Barbarians – You’re Playing It Wrong

Imagine a barbarian. Now, let me guess: the image in your head is that of a barely-clothed giant of a man with bulging muscles, tangled yet still somehow flowing hair, and a grim expression on his craggy face. Scattered corpses of his enemies piled up in the background are optional, as is the fur trim on his underpants and the bikini-clad damsel glued to his steel-hewn thigh. Non-copyright-infringing similarities to a certain Austrian bodybuilder are also a definite possibility. And those of you booting up Baldur’s Gate 3 for the first time and rolling a barbarian – how many of you instinctively went straight for a Half-Orc because they seem fitting for the class and hit things the hardest with big sticks? Across all these permutations, the unifying qualities include being strong, good in a brawl, not very bright, and very, very angry – rage, after all, is one of the defining characteristics of this particular class.

barbarian wrong arnie
As iconic as it gets.

But what if I told you that this raging savage you have in your head is actually quite distant from the original vision for the class and the fictional characters that inspired it? And that if your barbarian isn’t a cunning natural-born leader who, given a choice, prefers to wear at least a mail hauberk and can use a bow with the best of them, then you’re playing it wrong?

To begin understanding barbarians, it’s important to make a distinction between historical barbarians and fantasy barbarians. The former have very little to do with their fictional counterparts, and cast too wide of a net to really be useful in the roleplaying context. After all, if you’re not Greek or Italian, then congratulations – you are a barbarian according to the historical definition of the word. And if I had to guess, you can’t exactly boast plundering hoards of otherworldly jewels or have a running tally of evil sorcerers slain.

barbarian wrong naheulbeuk
That Conan pose lives to this day.

In fact, the Complete Fighter’s Handbook for the 2nd Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that lists the barbarian as a fighter subclass (or kit if you will) specifically mentions that:

This is not the barbarian of history, but the barbarian of fantasy fiction. He’s a powerful warrior from a culture on the fringes of civilization. He’s left his home to sell his skills and adventure in the civilized world-perhaps to amass a fortune with which to return home, perhaps to become an important figure in this so-called civilization. He’s known for strength, cunning, contempt for the outer world’s decadence, and for adhering to his own code of honor.

So, who is this “barbarian of fantasy fiction” that serves as a template for the class? To figure this out, we go straight to the source – the famous Appendix N found in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, where Gary Gygax himself lists a number of books and authors that directly inspired Dungeons & Dragons. Doing so can help us better understand where this roleplaying game is coming from.

Subtitled as Inspirational and Educational Reading, this tiny section packs in so much information that entire books can and have been written about it. For our purposes, we’ll be focusing on the Appendix N titles prominently featuring barbarians. These include Gardner Fox’s Kothar series, Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mauser series.

How do we know these characters can be considered the cornerstones of D&D and fantasy barbarians in general? Well, in his 1974 interview with La Vivandiere Magazine, Gary Gygax had this to say when asked about the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on fantasy wargaming:

Tolkien includes a number of heroic figures, but they are not of the “Conan” stamp. They are not larger-than-life swashbucklers who fear neither monster nor magic. His wizards are either ineffectual or else they lurk in their strongholds working magic spells which seem to have little if any effect while their gross and stupid minions bungle their plans for supremacy. Religion with its attendant gods and priests he includes not at all. These considerations, as well as a comparison of the creatures of Tolkien’s writings with the models they were drawn from (or with a hypothetical counterpart desirable from a wargame standpoint) were in mind when Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons were created.

Take several of Tolkien’s heroic figures for example. Would a participant in a fantasy game more readily identify with Bard of Dale? Aragorn? Frodo Baggins? Or would he rather relate to Conan, Fafhrd, the Grey Mouser, or Elric of Melnibone? The answer seems all too obvious.

Even though Conan wasn’t even the subject of the question, Gary Gygax mentions him twice here, while his list of ideal adventurers brings up not one, but two barbarian characters, making barbarians an integral part of D&D since before its invention and a template for an ideal adventurer.

