Society and culture

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Class Structure

The typical tribe divides itself into three basic groups. The names of these classes vary from tribe to tribe, but the generic terms are Warriors, Holders, and Stringers. A fourth class may be present depending on the particular tribe: the Thralls, or slaves.


Warriors are the active soldiers among a culture where everyone has combat training. >From an early age, tribesmen and women train with all manner of weapons and styles. Prestige and power come through success in battle. When not in battle, Warriors of most tribes are expected to assist in maintenance of the holdfast. Some tribes use thralls instead, but then a portion of a holding's warriors monitor the slaves to prevent revolt.


This class is composed of the technicians, nurses, cooks, farmers, and other non-combat roles. They are responsible for maintenance of a tribe's holdfast, labor, construction, and any necessary terraforming.


These are the spacefarers and pilots of the tribes, those who control transportation of warbands and settlers between star systems. They also handle the trade among the Tribes of Man. Stringers have a reputation for gaudy attire and equipment. They can be just as touchy as the Warriors in their own way, and are reportedly famous for their love of gambling.


Slaves, pure and simple. Depending on the tribe (many tribes abhor slavery), a thrall may be well treated, almost a member of the family, or he may be subjected to abject humiliation. An entire tribe composed entirely of escaped thralls is rumored to exist. Some tribes use brutish, inhuman thralls called "BioDerms," creatures said to be grown in vats instead of born from the loins of humanity. These things are somewhat rare, however.


The Tribes of Man rule over spheres of influence composed of holdings. A "holding" refers to a planet controlled by a single tribe. A “contested holding” refers to a planet where two or more tribes battle for domination. A “pax holding” refers to a planet where multiple tribes have divided the territory by treaty into two or more holdings. A “ghost holding” refers to an abandoned planet no longer settled, but still considered in the control of a tribe. Ghostheld worlds may have garrisons or bases or mines, but no settled holdfasts.

The complexity of the trans-galactic jumpgate network called the Hyperweb means tribes think of territory less in terms of a volume of space and more as a network of worlds. Each Tribe's holdings form a web of territory within the larger Hyperweb. They tend to be contiguous, except when the fortunes of war separate one net of holdings from another. While it is more accurate to refer to the Diamond Sword's "webzone,” most tribesfolk speak of "the Diamond Sword territories" or "Sworder holdings."

Holdfast (aka Hold, Toring [SW], Polis, Vár [CoP], Arx, Chapterhouse [BE], Sentaken, Tazan, Chuo [DS])

Holdfasts are settlements where the Tribes of Man make their homes and raise their crops and families. Since terraforming and agricultural conditions are primitive enough to limit food production, holdfasts typically stock up on fundamentals in case of a siege. This wealth makes them attractive targets for raiders.

There are comfortable quarters in holdfasts, though greater effort goes into making attractive common areas for the tribesfolk to gather in. A heavy deployment of autoturrets and guards defend holdfasts. Holdfasts typically consist of a central stronghold, sentry posts, a landing pad for dropships, and a surrounding city or town. Other holdfasts may indeed be a city with several smaller citadels. However, if a settlement lacks any citadel fortification, it cannot properly be called a holdfast.

Each of the Four has its own customs and outlook regarding holdfasts. Though “holdfast” is a universal term throughout the wilderzone, the Four also substitute or add unique terms that fit within their particular culture. The Starwolf add “Toring” after a holdfast’s name if it is the primary settlement on a world and has a Thane in residence. The Children of Phoenix add Vár as a suffix to any holdfast where a Wing is stationed. The Blood Eagle add Arx as a prefix to their most heavily-fortified holdfasts. The Diamond Sword sometimes add a prefix that fits with the particular facet to which the holdfast is considered “attuned.” Many independents also add their own linguistic twists.

In terms of holdfast planning, the Children of Phoenix prefer wide streets and many public places in their spacious urban grids, whereas the Diamond Sword make theirs more temple-centered and district-oriented. The Blood Eagle maintain a strong fortress at the center of their holdfasts, a place usually called the Chapterhouse, but aside from a few main cross-streets that center on the Chapterhouse, the tribe allows a snarled knotwork of growth with few regulations. The Starwolf vary greatly, but seem to prefer compact settlements with easy access to open spaces and parks. Many Starwolf holdfasts are simply a citadel surrounded by agridomes.

