D&D 5E Slaves - what they cost and why it matters

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clearstream

(He, Him)
First off, if you are somehow personally offended the price of a slave isn't high (whatever that means), perhaps you should cool off? I have no stake in this.
I'm not offended at all. As I said, it's not clear to me why people want it to be low?

Also, D&D economies are notoriously fracked up and essentially useless.
I should have thought that a reason to try to improve them :) Also, I'm very much against the idea that if we can't fix everything we should fix nothing. I know you didn't say that - I just wanted to get it in before it came up.

In short, Drows enslave because that's what they do. No reason to even attempt to provide an economical justification for it.

High slave prices easily make for an absurd economy where people rather enslave each other than tend the crops.

It simply isn't the D&D way. Much better to keep prices so low they don't catch the attention of adventurers!
Well, until recently people did rather enslave one another than tend to the crops themselves. Once our culture rejected slavery, other means came into play. Isn't this kind of the point of good-alignment? Non-evil characters should not want to enslave other sentient creatures even if it is profitable to do so. Just as they should not loot every settlement that lacks power to stop them. Alignment posits reasons beyond profit for doing or not doing something. You might say that on the question of slavery at least, our cultures became generally good aligned. I feel like the - if it is profitable, PCs will do it - argument doesn't work well.

You asked for opinions. I gave you mine. If you don't like it you don't have to argue about it - you just don't use it. That is all.
I must have worded something more brusquely than intended. I value our opinions and always take them into account. When I say "argue" I almost invariably mean "present ideas" and "work stuff out".
 

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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Okay, putting aside the price of unskilled slaves... why are skilled slaves 10x the price? Why not just buy five slaves for half the price?

The skills they have set their value. If you buy a slave who is a skilled cook, 5 unskilled slaves will not a reasonable substitute make.

And why are level 1-3 PCs 50x the price?! They can't do fifty times the work. They're not fifty times as effective.

*etc*

Value- or more accurately, price- isn't a linear relationship. Odds are good that PCs can do things relatively routinely 0 level types can't do with any regularity. However you rationalize HP, a PC's total is bigger, and that translates into a more durable product, which means they're a safer investment.

And like any other good, the concept of status and lifestyle are in play. People don't pay $1M+ for Bugattis, Bentleys and Zondas because they're tens of thousands times better than Volkswagens and Lincolns.

Someone who keeps powerful slaves is doing so in part as a symbol of their power and status. They keep them because they can, and most can't- and that's a big sign.
 
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Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
There is also a cost of ownership. Since slaves are costly, you want to feed them and shelter them. That is probably at least 1sp/day....

I had done some brief research on the topic and in Roman times a slave could be sold for 2400 to 6000 sestertius, ie 600-1500 denari, and a denari is a basic sp, so yielding a value of 60-150 gp

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clearstream

(He, Him)
Okay, putting aside the price of unskilled slaves... why are skilled slaves 10x the price? Why not just buy five slaves for half the price?

And why are level 1-3 PCs 50x the price?! They can't do fifty times the work. They're not fifty times as effective.
These values come directly from the core rules (PHB 159). A skilled laborer makes 10x the earnings of an unskilled one. A highly-skilled laborer - a caster - makes 5-25x the earnings of a skilled one. Seeing as those numbers can be used in a simple way to put a reasonable (at least so far as emulating rl prices is concerned) value on slaves, it seems reasonable and good for consistency to go with them.

Plus, keeping slaves of levels 5+ (Tier 2) just seems foolish. Really, unless you're a race that can mind control - like Mind Flayers - taking PCs as slaves seems like a needless risk.
That could be. I feel like maybe the commodity-cut-off should be after tier-1.

Not... really. I don't see how that works. It just means they'd see people as property and wouldn't value them very much.
The official core game world contains slavers. Those slavers see people as property. How much they value them is an economic statement... with moral implications.

But we don't need the exact prices of slaves for that discussion. Really, getting into the exact value of slaves distracts away from every other aspect of the discussion, because we're going to debate the price up and down.
I agree we don't need exact prices for the moral motivations discussion. But we do need to know if the prices are relatively high, or relatively low. More than a magic item? Or less than? More than a warhorse? Or less than? That's quite significant.

