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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

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
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.
Sounds like an interesting book. You are right, we also faced the Polish-Lithuanians, and Swedes at the same exact time. Also a big factor of what happened with the Mongols was the Unity the Chinggis/ Ghengis fostered began to break down by the 17th century. Though the fight with the Horse Nomads lasted from the 9th century, to finally the 19th, Avars to Krim, that is a thousand years of warfare.

China, and the Song, a dynasty of poets, and their problems with the Mongols, is fascinating. Originally, I guess they had hired them as mercenaries. There is Chinese writing in Monasteries in Russia from the middle ages, often Merchants, paying for prayers, they were coming across the Steppes.
 

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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.
They also beat the crap out of the Islamic heartland to such an extent that succeeding people in the region have never fully recovered to this day (relative to others); Razing Baghdad and other cities, slaughtering MILLIONS because they dared to fight back, and destroying world-reknowned centers of learning that produced influential figures like Avicenna.
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.
Of course, after their land is annexed by Ivan IV (?), their western descendants start to trade in bows for firearms, mix with homeless populations resulting from Tsarist policies, and become some of what might be called barbarians of the modern age - the Cossacks.
 
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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.
Non-horse based pastoralists (herding cultures) have also done pretty well for themselves from time to time. For instance the Bedouin, the Maasai, the Picts /Scots (arguably mixed pastoralist/agricultural depending on location); what we call the Classic Greeks started out this way as well. And I -think- the famed Balearic islanders were also largely pastoralist. Of course, pastoralism isn't very conducive to large nation states or fortifications, so in the long run...

EDIT: Hrm. Not sure that I actually know enough to assert that Bedouin are/were non-horse based in retrospect; their culture reveres the animal and is to the best of my knowledge the source of the whole arabian horse thing. Was under the impression there were places/times where possession of horses was uncommon compared to, say, camels but...I could be speaking in ignorance here.
 
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Bitbrain

Location: Arrakis
Reply to OP.

“Barbarian” is a playable class in my setting and not a word used to describe a culture.

For example, the Ostland warriors who jump out of a longboat and smash your face with a great ax might have levels in the barbarian class, but the surrounding nations will refer to them as “Ostlanders”, not barbarians. Because that is the land where said raiders come from.

As for the different classifications of so-called barbarians, I suppose you could say my games have Temporal Barbarians.

Basically, when a specific region experiences a bit too much time travel shenanigans, some people go insane from all the bizarre energies leaking into reality and start behaving like feral animals rather than people. They’ll cooperate with each other to attack or defend themselves from other creatures, but their new “society” doesn’t have anything in the way of customs or traditions.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
While I can see that the word is loaded, I often hear the word "barbarian" used glamorously just as often as pejoratively. Even in French, and that says a lot since the same word (barbare) is used both for "barbarian" and "barbaric".

In-game, it is often used with nostalgia of a bygone era when people were more free, things were less complicated, more in tune with forces of nature, in a mixture of awe, envy, and wonder of a people that appear exotic and different.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Of course, after their land is annexed by Ivan IV (?), their western descendants start to trade in bows for firearms, mix with homeless populations resulting from Tsarist policies, and become some of what might be called barbarians of the modern age - the Cossacks.
The Crimean Tatars took 20,000 Ukrainians/Slavs in slave raids until Peter the Great stopped them by attacking the Ukraine in the 17th-18th century, Russia still lost the war, the final part was in the 19th century, the Crimean War, that was the end.

Yeah, you never want to call Cossacks barbarians. Even I have had to hear how Russians aren't really Europeans, or the scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar. Cossacks, and many other Slavs, are Horse People, not as exactly nomadic as others, a hybrid culture however. Cossacks are sometimes argued as a subculture, versus and individual culture. My Father people used to say he looked like a Tatar, and he would joke he was from Dushanbe except he was really from Leningrad. Also there is some confusion of Kazakhs, such as from Kazakhstan and Kazaki, or Cossacks.

