The Things We Do Not Talk About in D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 9, 2012

Warning: This article discusses topics that are for mature readers. The ideas presented herein are intended to encourage a frank and mature discussion about adding darker, seedier topics to games with mature players. These ideas are being presented in the context of an imaginary, fantasy, role-playing game and are in no way intended to encourage, promote or glamourize them.

Sex, Drugs, Alcohol, Slavery. These are not the kind of things you generally think about including in a typical D&D game. After all, in a fantasy world why not preserve the fantasy and keep things idyllic? The only Evil (with a capital “E”) in most D&D campaigns are the monsters and NPCs bent on ruling or destroying the world. These are things the heroes can deal with, often at the end of a sword. Throwing more complicated Evils into a campaign setting, problems like substances abuse and slavery, for example, are not generally the kinds of things that can a) be handled by the PCs alone, or b) resolved in a single adventure. These are “big picture” problems that would just muddy the waters of most D&D campaign settings. Yet they are problems and issues that would certainly be present in most campaign settings. After all, these are problems that almost every society on Earth has faced and still does face in one way or another. So why not add them to your role-playing games and give the players a chance to try to do something about it?

A lot of gamers (I’d even go so far as to say most gamers) are unlikely to want these kind of big picture topics to be relevant to their adventures. They add little or no value to the normal exploration and monster combat that makes up so much of D&D adventures. Players want their PC’s to explore ancient runes, delve the deepest dungeons, rescue the princess, and slay the dragon. They don’t want to deal with the problems that drug abuse can have on individuals or on a society. They only want to focus on the positive aspects of the game and the positive aspects of the gaming world.

But just because these kinds of problems are not described or explored in most games doesn’t mean that they don’t (or couldn’t) exist if the DM chose to make them more prominent. These Evils are not things that I would encourage most people to add to their campaign world, but for gamers with years of experience exploring these issues in-game could add something that we’ve always lacked in our game – a dose of gritty reality.

The Sex Trade

In a world with so many different races and exotic creatures there are certainly sexual encounters between many of the various races. After all we have Half-Elves so we know that the Humans and Elves interbred liberally at some point in their cultures’ past. It seems naive to believe that none of the other races fooled around. It’s unlikely that many of these unusual pairings led to offspring, but there was certainly interracial sexual exploration.

In real life there is a thriving sex trade where a lot of people make a lot of money. I don’t see thing being any different in a fantasy camping setting. At the most basic level, fantasy settings usually have brothels and strip clubs. After all, the curiosity factor would likely draw a lot of visitors. On the rare occasions when these settings were included in games I’ve played, the DM always descried the employees of these locales as willing participants. Encounters in-game were always consensual; the employees provided a service for which they were handsomely compensated. There was never any violence or hint that someone was doing this against their will. After all this is a fantasy setting. So is there any value in exploring the grittier, dirtier, more realistic angle of how the sex trade would likely run in a fantasy setting?

Drugs and Alcohol

Substance abuse is a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries. Yet in most D&D setting there is no mention of illicit drugs. The only substance that even comes close is alcohol. However, no one is ever seen as having a problem with booze. Sure the Dwarves as a race like their ale a bit more than most others, and every tavern my PCs ever visit always have at least one NPC described as the local drunk, but never have we had to deal with an in-game alcoholic or the problems related to their substance abuse. Perhaps this is because alcohol is seen as more socially acceptable. In-game alcohol consumption is usually seen as funny and a way to let PCs do crazy things without fear of consequence, but even then the actions are usually more playful than harmful.

When it comes to more traditional hard drugs I’ve never encountered anyone in a fantasy RPG who cultivated, sold, distributed or consumed drugs, aside from the occasional NPC with pipeweed (which we always played as tobacco despite Tolkien’s allusion to it being more potent). Yet if we think about all of the fantastic plants and animals that make up most campaign worlds there are certainly all kinds of things that will get you high. Many articles have been written about various poisons available in D&D, so you know that there is a thriving market (although usually an illegal market) for these poisons. Someone is obviously doing some experimentation to determine which substances are dangerous and documenting the effects. It’s not too difficult to imagine that during this experimentation some of the substances identified are basically drugs.

