Conan the Intelligent, Tactical Polyglot Barbarian

I just finished reading The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard. I have been talking about barbarians on and off Twitter even blogging about them here earlier. Barbarians own a unique and very well known place in pop culture and I wanted to go back and take a look at part of their origins.

This volume contains the original thirteen Conan stories as written by Howard in the order he wrote them. I had never read any Conan stories before and was only familiar with the character through osmosis from living in a pop culture world.

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Savage Sword of Conan – Boris Vallejo

As many note in the Goodreads reviews, I was surprised to learn that Conan as he was originally created was not the hulking brute, all brawn and no brains as I have come to know him. Conan is an intelligent, clever, resourceful and combatant.

Yes he is quick to anger and often there are depictions of his size and strength (and his steely bronzed thews) and requisite description detailing his smoldering blue eyes. But just as frequently Conan is depicted as “pantherish” or “tigerish” in his ferocity he is also described as being stealthy, silent when he moves. Not only is he strong but he is fast, able to move and react in the blink of an eye.

Conan is also a polyglot able to speak several languages at least passably, he has adventured all over the world and has several careers behind him including: thief, warrior, captain, sailor, king, pirate, rebel, chieftain and more.

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Encapsulating all of these qualities themselves means our first pop culture barbarian has fallen far from where he started, but there is more. Conan is stubborn and fearful, jealous and covetous. Notwithstanding his willingness to kill at a moments notice. In “The Pool of the Black One” Conan kills a man to after joining a crew of pirates, just to “earn his place” and is clearly plotting to kill the captain and usurp him as soon as he is able (which he does).

Conan again is more than muscle and steel. He carries within him a duality that markedly resembles people in the real world. He is capable of kindness and generosity and callous murder all the while harboring realistic fears and anxieties.

Conan as originally written is a deep and complex character capable of good and evil, love and hate. He is well-traveled, intelligent, taciturn, loyal to his word and quick to take advantage of opportunity. He is a killer who knows the Arts will outlast him and that life is ephemeral.

Dungeons and Dragons

From a D&D perspective I can see where the basis for the barbarian was drawn.

Conan is described as raging, fighting through injuries that other men could not. He is able to exert himself for hours displaying unnatural endurance. He is preternaturally aware able to sense traps/danger and avoid them as well as displaying almost superhuman strength.

All of this can be seen in the current and original version of the Barbarian. They are not exactly the same but the roots are there.

Barbarians Today

Perhaps it is simply my experience in popular culture and at the table that  barbarians are pigeon-holed as mindless rage-machines good only for killing and well, more killing. I am not so naive to believe this is the only way they are portrayed, there will of course be contrary examples but they are not the norm.

One such “against type” barbarian that I really enjoyed when I was encountered him was Logen NineFingers from The First Law books by Joe Abercrombie. I initially thought he was unique in his depth and his “complete” personality. Having gone back and read Conan I see that Joe Abercrombie’s character seems unique in this day but he is truly the successor to Howard’s Conan.

If you have not yet I recommend reading The First Law trilogy. See for yourself just what a complete, fully fleshed out barbarian character. In all honesty all of the characters are so finely crafted they will defy expectations. And in truth The Bloody Nine is the best version I have ever encountered of a raging barbarian. EVER.

Do yourself a favor and go read Howard’s Conan stories. They are fast-paced, easy to read and filled with action and adventure. Most of them are quite short as they were originally submissions to magazines for easy consumption.

Enjoy the ride!

Featured Image by Mark Schultz

 

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Cultural Barbarians

I was getting ready to post something on the D&D Beyond forums about rage-less barbarians when it struck me that I was approaching the idea from the wrong angle. Instead of taking away a Barbarians Rage, let’s re-frame the concept of “barbarian”.

What makes a Barbarian?

Or Everybody’s So Mad!

Taking a look back down the interwebs, (and a short trip down memory lane, yes I am that old), we see that Barbarians were not introduced to D&D with much more flair than the Ranger. Just look at the Unearthed Arcana entry for them. What I see in the list of skills and abilities are the precursors (not direct translations) for the current iteration of barbarian attributes:

  • Back Protection => Danger Sense
  • Climb, Hide in Natural Surroundings => Current Skills list
  • Surprise => Feral Instinct
  • Leaping and Springing => Fast Movement

Somewhere in there we lost the Illusion detection and fear of magic. Oh well.

