Thursday, February 16, 2012

Barbarians are Big and Strong (But Don't Call Them Dumb)

I've seen a number of folks discussing the faults of differentiating ability score ranges between male and female characters in role playing games this week.  A much more interesting question to me is whether we should consider creating distinctions between culture groups in a human centric world.  AD&D, for instance, has no problem applying ability score adjustments to the demi human races when compared to humans.

Consider that one of the most common themes in Swords & Sorcery literature is the strong but primitive barbarian juxtaposed against the decadent cultures of the large cities.  The barbarian character is invariably more physically capable and resolute than his civilized antagonists.  You see this motif in the RE Howard stories of Conan, the character of Fafhrd in the Lankhmar stories, and countless other stories featuring rugged, sword-wielding barbarians.

Consider also this historical excerpt from Tacitus's Germania, speaking of the many tribal inhabitants across the Rhine:

Hence the physical type, if one may generalize at all about so vast a population, is everywhere the same wild, blue eyes, reddish hair and huge frames that excel only in violent effort. They have no corresponding power to endure hard work and exertion, and have little capacity to bear thirst and heat; but their climate and soil have taught them to bear cold and hunger.
--Tacitus, Germania

My intent isn't to start a real world furor over Tactitus's text; it's been abused by plenty of folks already (koff, Nazis, koff) in other contexts.  But when you're making a game world that features humans from different cultural groups, does it make sense to have racial or cultural abilities that differentiate those groups mechanically in game terms?

My son is playing a lot of the Skyrim game, and he tells me "Nords", the Skyrim analog of the northern barbarians, are tough and resistant to cold.  That sounds a bit like Tacitus's description of the barbarians in Germania.  Video game designers apparently don't have any problems making humans from different areas different from each other based on culture or race.

Let's look at these big blonde northerners again.  According to Tacitus, they're all pretty much big and strong.  The fantasy stereotype of the barbarian is also strength; what's the argument against giving characters from barbarian lands a +1 to the strength score?

But how about a -1 to the intelligence?  You know, to balance it out.  The way I read the intelligence tables in D&D, intelligence gives you literacy, knowledge of extra languages, and the ability to learn spells - all capabilities that are the result of education and not primarily aptitude.  There shouldn't be a problem declaring that characters living out in the untamed wilderness, as an insular tribal unit, haven't had the same education as the decadent urbanites - but the moment you tack a -1 intelligence onto a cultural group, you step onto a pretty slippery slope my friend.  Even if it is a fantasy culture.  Would Conan put up with a -1 to *his* Intelligence score?  You don't tug on Superman's cape, or call a Cimmerian uneducated or stupid.  The Romans may have looked down on the barbarians, but who had the last laugh?  (Alaric did).

I'm only familiar with one official D&D supplement that tackled human racial and cultural differences - it was the Hollow World boxed set for classic D&D / Mystara.  The Hollow World gave humans from different ethnic groups pseudo skills and proficiencies to differentiate their culture backgrounds.  Antalians (the Viking analog) could climb like thieves; Milenians (ancient Greeks) all had extra bonuses with spears.  Some of them were more extreme; Tanagoro tribes people (analogs for African cultures) could all move at  150' base movement.  Azcans (the Aztec knock offs) were ridiculously tough and got an entire extra hit die at level 1!

What's my point?  In today's day and age, humans are uncomfortable declaring another group diminished in any capacity.  Maybe games have no place classifying differences between groups of people (or the sexes) in this way.  But there's a cynical side of me that sees a really simple way around the problem.  Just flip it around and highlight a positive benefit, and cultural differentiation becomes much less controversial (and judgmental).  "Scythians and Parthians don't get minuses when firing from horseback!", that kind of thing.  Make people feel good about the in-game differences.

Hey, look at what I just did?  I managed to justify giving all those barbarian tribesman a +1 to their strength scores after all.  I feel better already.


  1. I did something similar between the species for my Swords and Wizardry campaign, based on 4e's example. Hobgoblins, elves, dwarves and humans all get bonuses of various sorts without penalties. I use 3d6 arrange-as-you-please and then apply the mods, so it helps take a bit of the sting out if you rolled a crappy stat line. It helps that I only had the four species to deal with, so differentiating them meaningfully wasn't hard.

