Saturday, 1 November 2014

Archetypal Adventures: Techno-Barbarians

Art from Eclipse Phase, used under a Creative Commons license.
The more serious action was taking place in the imbricated global hinterland of enclaves and ministates and company countries; [...] Meanwhile, in the shadowy lands beyond and behind even these anarchic polities, the forests and plains and badlands and shanty towns bristled as the Green neo-barbarians, the marginals and the tribals awoke to the unlooked-for opportunities of this new day. - Ken MacLeod, The Sky Road

The Panther ranged the sea, and the Texan communities shuddered. Laser-comms flickered in the night, with a tale that the chupacabra of the Gulf had found a mate, an iron man whose wrath was that of a wounded mountain lion. And survivors of butchered Korean merchanters named Bêlit with curses, and a warrior with cold metal eyes, so the Chaebol lords remembered this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore crimson fruit in the years to come... - Some Idiot, riffing on Robert E Howard...

Time for another Archetype Adventure! Here's one you didn't yet know you wanted: the techno-barbarian. Motorised tribes in plastic yurts, riding pick-up trucks into the burning cities of the disintegrating west. Thieves and gunmen, living off the land, fighting for wealth and power and perhaps a place in the boardrooms of the remaining wealthy. Hardbitten warriors inspired by Gaiseric and Conan, Toyota Wars and deranged John Blanche artwork. Autonomous tribal communities living in the backwoods, printing anti-tank rockets and assault rifles in preparation for the day they swarm the corporate cities in the valley below. 

This post is going to cover a lot of ground. First, we'll discuss what a "barbarian" is, in the context of the Western Roman Empire and the atomising Western civilisation of the average cyberpunk setting. 

Then we'll take a brief diversion and talk about the anti-civilisation "barb" and "naxals" described in Ken MacLeod novels, and an alternate take on the techno-barbarian concept. Anti-techno barbarians!

And finally, a pirate adventure. Another plot hook, called The Sack of San Francisco, grew too long in the telling; it will have to wait for the next post.

One last thing before we start: the name "techno-barbarian" comes from Warhammer 40,000; supposedly techno-barbarians ruled Terra before the rise of the Imperium of Man. They lived in a landscape of "gun-tribes, blood grieves and tek-enclaves" ruled by organisations like the "Terrawatt Clan" and the "Ethnarchy." It ought be a rule that any modern barbarian tribe should have a name at least as baroque and electropunk!


A few of the original barbarians fought to build empires of their own. They arrived like a thunderbolt out of hell; within a generation or two everything they had built had disappeared into dust and legend. Attila's name lives on, while the names of the barbarian warlords who won have been largely forgotten. All they left behind were the nations that succeeded the Roman Empire; a few still standing almost two millennia later.

Men like Alaric and Stilicho fought for legitimacy. The Gothic war bands that roamed the failing Empire were composed of German tribals, ex-slaves, legionary deserters and disaffected citizens. The west was beset by bagaudae insurgency and civil collapse. An itinerant murderhobo might take on mercenary work from the government and landowners when it was available and loot when it was not. The warlords had to walk a fine line. Go too far, burn too much, and the Empire would pay the other tribes to wipe you out. There's a reason why polities founded by Franks and Goths still stand while the name "Vandal" lives on only as a pejorative.

The Romans were too savvy to simply pay the raiders off. Instead, they aimed to co-opt them, and the barbarian warlords were happy to be co-opted. Victory often meant a mansion, a title and a land-grant, usually directly on top of a troublesome province it was now in your interest to defend. Genetic surveys have shown that the barbarians were not nearly as numerous as Victorian racial nationalists would have us believe: they certainly never wiped out the existing populations. Instead, as the central government and its armies retreated, the greatest warlords were handed the reins of power by the local landowners and remaining regional authorities. 

Imagine the Federal Government of the United States collapsing into irrelevance, with power devolving almost by default to State Governments. Imagine that California invited in Blackwater (or whatever that company calls itself these days) to defend itself from insurgents in Bakersfield and Canadian pirates burning the coasts. Imagine that a decade later Erik Prince had himself appointed dictator in Sacramento and renamed the whole place "Blackwaterstan". That nation and it's government would still be recognisably, culturally American. 

