NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers

I have a bone to pick with the fifth-edition Monster Manual’s description of the tribal warrior, as well as the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide’s description of the Reghed and Uthgardt barbarians. In brief, the repeated insistence that these people defer to a chief (“the greatest or oldest warrior of the tribe or a tribe member blessed by the gods”) is based on ignorance of the difference between bands and tribes on the one hand and chiefdoms on the other, and of the egalitarian nature of traditional societies.

Every dungeon master who aspires to any degree of coherent world-building needs to be a Jared Diamond aficionado. His best-known book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines the factors that cause certain societies to advance technologically and socially faster than others (spoiler: abundant access to high-protein staple grains, easily domesticated animals and long east-west trade routes gives a people a major leg up). His book Collapse examines the factors that cause societies to stagnate or go extinct: environmental degradation, changing climate, hostile neighbors, lack of friendly trading partners and overly rigid ideology. And his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, examines the features of traditional societies that set them apart from modern ones.

To quote from the last:

The smallest and simplest type of society (termed by [Elman] Service a band) consists of just a few dozen individuals, many of them belonging to one or several extended families (i.e., an adult husband and wife, their children, and some of their parents, siblings, and cousins). Most nomadic hunter-gatherers, and some garden farmers, traditionally lived at low population densities in such small groups. The band members are sufficiently few in number that everyone knows everyone else well, group decisions can be reached by face-to-face discussion, and there is no formal political leadership or strong economic specialization. A social scientist would describe a band as relatively egalitarian and democratic: members differ little in “wealth” (there are few personal possessions anyway) and in political power, except as a result of individual differences in ability or personality, and as tempered by extensive sharing of resources among band members. . . .

Bands grade into the next larger and more complex type of society (termed by Service a tribe), consisting of a local group of hundreds of individuals. That’s still just within the group size limit where everyone can know everyone else personally and there are no strangers. . . . A society of hundreds means dozens of families, often divided into kinship groups termed clans, which may exchange marriage partners with other clans. The higher populations of tribes than of bands require more food to support more people in a small area, and so tribes usually are farmers or herders or both, but a few are hunter-gatherers living in especially productive environments (such as Japan’s Ainu people and North America’s Pacific Northwest Indians). Tribes tend to be sedentary, and to live for much or all of the year in villages located near their gardens, pastures, or fisheries. However, Central Asian herders and some other tribal peoples practice transhumance—i.e., moving livestock seasonally between different altitudes in order to follow the growth of grass at higher elevations as the season advances.

In other respects tribes still resemble large bands—for instance, in their relative egalitarianism, weak economic specialization, weak political leadership, lack of bureaucrats, and face-to-face decision-making. . . . Some tribes may have a “big man: who functions as a weak leader, but he leads only by his powers of persuasion and personality rather than by recognized authority. . . .

Tribes then grade into the next stage of organizational complexity, called a chiefdom and containing thousands of subjects. Such a large population, and the incipient economic specialization of chiefdoms, require high food productivity and the ability to generate and store food surpluses for feeding non-food-producing specialists, like the chiefs and their relatives and bureaucrats. Hence chiefdoms have built sedentary villages and hamlets with storage facilities and have mostly been food-producing (farming and herding) societies, except in the most productive areas available to hunter-gatherers, such as Florida’s Calusa chiefdom and coastal Southern California’s Chumash chiefdoms.

In a society of thousands of people it’s impossible for everyone to know everyone else or to hold face-to-face discussions that include everybody. As a result, chiefdoms confront two new problems that bands or tribes did not. First, strangers in a chiefdom must be able to meet each other, to recognize each other as fellow but individually unfamiliar members of the same chiefdom, and to avoid bristling at territorial trespass and getting into a fight. Hence chiefdoms develop shared ideologies and political and religious identities often derived from the supposedly divine status of the chief. Second, there is now a recognized leader, the chief, who makes decisions, possesses recognized authority, claims a monopoly on the right to use force against his society’s members if necessary, and thereby ensures that strangers within the same chiefdom don’t fight each other. (14–16)

It should be obvious from this that any “tribesman” who follows a chief doesn’t belong to a tribe at all but to a chiefdom, and that chiefdom is a settled, agrarian society; whereas any “tribesman” who lives in a nomadic hunter-gatherer or herding society of no more than a few hundred people belongs to a band or a tribe with no chief or other recognized authority figure. By analogy to a work of literature we all know, a case can be made that the dwarves, hobbits and Rohirrim of Middle-Earth lived in chiefdoms; for examples of “tribal” peoples, you have to look to the Dunlendings and the Wood-Woses of Drúadan Forest. (Even in this case, J.R.R. Tolkien makes the mistake of naming Ghân-buri-Ghân the “chief” of the Woses.) Thus, when the MM says tribal warriors “live beyond civilization, most often subsisting on fishing and hunting” yet act “in accordance with the wishes of [their] chief,” it’s contradicting itself.