The remaining Appendix N barbarian, the lesser-known Kothar, has at times been affectionately described as Clonan – or a clone of Conan – cementing the enduring impact and popularity of R.E. Howard’s flagship character.

A hero of numerous short stories and his own novel, Conan is almost synonymous with the word barbarian. A Cimmerian walking the world during the lost Hyborian age that Howard masterfully snuck in between the sinking of Atlantis and what we colloquially know as ancient history. Howard’s stories follow Conan through the years and describe his adventures as a thief, a pirate, a mercenary, and a king – a life Ol’ Blue Eyes himself would be proud of. With so many different tales, Conan had plenty of descriptions, but perhaps the most famous and evocative can be found in one of the earliest stories – The Phoenix on the Sword:

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

This here is the quintessential barbarian. And while the physical characteristics are important, it’s the mention of “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” that suggests a character who’s not just a big dumb brute, but actually possesses the brains for those melancholies and the personality for that mirth.

barbarian wrong cohen
Even parodies are parodying the popular misconception, not the original.

In that very story, Conan is depicted as a king of Aquilonia, and throughout the entirety of the “King Conan” stories, he’s shown as a tough but ultimately benevolent ruler with an overpowering urge to protect his subjects, even as some of those subjects resent him for his barbaric origins, lack of dynastic ambitions, and refusal to go along with their decadent civilized ways.

This conflict between barbarism and civilization is one of the central themes of Howard’s Conan stories, with civilization portrayed as a perversion of the natural order. Beyond the Black River has this particular line that sums up Howard’s views on the matter:

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.

But it’s important to note that for Howard, barbarism doesn’t mean living in huts and being primitive. He simply sees it as an alternative to pampered civilized living. As such, his barbarians are possessed of almost preternatural vitality due to their harsh living conditions, but they do still have their own communities, settlements, and technologies, Conan himself being the son of a blacksmith.

The primary differences between Howard’s barbarians and civilized men lie in their values, the importance of honor and community for barbarians, and their general acceptance of the supernatural that cannot be explained away by science. And while barbarians are generally quick to anger and won’t hesitate to join a fight, they’re not uncouth and will play it straight with you if you return the favor. The Tower of the Elephant reads as follows:

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

barbarian wrong honor
No, not that kind of honor.

All of the above is a far cry from a tribal brute with anger management issues who communicates mostly through grunts and roars.

Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd takes this even further – despite being a red-haired giant, he’s described as having a high-pitched voice stemming from his studies as a singing skald. Here’s a quick excerpt from his introduction in The Snow Women:

After inquiring Fafhrd’s name and confirming that he had rescued her from the Snow Women, Vlana asked, “Why do you speak in such a high voice?”

“I study with a singing skald,” he answered. “They use that voice and are the true skalds, not the roaring ones who use deep tones.”

So, not only is Fafhrd well-spoken, his people have trained him in the fine art of song to the point where he’s picky about the kind of singing a true skald should do. Which again doesn’t fit with the all-too-common image of a dimwitted savage.

Fantasy barbarians merely have a different way of life that sets them apart from civilized folk. The intro to Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast has this to say about Conan’s run-in with the civilized legal system:

“I’ve nothing to conceal,” replied the Cimmerian. “By Crom, though I’ve spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.

“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.

“But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign ports.”

These qualities of a barbarian are reflected in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, where a barbarian’s role in a party is described as follows:

The typical RPG barbarian is a powerful, dangerous figure, as though he were an animal totem in human skin. In a campaign, he’s a front-line fighter with some special skills and a very different outlook than the rest of the characters; his player should always play him as someone from a different land, someone whose likes and dislikes and perceptions are based on a different culture. (If you play him as just another warrior from down the street, you lose a lot of the mystique the character has.)

If the PC party has no real leader, he may gravitate to that role; if it has a good enough leader, he’ll probably stick to being a specialist in the things he does well.