It may sound fantastic to link the term "realism" with Conan; but as a matter of fact - his supernatural adventures aside - he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that's why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian. - Robert E Howard, letter (1935)

Here then, is the inspiration for our cyberpunk barbarian. We have a disintegrating system that leaves many people economically obsolete. The government is hollowed out and unable to pay for its own defence. Private militias and corporate armies, insurgents and ideological terrorists divide the hinterlands between the cities between them. The middle class has collapsed; the gap between the pixel-stained techno-peasantry and the wealthy seems insurmountable. For some, violence seems the only solution. 

A barbarian might be an ex-soldier, a ronin from a broken mega-corporation, a biker with delusions of grandeur, a dispossessed immigrant or an ecogee unwilling to rot in squalid FEMA camps. They may simply be people unable to afford rent in corporate cities, left with no other option than to join a nomad group. With the total breakdown of law and order across most of the world, they belong to small autonomous groups of nomads. Single celled protein tanks and modern power cells drawing from a variety of small vehicle mounted generator systems allow tribals (along with an increasing number of other isolates, survivalists and autonomists) to live outside the old commercial networks for much of the time. 

The neo-barbarian owes his existence to a specific moment in military technology. At the end of the 20th century, the offensive power of cheap anti-tank weapons like the RPG-29 began to outpace the defensive capabilities of all but the most effective vehicle armour. At the same time, the multitude of small paramilitary NGOs could no longer afford the expensive tanks and aircraft once coveted by nation state militaries. Airborne drones could restrict movement and destroy specific targets, but proved ineffective for either holding ground or performing "human terrain reconnaissance." Advances in personal body armour,  smartguns, widely available VR assisted training systems and cybernetics all conspired to increase the fighting power of the individual soldier. Warfare in the first half of the 21st century came to be dominated by human infantry. 

In such circumstances, unit morale once again became the decisive factor in war. In 2014, a highly motivated Islamist militia called ISIL made an early demonstration of these tendencies against the materially superior but craven forces of the Iraqi government. By 2025, a combination of 3d printers and cheap next-gen anti-drone/helicopter rockets had combined with cheap, portable solar generators to allow tiny groups to maintain a high tech infantry force with a minimal supply chain. 

A techno-barbarian with a little printed body-armour and a kitted technical can be a match for just about any police officer, paramilitary soldier, militiaman or gang member. What distinguishes them from those rivals is mobility: barbarian forces keep moving, looking for economic opportunities. The average neo-barbarian lives in his technical. 

Techno-barbarians need to appear as dangerous as possible. Their mobility relies on the cost-benefit analysis made by local paramilitary forces: when faced with passing barbarian forces they must decide to let them pass rather than risk a bloody fire fight. Barbarians can often defeat poorly paid government soldiers and risk averse corporate mercenaries, but well-trained militia defending their own homes are an entirely more dangerous prospect. Like the privateers that once bedevilled the Caribbean, relatively egalitarian barbarian groups rely on discipline and brotherhood bonds to defeat less motivated forces. Barbarian warbands that lack cohesion and suffer defeat as a consequence almost always disintegrate. 

The average barbarian is armed with a sturdy assault rifle and wears as much body armour as possible, once in combat. That said, tribals are perfectly capable of using guerilla tactics and plain clothes disguise to infiltrate targets. Once in combat, tribals use blitzkrieg tactics to overrun enemy positions. The most perfect battle is one in which the enemy flee in panic without firing a shot, leaving their weapons and valuables behind.

So what are the economic opportunities available to a heavily armed road warrior? 

Mercenary Work: in the atomising nation states of the cyberpunk world, there are dozens of small organisations in constant conflict with each other. Barbarians are cheap and "deniable," a mass combat equivalent of the 'runner. Corporations hire barbarians to attack rival convoys and facilities while barbarian mercenaries make cross border raids on behalf of the surviving nations. Warbands often act as privateers, attacking enemy infrastructure far from the main battle lines. Other raiders carry out fast moving "chevauchee" operations aimed at destroying the economic power of entire regions in an orgy of loot and pillage.

"Picketing:" Long occupations of hostile territory just aren't cost-effective any more: if they were, the big nation states would still be the most powerful actors in the world. Cyberpunk era warfare is all about quick results - get in, achieve mission goals, get out. Hezbollah's operation against West Beirut in 2008 was paradigmatic. The government removed the Hezbollah aligned head of airport security, so they rolled into Beirut. The government reinstated the airport security official, and Hezbollah rolled out - before they'd become an occupation force, and pissed off their potential supporters and allies in the process.

