Last session, my players set out to liberate slaves from Hobgoblins. I prepped a lot of things, like where they would be, what the Hobgoblins make them do, how they are treated, and a bunch of other stuff.

But then my players succeeded in rescuing a small group of them, and they told them "Okay, you are now free. We can escort you back to freedom tonight. Here's food."

And I was just stumped about how to go from there... I have no idea what a proper reaction is from someone who had given up all hope of freedom, but suddenly finds themselves proclaimed free by an external source, even though their family and friends are still locked up somewhere. (The slaves were freed while being moved from their "home" to a work-camp for the day)

In the end, the slaves reacted with stunned silence, uncertainty, and a certain level of "just do what you are told", but I think that was more because I was uncertain what to do then I'm convinced it was a proper reaction.

I'm sure this is a topic that comes up in RPGs more often, so I'd like to be prepared next time it happens. (There's plenty of slaves left to free in this game).

I'll take both answers with good subjective experience and links to other sources about the topic, both fiction and non-fiction. Keep in mind this isn't about slaves escaping, but being freed. They have no plans, and had no control over being freed. They just suddenly are.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Discuss this question on Meta: rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7426/… \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 22, 2017 at 12:38
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ (A) Who are these former slaves — i.e. their ethnicity or heritage? (B) How long were they in bondage? (C) Does your recent unshackling seem promising, or does it look unreliable? Do they expect the hobgoblins to reappear at any moment and punish harshly those who attempt to escape? (D) Are the slaves physically injured in any way? Ill or infirm? \$\endgroup\$ Aug 23, 2017 at 3:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ What setting are you using? What is the general opinion about slavery in this world? What happens to freed/runaway slaves? If your system is D&D, which edition is it? What do your PCs think about slavery? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2017 at 8:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Closed as opinion based. IRL the reactions of slaves to sudden freedom is near infinite, and there's no criteria making one brainstormed answer any better than another. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 4, 2017 at 18:32

2 Answers 2


1. There is no single right action.

Not only do people react to slavery differently, people react to freedom differently, and sudden changes in life differently. Even for a single person, things like their mood and the PCs' Charisma scores (or equivalent) are going to shape the initial reaction.

2. The solution space varies with culture.

The solution space of right actions is shaped by one's beliefs regarding freedom, slavery, humanity, personhood, emotions, etc. Different people will give radically different answers when defining that space, and in so doing reveal things about themselves and their beliefs.

Given the above, you should consider what you wish to communicate about the human condition vis-a-vis the reaction of the former slaves to freedom, and then present NPCs that define a cultural space communicating that. You should be at least somewhat prepared for your players to react with something along the lines of "slaves wouldn't act that way". Personally, I use such responses as an opportunity to invite discussion: "Not ever? Why not?", but segueing into philosophical discussion isn't appropriate at all tables.

3. Support for the idea that your space of possible solutions is a function of the work you are presenting:

Star Trek, The Cage

When presented with the choice to leave with Pike and be free or stay on the planet as a slave, the Girl of the Day decides to stay, because not knowing she is ugly is more important to her than freedom. Since she is a girl the show seems to regard this as a sensible choice. Sexism Ugh.

Les Miserables, the Work Song

Jean Valjean veritably thirsts for his freedom. He at first understands parole to mean that he will now be free, and ends up in what is more or less a staring match for the moral high ground with his parole officer over that point. Once freed, he resorts to petty theft and other criminal behavior out of habit, as his time as a slave has beaten away his former sense of nobility (or so he believes).

Genesis 37-45

Joseph gets sold into slavery, and is pretty upset about it. By 'pretty upset' I mean pretty upset, though. Not very upset. He mostly does exactly the same stuff he did before he was a slave only with more money, food, prestige, and power. Then he gets framed for attempted rape and somehow this makes him no longer a slave because instead he's a prisoner in the local dungeon. He reacts by doing exactly the same stuff. Sometime later he's grabbed from the dungeons and plopped in charge of the country. He seems a little happy about that. Not, like, super happy. Just kinda positive. More positive than he was negative about being a slave though. On the whole, less of an emotional experience than seeing his brothers who sold him into slavery again, by like a million times.

Disney's Aladdin

Genie is momentarily speechless, and Alladin has to repeat the wish before he believes it. He is then immediately ecstatic, celebrates in his typical fashion, has Alladin order him to do something so he can enjoy saying no, and then immediately embarks on a massive world-touring vacation, with a brief aside for goodbyes.

Conan the Barbarian (movie version)

Conan is permanently mentally stunted due to his time as a slave during his formative years. He clearly makes quite a bit of recovery/development after being freed but this takes years and he's certainly permanently scarred and much of his social ineptitude clearly stems from this past. He doesn't seem to really understand the freedom thing, at least at first.

As regards the advice given, slavery of one sort or another is often an issue in campaigns I run, and the beliefs underlying the way the game presents slavery have been deliberately varied from game to game. I am confident that there is a space of good reactions, rather than a single good reaction, here, and that the space is largely defined by one's real-life beliefs.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I updated the format and fixed a typo. Love this answer (albeit question is a bit broad). \$\endgroup\$ Aug 28, 2017 at 15:07

You could look into history for real life examples of what happens: Shelby Foote & Bruce Catton are good sources on the USA civil war where a large number of slaves were freed. You will find out a wide range of responses, ranging from the amazing (such as Harriet Tubman) to the pathetic. The main "advantage" of the USA civil war is that it is a recent event with lots of primary sources that can be drawn upon both from slave owners, former slaves, and abolitionists. Amazon has a section on slavery although I cannot vouch for any one book or author.

However, the reactions you want are the ones that will enhance your game's theme, not necessarily the real world ones. If your game is about heroic struggle against evil, then the slaves should be happy, hopeful, and eager to join the PCs to fight the evil overlord. On the other hand, if your game is about despair, the futility of life, and choices between dark paths then the slaves should react in such a way as to enhance those themes: the PCs are their new masters, they will follow them, and do what they are told. Maybe even some will try to kill their new masters. If left alone, they will wither and die. After all, no good deed ever goes unpunished! In between, the free slaves could seek to enslave their former masters and start a business they know well…

Before even that, they will look at the PCs to provide for them: where do they find food, shelter, and cloths? How will they survive? These should be their first priorities. Then, comes the rest…


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