Fortresses (Bases, Bastions)

These are the outposts raised to establish a defensive perimeter around tribal settlements. Tribal honor codes mandate that an invading force attempt to penetrate the fortresses before reaching the holdfasts and attacking the Holder populace. That doesn't always mean engaging. If a raiding group can slip through the defenses, they can honorably lay waste to any holdfasts the raiders find. Honor only requires that they not drop directly on the holdfast. Instead, they must begin outside the defensive ring. If the invaders cannot detect a defensive ring, custom requires they drop at least three kilometers from their target. Tribal mobility is so great that holdfasts would never be safe otherwise.


The most populous holdings sometimes support a patchwork cluster of businesses and residences located outside the largest holdfasts. These so-called "fraytowns" hold non-tribe settlers, traders, and frays of all kinds. A fraytown provides a locale for commerce to take place without violating the security of the holdfast itself. The bazaars, souks, and cantinas of a typical fraytown are a good place for mercenaries and other outsiders to advertise their services. If the holdfast can be likened to a castle, a fraytown is akin to the village that lies under the castle's shadow.


Camps are field outposts for tribal patrols. They usually have a perimeter picket line of sensors and autoturrets, unless the warriors are trying to move extremely swiftly and stealthily.

Building Materials

Tribes most commonly build with prefabricated slabs of teralloy or stahlplast; antigrav machinery and nanotech constructor sequences allow permanent prefab structures to be raised quickly. These buildings typically appear somewhat crude and blocky. They're built to be durable and defensible, not comfortable. However, tribal architects often set holdfasts and fortresses into cliffsides or mountain slopes, and in these settlements, the additional excavation allows leeway for considerations of comfort.


The Tribes of Man are spread across hundreds of worlds that span the wilderzone. Despite the great distances and the relative wealth of worlds, the tribal population remains relatively small, and the wilderzone is a sparsely populated region. The Four major tribes number only between twenty and thirty million in total population, whereas most of the independent tribes have populations of under 100,000.

No one has successfully executed a census of the wilderzone, but estimates by Imperial sociologists place the total human population at approximately 100 million. Reasons for the low numbers are twofold, as with all population trends: a low birth rate combined with a relatively high mortality rate. The population of the wilderzone grows only at a snail’s pace. Two major factors keep mortality rates high in the wilderzone: (1) the martial culture and constant raiding, and (2) Xeno-pox.

Low Birth Rates

Most hard labor is done by thralls, robots, and entek, so there is little need for many children to provide workers. In addition, the warrior culture permits female warriors, and practical necessity requires these women to take either oaths of chastity or contraceptive implants. No leader wants soldiers off-duty due to pregnancy. Inevitably, the result of allowing women to take combat positions means a delay in having families, even if many women later give birth to several children.

A State of War

The constant conflict in the wilderzone means there are always raids or small-scale wars going on. Ritual warfare like the famous Flag Contests keeps collateral damage to a minimum, but still results in death of warriors who could become parents. The potential devastation of a large-scale war could cripple even the larger tribes with high casualties.


Another factor that keeps wilderzone populations under control is the spread of viral microorganisms from world to world. Few quarantines exist in the wilderzone, and even with panimmunity treatments, epidemics are almost as common as they were in the preindustrial days on old Earth. Medical technology is much better than it was then, of course, but the time required to implement a solution still means a fast-moving virus can decimate a small holding. Some worlds have fallen silent in a matter of days.

These scenarios represent the worst cases. The greatest impact of the epidemics is a dramatic increase in infant mortality rates, which in turn hinders population growth in the wilderzone. Tribals call this fact of life “Xeno-pox.” Traders and most tribals do take precautions, but nothing has completely eliminated the danger.