Well, the point of slave markets is that slavers acquire more slaves than they need or could use. Just keeping a valuable slave because they're valuable is pointless, because you can't eat potential value. They might keep a good slave just for themselves at the start, but after they have a nice staff of slaves everyone else goes on the market.
That all reinforces my point. If slavers acquire more slaves than they need or could use and they are always available cheaply on the market, then killing a slave who under-performs has no repercussions. If slaves are relatively expensive (as they were historically) then there is a motive to find ways to avoid killing them.

I don't think resurrecting slaves is ever going to realistically be a thing. Especially since the spirit has to be willing to return...
The Out of the Abyss published adventure expressly suggests that the CE priestess resurrects the enslaved PCs. The spirit can choose not to return, but I bet some of my PCs would take it. (And as it happens, there's a good chance we're about to find out...)
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
There is also a cost of ownership. Since slaves are costly, you want to feed them and shelter them. That is probably at least 1sp/day....

I had done some brief research on the topic and in Roman times a slave could be sold for 2400 to 6000 sestertius, ie 600-1500 denari, and a denari is a basic sp, so yielding a value of 60-150 gp

Sent from my SM-G930W8 using EN World mobile app
You missed a detail breakdown one page back. You'll see that your figures are a bit low, based on multiple sources.

EDIT - page three already?! That break down is on page 1. (1sp is closer to 1 sestertii or 1/4 denari.)
 

Ristamar

Adventurer
Or say we ignore realism completely and are simply picking numbers. What do we fear might happen if slaves command higher, rather than lower, prices?

I wouldn't say it's ignoring realism as much as not agreeing upon a real world analog, particularly as it relates to unskilled labor. The slave resources in a typical fantasy world are much broader, and the value of unskilled human labor would not be as great in all markets.

For a society like that of the drow, monstrous humanoids (kobolds, goblins, etc) would likely be cheaper and more readily available to enslave than members of more civilized and advanced races without risk of retaliation from the law or powerful avenging allies. Why bother paying for slaves when you can easily raid a nearby settlement and bring them back at far less cost?

Granted, the slave market in more civilized regions will skew toward less monstrous labor, so perhaps slave prices would be higher in those areas.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I wouldn't say it's ignoring realism as much as not agreeing upon a real world analog, particularly as it relates to unskilled labor. The slave resources in a typical fantasy world are much broader, and the value of unskilled human labor would not be as great in all markets.

For a society like that of the drow, monstrous humanoids (kobolds, goblins, etc) would likely be cheaper and more readily available to enslave than members of more civilized and advanced races without risk of retaliation from the law or powerful avenging allies. Why bother paying for slaves when you can easily raid a nearby settlement and bring them back at far less cost?

Granted, the slave market in more civilized regions will skew toward less monstrous labor, so perhaps slave prices would be higher in those areas.
Sure but why this devotion to keeping the price low?

I mean, for other rationales, if drow go raiding monstrous humanoid settlements they risk being killed themselves. The slaves they take have to be worth it to a self-centered drow!
 


Ristamar

Adventurer
Sure but why this devotion to keeping the price low?

I mean, for other rationales, if drow go raiding monstrous humanoid settlements they risk being killed themselves. The slaves they take have to be worth it to a self-centered drow!

  • Most humanoids (monstrous or otherwise) don't pose much of a threat to a skilled drow raiding party.
  • The drow raiders themselves are often "slaves" to the desires of their superiors so their lives aren't necessarily worth much.
 

These values come directly from the core rules (PHB 159). A skilled laborer makes 10x the earnings of an unskilled one. A highly-skilled laborer - a caster - makes 5-25x the earnings of a skilled one. Seeing as those numbers can be used in a simple way to put a reasonable (at least so far as emulating rl prices is concerned) value on slaves, it seems reasonable and good for consistency to go with them.

The only edition of D&D that really put thought behind its economics was 3e, when the difference between "skilled" and "unskilled" was several levels of the expert class and a significantly higher bonus.
It doesn't work as well in 5e where a "skilled worker" might just have proficiency, which is a 10% greater chance for success.
Even if there were more "worker" NPCs that had expertise, it would be a limited net benefit and likely not warrant the 10x increase in price. (Excluding the few rare tasks that *require* proficiency in a set of tools to even attempt.)

Regardless, skilled labourers are specialists. They do one job extremely well and charge high because they're not going to be doing it as often. That doesn't work as well for slaves, who are more general purpose. You don't get a bunch of specialists slaves because you're not going to need that slave every day (with the possible exception of a scribe or similar assistant).
Paying ten times the price for a slave you're mostly going to use a tenth as often a regular slave is foolish. You just hire an actual artisan for that task.

