Medieval Evil Upheaval

Hey gamers, I want to talk to you a little bit about evil campaigns today.

Why? Well mainly because I went through a bit of a row with my gamers this weekend and I want you to be able to learn from my mistakes.

Campaigns with evil PCs can be fun, but they put a lot of extra weight onto the DM because my number one thing when it comes to my games is I make the world realistic. Not “there is no magic” realistic but “actions have consequences” realistic – and this is true of my good campaigns too. If you neglect the NPCs they aren’t going to help you. Fail to warn the peasants about the incoming orcs? Dead peasants. Steal from a crime boss, there’s going to be an assassin around one of the next corners, or maybe the next two if you upset him enough.

The same should be said of evil campaigns, sure you can push limits, but expect the limits to push back.

First, I recommend only trying this with a group of experienced role-players. It can be very difficult to correctly articulate the thoughts and feelings of people who would normally be considered criminally insane, and as such I think experience is important in this matter. Even most normal campaigns have a twinge of evil in them if you consider the morality of the adventurer profession.

Second, make sure you have an established reward/consequence system. I don’t mean “kill the thing get the other thing” I mean, if you raise a bunch of undead in a nearby cemetery and the town guard finds out, they’re probably going to try and stop you. They might even call in reinforcements in the form of a paladin or two.  This can be the bane of a “good” aligned group as well, especially one that happens to get a little over zealous going after corrupted officials or dispensing vigilante justice – local lords don’t take kindly to people upsetting the natural order of their serfdom. A dynamic and responsive world is the heart of table top RPGing. If you just wanted to kill one thing to get better loot, there’s dozens of videogames which are going to be a much better use of your time than sitting around the table with your friends.

If you’re planning on running these sorts of evil games, you need to decide on how you’re going to structure the story. Evil, for evil’s sake, is not a story and will get boring quickly. Look to the lawful evil communities which have become powerful antagonists for your do gooding heroes. The Drow Matriarchy, the Cheliaxians, The Great Efreeti society and the City of Brass, The Red Wizards of Thay – they may be evil, but they follow their own laws and woe to those who break them. This can actually be a perfect way to fit evil characters into a ‘do gooding’ campaign. Drow are constantly besieged by their enemies, other Drow included. The Red Wizards struggle to maintain their dominance and Devil’s are persnickety allies at best.

Then you need to decide how you want the game to progress. Are they evil overlords pulling all the strings? Are they lieutenants to something bigger, or are they dramatic personae who are the Byronic antiheros just looking for someone who understands their need for revenge and perverted justice?

All of this is stuff that needs to be worked out ahead of time otherwise its going to lead to headaches further down the line. Trust me.

There’s one last thing you need to be aware of in evil campaigns. Evil things can happen. Those distasteful things which are only allude to in anything rated PG-13. I usually run my games somewhere between PG-13 and R rated, unless there are extenuating circumstances or I’m building a scene. My non-fantasy genre games tend to run a little darker, especially the Call of the Cthulhu, but you need to decide for yourself where the limits of what you’re running are going to be. Pushing these limits can be fun, but you need to understand that some things will make people uncomfortable and that shouldn’t be your end goal. If it is, please just go back to being an internet troll. I recommend handling these sorts of scenarios like Hollywood. Where two people go into the bedroom, and then it cuts to the next morning, we all know what happened, but it can go unsaid. I find this the best way to handle the most distasteful acts.

Anyway thanks for letting me get that off my chest and goodluck if you ever try a similar endeavor.

As always,

Game on.

Medieval Evil Upheaval

Hey gamers, I want to talk to you a little bit about evil campaigns today.

Why? Well mainly because I went through a bit of a row with my gamers this weekend and I want you to be able to learn from my mistakes.

Campaigns with evil PCs can be fun, but they put a lot of extra weight onto the DM because my number one thing when it comes to my games is I make the world realistic. Not “there is no magic” realistic but “actions have consequences” realistic – and this is true of my good campaigns too. If you neglect the NPCs they aren’t going to help you. Fail to warn the peasants about the incoming orcs? Dead peasants. Steal from a crime boss, there’s going to be an assassin around one of the next corners, or maybe the next two if you upset him enough.

The same should be said of evil campaigns, sure you can push limits, but expect the limits to push back.

First, I recommend only trying this with a group of experienced role-players. It can be very difficult to correctly articulate the thoughts and feelings of people who would normally be considered criminally insane, and as such I think experience is important in this matter. Even most normal campaigns have a twinge of evil in them if you consider the morality of the adventurer profession.