A higher-than-predicted number of jumpgates (see Hyperweb) connect terrestrial worlds, worlds that are already capable of supporting human life. Terraforming in those typically involves bringing in soil with the appropriate microorganisms, and then killing off any harmful indigenous lifeforms that threaten settlements. The tribes push deeper into unexplored regions of the Hyperweb, searching for new worlds to serve as population bases and sources of wealth.

A Warrior Society

Tribal life and culture revolves around the glorification of the military. The constant struggle for resources and worlds has forged a tough and deadly warrior class. Leaders and tribal chiefs are almost always famous warriors; the culture bears a strong parallel to the feudal period on ancient Earth, or even far more distant past of Homeric Greece. The fluid, mobile raids typical of tribal warfare and the extension of the Imperial honor system to the diffuse clan culture of the various tribes have forged a unique society.


Tribal warriors customarily — but not always — take warnoms. A warnom is simply a colorful callsign that operates as a handle on the battlefield. Some warriors become so well known that they go solely by their warnom, with only their intimate friends using their birthnoms. Warnoms are bestowed in a variety of ways. Some warriors choose their own names, others receive names from their superiors or from the senior warrior in their first unit. By tradition, a newblood becomes eligible for a warnom only after performing some notable deed on the field of battle. It need not be a heroic deed, but should represent the “blooding” of the warrior to real combat. For that reason, a warnom is also called the “bloodnom,” though that is a far rarer term.

Armor and Honor

In the early days of tribal battle, winners stripped equipment and salvage from the losers. As time passed, the reasons for defense of a fallen comrade and her gear shifted from practicality to honor. Now some of the fiercest fighting in a tribal battle may be over a body. Stripping the gear of a fallen foe is considered a victory in itself. Likewise, defending a fallen comrade from being plundered maintains the honor of the tribe. Some warriors wear trophies of their kills, using weapons and armor parts taken from other tribes.

The Role of Women

Except in a few tribes dominated by matriarchal rulers, most tribes adopt an egalitarian ethic. With the equalizing effect of powered armor, there is no rationale for women not fighting, especially since every blaster counts in the wilderzone. Indeed, most of the best warriors among the Tribes of Man are female. However, the practical need to keep up population levels means many women retire from the battlefield to bear children. In that case, they take up defense of the holdfast.

Imperials who come from a planet with male-dominant cultures are like fish out of water among the tribes. Tribal women have a reputation for being forward from an Imperial perspective. The tribes consider sexual relations a matter of individual choice. The only real constraint is maintaining the honor of the family and the tribe. Another consideration is not stumbling into the middle of someone's blood feud, since lovers often become secondary targets in the grim wars of vengeance that break out in the wilderzone.

Martial Honor

Prowess in battle is the primary measure of honor, though the greatest honor typically goes to successful commanders. Nearly everyone is armed, and everyone in a tribe knows who outranks whom. Even in tribes that use a loose hierarchy, there exists this sense of division between "commanders" and "grunts." Elevation depends on combat competence initially, then derives from tactical skill, then proven strategic aptitude and command potential.

Differences of opinion may be settled by duel or by adjudication. Tribes tend to be practical so long as honor is not involved. Personal honor is extremely important in the frontier societies of the tribes. A warrior's word must often serve as bond; there are no Imperial courts and contracts used. This custom does not mean the Tribes of Man are ignorant or illiterate. Records are kept of transactions, and all warriors are expected to read. However, the bond of honor comes from the spoken oath, not electronic chits in a clipboard's memory.

When engaging the enemy, anything is allowed. Only when a challenge sets particular limits does personal combat shift to a restricted format. These duels of honor may occur in close proximity with hand-to-hand weapons, with or without armor, or they may take place across sweeping terrain as each warrior stalks the other with spinfusor and laser rifle.

The primary motivation behind tribal war is raiding for technology, honor, or territory. Since multiple tribes on a particular world typically engage in severe raiding, some tribes have adopted a zero tolerance policy for intruders on their worlds, and respond to any incursion by mustering maximum force and mounting a full-scale assault.