Why am I harping on this in a blog about Dungeons and Dragons tactics? Because “tribal warriors” belonging to chiefdoms will fight differently from “tribal warriors” from actual tribes. The former are specialists—perhaps even belonging to a discrete warrior caste—who assume the burden of fighting on behalf of the entire society, and are typically led by a war chief. The latter comprise every able-bodied man in the tribe, and sometimes women as well; possess no special knowledge or training; and make no distinction of rank. So to know how a “tribal warrior” will fight, you have to know what kind of society he or she belongs to: a primitive band or tribe, or a more advanced chiefdom, because the combat behavior of a warrior from a chiefdom will more closely resemble that of a guard or veteran.

Referencing Diamond again, tribal warriors engage in pitched battles, raids and ambushes, just like warriors from more advanced societies, but they also employ treacherous ruses such as inviting neighbors to a feast, then massacring them while they’re eating. The self-sacrifice exalted as noble by soldiers in state societies doesn’t exist in tribal societies: outnumbered warriors will run away and leave their wounded or captured companions behind without hesitation. There’s no coordination of movement or missile fire; even a battle that begins on cue devolves into chaos almost immediately. Tribal societies engage in total war—they take no prisoners, except women of marriageable age, because without economic specialization, they have no use for prisoners. And they don’t surrender, knowing that if they had captured an enemy, they’d kill him, so they expect the same to be done to them. (For more details, read chapter 4 of The World Until Yesterday.)

Let’s look at the stats of the tribal warrior. Strength and Constitution are above average, suggesting a “brute” melee fighter, which is consistent with the pitched-battle style of traditional warfare. The warrior is armed with a spear, which is a logical weapon; a club, shortbow or sling would also make sense. And the warrior has the Pack Tactics feature, granting advantage if an ally is up and about within 5 feet of the enemy.

One thing is conspicuously (to me, anyway) missing from this profile: the Stealth skill. Not only does a great deal of traditional warfare revolve around raids and ambushes, hunter-gatherers hunt. They have to be stealthy in order to be successful hunters! This omission, in my opinion, makes the stat block nearly as absurd as the flavor text. For pity’s sake, give your tribal warriors Stealth +2 so they at least have a chance of sneaking up on an enemy.

When you get down to actual combat, there aren’t many decisions to make. In a pitched battle, tribal warriors engage in the “Rrrraahhhhh, stab stab stab” style of combat, Dashing away when seriously wounded (reduced to 4 hp or fewer) or when outnumbered by more than, say, 50 percent (that is, when their numbers are two-thirds or less of their enemies’ numbers). They don’t surrender; they kill anyone who surrenders to them. They don’t engage in flanking maneuvers or any clever tactics like that. They fight in a close knot, to take advantage of proximity to their allies. That’s about it.

In our own world, traditional societies are awed and frightened by those they believe to have magical powers, and there’s no reason why it should be any different in D&D. When they see a spellcaster cast a spell, they’ll either try to rush the caster or run for their lives, depending on the type of spell, the damage it does, whether the warriors can see the caster and whether they can get to him or her. Rushing is more likely if they can see the caster, the spell does no actual damage and/or there’s no other enemy in the way. Running is more likely if they can’t tell where the spell came from, the spell does serious damage (7 hp or more in total) and/or there are too many enemies between themselves and the caster. It’s extremely rare that a band or tribe will have a spellcaster of its own (such talents usually only arise within the specialization allowed by a chiefdom), but if it does, its members’ attitude toward magic will be totally different: with a caster on their side, they’ll be extra-bold and much more likely to rush an enemy caster than to run from him or her. They’ll also become enraged if anyone attacks their caster.

Tribal warriors on a raid approach with Stealth and wait patiently (they can wait a long time) for an opportunity to kill defenseless enemies and/or to steal food, livestock or weapons. Once they’ve got the loot they came for, or their targets pick up weapons and come after them, they flee. Ambushes work the same way, except the goal is strictly to kill. Ambushes are used to defend territory, deter trespassers and settle scores. (People in traditional societies hold grudges like you wouldn’t believe.)

Even though the Reghed and Uthgardt barbarians are culturally modeled on Vikings, their way of life isn’t consistent with that. The Vikings lived in chiefdoms and were mostly agrarian and sedentary; the Viking raids of lore were more often than not impulsive addenda to trading expeditions, undertaken by a small subset of the population. The Reghedmen and Uthgardt are portrayed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, traveling in groups of between a dozen and a hundred members and all taking part in their raiding activities together. This is entirely consistent with a tribal organization of society. They shouldn’t have chiefs, at least not ones with any formal authority to compel obedience or deference.

But let’s posit the existence of a slightly larger, more organized society, one that’s begun to engage in agriculture and economic specialization. And let’s say this society contains individuals who hew more closely to their former way of life, who aren’t down with the whole farming agenda and just wanna raid like they used to in the good ol’ days. Such a society might produce berserkers.

Berserkers are tough brutes with the Reckless feature, which is identical to the barbarian class’s Reckless Attack: it grants advantage on both outgoing and incoming attacks. But berserkers are like, yeah, whatever; look at this humongous axe I’m carrying, and look at all these hit points that I’ve got and you don’t. There’s no reason for them to have this feature and not use it all the time. They’re not geniuses who can calculate whether the odds favor a more cautious approach. They’re berserkers. It’s in their name.

