5th Edition,  D&D,  DMXP,  RPG,  World Building

From the Ground Up – Civilization and Barbarism

By now, having passed through the basic bedrock of a world. We’ve talked about the geological and physical aspects, how flora and fauna should be considered, and now we’ve even talked about how the most fantastic of aspects, magic itself, should be woven in realistic ways. Now, its time to move on to the hard stuff. Its time to talk People. 

The Concept of Barbarian

First up, I want to go into the idea of what is “barbarian.” This concept of Barbarian it taken many different ways in many different genres of book, movies and games. Here, we want to look at what it actually is meant to portray, who it is meant to represent, and who it is meant to alienate and comfort. There is a lot to go over, so lets dive in. 

First, we have the origination of the term barbarian. Its from Greek, and was used for anyone who didn’t speak Greek. To them, their languages were simply “Bar bar bar bar”. It was nonsense and the people who spoke it were of little concern to the civilized Greeks. This sets the stage for the concept of what a barbarian is. A Barbarian is an outsider to the perceived civilized world, most often of little consequence and very largely not people to be bothered with. They are the people who do not, or cannot, participate in the civilizations trappings. Most often this would include the cities, customs and gods of the culture. more than that, though, they aren’t real people. 

This is, of course, ludicrous. barbarian societies around the world were as sophisticated in management, religion, division of labor and law as any of the civilized lands that looked down on them in their own times. While there were surely people who lived differently than each other, their differences were often so little that they could be commingled, after a time, without much of a commotion. Later Roman Emperors were from the barbarian provinces of Thrace.

What this means is that when talking about barbarians, be careful. It is easy to generalize, especially in a fantasy game or setting, in ways that are both inaccurate to your game, and inaccurate to history.  Clearly, use the word when speaking or describing from an in game point of view, but when looking at and describing things objectively try and be accurate – drill into who they are. Stereotypical barbarians are often modeled after real people who still exist today

The Fringes

With that said, lets take a look at what types of civilizations exist on the edges, and beyond the control, of the more traditional cultures. We are interested in what they bring to the setting, and to the players. We want to look at as much of the character of these civilizations as is possible while still adhering to portions of the expectations that players will have when it comes to these less traditional cultures. 

One of the largest differentiation between the cultures on the fringes and the traditional cultures is that of access to engineering and technology. While there will be many peoples that are able to do wonders with their available resources, the cutting edge technology and engineering tends to be part of the traditional cultures. Housing, medicine, formal education, and sanitation among others are trades and advantages that the non-traditional cultures don’t have, either because they don’t need them or because they haven’t been exposed to them.

While many people typically portray barbarians as dull or stupid, they were no less intelligent than any other group of people they would encounter. It was their speech that would set them apart, and just as in today, it caused a dissonance between people when communication isn’t possible, often with the traditional cultures looking down on the non-traditional simply because they do not know a language they had never been exposed to. 

Instead, the Non traditional cultures excel in husbandry, hunting, survival and specific craftsmanship, among other talents. What they made, they made to last a long time, and they crafted with the materials available to them regardless of the quality. While we might see a house made of sticks, bark and mud as an untenable situation, research points to their dwellings being as stable, solid and well constructed as the ones of stone in the towns and cities. clearly, they were not as permanent, but permanency isn’t the only measure of quality. 


Of the traits most often attributed to societies as barbarous, few stick as hard, and follow as tenaciously, as having a nomadic life style. This trait, however, is often much more in touch with nature and the needs of the people in the culture then the sedentary lives of the manors and the cities. These cultures follow the food, keeping pace and not staying in one place long enough to really damage it in a lasting manner. They are often hunters, or expert gatherers, looking to maintain a balance between themselves and their source of sustenance. This lifestyle tends to lead to expert packing and traveling skills, unparalleled tracking, and a hearty constitution ready to travel and survive. 

While the nomadic life may seem odd to us, and to ancestors in their stone and wood cities and towns, it seems just as out of place for a person to settle in one place, to give their life over to the maintinance of a single plot of land for the rest of their lives. 


One of the thing that tends to brand non-traditional cultures is the stereotyping of their government being lead by one of two tropes. Most often, these cultures are lead by strong, physical leaders; Men and women who lead by physical or charismatic force. Some times, in order to make the civilization seem more enlightened, they will be lead by shamans and mystics. This, too, is a reflection of what the traditional cultures have impressed on them. 

Many times, in reality, these cultures would be lead by councils of both genders, or by hereditary leaders who rules through bloodlines and history. These peoples would be participants in the culture as long as they could, hunting, gardening, tracking and crafting until they were unable to physically perform the tasks required of them. Few got to rest on their heels while others did work. It was a different life than the one that the people behind walls with roads of stone. 

In Game

So how would these non traditional cultures be represented in a game? 

I think the main focus is less on divide between the traditional cultures and spend time on what they do. Instead of pointing out how they are not like the traditional cultures in your game or world, I would take a look at what they bring to the table and how they’ve managed to survive so long in such a hostile world. Be aware that their means will often be much less than that of a great traditional civilization that spans a great distance. Instead, these cultures, even if they are large, are much more focused on the close knits relationships of those who are dearest, and nearest, to them. 

I am no anthropologist, and I’ve not studied pre-historic civilizations or those without written records, but it this subject intrigues you, take a look on line, grab a book, and let me know how it reads!