On Barbarians and their Ilk

Over at Tenkar’s Tavern, the question of the day revolves around Unearthed Arcana, that AD&D expansion book that is something of a fissure among fans of the game. Few and far between are those who have no opinion on it; it often elicits a love it or hate it reaction. Erik himself seems to come down on the “hate it” side of the fence, especially calling the barbarian class “overpowered and anti-social”.

Now personally I loved it and still do. Yes, there were some problems, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome in the same way that we overcame any sort of problems with the rules that came before and after. We tinkered. Indeed, one of the features of my own Adventures Dark and Deep game is that the rules seamlessly integrate the original 1E rules and the material from UA, plus additional new material along the same lines integrated into the whole. Admittedly, I did make tweaks to the whole along the way, but it would not be inaccurate to say that if you wanted to see barbarians and acrobats alongside illusionists and druids in the rules, ADD will sate your appetite.

I’d like to specifically examine the barbarian class, and posit that the class itself is not unbalanced, overpowered, or anti-social. It is simply intended for a different sort of campaign than most DMs were used to at the time, and suffered from a lack of supporting documentation regarding this fact.

Bear in mind that Gygax’s own campaign was rather magic-user-heavy. There were occasional stars of other classes, such as Robilar the fighter, but the real luminaries were the high-level magic-users, either played by Gygax himself or others, that stole the show; think Tenser, Mordenkainen, Otiluke, Bigby, etc. I think Gygax was deliberately trying to point the way to something 180 degrees away from that model.

I think the class itself implies a non-magic-user-centric campaign.

The most obvious piece of evidence is from the class description itself. While obviously deriving from REH’s Conan, the barbarian as written can’t even associate with clerics until 2nd level, and will only tolerate the presence of magic-users when absolutely necessary starting at 5th level. Indeed, as written it would not be possible to have a magic-user and a barbarian as members of the same regular adventuring group, period.

The barbarian class assumes the existence of barbarian homelands. Not necessarily a Viking-esque locale, because there are examples from steaming jungles and broad Mongol-like steppes given in the text. But there has to be a barbarian outland whence the barbarian can stride into civilization and tread it beneath his sandaled feet.

As further evidence, I point you to the Hunter character class, which Gygax wrote in 1988 after his ouster from TSR. I had actually seriously considered including a hunter class in Adventures Dark and Deep, but finally came down on the side of leaving it out because of copyright reasons as well as the fact that it was never listed as one of the new classes that Gygax was considering at the time his 2nd edition was being contemplated. But look at some of the background text of the class:

The hunter is one who was born in a wilderness area and grew up in primitive conditions requiring a knowledge of woodcraft, fishing, trapping, tracking, knowing the flora and fauna for many reasons, and hunting to sustain life. There might be rare exceptions to this, but generally the hunter is one of savage, barbaric background. There are, of course, hunters from open plains areas, frozen tundra, and barrens. Such individuals are of more nomadic sort than the class considers, and in general these backgrounds are more akin to the barbarian class. The hunter class considers a wooded homeland as the principal training ground, and this should suit most campaign milieus. 

There are specific call-outs to the barbarian class in the mechanics, too. Armor and weapons, and weapon specialization, work the same for the hunter as they do for the barbarian. In fact, there seems to be very little daylight between the barbarian and the hunter except in the combat skill area. (Although as an aside, the lack of any actual hunting skill for the hunter class is somewhat… odd.)

And I would also include in this litany Chert, the rough-hewn woodsman companion of Gygax’s novel protagonist Gord, who hails from the Adri Forest and who is often referred to as a “barbarian”. But looking at the list of skills of the hunter, I wonder if Gygax might not have had Chert in mind when he wrote the hunter class description…

In the World of Greyhawk there would be several excellent places for a barbarian campaign to be set. Ratik, that frontier of civilization on the edge of the Thilronian Penninsula, Tenh, which borders both the Rovers of the Barrens and Stonefist/Stonehold, and possibly even a Vesve Forest/Highfolk/Perrenland campaign, with both Tiger and Wolf Nomads to serve as wide-eyed visitors in strange civilized surroundings.

