Dealing with slavery in D&D

Warning: this post deals with the topic of slavery, and it also contains spoilers for Out of the Abyss.

The last few Thursday nights I’ve been running Out of the Abyss for our Dungeon’s & Dragons group. Out of the Abyss is set in the Underdark, an immense and labyrinthine network of caverns miles below the earth and deals with a number of sensitive themes, including madness and slavery.

The adventure starts off with the player characters imprisoned by drow slavers, waiting to be transported to Menzoberranzan. The first part of the adventure is occupied with escaping the drow outpost. I expect a lot of parties would just try to get as soon as possible, but my group decided to fight the drow, despite being hugely outnumbered. (The reason was because they wanted to get their items back, which seemed to have been confiscated when they were captured.) After a lot of drow had been killed and the remainder were cornered in a tower, the dwarf druid brought up the possibility of negotiating with the drow in order to get the items back, but there was disagreement about whether it was okay to negotiate with slavers.

After the party (including a number of non-player escapees) had left the outpost and headed out into the Underdark, they ran straight into a group of goblins transporting two slaves. (We had a couple of new players joining the game, so that’s who the two slaves were.) After a little negotiation, the party ended up fighting the goblins, and once they had killed the leader, the others ran away. However, they managed to figure out that the goblins were a family group (the leader was their mother) and that they may have been acquiring slaves for the drow because their leader knew the drow would take her children as slaves otherwise. (Evil, but complicated.)

Later on, when they discovered a member of the party (a character belonging to a player who could no longer join us) had been brutally murdered in his sleep they began to wonder whether some of their fellow prisoners might have been imprisoned for legitimate reasons. (They know that one member of the party stands accused of murder in Menzoberranzan.) Since they don’t know who killed their friend, they’ve tied up the two main suspects and are marching them through the Underdark. They’ve figured out that this is likely to make them look like slavers themselves. Perhaps next session we’ll find out whether that’s helpful or unhelpful?

What did Ham do to Noah?

Before you start reading, I just want to warn that this post mentions sexual abuse and slavery.

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading through the book of Genesis and posting some reflections. Today I’ve been reading an odd part of the Noah story, which I don’t think is often included when the story is preached about in churches.
After the flood Noah plants a vineyard. In fact, the story says he’s the first person to plant a vineyard. He drinks wine and possibly becomes the first person to get drunk in the story. While he’s drunk he lies naked in his tent. His son Ham sees him naked in the tent, and tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth. His brothers walk into the tent backward (so they on’t see their father while he’s naked) and drop a garment over Noah to cover him. When Noah wakes up and find out he curses Ham and says that Ham will be a slave to his brothers Shem and Japheth. Throughout the story it is repeated that Ham is the ancestor of Canaan.


Earlier this year, my friend Trav got in touch with me to ask what I thought the text was saying when it said that Ham saw Noah’s nakedness, and why it was considered sinful. I said that my understanding was that it would have been considered shameful for Ham to see his father naked, but that some scholars seem to think that Ham actually molested his father while he was drunk. I think the more striaghtforward answer is that it was shameful for Ham to see Noah’s nakedness.

Either way, this epilogue to the flood story it shows that wiping out almost all of humanity has not solved the problem of human evil. I asked Trav what conclusion he came to and he was saying

I didn’t come to any conclusions about the specific sin that was committed in Noah’s tent but I did come to the conclusion that the story itself is a mirror of the creation-sin story in Genesis 3. Noah has a garden and is sinful in his garden like Adam and Eve were sinful in the garden. This demonstrates that the flood hasn’t eradicated sin from the human heart-something more is needed.

The other thing I found interesting while I was reading was Ham’s curse, which says that Canaan will be a slave to Shem and Japheth. Clearly this could have been used to justify Israel (who understood themselves to be descendents of Shem) dominating Canaan. In modern history, Europeans (who have sometimes understood themselves to be descendents of Japheth) have claimed that it was okay to enslave African people, because they believed African people were descendents of Ham, and so under Ham’s curse. I think rejecting that interpretation of the text means we also have to question the validity of dispossessing the Canaanites.