This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Nine on 5th August 2020.
Ostron: Ryu? I wanted to talk to you about this application?
Ryu: Oh I thought it looked good!
Ostron: “In defense of the humble barbarian?” No, I don’t think it’s good, it’s a terrible idea.
Ostron: The premise is wrong! Barbarians don’t defend, they just attack. And I don’t think they know what humble means, much less how to act that way.
Lennon: Classist much?
Ostron: Do you know how much delicate, sensitive stuff is in the Gnomish Workshop on any given day? And what do you think Libby’s going to do if they get into the Annex and go to town on the shelves.
Lennon: Okay, you really need to stop. I’ve already had this conversation with someone else.
Ostron: See, more people on my side. Who was it?
Ostron: …Okay, so I’m wizard enough to admit I might need to rethink some things. So here’s what I’ve got.
The barbarian trope in D&D is probably one of the most ingrained and immutable ones, possibly only overshadowed by the idea that a cleric sits in the back and dispenses healing to everyone and does nothing else.
We all know the basics: you go to a town, the barbarian tears the tavern door off its hinges because they just cant be bothered with things like doorknobs, what little clothing they’re wearing is brown and so is most of their skin, not because of their race but because that’s the color blood, mud, and mucus tends to dry to. They walk up to the bar, scare off whoever’s sitting there, demand ale, and then cause a bar fight when they make unwanted advances on either the barkeep, a server, or both, fly into a rage and destroy most of the bar, and then stare around confused when people start asking them to pay for damages because they don’t understand the concept of money.
Essentially having a barbarian around means you’re dealing with an uncivilized frat boy until combat starts, when they turn into the Hulk, with as much teamwork and subtlety as that implies.
Part of the reason for that view is historical. Barbarian wasn’t a class in D&D until a Dragon Magazine article in 1982, which might clue some of our film-loving listeners to what the likely influence was. Yes, the D&D barbarian was mostly influenced by the popularity of the Conan the Barbarian movie with Arnold. Now, in fairness to Ostron, a lot of the Barbarian Primal paths, the name for Barbarian subclasses, sort of support that original view of the barbarian as a simplistic rage machine. The Berzerker certainly plays right into it, and the Dwarf Battlerager option literally says the dwarven term for them translates to “axe idiot.” Path of the Zealot arguably falls into that category too, as most religious zealots are not known for deep, intelligent analysis of whatever doctrine has made them decide to blindly attack people in the name of their god.
However, through a mix of socio-political influences and arguably the structure of 4th edition mechanics, the modern D&D barbarian has a more wide-ranging interpretation. It helps to remember that if you go back in history far enough, the the term barbarian was used to mark someone as uncivilized, but only in the sense that they weren’t part of whatever civilization was in place at the time (and let’s be real, that was usually Rome). It didn’t mean the people labeled couldn’t be intelligent, wise, or have their own deep and complex culture, it just meant their culture didn’t match the prominent one at the time. The other barbarian paths focus on that idea that barbarians may have a deeper knowledge or connection to natural or mystic energies, an idea that was focused on in 4th edition with the barbarian and druid. Many of the other primal paths actually have druidic overtones if you look at them a certain way.
The Path of the Totem focuses on a barbarian tapping into primal magic associated with a natural creature, which they stay connected to through the use of a totem. Their rages are, in fact, them forming temporarily deeper connections to their chosen animal to gain more abilities. The currently Unearthed Arcana path of the beast takes that one step farther and has the barbarian physically transforming and taking on bestial characteristics, though some of the origin options for that path suggest it may not be an entirely voluntary thing. Still, a person involuntarily exhibiting animal characteristics during battle opens up a lot of opportunities for roleplaying how that might affect someone’s approach to other people and civilization, particularly if they view themselves as too dangerous for regular people.
Continuing with the nature theme, the Path of the Storm Herald focuses on a barbarian who has formed a similar bond to the totem barbarian, but they formed it with nature in a more general sense, where their rage is more a manifestation of the seeming unpredictability of extreme weather, like tornadoes and lightning storms. But while the storms are unpredictable, it’s possible the barbarian in question is very in-tune with nature and spends much of their time there, again similar to a stereotypical druid.
The path that possibly deviates the most from the stereotypical barbarian is the Path of the Ancestral Guardian. These barbarians are all about reverence to their ancestors and are described as protectors, both of people’s physical being and of their history. Indeed most of the abilities granted by this path are defensive or supportive, helping out the barbarian’s allies in combat far more than they enhance the barbarian’s ability to deal damage. For roleplay purposes, it could be argued the “rage” of this barbarian isn’t even their own, but the anger of the ancestors they are so in tune with, who manifest to help with a fight or a crisis.
Now if you want to play a stereotypical barbarian there’s nothing wrong with that, and as we mentioned several subclasses support that approach, but it’s not the only option. As we just mentioned, the Ancestral Guardian primal path gives the barbarian several abilities that let them support and guard allies, letting them be the stalwart, solid defender in combat rather than the front line damager. All of the barbarians still enjoy better than average hit point totals and the ability to tie their Constitution modifier into their AC, so they’ll always be able to take a hit, it’s just a matter of why they’re taking the hit. Perhaps in this case it’s because they jumped in front of a hit meant for an ally, rather than because they made themselves the most dangerous thing on the battlefield.
The Totem and Storm Soul barbarian can also be more tuned to support. The Bear and Wolf for the Totem barbarian, and the Sea or Tundra focus for the storm soul all force either status effects or restrictions on enemies in combat, sometimes without the barbarian even having to attack, or they bolster allies with things like temporary hit points.
And of course beyond the mechanics there are a lot of options for roleplay that defy the “idiot wilderness brute” archetype for a character. The Hulk is brought up a lot as an example of how a barbarian could rage, but look at how that actually works; Bruce Banner is a literal genius, and in his most recent appearances he all but eliminated the dichotomy where he manifested as a barely intelligent brute, but still harnessed the power he had.
Another option, though more commonly associated with monks, is to look at some martial arts epics. In all those stories, when you go off to meet the person in the deep woods or the jungle, you’re going to find someone calmly tending a garden and talking to the animals. They can also drop kick you into next Wednesday without breaking a sweat. Again, their skills are usually focused on martial arts in the movies, but there’s no reason you can’t use that as inspiration for how a calm, nature focused individual might rise up to defend their land or people when threatened.
Hopefully that allows people to see a few other, just as valid interpretations of how a barbarian could be played.
Ostron: All right, point conceded, I obviously had some old-fashioned views on that. However, I would point out that when one of the research beholders went to take this potential hire a drink she got up screaming and threw a chair at it.
Lennon: What? She was perfectly fine when Mikey and I talked to her! Wait…what did you do?
Ryu: Do? I didn’t do anything….unless you count (speaking quickly) filching that nice shiny bauble from her belt (speaking normally) did you know that barbarians are actually pretty nimble? I almost could have mistaken her for a rogue if I hadn’t been paying attention to the giant axe she was swinging towards my face.
Lennon (sighing): Right, here’s what we’re going to do. Ostron, go get Ryu in HR.
Ostron: Um, she’s right there…
Lennon: Right, sorry, go get a Ryu in HR. I’m sure the Oblex can form one up for you. Then let her go talk to the barbarian. Once the goo has evaporated, we’ll have RaeRae sit her down for a chat.
Ryu: What do I do?
Lennon: You come with us to the scrying pool, because we have to answer listener questions, and definitely not because we’re hiding from the raging barbarian and pawning off the problem on the rest of the staff.
Ostron: I like this plan.
Lennon: I thought you might. And give RaeRae the shiny thing to take back to the barbarian.