Second, make sure you have an established reward/consequence system. I don’t mean “kill the thing get the other thing” I mean, if you raise a bunch of undead in a nearby cemetery and the town guard finds out, they’re probably going to try and stop you. They might even call in reinforcements in the form of a paladin or two.  This can be the bane of a “good” aligned group as well, especially one that happens to get a little over zealous going after corrupted officials or dispensing vigilante justice – local lords don’t take kindly to people upsetting the natural order of their serfdom. A dynamic and responsive world is the heart of table top RPGing. If you just wanted to kill one thing to get better loot, there’s dozens of videogames which are going to be a much better use of your time than sitting around the table with your friends.

If you’re planning on running these sorts of evil games, you need to decide on how you’re going to structure the story. Evil, for evil’s sake, is not a story and will get boring quickly. Look to the lawful evil communities which have become powerful antagonists for your do gooding heroes. The Drow Matriarchy, the Cheliaxians, The Great Efreeti society and the City of Brass, The Red Wizards of Thay – they may be evil, but they follow their own laws and woe to those who break them. This can actually be a perfect way to fit evil characters into a ‘do gooding’ campaign. Drow are constantly besieged by their enemies, other Drow included. The Red Wizards struggle to maintain their dominance and Devil’s are persnickety allies at best.

Then you need to decide how you want the game to progress. Are they evil overlords pulling all the strings? Are they lieutenants to something bigger, or are they dramatic personae who are the Byronic antiheros just looking for someone who understands their need for revenge and perverted justice?

All of this is stuff that needs to be worked out ahead of time otherwise its going to lead to headaches further down the line. Trust me.

There’s one last thing you need to be aware of in evil campaigns. Evil things can happen. Those distasteful things which are only allude to in anything rated PG-13. I usually run my games somewhere between PG-13 and R rated, unless there are extenuating circumstances or I’m building a scene. My non-fantasy genre games tend to run a little darker, especially the Call of the Cthulhu, but you need to decide for yourself where the limits of what you’re running are going to be. Pushing these limits can be fun, but you need to understand that some things will make people uncomfortable and that shouldn’t be your end goal. If it is, please just go back to being an internet troll. I recommend handling these sorts of scenarios like Hollywood. Where two people go into the bedroom, and then it cuts to the next morning, we all know what happened, but it can go unsaid. I find this the best way to handle the most distasteful acts.

Anyway thanks for letting me get that off my chest and goodluck if you ever try a similar endeavor.

As always,

Game on.

Astral Adventures – Part III

You find yourselves standing in a large chamber, a single door on each wall. In the center of the room stands a pedestal with four distinct holes where an item can be placed. Suspended in the air by those same silvery strands of aether is a large crystal, light blue in color – or is green? Purple maybe? It changes as you shift your eyes. There is little else of interest in this room.

There are four doors out of this room, each one leading to a chamber containing one of four crystals necessary to activate the pylon. Feel free to present these rooms in whichever order you would like, or to continue with the randomness of the astral plane, roll a D4 to see which room they enter first. If the party attempts to discern the magical nature of the room, both the pedestal and the crystal and wrapped in a great deal of magic, as well as a dweomer making it very difficult to discern its true nature.

Chamber of Order: After proceeding down a hall you find yourself looking at another door with that strange magical writing circling it. As you enter the chamber you find yourself face to face with a most horrifying carrion-fed insect looking withered cadaver. Around its neck, like a collar, a swirling blue light prevents the creature from flying.

This chamber contains a Bone Devil, who is incapable of flight and cannot summon another of its kind. A radiant crystal sits discarded in the corner, obviously of little interest to the demon. The demon is kept here as an additional guard.

Chamber of Howling: The chamber off of this hallway has a pair of strong double doors. The sound of panting can be heard within. An inscription sits above the door, which reveals itself in your native tongue. Anchor’s Away.

This chamber contains one Cerberi plus one for each PC. They have been starved and attack the PCs on sight. There is a small pond in the far end of the chamber, and with sits a golden anchor, 50ft down. Inside the anchor sits a magical crystal which fits into the pedestal. The golden anchor, while functionally useless, is worth 5000gp and weighs 500 pounds.