    For my Dawnlands setting, which runs on Openquest, I just got rid of all species-based attribute modifiers. I go into my justification here:

    Basically, I have twelve possible player races/species and many hybrids and variants, and rather than struggle to figure out what separates a half-gnoll from a gnoll, I thought I'd just toss it out and let individuals' stat scores stand for themselves. If you roll an 8 for SIZ as a gnoll, you're probably a runt. An 18 as a halfling means you're heavily built. I think it'll work well.

  2. The Stormbringer! RPG did something similar with minor ability adds/minuses depending on which nation your character hailed from.

  3. You've basically taken the 4e mantra of "No race penalties" and explained their reasoning.

    I, personally, fail to see the problem in assigning cultural penalties in a fantasy world.

  4. Sometimes it's about knowing which battles are worth fighting. Small mechanical benefits with no penalties might be a concession to politically correct values, but it's also a recognition that gaming time is better spent on other stuff, too. Like stabbing monsters in the face and looting the bodies.

  5. I think there are good mechanical as well as Political Correctness reasons* for giving bonuses rather than penalties. You want to keep every ethny playable, right?

    In general I think stat mods by human ethny work well in a game like OGL Conan, I considered using them in my 4e Wilderlands game but decided it was too much hassle.

    *Mongoose's OGL Conan gives Cimmerians an INT penalty, which admittedly does correspond to English views on the Irish, but hardly corresponds to REH's view of them as racially superior to more southerly ethnies. The 'lack of education' explanation for their lack of INT would work, except of course Kushites and other savages are not given an INT penalty in the game.

  6. Actually, when barbarians had the "last laugh" on the Romans, it was mostly due to the fact that the leadership, and to a great extent the warrior castes, had been "Romanized." Ergo, they had over the centuries since Tacitus, "learned the Roman way." For a century before its fall, the vast majority of the "Roman" army was made up of "Romanized" barbarians...

    So to say that a "barbarian" people have a "lower Intelligence" compared to a "civilized people," when "Intelligence" can be read as "a civilized man's education," would not at all be racist. If you instead called it "Education," specifically, "civilized education," then of course the "barbarians" would be at a disadvantage!

    Also note that by the time Conan became king, he had gained quite a "civilized education," and it was primarily because of this education that he was able to become king, mighty thews or no...

  7. Practically speaking, these bonuses and penalties are really only useful for optimization. Any character's spread is still going to be dominated by the dice. If race is a choice, what players are really going to be doing most of the time is looking at their scores and seeing what the race (or culture) modifiers can do to them. There's nothing exactly wrong with this, but for me it is a needless layer of complexity. I would rather differentiate in other ways (either culturally during play, different beginning equipment, or minor abilities like the Hollow World example).

    I don't have it with me right now to check, but I think the Sword & Sorcery supplement XP1: The Spider-God's Bride did human cultures like AD&D races (with ability mods and languages).

  8. I'm home now, so I can check my copy of XP1. I remembered correctly. Here's one example (keep in mind this is a 3E supplement):


    Racial Traits: +2 racial modifier to Intelligence; +2 racial bonus to Knowledge (arcana) and Listen skills; Stonecutting (+2 racial bonus on Search checks to notice unusual stonework, detect unusual stonework within 10 feet with Search check even if not actively searching, use the Search skill to find stonework traps as a rogue cam, and intuit depth underground).

    I count 23 different human cultures/races in this supplement. Each has a summary, physical description, religion, and racial traits section.

  9. Rather than giving bonuses or penalties, one could simply list 'requirements' for one race or another. If the 'Fantasy equivalent of the Spartans' kill any child that appears sickly or weak, you might rule that a player must pass a certain STR or CON threshold to 'qualify' as a "Spartan" and so on sdince any weakling would have been killed at birth. If I were writing the rules, I'd be tempted to do the same for non-human race characters instead of having players add bonuses to STR, INT, CON or whatever after the fact.