Oct 292014

A “barbarian” has always been someone who is from an area that is less civilized than your area, at least in your opinion. Or in some cases, simply someone from another country.

It is not intended to be a good word. Being barbaric was meant to be bad; civilization on one side representing progress and the rule of law versus barbarian tribes running around half-naked representing humanity’s past and rule by the strength of arm.

The Mongol Horde could not be stopped, but it could be labeled: barbarians.

Goths, Huns, Gauls, Visigoths, Celts … barbarians one and all. Capable of sacking London. Capable even of sacking Rome … twice! Even more impressive, capable of becoming France and Germany and the rest of Europe. Pretty good for a bunch of barbarians.

Conan of Cimmeria - by Frank Frazetta
Conan – here taking on giants – was the first fantasy hero.
And a barbarian.

To Robert E. Howard, barbarians were noble and regal and generally more civilized than those that lived in the cities of his fictional Hyboria. He romanticized the barbarian life, no more a bunch of uncivilized savages but rather honorable nomads, oppressed by those in the cities who had greater wealth and resources but far lesser morals.

To Howard, being a barbarian was a positive. And thus was born Conan the Cimmerian, and his fantastic adventures. Honor, muscle, and personal grit versus evil magic. Swords and sorcery, Howard (and Conan) invented fantasy as a form of literature, before anything by Tolkien.

Conan the Usuper - by Frank Frazetta
I predict a wild burst of barbarian strength!

Then in 1982 “barbarian” changed again, and became Arnold Schwarzenegger in the form of Conan the Barbarian, an enjoyable if violent movie which introduced Conan to the masses and launched Schwarzenegger as a major action movie star. The sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was even better (to this critic anyway) even though it featured parts of Grace Jones that one never expected to see in a movie, nor anywhere else. But especially in a movie.

But I digress. This is not about history (although I do love history) nor about literature (although I do love reading), nor even about Grace Jone’s southern exposure. This is about gaming.

Time to gamify the barbarian.

The original Dungeons and Dragons did not have Barbarians. It had Fighters. But then it also had “Dwarves”. As a class. You could earn levels in “Dwarf”.

Then it grew and morphed into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which we now call the “First Edition”. Suddenly there were not just Fighters, but types of fighters: Paladins and Rangers. Still no Barbarians. Meanwhile, the success of D&D caused many other role playing games to spontaneously construct. Some of them were quite good. Also, there was that movie thing again in 1982.

Conan the Destroyer - by Frank Frazetta
You can’t tell this, but way in the back there’s a cleric. There has to be.

To the best of my recollection, the first game to feature barbarians as a playable class was RuneQuest. Barbarians everywhere, not just “Barbarians”, but all sorts of different barbarians. Horse barbarians, zebra barbarians, even rhino-rider barbarians. Lots and lots of barbarians. Runequest had a superior mechanic system and a very inventive source world; more R.E.Howard-ish than D&D’s definite Tolkien-esque slant.

No worries, by the second edition, D&D had Barbarians too. Not rhino riders sadly, but still, barbarians nonetheless. And for the first time, we see the ways that game designers will differentiate the various types of fighters:

  • Paladins have heavier role-playing requirements and get to cast limited divine spells
  • Rangers have lesser role-playing requirements, have less defense but are unmatched with bows, and get to cast limited divine spells
  • Barbarians have lesser role-playing requirements, have less defense but hit harder, and have more hit points
  • Fighters have no role-playing requirements, and can have any defenses. Later, to balance out the blandness inherent in the class definition, it was decided that Fighters get the most feats

And so it went as the various D&D editions progressed and finally, became computerized. More types of Fighters came into being, but nothing that significantly altered the original differentiations: holy warrior in heavy armor, nature/archer warrior in lighter armor, barbaric warrior in little or no armor, fighter.

Conan the Barbarian - by Frank Frazetta
I think the woman is the cleric. Clue: she is chained to Conan.

Right from the original D&D barbarian, they’ve always had Rage. It has various names, but always, there it is, an even greater ability to do damage in return for even less ability to protect oneself from damage. It became a key tenant of the idea; barbarians rage. They just do.

It also meant that barbarians would need to be virtually welded to a cleric. Always. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s barbarian didn’t need a cleric, but then Conan didn’t have hit points, he had scriptwriters, and never suffered anything more than a series of “flesh wounds” that one could ignore through superior grit, focus, and bad-assery.

In D&D, bad-assery isn’t a valid substitute for healing. Your barbarian needs a cleric. You just do.

