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Things You Should Know About: The Barbarian Class

Content of the article: "Things You Should Know About: The Barbarian Class"

Hey all,

I'm trying to start a series of articles about different topics in D&D and similar RPGs. Specifically, I want to bring some context to terms that have become really common in these kinds of stories, but it feels like we might not know much about in reality (words like paladin, monk, lock-picking, pirate, barbarian, etc). And while I'm at it, I have a number of thoughts about a lot of these topics which I would bring to my players to shape how they view their characters and the setting they're playing in.

Quick shoutout, but a lot of my inspiration for this stuff comes from Gm Word of the Week. It's a podcast I've been listening to for a few years now, and it's full of insightful stuff like this from Fiddleback. And if you want to branch out from that, one of the collaborators on the early episodes of that podcast is The Angry GM, who writes a lot of articles on the subject of playing D&D. I'll probably get my research from other sources, but I already know that a lot of the stuff I bring up will come from these guys, so I figure I'll go ahead and source them (plus, if you aren't already checking their stuff out, they're pretty great even after several years of content).


This time, we're going to talk about the barbarian class, and what they're all about.

The Barbarian in 5e

The 5e PHB has this to say about barbarians:

A tall human tribesman strides through a blizzard, draped in fur and hefting his axe. He laughs as he charges toward the frost giant who dared poach his people’s elk herd.

A half-orc snarls at the latest challenger to her authority over their savage tribe, ready to break his neck with her bare hands as she did to the last six rivals.

Frothing at the mouth, a dwarf slams his helmet into the face of his drow foe, then turns to drive his armored elbow into the gut of another.

These barbarians, different as they might be, are defined by their rage: unbridled, unquenchable, and unthinking fury. More than a mere emotion, their anger is the ferocity of a cornered predator, the unrelenting assault of a storm, the churning turmoil of the sea.

For some, their rage springs from a communion with fierce animal spirits. Others draw from a roiling reservoir of anger at a world full of pain. For every barbarian, rage is a power that fuels not just a battle frenzy but also uncanny reflexes, resilience, and feats of strength.

Primal Instinct

People of towns and cities take pride in how their civilized ways set them apart from animals, as if denying one’s own nature was a mark of superiority. To a barbarian, though, civilization is no virtue, but a sign of weakness. The strong embrace their animal nature—keen instincts, primal physicality, and ferocious rage. Barbarians are uncomfortable when hedged in by walls and crowds. They thrive in the wilds of their homelands: the tundra, jungle, or grasslands where their tribes live and hunt.

Barbarians come alive in the chaos of combat. They can enter a berserk state where rage takes over, giving them superhuman strength and resilience. A barbarian can draw on this reservoir of fury only a few times without resting, but those few rages are usually sufficient to defeat whatever threats arise.

A Life of Danger

Not every member of the tribes deemed “barbarians” by scions of civilized society has the barbarian class. A true barbarian among these people is as uncommon as a skilled fighter in a town, and he or she plays a similar role as a protector of the people and a leader in times of war. Life in the wild places of the world is fraught with peril: rival tribes, deadly weather, and terrifying monsters. Barbarians charge headlong into that danger so that their people don’t have to.

Their courage in the face of danger makes barbarians perfectly suited for adventuring. Wandering is often a way of life for their native tribes, and the rootless life of the adventurer is little hardship for a barbarian. Some barbarians miss the close-knit family structures of the tribe, but eventually find them replaced by the bonds formed among the members of their adventuring parties.

Mechanically, barbarians in this edition have the following traits and abilities:

  • Barbarians are built for melee combat. They have a d12 hit die-the highest of any class. They're proficient in light and medium armor as well as shields. They're proficient in all simple and martial weapons. They gain an Extra Attack at level 5 like the fighter class. And at higher levels (9, 13, 17), on a critical hit with a melee attack, you add additional weapon dice to the total damage. At level 2, the barbarian can make a Reckless Attack, which rolls with advantage in exchange for giving enemies advantage to hit him back.
  • The key feature of the barbarian class is their Rage power, in which they become stronger and more resilient for a short time. The barbarian can rage more times between long rests as they level up, and the amount of bonus damage they deal during rage increases as they level up. At level 11, a barbarian who is dropped to 0 hp while raging can roll to reduce the attack against them, stopping at 1 hp and allowing the barbarian to keep fighting. And at level 15 the barbarian doesn't stop raging prematurely unless an enemy knocks them unconscious.
  • The barbarian gains a number of other features that relate to their survival skills in the wild. At level 1, the barbarian gains a static AC if they aren't wearing armor (shields don't stop this effect). At level 2, the barbarian gains advantage on Dexterity saving throws against most threats. At level 5, their movement range increases by 10 ft, which allows the barbarian to close the gap quickly for melee fighting. And at later levels, the barbarian gains bonuses to their Strength and Constitution scores: their Strength checks can never roll less than their base ability, and they get to boost their maximum STR and CON scores to 24.
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Other Editions of D&D