The only question here is, do berserkers fight to the death? And that’s an interesting one, because chiefdoms are a transitional stage between traditional band and tribal societies, whose warriors care about saving their own skin, and modern state societies, whose warriors care about duty and honor. Still, based on our hypothetical scenario about what makes a berserker, it seems like they owe more to the traditional organization of society than to the modern one. So while you’d think a berserker would be a violent fanatic, I think we have to conclude that berserkers do in fact care about their own survival and will Dash away when seriously wounded (reduced to 26 hp or fewer).

Next: Doppelgängers.

13 thoughts on “NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers

  1. Now, while I understand your points, I think you might be overlooking the existence of Druids – who are usually reflavored into Shamans for tribal societies – in a D&D world.

    These are the guys I’d have serving as “Chiefs”, or, to follow your nomenclature, Leaders of the tribe. They’d be necessarily wiser and probably more intelligent than most of the rest of the tribe, and those are characteristics that can usually result in a form of leadership.

    These Shamans would also drastically change the tribe’s battle tactics – spells can increase the tribesmen’s Strength and Constitution, they’ll be able to heal warriors, not to mention the potential morale boost of something like Entangle: “Nature itself helps us in our fight, at a simple call from our Shaman!”.

    1. I think even in this case, if it’s actual tribes we’re talking about, the druid/shamans still wouldn’t be chiefs or recognized leaders—they’d be the respected figures who wield influence “only by [their] powers of persuasion and personality rather than by recognized authority.”

      As for the differences in tactics that stem from having a shaman, I addressed that in passing: “It’s extremely rare that a band or tribe will have a spellcaster of its own (such talents usually only arise within the specialization allowed by a chiefdom), but if it does, its members’ attitude toward magic will be totally different: with a caster on their side, they’ll be extra-bold and much more likely to rush an enemy caster than to run from him or her. They’ll also become enraged if anyone attacks their caster.”

      1. Very well said and explained with logic and intuition. It is good to know that as a gamemaster I am not the only one concerned with the minutiae of reason and research for the development of campaign realism.

  2. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this as of the release of Storm King’s Thunder, which not only added shamans to the mix of these “tribes”, but gave each “tribe” a territory and burial ground that could conceivably be near their Chiefdom.

    1. In what way is he wrong? The most common criticism that I’ve read of The World Until Yesterday from anthropologists is, “There’s nothing new here; all this stuff is really obvious.”

        1. I would call that a somewhat detailed rebuttal of one of Diamond’s works which doesn’t do itself any favors by abandoning ship midway through with “I have better things to do.” It also doesn’t discuss The World Until Yesterday. Even so, if you take Diamond out of the question entirely, you’re still left with the well-established differences among bands, tribes, chiefdoms and state societies.

          1. I’m disappointed you didn’t look more into criticism of Diamond’s work before putting your praise of him in your physical book. Even a cursory glance at the AskHistorians FAQ yields 5 seperate threads on problems with Diamond’s work and methodology.

            As you put it on page 110 of your book, “spoiler alert”: it’s highly reductionist, generalizes to an absurd degree, and, through his frankly stunning lens of determinism reinforces the very Eurocentrism he purports to refute.

            The idea of grand, sweeping theories which, inexorable as laws of nature, are the foundation of all human history has long been discarded in the field of historiography.

            The only reason you haven’t received a detailed, well-sourced rebuttal of Diamond’s work is because it would require a commenter to explain the last half century of the field of historiography to you – a work that would span volumes.

    2. I won’t dispute the fact that your comments are completely valid, but consider the point that the purpose of this article is to help GMs impart a sense of verisimilitude in combat encounters for a pulp-fantasy game where strict adherence to the ways of reality is more likely to harm the experience than improve it for the vast majority of gaming groups. Criticize Diamond’s work as much as you wish, but consider that, in the context of a fictional roleplaying game, sometimes sweeping theories about the inexorable laws of nature are absolute gold when plotting out themes for a grand campaign. I’ve yet to read any of his books, but I’d confidently wager that dragons and liches are less realistic than 90% of what Diamond discusses in his books, but we still love to spend time reading a blog focused on theory crafting how they would engage with a party of ragtag adventurers. That being said, If you want to examine the world of Dungeons & Dragons through the lens of historiography, then go right ahead… but I’m afraid you will be disappointed by the endless fictional elements that don’t quite match up with our understanding of the how the real world works.

      P.S. I know that this looks like incoherent nonsense, but I felt it necessary to defend the author’s choice to reference a book (especially one which presents a reasonably cohesive narrative that is more applicable to life than whatever historical education that people like myself received in school). More so that that, I’m motivated to rebut the logic of someone who goes online and patronizingly states their disappointed that an author who writes about monsters tactic didn’t scour the internet for valid criticism before referencing another title as a useful source. Good grief.

  3. From the archaeological record, we know that early hunter-gatherers in the Americas altered the landscape to eliminate escape routes in order to drive their prey towards “buffalo falls”. To me this suggests they had extensive working knowledge of the value of coordinated attacks; including, but not limited to, flank attacks. Why would they behave any less thoughtfully when attacking foes of human intelligence?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.