Chamber of Color: Each wall of this room, the ceiling, and the floor are a different color. The east wall is red, the north wall is green, the west wall is black and the ceiling is white. The floor consists of large blue tiles. The south wall is gray and a small ledge has a sealed multihued stone chest set upon a sill. Around the door are painted five creatures – two on the left, two on the right and one above the door. Each creature has a single empty eye socket, about 1” in diameter. One the ceiling is the following inscription, which appears in your native tongue. Black does not look up to Red. White rests not on the right. Red lies not on the left. Red and Blue reside higher than Green. Black resides near, but not at the top. Five colored gems rest in slots near the chest one blue, one black, one red, one green, and one white.

The chest is immune to magic and brute force.

The Answer: · Top, Kraken, Blue · Manticore, upper left, Black · Dragon, upper right, red  · Wolf, lower left, white · Basilisk, lower right, green

If each gem is correctly socketed nothing bad happens and when all five are placed the chest opens revealing another gem for the main rooms pedestal. If the incorrect gem is socketed the follow effects occur:

  • Kraken: Resolve the spell Black Tentacles at CL9
  • Manticore: 2d6 Spikes shoot out of the wall, each dealing 1d6+5. Assign targets randomly
  • Dragon: The room fills with fire dealing 5d6 fire damage, Ref save for half, DC 17
  • Wolf: The room fills with ice dealing 5d6 cold damage, Ref save for half, DC 17
  • Basilisk: Resolve the spell Poisonous Cloud at CL7

After the treasure chest opens the gems may be recovered and each is worth 2500gp.

Chamber of Salvation: This chamber is smaller than all the rest and contains two pedestals. One holds a familiar looking magic bowl, the other a chest which seems as though it cannot be opened by any other means. The back wall has the following words inscribed in magical script which appears to you in your native tongue; Suffer as you have made others suffer. Feel what they feel.

This vessel functions much as the previous only this one is fueled by constitution damage. The basin accepts blood and can only be sated once d4+1 per PC is sacrificed to it. When this is done the chest opens revealing the final crystal necessary to operate the pedestal.

When each of the four crystals are placed into the pedestal a vast arcane burst occurs, focused on the crystal in the top of the chamber, the crystal resonates with potent energies and suddenly it shatters. In a brilliant flash of light a creature resembling a tengu, save for its eyes’ golden glow appears, its immaculate white robes contrast starkly with its black feathers, and its willow staff sheds a pale light. Only the golden eyes quickly turn red, black twisted veins pulsing with darkness. As suddenly as it appeared it attacks. The pedestal is now glowing with a soft blue light.

This is Harahel the Fallen, a Preceptor Archon who has been locked away in this prison for millennia, until a group of unwitting heroes let it free. He has gone mad in isolation, his dark powers no less potent. Treat him as any archon only he is no longer good, and as such replace all good descriptors with evil.

Harahel wants nothing more than to escape, but unfortunately the way out is not clear yet. This room is affected by dimensional anchor. Every two rounds one of the crystals should no longer glow, and after eight rounds a portal to the prime material plane should appear (Conveniently to wherever the PCs need to go). If you would like to extend this into a longer adventure allowing Harahel to escape is an excellent way to generate a future Big Bad Evil Guy.

If the heroes slay Harahel or look around after he flees, they can claim the four crystals in the pedestal, each one worth 2500 gp.

*****

I hope you enjoyed this foray into the Astral Plane, and as always,

Game On!

 

Astral Adventures II

The Antechamber: As you make your way down into the hall you find yourself having difficulty walking. As you finally enter the chamber you begin to float awkwardly in the air, but before you are able to get your bearings you notice a pair of pillars in the middle of the room.

This room is 50 feet tall and under the effects of an antigravity field and the PCs will find themselves slowly falling towards the ceiling. The force is strongest in the center of the room, where the field is generated. There is a crystal jutting out of the center of the ceiling, Hardness 5; 5 HP, which is emanating the field, if it is destroyed the crystal stops generating the field, and regular gravity takes over – instantly.

There are two Bulettes using this room as a den, one on the ceiling and one on the floor. The one on the floor has anchored itself to the ground.

NOTE: This seems like as good a place to mention this as anywhere. This module, and in fact the entire Astral plane should seem like a place of contradictions and trouble. If you prefer your games to be run like a clockwork, relying on the rules in books to get you by instead of intuition, this may not be the kind of adventure you want to run, but it might give you ideas or a framework to build from – so please read on!