Because people like to fiddle with things and add their own imprints, and because Wizards of the Coast needed there to be a 3rd Edition D&D (and a 4th. And a 5th), the fighter subtype “Barbarian” has itself been subdivided into differing kinds of barbarian sub-subtypes. Not Rhino Riders, or at least not yet, but differing types, each supposedly different enough from each other to justify their inclusion as a separate entity.

Call me cranky if you like, but to me, most of the different Barbarian subtypes and Prestige classes are really just role-playing differences that someone added a new rule to here and there just to fill pages in a book. All of the varying subtypes have the same basic barbarian premise: extra hit points and more hitting power in return for less defenses and greater need for a cleric.

Fire and Ice - by Frank Frazetta
Or maybe this woman is the cleric?

In DDO*, three of the barbarian subtypes have been encoded for our enjoyment. But the differences between (one of the subtypes versus another) are far lesser than the differences between (any barbarian and any non-barbarian). While this is true for every class in DDO, it is much more true for Barbarians. And maybe Paladins. But definitely Barbarians.

* Yes, it took me 900 words to get to DDO. Some days are just like that. Live with it.

And what a challenge it must be to Turbine (and for that matter, to Wizards of the Coast before them). Here they are, having promised three different kinds of barbarians, having to come up with something that makes the three types actually different.

And now they are revamping the three types so that they are all not just different from each other, but also, competitive with all of the other classes. I don’t know if I could pull that off. I think so, but I have a high opinion of my game-designer abilities.

Much more importantly, did Turbine pull that off?

Tomorrow we’ll find out.**

This topic has given me the opportunity to showcase the striking art of Frank Frazetta, one of the greatest fantasy artists ever. Maybe the greatest. Check out more here, at the Frazetta Art Museum.

Amazing. Really. This is what talent looks like.

🙂 😀 🙂

** Yes, this entire 1000-plus-word writeup is really just a warmup for tomorrow. Sorry. Like I said, some days are just like that.

  10 Responses to “Barbarians at the Gates”

Comments (10)
  1. The forthcoming barbarian changes might finally get me to play an actual barbarian class, instead of simply having a character that charges insanely into battle but is capable of solid, reliable self healing & other tricks 🙂

    Also, there’s nothing quite as much sheer fun as going into one of those uber static-battle quests (eg breaking the ranks) with a tough, AoE-smacking melee & this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZY2mRG5mzg

  2. You saw an opening to plug in nice references to the history of Barbarians, and grabbed it by the horns in style Geoff! Looking forward to see what you make of the current state of the proposals!

  3. There were Barbarians in 1st Edition AD&D – they were introduced in the original “Unearthed Arcana”. Which, incidentally, is also where “Cavalier” was introduced AND where Paladin became a sub-class of the Cavalier and no longer a sub-class of the Fighter.

    • I think UE (and Oriental Adventures) represent version 1.5. Or so. 🙂

    • Also I thought Cavalier was a sub-type of Paladin, rather than the other way around. But I remember there was something weird going on, maybe you are right. I should check! Now if only my UE had survived (it was loved to death along with several other original source books)

    • Barbarian was one of the reasons I can’t stand the original Unearthed Arcana (I bought it slightly after my p&p D&D days). Some issues:

      Barbarian. The class that does not play well with others (as a class feature). Note that 1st level barbs do not come with a cleric attached. They are only “allowed” to interact with clerics at second level (and then with great suspicion). Don’t expect to be playing with the magic users for quite some time. Basically it takes the “party controlling” problems with the Paladin and cranks it up to “party destroying” (note I may be missing something. I still don’t think it is to keep lowbie players away from magic users and introduce then when they are at least as effective as the melee).

      Cavalier. Actually, I really liked the cavalier, just that under the AD&D rules you had a good chance of slipping a 18(67) character under the DM’s nose and coming out with a 18(00) by level 4.

      Thief/acrobat: Couldn’t see the point in a dungeon with a party. Might be missing something, but these are not thought out well.

      The rest of the book: Can’t say I have an issue with more magic items, but it seemed like an excuse to throw in +6 items. Also this introduced using weapon specialization to weapon proficiency slots. On one hand, low level characters desperately need buffs. On the other hand a few henchmen with full-blown weapon specialization can turn a tiny lowbie party into a relative powerhouse.

      I have to say I was utterly disappointed.

  4. thx for the well-written and informative post?
    I do wonder why Conan is always shown with a Betty Paige hairstyle, though

What do you think?

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