The first iteration of the barbarian class was introduced in an article of Dungeon magazine in 1982, as a subclass for the fighting-man. It was later added to the Unearthed Arcana manual for AD&D in 1985. After that, the class was revised in 1989 in another article of Dragon magazine, after claims that the original class was overpowered

This barbarian started the game with high Strength, Dexterity and Constitution scores, but with a handicap of a low Wisdom score. They got a bonus to their Dexterity scores when calculating AC if the barbarian was unarmored, and with a high Constitution score they got bonus points to their hp when they leveled up (moreso than other character classes with high Constitution). While the class didn't have a handicap to Intelligence, the barbarian in this edition was also dumb by design: they couldn't read or write at character creation, they only knew their native language unless they had enough intelligence to learn more languages, and they couldn't multiclass into other classes later on. The class was similarly built to the Fighting-man, in that they gained extra attacks in combat and could learn to use any weapon in the game. Barbarians also distrusted magic by nature: they could never use magic items at low levels, and in fact got bonus xp for destroying magic items. As they leveled up, the barbarian would grow more tolerant of magic, though by definition they never fully trusted the magic-user class. They made up for their lack of magic weapons by getting to hit enemies harder to overcome their defenses. And the barbarian was a specialist in wilderness survival: they could run, jump, and climb, could detect plants and predict the weather, and they could use a class-specific first-aid skill to recover more health while adventuring.

Meanwhile, also in 1985, a different variant on the barbarian was added to the Oriental Adventures book. This "oriental barbarian" retained many of the core barbarian's traits, and added new features relevant to the setting. Barbarians gained "back protection", which gave them a chance to reduce a backstab attack against them and gain a free counter-attack. The oriental barbarian had subclasses which reflected the enviromnents believed to be relevant to a barbarian in an Eastern setting: The steppes barbarian (specializing in horseback combat, like the Mongols), the forest barbarian (like a viking, skilled in snowy environments and sailing), and the jungle barbarian (based on tribal cultures in Africa and Southeast Asia).

In 2nd edition, the barbarian was first introduced as a kit for the fighter class (kits in this edition were a predecessor to later background options in the game, giving the character equipment and skills), but the barbarian was made a separate standalone class in the supplemental book The Complete Barbarian's Handbook. Barbarians were pared down compared to their 1e counterparts: they retained only their d12 hit die, bonuses to leaping and climbing, and "back protection". They gained the ability to dual-wield certain weapons, and their restrictions in associating with magic and magic-using classes were lessened. The edition also introduced a sub-class to the barbarian: the shaman, a barbarian-cleric hybrid who could join melee combat and cast spells.

In 3rd edition, the barbarian became a core class. Barbarians in this edition retained the illiteracy of previous editions. They gained features such as Fast Movement (+10 ft to speed), Uncanny Dodge (keep your Dex bonus to AC when flat-footed), proficiencies in all simple and martial weapons, and all armors but heavy armor (shields included). And at higher levels they gain Damage reduction, reducing damage from any attack. They also gained the iconic ability Rage, in which they temporarily gain bonuses to Strength and Constitution, but suffer a small penalty to their AC (also, while raging they can't do anything that would require patience or concentration). The Rage power came with a drawback in the form of fatigue, a temporary debuff to Strength and Dexterity once the rage ended.

3.5 took this class design further by filling in the "empty levels" where the class gained no new features. They added more Damage Reduction levels to the barbarian, as well as Trap Sense, which gave defensive bonuses against traps. This edition's design for the barbarian class carried over pretty much identically into Pathfinder, although they did away with the illiteracy requirement and beefed up some of the abilities a bit. Pathfinder did add the "Rage powers" feature, abilities the barbarian coul use while raging to gain new attacks, gain defensive traits, or otherwise get better at fighting stuff.