Mongol people still exist too, all across the various regions:
 

Yeah, you never want to call Cossacks barbarians. Even I have had to hear how Russians aren't really Europeans, or the scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar. Cossacks, and many other Slavs, are Horse People, not as exactly nomadic as others, a hybrid culture however. Cossacks are sometimes argued as a subculture, versus and individual culture.
Was not intended as a pejorative. About half my family comes from the area 😜 (and in the not-so-distant past). In addition to serving at times as mercenaries or the Tsars' police force as well as being repressed and mistreated by the government, the cossacks had a penchant for settlements that couldn't sustain themselves without raiding at various points in their history. And their targets were often other Russian citizens (regardless of ethnicity).

A fair few nomadic populations have ended up as "subcultures" as other people established more permanent settlements and nations around them. This is one of the situations the Forgotten Realms' Uthgardt find themselves in; having a bit of a chip on their shoulder since, from their perspective, outsiders have long been encroaching upon what they consider to be their personal space.
 
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There should also be some discussion of sea raiders, which occupy a similar niche in maritime settings. There are recent and upcoming games that put sea raiders in protagonist roles, whether they are Norse homesteaders gone a-viking in The North Sea Epilogues or the Mangangayaw inspired by Visayan raiders in Gubat Banwa (Warring Nations) and The Islands of Sina Una for 5e.

The Visayan raiders are quite interesting.

According to thirteenth-century Chinese records, certain raiders referred to as Pi-sho-ye made organized attacks on villages along the Fukien coast during the twelvth century.

"They were fond of iron vessels.… one could get rid of them by closing the entrance door, from which they would only wrench the iron knocker and go away…"

"When attacking an enemy, they are armed with javelins to which are attached ropes of over a hundred feet in length, in order to recover them after throwing; for they put such value on the iron of which these weapons are made, that they cannot bear to lose them."

Although Chau Ju-Kua believed the raiders came from the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait, other historians such as Lacouperie and Laufer have identified the Visayans as the most likely origin of the barbarians whom the Chinese called the Pi-Sho-ye.

Visayans of the time would have used barangay warships, which may have been equipped with double outriggers, to ride a northern current (the western branch of the Japanese Kuroshio) from the Philippines in the early part of the year, taking them to the Fukien coast. Then they would have had to take a southward current just east of the main Kuroshio, down from Formosa to Catanduanes Island (possibly named after the Visayan term katadungan, which means a reference point for a straightcourse). Catanduanes could have been a way station for Visayan raiders on the way home. Quite an impressive journey.

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(artwork from the Mangangayaw discipline in Gubat Banwa)
 


European-style "colonists" might make pretty good "barbarian" sea raiders. Rolling in on ships, taking slaves and demanding precious metals. Possibly after sending in a series of traders or religious types who conveniently scout the area; or disgorging settlers who non-nonchalantly set up plantations without the full permission of local government. (Yeah, I know this is an oversimplification / distortion of reality). From a tactical perspective, boats seem ideal for raiding - they allow raiders to haul off loot and captives easily, make pursuit more difficult. Furthermore, one of the traditional problems with artillery is that it is heavy, cumbersome, slow to transport and assemble. Ships help get around these issues; I can find references to ballistae/catapults being used on ships at least as far back as the time of Julius Caesar. At least in the European sphere of things.
 
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S'mon

Legend
European-style "colonists" might make pretty good "barbarian" sea raiders. Rolling in on ships, taking slaves and demanding precious metals. Possibly after sending in a series of traders or religious types who conveniently scout the area; or disgorging settlers who non-nonchalantly set up plantations without the full permission of local government. (Yeah, I know this is an oversimplification / distortion of reality). From a tactical perspective, boats seem ideal for raiding - they allow raiders to haul off loot and captives easily, make pursuit more difficult. Furthermore, one of the traditional problems with artillery is that it is heavy, cumbersome, slow to transport and assemble. Ships help get around these issues; I can find references to ballistae/catapults being used on ships at least as far back as the time of Julius Caesar. At least in the European sphere of things.

