Continuing my look into the four basic cultural backgrounds from the Mythras Core Rulebook.
What, exactly, is a barbarian anyway?
What distinguishes a Barbarian culture from a Primitive, Nomadic, or Civilised culture? The answer, shockingly, is nothing. "Barbarian" is a political definition - basically, it's "any culture that isn't ours."
Technically, "barbarian" just means "foreign," or "outsider," just like "pagan" just means "country bumpkin" and "mundane" means "man of the world." It's only in gaming that barbarians are conflated into a generalised image of some shirtless, woad-daubed warrior types with braided beards and hair and helmets with horns.
Technically, there really should be no Barbarians - just other people. However, fantasy games demand that barbarians exist, so what can you do?
A Barbarian culture is one which does not follow the laws or mores of the civilised culture next door. That does not mean that they are Primitives, though it is feasible to have a culture which leans towards Primitive or Nomadic, yet retains an identity which is identifiable as Barbarian.
Barbarians could speak their own language, heavily accented, and either plain speaking or laden with idiomatic expressions. Half the fun of dealing with a Barbarian party encountered in the wild is figuring out which tribe they are, and which language and dialect they speak.
Language defines territory, for the most part, and an Adventurer familiar with Barbarian cultures may have to fine tune their Lore to cover, for example, the Northern Lake People from the Northern Mountain People and the Northwestern Trading Tribespeople, even though they could all be classified as "The Northern People" to people from the Southern lands.
Generally, Barbarian cultures tend to be led by Chieftains, Thanes, and tribal leaders with similar titles. Rulership does not have to come at the end of a sword, nor does the title always go to the strong. A weak man may win the mantle through guile; a woman can rise to prominence as a great leader, uniting disparate tribes through trade and diplomacy yet also enforcing the accord between tribal nations by commanding strong armies, leading from the front.
Clans and lineages of ancestry are common, with extended families being led by a Matriarch or Patriarch, and revered elders frequently making journeys to attend a Parliament, or Thing (pronounced "ting") of the tribes, to lay down the new laws for the year and to settle disputes between individuals and entire tribes.
Knowledge of The Land
Your Barbarian culture is highly likely to have just as extensive knowledge of Locale as their Primitive cousins. They are likely to have Animism as their primary source of magic, with some Mysticism and Folk Magic. Their literature, carried mostly in the head with the same oral traditions which sustained the Primitives, may tell of ancient gods and even older demons, those demons being the Primitive gods who were rendered obsolete by the new deities of the Barbarian tribes.
The oral traditions are also likely to form the basis for their Locale and Lore skills - knowledge of where the healing herbs are, knowledge of how to cultivate crops, make the proper sacrifices to the land to allow travellers to pass without incident, and the best seasons to plant and to reap. The oral tradition ties the Barbarians to the land, perhaps even more deeply than it does the Primitive peoples.
Laws are kept in the minds of Lawkeepers, and mostly have to do with the placement of borders and bounds between the lands of different tribes, or matters of inheritance. Again, do not assume that only men may be Lawkeepers - imagine a Barbarian, tribal culture dominated by their women, ruling each tribe with a Triummulierate (the term for a Triumvirate of women) and laying down laws regarding the need to be honourable in conduct, whether that be in trade, diplomacy, or warfare.
Some of the highest laws in Barbarian cultures concern hospitality. Many Barbarian tribes dwell in wilderness regions which would be considered inhospitable to a "civilised" citizen, and even to other Barbarians who are used to the land, to be exiled from the comforts of the hearth is effectively a death sentence. The presence of a warm hearth nearby can mean the difference between life and death - so there are laws of hospitality proscribing the conduct of both hosts and passing strangers.
The offering of hospitality to a stranger who arrives in a storm is one of the highest expressions of the Barbarian culture's ethos. Hospitality is sacrosanct, and hosts are expected to offer a warm bed, hot food, and a place by the fire to strangers. Likewise, a stranger may accept hospitality (they'd be a fool not to), but they are required to behave with dignity and grace, and to express gratitude to their hosts (rather than try to seduce or murder them).
Good feasting, good poetry and song, and - if the stranger is a healer - treatment of the sick of the household for free, are generally accepted as a cause for celebration. A stranger who can entertain the hosts, or help them, or stand with them and defend them, is considered a gracious visitor and their good reputation will spread.
Trade and Diplomacy
The same drives behind the treatment of strangers applies to trade and diplomatic relations. Representatives of other tribes, including "civilised" cultures, are feted like visiting kings, because the hosts are bound by the laws of hospitality. This extends to visiting bands of Adventurers passing through Barbarian territory: these are Barbarians, not bandits or brigands, and the Games Master should take great care not to just turn an encounter with Barbarians as just another random combat encounter. It's a cliche, it's been done to death, and you can do so much better.
The Barbarian Voice
So here, then, is my take on The Barbarian Voice.
We stumbled across the ragtag party of Southerners, close to sunset. They were still building their encampment in the worst possible place - exposed, high on a windswept hill particularly vulnerable to cold, high winds, and right next to a field of burial mounds prone to nightly hauntings.
I ordered my men to stay silent and refrain from laughing. These Southerners seemed little more than children; and they seemed to be ill-equipped to handle the elements. They certainly had no awareness of the land, nor its hazards: one of them sought to pitch her flimsy tent right on top of a nest of firegrubs, and one of the party, a fancyman, was trying to erect their tent next to a tree ... on a hill prone to being struck by lightning in a storm.
Indeed, there was a storm looming, and so I approached these wayward children, bringing with me one of my lovers, a man called Shanto - which means "Speaker of Truth in Many Tongues" - to ask the wanderers if they would like to share our fire tonight.
Their response was predictably hostile. At our approach, they drew swords. The fancyman gestured to the sky, in a vain attempt to summon lightning to his aid. I did not have the heart to tell him that his vulgar sciences will not work on this sacred hill, if the spirits do not permit it.
Instead, I let Shanto speak for me. I offered these frightened, ignorant children the chance to sit at our fire and share hospitality; a mark of respect, even to those who know not how to respect our highest laws. Fortunately, the fancyman knew both Shanto's language and his tribe, and spoke to him in greeting. Shanto told the fancyman to insist on speaking directly to me.
It took some coaxing - apparently, the fancyman prefers the company of other men, or something- but eventually, he turned to me and stated his intent to seek out some treasure which was reputedly buried in the grounds of a ruined Southerner fort, abandoned to the wilds some two generations before even the summers of my Grandmother.
I nodded, silently, and spoke to Shanto in my tongue, for him to translate, as was our custom, and made our offer. The young children gratefully accepted, and struck their tents and abandoned their futile attempt to light a fire on Windspirit Hill to join us at our camp.
On the way back to the camp, Shanto spoke to me in my tongue, to let me know the strangers' plans, which they thought they could conceal from us by speaking in their Southerner tongue. I reminded Shanto that I could overhear them just as well as he, and that I was aware that they planned something nefarious with the artefact they sought.
I also told Shanto that, should they survive the wilderness and the beasts which lurk around the Southerner fort, to return home with that prize they sought, that they may do what they like with it once they return home. In the end, if they are tested by the land and survive the tests, they would not need any artefact to seize power back home. They would be entitled to power in and of themselves, because the land will have tempered their strength beyond the capabilities of their fellow Southerners.
Edited by Alex Greene