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?
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 is 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).
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.
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 – Barbarians 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 relationship 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.
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.