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Worlds of Design: Barbarians at the Gates – Part 2

In the first article we discussed the definition of a barbarian. In the second, we discuss ways that barbarians might factor into a setting or campaign.

In the first article we discussed the definition of a barbarian. In the second, we discuss ways that barbarians might factor into a setting or campaign.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"...the role of the ‘barbarians’ has roughly split into two morally laden strains. On the one hand they are the ‘dark horde’ threatening civilization; while on the other they are the savage made noble by the absence of civilization." Steven Erikson (author, Malazan Book of the Fallen)

Barbarian Attitudes​

To continue our discussion of barbarians, we can ask about attitudes of our three types of barbarians when they did enter "civilized" territory.
  • Steppe barbarians did not want to settle in non-grassland areas. The Mongols would not have conquered Europe for that reason alone, amongst other reasons; whereas the North China plain is a big grassland in origin, so barbarians were willing to go there and stay, as the Mongols did when they became the Yuan Dynasty for more than a century.
  • Desert barbarians often prefer less arid climates. Yes, they live in a desert, but it's a harsh place to live.
  • Forest barbarians want better farmland, whether they're coming by land or by sea. The Goths are again an anomaly, in about 269 CE they captured ships in the Black Sea and became sea raiders. A lot of this is situational: when you come into the enemy territory, if you're smart, you'll adjust your plans to match the situation.

Who Assimilates Whom?​

In the Christian era, monasteries were targets because that's where the money was. Vikings sacked individual monasteries several times, until no valuables were left. When the Vikings encountered less resistance over time, they became settlers.

Frequently barbarians gradually filtered in, sometimes in conflict with civilization, sometimes not. Perhaps they're hired as mercenaries, or recruited as Foederati (Roman term). The Anglo-Saxons may have first settled in Britain, after decades of raiding, as mercenaries hired by British princes after the Romans left. In very ancient times the Amorites and Aramaeans, among others, filtered into Mesopotamia. Yes, there were conflicts, but sometimes they just worked their way in, and these barbarians assimilated the residents and displaced the spoken language.

When you’re creating a world, ask yourself who assimilates whom when barbarians take over an area, and why. In fantasy the barbarians may be a different species than the inhabitants, which will make quite a difference in what happens.

Why Barbarians Raid​

Some believe that barbarian invasions are reactions to the failure of civilized defenses, that is, the barbarians come when they see a good chance of success. I don't think this is the case. Typically barbarians raid all through the life of a civilization, whatever its strength. For example with Rome we had the Gauls who sacked Rome a couple times early in Roman history. Marius defeated very dangerous barbarians before 100 BC, still in the Republican age. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (d.180 CE) fought barbarians for 15 years north of Italy, well into the Empire's time (founded 27 BCE). Many barbarian invasions occurred during the crisis of the second century CE, but unsuccessfully. None of those caused Rome to fall.

On the other hand, when barbarian groups were fragmented a strong civilization might conquer them, as Rome conquered the Gauls and Chinese dynasties sometimes conquered, or at least forced tribute from, steppe barbarians.

Some barbarians finally succeeded. Perhaps you could say they only succeed after an empire fails. The Roman Empire suffered a great population decrease, probably from plagues. China was vulnerable to barbarians when weak, usually that weakness came from internal dissension deriving from overpopulation as much as anything.

Fire and sword is more exciting. But it's not the only way and often not the primary way that the barbarians came into and stayed in civilized areas.

Barbarians in Your Campaign​

There are several ways you can introduce barbarians into your campaign. Here are a few.

Dark Horde versus "Noble Savages"​

Going back to Steven Erikson's observation in the above quote, we might tend to associate the raiding and pillaging (fire and sword) barbarians with the “Evil Horde,” and the infiltrating, often not hostile ones with “Noble Savages.” Player characters might come from either kind of barbarian.

Monsters as Barbarians​

In a fantasy world, the "barbarians" may be non-human, perhaps not even humanoid, though barbarians without intelligence are a different thing than barbarians with intelligence.

In a campaign I ran, the "half-horse" barbarians (centaur analogs who lived in plains, not forest) threatened civilization. Tolkien’s War of the Ring can be seen as orc “barbarians” allied with humans from Harad and Rhun threatening to overrun western Middle-Earth civilization,

Barbarian Confederations​

Barbarians don't start out as large confederations with a single purpose. Instead they tend to be more like individual clans/extended families, raiding one another constantly. When a charismatic leader unites the clans that speak the same language and have the same culture, then the rest of the world can be in big trouble (think Ghenghis Khan creating an empire). The Franks were originally fragmented, then confederated to settle northern France. Over time, bordering with civilization can force barbarians to join together for their own defense, as well as offense. This often happened to the Romans, in effect raising their own enemies. Individual clans cannot seriously disturb civilization, even if the latter is already falling apart. Big confederations are always a threat.