 

The Locked Chamber: Finally getting your feet back on the ground you make your way down the only hallway you haven’t already explored. It turns sharply and then abruptly stops with a stone wall with a single large door. There are various strange carvings radiating a faint blue glow around the door, and the silver threads which seem almost common place throughout this place weave in and out of the dark wooden door.

Inspection of the warding reveals that it is an unknown language which radiates very powerful Abjuration magic. – Similar to a circle of protection.

As you enter the room you notice that there are inscriptions on the ceiling, walls, and floor which are like those on the door. A pedestal rests in the center of the room overtop a large glowing rune however, you can’t help but focus on the rooms only occupant, a large thickly furred humanoid with the head of a lioness moving towards you with a deadly yet brutal grace.

This chamber has a Shira, a type of Div, trapped inside. The inscription on the door and in the chamber have kept her locked inside for an unknowable amount of time but she is feral and attacks immediately. Her Spell-Like Abilities are dampened by the magical warding and cannot be used, unless the warding has been disturbed by the PCs. If the PCs have disabled the magical warding and she is reduced to 25% or less HP, she will flee to freedom attempting to return to the outer planes.

There are no doors out of this room only the mysterious pillar in the center of the room.

The pedestal stands four feet tall with a basin imbued with runes. The runes glow with an eerie light. The runes fade out of existence then relight in your native tongue. This journey will be one of discovery and you’ll learn the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it will take more than strength to carry you there. The device before you is one of sacrifice. Let your essence flow into the basin, and it will open the way forward.

If inspected the runes have an aura of abjuration, conjuration, and necromantic energies.

This device when powered will teleport the PCs to the next location, which is found 250 feet below their current location.

To power the device PCs must sacrifice their intelligence – or the essence of their being. The fountain will drain the intelligence of any sentient being from the prime material plane with character levels. A total amount of intelligence drain must equal 2+2/PCs. It may be equally divided however the PCs decide. As they make their donations read the following:

As you stand before the basin your eyes begin to redden as a searing pain wracks your mind like a migraine combined with a hangover. The misty redness spills from your eyes, nose, and mouth as it fills the basin. You feel yourself succumbing to lack of understanding. When the vampiric vessel is finally sated, a brilliant flash of blue light fills the room, and a portal opens which illumes another room much like the one you are in. When you step through you are teleported to another dark stone room, this one has even more of the silver webbing in it, almost as though treacherous ethereal spiders filled this room, lost and forgotten in a sea of nothingness.

That’s it for this weeks installment, and I hope you’re enjoying all the oddities here in the Astral Plane!

As always, Game On.

Astral Adventures

The Astral Plane: The final frontier. Well, one of them anyway. The astral plane has always been a sort of constant in the planar cosmology of any dungeons and dragons world along with the ethereal. Why? Because magic, that’s why. The use of the astral as well as the ethereal as a means of explaining away the mysteries of the arcane is a long-standing tradition both in gaming and to some extent reality. The astral plane, as postulated by classical (particularly neo-Platonic), medieval, oriental, and esoteric philosophies and mystery religions is the world of the celestial spheres, crossed by the soul in its astral body on the way to being born and after death, and is generally believed to be populated by angels, spirits or other immaterial beings. This is very similar to the view of the plane on Golarion and the stance taken by WotC. Dungeons and Dragons cosmology describe it as a plane of thought, memory, and psychic energy; a place gods go when they die and are forgotten. Barren, the Astral Plane is unique in that it is infinitesimal instead of infinite. Space and time do not exist here; though in both dungeons and dragons and Pathfinder it is a place for souls to travel. Both also describe silver cords webbing through the astral, each one tethered to something, and is the explanation of the astral projection spell. These cords serve as leashes and reminders of what lay on the other side.

The Astral Plane is barren and empty; devoid of life. In this way it should be treated like a vast ocean, with pockets of life where tremendous activity can take place. For example, in D&D the Astral contains god isles, the petrified remains of dead gods, places where the githyanki make their home. These beacons of life in a vast emptiness are ideal places for adventures to take place; away from them the basic laws of physics no long hold sway – time, gravity, directionality they are meaningless and that is where our adventure begins.

 

History for the GM:

The Story so Far:  The PCs have found themselves lost in the Astral plane. Whether it be by mysterious portal in the bottom of the dungeon, a teleport spell gone awry, or an angered outsider casting them into perdition. The rock they’re standing on is thirty feet by thirty feet, with the opening for the cave standing ten feet tall than the rest. The players can note that while they can see over sixty feet into the cave the rock they’re standing on is only ten feet thick, seeming to float in the nothingness.

