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Worlds of Design: Barbarians at the Gates – Part 1

It's a rare fictional universe that doesn't have barbarian lands; even in science fiction. But who decides who is a barbarian?

It's a rare fictional universe that doesn't have barbarian lands; even in science fiction. But who decides who is a barbarian?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

What’s a Barbarian, Anyway?​

It's a rare fantasy world that doesn't have barbarian lands, and even in science fiction we have barbarians in the sense of those not part of the main (human) empire, using inferior technology. Google's definition of a barbarian:
"(in ancient times) a member of a community or tribe not belonging to one of the great civilizations (Greek, Roman, Christian)."
Also, presumably "great civilizations" includes Chinese, Indian, and Muslim civilizations. In other words, a barbarian is not a member of "civilization."

The word "barbarian" can have negative connotations of a people who are simple or ignorant. But the truth is more complicated. Barbarians weren’t simple, nor were they inferior militarily. The Romans certainly considered barbarians dangerous.

Barbarians weren’t even necessarily hostile. Barbarians in your campaign need not be raiders who pillage and kill. Even the terrifying Vikings were sometime traders as well as raiders and settlers.

The Fantasy Barbarian​

Fiction and movies about Conan have created an image of barbarians as invaders “with fire and sword.” Dungeons & Dragons’ barbarian class uses the Conan archetype to create a character prone to violence. Movies tend to show it that way, with barbarians destroying and pillaging as they go.

Historically that happened sometimes, but frequently not. It depended on what kind of barbarians and what kind of defense, and on the familiarity of the barbarians with the civilized areas. Sometimes barbarians infiltrated in and gradually displaced the populace or at least merged with it.

Types of Barbarians​

There are exceptions to all generalizations, but I think we could generalize this way:
  • Foot Barbarians: The farmers who come on foot, usually willing to settle in a new place, tend to be much less destructive than popularly thought.
  • Horse Barbarians: These horsemen frequently despised the settled way of life, and needed grasslands for their horses. They were often destructive, as they were less likely to settle down.
In the western world we have three general areas where barbarians came from.
  • Steppe Barbarians: The steppe barbarian herdsmen from the plains of Russia and Eastern Europe, usually horse nomads.
  • Desert Barbarians: Then we have desert barbarians in the Near and Middle East and in northern Africa. They are also nomads who rely on herds.
  • Forest Barbarians: Forest barbarians settled, farmed, and were much more numerous than the steppe and desert barbarians because they were farmers. You can find them in Germany and Scandinavia (though animal husbandry was much more important in the latter).
These cultures were not static however. The Goths were forest barbarians in north central Europe, but later moved south and east, adopting steppe methods. They were eventually pushed into central Europe and became settled again (after a temporary foray on the Black and Aegean Seas!).

What Motivated Them?​

We can ask further about the motivation of barbarians in your campaign. Are they raiding for wealth? Sometimes they want precious metal and gems, sometimes other possessions, sometimes they want slaves to sell, but precious goods are always the most portable. Occasionally, they move because they need food/better land, or sometimes because they've been pushed by other barbarians, and all these things will affect how far they go and how willing they are to fight.

Take Vikings as an example. They wanted land, wealth, and fame, but they rarely wanted to fight unless that offered fame. When defense faltered, they saw that they could occupy land.

Defending Against Barbarians​

If there are barbarian raids, communities will prepare defenses against them, like the great defensive works of Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China. Those defensive works are more for discouraging herd raiding than for keeping raiders out. Defenders can't really man the wall - it's too long - but they can man the gates, and the gates are the only way to get the booty out or to keep steppe horsemen in. This is why Offa's Dike, a huge pile of dirt and trench without gates, dozens of miles long between England and Wales, was worth "building."

Sometimes there were walls around cities, sometimes not. That depends on local history and ability to build, and the walls might be timber rather than masonry. In some places there were dirt-walled hillforts from an earlier era. Barbarians were rarely able to capture walled cities (Mongols excepted).

There may be mobile defenders not tied to a particular place, whether horse or foot, or they may generally be immobile. All this makes a difference. Maybe the defenders are somewhere else, as when the Germans crossed the Roman Rhine frontier in 406-407 CE. At the extreme of defenseless there's just farms and farmers who may survive or may not, depending on the barbarians. If the barbarians kill the farmers, then the farmers cannot produce more food to steal.

Next week we’ll further discuss barbarian motivations, and then some ways barbarians can fit into an RPG world.

Your Turn: What part do barbarians play in your campaign?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ixal

Hero
And lets not forget that D&D double dips into the Conan/Berserker trope by having a barbarian class known for being angry, strong and naked...
About the defences, another big wall that often gets overlooked is the Limes in todays Germany which was not only a giant wall, it was also actively defended by having forts and garrisons spaced out along it to react to incursions. Probably because in that area you did not face "horse barbarians" who would have trouble scaling walls, thus an active defense was needed.

And another thing, if walls around cities are typical or not depends on the timeframe. In the (late) medieval period having a wall was often a requirement for a place to even be called a city or town instead of a village.

One thing I often find problematic in rpgs, especially kitchen sink settings like FR is the technological differences between barbarians (which fully dip into the strong but primitive trope) and its much more advanced neighbours and yet somehow the barbarians still pose a thread. Rashemen and Thay is one such a example. This simply stretched believability.
 