As you can see, not only is a barbarian’s different cultural outlook stressed here, the absence of it pretty much negates what’s supposed to be the primary draw for playing the class in the first place.

barbarian wrong king conan (1)
Shame we never got this Conan from good old Arnie.

But beyond even that, we can see here that barbarians are supposed to gravitate towards leadership positions. This, once again, mirrors a lot of the Conan stories, and in particular his fairly successful reign as the king of Aquilonia. Such was the power of Conan’s personality, that his mere presence on the battlefield could inspire his troops to unprecedented feats of heroism. When in The Hour of the Dragon dark sorcery paralyzes Conan, both he and his aides are well aware of this:

Outside, the dawn was dimming the stars. A light wind sprang up from the peaks, and brought the fanfare of a thousand trumpets. At the sound a convulsive shudder ran through the king’s mighty form. Again the veins in his temples knotted as he strove to break the invisible shackles which crushed him down.

‘Put my harness on me and tie me into my saddle,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll lead the charge yet!’

Pallantides shook his head, and a squire plucked his skirt.

‘My lord, we are lost if the host learns the king has been smitten! Only he could have led us to victory this day.’

And that Fighter’s Handbook description is not just a one-time thing. The very first mention of a D&D barbarian found in the 63rd issue of the Dragon magazine has the following table for determining a barbarian’s ability scores:

Strength
best 3 of 9d6
Intelligence
3d6
Wisdom
4d4
Dexterity
best 3 of 7d6
Constitution
best 3 of 8d6
Charisma
3d6

As you can see, while strength, dexterity, and constitution are clearly a barbarian’s primary abilities, while rare, it’s entirely conceivable for one to achieve the highest possible scores in both intelligence and charisma.

With charisma, barbarians even get various bonuses to it depending on the D&D edition, with the earliest depictions (Dragon issue #63, Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures) giving barbarians bonuses to their charisma scores when dealing with other barbarians. The Complete Fighter’s Handbook goes even further and enables barbarians to possess extreme personalities where, when making a positive impression, barbarians get a +3 bonus to their charisma when determining an NPC’s reaction, but a -3 penalty for the same purposes when making a negative impression.

And when it comes to intelligence, while barbarians are often portrayed as illiterate throughout the editions, it’s entirely possible and permissible for them to pick up a lot of sagely knowledge on their travels, provided their intelligence score is high enough. After all, as Howard tells us in The Servants of Bit-Yakin (or Jewels of Gwahlur):

Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian’s linguistic abilities, for he had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life and death.

barbarian wrong due south
The original vision for the class allows for a lot of styles and flavors. Hailing from the sparsely-populated frozen wilderness of Yukon with a set of unusual (for Chicago) values, robust vitality, a wolf animal companion, and a strong connection to his departed ancestors – it’s hard not to see Constable Fraser as a modern-day barbarian.

Next, let’s consider a barbarian’s attire. The general trend for early D&D barbarians is well summarized in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook:

Equipment: The character, when he spends his starting gold, may not buy armor heavier than splint mail, banded mail, or bronze plate mail. Outside his tribe, once he has adventured in the outer world, he can use any type of armor without penalty. When he spends his starting gold, he must limit himself to weapons the DM says are appropriate for his tribe-the usual group of weapons includes battle axe, bows (any), club, dagger or dirk, footman’s flail, mace, or pick, hand or throwing axe, sling, spear, or sword (any).

This once again tracks with Howard’s idea for Conan who frequently wears mismatched outfits, but if he has a say in it, rarely neglects a helmet or some form of armor. This passage from Beyond the Black River is a good example:

The stranger was clad like himself in regard to boots and breeks, though the latter were of silk instead of leather. But he wore a sleeveless hauberk of dark mesh-mail in place of a tunic, and a helmet perched on his black mane. That helmet held the other’s gaze; it was without a crest, but adorned by short bull’s horns.

