Tuesday, 15 July 2008

I Hate Barbarians [Warning: Rant]

I hate the Barbarian class in D&D. Really, strongly hate it. Its very existence is enough to drive me to near apoplexy.

Of course, I respect the wishes of people who want to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Conan. I just don't accept that they should be catered to with their very own special class.

Why? Two reasons.

1. I'm a subsriber to the 'less is more' view of classes set out in the 2nd edition DMG:

Some players want to create a character class for every profession or ability--jesters, witches, vampire hunters, vikings, mountaineers, etc. They forget that these are really roles, not classes.

What is a viking but a fighter with a certain outlook on life and warfare? A witch is really nothing but a female wizard. A vampire hunter is only a title assumed by a character of any class who is dedicated to the destruction and elimination of those loathsome creatures.

The same is true of assassins. Killing for profit requires no special powers, only a specific reprehensible outlook. Choosing the title does not imply any special powers or abilities. The character just uses his current skills to fulfill a specific, personal set of goals.

Before creating a character class, stop and ask yourself, "Is there already a character class that can fill the niche?"

This philosophy was thrown out of the window when WotC took over and D&D turned into an exercise in "builds". (Although oddly enough 1st edition had made a similar error, albeit one with different end results.) But it really is the only way that makes sense to me in order to optimise simplicity and flexibility: a set of core classes (four, or eight at a stretch) on which all adventuring professions are based. You want to be a viking? Okay, you're a fighter from a certain society who likes raping and looting and drinking mead. You want to be a scout? Okay, you're a rogue or ranger who has found employment in an army as a pathfinder. You want to be an alchemist? Okay, you're a wizard who has an unhealthy fascination with lead and mixing potions. You want to be a barbarian like Conan? Okay, you're a fighter from Cimmeria. With big muscles.

No fiddling around with silly multi-classsing, no flicking through multitudinous sourcebooks, and best of all, no barbarian class. Everyone's a winner.

2. "Barbarian" isn't a class, anyway. Firstly, "Barbarians" don't exist. They never existed. The term was always laced with racism, like "savage" and "primitive" were, and it's best relegated to the history books where it belongs. "Barbarian" is acceptable as an in game term that characters and NPCs use, but it shouldn't be enshrined in the supposedly neutral core rules of a game. (I don't expect this view to be widely supported, because last time I mentioned it - on an online rpg forum - I ended up generating a wall of angry replies beyond all reckoning and proportion, and was bizarrely accused of being a racist myself. Still, it's a view I hold, and because my PhD topic is at least partly related to it I feel obliged to stand up for it.)

But secondly, and more importantly for our purposes, even if you don't think the term is pejorative, "Barbarian" still isn't a class. It's a term for a society, or a race of people. Even pulpy "barbarians" have their shamans, bards, elders and what not - so where do they fit into the remit of D&D barbarians? Nowhere: a Barbarian is a big muscly guy in a loincloth who likes to hit people with a broadsword. Ridiculous. You might as well have a "city dweller" class (because all city dwellers are the same, with exactly the same abilities, right?) or a "rural" class, or I dunno, a "working class" class. "I'm Dave and I'll be playing Patrick von Rasmussen, a Level 1 Rich Person."

(At some point here a hawk-eyed reader will be thinking, "But noisms, aren't you a big fan of the Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D, which had race-as-class for the demihumans?" Well, yes I am, but that's a different thing; I'm arguing here within the rubric of AD&D, in which there is no such system. Also, race-as-class works in BECMI D&D for a whole host of reasons I can't be bothered going into.)

Indeed, the fact that it did away with the barbarian class would be reason enough alone to prefer 2nd edition AD&D above all others, were it not for the fact that TRS chickened out and reintroduced them in a supplement after its release.

It would also be reason enough alone to prefer fourth edition, were it not for the fact that I don't like a single other thing about it.