However ever since those kits in 2e, with 3e making it official the defining feature of a Barbarian is Rage.

Taken straight from the current SRD:

These barbarians, different as they might be, are defined by their rage: unbridled, unquenchable, and unthinking fury. More than a mere emotion, their anger is the ferocity of a cornered predator, the unrelenting assault of a storm, the churning turmoil of the sea. (…) For every barbarian, rage is a power that fuels not just a battle frenzy but also uncanny reflexes, resilience, and feats of strength.

The error in this thinking is that paints a broad scope picture of a people as rage-machines. A society peopled solely by Incredible Hulks would not last very long. I put forth that what we cal the Barbarian class is in actuality a Berserker. It is a specific role within barbarian society but not representative of Barbarians as a whole.

So what does this mean? How to apply that thinking to enable deeper breadth in your barbarians?

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Treat the Barbarian Class as just that: a class, a single aspect of the Barbarian culture. I prefer to call it a Berserker or Rager. That leaves me free to culturally use any of the other classes as Barbarians as well. All it takes is a little re-skinning.

If you want to create a Barbarian culture take a look at what makes them “barbarians”. This often implies a lack a civilization but I encourage you to simply have it be different than the prevailing society. Barbarians have their own customs and traditions and philosophies and education systems. That it covers different topics or diverges from “our” reasoning doesn’t mean it is less valuable/meaningful, just different.

Barbarians or often portrayed as savage, ignorant brutes but this isb308a96eeb3256b3cc8cf8e781ac73e7 too easy a trap to fall into. We are holding barbarians to our (unequal) standards. Think of it this way: Compare ourselves to humans 100 years ago.

We might consider ourselves to be smarter and more enlightened but  just over 100 years ago we had Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison fighting it out in the War of Currents. They were masters of their technology. Expose them to our tech and they would be able to master and further it (hell they started and foresaw some of it).

 

 

Classy Barbarians

Having a Barbarian “culture” or society allows you a lot of leeway. You are now free to play any of the other classes and re-skin them into your barbarian civilization! In general I would say this means limiting their resources or available technology until they encounter it in their travels but really you can make it mean whatever you want. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

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Bards – Barbarian tribes have strong oral traditions. In addition to or in place of instruments they could chant or sing or perhaps tell stories. That sounds a pretty fascinating to me actually.

 

Clerics/Druids – Clerics and Druids could very easily be recast as shaman or seers. Use local materials in place of the heavy metal armors. Consider multiple Gods/Spirits in place of traditional deities.

Fighter – Not much needs to change here. Use different materials for heavy armor equivalents or perhaps restrict them until further adventuring takes place. The key difference is that here is a barbarian warrior that is not a Rage-machine. This makes “traditional barbarians” take the specific role of “berserker”.

Monk – diablo-iii-the-monk-f-360x360Barbarians are just a likely to have traditional hand/fist martial arts. “Fight with what you have”. I would probably change the flavor from the serene, meditative monastery to a raucous field of barbs learning the most efficient ways to attack each other without weapons.

 

Paladin – Apart from limiting or re-flavoring gear as you did for the fighter not much needs to change. A paladin could be a crusader or an avenger born to protect the tribe or hunt down fiends. A holy warrior is not defined by his plate mail. It is his devotion, his zealotry his willingness to do what his God requires of him.

Ranger/Rogue – The close scoutrelationship to nature that barbarians already have makes this an easy substitution. The gear and equipment doesn’t change much. Rogue/Scouts could join rangers as infiltrators and protectors of the tribe. Ranger/Beastmasters are a pretty typical barbarian trope.

Sorcerer/Warlock/Wizard – Barbarians initially were written with a fear of magic but since that has changed they are free to have tribal spell-casters. Again, call them seers, witches, warlocks whatever fits the flavor.

The dark hut, secluded from the others, with rancid smells or fearful noises. Most other barbarians in the tribe avoid it and its inhabitant, but be assured they are glad he is there. Wizards might need to forgo the idea of colleges of study but can learn under the tutelage of their master or masters.

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These are a few ideas deliberately wide-ranging and vague so you can plug in whatever details you want that make sense for your character in your world. Work with your DM or your players to find the details that fit your characters and give you a wider range of options to make your (insert character class here) barbaric.