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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

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J-H

Adventurer
A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. It's by a history professor who specializes in Mediterranean (Roman-mostly) history. He engages with history and pop culture, so it's things like "Here's a 5 part series on how fabric is historically made and what goes into it," an exploration of traditional ironmaking (1 lb steel = 500# wood give or take), a look at the armor and organization of the forces of Gondor in ROTK, etc. Always interesting reading.

 

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.
Yeah, that's a myth. Horse archers were great at skirmishing, raids, harassment, and annoying the enemy until they foolishly broke formation. They were worthless at taking or holding fortifications, outclassed by unmounted archers, and could only really function in open terrain (not coincidentally like the steppes). They were resource-intensive to train and field, making it difficult to replace casualties. People often ignore the fact that historically successful cultures that focused on horse archers often made heavy use of other military unit types and had vast empires backing them up. And often overstate (comparatively) brief periods of ascendence (e.g. Huns sacking parts of the Roman empire or a few Mongol conquests) after centuries of ineffectiveness and marginalization.
 
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S'mon

Legend
Yeah, that's a myth. Horse archers were great at skirmishing, raids, harassment, and annoying the enemy until they foolishly broke formation. They were worthless at taking or holding fortifications, outclassed by unmounted archers, and could only really function in open terrain (not coincidentally like the steppes). They were resource-intensive to train and field, making it difficult to replace casualties. People often ignore the fact that historically successful cultures that focused on horse archers often made heavy use of other military unit types and had vast empires backing them up. And often overstate (comparatively) brief periods of ascendence (e.g. Huns sacking parts of the Roman empire or a few Mongol conquests) after centuries of ineffectiveness and marginalization.
"A few Mongol conquests" he he.
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Horse archery didn't begin or end with the Mongols. The Mongol empire held on little more than two centures; didn't conquer fortifications with horse archers (although their armies heavily featured horse archers - something like 60% depending on era and location). Predecessors and successors, also using horse archers, were beat back time and again by the Chinese; occasionally holding territory for a while. Compare to Roman empire (over a thousand years), Byzantine Empire (over 900 years), Ottoman turks (something like 6 centuries), Holy Roman empire (approximately a thousand years depending on how you define it), pre-Yuan imperial China (1200 years, although what precisely constitutes "China" gets a little murky), post-Yuan imperial China (500+ years). Horse archers didn't magically disappear in these regions or eras. The Mongols were feared for destablizing former power structures and their propensity for atrocities like mass executions; not because horse archers were the absolute pinnacle of military might at the time.
 
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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
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.
That's true, I suppose. And it adds different cultural context to the characters.

Sidenote: it's really interesting to see which rules different groups use(d) or disregard(ed). My groups never had a problem with racial level limits, for example, but found the "barbarians won't work with magic users" rule to be silly and we never cared about it.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
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).
I didn't play much 4e and don't recall ever even reading the Barbarian class description TBH, so my personal context here is weak.

But even in 3e - even in the TSR era, honestly - the idea that Barbarian was a class name rubbed me the wrong way. Unlike every other class I can think of, the term describes/insults cultural norms instead of defining a character's abilities.

But as usual, I'm veering off-topic here.
 


lewpuls

Adventurer
Let me remind readers that I do not equate the class Barbarian with barbarians in general. Many RPGs do not have Barbarian class characters, of course. So saying there's conflation between the class and the general consideration of barbarians is making a false assumption.

And I remind Tonguez that even when the "civilized" people are invaders, their purpose in building a wall would be to keep out the ones they call barbarians. How they got there is irrelevant to the purpose of the wall.

Yet most of the time, civilized people ARE the defenders, what we call barbarians are the invaders.
 


Your Turn: What part do barbarians play in your campaign?
I use the term wilders in my campaign to denote the barbarian. Their culture emanates from the land they come from - a northern tundra/wilderness where they follow herds of caribou and forage. Their technology, while cleverly pragmatic, is inferior to the kingdoms which they have little contact with. They have no written language, and currency is barter.

