Monday, January 10, 2022

D&D Class Breakdown: Barbarian

For new players, it can be hard to choose your first class. For veteran players, it can be hard to choose a class and not fall into stereotypes everyone's seen a thousand times. So now I'm going to deconstruct the 5E Player's Handbook classes (Sorry Artificer, you'll come later) and talk about what works, what doesn't, and some interesting ways to play the classes. 

I won't be going into game mechanics as much as I'll be going into roleplay. 

Let's start with barbarians!

What is a Barbarian? 
Traditionally, barbarians are anybody that belongs to a society that's outside of the norm (We'll get to why that's a problem later). Usually used to describe more "primitive" cultures in ancient times, the idea that unless you were living in the same way everyone else was and believed what everyone else believed you were somehow less than. 

The traditional Dungeons and Dragons barbarian has its roots in Viking culture with the berserker, a warrior believed to gain power from going into a blind frenzy in combat. Rather than formal military training these warriors went at the battlefield like a toddler does to their first birthday cake and with roughly the same amount of mess. 

In modern culture we can see this same type of fighter demonstrated in people who have taken a startling amount of drugs and are raging against an innocent victim. Or a tree. Or a car. The idea behind this is that when a person's inhibition's are lowered they put more force into their swings and ignore the pain from incoming attacks, hence why some of the intoxicated can shrug off taser blasts and sometimes even gunfire before they finally drop. 

Barbarians in the Game

In-game, barbarians usually hale from the edges of society, where the populace has to fight every day against animals and monsters to survive. They also commonly come from "savage" races, such as orcs and goliaths, where the strength bonus is more beneficial and where living away from society makes more sense since they're considered uncivilized races. Because they live outside of the bounds of Mrs. Hammarsham School For Culture, barbarians are generally seen as less than intelligent brutes who make social faux paus and have no problem killing for the sake of killing. 

Quick note: Here is the problem with the wildling barbarian trope: It hails back to the idea that anyone not firmly part of western civilization (Vikings, Guals, Native Americans, Africans ect) are dangerous rage monsters who will charge uncontrollably into battle. They also indicate that because a group of people isn't part of a dominant society that they are ignorant. While a player who rolls a half-orc barbarian from the Spine of the World probably isn't trying to be racist, it's good to remember where the trope's roots are planted. 

Barbarians in the party are usually the tank and are relied upon to do anything that requires heavy lifting or destroying something beyond recognition. In 3.5 the barbarian class also had to put special skill points to be able to read any language they knew (more racism). They usually see magic as either bad luck and only belonging to religious leaders and see anything more technologically sophisticated than a wheel to be an act of witchcraft. 

Despite their usual violent tendencies, barbarians often become the tender heart of the group. Their ignorance is played as charming and they take likings and obsessions to more mundane things that to them are extraordinary. Barbarians can sometimes become like a de facto guard dog for the group, protective of them (or a specific member) and will go through anything to keep them safe. 

Breaking the Trope

As much fun as the dumb barbarian trope is, this character can get old fast if the player wants to make any contribution to the game besides hit the stuff and make it fall down. 

Smart Barbarian
Yes, we want the barbarian to be strong and to take a hit, but that doesn't mean that intelligence and wisdom need to be completely tossed. Picture something like a Beast type from the X-Men who can completely devastate a group of grunts but will quote Chaucer while doing it. The barbarian may see violence as a necessity and find it fun to turn off his higher thinking for a second to go into a rage. Or he could have been educated at a formal school before having to learn to survive in the wilds, creating a Tarzan-like character. 

Rage Issues
The rage thing is a good gameplay mechanic, but why not make it into a roleplay mechanic too? Maybe the person flies into these rages and hates it because it's pushed everyone away from him. Maybe his rage is less of a supernatural ability and more of a mental disorder he's trying to overcome but is conflicted because if he truly leaves his rage behind he can't be the amazing warrior he is. The rage can become a fascinating thing to roleplay if done right. 

Fun fact about the peoples who were originally called barbarians-they weren't. If the DM is cool with it, and you really want an outsider barbarian, try to make their tribe or culture more fleshed out than cave men and raiders. Maybe the barbarian is part of an elite honor guard who can tap into their rage for battle. Maybe the civilization has only been seen in part to protect its people Wakanda style. Or maybe people just assumed they were primitive because of how they looked or where they lived and nobodies ever bothered exploring deeper. 

Famous Barbarians

Grog Strongjaw (Critical Role) Okay so I know there's a barbarian in the second season, but I haven't listened to it yet because they're like three hours an episode and I got a job. Anyway, Grog is the quintessential barbarian. Small clan of violent raiders: Check. Dumb as a stump: Check. De facto heart of the group: Check. He's even the tank of the group. 

Drizzt Do'Urden (Icewind Dale series and others) I know he's considered a ranger, but in the Dark Elf Trilogy he spends about a decade in the wilds of the Underdark away from any other sentient being. There he develops what he calls the Hunter, a seemingly alternate personality focused purely on survival and suppresses his higher thought processes. He has trouble not entering this state while in danger for a long while after he returns to civilization, which is treated as a form of PTSD. While it's not his main class, he's definitely got a class of barbarian somewhere in his build. 

Bobby the Barbarian (Dungeons and Dragons the TV series) The youngest of the children to get lost in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, Bobby doesn't rage so much as he just charges into battle, usually needing to be rescued at some point during the episode. His Thunder Club can cause small earthquakes and cause rocks to dislodge. While he's not the most interesting or powerful barbarian on the list, he's certainly the cutest. 

Hulk (Marvel) The rage monster Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets, though when not angry at all he is almost exclusively a non-combatant (Unless he borrows an Iron Man suit from Tony). Hulk can only rage as long as he's angry, but that's usually long enough to solve any problem with the solution "Destroy everything in eyeline". In some versions Hulk even dresses like the classic barbarian, further adding to the comparison. 

Bane (DC) Though his powers aren't natural, he does go into a berserker like rage whenever Bane takes his favorite performance enhancer Venom. He's been seen taking damage that would kill a normal man and destroy objects and people who get in his way. Bane is a dangerous barbarian because unlike the rest of this list he's generally on the bad guy's side. 

So if you want to roll up a barbarian, take a look at how you're going to make them. Are you going to fall back into old racist tropes that reflect the fear of the other? Does he have to be dumb? Does she have to be rude? 


Check out the other D&D Classes as well: Bard, ClericDruidFighter

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