Even if that wasn’t Gygax’s conscious choice when putting together the barbarian class originally, and certainly this is all speculation of the highest order, I think the much-maligned barbarian could be redeemed by looking at him in that light. A group of barbarians, thieves, hunters, and fighters, coming down from the fringes and into civilization, might make an excellent theme of a campaign, and would even recall the standard set-up of MAR Barker’s Tékumel, which placed the PCs as barbaric visitors into the decadent splendor of ancient civilizations.

I think it could work.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

14 thoughts on “On Barbarians and their Ilk

  1. D12 HD

    Double the bonus for high Con and Dex (remember, UA gave us the 3d6-9d6 creation method based on class)

    Get's XP by destroying magic items (anti social in most parties I played in)

    Now, played in a campaign specifically tailored to the culture, without magic-users in the party, it could work fine.

    Placed in a standard AD&D campaign, I still say it is overpowered 😉

  2. UA was published just after I began my gaming hiatus. (Marriage will do tha) But one of our usual groups in college was centered on a barbarian (from the Dragon), ranger and a cleric – it worked out fine.

  3. The main thing I remember about the barbarian class from reading about it when presented in the Dragon was that they didn't need magic weapons to hit magic-to-hit creatures.

    So the way the class is written, either a starting party pretty much runs without a wizard or without a barbarian. That seems a bit extreme. Certainly a barbarian isn't going to be a good replacement at higher levels.

    Also from reading the Dragon, I never quite understood the usefulness of the thief-acrobat, not unless the party was planning on joining the circus.

    Perhaps UA, which I've never read, had a different presentation of these classes.

  4. For once I am ambivalent. I neither love nor hate UA. Little of the material in it was new to anyone–almost all of it had been introduced in Dragon or Polyhedron as official rules changes/additions.

    On the plus side I no longer had to drag along 20 magazines to allow people to uses the new rules. On the other hand I might as well have, as I have yet to find a copy of UA whose binding hasn't disintegrated after a few months of the sort of abuse my first printing PHB, MM & DMG have stood up to for 35 years (ie. being tossed about in a backpack & passed around a table by mildly inebriated players w/ greasy and/or sticky fingers, etc.)

    As for Barbarians, I thought they were over-powered, but the issue rarely came upas my campaigns did not afford a lot of opportunities to introduce a Barbarian character.

    I almost never allowed players to start a characters at levels higher than first for anything other than a one shot throw-away adventure with pre-generated characters. Hence few players were willing to tolerate the class restrictions placed on the party by allowing someone to play a Barbarian. And the few times it happened they tended to be the first one killed, and the survivors sought Clerics & MUs as replacements.

  5. The concept works. The concept is a strong one. I'm not sure you need a class for it — or, if you do, if there is a good way to balance him with the fighter (or whether such is even an important consideration).

    D12 doesn't bother me. It's a China egg. You only get one more hit point per die on average over the fighter. The CON stacking does. That's something that ought to have been nixed right away.

    Anything that doubles or multiplies something else should be suspect on it's face and doubly so if there's more than one of them that could reasonably interact.

  6. What CON stacking, Scott? Barbarians just get a +2 if their CON is over 14, rather than +1 at 15 and +2 at 16. It's not in addition to the normal CON bonus, it's instead of it.

  7. We overcame the anti-MU problem with creative role playing. Our only magic user was a half-elf Thief/MU who had to be very careful about keeping his magic side a secret. It was kind of fun having to role play distractions and excuses to allow the MU to use spells, but it wasn't really that difficult since spell use was so limited at those lower levels. Rules aren't there to tell you how to play, only to guide your role playing.

  8. Great post!
    I used to like the Barbarian class because it worked so well with the Greyhawk setting as you described. Their ability to call a horde was an awesome feature that played well into Greyhawk's constant war backdrop.
    In the end barbarians were good enough to live on in later editions albeit in a nerfed fashion compared to 2e.

  9. On barbarian Con stacking: the class gets +2 hp per point of Con above 14, ie +2 at 15, +4 at 16, +6 at 17, +8 at 18. This is double the fighter's bonus for equal Con.

