A tribe of peripatetic nomads (Think Travelers or Romani rather than Mongols) ply their trade along a vast stretch of river, profiting as merchants, moneylenders and cargo haulers for an agriculturally rich region.

But there’s a downside. Because they are culturally distinct and involved in moneylending and other trades sometimes deemed dishonorable (but quite profitable!) they’re the target of both piracy and xenophobic violence.

So how can river nomads defend themselves on the water and as they camp?

Additional Setting Context: The setting is politically fragmented and pre industrial. There’s various fiefdoms and nobles that are all potentially dangerous and extortive. Firearms are primitive and rare

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ A justification for how and why this would be different from 'how does any travelling group defend itself' would improve this question $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2022 at 10:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ We'd need more information about the setting. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 13, 2022 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder it seems to be different by a travelling group in the water. If you think it's no different from any normal group it can be stated as an answer as well. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jan 13, 2022 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ What's wrong with sub-machine guns, laser rifles or a force-shield? Why have you discounted those possibilities? $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2022 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ Bit of a side note, but not sure how well river-based, nomadic money lending would work. High risk of default in the intervals between visits to each borrower's location and limited ability to pursue bad debts. Not to mention that every noble whose territory they pass through will see money lenders as a prime target for high taxation. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2022 at 21:47

4 Answers 4


No different from merchants with extra benefits

Being on a boat already gives protection, especially if anchored in the middle of the water. Anyone wanting to get to them needs a boat or certain conditions of the water to approach them. This in many cases will be more visible and vulnerable as you need something big for a boat or more loud as swimming isn't exactly silent. Water is also more dangerous, so you're more likely to have a light when traversing it at night, making you more visible again. Sneaking up on them is more difficult than random merchants with carts. If they are attacked you can be more quickly mobile than a cart, though not without risk. It gives them a risky opportunity to make a quick escape.

If anchoring in the waterway is difficult and they need to moor on the edge they still have advantages. The water again gives protection from one side, limiting the options of opponents to attack.

But merchants in carts defend themselves on hostile territory easily. They go in numbers, have armed guards or both. Mercenaries and other traders are plenty. Mercenaries don't often turn on their well paying masters. If they do their job well they will hardly be fighting, making them rich and well fed for little danger. As your nomads are rich they should be able to get mercenaries anywhere.

They will have a high natural protection, expertise on the water, opponents need a higher starting cost to attack, well payed mercenaries to protect them and a relatively quick option to escape. They should be fine.


They defend themselves just like anybody else transporting valuables, with soldiers, lookouts and weapons.

You might be thinking of them as 100% merchants and moneylenders, but no nomadic group is ever just their key professions. In order to survive and protect your valuables, you need a whole society. Yes, merchants and moneylenders. But also fighters and protectors, also wives and child caregivers, also the equivalent of doctors and nurses, and firefighters against sabotage.

From time immemorial groups protect themselves by making it lethally dangerous to attack them. It may still happen, of course, but not by some one-off band of pirates having a bit of fun. People have to seriously risk their lives to take them on. And that is the deterrent.

Also, if the merchants are profitable traders and moneylenders, then of course they have loyal local customers at every dock, and those customers don't want them to be attacked. The locals are getting something they want from your nomads, and the locals don't want them to start sailing by and skipping them because it is too dangerous to stop.

So even the local leaders at each stop will help protect the nomads, these nomads are their supply source, perhaps even a source of wealth bringing goods for resale or providing financial liquidity.

In ancient times, you ensure you are not an easy target. You might get ambushed or attacked, but for the most part, very few will risk their lives for a simple robbery. You don't carry much with you, on land.

Any real wealth, you keep in the middle of the river under heavy guard to make it more inaccessible. Sure, you can camp on the shore for months, hunt and gather on land, set up shop to trade on land. But the job of guards is to stay on the fortress ship, awake and alert. They can rotate to the camp after their shift is over, if they want. Or not. Many sailors went a year or more without ever leaving their ship.

Build a whole village on your river boats. Have all the necessary professions for a village. Not farming, obviously, but perhaps food production through fishing. Shore side hunting and gathering professionals. And definitely, a military.


hiring mercenaries, paying people off. Bah.

They are masters of their martial art!

This fighting style is a close kept secret, integral to the religion and culture of these people. Witnesses of the fighting style struggle to describe what exactly was happening as they were getting their asses kicked. There are suspicious murmurs of sorcery, or temporary possession by spirits. The river people neither confirm nor deny these.


They pay them off, or their enemies.

People don't normally just become pirates. Local lords sponsor them, or warlords have groups of soldiers foraging for supplies.

They negotiate passage with local groups, and add those fees onto any trade costs so the person who wants to do trade can do it.

If a lord refuses to trade with them, or takes their stuff, they lend money to their political enemies to raise armies and not them.

Like the Iron Bank.

"One stone crumbles and another takes its place and the temple holds its form for a thousand years or more. And that's what the Iron Bank is, a temple. We all live in its shadow and almost none of us know it. You can't run from them, you can't cheat them, you can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money and you don't want to crumble yourself, you pay it back."


You must log in to answer this question.