In 4th edition, the barbarian wasn't added until the Player's Handbook 2 was published. The barbarian in this edition was a "striker" class, who specialized in hitting single foes with a lot of damage. The class had proficiency in light armors only, and only in simple and martial melee weapons, as opposed to previous editions which allowed ranged weapons. The barbarian's Rage power was changed in this edition to using "rage powers", a single attack that started a rage, which gave the barbarian a specific bonus depending on the rage power used. While raging, the barbarian could use a "Rage Strike" power for a ton of damage in a single attack. They also had the "Rampage" power, where on a critical hit they got a free bonus attack that turn. Other barbarian powers in 4e focused mainly on combat and hitting for lots of damage.


Barbarians in Historical Context

The actual word "barbarian" has ancient Greek roots, and was an insulting word meaning "foreigner". Ancient Greeks thought of themselves as the height of civilization, and to the Greeks, other languages tended to sound muddy and crude (they thought foreign languages tended to sound like people caying "bar bar bar" a lot, which is the root of the word). Basically, they equated not speaking Greek to being an uncivilized savage, and applied this term to anybody who wasn't a part of the Greek-speaking world. Barbarians were often compared to wild animals in they way they acted, from the perspectives of the fairly judgemental Greeks who described them. They were accused of being cowardly, driven by base desires, cruel, unable to speak or reason, and unable to govern themselves "properly".

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The Roman Empire would later adopt both the word barbarus for "foreigner", and the judgemental attitude to so-called barbarians. They particularly directed their ire towards the Gallic and Germanic tribes in central Europe, and toward the Huns from central Asia.

However, many "barbaric" cultures were in fact quite cultured- just not in a way that the Greeks or Romans would appreciate. Take the Huns, for example: they had an appreciation for artwork, had their own religious beliefs, and were actually demonstrably open-minded towards women compared to other cultures at the time. Their "barbarian nature" seems largely expressed by their being a nomadic culture, and thus not building cities to settle into.

The Mongol empire would be very similar to the Huns in the 13th and 14th centuries. The mongols fly in the face of many historical trends: they didn't develop agriculture, they didn't build cities, they largely subsisted on raiding other cultures. However, the Mongols were able to build and sustain a military empire large enough to cover 9 million square miles, making it the largest contiguous land empire in world history. While most of this empire was gained through raiding and warfare, city-states who lived within the empire's borders enjoyed a great amount of freedom. The Mongols allowed cultures to maintain their own religious practices, the Khans (the ruling family of the Mongol Empire) were patrons to science and the arts, and the empire enforced strict laws that maintained peace within their borders. The mongols encouraged foreign trade in lands, which resulted in a golden age of trade and cultural mingling thanks to the fact that travelers could travel on roads within the empire relatively safe from attack by bandits. While they certainly made a name for standing apart from more "civilized" nations, the Mongols stand as an example of the value so-called "barbaric" cultures have offered in history.

The iconic "barbarian rage" seems largely to come from the stories of Norse "berserkers". These warriors were described in accounts from 100 CE, when the Roman emperor Trajan sent his army into Northern Europe to conquer the "barbaric" tribes there. In Scandinavia, soldiers described men who wore animal pelts on the battlefield, and who would enter trance-like states of maddening fury. While in these trances berserkers were believed to howl, froth at the mouth, and gnaw on their shields like an animal. The raging men fought without fear, and certain stories spread the superstition that they couldn't be harmed by fire or weapons, as they ignored the pain from such wounds while in their rage state. Different theories have been offered to explain this state, from hallucinogens to meditative practices to induce such a trance. But many conclude that the warriors entered the trance simply from the thrill of battle, with no further push needed.


References for Barbarians

If we’re going to talk about references for a barbarian character, you probably already know the first one we’d bring up: Conan the Barbarian. Conan was first created as a short story character in the magazine Weird Tales, and has gone on to be featured in television and films (played by such actors as Jason Momoa and, arguably the most famous, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Conan was a Cimmerian, a fictional ethnicity based on Roman-era Celtic cultures, and was a warrior from a young age. As he grew up, the character developed a wanderlust that caused him to leave home in search of adventure (which was the vehicle for the short stories that would be produced over the years). Conan could be attributed as one of the sources for the "shirtless, muscled barbarian with glistening pecs and abs" image we have of the class (and likely for the unarmored bonuses the class has). Conan also is interesting to me because, while he doesn't demonstrate any book learning in his stories, he certainly isn't unintelligent. The character is well-spoken, compared to the "grunting neanderthal" stereotype that barbarians sometimes get nowadays. Conan appears to have at least a degree of wisdom that comes from years of survival experience and interactions with people, as opposed to knowledge that came from academic study.