Substance abuse is a real problem that has devastating effects on the people who use and the people in their lives. No one takes drugs with the intention of becoming an addict, but they all felt that they had a good reason to start. In a fantasy world it’s possible that some drugs in the campaign might actually provide mechanical benefits to users. This might explain why PCs would want to try them. However, most drugs are incredibly addictive so there is always risk.

Wherever there are drugs and alcohol there are people making money off of them. If the drugs are cultivated from plants then territories where they grow will be controlled by the people making money. Likewise if a creature’s fluids, scales, horns, or organs are ingredients for drugs then those creatures will be hunted or bred for profit.

Slavery

Slavery is actually some thing that we do see in some D&D adventures, but when we do it’s lesser, monstrous races like Goblins or Kobolds that are usually the enslaved creatures. This is deemed acceptable to a certain extent because these are monsters and not people. Occasionally adventurs will require that the PCs rescue victims from civilized society who were kidnapped and forced into some kind of slave labour. But these are usually one-off scenarios where a group of bandits needs workers to help them transport goods or a renegade miner is looking for unpaid labourers to work his mine. Very few games have sentient races enslaving other sentient races as a way of life; Dark Sun being one of the few notable exceptions.

Yet it is possible, and highly probable, that some races and cultures in a fantasy setting would have entire economies built on slavery and ownership of others. It might be the Humans enslaving all the other non-human races or that Dwarves enslave the Elves. Regardless of the specifics, buying, selling and owning slaves is deemed acceptable in the context of these societies and that’s just the way things are. In Eberron House Cannith created artificial beings as warriors but eventually the Warforged attained a level of sentience that required they be granted their freedom. Until then, owning Warforged wasn’t any different from owning a sword. Attitudes will be very different in these game worlds where slavery is commonplace than they are in real life.

Keeping Up The Fantasy

Fantasy gaming is a form of escape. People play D&D and other fantasy RPGs to play heroic characters that can do extraordinary things. Players want to face conflicts they can defeat and then move on. Very few are interested in playing in any setting where NPCs are forced into the sex trade, towns have rampant drug abuse, and slavery is acceptable. These are just a few topics that, although they could be included into any setting, are not generally something we want to include. After all, most of us get enough reality in real life; we play games to have fun and enjoy the experience.

Role-playing an encounter where the PCs are powerless to stop a death from a drug overdose, or have to interact with the alcoholic who beats his kids, or must traffic in slaves to get the money they need to complete their quest, isn’t something most of us want to experience. Yet some gamers, especially those who have played for a long time and are looking to add some realism and grit to their campaigns, might want to see how things would change by talking about the things we never talk about in D&D. They’re not doing it so that their characters can partake in these deplorable acts; they just want to see the fantasy world without the romanticism and rose-coloured glasses. I’m not saying that the games will be better or worse, but adding any of these elements will certainly change the kind of adventures your PCs will participate in if there is more Evil in the game world.

Gritty Fantasy Fiction

The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks is an excellent example of dark, gritty fantasy that doesn’t pull punches or try to portray a glamourous fantasy setting. The world is as dark and Evil as you can imagine. Many of the characters do deplorable things to survive; and often it’s just seen as the way things are. Despite the grim setting and harsh reality embedded in these books, it is one of the best series I’ve ever read. In my opinion adding the big picture problems to the setting actually gives the novels increased credibility. When characters triumph you really feel their sense of accomplishment even though they’ve likely done horrific acts along the way. This series is definitely for mature readers.

Now that I’ve had my say I open the floor to your feedback and comments. Do you think that there is any benefit to adding these bigger picture problems and issues to D&D? Should fantasy role-playing games remain idyllic and romantic and simply ignore that any of these things could possible exist? How have these elements, or other Evils, been portrayed in your games? Do you romanticize them or just exclude them all together?

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joethelawyer July 9, 2012 at 10:11 am

I always have those elements in my games I dm. My players don’t run heroic missions.

2 Madfox11 July 9, 2012 at 10:21 am

You might want to play Eberron ;) Substance abuse is part of the setting from simple criminal organizations distributing standard chemical substances to main villain organizations bend on world domination using magical enhanced drugs that open the users mind to mental influence. It is also hinted at as a potenial problem/source of adventure in FR, in the lawful good nation of Cormyr of all places, although those references are indeed somewhat hidden and definitely new.

