioral pattern, avoiding problematic subject matter and replacing it with something less extreme. It’s also ok if the group accepts the exploration of slavery as a concept but wants to prevent its wanton overuse. Restricting its inclusion to a specific group can give the story component more gravity and drive home its horrific cruelty. Player groups can then change the history of other species to something more exciting, profound, or noteworthy.

Still, players don’t need to counter these narrative choices from the game’s publisher by making their campaign all roses and sunshine. Everybody loves a tragic backstory. But it doesn’t have to include domination and subjugation. A player character’s community could be victims of a divine or terrestrial war, whether an indiscriminate invading force or cataclysmic mutual destruction. A species could fall prey to natural disasters, famine, disease, a magical curse, or become displaced into a constant nomadic lifestyle. A character’s family may become hostages, victims of classism, descend into poverty, or a vengeful monarch or roving mob could wipe them out. Even an individual character may grow up groomed for villainy, framed for a crime, or develop an ignorant prejudice against those with more or less education or differing ideologies. There are innumerable ways to craft tragedy.

We should always strive to learn from the mistakes of previous publishers. However, it’s equally important to remember that not all tables are identical. While the outright removal of the concept of slavery may be the best choice for some, others may see it as a viable narrative option for a particularly immoral and wicked antagonist—just as long as we strive to avoid real-world corollaries. Regardless of the decision, discuss it with the gaming group and make certain players understand and agree with the campaign’s direction. Make a concerted effort to avoid offending those at the table by approaching these choices carefully and respectfully.

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