  1. Barbarian's? How were these guys any different from regular fighters? Perhaps they get a bonus against some hated race, but big deal, a DM will always have a "built in" enemy, some political rival which a character instinctively hates. Other then that, all they get to use is weapons that are prone to breaking on a regular basis.

    I think that my most hated sub-class is the bard. This just screams NPC to me, not player character. I will admit that I've never played one, it is one of the only classes that I've never been interested in. . . maybe if I changed it to gypsy, it wouldn't sound so lame to me. Personally, I think that the only reason why it was included in the books, was to show how you should blend classes fairly when somebody wants to play something outside of the box. WHICH IS GOOD!!! If the player knows what he's doing. I am a player as well as a DM, and once in a while I'll have an idea that would make a killer PC class! But the trick is, that it has to be fair. This isn't a problem for folks like me, who have no qualms about playing a character that is technically broken and whom is more then likely doomed from the start because of some insane belief that will render him inflexible. Sometimes these things work, other times they don't but so what? It was still fun.

    I played a barbarian cleric who was fun as heck, but that is just because the world around him was a mystery. He had a definite goal, His sister was stolen and sold into slavery and he was going to find her. He wasn't really all that special, except that he was a 2e priest (all priests were unique in 2e) and could use edged weapons. He had no interest in simulating into the culture around him, and found everyone, even his own party members, as self-indulging swine who are eating and drinking themselves to death. Cultures like that CAN'T last forever.

    No giant warrior THACO, or hit points, just a priest and an idea. He was fun to figure out, and that is role playing, but to just expect special bonuses simply because you want to be different, well that could be asking to much.

  2. Ripper x: I agree with what you're saying. To me a class is just a loose outline for what you want to create. Whether you want to be a Conan-style barbarian, or a Japanese bushi, or a European knight, or a Russian cossack... just be a fighter and create the flavour yourself!

  3. I see where you're coming from in a way. Less can be a lot more in a game, but I feel like there should be plenty of potential niches to fill. Don't necessarily think of the Barbarian as being a tribesman who lives in the wild. Imagine something more along the lines of a Viking berserker. Almost supernaturally tough and able to throw himself into a state of unstoppable battle fury (or, alternatively, think of him as a sort of contemplative yogi type who enters a state of supernatural clarity when threatened).

    I personally think that an interesting direction to take would be to combine various class features until you get a character with powers that match his or her concept. Furthermore, if PCs are supposed to be special, I think it's reasonable to make a character in such a way that each can have unique abilities.

    Once again, all due respect to your opinion, just offering the pathetic ramblings of someone who wishes to present an alternative point of view.

  4. It`s true what you say, but I still love these classes (including the Barbarian, Assassin, Bard,...).

    But your arguments can also be applied to the Paladin (Fighter with religious background or Cleric of War), the Ranger (Fighter with Survival Skills) and the Druid (Cleric of Nature)...

    Still, I don`t want to miss these classes.

  5. Rachel: The thing is, a viking berzerker or a contemplative yogi type can just be done with the fighter class. It all depends on how you play the character and what background and personality you choose for him. I'd rather just see the classes as rough outlines, which you can fill in with as much flavour as you want. For example, if I wanted to play a viking berzerk, I'd just be a fighter who disdains armour, works himself into a frenzy for a fight, and wields a big battle axe! I'm not sure those things need to be emulated in the mechanics - after all, they aren't emulated in real life; viking berzerkers were just men in physical terms, same as any other. (Also, I don't really agree that PCs should be or are special - I like PCs to start off as mundane, ordinary types who may become special over the course of their adventures.)

    Mr. Castle: Yeah, you're right, those criticisms can apply to those other classes. I think I'd be happier with paladins, rangers, druids etc. as just archetypes or subdivisions of the real classes (fighter, cleric, magic-user, rogue). So a ranger would be a subdivision of the fighter class, who chooses abilities which make him distinct from other fighters (e.g. tracking, wilderness survival...)