I am definitely surprised, that you never encountered slavery in a typical D&D campaign, since that is part and parcel for many official settings since before 1st edition. Think of settings like Dark Sun, but even Mystara and the Forgotten Realms include non-evil human civilizations where slavery is part of the economy system. I admit rarely having been in a campaign, besides a Dark Sun game, in which it took a central role. The fact is that long term social problems are not something that can be solved by adventurers.

The only thing that I indeed rarely, if ever, have seen is the abuses of the sex trade, and I suspect that out of the three (I would btw make it four and add racism) it is the one that is actually a real taboo. The few games were brothels are part of the game, they tend to be comic diversion in between adventures.

3 Liam Gallagher July 9, 2012 at 10:32 am

I think what makes dealing with these issues in game so hard is that many people have very polarizing convictions about things like prostitution and drug use. Often when these issues come up in social life it can cause even the most mild mannered people to don a “moral policemen’s cap” due to some relgious, philosophical or political stance that they have and people start getting labeled and judged by their peers for thier own convictions, which doesn’t make cooperative story telling easier.

That being said I think RPGs might be the best place possible for people to work out their stigmas and rough feelings about some of these topics, as after all it’s just a game and the degree of seperation from real life can be a useful safety. As is the case with most practices that are frowned upon by the larger society there is a lot of misinformation and ignorence, and you might discover upon testing the waters that you were a secert bigot towards prostitutes. Or maybe you learn that you don’t actually know anything about drug use, and the way that you have looked down upon it since your parents told you not to do drugs as a kid doesn’t quite hold up.

I guess it most people’s leasure time they don’t want to be confronted, challenged or forced to examine their personal values too seriously, which is what the complex issues mentioned in this article do. For a lot of people that’s not their idea of fun.

4 B.J. July 9, 2012 at 11:19 am

I kind of see both sides of the coin here. Personally, I would love to tackle those types of topics in an RPG setting. I know I crave these in other forms of entertainment. A good example would be Punisher MAX. That comic book series really took a unique, dark, and gritty angle with storytelling you would not find anywhere else.

I want to put my PCs in more morally ambiguous and gritty settings where there is no obvious right or wrong answer. I think putting PCs in an uncomfortable position where they truly have to parse out a solution is just good gaming.

I do also see that some of these issues can bring out the person’s own morality and values more than their characters. While most of us are probably against slavery, exploitation of women, and heavy drug use, we may disagree about how to solve the problem. I could easily see people clashing in and out of game over differing morality, values, social norms, and even political ideologies.

Add to this the fact that you’re having to smash Kobolds in the face, you are setting up a really charged environment. This could elevate the game to new and interesting heights or devolve into an episode of Jerry Springer.

Interesting and thought provoking article, though. I look forward to seeing where the discussion takes us.

5 obryn July 9, 2012 at 11:42 am

Running a Dark Sun game, I’d say the slavery bit is ever-present.

6 Jim Tigwell July 9, 2012 at 11:53 am

I definitely think there’s a benefit to adding these kinds of issues, as long as they’re treated seriously. The strong feelings that these situations can create help improve immersion and investment in a setting and its characters. It also gives people a chance to approach some of them in a safe space, where their characters are empowered to do something about it. I wrote a post about something similar last week, which I’ve linked below.
Jim Tigwell´s last blog post ..Best of Times, Worst of Times

7 Philo Pharynx July 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

In Eberron, Changelings are often involved in the sex trade at varying levels of willingness. For a grey area, think about a changeling that dislikes prostituion but chooses that because it’s the only way to make enough money to deal with another problem.

In at one published adventure series there is a side-quest dealing with an exotic brothel where the prostitues have been changed with biomancy. I’m running it to where they can leave at any time and be considered freaks, or they can work to pay for changing themselves back. Of course this is the company store problem where it would take decades to get free.