If you're looking at a "raised by animals" character concept, The Jungle Book, which was written in 1894 by Rudyard Kupling, provides some great context. This collection of short stories features Mowgli, a young boy who was found by the animals of an Indian jungle. The animals raise Mowgli in their jungle society, teaching him the laws and cultures of the animals that live there. This provides an interesting subversion to the more chaotic stereotypes of the barbarian: Mowgli lives by a set of laws, they just happen to be the laws of the jungle and not the laws of men. Mowgli also provides an interesting perspective for a barbarian in that he has some interactions with human civilization, and he views their culture from the eyes of someone on the outside (for instance, he refers to fire as "the red flower", which fits the worldview of someone who lived surrounded by plants and animals, but not much fire). Mowgli is great for a barbarian who wants to demonstrate that they lived truly in the wild, knowing nothing else but what an animal would know.

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In a similar vein, you might look into the stories of Tarzan, who was raised by apes in the African jungle. Tarzan was first written into being in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burrows for the pulp magazine The All-Story, and inspired a series of 24 stories of Tarzan traveling the world and experiencing a variety of cultures. The first story, Tarzan of the Apes, is the one we really want to recommend, as it shows Tarzan living among ape culture, and slowly coming to grips with his humanity and the differences between himself, the apes, and the more "civilized" humans whom he meets.

For a more modern take on a barbarian culture, you might consider the Dothraki in the Song of Ice and Fire book series. While the TV show made an attempt to represent the story shown in the books, I feel that it doesn't represent the Dothraki in nearly as complex a way as the books do, especially the first book, A Game of Thrones. The book paints the Dothraki in an interesting light: they're a tribe of nomadic, horse-riding warriors; they accept violence as a part of life, and embrace it to a level that more "civilized" characters find repulsive. But from the perspective of the character Daenarys, we learn that the Dothraki actually have a rich culture, a rigid system of laws and order, and an a capability for gentleness and care that their harsh first impressions betray. The chapters that show Daenarys among the Dothraki are a great model for representing a barbarian culture as more than "savages who like raiding and killing".

________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Questions for a Barbarian Character

If you are building a barbarian character, or if you're a GM with a player rolling a barbarian, you may want to consider these questions:

  • Describe your character's upbringing. Were they raised in an isolated tribe of humanoids? Were they raised by wild animals or a humanoid race not your own? Were they born under normal circumstances, and entered the wild later in life?
  • If living among a community in the wild, how did your character become a member of this group? Were they born to parents in that place? Were they abandoned in the wild? Were their parents killed while traveling? Did something happen later in life that caused your character to run away from civilization? If not native to the species that took you in, what convinced them to adopt you? Did you have to earn a place in that community?
  • What customs or mannerisms has your character learned from their community? Do they imitate the behaviors of animals, or make certain noises to communicate? Do they eat specific foods or eat in a particular manner? How do they interact with others? Do they view the world in a particular way?
  • Does your barbarian have a superstition that would be odd in more civilized societies? Do they view magic in a different way? Or possibly technology?
  • What is your barbarian's view on civilization? Do they distrust it? Do they have a judgement of "city people"? Do they fear civilization, or feel awe towards it? How would your character act, if they suddenly found themselves in the heart of a city?
  • Many barbarians carry markings on their body, either ritual tattoos and scars or scars created from the rough life of survival in the wild. What markings does your barbarian have? What memories to they evoke when a stranger asks about them?
  • How does your character carry themselves in their day? Do they check their surroundings before they go to bed? Do they do so when they first wake up? Are they listening as they walk around for predators or threats? Do they instinctively mark valuable resources such as medicinal plants or fresh water in their mind as they pass them?
  • How does your character handle someone taking a threatening posture towards them? Do they shrink away, to appear to be less of a threat? Do they take a dominant stance, to intimidate the foe? How has their upbringing taught them to handle stressful situations?
  • What happens when your barbarian enters a rage? Is there a physical effect? Do they turn red? Do veins pop out on their body? Do their eyes change as they rage? Is there a change to their physical mannerisms, or how they carry themselves? Do they make any sounds during the rage that would be different from their normal state?

Source: reddit.com

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