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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?

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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

Adventurer
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

Adventurer
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.
 

toucanbuzz

Legend
In my current game world, they are the first settlers, before there were kingdoms, and they're still here in a loose coalition of tribes that functions like a nation if a tribe is threatened. They are currently united in their struggle against the Technic League, a growing power that discovered crashed alien technology and is using it to craft itself a slave nation on barbarian lands that doesn't mesh well with animalism and spirit quests. The traditional barbarian in our setting has a severe animosity to machinery because it represents an oppressor.
 

Tonguez

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

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:

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).

Theres a couple of flaws in your premise and the general presumption of What is a Barbarian
Firstly the Greek barbaros was just the opposite of polites and referred to all non-Greek speakers including those from other Great civlisations like the Persians, Egyptians, Medes and Phoenicians.

ALso Barbarian is very much defined by conflict and thus your premise that Barbarians in your campaign need not be raiders who pillage and kill is flawed as it just perpetuates ongoing stereotype and misnomer. Remember Viking is a job description not a people - Vikings are those who conduct raids against more settled communities and thus are called Barbarians

However a Swedish farmer raising cattle and pigs is not a Viking to the other farmers around him. Neither is a Hun merchant or a Cimmerian 'druid' a 'Barbarian'.

Moreover Barbarian is a pejorative of outsiders - its only when the Roman invaders arrived amongst the Gaulish villagers that the Gauls were defined as barbarians by the invaders. The Greeks/Romans used the term Barbarian to justify enslavement of non-Greeks like the Thracians or Lydians etc

SO the stereotype in Game Settings has the PC nations as the settled civilisation and its enemies as barbarians - again a definition based on conflict. But as World builders should we be perpetuating stereotype or allowing for the fact that there is no such thing as a Foot Barbarian or a Desert Barbarian or a Horse Barbarian - those are all terms premised on racist stereotype that should be avoided entirely.

Instead the Barbarian is a type of Warrior that is able to draw on primal emotions to enhance their combat prowess, civilized barbarians are possible
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
A player in my game GMs a different game (that I am not a part of). In that game one of her players is playing a Barbarian who is a Joy barbarian. Instead of "rage", that PC gets a bonus action to "joy". I think it would be fun to allow any sort of emotion in the place of "rage". Except maybe "Fear" since fear already has a mechanical function in the game...
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . aLso Barbarian is very much defined by conflict and thus your premise that Barbarians in your campaign need not be raiders who pillage and kill is flawed as it just perpetuates ongoing stereotype and misnomer. . . civilized barbarians are possible.
Could you explain this in a less-self-contradictory way?
SO the stereotype in Game Settings has the PC nations as the settled civilisation and its enemies as barbarians - again a definition based on conflict. But as World builders should we be perpetuating stereotype or allowing for the fact that there is no such thing as a Foot Barbarian or a Desert Barbarian or a Horse Barbarian - those are all terms premised on racist stereotype that should be avoided entirely.
Which race would consider this racist? I thought Barbarian was a class...
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Could you explain this in a less-self-contradictory way?

Which race would consider this racist? I thought Barbarian was a class...
the racist aspect is describing certain real world peoples as 'Horse Barbarians' from the plains of Russia or "Desert Barbarians" from the Near/Middle East, Its conflating certain cultures with the role of Barbarian which perpetuates a racist stereotype - in what way were Near Eastern peoples more Barbarous than those elsewhere?

The flaw in stating that Barbarians need not be raiders is the same conflating of role/class with culture. The Barbarian as class is a type of warrior - and thus very much defined by conflict as Barbarian = aggressive warrior in the heat of battle. However rage-fueled warrior can come from anywhere - Roman soldier attacking a Gaulish village could be as much a Barbarian class as the local Gauls.

The OPs premise that there are Barbarian cultures that the settled people needs to defend against is flawed, the example of Hadrians Wall is illustrative as although it was built due to troublesome tribes to the north (I assume they would be Foot Barbarians in the OPs list) the fact is, it was the Romans who were the foreign invader



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).
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
In the real world barbarians are defined by who wrote the history books.