You could do something like the film 'Pathfinder', only set a few hundred years later. European and east-Asian slave raiders were a big problem in the Pacific. Small island kingdoms beset by technologically advanced raiders could make for a good setting I think.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, we generally call these folks pirates more than "barbarians". Heck, piracy was hardly the purview of nomadic tribes. It takes a pretty established society to build ships of that size and support them in order to engage in anything like large scale piracy (privateering/whatever you want to call it).

Remember, prior to about 14th century, sailing in the open ocean was very, very difficult. Most people didn't do it. You stayed within sight of land (with some notable exceptions) by and large. Which makes raiding like this a bit tricky. The logistics of sea raiding is pretty complex.
 

There are reports of sea raids in the Baltic and Mediterranean going back millenia. One of the Ramses (2nd or 3rd?) wrote a passage on a stele bragging about how his army cleverly lured raiders inland where they could be separated from their boats.
 

Jacob Vardy

Villager
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!).

That's true of pretty much all of them. Anthropologists and archeologists have been pointing this out for decades. Graeber and Wengrow have a new mass market book out 'The Dawn of Everything', summarising the past few decades of research. Social organisation wasn't a pre-ordained progression of band => tribe => chieftaincy => state. "Barbarians" experimented wildly with economic and social organisation. Here is an OK summary. Human History Gets a Rewrite
 

Jacob Vardy

Villager
Life for the average "barbarian" was better than their domesticated neighbours. Less work, more food, more play, more affection, more freedom... From ancient Mesopotamians fleeing to the desert tribes, Arabs joining the Berbers, Russian serfs joining the cossaks, to Yankees joining nearby First Nations, there was a constant flow of people from the domesticated societies to join the "barbarians". Usually the loosers in a hierarchical society - debters, serfs, and slaves. And it almost never went the other way. We have quite a few accounts of Yankees who lived long periods with neighbouring First Nations. And they mostly prefered it to "civilisation".

EDIT. Oh, and the widespread "bandits" in the woods or hills are probably part of the same phenomenon. Think the Merry Men of the Robin Hood mythos. Or the hajduks of the Balkans.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
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.
Which one’s the colonist? In Russia, Ireland, and France, the “barbarian“ Vikings were colonists. I’m not so sure the term colonialist thinking is always going to apply here.
 

Hussar

Legend
Which one’s the colonist? In Russia, Ireland, and France, the “barbarian“ Vikings were colonists. I’m not so sure the term colonialist thinking is always going to apply here.
Well, there's also the point that the "barbarian" Vikings were pretty equivalently equal to those being raided. It wasn't like the Vikings invaded France, wiped out massive numbers of the population, displaced even more, and then proceeded to deliberately erase all French culture. The Vikings didn't really colonize so much as immigrate. I mean, heck, in England, the Vikings largely took up English language and religion within a fairly short time.

It's pretty hard to call Vikings colonizers.
 

When @Hussar was talking about colonial imperialism and colonial thinking, I read that as referring to the products of the modern age of colonialism, when global empires drained the resources of entire subject nations to fuel their growth and enrich their upper classes.
 

Hussar

Legend
When @Hussar was talking about colonial imperialism and colonial thinking, I read that as referring to the products of the modern age of colonialism, when global empires drained the resources of entire subject nations to fuel their growth and enrich their upper classes.
Exactly.

When we are talking about 20th century, particularly early 20th century genre fiction, it is very heavily steeped in the concepts of the time. The tropes and whatnot are very hard to separate out from the material as it is very pervasive. As I said in my earlier post, the "barbarian" of fantasy isn't Vikings - technologically advanced (or at the very least not any further behind), socially advanced people who are just as modern as any other culture of the time.
 

Redthistle

Explorer
Supporter
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.
What a wonderful approach!
 

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