As for slavery and D&D, I can’t stop thinking about an entry from the 3.5e Monster Manual III. If you have it handy, turn to page 83 and read the paragraph “Harsaafs in Eberron”. This establishes them as a race enslaved by humanity (even though they mention this is humanity from Sarlona, this is before the inspired took over). Then read the mechanics of the race.

For those without a book handy, Harsaafs are a 6 HD monstrous humanoid race with DR5/Bludgeoning, SR 17, Fast healing 3, with a flaming aura and a 1/day blast that damages and blinds anybody around. Oh, and they can turn into a pile of mobile sand that can fit through gaps or crevices less than one-quarter inch wide.

This is a slave race? Enslaved by mere humans?

8 Alzrius July 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I think you make some very good points in this article, but you don’t take it far enough. For each issue, you seem to simply to restate what it is and why it would exist in a game world.

That’s good, but what I’d like to see are concrete ways regarding how you can add these to your game without offending people, and what form it’d take. Possibly some further analysis regarding why these freak people out and how to deal with them.

Admittedly, the above are exceptionally difficult to write about, since they get into issues that are different around every game table, but I can’t help but feel like there’s more to be said on these topics.
Alzrius´s last blog post ..How Much XP is CR 1/7 Worth?

9 Jess July 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Gnolls are notorious slavers, but then again you have the same problem with the ones performing evil acts as being a monstrous race.

@MadFox11: Good call on the issue of racism. It’s something that should theoretically be ever-present in most settings, and not in the Dwarf and Elf bickering like an old couple sort of way. And yet it’s rarely discussed at all, and certainly not in a way that is likely to directly affect the players.

I’ve always used these sorts of elements in my games. Even from the stance of playing characters I make sure to know at least what their opinions are on the subjects. But then I usually prefer to play in settings that are inherently morally ambiguous, like White Wolf’s World of Darkness or Exalted, among others.

10 Joe Lastowski July 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm

The latest story arc with the Drow has all sorts of slavery inherent in it. The first adventure of the current Encounters season featured Drow taking townsfolk away as slaves. The recently published Into the Unknown: Dungeon Survival Guide even features a background where you are an escaped slave, and it goes into detail about the various mental effects you might suffer from having been a slave. Then there are races like the Githyanki & Kalashtar, both of whom are escaped slaves from other realms. And yes, Dark Sun is pretty much all about slavery.

I think many fantasy campaigns try to take real-world problems and use them, at worst, as background things that may exist in the world, but only as backstory. Or they’re solved through non-PC actions resulting from PC action… you free the prince from the goblins, and then he takes the throne and implements reforms that make slavery illegal in his formerly dark nation. Or it’s an add-on to an existing villain… you happen into the vampire lair, interrupt him cutting a deal with a local slaver from that evil nation in the west, oh and also there are crates of the illegal hallucinogen “Feyleaf” in his warehouse… man, is he EVIL.

The issue I run into is that while there are plenty of ways to sidestep these darker themes, many of the players at my home game table are therapists or counselors in real life, so they often seek out these problems to try and help… like trying to counsel the evil cult leader after they’ve captured him, or want to specifically seek out slavers to attack, just because they’re slavers. As a result, I’ve had to create more complicated political situations to make these problems less clear-cut, but still accessible if they want to seek it out.

And if my players are looking for some moral gray areas, sometimes I put them in the middle of it. For instance, they killed the bandit group Tantalus (lead by a halfling) on the road into town, then met a young halfling boy who was working as an apprentice to a chef to hopefully make enough money so that some day he could find his dad and help him stop his life of crime. So it was clear that poverty was an issue, but the party found themselves in a less-than-optimal situation… which lead to lots of great roleplaying.

Darker issues are avoidable, but sometimes they might be worth using to a limited degree.

