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Some notes on barbarians

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Bedrockbrendan:
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:
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.
--- End quote ---


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:
I really like your summation quotes on culture. Give a nice 'feel' for exactly what the character is trying to invoke.

AsenRG:
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;).

Edgewise:

--- 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;).
--- End quote ---


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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