Thursday, March 8th, 2012 12:06 pm
gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Goth)
[personal profile] gridlore posting in [community profile] tabletop
  • Or, On The Subject of Barbarians in FRPGs.

    Ah, the noble barbarian. The ferocious warrior clad in loincloth and little else, wielding a bloody great axe or sword and (since D&D 3rd edition anyway) raging all over the place, lordly in his disdain of the weak and effeminate civilized peoples. Robert E. Howard's Conan is the basis of a thousand grunting killing machines hacking their way through dungeons.

    Pity it's all based on a really bad reading of history.

    OK, here's the facts. Starting in about the 5rd Century CE, Europe was subjected to a nearly continuous series of invasions coming off the vast steppes of what is now Russia. Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, FranksHuns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Alans all wandered westward in the V√∂lkerwanderung from roughly 400 to 800 CE. All were pushed west by exploding populations, pressures from other tribes, and the promise of better land in Europe. For the most part, these tribal nations lived up to the barbarian stereotype. They raped, looted, pillaged, and burned their way westward. Then they settled down, adopted Roman ways, and became fodder for the next wave of nomadic peoples. Even the most famous barbarian of them all, Attila the Hun, was a Christian who spoke good Latin and desired recognition and land for his peoples. It wasn't until the Magyar invasions of the 10th century that the migrations finally ended. (The Mongol invasions were more a military expansion than migration.)

    The problem from the gaming point of view is that the barbarians quickly became settled peoples. The Ostrogoths, who supplanted the Western Roman Empire under Theodoric the Great were utterly civilized by the time Theodoric claimed the throne. His empire was overthrown by the Lombards, who were equally quick in shortening their names and elbowing their way into all the best country clubs. Barbarians just don't last! Civilization is just to profitable to ignore, and every hopped-up barbarian chieftain wanted recognition and titles from Rome or Constantinople, along with good land and payments for not pillaging. Three generations later an they are good Romans.

    So, how do we keep our gaming barbarians nasty, brutish, and mostly naked?

    • It's an Orc thing, you wouldn't understand.  The easiest way is to make your barbarians one of the nastier humanoid races. Orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, all make great foes and they aren't normally given to compromise and could care less about good farm land. Human tribal nations that border on such humanoids would likely remain pretty barbaric (in civilized eyes) as any attempt to Romanize invites immediate attack.

    • No offense, but burning your city is a religious thing. In a typical FRP setting where the gods are quite real and have a clergy capable of real miracles, the term "crusade" takes on new meaning. If the barbarians follow a god that demands pillage and condemns the softness of civilizations, you have great potential hordes. An empire will need to spend a lot of money just containing such tribal states. Here's a free plot idea: Out in the wild lands a new prophet of Whargarble has arisen, and is preaching a unity of clans to destroy the Nice Kingdom of Low Taxes. The panicked government is promising money, land, titles, and your choice of eligible princesses if you kill this prophet and break up his alliance of tribes.

    • May you live in interesting times. The characters are "lucky" enough to live during the period where the barbarians are still barbarians and actively invading. Some of the barbarians would have wandered off, and could make good PCs. However, they might have complex clan loyalties that prevent them from attacking certain targets. A longer campaign could tackle the problem of what prompted this series of barbarian migrations.


A combination of all three would make for an epic campaign.


Date: Thursday, March 8th, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
dev_chieftain: (totallyrad)
From: [personal profile] dev_chieftain
In the interest of NOT misreading and totally derailing what I think is a very interesting post, I want to ask for clarification! You are referring solely to barbarians as an NPC faction here, and not

a) as the player class, 'Barbarian'
b) as the player character who is considered a barbarian just because they are from another nation than the setting-norm

Is this correct?

If so, I can continue with my thoughts, but if not, I have to re-read and re-evaluate what I was thinking!

Date: Thursday, March 8th, 2012 10:59 pm (UTC)
dev_chieftain: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dev_chieftain
Oh, I agree. I recently played in a game where the barbary tribes of Rome were beginning to threaten the central nation of Greece, where we worked for Eratosthenes and the Library of Alexandria as artifact-hunters. But notably, we had four different kinds of 'barbarian' in that game as PCs-- a barbarian Barbarian of the North who was savage and violent, but sought prestige to bring honor home to the clan; a barbarian Fighter, who had once been a Paladin of Odin, but abandoned her comrades in battle out of cowardice and became an ordinary fighter; a barbarian Barbarian of the Far East who'd been a Siamese sailor before she was captured and sold into slavery as a bodyguard by Middle-Eastern lords; and a barbarian Oracle, who was a princess of a semi-"Nubian" nation south of Alexandria, who was treated as cultured by the Greeks and Egyptians around us, compared to the rest. (As you might imagine, this was a Pathfinder game. :) )

I asked to be sure because, while I think your suggestions for potential motivations behind barbarian tribes that are active players somewhere in the history of your setting are EXCELLENT, I would be sad as a player if playing the class 'Barbarian', or a barbarian character, was limited to only these types of barbarian. (After all, there are barbarian Sorcerors and civilized Barbarians who just get angry sometimes, I'm sure!)

I've known some DMs who don't like to use nonhumans when they can avoid it, or by contrast, some groups who like to play all monstrous races (a full half-orc party, for example); by that token, I'd say 'It's a ___ thing, you wouldn't understand' gives the DM more leeway to mold a specific fantasy setting, as a suggested style choice. Then maybe a DM can say that Orcs are the sensible, normal guys, and it's humans who keep pillaging their stuff, etc. etc.

I really like your suggestion of combining all three of your suggested reasons for barbarians to be attacking. Multiple tribes of barbarians within the same setting lend to a richness of NPC interaction that can really make a game memorable.

Other ways to distinguish barbarian tribes from, I guess, 'civilizations' include:

-Actually, it was ours first

The barbarians are the original inhabitants of the area, and their ruins all over lend a fearful superstition to daily life for the civilization that has since established themselves in the city. Maybe they took it unfairly from the barbarians, or maybe they'd thought the barbarians were long gone, not realizing that when [event] happened, they'd be back-- whatever the case, they're here now, and it's war for the civilization (and possibly the PCs) if they want to keep the land where the ruins are located instead of moving.

I think of the above as being somewhat equivalent to Conan deciding to collect a bunch of his fellows and retake his hometown through sneaking and scare tactics, prior to the direct combat. They might be smart and scary, but they are also dispossessed of their home, so no reason for them not to be angry, brutish, or mostly naked!

-We're the first guys here!

Barbarian explorers who trample the land before them and claim everything as their own, choosing not to recognize the indigenous cultures as worthy/real/whatever; I'd say this is pretty close to your "It's an Orc thing" idea.


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