11 shortymonster July 9, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I think all of these things can and should be handled in RPGs, but sometimes high fantasy isn’t the right environment. Not that it can’t happen, but most worlds are built fantastic from the ground up and some of seedier things you’ve mentioned would jar with that world’s setting. I play a lot of games that deal with these kinds of things, and WFRP is the closest I can think of to a fantasy setting that sets out to be dark and grim from the get go.
shortymonster´s last blog post ..Religion in table top RPGs

12 Llanwyre July 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm

These are all interesting issues that can give life and depth to a game. IMHO, though, there are MUCH better systems than DnD for exploring them–especially if you want to do so in a nuanced way. If you want to get at moral ambiguity, Warhammer FRP (in any iteration) tends to do a better job; the world’s politics and religions are built to create ambiguous situations and force the players to make difficult and generally losing choices. If you want to explore the psychological outcomes of these occurrences, a character-focused system like Burning Wheel tends to invite players to think more deeply about what such a problem would do to his PC. Players who gravitate towards those systems probably already want to take on those moral issues, since they’re built into the game, so you’re less likely to run into players who object because they want to play a hero and escape real life. It isn’t that you can’t tackle these issues with standard DnD settings–in fact, you can do it very well–but you’re generally working against a system and a setting that was not really explicitly created to deal with psychology or morality…and there are others out there that were.
Llanwyre´s last blog post ..So Much Warhammer Goodness on iBooks!

13 funkaoshi July 9, 2012 at 8:42 pm

You might want to look at Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s a retro-clone (or sorts) of Original D&D, but it’s super gritty in its tone. It has rules for Black Lotus Powder which is like magical cocaine, I guess. They also publish the setting supplement Carcosa, which replaces traditional D&D magic with blood magic powered by human sacrifice (and worse things).
funkaoshi´s last blog post ..The Lamentations of the Flame Princess July Grand Adventures Campaign

14 Luke July 9, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Like other commenters, my experience is that slavery, in particular, is a very common theme in the games I’ve played over the past three decades. Busting up slavery rings is almost as regular as visiting the brothel to exercise that high charisma and pump the locals for information.

As for drugs, as Liam said, that can be a polarising issue, but not for all groups. In the DM’s seat I like to include drugs as a background constant – khat-chewing farmers, opium for sale at the market, orders of wizardry and religion reliant on hallucinogens, etc – because the current western drug paradigm isn’t universal even on planet earth, let alone in an imagined fantasy world.

15 Joe Lastowski July 9, 2012 at 11:57 pm

The best system I ever played for exploring seedier subjects was 2nd edition White Wolf’s Wraith: The Oblivion, where every player had a ghost character, but also got to play the dark half of another player’s character. The whole point was for everyone to find a way to hold onto who they were with one character while also playing the worst aspects of another character, trying to tempt him into whatever depravity would lead to the Oblivion. My longtime roleplaying friends from college and I played one game of that before we all realized that it was way too dark for us to continue. Sort of the Requiem for a Dream of RPGs.

16 mattdomville July 10, 2012 at 9:42 am

I thought the 3rd edition “Book of Vile Darkness” did a decent job of providing rules for some of the content that wasn’t suitable for a “PG-13″ style game. Subjects such as devil worshiping, which has long been a PR problem for the game, were given well-balanced and interesting background and statistics. Dungeon Magazine did an interesting adventure which tied in to the product, including many of these adult rules. This was during the time that the magazine was a physical product, so the adventure was sealed off from the rest of the publication. You had to use scissors or a knife to open that part. The artwork was terrifying.
mattdomville´s last blog post ..Something For Every Occasion

17 Jas July 10, 2012 at 11:04 am

Many of these issues are explored explicitly in some games, but D&D hasn’t always been that great about covering them. On one hand, you had a four-module arc Scourge of the Slave Lords, and on the other hand you’ve got a game that was trying to market to a younger audience and dealing with the backlash of being a “satanic” game at the same time.

That said, RPGs seem to have matured with time in much the same way as comic books. From the Golden Age of two-dimensional heroes full of virtue, we moved to heroes who were less than perfect, and dealt with real-world issues like drug abuse.

I know that, in my games, I will try to get a feel for the players and what their comfort level is. I will be up front about my plans, and give an overall “rating” of how the game will deal with issues. Sometimes you’re right, and people want to to be the grand hero dealing with non-sensitive issues. And other times, folks will be ready to tackle the darker side of things.

