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Author Topic: Some notes on barbarians  (Read 8118 times)

BedrockBrendan

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Some notes on barbarians
« on: December 01, 2014, 09:44:55 AM »
BY RICK MOSCATELLO

I’ve never much liked the Barbarian as a class in D&D. Don’t get me wrong, raging is fun and all, but one doesn’t really “choose” to become a barbarian. I can see wizards studying musty tomes of lore, clerics praying for guidance, monks meditating on infinity, and fighters training with sword and shield…but how does a barbarian work on being a better barbarian? Sitting around the campfire and singing songs only goes so far, in my opinion.

Barbarism is far more a culture than a profession, and barbarians in my world don’t simply pick up a union card to be in that class. That said, there are many types of barbarians, just as there are specialist wizards and warriors that favor one fighting style over another.

What KIND of barbarian are you?

“Barbarian” is something of a derogatory word, a label given by “civilized” people. Perhaps the major difference between civilization and barbarism is the written word, and, historically, cultures labeled as “barbaric” generally don’t create their own literature, and seldom had more than a symbolic form of writing.
     
Because “barbaric” is a label, the people giving that label always view the barbarians as from somewhere else, barbarians are always associated with the borders of civilization. There are no “barbarians from the center of our country”, after all. So, barbarians can generally be classified as originating from some cardinal direction. I base what follows very loosely on the real Earth, of course, with something of a Eurocentric view:

Eastern Barbarians
     
Eastern Barbarians have had the most exposure to civilization. They’re familiar with civilization, will form mercenary armies for it, and know the advantage of using advanced weaponry, although are seldom accepted as more than second-class citizens in the civilization. As a people, they’ve suffered many predations from more advanced cultures, and have taken it as their lot in life. Their warriors tend to be grim and fatalistic. Every settlement will have people that speak Common, more or less.

Favored Weapon: Sword

Culture in a few worlds: “A man is born with nothing, and screaming. A man dies screaming, and has nothing in the end. That’s balance.”
Army type: Medium infantry

Favored Skills: Craft (Leather), Knowledge (History)

Remarkable Skill or Ability: Endurance (torture, thirst, starvation)

Far Eastern Barbarians
     
Far past the borders of civilization are the Eastern Barbarians, the feared horse archers that, every few generations, ride out and crush all before them.  Eastern Barbarians might have one ruler over them all, but they’re very capable of acting with independence if necessary. They generally won’t work for anyone else, however, and probably won’t speak Common.

Favored Weapon: Horsebow

Culture in a few worlds: “A good life is one that ends in a saddle.”
Army type: Light horse archers

Favored Skills: Survival (foraging), Craft (bows and arrows)
Remarkable Skill or Ability: Horsemanship

Northern Barbarians

     
To the north lie cold waters and hot-blooded barbarians. Skilled navigators, northern barbarians will form raiding parties filled with warriors that enter blood-rage at the slightest provocation. Sometimes such barbarians will form expeditions for the purposes of exploration and trade, but always (or so civilized folk say) these expeditions are ultimately to find new places to plunder. These are individualistic people, seldom holding loyalty to anything further than an axe throw away. Most groups will have at least one person who speaks Common (and a few other languages).

Favored Weapon: Hand Axe

Culture in a few words: “A life at sea and death in battle. Who can ask for more? We can, starting with beer and plenty of it.”

Army type: Light infantry (small units)

Favored Skills: Craft (carpentry), Endurance (cold, and cold water)
Remarkable Skill or Ability: Navigation

Far Northern Barbarians
     
In the trackless, frozen wastes of the far north lie the least militaristic of all barbarians. The brutal harshness of the landscape make the frivolous warfare of the warmer lands impossible here, and societies tend to be communal, the better to distribute what few resources are available. Lack of agriculture means reliance upon the sea for food to a very great extent. These barbarians don’t leave their lands, but visitors are treated well enough—unless the visitors provide resources or show obvious wealth, which provokes suspicion. Almost nobody in this culture will speak Common.

Favored Weapon: Harpoon

Culture in a few words: “Gifts make slaves, like whips make dogs.”

Army type: None (never more than a few dozen warriors at best available at any given time).

Favored Skills: Survival (fishing), Craft (bone)

Remarkable Skill or Ability: Endurance (extreme cold)

Southern Barbarians
     
Although viewed as barbarians, the southern barbarians are only marginally less civilized; they simply had the misfortune of being in a region with less resources. Southern Barbarians will have a few castles, a few cities of some size, a few libraries, a few forges where steel is made, but these centers of wealth will be separated by huge swaths of desert. Only the most traveled of civilized folk ever see anything more than the fringes of the civilization of southern barbarians, but such travelers are rewarded by good hospitality and meeting scholars quite capable of speaking Common.