Now, let’s compare all we’ve learned so far to the modern barbarian as depicted in the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. According to the Systems Reference Document (SRD), barbarians are initially only proficient with light and medium armor, while their saving throws of choice only include strength and constitution, with dexterity no longer being as prominent. Beyond that, the starting class features include rage and unarmored defense. The latter incentivizes barbarians to eschew armor in favor of fighting naked while retaining a respectable armor class, which enables that bare-chested playstyle originally discussed as the current perception of barbarians.

barbarian wrong krusk
By the 3rd Edition, this was the typical D&D barbarian.

Rage, on the other hand, goes back to the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, where it became inexorably linked to the class. This was also where orcs and half-orcs entered the picture, as Krusk, the poster boy for the 3rd Edition’s barbarians showcased in the Player’s Handbook, is a half-orc – a race well-known for its natural penalties to intelligence and charisma. And that may have incentivized people to neglect these two abilities.

Compare this to the original Dragon magazine depiction where only humans could be barbarians, or the Complete Fighter’s Handbook that mentions dwarves, other than humans, as “the most admirably suited to being barbarians,” while begrudgingly leaving it up to individual DMs to decide whether they would allow other demihuman races to qualify.

But back to rage. These days, it’s hard to imagine a barbarian without rage. However, originally, barbarians and berserkers were two distinct, if interlinked, subclasses. Both of them were depicted as tribal outlanders, with the latter representing a subsection of those societies inspired by the stories of historical berserkers. The traditional barbarian, on the other hand, had borderline supernatural survival skills, detested magic in all forms and was adept at detecting illusions and sorcery, and was all but immune to being surprised or backstabbed.

barbarian wrong amiri
Pathfinder’s Amiri is actually closer to the original vision for barbarians than most. Just get her into a nice suit of armor and she’s good to go.

It’s hard to tell how or why these two subclasses of fighter were rolled into one class for the 3rd Edition, or why they were later somewhat clumsily decoupled when frenzied berserker became a separate 3.5E prestige class. But even as far back as the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, when discussing potential campaigns that can include various fighter subclasses, barbarians and berserkers are listed together under a single section. And perhaps this is one of the earliest culprits that eventually led to our modern misconception about what a fantasy barbarian should be.

Another big contributor to our skewed perception is of course Conan the Barbarian, the 1982 movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed the titular barbarian. A fantastic piece of media in its own right, the movie takes a lot of liberties with its protagonist’s backstory and personality. And, naturally, with Mr. Olympia as its leading man, the movie goes out of its way to showcase Arnold’s impressive physique (a physique so impeccable that Arnold had to lose some of his muscle and gain a bit of fat to believably portray a warrior in the movie).

He did such a great job there, that for a lot of people, he became Conan. And his version of the Cimmerian is the one they see when imagining an abstract barbarian, limited wardrobe and all (though admittedly the covers for some of the old Conan stories aren’t helping there either). And with the blurred lines between barbarians and berserkers, this disregard for personal protection also tracks and makes perfect sense, as historical berserkers are known for going into battle naked.

When combined with the association the class now has with orcs and half-orcs, and their 3E ability score penalties, we finally arrive at our modern understanding of barbarians. But knowing where the class comes from and how it was originally envisioned, the next time you’re thinking of rolling a barbarian, you might instead think back to Conan and Fafhrd. Grab yourself a bow as your secondary weapon, fight your urge to dump intelligence and charisma, and pick up a dictionary once in a while to expand your vocabulary beyond angry grunting and guttural roars – the better to express your disdain for the civilized lands.

After all, as we’ve hopefully demonstrated, it’s their cultural differences, unusual customs, and a unique view of honor that make barbarians exciting and fun to play, according to the original vision for the class. Not their fur-lined briefs and penchant for oversized weapons.

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Val Hull
Val Hull

Resident role-playing RPG game expert. Knows where trolls and paladins come from. You must fight for your right to gather your party before venturing forth.

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