18 Eruenno July 10, 2012 at 11:35 am

This is the first time I’m posting my opinion(s) on dnd-related topics, so I’ll try to make it sensible and useful…

For starters I’d like to state this: my dnd experience is based on playing with people I know, friends, so it has that base of a relaxed-gaming-hanging out thing we do. However, we’ve been playing dnd since (almost)day 1 of our high school, so I have an idea what it’s like to push the limits of comfortable game-play.
Thing is, we too began as your average, pretty much cliche group which would mean prevalence of gaming mentality (powerplaying and metagaming), but as we cut our way through various campaigns we realized that more monsters or simply other kinds of monsters just didn’t cut it anymore. So, DMs (mostly me) started implementing different layers, aspects of game settings (we almost exclusively play our own settings and we change them from campaign to campaign). So we ended up dealing with increasingly difficult moral decisions which could culminate to dealing with starvation/cannibalism.

Anyway, in the current campaign, which I am DMing, I decided to paint my world not just with white, hopeful and shiny colors, but to add darker notes. Sometimes they were obvious, like enslavement of another island populated by other humans (asian and black themed cultures). This triggered racism connotations, as my main, human empire, viewed itself and it’s citizens as superior to others etc…
Regarding prostitution – even though it’s publicly rejected, as it mostly was throughout history, I added secret brothels and even added a luxurious brothel-villa which was led by a nymphomaniac spoiled noble-woman – right in the capital of mainland. This brought my players to question the true colors of the entire societal system as they had the chance to witness the way these things worked (bribes with money and female company, drug abuse to keep women in line, threats…). Wherever they went and scratched a bit, there was dirt. I feel that’s what world’s like been even in it’s brightest, so adding this not only gives your world more life and credulity, but also presents fantastic opportunities for roleplaying encounters. For example, it is not uncommon to spend entire session (5-6-7 hours) pretty much in just one conversation. With a prostitute, corrupt priest, black market dealer, lesser nobleman, etc…

I guess my final point is this: If you play long enough with a group, these sort of layers are bound to be brought up – and for a good reason – you have all become comfortable enough to deal with these issues, preferably while immersed in your characters, which leads to very interesting sessions/campaigns. I think we are all(me and my group)pretty much fed up with saving-the-world kind of campaigns and we’re accepting this explore-the-world-and-deal-with-personal-and-small-problems. So shutting down a slavery trade or bringing down a corrupt official is enough, even if it’s in context of a greater plot. We have become content with not dealing with bigger picture, but focusing on the detail. And without these things (drugs, alcohol, slavery, psychological problems, moral ambiguity) it would simply be dull as those characters(and player characters) they are dealing with get much more depth in relation to these problems.

19 Joshua Gager July 10, 2012 at 6:27 pm

I’m not sure what games you’re referring to, but both Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder – two of the most popular RPGs out there – deal with all of those issues. DnD 3.5 had a prestige class called the Crimson Scourge in cityscape that was a ten-level slave-catcher PRC. Pathfinder even goes so far as to list the prices for various types of slaves in the Adventurer’s Armory.

Both Eberron and Golarion have lists of controlled substances, as well as legal drugs. Eberron makes mention of a red light district in several sections of the Sharn: City of towers book, and mentions of changeling prostitution are both directly talked about and implied at several points in various Eberron books.

There was, in fact, and entire third-party book that gained some notoriety as a cultural meme among gamers called the Book of Erotic Fantasy for Dungeons and Dragons.

And of course, half the adventures ever started have been in taverns, whose principle business it is to store and distribute alcohol to their patrons.

I would go so far as to say that there are few games out there that don’t deal with one, if not several of the subjects you mentioned – unless you’re playing an entirely lawful-good aligned party or perhaps a rousing game of Dragonraid.
Joshua Gager´s last blog post ..Map Teaser

20 B.J. July 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Joshua:

I think what you (and others) have pointed out are more like window dressing than anything else. Yes, things such as drugs and prostitution mentioned in source books, but only in passing. I think the author may be talking about the difference between being “mentioned” in a source book and having an adventure “steeped” in these kinds of themes. It’s one thing to note the tavern also has whores. It’s something else entirely if your campaign is having to deal with some problem associated by a Spell plague-inspired venereal disease that’s being spread by the whores of a city.