This style of warfare has lately been adopted by both the mega-corporations and the barbarians. For the barbarians, it's all about extracting concessions and tribute by seizing infrastructure and holding it hostage. Power plants, road bridges, airports... it's often possible to grab these locations rapidly before local forces can become organised to adequately defend them.

Another technique is to surround a town and systematically wreck power and water supply systems until the local leadership pays you to stop. This is particularly effective in the American west, where dozens of towns are built in completely unsustainable locations. Same deal in western China and Mongolia, where the mining towns make for vulnerable targets.

Or you can kidnap people. Same deal, really!

Counter-Insurgency: the primary occupation of the Gothic tribes hired by Rome, to put down the anti-tax, anti-landlord bacaudae rebels or halt the advance of other barbarians. The modern landlords hire barbarians for the same reasons, or as scabs. The barbarians might be hired as a "security company" and given a lucrative contract to hold a region; this is one of the "win states" for a barbarian war leader. 

Hiring poorly trained thugs to suppress regional insurgents works about as well as you'd imagine. Barbarians are hired because they are cheap (and frankly, to keep them from joining the insurgency). Moral player characters will mostly likely meet barbarian COIN warriors as antagonists, not friends.

In the grand tradition of the Roman Empire, barbarian chieftains who acquire these sorts of contracts tend to move into their mansions and forget their roots, leaving their followers as poor as before. This leads to desertions and banditry, increasing the violence still further.

Looting: if there's no work, look elsewhere. 

McMansions. Shopping Malls. Suburbs. All the symbols of the passing era, just sitting there. The government is failing, and law enforcement failing with it. In regions without a history of warfare, it is often possible to roll straight into towns that were not built with defence in mind, and steal everything. The most valuable targets are 3d printers and high grade electronics that can't be printed on the road: a commercially available pair of iShades loaded with some pirated combat analysis software will keep a nomad alive through battles with far superior troops. Or it can be sold on the open market. Like pirates, barbarians tend to cultivate relationships with black marketeers. Or they simply drive back across a border and openly sell their acquisitions in sprawling markets. 

Do it to the same place too many times and the local community will begin looking to their own defence, forming militias, printing weapons and fortifying the approaches. It was one thing for burly Vandal raiders in expensive (looted) chainmail to storm into a town and suppress the terrified civilian population; quite another for techno-barbarians to assault an autonomous community where every adult man and woman has access to an assault rifle and the local tacnet. That situation normally requires artillery support to resolve, and then there's nothing left to loot. Besides, kibbutzim and survivalists aren't exactly famous for riches

The real money lies in the cities. Except cities have large police forces, National Guard bases, corporate paramilitary enclaves. The wealthy haven't abandoned places like New York and London, and pay well for their defences. Torching Vacaville and Napa is one thing: San Francisco quite another. 

It takes a leader of enormous charisma to bring together thousands of nomads in a vast offensive. Internet enabled "Flash-Hordes" swarm rapidly and unexpectedly, but network surveillance can provide some warning against the oncoming onslaught. In the days before an assault, government forces will unleash drones against the surrounding countryside, hoping to pick off the leadership and scatter the raiders (many an innocent farmer has been Hellfired in the back of his pick-up truck because his hunting rifle looked too big for deer...). As in Roman times, the most effective defence against a Barbarian horde is to deploy small, fast moving "cavalry" units to pick-off outlying units and (feedstock) foragers, reducing the cohesion and confidence of the oncoming multitude. Helicopters and GEV tanks make these cavalry units far more effective than anything the Eastern Empire ever put into the field. 

In response, warlords use guerilla tactics. Ahead of an assault, raiders will infiltrate the city and acquire weapons from local fixers. These same fixers will make contact with local gangs, enlisting their support. A fifth column inside the city will initiate the chaos with infrastructure attacks calculated to bring down the power networks and paralyse the security forces. Once the looting starts the local disenfranchised are likely to join in (as they did in Gaul...). The aim is to create a riot before the main assault, paralysing the local security forces. Riots are self perpetuating, collective events - once they start they tend to spiral organically, all the more so if the cop are being actively engaged by rifle toting tribal warriors. As local go-gangs and poor kids battle the police in the inner city, fast moving clan warriors can strike through the chaos and hit pre-planned targets.