Arguably though, a skilled worked charges 10x as much because they can. Because capitalism. And, again, because they have lifestyle costs and might only find work every 2-5 days. A slave specialist doesn't have that same value, lifestyle costs, and the like. Their value is determined by the slave market rather than worker.

For a specialist being used every day (again, like a valet or chef) you would certainly pay more, but not necessarily *that* much more. After all, it's cheaper to just buy a youth at a tenth the price and train them for the role than buy the specialist. As per the PHB that will cost 250 gp (plus lifestyle, for another 25 gp) plus the cost of the slave. That's only 425 gp. It wouldn't take long for an established merchant to realise if they could sell that slave for only 1000 gp and make a tidy profit (or pay for two more slaves). But, again, this is assuming you paid full price for that slave. If you had people go out and capture & enslave people, the initial cost is 0 gp. While you'd need to occasionally hire slavers (2 gp/day for maybe 10 dudes), the initial cost might be just over 300 gp. So 400-500 gp nets you a decent profit.

5 unskilled slaves will eat 5 times as much as 1 skilled slave, and can't actually do the kind of tasks you need a skilled slave for.
Yes, those five unskilled slaves do need food. Likely less than 1sp a day (since you have your own house and such, this would likely be poor rather than wretched). The difference between the 5 unskilled slaves and 1 skilled slave is 750 gp, or 150 gp each. So you could feed those five slaves for 1500 days - or four years - for the money it would cost to upgrade to that one skilled slave.

However, to do all the odd tasks skilled tasks you might require skilled labour for, you'd need a dozen skilled slaves. The blacksmith, the woodcarver, the jewelsmith, the alchemist, etc.
Again, it's better to just go to a freeman blacksmith for the one day you need a horseshoe than buy a slave.
 

It might help if we expanded the database on slaves, beyond early-era USA.


Anybody have documentation from Spanish Empire-era Latin America, or the Caribbean islands? Brazil?
Or other cultures / times where slavery was 'normal'? (Maybe something in the Code of Hammurabi?)



According the Code of Hammurabi, a slave was anyone who worked at another persons business, besides an apprentice. The most common reason for enslavement was running up a debt, or being a POW. Slavery generally lasted for a specified period of time. Slaves were payed wages, and could own property. Slavery did not extend to any relatives (wives and children were safe).

Besides that, when dealing with any topic, I think it is important to ask: What kind of story are you trying to tell, and why? Answering this could bring up other questions such as: Who is my audience? Especially when dealing with a subject as sensitive as slavery, it's important to think about these questions. In my opinion at least.
 
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Without the aid of magic or wings, if I step of a cliff in the Spine of the World (far north of Faerun), do I fall?

Yes, you do. And regardless of the height of the cliff, you reach the bottom and take damage in 6 seconds.

Trying to model physical reality in D&D leads to madness. Double so for economic reality.
 

MechaPilot

Explorer
For my OOTA campaign I needed to get a handle on the value of slaves. It's a repugnant subject, but not one I believe we should avoid. Here is where I landed -

Slavery
Slavery is common in the Underdark, being most practiced by drow, duergar and fomorians. About 1/5 such creatures own on average 5 slaves, while 1/50 own on average 50. About 1/10 slaves are skilled, of whom 1/10 have tier 1 character-class equivalence. Old slaves are rare: most are young or adult. Slaves are priced on the basis of 2 years earnings from their labour.


Menzoberranzan (pop 20,000 free)
Type...........Slaves.........Usual Price

Unskilled......40,000.............150gp (based on 2sp earnings/day)
Skilled...........4,000...........1,500gp (based on 2gp earnings/day)
Tier 1...............400...........7,500gp (based on 10gp earnings/day)
Tier 2.................40........36,500gp (based on 50gp earnings/day)
Tier 3..................4.........priceless
Tier 4...............0-1.........priceless
Epic+..................0.........priceless

