For today, it’s the next bit in the Introduction to Atheria series – a quick-start guide to the Barbarian Lands.
The Barbarian Lands are infused with totemistic magic – a power which infuses those born there with animalistic abilities and instincts even as it twists their forms into those of anthropomorphic beasts. While the local tribes – each following a different totem – accept this as entirely normal, it places them among the most inhuman groups on Atheria – and leaves them incapable of maintaining anything past a tribal civilization.
Given that these characteristics will “infect” anyone born there – and that, unless the parents have joined an established tribe with a specific totem, the child will get one at random (this is often a disaster: many totems have no tribes because the characteristics they bestow are unsuitable for survival) – attempts to conquer the Barbarian Lands always end up collapsing. You have to import all your administrators and upper-level types and none of them can have a family there.
Left to themselves, the Barbarians tend to remain split up into their various tribes – Horse, Red Fox, Black Bear, Auroch, Raccoon, etc, etc, etc. More common totems may be followed by a number of tribes, each of whom will recognize a vague fellowship with each other, but they just don’t organize themselves on a larger scale. The social patterns of each tribe are strongly influenced by the totem they follow as well: Bear tribesmen tend to scatter their households over an area and turn each into a small fortress, Horse tribesmen tend to be polygamous and send the young men out raiding until they manage to successfully challenge for position, Raccoon tribes are noted for their sociability and thieving ways (which they do not recognize as any kind of offense), and so on. Intertribal marriages are fairly common: the children take the totem of whichever tribe they’re born and raised in. Children born outside the tribe may take after a parents totem, but often get one at random – again, often a tragedy.
The vast majority of the successful tribes have mammalian totems (a very few have two or more), although a few have reptilian, avian, or monstrous totems. There don’t seem to be any successful tribes with insect, plant, amphibian, fish, or other outre’ totems, although there are some tales (usually horror stories – or at least sad ones) of the occasional “wild child” with such a totem. They’re apparently just too alien.
Occasionally a child is born with the Dragon totem, regardless of what his or her normal totem would have been. Such individuals only appear every few centuries at most, and usually unite the tribes under their leadership for a generation. Unsurprisingly, the Barbarian Lands have no common system of currency. While gold and silver are used, they’re typically valued by weight, with relatively little value placed on form and artistic merit. Certain other lightweight goods – notably dyes, colorful beadwork, exotic feathers, scents, and amber (used by powerful shamans to store magic) – are also highly valued and serve as a de facto currency. For those interested in trading in such commodities, it’s worth noting that Barbarian senses often vary from the human norm. By outsider’s standards they may prefer foul scents, garish, bland, or oddly-combined colors, and very strange food. The barbarian lands usually export furs, lumber, berries, saps, plant extracts, small amounts of raw metals, and other products of the wild forests, as well as a fair number of slaves, either the result of inter-tribal raids and battles or – for tribes such as the Horse and Hyena tribes – individuals who lost out in dominance-squabbles.
While all the tribes recognize the power of The Dragon and The Namer or “The Great Spirit”, most of the religious observations are directed towards the tribal totem(s) and occasionally towards other powerful local spirits. The details are normally left up to the shamans (usually witches – but the occasional tribal sorcerer can be frighteningly powerful). There have been occasional attempts to introduce the worship of the Imperial Gods, but they’re usually seen as simply another layer of spirits between the local totems and The Dragon and The Great Spirit, and thus the domain of shamans and other magical specialists. Actual religious rituals call for prayers and invocations before important activities, regular festivals on tribal holy days, and purifications. Shamans often go on vision-quests, but most tribe members leave such things to them. There is no hard-and-fast rule however; individual members of the tribes may dabble in magic if they happen to have a talent that way – it’s just that little formal education is available, hence only the more intuitive magical systems are at all common.
Barbarian Sorcerers are rightly feared. Unlike most other realms, the barbarians revere as well as fear The Dragon, and so have little compunction about drawing on the blood of the Dragon to reduce the effective level of their spells. Just as importantly, given the physical enhancements of their totemistic birthright, they often have plenty of attribute points to spare for such purposes.
The Barbarian tribes place a good deal of stress on honor and keeping promises, as well as a loose tradition of hospitality, but their “legal system” is primarily the province of their shamans, chieftains, and tribal councils. There really is no reliable form of inter-tribal “law” and non-barbarian outsiders have even less in the way of “legal rights” than other barbarians – although the armies of the Imperium command some respect. Most intertribal conflicts, and not a few within the tribes, are settled by a contest of champions. Depending on the stakes losers may (most commonly) be simply humiliated (and more-or-less battered), enslaved, or (relatively rarely) slain. Intertribal raiding for loot, slaves, and glory is relatively common. Semi-arranged “raids” to “abduct” potential marriage partners are extremely common between reasonably friendly tribes, but lead to intertribal squabbles when something (all too frequently) goes wrong.
The creatures of the barbarian lands tend to be larger, faster, stronger, tougher, and far more cunning than those encountered elsewhere. It’s not too uncommon for – say – a bear to lay a false trail, double back, and ambush an unwary hunter. The dividing line between animals and humans is thin in the barbarian lands: a very cunning animal here may well be as clever as a stupid human. The larger beasts have even been known to maintain grudges, and to hunt down those who have injured them or their offspring.