21 CSHunt68 July 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Interesting topic. I’ve always been one for more mature themes in my home campaigns. Just a nitpick to a point you made – Tolkien made no allusions regarding pipeweed being more than a type of tobacco. It certainly wasn’t meant to be more than that – nicotine weed for a pipe, and not anything mind-affecting, regardless of what Saruman said. ;)

22 Svafa July 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I’ve dealt with most of these over my years of playing. Typically, I try to focus on only one or two major issues and let the others serve as backdrops if appropriate. I find the story-telling is more cohesive that way, and it’s easier to focus on who the bad guys are. To that end, I might highlight slavery in one game and substance abuse in another, but I try not to focus on both simultaneously (though both might be present in both games). For some of my own experience:

Slavery and racism tend to be the biggest two I include in the games I run, but I’ve also played a character who struggled with substance abuse, and the character I’ve created for an upcoming game we’re trying to get started is a gun/drug-runner and mercenary with ties to all sorts of trouble. Both of these were/are, interestingly enough, modern settings. My fantasy characters, tend to have darker sides, but are focused more on religious issues.

One of the former games I ran actually flipped the slavery issue. It was a high fantasy setting, but is probably best summarized as an adventure in the African slave coast during the Age of Exploration. I even called the setting the Dark Continent. The flip was done by having the players’ humanoid races as the race enslaving the local monstrous races and then shipping them elsewhere, and this being treated as entirely just, lawful, and good (by the NPC members of the PC races, at least). Gnolls were one of the primary races being enslaved, and different tribes of Gnolls would enslave and sell one another to the Human slave traders. Poaching and genocide also played large roles, and while I wanted to include it, religious tension, conversion, and subversion never really became an issue.

The current game I’m running deals heavily with slavery and torture, and while no connections to the sex trade have been explicitly stated, there have been several implications to that end. The game also deals heavily with the underdark and I’m trying to put a great deal of focus on clashing cultures, so the duergar have a massively profitable slave trade, but the purchasing and selling of slaves is illegal within the primary city. Even so, many of the city’s citizens accept slaves as a part of life, even if they disagree with it. Then we have massive racism issues between the duergar and dwarfs, a religious schism between two clans of dwarfs, a faction of drow dealing in narcotics (especially arcane designer drugs) and assassinations, a cult kidnapping and brainwashing citizens, a civil war, and a city guard just trying to hold everything together (led by a member of an ostracized minority race).

23 Alex July 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I liked this article a lot, especially since my group just started an underworld campaing – we’re the ones dealing the drugs, supplying the slaves, running the gambling rings and paying the hitmen…. It’s a great take on the shadier sides that aren’t explored. 10/10 in my book.

No, literally, I have a book where I keep my reviews and their tallies. I… Uh. Yeah. Signing off.

24 Sunyaku July 16, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Kids, there’s a time and a place for drugs, sex, crime, and gratuitous violence in your game world, and that time and place is Dark Sun.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Play DnD – Get Free Stuff?

25 Bucks August 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Pfh. We use these things in every campaign. Drug addict PCs, slaves, racism, sex— all pretty situation normal. Fantasy has to have hard elements of reality for us to strive against or it’s not satisfying. It’s the difference between a setting like the tv show Merlin (which can be satisfying for some players- it’s simplistic, far too modern in thought, has a lot of sparkly stuff and teenagers) and the setting like Game of Thrones. We are definitely a GoT flavor group for any serious RPing. That leads us to play homebrew settings, things other than D&D, or official settings like Darksun or Ravenloft. For short silliness when no one’s in the mood for struggling against the forces of darkness (or being them), we play intentionally goofy stuff like Ninja Burger.

Realistically the three big things we avoid in roleplay (D&D and others) include lingering over gore (referred to as gorn, or gore porn), bestiality and it’s brother pathologies, and in depth depictions of child abuse. No matter how old we get, and how many things we feel that RP is a good outlet for dealing with, there are lines that have to be drawn and we’re all pretty much in agreement about where those are.

26 Rabenmund September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I like your ideas.. and i thougt before to imploy some of them in my Dark Sun 3.5 Campaign.. such as (obviously) slavery and drugs.

Especially the merchant houses would be perfect as drug movers.. why not make some extra profit in harsh times? Nobody knows, nobody cares.. and the officials can be easily bribed.