My assumptions are 1) based on large-scale slavery in the real world (US and UK) slaves are priced based on anticipated profits from their labour, 2) most slaves will remain in captivity for 5-10 years before dying or escaping, 2) owning a slave comes with costs and risks that more than halve their earnings for the purpose of calculating anticipated profits (hence they're valued on less than half their expected lifetime earnings). I based costs and earnings on PHB 157-159. I believe some readers are going to feel here that my values are too high so I'd like to explain why I believe it is important that they should be high. I based the slave population numbers on real world figures, bringing down the top end to reflect less efficient mythic-medieval logistics. Slaves are in addition to the free population, i.e. in 1479DR Menzoberranzan contains perhaps 60,000 sentient beings, 2/3rds of whom are slaves. I used my "order of magnitude fewer per tier" rule of thumb for slave skill levels. We know that there are at least some tier 1 or above slaves in Menzoberranzan :devil: Are there tier 3 or 4 slaves? As always that is up to each DM, but I feel we should raise the possibility: that could lead to interesting scenarios.

Your assumptions section doesn't state what interest rate you used to discount the future net income from the slave's labor to its net present value.

As it so happens, I've done some math here (big surprise from the tax accountant, I know).

An unskilled laborer earns 2 SP a day. PHB pg 159.

However, you also need to subtract the cost of living. While the conditions a slave lives in certainly qualifies as "inhumane," a term used to describe the wretched standard of living (PHB pg 158), the truth is that the remainder of the description fails to line up with what we'd expect for housing a slave. The squalid living condition (also PHB pg 158) is far more accurate, and that costs 1 SP a day.

So, we have a net income of 1 SP per day. And, that's ignoring any costs for hiring out the slave, or paying people to make sure the slave doesn't run away or otherwise try to fight for its freedom (perhaps by killing its owner).

Let's use your 10 year assumption for how long they can work. So, we have 1 SP per day, 365 days per year, for 10 years: that's 3,650 SP, or 365 GP.

But, that's future income. Now you have to discount that income stream. Since there really is no good way to determine the prevailing interest rate, our best bet is to use the desired rate of return as the discount rate so we can see what a willing buyer would pay in an arms'-length fair-market transaction.

Using the formula for the present value of an annuity, where the annual net income of 365 SP is the annual rents, 10 years is the number of periods, and 10% is the desired rate of return, we get 2,242.77 SP. That's a price of 224 GP, 2 SP, and 8 CP (actually 7.7 CP, but I rounded up). Which is actually equivalent to the PHB price for 4.5 draft horses (at 50 GP each). PHB pg 157.

To give that further perspective, examine that cost if paid in trade goods.
22,428 CP = 22,428 pounds of wheat. That's more than eleven tons of wheat!
22,428 CP = 4,485.6 pounds of salt. That's more than two tons of salt!
22,428 CP = 11,214 pounds of flour, or 11,214 chickens.
22,428 CP = 224 goats, or 112 sheep, or 112 pounds of cinnamon or pepper.
22,428 CP = 75 pigs.
22,428 CP = 15 oxen.
22,428 CP = an elephant and 1 mastiff (approximately).
22,428 CP = 448.4 pounds of copper, or 448.4 square yards of cotton cloth.

Edit: of course, all that changes if you tinker with the rate of return. And, naturally, rate of return is pegged to perceived risk of investment loss (escape, death, etc). So, it really wouldn't be outrageous for a buyer to expect a rate of return that would seem obscenely high to us in modern times. I could easily see a desire for a 25% to 50% rate of return being reasonable.

And, for the record, at increased levels of risk we're talking about the following prices:
20% = 15,302 CP
25% = 13,032 CP
30% = 11,284 CP
40% = 8,809 CP
50% = 7,173 CP
 
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Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
You missed a detail breakdown one page back. You'll see that your figures are a bit low, based on multiple sources.

EDIT - page three already?! That break down is on page 1. (1sp is closer to 1 sestertii or 1/4 denari.)

I don't know how you reached the value of a Sestertii. First of all the price of a kg of gold seems wrong. But the current price of gold is, historically speaking, a bit of an abberation. I think it's a mistake to translate via "dollar" because it can introduce all sorts of wonky errors.

A dinari *is* a silver piece, of a reasonable size (4.5 gp before devaluation occurred gradually overtime - this is a problem for this kind of research). Historically the dinarri was worth 4 sestertii.

At 60 gp (or 600 sp) for an ordinary laborer, given that you have to feed the guy and other care (at say 1 sp/day), you are only saving 1 sp a day (at best). So it would take close to 2 years to recoup the "savings" from purchasing the slave.

