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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
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.
Hmm. Perhaps. Robert E. Howard, originator of the Conan stories and much of the "barbarian" stereotype in fantasy literature consistently portrayed less-"civilized" tribes like his fictional representation of the Cimmerians and Picts (despite their apparent villainy) as possessing some deeper and more honest understanding of the world; something that was lost to the great empires (including the nation that Conan eventually became leader of - the Aquilonians) as they became civilized.
 

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Hussar

Legend
Hmm. Perhaps. Robert E. Howard, originator of the Conan stories and much of the "barbarian" stereotype in fantasy literature consistently portrayed less-"civilized" tribes like his fictional representation of the Cimmerians and Picts (despite their apparent villainy) as possessing some deeper and more honest understanding of the world; something that was lost to the great empires (including the nation that Conan eventually became leader of - the Aquilonians) as they became civilized.
Yup. The whole "noble savage" trope in a nutshell.

Note that the "deeper understanding of the world" is only from a very specific point of view. It's pretty telling that Conan embodies virtually none of the "deeper understanding" characterized by non-white beliefs. No sense of community or ancestral piety for example, which is found in a very great many "tribal" cultures.

Look, this has been hashed out to death. Howard was a product of his time. And it comes through in his writing. Which is something that the genre is really struggling with today. When the underpinnings of so many tropes are so ingrained in the genre, and those underpinnings have gone virtually unexamined for a very long time, it's only really in the past twenty years or so that we're starting to crawl out from under the honking great big elephant in the room that characterizes early 20th century genre fiction.
 


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