To Rage or not to Rage…Revisiting the Barbarian Class

So as this fucked up year comes to a close, I’ve started to prepare for 2021. I have a host of RPG related New Years’ resolutions, which include publishing a few things on DM’s Guild and DriveThruRPG. I also want to start an OSR campaign. In preparation for that, I have been meditating on the rules and options available to players. I’ve already started a meditation on world-building for an OSR DarkSun campaign. (Which reminds me, I really should get back to that!) My podcast is thinking about starting up a discord server as a home for our fans (all 3 of them) and a place to look for games.

I digress… The point is, I’ve been thinking about some of the OSR rulesets and I think I need more character options for the type of game I want to run. In some respects, it is about adding a little something to each existing character class to provide a bit of variety for the players. But I decided to take a look at the Barbarian class as a potential class option for my future players. First, I’m going to get this out of the way: I dislike that some kind of “rage” feature is limited to the barbarian. I think that is silly. When I look at the potential combat options available to a warrior, I think raging is an option for a well-armored knight, just as much as it is for a dude wearing a bearskin loincloth. It seems that in 5e games the barbarian class is typically seen as an adventurer from a primitive culture who just gets mad and proceeds to hack things apart with a battle-ax, a two-hander, or maybe a broken table leg. I find that kind of one-note. One of my more creative players reimagined the barbarian as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, which was cool. In another 5E campaign, I made a barbarian archetype called the Brewmeister–a dwarf craftsman who uses alcohol to fuel rages. However, his main feature, beer craft, allows him to make magical potions. (Stay tuned, dear reader, the Brewmeister among other “dwarf stuff” will be made available on DM’s Guild soon!!!) At the end of the day, I can’t shake the feeling that attaching a rage ability to the descriptor “barbarian” is a bit ridiculous. Do all uncultured people or “those not from the dominant civilized culture” just fly off the handle and start cleaving skulls? No, of course not. The term “barbarian” is defined as those that are not a part of the classical civilized cultures, such as the Romans or the Greeks. To be called a barbarian in those days was to say your beliefs, values, and cultural practices were just not the same as the dominant “civilized” culture. With that said, the Germanic barbarians were quite barbaric when compared to what Rome had to offer. Similarly, Native Americans participated in cultural practices that would not be deemed civilized even by today’s standards. Certainly, this is a matter of perspective to some degree. I mean in feudal Japan, Europeans were referred to as gaijin, which is like calling them barbarians. Indeed, I do not think we would necessarily think of early modern Europeans as barbaric. I mean, maybe we would, considering some of our own modern cultural values. But the point is, “barbarian” does not mean you like to bash the heads of your enemy in with the nearest blunt instrument. I’m sure being labeled a barbarian might piss someone off, but I don’t think making a character class rage because of being a barbarian makes any sense. For my game, I’m going to make “rage” a fighter stance that is available to fighters and dwarves. I previously referred to it as a reckless attack. As of this writing, I am changing the stance as follows: “reckless attack: -4 AC, +2 to attack, +2 damage.” So, with that said, “Lordmatteus’ OSR Barbarian” is going to be a class similar to that of a dwarf, elf, or halfling. It represents a cultural option as much as it is a class option. And yes, they are not going to be as sophisticated as the other four main classes as the assumption will be that those characters come from the dominant “civilized” society which assumes a medieval/early modern European society. The funny thing is, TSR tried this back in the ol’ AD&D days and that class looks to be absolutely unplayable. The AD&D barbarian can be found in Unearthed Arcana. The barbarian disliked magic and shunned it. To make up for the barbarian’s aversion to magic, the barbarian gained a bonus to strike creatures immune to magic. (This is ridiculous…like…why not just let them wield a magical sword?) The AD&D barbarian got a bunch of bonuses for saves against all kinds of things…probably because they can’t wear magical devices, armors, or other wondrous items to protect them. Again, ridiculous.
RAWR!!! I’m still level 1!!!
What is interesting for me (and my focus) is the natural abilities that the barbarian gained. It can hide in shadows, surprise opponents and it gained something called back protection to avoid sneak attacks. The barbarian can also detect illusions and magic, it can track and survive in the wild. Some of these abilities seem related to the fact that the barbarian cannot use magic items; thus, an ability to offset that drawback. I think the designer started with “Barbarians are averse to magic” and went from there. It’s ridiculous. With all the abilities it gains to make up for its inability to use magic items, level advancement was severely hindered. To get to second level you needed a whopping 6,000!! Ridiculous. I think this is a completely unplayable class. This could have been avoided if the designer just did not focus on the aversion to magic, but rather focus on it as a cultural descriptor. That being said, I think an OSR Barbarian should focus on survival-type skills. This is based on the assumption that the barbarian comes from either a hunter-gatherer or early agrarian society, where outdoor skills like hunting and tracking are valuable skills. I also think the barbarian class should be a hardy and physical class, one that can take some damage. Therefore, I want to give the class a lot of hit points. As I am not going to limit the barbarian from using any magical items; I do not think it needs anything else to make it tough. I’ll probably give it a fighter’s saving throws as I think that the two classes are similar in that regard. I am also going to give them the same stances that a fighter can do (that means they can rage if they want!), but I am going to limit them to only proficient with shields, hide and leather armors. The barbarian will be advancing with climbing and bushcraft skills after all. FYI: I’m using Lamentations of the Flame Princess as my base ruleset for now. That could change in the future… Lordmatteus’ OSR (LotFP) BARBARIAN CLASS
Level Experience points Hit points Paralyze Poison Breath Device Magic Climb/Bushcraft
0 1d8 16 16 16 15 18 1 in 6
1 0 1d10 14 12 15 13 16 2 in 6
2 2,250 +1d10 14 12 15 13 16 2 in 6
3 4,500 +1d10 14 12 15 13 16 2 in 6
4 9,000 +1d10 12 10 13 11 14 3 in 6
5 18,000 +1d10 12 10 13 11 14 3 in 6
6 36,000 +1d10 12 10 13 11 14 3 in 6
7 72,000 +1d10 10 8 11 9 12 4 in 6
8 144,000 +1d10 10 8 11 9 12 4 in 6
9 288,000 +1d10 10 8 11 9 12 4 in 6
10 432,000 +3* 8 6 9 7 10 5 in 6
11 576,000 +3* 8 6 9 7 10 5 in 6
12 720,000 +3* 8 6 9 7 10 5 in 6
13 +144,000/level +3/level* 6 4 7 5 8 6 in 6
*Constitution modifiers do not apply

Comments are closed.