    Eh, I'm not fond of the class, but I don't begrudge people the use of it. I've played barbarians in every (A)D&D edition except the one I never played (that is, I have never played 4E). That said, it does not fit my play style at all. Neither does the cavalier, and I'm also not very happy with the implementation of weapon specialization in UA, but those aren't the point of this post.

    To my way of thinking, a "barbarian" is a culture, not a class. There are fighters in the barbarian lands to fill that role.

    Finally, I guess I got some special super-copy of UA, as mine never fell apart. It's actually undergone less damage than my original copies of the PH and DMG. I've always used parts of it, too, so it isn't like it has seen that much less use than the others.

  10. I think the problem lies in what a friend of mine called a lack of "lateral thinking". We could come up with a hundred or more classes or variations of classes. The problem, I think, lies when we have to rely on an official release to use them. Why not just create the character you're after (with some negotiation with the DM) using the existing basic classes? We don't need stats for every flavor of character that could be thought of. Yes, I think having a non-official, non-core book of possible character types with a penalty and bonus or two would be helpful to give people ideas, but that's all it should really be.

    If players needed help with ideas, they could even begin by rolling a few times on a set of random chart what a character's background is; likes dislikes etc similar to the way Ultimate Toolbox or Tome of Adventure Design works, but for characters. If they don't like it, roll again (this isn't to force a character idea, but to create possibilities). Then roll ability scores a few times and try to imagine the character's history, motivations, etc.

    What I'm trying to say is I think we get "stuck" by selecting from a set of pre-defined classes, instead of what comes from our imagination.

  11. The only way a UA barbarian is overpowered is if you use the retarded stat generation method from UA. He will need 3 stats of 17 or higher to function. A barbarian with a 16 dex will have an ac of 4 with leather armor. That's decent, but unlike the fighter who will upgrade from chainmail to plate when he gets enough gold, the barbarian is stuck with leather forever, unless he can talk the magic user out of his bracers. A 16 con gets him 2 extra hp per level – for 8 levels, at which time the fighter will have 9 hit dice. On average, with a 16 con, the barbarian will have 16 more hit points – significant, but hardly overpowering. The fighter will also be in plate by now, maybe even the broken field plate from UA with damage reduction. Now, if your characters are running around with multiple 18s, the barbarian may be broken, but for most games, it's fine, and possibly underpowered, considering the restrictions. Hell, he can't even BE a member of most parties until level 6! He also can't take advantage of weapon specialization, so no matter his strength, a double specialized fighter will mop the floor with him.

  12. JRR: You are forgetting the d12 hit dice of the Barbarian. At 8th level, a 16 Con Barbarian will average 24 hit points more than an 8th level Fighter with a similar Con. This changes to 19.5 more hit points at 9th level or higher. That is fairly significant. However, you are certainly correct about weapon specialization, which is also an overpowered ability as written (at a minimum, I'd get rid of the damage bonus, leaving specialization with only the bonus "to hit"; I am leery of any ability that is so powerful and has so few drawbacks that it becomes required for all characters with access to the ability to take).

    That said, as I mentioned above, all of these things are appropriate to campaigns of certain types. Those of us who prefer a less superheroic approach don't find most of the new classes and abilities in UA to be useful.

  13. Remember though, the Barbarian needed a lot more XPs per level than other classes. I don't have UA on hand, but it seems like to reach 2nd level a Barbarian needed 4000 xp or more. So it is not really a fair comparison to compare an 8th level fighter to an 8th level Barbarian.

    In our campaign my Barbarian reached 6th level when most other characters were hitting 8th or 9th level.

  14. 80squirrel: You're right. That objection doesn't really stand (the Barbarian is at mid-6th level when the Fighter hits 8th at 125,001xp). I withdraw that and only stand by the objection that it doesn't really fit what I think should be a "class". Certainly, the class doesn't fit very comfortably into any worlds that have come out of my head. The character type might (I can think of a few places in the Middle Sea world that include such people), but the class seems to break the tone I generally try for.

    And I would like to say again that I do not begrudge anyone else including the class. I know people who disallow the Assassin or Monk, and I'd hope that they don't begrudge those classes being in my games.

Comments are closed.