Favored Weapon: Scimitar

Culture in a few words: “You foreigners are so lucky to come from such wealthy lands. Come, let me tell you of my people and our proud history.”

Army type: Light Cavalry (Camels)

Favored Skills: Ride (camels), Any (much like a civilization, one can find poets, artists, mapmakers and such)

Remarkable Skill or Ability: Survival (desert)

Far Southern Barbarians
     
Past the desert wastes are dense jungles, rife with disease and hostile animals. Barbarians of the far south happily trade with others that can make to their often difficult to reach villages. These barbarians live in small tribes, each with a different language—travelers to the far south would do well to hire local translators, which are fairly common. Such barbarians are protective of their homeland and will fight ferociously to protect it, on those occasions where an army tough enough to survive the local diseases tries to invade. Every few generations, an exceptional leader might lead a band to the civilized lands, to serve as mercenaries.

Favored Weapon: Spear

Culture in a few words: “Enjoy life, for it is short.”

Army type: Light infantry (small bands, except in the defense of homeland, in which case a horde), with some exotic mounts or trained animals (elephants or tigers, for example).

Favored Skills: Survival (jungle), Resist disease
Remarkable Skill or Ability: Morale (cannot be forced to retreat in combat, when defending)

Western Barbarians
     
The western barbarians, much like in the far East, favor horses. Like the Eastern barbarians, the Western barbarians have also endured much at the hands of the civilized. Unlike the East, however, they’ve kept their culture relatively free from civilized values, and will often follow a tribal leader into battle against civilized incursions, although individuals might hire themselves out as scouts or mercenaries.

Favored Weapon: Hand Axe (but will readily use better weapons)

Culture in a few words: “Today is a good day to die. It is a better day to live.”
Army type: Light cavalry (raiding bands).

Favored Skills: Survival (hunting), Ride (horse)

Remarkable Skill or Ability: Survival (tracking)

Far Western Barbarians
     
The Far Western barbarians live in dense jungles, both land and water filled with hostile fauna. The barbarians themselves are very hostile to travelers (and will almost never speak Common), and will gladly kill, and often eat, intruders onto their ancestral lands. What they lack in technology, they more than make up for in herbal lore and sheer craftiness, attacking enemies with deadly skill before withdrawing into the jungle.

Favored Weapon: Blowgun (with poison darts)

Culture in a few words: No words to describe it, or at least no travelers have brought back any aphorism beyond “These guys sure do like large cooking pots.”

Army type: Light infantry (guerilla bands, which seldom take loot, only attacking to inflict casualties)

Favored Skills: Survival (jungle), Stealth

Remarkable Skill or Ability: Herbalism (both healing and poison)

About the Author: Rick Moscatello has been writing about games and gaming for close to 30 years, and has been in nearly every gaming magazine ever published, as well as gamed with, met, and/or interviewed many of the luminaries of the gaming world.

Morlock

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2016, 01:15:17 AM »
Interesting piece, thank you. Nice, neat, concise summaries.

Quote
“Barbarian” is something of a derogatory word, a label given by “civilized” people. Perhaps the major difference between civilization and barbarism is the written word, and, historically, cultures labeled as “barbaric” generally don’t create their own literature, and seldom had more than a symbolic form of writing.


One possible origin of the word is from Greeks speaking of Syrians. I.e., the sounds they made went "bar bar bar" to Greek ears. If so, that would put it in a class with other identity slurs freely used but perhaps less widely understood, like "vandal," "villain," and, according to some sources, "sleazy."

Battle Mad Ronin

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2016, 07:46:49 AM »
I really like your summation quotes on culture. Give a nice 'feel' for exactly what the character is trying to invoke.

AsenRG

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #3 on: January 23, 2016, 11:09:51 AM »
At least the Eastern and Far-Eastern ones should be merged:). Maybe the Northern and Far Northern ones as well.
Other than that, it is a nice summary;).
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Edgewise

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #4 on: February 23, 2016, 02:38:36 PM »
Quote from: AsenRG;874990
At least the Eastern and Far-Eastern ones should be merged:). Maybe the Northern and Far Northern ones as well.
Other than that, it is a nice summary;).


Merging Northern and Far Northern?  That would essentially be merging Inuits with Vikings, but perhaps you didn't recognize what OP was getting at with the Far Northerners.  As for Ear Eastern versus Eastern, that would be combining the Huns and Mongols.  That seems more defensible to me.  After all, the descriptions here are intentionally written from the perspective of a "civilized" culture at the "center" of the world, so it makes sense to see both those cultures as undifferentiated threatening hordes.
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AsenRG

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #5 on: February 23, 2016, 02:43:49 PM »
Quote from: Edgewise;880870
Merging Northern and Far Northern?  That would essentially be merging Inuits with Vikings, but perhaps you didn't recognize what OP was getting at with the Far Northerners.