If all goes to plan, the city will come to resemble the nightmare motivating the huge militarised surveillance/police states currently endorsed by the 1%: the wretched of the earth swarming over the barricades with no goal other than tearing down the mansions of the wealthy, defiling their works and burning their idols.


Deep in the forest
High in the mountains
To the future we will take an oath
Like springing tigers we encircle the cities
Our home is the undergrowth
Because I am just a naxalite warrior
Fighting for survival and equality 

Asian Dub Foundation, "Naxalite"

"We need not describe in detail the cultural and political consequences of [Socialism]. Nomad tribes from the Eastern steppes would again raid and pillage Europe, sweeping across it with swift cavalry. Who could resist them in the thinly populated land left defenceless after the weapons inherited from the higher technique of Capitalism had worn out?" Ludwig Von Mises, "Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis" (1922)

"...either the triumph of Imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of Socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the International Proletariat against Imperialism and its method of war." - Rosa Luxemburg, "Socialism or Barbarism" (1916)

It would be remiss of me to write a post about cyberpunk barbarians without mentioning Ken MacLeod, whose quote opens this post. Resurgent barbarism, directed against modern civilisation, is a recurring theme throughout his work. Indeed, the Fall Revolution novels appear directly inspired by the quotes above, playing literary games with libertarian and socialist conceptions of "barbarism." In the various alternate futures described in novels like The Stone Canal and The Sky Road, civilisations collapse into depopulation, desolation and degeneration, to be overrun by swift cavalry; the battle between socialism and barbarism is carried out by Green neo-barbarians, libertarian communists, communalist libertarians, corporate mercenaries and the representatives of several different ongoing singularities, with no outcome predetermined or inevitable (indeed, it changes from book to book). Also, there are hundreds of very funny hard-left and libertarian in-jokes.

The Fall Revolution books are generally even-handed in their politics, allowing the characters to express their own opinions and view-points without the authorial voice doing the same. That said, one opinion shared by almost all the characters is a severe distaste for anti-scientific, "irrationalist," anti-humanistic green movements of the sort prominent in the 1990s, who are variously castigated for anti-vaccination/medicine views (exacerbating apocalyptic plagues), violent attempts to overthrow technological civilisation (retarding the progress of the human species) and even anti-Semitism (being an asshole...). In one version of the Fall Revolution's future history the deep green "barb" are overthrown by revolutionary cadre "stringing up Green Chiefs and witchdoctors from their own sacred trees." "The execution figures were inflated by over-enthusiastic local committees, anyway. It wasn't more than a hundred thousand, worldwide. Tops. Honestly." 

The "barb" (who do receive some nuance in The Sky Road) are described as an anti-civilisation movement provoked in large part by the violent atomisation of technological society in a post-Soviet, cyberpunk universe. MacLeod takes the idea of an anti-civilisation movement further in Intrusion, a much more recent book that makes a genuinely savage attack on the worst aspects of the modern nanny-surveillance state. Apparently inspired by a theory that the Bronze Age city burners were in fact representatives of a social revolution that explicitly target the written word as a tool of oppression, Intrusion remakes the Indian peasant-maoist Naxalite movement into an expanding global nihilist insurgency against intrusive networks, ripping apart the fabric of urban society in order to clean the slate. It's not so different from Tracer Tong's goal in Deus Ex (spoiler for one potential game ending...).

(below: a soundtrack for the City Burners...)

I think Robert E Howard would approve of a barbarian war against urban civilisation

Latter day City Burners, turning their weapons against the networks that sustain modern, hierarchical society, are a member of the cyberpunk Rogue's Gallery with huge genre precedent but little presence in gaming. Aside from Intrusion's Naxals and Deus Ex's Tracer Tong, anti-network, anti-civilisation rebels have champions in Islands in the Net, Fight Club and Escape from LA. In Islands in the Net, Tuareg anti-net rebels survive on single celled proteins and solar power, systematically destroying every physical intrusion of the global communications network into their world in order to remain autonomous from it. In Fall Revolution, the Sheenisov movement develops a surprising (and beautiful) resilient alternative to modern technological networks and then systematically smash the existing systems in order to expand their zone of influence. With the destruction of the network, the ability of corporations and police to sustain control is crushed (along with the ability of large cities to sustain their population...). Whether or not the instigators of this anti-systems war are idealists or nihilists, the results of a successful campaign are always apocalyptic. Anyone with a vested interest in modern society, when confronted with swift cavalry, has to stand against them or lose everything. 