The tundra/forest they inhabit is large and bowled in, with a small (2000' - 5500') mountain range running through its eastern side before reaching the sea. The western side has large mountains (foothills start at 3000') that prevent any reasonable travel. It also stops the herds they track.

While they do have occasional gatherings with their neighboring wilders, they tend to be remote and soloistic. The gatherings are only during the summer solstice and are pensive. They exchange ideas, but mostly use the time to try and barter. During this time, some of the younger wilders take on a mate. Both males and females can declare a mate, in which the group barters for the mate, and upon agreement, the person removes themselves from their group and enters the new group. It is a cultural norm and not thought of as negative. For the most part, the new group treats the traded individual as part of the group almost immediately, individual circumstances and personalities notwithstanding. This mixing has prevented their relatively small group 50 to 200 from familial complications. But it has not diversified their physical appearance, which is dark thick hair, deep black to light grey eyes, and pale skin. They have little facial hair, and their stature is sleight compared to the other human groups on the continent, save the desert kin.

To outsiders, these wilders are often thought to be cursed. A very dangerous stigma in my campaign. One group, the northfolk, who live with the dwarves, has accepted them. They do not believe the wilders to be cursed. The dwarves are still hesitant, but they do allow them to live in their community, albeit under a watchful eye. While living there, they have shown a penchant for reading, a status the dwarves have always been noted for. This has caused some dwarves to think twice about their cursed visitors.

Anyone who plays a wilder has incredible sprinting speed, a boon for resist challenges, and is able to shrug off damage as if it didn't happen.
 

Let me remind readers that I do not equate the class Barbarian with barbarians in general. Many RPGs do not have Barbarian class characters, of course. So saying there's conflation between the class and the general consideration of barbarians is making a false assumption.

And I remind Tonguez that even when the "civilized" people are invaders, their purpose in building a wall would be to keep out the ones they call barbarians. How they got there is irrelevant to the purpose of the wall.

Yet most of the time, civilized people ARE the defenders, what we call barbarians are the invaders.
Correction: Most of the time when the "civilized" people are the invaders they win and push back the "barbarians". Better logistics and organisation (and frequently tech) wins wars. Most of the time when the "barbarians" are the invaders they lose. Which is why they do it again and again; the same pressure to expand remains but they failed the first time. And "civilized" people have frequently set up propaganda to try and play themselves as the defenders when it's pretty obvious that they aren't; look at the American West (or any of the other land taken from the Native Americans) and the Western genre for examples.
 

look at the American West (or any of the other land taken from the Native Americans) and the Western genre for examples.

You don't even have to look West, just look at the Trail of Tears, where several tribes in the southeastern US were force-marched out to Oklahoma. Or the whole European conquest of the Atlantic coast of the Americas, long before the US became an independent country. Gold, Glory, and God.
 

S'mon

Legend
Correction: Most of the time when the "civilized" people are the invaders they win and push back the "barbarians". Better logistics and organisation (and frequently tech) wins wars. Most of the time when the "barbarians" are the invaders they lose. Which is why they do it again and again; the same pressure to expand remains but they failed the first time. And "civilized" people have frequently set up propaganda to try and play themselves as the defenders when it's pretty obvious that they aren't; look at the American West (or any of the other land taken from the Native Americans) and the Western genre for examples.

Be on the strategic offensive, and the tactical defensive, is generally good advice. :)
 

S'mon

Legend
Correction: Most of the time when the "civilized" people are the invaders they win and push back the "barbarians". Better logistics and organisation (and frequently tech) wins wars. Most of the time when the "barbarians" are the invaders they lose. Which is why they do it again and again; the same pressure to expand remains but they failed the first time. And "civilized" people have frequently set up propaganda to try and play themselves as the defenders when it's pretty obvious that they aren't; look at the American West (or any of the other land taken from the Native Americans) and the Western genre for examples.

I noticed running WoTC's Princes of the Apocalypse that the Sword Coast/North has this meme - the civilised humans 'expand peacefully' into barbarian human & nonhuman territories, the barbarians, orcs etc then 'violently attack' the peaceful humans - can't imagine why. :D

Edit: There's one side quest where some barbaric orcs even attack a human ranch!
 

