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

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J-H

Hero
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.

 

Shadowdweller00

Adventurer
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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Shadowdweller00

Adventurer
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

Hero
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.
 


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