By contrast, playing an anti-civilisation rebel would be a fascinating, cathartic experience. The goal would be to break the "the system" by destroying the economic and communications infrastructure that sustains it, from junction boxes and mobile phone towers to military barracks and corporate headquarters. Your team would move through the expanding technological wilderness using resilient, autonomous tech - single cell protein tanks, printers run on scavenged feedstock, vehicle mounted solar batteries - or else lurk in the cities like parasites. I say cathartic because I'm pretty sure running a game about blowing up civilisation would tap into the same "kill your boss, kill your neighbours" fantasies that power much zombie mythology. If you were to run such a game Play-by-Post, you'd probably get arrested for planning a terrorist atrocity, or something...



Bêlit Ataman
is a barbarian and a pirate, the scourge of drought-burned Texas. Her ship Panther, a stealth hydrofoil stolen from the Northern Star oil corporation, is the most feared vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. She raids oil platforms and corporate bases across Texas and into Louisiana, taking advantage of the denuded state of the local Coast Guard to wreak havoc in poorly defended corporate facilities. Corporate ships headed for Mobile and Galveston have been looted; one was even sunk. Ataman has anti-aircraft rockets, enough to seriously dissuade the corporate air-militias that try to respond to her attacks.

PCs might be members of her crew, taking part in pirate raids, casing targets and meeting suppliers. The raids are fast, fiery affairs, with assault teams using stealth tactics to approach before wrecking the enemy with concentrated rifle fire, in the grand tradition of the Caribbean buccaneers and Navy SEALs.

The Opposition

With Texas dying of thirst, American authorities are in retreat all along the Gulf Coast, leaving the remaining towns to pirates, extraterritorial corporations and syndicate thugs. The Panther can operate almost with impunity south of Galveston, although she has never been able to raid Corpus Christi. To the east, Mobile Bay is still strongly held by the US Navy. Cuba is a similarly tough target: the Cuban navy has come closer than anybody to sinking the Panther. Cuban marines are willing to take risks that corporate soldiers won't, resulting in the kind of extended battles Ataman wants to avoid. Meanwhile, Havana has deployed members of the Avispas Negras special forces unit into Texas in the hope of finding and killing her suppliers (they are particularly interested in dealing with the black medicals who provide her marines with advanced cyberware...).

Meanwhile, the shipping corporations have acted, hiring 'runners. Cari "Demon" Montpelier is a cunning, brutal investigator based out of Louisiana. Her plan for catching Bêlit isn't simple; she doesn't believe Bêlit will fall for a simple trap. She has to be baited. Like any pirate, Bêlit has on-shore fixers and factors. Cari intends to find them and turn them into double agents, feeding the pirate queen information that leads her down the fetid Mississippi into the lost city of New Orleans. In the ghost-haunted ruins, she intends to draw Bêlit into a trap and kill her once and for all.

She calls this plan "Operation: Mindfuck."

Cari might hire the team to support her play. Eventually, that means taking on Ataman's veteran crew. Like most experienced barbarians, these individuals are superior to almost any soldier or ganger the team have met before, armed with advanced looted weapons and a great deal of cyberware. In the wreckage of the Bayou, both sides have little reason to hold back. Here is an excuse to bring-out the heavy weapons, the hovercraft and the drone swarms.

The Goal

If she isn't snared by Operation: MindfuckBêlit's dream is to storm Corpus Christi, still a wealthy city. One ship, bristling with anti-aircraft missiles as it may be, can't achieve this. A grand coalition of Texan barbarians, however...

The city is extremely heavily defended, both by Texas Rangers (now supported by attack helicopters and drone tanks) and a veritable legion of oil company mercenaries. Bêlit believes both forces could be put to flight if sufficiently panicked in the opening assault. Finding a way to do that is up to the players. 

Once her troops have driven off the defenders, the challenge is to carry off high value targets. She has been cultivating relationships with certain Russian oil companies who would pay to see their competitors wrecked; they will pay a bounty for every target physically destroyed.

If the corporations hadn't embraced this sort of cannibalistic economic war, the rule of law would still prevail and the barbarians would have no space to roam. The secret paymasters bringing about this destruction are advancing the descent of their own civilisation into "barbarism" and dark night.

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