8 Mar 2012
- 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, Franks, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Alans all wandered westward in the Völkerwanderung 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.