Whatever it was that brought you here, it had been brief and terrifying. There were swirling colors and throbbing sounds, and you swear for a moment there, you could taste the color mauve – it was not pleasant. You find yourselves standing at the precipice of a large cave, a torch burning at the opening illuminating a rocky interior covered in crystals. You turn to look for other distinguishing features, and there none. Not none, as in trees and nondescript geography – there is nothing. You are on an island in a vast sea of nothingness. There is a dull light in the nothingness, cast by thing silvery threads which spread through the air, up and down, left and right, giving the nothingness a greenish lavender color that smelt oddly of faint raspberry.

Observant players who have been around the block may have already pieced together their current location but the identify the Astral can be identified with a successful Knowledge Planes DC20 or Knowledge Arcana DC 25 check.

The Astral Plane has rules that do not follow the Prime Material, and those are outlined below:

Gravity: If at any time someone moves more than 500 feet from the island they find the area lacking any gravitational pull and continue to drift.

Time: Time passes as normal on the island, however for every 5 feet past 500 that someone moves roll a d20. If even that many minutes have passed on the Prime Material, if odd time moves backwards that many minutes.

Magic: All magic, arcane and divine, are cast at the users own risk. Roll a d20 + CL, and consult the chart below:

All results of 13+ cast the spell in addition to the listed effect.

1: Caster randomly Polymorphs permanently.

2: Caster randomly polymorphs for 3d6 minutes

3-5: Spell is immediately counter-spelled.

6: Spell effect has a 60’ radius centered on caster

7: The caster becomes a Halfling for 1d20 days. If the caster is already a Halfling they become a goblin.

8: Wall of Fire encircles caster.

9: Caster becomes invisible

10 -11: Spell effectiveness (range, duration, area of effect, damage, etc…) decreases 50%

12: Monster Summoning IV is cast

13: No additional spells may be cast for 1d6 minutes

14 -15: Target changes color

16: After the spell takes effect, caster and target switch places.

17 – 18: No additional Effect.

19: Caster must make a DC 19 Will save or be affected by Hideous Laughter for 2d6 rounds

20: Slow spell, CL7, centered on target.

21: Spell effectiveness increases 150%

22 – 23: A deafening bang that is treated as a sonic attack emits from the caster. Each creature within a 30-foot-radius must make a DC 15 Fortitude save or be deafened for 1 hour.

24 – 29: No additional effect.

30: Spell cast at +1 CL

31+: Spell cast at +1 CL, and all variables are maximized.

Unless otherwise noted, all spells occur at the designated target point and function normally (appropriate saving throws are allowed). The above list, is only a small fraction of the possible results of magic gone awry. The DM is free to manipulate the table as s/he sees fit. Note: Tables cannot take into account the situation as it cannot create tailored effects. Therefore, it is likely that some results will make no sense, be impossible, or have no visible effect. In these cases, feel free to simply dismiss the spell or effect if the result is negative or allow the spell to be cast with no additional effect if positive.

Never let the randomness of any table ruin the story of an adventure. As ultimate storyteller and arbiter of the game, the DM can overrule anything deemed destructive to the adventure.

That’s a good start, next week we’ll dive right into the adventure, here in the Astral Plane.

 

Just Ask Ug, Part II

The singer, the shaman, and the priest: A society cannot be run by warriors alone. There are various other professions, which are obviously needed, but there are a couple which are obviously more well geared towards the player character. Singers, ie, the Celtic bard or German scop, are entertainers, genealogists, and historians. They record the oral history of the tribe as well as guard the traditional wisdom and lore for their people. These memories often take the forms of poetry, story, and song and thus make an ideal candidate for your barbarian horde to contain bards or skalds. Low barbarians, may each have one of these historians per tribes, but high barbarians and nomads, would likely have one among noble retinues, or traveling story tellers which would bring news of other camps, and would be treated as the asset that news of the outside was.

Barbarian mystics fall into two general categories, the priest and the shaman. The priest(ess) is educated in the lore of the gods — who they are, what they want, and what they require from mankind be it sacrifice, rite, or law. It is possible that if the tribe has a settlement these priests would be attached to a shrine, or other monument. It is not uncommon among the landless to have sacred landmarks such as trees, springs, or mounts. Nomads priests carry sacred images such as totems. Priest(ess) serve the gods as a warrior serves his lord — out of personal loyalty. As they are often the best educated of the barbarians they often guide and advise the nobles. These are the oracles and the clerics of the tribe.

