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.