Family Ties

Kinship ties are extremely important, but most tribesmen and women travel extensively. One reason is the constant raiding, but another reason is to seek out mates and lovers. The sparse population of many holds encourages a tribe's various branches to mingle. Cross-tribal marriages are common, with the marriage negotiation settling in advance which tribe the couple will settle among. The practical effect of marriage is to keep members of some families from fighting one another. For example, if Hektira of the Gorgon Killers marries Valevan of the Ancient Rage, they may agree to live among the Gorgon Killers. Valevan is honor-bound to function as a Gorgon Killer in every conflict except with those of his original tribe (battles in which he may decline to participate). His family in Ancient Rage and his holdfast in Gorgon Killers will typically try not to raid or battle one another. If a couple separates, each returns to the original tribe.


Physical fitness is necessary among the Tribes of Man. Though the battle armor enhances strength, speed, and mobility, it does nothing for stamina. Consequently, the tribes place great emphasis on physical conditioning as a necessary component of warrior training. Think a combination of track and field and Highland games. Long distance races and athletic competitions are almost as important as weapons training and tactical drills. One reason the tribes hold a scornful attitude toward the Empire is the typical lack of such conditioning in Imperial citizens visiting the wilderzone.

The Tenets of Harabec

The Children of Phoenix drew up the Tenets in an effort to set some controls on the scale of tribal conflict, as well as to provide the Tribes of Man with a set of laws for resolving disputes. Some tribes, such as the Blood Eagle, flout the Tenets openly, but other tribes follow them closely. The major Tenets are:

  • Challenge Honorably. When duels take place, the challenged chooses weapons. The challenger sets the time. Each combatant must select approximately the same level of weapon, i.e., not bring a gun to a knife fight. Either party may waive his or her rights (may choose to take a knife to a gunfight). Unless provoked, it is dishonorable for a superior warrior to challenge those of lesser status. It is also dishonorable for a lesser status warrior to challenge far above her station unless the provocation was severe. Victory over an opponent who uses superior equipment earns the victor great renown.
  • Accept Honorable Surrender. When a warrior throws down his/her arms, that warrior's surrender should be construed and accepted as an Oath to cease resistance. As a practical matter, however, tribes view surrender as cowardly unless terms are offered first. The Blood Eagle maintain that any surrender is dishonorable, but they accept "cessation of hostilities" with warriors who have fought honorably enough to earn their respect, and they have "ceased fire" themselves when permitted to save face. Payment of ransom customarily redeems prisoners to their tribe.
  • Torture of prisoners is dishonorable. This tenet is widely ignored by many tribes that frequently use torture to extract information from prisoners. The Blood Eagle use it as a test of courage for some captives and for those of its own warriors who seek to regain their honor through a display of fortitude. Contrary to reputation, the butchers' grisly customs use dead bodies — with rare exceptions.
  • Submit disputes to the elders of the Tribe. Practically speaking, this Tenet is ignored where honor is sufficiently involved.
  • Slay warriors in battle, spare the innocent. One of the cardinal rules of tribal war is that warriors fight warriors. Surprise raids are allowed, but wanton slaying of non-combatants is considered vile and dishonorable. This rule often falls prey to the problem that nearly everyone is a trained fighter. During planetary invasions, the level of resistance is so high that virtually the entire populace functions as warriors. During raids and invasions, the custom is to have the invading warriors seek out and engage the enemy warriors first. Only Pirates drop onto villages and holdfasts and avoid confrontation.
  • Remember the suffering of our Ancestors on Terra. Do not tolerate the existence of Cybrids. Do not destroy the ability of Man to make any planet a home. This rule forbids the use of ecocidal weapons and other strategic weapons of mass destruction on any inhabitable planet. Biological warfare is forbidden. All tribes are expected to unite against Cybrid attack, though the Cybrids have never ventured into the wilderzone and appear to have all but disappeared from human ken.

“"Without the Tenets, we'd be nothing but rabble."”

~ Kellion Hasekawa, Diamond Sword Ku-Mori-Soumon

Virtues among the Tribes of Man

Courage, generosity, courtesy, honor, martial prowess, hospitality, wit, eloquence, and a sense of humor are all prized qualities. Tribesmen who display knowledge of art, history, and craftsmanship also receive respect.