I think i will include the drug of “The Name of the Wind”, with some changes for the settings.. it’s imho a mix of heroin and crack.. high addictive with some clear signs (black teeth in my world) for the others that there is a dangerous “crackhead” right before them, who is willing to do everything to get some money…

Or that they find out, the caravan they guard contains a drug shipment from X to Y…

Things like that.
And i agree with Bucks on the three No Gos.. you wont find Them in my campaigns.. i like to describe fights with a bit more than “you made 5 hp damage”.. but there is no need to explain every intestinal loop who comes out..

In another campaign i just finished (a victorian age setting with some magic, based in the UK) the main focus of “daily flair” was on the commonplace racism and prejudices we brought into play. It gave the setting a very interesting (and sometimes humorous) touch i never had before in a political correct campaign – and the moment when our african player in-character became exasparated about blacks who marry white women (and he is actually married to a italian woman) was wonderfull :)

27 richard March 2, 2013 at 12:22 am

i agree with most things on this list but i disagree with one thing alcohol i believe its a bad idea to “ban” alcohol as long as its within in reason and the whole campaign dose not revolve around it

28 Sokar July 6, 2013 at 4:10 am

All of these things have shown up in my game. I like to feature locations that are as gritty and corrupt as they are fantastic. I also like to tempt players with things that seem to grant them power, but in the end are ultimately chains to bind them in some way. Magical potions or items can be treated much like drugs in this way.

29 Petrus November 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Hello people,
Sorry if I delay my initiative, but i was recently introduced to the 4e (after 20 yeras of roleplay an dm) so my comments are anacronic.
I like the idea of the “catastrophe of the fantasy” im my games and groups. Where everything is harder. Less magic, less healers, less dragons, no flying ships (for now). Being a wizard means a lot in my home game, being a healer meas a lot in our home game, and as far as we go from the fantasy, more and more the real “our” society is put in our “fantasy” world. By the way i love Athas and hard planets with the medieval style – and specially the old d&d Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D 2nd Ed Players Handbook races…
Great site, great post and I have to say, great comments!

30 Brydar January 13, 2014 at 8:39 am

In all my campaigns there is prostitution (oldest profession), slavery, and substance abuse. They are part of everyday life in the realm. Paladins (2e is what we play usally) in my campaign know there are debtors who go to jail, people placed in indentured servitude to others for crimes comitted, etc… This is all part of the law of the land. A thief who is caught is jailed for a first offense and made to pay restitution. A second offense has the thief lose his / her hand. A third offence is punishable by 20 years hard labor. A fourth offence is punishable by death. There are always drunkards found in a tavern / pub, there are always people looking to use mind altering herbs and reagents of a sort. There are a few societies where my group has travelled where men are 2nd class citizens and the females in the party had to take leading roles throughout the adventure in that small area. There have also been places where women are relegated to even less than 2nd class citizens in some cases (i.e. Gor series). The party has always managed (with difficulty) to work through the issues and areas. In one adventure going so far as to start a revolution of sorts to overthrow a duke who was a tyrant. It is hard to do but incorporating these subjects into the campaign can make things interesting, diverting, even add spice to the adventure if done properly.

31 Nickywhat August 4, 2014 at 2:13 am

The Vile Book of Darkness, oh yes please! This book is an amazing supplement to D&D, shame so many overlook it or don’t know about it! It def deals with the darker side of the possibilities in D&D. I’m actually running a campaign (my first to DM) with my BF and couple others and they’re just about ti hit the dark side of things in the world I created :D.

I feel that the more interesting, experienced or imaginative kind of person/player would relish the opportunity to get into things of such prerogative freedoms like substance abuse or even magic addiction, pain or (self)mutilation or suppressed tendencies. Imagine if during an adventure your players stumbled upon a shady dealer, Hag or a Cultist that tempted one of your own in some kind of deal and then all hell broke loose. Or during a treasure raid, discover a curious liquid, or concubine that coaxed them into questioning another party member?

I mean this if crafted and done right makes for something truly unique. But it’s not for everyone and def not newcomers to D&D or morally questionable actions (or if just uncomfortable).

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