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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Barbarians are a perfect example of a problem I see many D&D players face: a term that serves as a general descriptor used as the name of a specific character class/trope. A barbarian tribe does not consist solely of members of the barbarian class. And "barbarians" become far more interesting IMO when one considers how their wizards, bards, and other classes fit into their dynamic.

A favorite tactic of mine is to use these assumptions against players, and sadly it is almost always effective. Players hear "barbarian" and assume it means members of the class; I love the looks on their faces when the "barbarian" group they encounter consists of wizards, clerics, and bards. Especially when said "barbarians" have better technology or magic than the PCs.

All in all, I try hard to circumvent and subvert the idea of the "noble savage," and indeed the idea of a "savage" in general. I find everybody ends up happier as a result.
 

J-H

Hero
Bret over at the ACOUP blog had a recent-ish post about fortifications. One of his points was that the walls aren't just there to stop raiders from coming - but from going.

A group of 200 motivated fighting men can scale a 40' wall pretty easily, and the big walls in the wilderness aren't going to have enough sentries to stop them.

When that group of 200 motivated fighting men make a return trip with a herd of cattle, 30 mules, 30 high quality horses, 50 captured slaves, 10 wounded of their own, 800# of silver, 2,000# of trade goods, and 20,000# of food in various formats... they are going to be much, much slower and will need to find a gate to take things through.

That gives the regional garrison time to respond, guard the gates, and hit the raiders while they're pinned against the wall.
 


Types of Barbarians​

There are exceptions to all generalizations, but I think we could generalize this way:
  • Foot Barbarians: The farmers who come on foot, usually willing to settle in a new place, tend to be much less destructive than popularly thought.
  • Horse Barbarians: These horsemen frequently despised the settled way of life, and needed grasslands for their horses. They were often destructive, as they were less likely to settle down.
Also Boat Barbarians who just come to raid and carry off anything not nailed down firmly. The vikings spring to mind, as do the Barbary Coast Corsairs. And for that matter European slave traders on Africa's west coast. Finally there's encroaching farmers definitely including Homesteaders into Native American territory.

And the big reason horse barbarians have historically had a lot of success is that when you spend all day in a saddle and you use bows to hunt you get civilisations of expert horse archers. And horse archers were, until the rise of gunpowder, man for man among the most dangerous battlefield troops there were. Most barbarians, however (other than boat barbarians and farmers) were people pushed to the fringes and generally not that much of a historical threat.

Defending Against Barbarians​

If there are barbarian raids, communities will prepare defenses against them, like the great defensive works of Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China. Those defensive works are more for discouraging herd raiding than for keeping raiders out. Defenders can't really man the wall - it's too long - but they can man the gates, and the gates are the only way to get the booty out or to keep steppe horsemen in. This is why Offa's Dike, a huge pile of dirt and trench without gates, dozens of miles long between England and Wales, was worth "building."
Offa's Dyke isn't that hard to cross and is pretty easy to cross back. What it is is basically impossible to cross by accident. It's impossible to cross it and not know you've crossed it and basically destroys any form of plausible deniability.
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ACOUP is great for worldbuilding advice. The takedown of the "Fremen Mirage" was worth every minute spent reading it.
Absolutely agreed. And here's a link
 

Barbarians are a perfect example of a problem I see many D&D players face: a term that serves as a general descriptor used as the name of a specific character class/trope. A barbarian tribe does not consist solely of members of the barbarian class. And "barbarians" become far more interesting IMO when one considers how their wizards, bards, and other classes fit into their dynamic.

A favorite tactic of mine is to use these assumptions against players, and sadly it is almost always effective. Players hear "barbarian" and assume it means members of the class; I love the looks on their faces when the "barbarian" group they encounter consists of wizards, clerics, and bards. Especially when said "barbarians" have better technology or magic than the PCs.

All in all, I try hard to circumvent and subvert the idea of the "noble savage," and indeed the idea of a "savage" in general. I find everybody ends up happier as a result.

It depends on which edition of D&D you are playing. I remember the old days of barbarians hating magic and needing to destroy any magic items they found and getting one to tolerate a mage in the party was a lot of work.
 

Dioltach

Legend
For a great take on barbarians and their interaction with society, try Harry Harrison's Deathworld 3. Bonus points for HH's signature societal commentary buried deeply under all the action and humour.
 

Barbarians are a perfect example of a problem I see many D&D players face: a term that serves as a general descriptor used as the name of a specific character class/trope. A barbarian tribe does not consist solely of members of the barbarian class. And "barbarians" become far more interesting IMO when one considers how their wizards, bards, and other classes fit into their dynamic.
I think a lot changed between 3.X barbarians (who are literally illiterate warriors who rage at people to hit hard while being hit more) and 4e barbarians (who channel primal forces or spirits into themselves to empower themselves in combat). And a little changed between 4e barbarians and 5e barbarians (who channel something into themselves to empower themselves).
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
But who decides who is a barbarian?​

Barbarians weren’t even necessarily hostile. Barbarians in your campaign need not be raiders who pillage and kill. Even the terrifying Vikings were sometime traders as well as raiders and settlers.
Imperial scribes decide who are called barbarians. And apparently, WotC.

By the way, Minnesota appreciates the Vikings nod.
 

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