The Tribeless

There are those who do not belong to any Tribe, but who wander the stars from hearth to hearth, taking news and trade down string and fray, sometimes sowing mischief or carrying dark secrets. Because these tribeless people are outside the social fabric, the Tribes of Man refer to them as "the Frayed" or "frays." There are wild rumors that the Frayed have begun to form their own tribe, a diffuse brotherhood of sorts, but this has not been confirmed. Below are listed the major fray groups, in rough order of their social standing from the tribal point of view.

Free Traders

Free traders are the lifeblood of tribal commerce. They are often on friendly terms with tribal Stringers. Some are Imperial citizens, but they all share a rough independence and canny judgment. Traders have to be tough and strong. The weak ones vanish, victim to pirates or tribal raiders. Many have earned respect from the Tribes of Man.


Wise men and women in search of the answers to great secrets also travel extensively in the wilderzone, exploring alien ruins, surveying newly discovered planets and stars, or studying the ways of various tribes. Some tribes even sponsor scholar expeditions as a way to gain prestige (and possibly new knowledge the other tribes lack). Many scholars come from the Empire.


Wandering musicians bring song and story to the various settlements scattered throughout tribal space. Most minstrels remain with the tribe of their birth, but some quit their tribes and begin a life of wandering and exile. Reasons vary. Some minstrels serve as spies, though this occurs rarely, and most tribes take care not to allow visiting minstrels to obtain any useful intelligence. Other minstrels accept exile as punishment for a crime against the tribe. A few leave their tribe for political reasons following a leadership dispute. Minstrels are sworn to neutrality, and any harm done them absent strong evidence of spying tarnishes the honor of the host. True minstrels are well-respected in the wilderzone.

“"Thank you for the honor of your hospitality, warriors. Let me tell you the story of Ranarkin Soulstain, and how he fought off a Children of Phoenix company at El Cid, in the Beta Janus system."”

~ Besicaca James, Jongleur


Some bands of warriors become mercenaries, selling their skills for payment. They are not fully trusted by tribesmen, though more for reasons of prudence. At the end of a contract period, mercenary groups may go to work for an enemy, so wise leaders limit what the mercenaries learn. During a contract, mercenaries are considered as reliable on the field as any tribesman; treacherous merc groups are cast out and hunted down like dogs.


These tribeless people settle around a particular holdfast. They often provide a center for commerce and profit for the controlling holding, so they are tolerated as a necessary evil. When the local tribe moves on, sometimes the Fraytowners go with them; at other times, they stay and try to build their community into a true city — assuming another tribe does not take control of the holding.

The Broken Ones

These poor souls are those who have left their tribes for reasons of broken honor and do not have the talent or inclination to become a Frayed Minstrel, a Free Trader or a Scholar. Instead, they wander as solitary mercenaries, ronin who hope to redeem themselves in battle. Fierce warriors, Broken Ones are only useful in certain situations. They usually do not take orders well, and their past leaves them burdened with guilt or self-loathing. Most tribesmen look upon a Broken One with a mixture of pity and scorn, and regard them as one might a savage, barely-trained dog.


Originally dispossessed scavengers who picked over battlefields and mourned the dead in the aftermath of the Cybrid Wars, the so-called "grievers" have evolved into loose clans of pirates and smugglers by the 40th century. Some griever bands are mere traders and scavengers, the gypsies of the wilderzone who are a common sight in fraytown bazaars and auctions. Others – called peshtûl by the “true Grievers” — are composed of tribal outcasts and murderers who turn to outright piracy.

Imperials claim they cannot tell the difference between piratical Grievers and tribal raiders. The Tribes of Man know the distinction is simple: Grievers have no honor. They raid and kill indiscriminately, like maddened beasts. The Tenets of Harabec do not apply to Grievers. Nevertheless, those tribals who treat Grievers well may win themselves valuable and useful allies, for the Grievers have contacts across the wilderzone and accumulate much gossip and interesting data.


Guide to the Tribes Universe