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.


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


Great Old One
But, in a way, weren't the Rohirrim sort of like barbarians to the people of Gondor, even if allied and considered friends?

Yes, in a sense, it's a parallel of what happened in Normandy with the Danes, invaders turned friends (or at least allies) and then used to ward the marches of the country.

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