  6. Going with the berserker example, I do think there should be some kind of effect for what they do. After all, if the stories are to be believed, berserkers became so tough in battle that they could charge into battle naked and unarmed, and survive multiple wounds that would otherwise prove lethal. I suppose that's my basis. I do like very much what you're suggesting, though, and think that an extremely simple class system would be a good thing. Possibly with either an expanded version of 3e's feat system or a simplified version of 2e's kits for the sake of diversity in characters? I don't know about you, but I would eventually get bored without either being able to build unique characters or do something in fights besides just attacking over and over.

  7. The Barbarian is a relic of 1st edition, where dual-classing was not so easy and the fighter, as presented, really didn't do a good job of emulating the kind of "barbarian" populating the works of Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, L. Sprague De Camp, Fritz Lieber and other pulps.

    The Conan, Bran Mak Morns, Fafhrds, Tulogh O'Briens, and Thongors are all outsiders from weak, decadent civilization. They're capable of explosive, undisciplined violence and succumbing the to the red-rimmed rage of violence. They're closer to the primal than any trained fighter could be. The fighter class is, I feel, a more measured class, reflecting someone trained and educated in the arts of war.

    The Barbarian class was not really designed to do a culture like Vikings, Mongols, etc. Rather, I have always felt that it was intended to represent the unique hero who was a throw back to a distant, cleaner age before man was corrupted by living in cities or by deals made with evil, elder races.

    Which isn't to say that the 3e version moved away from all that... but the 1e version was definitely going for the Conan/Thongor/Fafhrd side of things.

  8. Rachel: But you can build unique characters with just a simple class system. Basic D&D only had, what, four main human classes and three demihuman classes? And yet the characters we used to create playing that were just as unique as the ones we create these days, and the games were just as fun. So I wouldn't get bored. That said, I liked 2nd edition's kits. They kept things simple without getting bogged down in feats like 3.X character classes did.

    Jason: I definitely get that, but I just don't understand what the point is of having two mechanically different classes for things that are so similar - a disciplined vs. a 'primal' fighter. Surely the best way to deal with that difference is just through role playing and flavour? Then again I never understood the 1st edition Assassin class either. Like they pointed out in the 2nd edition DMG, an assassin is someone who kills people for money. Anyone can be an assassin, be they a fighter, thief, wizard or even priest.

  9. I'm glad we've found some agreeable middle ground. I suppose I just tend to focus a bit on crunch because I believe the most important thing you can do in a game is to create your own fluff. An extremely simple, streamlined system of organizing character abilities can do this with some imagination (See earlier editions of D&D), but a system that can be overwhelming with sheer variety (Such as 2e once kits were introduced, or 3e) can offer something for everyone. I personally tend to favor the second approach, perhaps because I grew up on 3rd edition. I'm glad we could take this opportunity to exchange viewpoints. It's been most illuminating and I think has improved my game immensely.

  10. Rachel: Strange as it may seem to say, I think my D&D philosophy mostly came about due to economics. My formative D&D experiences all came about when I was an adolescent, and then teenager, with basically no money to spend on books and supplements. One set of core rules between us was about all my friends and I could afford. So we had to get creative with what we had! ;)

  11. That 2E excuse for removing certain classes was a joke. What is an assassin but someone who kills for money? Right. What is a fighter but someone who defends himself with a weapon? Like a lot of the 2E core book writing, it's so much blather to fill space, talking in circles and making no meaningful point. I agree barbarians don't need a special class beyond fighter, but the 2E text is plain awful.

  12. anonymous: Well, different strokes for different folks. I agree with the 2nd edition text; I think they were making the point that an assassin is just a profession, whereas a fighter is more than that - it's an archetype (a class, in other words). A fighter isn't just somebody who defends himself with a weapon; all classes do that. A fighter is somebody of any profession (assassin, barbarian...) who primarily relies on fighting to get the job done. Like a magic-user is somebody of any profession (assassin, wizard...) who uses magic to get the job done. In other words, classes and professions are different things, and having 'classes' that should by rights be professions muddies the issue.