Lastly, when you say that my figures are a bit low... do you mean my conclusion (gp value) or the starting value (price in sestertii)
 

An unskilled laborer per PHB 159 earns 2sp/day. So working from 1 year's income, 730sp or 73gp = about 1000 sestertii

As an aside, the 250 days that the PHB suggests as the requirement to learn new tools/languages, comes out as about a year with weekends and a few holidays off. I mention it because it could also be interpreted to hint that a 5e yearly income (and living expenses) should be based on 250 days, which places yearly income at an even 50 gp.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
I'm not offended at all. As I said, it's not clear to me why people want it to be low?


I should have thought that a reason to try to improve them :) Also, I'm very much against the idea that if we can't fix everything we should fix nothing. I know you didn't say that - I just wanted to get it in before it came up.


Well, until recently people did rather enslave one another than tend to the crops themselves. Once our culture rejected slavery, other means came into play. Isn't this kind of the point of good-alignment? Non-evil characters should not want to enslave other sentient creatures even if it is profitable to do so. Just as they should not loot every settlement that lacks power to stop them. Alignment posits reasons beyond profit for doing or not doing something. You might say that on the question of slavery at least, our cultures became generally good aligned. I feel like the - if it is profitable, PCs will do it - argument doesn't work well.


I must have worded something more brusquely than intended. I value our opinions and always take them into account. When I say "argue" I almost invariably mean "present ideas" and "work stuff out".

Sorry for not chopping up big quote, on mobile here.

I would argue there were just as many people with good alignment back when slavery was practiced, even among actual slave-owners.

As for prices, I'm not even aware I have a want here. And to be honest, I don't see a big difference in the various price levels.

To me, you objected to my comparison between slaves and "other mundane goods", even though a warhorse fetches 400 gold, a huge sum for any commoner.

I'm not sure where the argument is, really.

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I would argue there were just as many people with good alignment back when slavery was practiced, even among actual slave-owners.
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If you're talking about old school code of Hammurabi slavery, maybe. If you're talking about American South type slavery, definitely not.

Owning another Human being is pretty morally repugnant in and of itself. Pile corporal punishment, substandard living conditions, and rape filled breeding programs on top of it.... I dunno man, I just think you have to be pretty confused inside to not understand why taking away another Humans freedom is bad. You'd have to be even more messed up to be okay with rape and dismemberment of other Humans too.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
If you're talking about old school code of Hammurabi slavery, maybe. If you're talking about American South type slavery, definitely not.

Owning another Human being is pretty morally repugnant in and of itself. Pile corporal punishment, substandard living conditions, and rape filled breeding programs on top of it.... I dunno man, I just think you have to be pretty confused inside to not understand why taking away another Humans freedom is bad. You'd have to be even more messed up to be okay with rape and dismemberment of other Humans too.
Before we get all worked up, I was taking the highly theoretical stand-point that there must have been good-aligned people even during ancient times, when slavery was ubiquitous and uncontroversial (or rather, unchallenged). It's a philosophical-logical conundrum: could there have been goodness in the world even when slavery was widespread? My answer is yes; we cannot blame individuals at that time for not taking modern views on slavery.

A slaveowner could treat his slaves badly. But he could also treat his slaves well (relatively speaking). But I feel it's taking our modern sensibilities too far to demand that any Greek or African or Roman or Viking slaveowner must, say, free his slaves or be disqualified from a good alignment.

I won't respond to most of your comments. I'm not arguing "slavery is good" or any of that crap. So let's not let the discussion go down the toilet.
 

Before we get all worked up, I was taking the highly theoretical stand-point that there must have been good-aligned people even during ancient times, when slavery was ubiquitous and uncontroversial (or rather, unchallenged).

I would argue that slavery was never uncontroversial or unchallenged. History is full of revolts and political discord around this issue. The pro-slavery side generally had the upper hand in most places until a few hundred years ago.

A slaveowner could treat his slaves badly. But he could also treat his slaves well (relatively speaking). But I feel it's taking our modern sensibilities too far to demand that any Greek or African or Roman or Viking slaveowner must, say, free his slaves or be disqualified from a good alignment.

Like i said, the system of slavery you're referring to matters a lot. Enslavement 2000 years ago in Europe and Africa, was very dissimilar from the slavery of the American South 200 years ago. In my experience when people put slavery in their games or stories they more closely resemble the most extreme examples of slavery such as American slavery, rather than ancient slavery.
 


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