:D
No, I did. It's just that they have some similarities, when you try to build PCs from both. But that's why I said "maybe":).


Quote
As for Ear Eastern versus Eastern, that would be combining the Huns and Mongols.  That seems more defensible to me.

Great.

Quote
After all, the descriptions here are intentionally written from the perspective of a "civilized" culture at the "center" of the world, so it makes sense to see both those cultures as undifferentiated threatening hordes.

No, it just means that the Huns and Mongols had way more relations than is commonly acknowledged, and some of the traits listed for one people are common for both. That was, mostly, a mechanical comment;).
« Last Edit: February 23, 2016, 02:48:43 PM by AsenRG »
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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #6 on: May 27, 2016, 01:26:08 PM »
I thought the Eastern Barbarians were more like a fantasy take on Slavs( pre conversion).

But I can see how the Volkerwanderung era Hunnic federation/Kingdom with all its numerous German and other tribes, many of the men fighting on foot, could fit the mold.

One of the advantages of the approach the OP has taken are that, while clear historical roots can be seen, the material is generic and can be adapted with ease to different settings.

I like this stuff, OP.
« Last Edit: May 27, 2016, 01:30:18 PM by Gormenghast »

Trinculoisdead

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #7 on: October 27, 2019, 01:54:08 PM »
I'm tired of the raging barbarian trope, so over-done.

Spike

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #8 on: October 28, 2019, 09:29:44 PM »
The word barbarian, etymologically, comes from a Greek onomatopiea for baby talk... 'ba ba rus', and denoted non-greek speakers.  Traditionally the division between 'barbarians' as savages and civilized peoples is not something esoteric, such as writing, but something a bit more crucial to 'civilization', that is the presence and occupation of Cities, which is part of the etymology of Civilization, by the way.

Classically, the barbarians of history were steppe nomads, horse riders, who would sweep west from time to time, conquering and then settling, in the cities along the silk road, occasionally going further and further west. We know the Sythians, the Magyar, the Huns, the Mongols, the Samartians, the Turks, even the Iranians.

How the fuck this got conflated with some shirtless asshole swinging an ax while foaming at the mouth probably lies squarely at the feet of one Robert Howard.   Properly speaking, Conan needed a horse and a bow, bandy legs and so forth.  But we probably would find his adventures boring, so instead we have a more classic bear shirt trope re-labeled as a barbarian. Enter D&D to fuck it up even more, and the rest is, sadly, history.
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Trinculoisdead

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #9 on: October 31, 2019, 03:26:04 AM »
Ah, but Conan is not always a shirtless asshole swinging an axe. If he has access to it and needs it, he will wear armour. At least in the stories I've read.

Shirtless or not, he does not foam at the mouth. He is swift and powerful, and his primal instincts make up for a lack of skill with the blade. But he does not enter into mindless rages. At least not in the stories I've read. This whole berserker thing must come from another direction, surely.

Spike

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #10 on: November 01, 2019, 09:22:10 AM »
Oh sure, Conan's just a bog standard fighter archetype when you actually read the books. Maybe its all the artwork depicting him on top of a mound of corpses looking angerous swinging an ax like he's got a score to settle with an entire forest.

Or maybe Hasbro/WotC just really thought that adding more classes was the Way To Profit, and couldn't think of anything to set shirtless barbarians apart from iron clad fighters other than a good case of Rabies.
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Ashakyre

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #11 on: November 01, 2019, 10:21:21 AM »
Conan is a great character, but not because of his stats.

He can best any mortal man is single combat, and fears only the supernatural. He's drawn to the riches of city life and disgusted by the weakness its comforts bring. The hairs of his neck rise when he feels the presense of the supernatural (often left out of games, by the way.) He chases gold, and then spends it all on drink and women. He leads men, until he grows bored, and then abandons them. He is a thief, a tomb raider, a mercenary, and a bodyguard. When he grows weary of civilization he makes for wilder lands, and there grows weary of strife and war. He sees nobility in cutthroats and baseness in learned men.

Long story short, Conan is a living critique of civilization and its interplay with barbarism. More specifically, the spiritual weakening that occurs as a people shifts from nomadic to settled life. To capture the classic barbarian you need to include the barbarian's various foils: the scheming advisor, the cruel slave master, the wicked sorcerer.

Historically, until fairly recent times nomadic peoples eventually got the upper hand. Another way to classify barbarians might be:

-Living only in contact with other nomadic tribes
-On the frontiers of a settled civilization, often used as a buffer against wilder barbarians further afield
-Recent conquerors of a settled people, now semi-civilized, and set up as a ruling caste above them
-Corrupted and weakened by civilization, ready to be conquered by the next wave of barbarians on the frontier

The soul of the barbarian is wandering and conquest of space. Other places where the barbarian spirit lives on:

-Pirates (wandering the seas)
-Explorers (wandering new lands)
-Shamanic Elders (wandering spiritual planes)
-Esoteric researchers (wandering intellectual fields)

Other models worth considering: nomadic native American tribes, the Bantu expansion, the Polynesian settlers.