Hussar

Legend
I think part of the problem is that we're running against the tropes of fantasy vs actual real world history. In fantasy, it's the "invading barbarians" who the "good peoples" have to defend from. Whether it's the White Walkers from beyond the Wall, or the orcs of Mordor, or any number of other examples, it's almost always the "threat from outside" from the "barbarians".

The reasons for this in the genre have been well examined and are pretty much known to all and don't really need to be rehashed here.

But, what that means for our games is that it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the implications of how our games are structured in light of the realization that those structures are so heavily embedded in colonial imperialism and colonialist thinking.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Horse archery didn't begin or end with the Mongols. The Mongol empire held on little more than two centures; didn't conquer fortifications with horse archers (although their armies heavily featured horse archers - something like 60% depending on era and location). Predecessors and successors, also using horse archers, were beat back time and again by the Chinese; occasionally holding territory for a while. Compare to Roman empire (over a thousand years), Byzantine Empire (over 900 years), Ottoman turks (something like 6 centuries), Holy Roman empire (approximately a thousand years depending on how you define it), pre-Yuan imperial China (1200 years, although what precisely constitutes "China" gets a little murky), post-Yuan imperial China (500+ years). Horse archers didn't magically disappear in these regions or eras. The Mongols were feared for destablizing former power structures and their propensity for atrocities like mass executions; not because horse archers were the absolute pinnacle of military might at the time.
Being Russian, one of the groups that fought the Mongols, in art from that era, they are armored, and fight with sword and lance; nor do they really come off as barbarians the way the Germans or Britons do; they had siege artillery, usually of Chinese levy, and often took cities by launching plague ridden corpses over the walls. Which really to me, the sort of fierceness attributed to them, is also that they come sweeping in on the heels of the plague.
These are Kazakhs, but still cool:
 

Yeah, the reason Chinggis and his kids succeeded (for a while) is they changed up the rules, broke up the influence of clan loyalties by reorganizing their society, and also made use of resources and technologies from settled civilization (better gear, local soldiers and expertise like the siegecraft). They made use of the best advantages of horse nomads - and of the agricultural states they traded with and conquered.

Horse nomads are the only type of culture aside from traditional agricultural states that can compete with them in warfare, and even then, they aren't a superior threat unless they adapt and change like the Mongol horde did.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Yeah, the reason Chinggis and his kids succeeded (for a while) is they changed up the rules, broke up the influence of clan loyalties by reorganizing their society, and also made use of resources and technologies from settled civilization (better gear, local soldiers and expertise like the siegecraft). They made use of the best advantages of horse nomads - and of the agricultural states they traded with and conquered.

Horse nomads are the only type of culture aside from traditional agricultural states that can compete with them in warfare, and even then, they aren't a superior threat unless they adapt and change like the Mongol horde did.
Guns finally beat them. There was a discussion yesterday in my discord with some Russians about Ivan the Terrible, and one thing is that he breaks away, and the Mongols come back with Ottoman artillery and in 1587 level Moscow and take hundreds of thousands away as slaves. This though is a time when muskets begin to rise in importance, and the Mongols don't have a force to oppose the Streltsy - Musketeers. Even in that time they often had numbers such as outnumbering other forces like the battle with Tsar Ivan was 6,000 of us to 80,000 Tatars (Mongols). They retain importance for another couple of centuries except slowy time has its way and they can't grow as much population-wise, living in arid lands.
 

The Mongol threat also played a factor in China falling behind Europe in gunpowder weapons research. Europe had a lot of neighbouring rivals close to each other, and various pressure cookers of intense warfare where it was important to innovate gun technology (great for smashing walls). While China had its share of antipersonnel firearm developments (like during the Three Kingdoms period), there was a long stretch of time where the only major threat to the Middle Kingdom was the horse nomads.

The book Firearms: A Global History gives a good (if somewhat simplistic) explanation of the problems the Chinese armies faced, trying to haul their cannons around the steppe, chasing after Mongols. The Chinese eventually gave up trying to use guns against them, and their weapons research stagnated for centuries.
 

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