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Beautiful Barbarians

(An article that was originally published in April 2022 Edition of FiveE Magazine. Which you can download free from drivethroughrpg)


To the soundtrack of Jurassic Park, I describe as the party looks down on the cold, windy steppe they must cross. 1000 miles of grasses, icy streams and gentle hills, filled with ice age animals, and dangers. Vast herds of mammoths stampede away from swooping steppe eagle rocs that simply pluck the slowest off the ground, while cave bears and packs of dire wolves hurt for their next meal.

It’s the simple but treacherous life. Leave behind civilization and all its excesses; explore, hunt, fight, get lost, and repeat. With only their ingenuity to keep them alive the players will have to learn how to exist without access to magic shops that hand out potions like a fast-food outlet. Here the ranger and druid who loathe the dingy mega-dungeon, can bask in their element. While the cold and waterlogged city rogue will pine for a nice warm bath after a good old fashioned tavern brawl. Yet, 30 days travel from the nearest inn, how do you cheer up that bard who just isn’t happy unless they have someone new to perform to. The animals only seem so interested in her song, and certainly there is no one out here to try and charm. Or seduce even. What’s a bard to do in such a place?

In my most recent campaign I used a series of barbarian villages as the secret sauce to a varied campaign that travels off the beaten track but still appeals to all characters and play styles. As our heroes travelled across an ancient windy steppe, they encountered diverse and unheard-of villages of barbarians. Orcs, Goblins, Lizard people, Insectoids or unexpected mixtures of races and cultures. I wanted somewhere the players could rest, converse, roleplay, and get wrapped up in interpersonal conflict and politics as a break from the fighting and running that comes so naturally to the steppe wilderness they were crossing. And yes, the bard will try and seduce the village leader, she simply can’t help herself. Even though they were a change of pace, these tribal villages weren’t easy encounters, they drove forwards the story and each through brutal culture shock challenged the players to make moral or strategic choices that were never obvious or black and white. As a source of side quests, they found challenging distractions to assist with each village’s unique crisis, with an prize, but no easy solutions.

The mammoth farming orcs of the windy steppe

The Terna Orcs have farmed the windy steppe for thousands of years. Their legends, customs and stories are akin to those of Neolithic humans, but these orcs farm and worship herds of woolly mammoth. Mirroring their idols, they follow a matriarchal society, their leader being the oldest female with all male orcs subservient. They do not go to war for territory, for the mammoths, who embody their very ancestors, know where they need to roam and roam there they will. They fight furiously if one of their herd is cut down by outsiders, which brings them into conflict with naive human hunters or desperate poachers. What is our band of heroes to do when on the way to the village they encounter Orc Shepherd’s shouting in their tongue at some humans, replying in theirs? The humans are towing a freshly dead mammoth with arrows in its back that they “found”. Did the humans know their crime, punishable not just by a painful death, but by declaration of war on all their kind? Can the orcs be reasoned with, calmed down even? Just getting them speak the same language might be a start but mishandled this argument will escalate and many lives will be lost. If a fight starts, what side will the party take?

My players handled this well, after much talking, some clever spells and quite a few social skill rolls they had prevented both local conflict and a war. While they didn’t kill the poachers, they left them in the wilderness with little chance for survival, I suspect at least one of them got eaten by a steppe eagle roc. What struck me was how alive the players with characters equipped with skills and spells to influence became during and after this encounter.

Following this success, the tribal village and their problems beckoned the team, roc killing side quests and role play opportunities emerge as the characters are invited to participate in brutal, barbaric and outright dangerous customs. Don’t play drinking games with tribal barbarian orcs if you value your life!

The Magic Hating Nomads of the Cold Desert

The Kraske Tribe of human desert nomads know where to find food even when there hasn’t been rain in many years. They move their great tents from oasis to oasis always managing their food and water reserves with great care. The unprecedented deluge of last month’s rainstorm has caused the desert to erupt with wildflowers. The consequential harvest is a bounty of resources they frankly don’t know what to do with. It would be a cause for much celebration if they were not in the depths of dire and tragic mourning. With the death of the tribe’s son and heir to an unknown evil in the cave where their ancestors are buried has everyone in sorrow and panic. The tribe has a strict code prohibiting magic for religious reasons, they allow no spellcasters, use of magic is always punishable by death. When our heroes discover this and become embroiled in the tribe’s politics they are faced with an impossible choice. Will they find a loophole that allows magic use, or will they enter the dark and magical cave with just their mundane skills and weapons? To use magic in such a holy place for this tribe would be an affront, but is there any other way to survive the deadly encounter?

After many failed and fruitless conversations, the party were quick to reach for fraud and cheating to achieve their goals. With a fair number chaotically aligned personalities and a total dependency on spells, items and potions they didn’t even consider trying to fight an unknown enemy in a magically dark cave without such crutches. Elaborate illusions and charms were used to hide their subterfuge long enough to resolve the problem and get away. If they meet this tribe people again, I will likely call for rolls of initiative very quickly and the spellcasters will then discover that this tribe knows a thing or two about slaying mages…

The angry lizard people of the desert river and their archrivals the fungus eating insectoids.

Living above the river for safety on huge towers of stick, bone and mud, makes sense because they are quick to build, easy to defend, and if you are a lizard, trivial to climb. From their lofty homes the lizard people live a simple life fishing and gathering. With short lifespans and a conflict that started so many years ago the tribe of lizard people cannot remember why they are fighting the insectoids, it’s just always been that way. Both species of cold-blooded creatures are fighting on the edge of survival in the same lands and their conflict seems unresolvable. What makes it all the more terrifying is the fact that the players have to resolve this conflict, and fast. As a magical and deadly sandstorm approaches the two tribes both face annihilation, and pure pride prevents the obvious solution of combining resources and living through the storm together. Will the players broker this peace, and if they manage that will they maintain it? Confided to a claustrophobic cave, small arguments escalate quickly, and when enemy forces arrive, how will the heroes coordinate the kind of combined defense that will be needed to win.

While the party made the initial negotiations look easy with some fantastic roleplaying, strong persuasive arguments and lucky rolls, keeping the peace and defending the cave proves more difficult. Combined with the antagonist of the story turning up and things get interesting very quickly.

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