In a sense the wandering hero of the RPG is already a barbarian, so his role is usurped, and he has no way to stand out.

Hope this helps.
« Last Edit: November 01, 2019, 10:23:33 AM by Ashakyre »

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #12 on: November 10, 2019, 12:38:38 PM »
Quote from: Ashakyre;1112685
Historically, until fairly recent times nomadic peoples eventually got the upper hand.
But only temporarily. Historically, settled agricultural civilizations defeat nomadic pastoralists over and over. Sometimes the nomads win and are absorbed into settled society and no longer are nomadic. Sometimes the nomads lose and are slaughtered, enslaved, or turned away to retreat into less fertile lands.
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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #13 on: November 11, 2019, 07:03:15 AM »
Quote from: Bren;1113467
But only temporarily. Historically, settled agricultural civilizations defeat nomadic pastoralists over and over. Sometimes the nomads win and are absorbed into settled society and no longer are nomadic. Sometimes the nomads lose and are slaughtered, enslaved, or turned away to retreat into less fertile lands.

Almost every agricultural society's ruling class comes from people who were outside that society, invaded as pastoralists, slaughtered the old aristocracy, and set themselves up to rule. Not every, but many. And history abounds with examples. If you call being ruled by the descendants of your conquerors a win, just because they adopted some of your customs, we're just playing around with words.

Meanwhile, there are no pastoral societies ruled by the descendants of agricultural conquerors. There was never anything like a Attila and Ghengis Khan that sprang from a tiny agricultural society and conquered all pastoral peoples.

Much of agricultural society's victorys against barbaric people was against semi-nomadic people's, pre-weakened by their contact with civilization, but not absorbing its riches. Also, if you dive into how agricultural societies fought against pastoral peoples, and dig in on the details, witness usually by employing other pastorals to fight them. So many of those victories on behalf of agricultural society weren't won by the agricultural society. Generally, as long as the agricultural society could play one nomadic tribe against the other, they were fine. But when a great pastoral leader emerges, historically, and agricultural societies ran out of barbarian mercenaries to hire, there was very little they could do.

So we have a dynamic where the military prowess of pastoral people's, man-for-man, wins out, and the riches of agricultural culture, wins out. One produces stronger people, the other produces seductive material culture. This dynamic is more important to Howard's writing.

Meanwhile every great Eurasion empire met hard territorial limits when it butted against nomadic peoples. And these borders persisted until modernity. Only industrial society was able to defeat and ultimately absorb pastoral society.

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Some notes on barbarians
« Reply #14 on: November 27, 2019, 12:49:47 PM »
Quote from: Ashakyre;1113535
Almost every agricultural society's ruling class comes from people who were outside that society, invaded as pastoralists, slaughtered the old aristocracy, and set themselves up to rule. Not every, but many. And history abounds with examples. If you call being ruled by the descendants of your conquerors a win, just because they adopted some of your customs, we're just playing around with words.
You are playing with words. While the Mongols conquered China, its been many, many generations since anyone of pure or even mostly Mongolian genetic descent ruled China and far, far longer since anyone who was culturally Mongolian ruled China. To put it more generally, once the conquering nomads of tribe X no longer are nomads and no longer are members of tribe X genetically or culturally, it's a semantic game without substance to claim that tribe X is still in charge of anything. Tribe X as a culture and as a people has ceased to exist. Defeats don't get much more final than that.

Quote
Meanwhile, there are no pastoral societies ruled by the descendants of agricultural conquerors. There was never anything like a Attila and Ghengis Khan that sprang from a tiny agricultural society and conquered all pastoral peoples.
There are two reasons for that.

  • It's difficult to bring nomads to battle so they can be conquered. They just run away.
  • They don't have that much of value to loot so the value gotten from conquering them doesn't justify the effort and resources required to force them to come to battle so you can conquer them.


Quote
Also, if you dive into how agricultural societies fought against pastoral peoples, and dig in on the details, witness usually by employing other pastorals to fight them. So many of those victories on behalf of agricultural society weren't won by the agricultural society.
Using one group of nomads as your pawns to defeat a different group of nomads definitely counts as a defeat of the nomads by settled society, it's the victory of brains over brawn.

Quote
So we have a dynamic where the military prowess of pastoral people's, man-for-man, wins out, and the riches of agricultural culture, wins out. One produces stronger people, the other produces seductive material culture. This dynamic is more important to Howard's writing.
Ironically, Howard's barbarians (unlike the historical Cimmerians) usually aren't pastoralists. They, like the Roman era Germans and Gauls that he had in mind, are agriculturalists.
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