The shamans, are those who seek the gods, in the form of their arcane secrets. Whether this magic takes the forms of trances and visions, secret lore, or charms and spells – they are often views with profound respect within the tribe. Although the tribesmen respect them, they also live in fear of magic and the terrible things it has been known to do. Superstitions (as discussed earlier) run rampant, some going as far as to say that all things the shaman touch are infused with the darkness that only they can control, until it finally consumes them. Barbarians are known to shun other magic users out of fear and ignorance. These are the sorcerers, the bloodragers, the shaman, or even the witch. Under no circumstances should a tribe have a wizard.

A word about women: Were they equals or were they chattel? The truth is complex, much as it would be for a pirate society. Certain barbarians, ie. Brythonic Celts, gave women full civil rights while the Goidelic Celts, reserved these rights for noble women. Others, like the Germans, treated women as “second-class citizens.” But — and this is important — no barbarian society can afford to treat all women as the early Romans and later Christians could. When small groups must survive harsh conditions each member of the tribe must generate economic value. Helpless, fluttering women, such as the classic damsel, would be considered a nuisance at best. Only the wealthiest men could afford a slave or a concubine, and even these weave, spin, cook, or produce some other contribution to the household, and since they do even they would be protected by tribal law. Woman had to be capable of self-sufficiency, particularly given the risk of widowhood. Glorifying war doesn’t come cheap: Archaeological evidence shows that the average death-age of barbarian men is twenty-four, but over forty for women. If men were the only source of economic stimulus this would have led to collapse quickly, thus, what women earn is theirs, not their husbands – and as such are able to fully enter into legal contracts, own property, and be trained in necessary skills.

Often, the barbarian tribes that gave women full rights were those where women could be warriors, such as the Brythonic Celts. Even among the Germans and the Goidelic Celts, women could rise from their rank and become full-fledged tribesmen. History supports this view as women warriors are well documented among the Greeks and Romans. Tacitus repeatedly says that barbarian women fought alongside men, and that the Roman soldiers found them much more frightening. Good women warriors could even be generals, such as Boudicca in Britain.

These barbarian women should never be damsels and dupes for the handsome adventurer and in turn should be independent persons capable of demanding respect — often at sword-point.

How does history fit into Porphyra: It is absolutely necessary to look at history when developing a world to play in. Yes there’s magic, dragons, mutants, living mountains, and gods galore but for the average society that doesn’t change much. Yes, it’s possible for a society to achieve great things through magic (such as the Netheril or the Thay) but it’s just as possible for tragedy to strike (Spellplague). By modeling societies into a realistic frame, you account for the blessed rains each ruler is likely to wish from his court wizard, while accounting for the curses by a ruler living next door. Magic giveth, and magic taketh away. There are various barbarian tribes who are known through Porphyra from the cursed ice warriors in the north ranging to the eastern desert peoples. To understand how these tribes would have to develop in order to survive these harsh environs allows the DM to paint a world full of realism and fantasy, blurring reality in fiction, to help everyone suspend their disbelief – which makes for a more dynamic world as well as better character development.

Ug thanks you for listening, he hates being forced into the square hole of “big dumb brute” when Ug is in fact a sensitive and noble barbarian who wishes only to bring honor to himself and his clan.

Just Ask Ug, Part I

You know what a barbarian is, right? A hulking, mentally feeble, half-dressed warrior who grunts and hacks his way through life, right?

Wrong – You Classist.

Barbarians are so much more and so complex, so talented, and — most importantly — much more fun to play in a fantasy game than the character described above. D&D, AD&D, 3e, Pathfinder, et cetra have all made forays into barbarian territory. Most fantasy setting games have, as well as video games, steampunk, cyberpunk, and future games as well. What people so often forget is that barbarians are a force to be reckoned with, the things that made Alexander the Great shudder, and of the six times Rome was sacked, barbarians managed four of them.

What’s in a name? The word barbarian is (βάρβαρος ([barbarous]) Greek, and it carries with it an ancient prejudice. Barbarians were called such as they babbled languages which sounded like “bar bar bar” in place of right and proper Greek. This title was used for all people who lived on the fringes of classical Europe: Celts, Persians, Scyths, even Egyptians. Later, the label was further expanded to include the likes of the Franks, Huns, and Goths. Still later, this same label was applied — with the same old negative connotation — to the native peoples of the newly discovered lands – Aztecs, Iroquois, the Songhai, and so on.