Trade and Prestige Goods​

The more settled barbarians benefit from trade with civilization. The Germans traded slaves (captives in their internecine wars) to the Romans for wine and other prestige goods. The leaders impressed their followers with these goods. In a fantasy world, a simple magic item might be a very valuable prestige good to barbarians.

Science Fiction “Barbarians”​

In science fiction, “barbarians” are usually those living on the edges of “the empire,” surviving with lower technology and resources, probably the more warlike among these groups. They substitute numbers and savagery for technology. I designed a science fiction wargame with several scenarios, one being barbarians attacking with hordes of space destroyers and cruisers (they couldn’t build anything better) while the defense had small numbers of battleships, dreadnoughts, and super-dreadnoughts.

Heroism in the Face of Barbarians​

Some fine stories are set in an era of barbarian invasions, with the defenders of Civilization (usually) heroically fighting off the barbarian hordes. It would be easy to shape an entire campaign around this theme, especially if the barbarians are, or are allied with, some large group of monsters. Some of the romantic story of King Arthur (the “Matter of Britain”) is about resisting invasion with barbarian overtones.

“Bump” Migrations​

In some places what I call the Bump Migration is historically common. Barbarians from the east (usually) push west, forcing other barbarians to move west into civilized lands. This is how the Goths (both East (Visi) and West (Ostro)) came to ancient Europe in the face of the Huns. Can you blame them for pressing into lands away from their tormentors? They might agree to settle in a civilized area, as Goths did, but this often ends badly as the settlers become invaders.

Your Turn: How do you handle barbarian invasions in your campaign?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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Thunder Brother

God Learner
Hmm, wondering, could you have barbarians that are more technologically advanced than the civilized world they are attacking?
I may be misremembering, but I believe that's a plot point in Dan Simmon's Hyperion, with the Ousters (the "barbarians") being more or less at technological parity to the Hegemony of Man.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
I may be misremembering, but I believe that's a plot point in Dan Simmon's Hyperion, with the Ousters (the "barbarians") being more or less at technological parity to the Hegemony of Man.

It depends whether you consider that the Technocore is part of the Hegemony. If you do, no, the Core technology is way more advanced but violates a number of rules that the Ousters would not cross. But I don't, since the core officially split off, which make me agree with you, the Ousters are actually technologically more advanced than the Hegemony.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Hmm, wondering, could you have barbarians that are more technologically advanced than the civilized world they are attacking?
Of course, since the denomination of barbarians comes from the party which considers itself more civilised, but it could be a civilisation of art and culture where science has been left behind and forgotten. And note that this applies to magic too, the "barbarians" might be way more powerful magically.
 

JThursby

Adventurer
I'd point out that the vikings were hardly less technologically advanced than the people they were raiding. If anything, they were more advanced in some ways.

And, let's be honest here, the Mongols were hardly slouches when it came to technology.
Usually accusation of barbarism come from claiming that a culture doesn’t respect the “correct” rule of law. Granted this is an easy viewpoint to take when you’re being subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of invaders, ie the Danes against the Anglo-Saxons, but it’s ultimately reductive even in those cases.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
About half of those I would hardly classify as "barbarian". Eowyn isn't a barbarian, at all, John Carter is a 19th century American, and Tarzan is an English noble. None of those are even remotely "barbarians." Two of them are the standard "Great White Savior" tropes.

and therein lies the flaw in the OPs premise, Éowyn is Rohirrim a people based on North Germanic cultures in particular Anglo-Saxons - Cultures which the OP explicitly calls out as an example of Barbarian cultures.

The OP is attempting to draw parallels with Barbarian cultures, but how are these determined for world building purposes?

If we take the view that Barbarian = Foreign but not primitive, then John Carter fits - he is an exotic foreigner, who doesn’t conform to local social mores and is renown for his physical prowess.
Equally then the Romans in Gaul were Barbarians from the perspective of Getafix and Asterix.
Ideas of Desert Barbarians and Steppe Barbarians reflect a Eurocentric view, it doesn’t help world building in a non-traditional setting
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
I have a few places of civilisation that have barbarians at the gate. It's just background ideas in case I ever run something in that region. I have some kingdoms that are defended from desert raiders by natural features, however the smallest kingdom is slowly getting overrun and at time of play is nearing dissolution. The raiders may turn their attention elsewhere once this happens, perhaps raiding a stronger kingdom to the north.
 

wellis

Explorer
Éowyn is Rohirrim a people based on North Germanic cultures in particular Anglo-Saxons - Cultures which the OP explicitly calls out as an example of Barbarian cultures.
But, in a way, weren't the Rohirrim sort of like barbarians to the people of Gondor, even if allied and considered friends?

For example I remember one description of them, by Boromir, was that they were learned yet had no writing, for example.

Obviously Gondor didn't consider them enemies and held immense respect for them but in a way, one can see them as being sort of like good guy Goths or something to Gondor's Byzantium I guess you could say.

For a more darker side of barbarian claims, I could easily have seen the Numenoreans, when they were in the Sauron worshipping and colonialist phase as calling many of the cultures they conquered or forced to pay tribute, "barbarians."
 

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