In my game, barbarians are the ones who have cultures that are warlike and tend to value strength over civilization. They typically reject the strict hierarchy of laws and trappings of the noble social classes, in D&D terms they are normally chaotic societies. They have leaders and kings, but succession is rarely decided strictly by line of succession, the child of a leader has to prove themselves just like everyone else.

This does not mean that they do not have cities, just that they prefer fluid societies over structured ones. Oftentimes they do live in less populous areas, one of the reasons they tend to be warlike is because of the constant threats from monsters and things that go bump in the dark. It's better to be trained and ready to pick up a weapon and rush to battle at a moments notice rather than rely on armor that takes minutes to put on when those precious minutes can make the difference between stopping raiders or not.

So the cultures tend to elevate deeds over title, have stronger ties to nature and the spiritual. It does not mean that all members of these cultures are bare-chested Conan clones. Knowledge is valued if it's useful, wise men and women are regarded with great respect, awe, and sometimes fear.

There are different types of barbarian cultures in my world, everything from hordes that raid to sea raiding definitely-not-Vikings that wouldn't be caught dead with horned helmets* to nomads who only have a warlike culture because they are so often threatened themselves.

*Not that real world Vikings ever had horned helmets either, it would be a rather dumb thing to add to something designed to minimize impact to the skull.
 

"Barbarian" in my campaign is mostly used for the nomadic herding culture (or, rather, collection of related cultures) beyond the eastern mountains, in the highland steppe. The main region of the game, the Tarrakhuna, is of Middle Eastern/Arabian Nights flavor and tone, heavily inspired by Morocco, Al-Andalus, and classic pre-Islamic and Islamic folklore. The eastern steppe is poorly known by the people of the Tarrakhuna who see little benefit from trade or cultural exchange to the east, hence the term.

Notably, however, the Tarrakhuna has two branches of its culture: the city-folk and the Nomad Tribes. Historically speaking, all free mortals (humans, elves, dragonborn, etc.) were once nomads, eking out a hardscrabble existence in the monster-filled, arid/desert wilds between the cities that were ruled by the capricious and often cruel genie-rajahs. After the genies departed the mortal world to live full-time in the elemental otherworld, Al-Akirah (the mirror of the Tarrakhuna region there thus became called "Jinnistan"), some mortals chose to keep living the nomadic life while others took over the old genie cities or (in a few rare cases) built new ones. Because of this kinship and the historical origins of mortal culture, on top of speaking the same language and sharing major religious traditions, the Nomad Tribes are still considered "the same culture," and it is an incredible insult to call a Nomad a "barbarian." (City-folk may still look down on them etc. but they usually aren't stupid enough to mock a Nomad to her face, and likewise many Nomads see city-folk as decadent and corrupt.)

So, "barbarian" has only a relatively small place in my setting, while "Nomad" is actually a pretty important subculture distinction and carries a lot of meaning, especially for some of our party members (the Druid and Ranger are both Nomads themselves, and the Bard lived among them for several years as a travelling storyteller and myth-weaver.)
 

Firstly the Greek barbaros was just the opposite of polites and referred to all non-Greek speakers including those from other Great civlisations like the Persians, Egyptians, Medes and Phoenicians.

Since most fantasy RPGs are set in the equivalent of the 11th-15th centuries AD, what the definition was in the days of the ancient Greeks does not matter. What became the typical barbarian came about when the various barbarian tribes contributed to the end/destruction of the Roman Empire. Stories of those tribes were passed down over the centuries and they are the basis for most fantasy barbarian tribes/clans/etc. But for something more abstract, the more "civilized" societies/cultures have always considered the less "civilized" ones to be barbarians. And it does not have to be barbaric in the literal sense of violence, but just living conditions and the inability to become culturally advanced. Someone lives in a hut in the woods or a tent in the desert or a yurt on the steppes, instead of in a nice house in the city? They are barbarians. Where it can get into more racist thought is with the real-world discrimination of the poor and lower class within a culturally advanced society. Treating those people like barbarians is definitely a bad thing.
 

S'mon

Legend
I ran a good campaign where the PCs were Conanesque barbarians fighting an evil Roman*-style empire, Neo-Nerath. Definitely made for a nice change from the usual Tolkienesque style conflict of barbaric evil orcs vs nice feudal humans.

*Well they were more like fantasy Nazis with some Roman trappings.
 


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