Barbarian as an umbrella: Let’s look at the barbarian supergroup – What makes them special? For starters, it was their success outside the sedentary lifestyles of the Greeks, Romans, and later European powers. Barbarians were able to adapt to living in harsher conditions, such as wild forests, scrub lands, the tundra, and jungle edges. It would be a mistake to think that barbarians are incapable of farming, but a bulk of their food supply was based on animals; husbandry and hunting. Barbarians would set up villages and camps, if they have any permanent settlements at all. Due to a high competition for a smaller amount of supplies a primitive yet effective means of population control was unconsciously developed: the glorification of war. This lead to their organization of their social groups to be based on blood-kin — the clan, family, and tribe — rather than on abstractions such as the city or nation state. Populism and Nationalism hold no sway for the barbarian.  Finally, the barbarian keeps an oral culture, not a literate one. Being illiterate, however, does not mean barbarians are stupid, as evidenced by the elaborate poetry of the Celts. Priests, singers, and orators keep a fully developed mental and intellectual culture alive in almost all barbarian societies.

We’re going to break the discussion down into three various kinds of barbarians, as described by a British Archaeologist named Stuart Ernest Piggott. There are the high, low, and nomad. We’ll also briefly look at an early European example of each.

The High Barbarian: Example, the Celts. High Barbarians of have enough agriculture in its economy to produce a food surplus, well-developed material culture, including elaborate jewelry and sophisticated weapons technology. (The Celts invented horseshoes and chain mail, among many other things.)

The Low Barbarian: These are the group often referred to as “savages.” This group often depends almost exclusively on hunting and gathering, supplemented by stock raising, and thus have a poorly developed material culture. The Proto-Germans are a good example.

Nomad Barbarian: Such as the Scyths, they had no fixed settlements and live entirely by stock-raising. Depending on the lushness of the grazing lands they and their livestock occupy, the material culture of nomads is either rich or poor. The Scyths, used here as an example, had many luxuries obtained by trading horses to the Greeks and Romans.

The Social Order: Barbarian society can be loosely defined as a democratic aristocracy. Each person who was free would have a vote in tribal concerns, such as declaring war. If they have nobles or leaders and they insist on acting against the will of the tribe, they were deposed or simply ignored. The one fixed social division is between free and unfree. Some groups kept slaves, but these were often prisoners and their offspring. Other unfree include criminals, debtors, and the dishonored. The unfree would somehow bind themselves to free families like serfdom. Amongst the low barbarians there is little distinction; everyone raises stock, which is collectively owned by families — not individuals. Men hunt game and women gather or garden to supplement the food supply. However (as the Roman historian Tacitus pointed out), as wealth accumulates in a primitive society, power tends to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands [Though this is not true of only primitive societies]. As a society become wealthier it is capable of supporting specialists such as carpenters or priests. This led to the high barbarians and wealthy nomads developing a hierarchy. Those at the top, the nobles, have surplus wealth (usually measured in livestock) and personal influence. While this would often stay concentrated in families because wealth begets wealth, it was in no way a system reminiscent of a monarchy.  A cowardly noble, for instance, would be scorned and ridiculed. Due to this lack of ‘kingship’ when a leader dies or retires due to age, a great deal of electioneering and sometimes even civil war takes before a new ruler can be declared.

The Taboo: Or geis, as it was called among the Celts. The power of the taboo is great, even today. What do you say when someone sneezes? Do you know any athletes with weird pre-game quirks? Ask someone in the theater what happens if you say “Goodluck” before a show. This superstition can help you get into the headspace of the barbarian. A taboo isn’t a quest, but rather a prohibition – and most often, its irrational. For instance, turning left or not being allowed to kill a bird. Ever. All societies have taboos, but barbarians believe in them so implicitly ill will befall either the individual, or worse – the tribe.

That’s all we have time for today, next week we’ll look a little bit more at the noble barbarian class and how to include a little bit more pizazz into your barbarians than just, “Ug Smash.”


For more information:

Cunliffe, Barry. The ancient Celts. Penguin, 1999.

Fehr, Perry. Barbarians of Porphyra, Purple Duck Games, 2014.

Piggott, Stuart. Ancient Europe. Aldine Transaction, 2007.

Simpson, St John, and Svetlana Pankova. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia. Thames & Hudson, 2017.