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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Simple Barbarian

A forum discussion has made me think about barbarians as an (OD&D) character class. Or, maybe, a race; I know some people object to the idea of human varieties as races, but I don't.

The Unearthed Arcana barbarian was famously over-powered and over-described. I'd rather have something much simpler, especially for OD&D. What's the minimum amount of mechanics that could give a standard fighter the feel of a barbarian?

I'm thinking that the berserker in the Monsters & Treasure book is a good place to start. The LBB berserker is much simpler than some later versions: they don't roll for morale and they get a +2 on attacks versus normal men. No real "rage" mechanic, just acknowledgment of their ferocity versus civilized troops. In fact, I interpret "normal men" here as excluding 1st level characters.

For a slightly more "ferocious, uncivilized, magic-fearing" barbarian, I think I'd go with:
  • no morale rolls except against magic;
  • +2 on attacks vs. normal men or spell-casters;
  • -1 reaction from civilized people;
  • can't start with literacy, must learn it (counts as a language.)
That looks usable. You can even use it as a stand-alone race to pair with cleric or thief, if you object to race-as-class.


  1. It depends. Do you want a Robert E Howard/Fritz Lieber/Quasi Historical barbarian, or one that reflects roleplaying traditions?

    If the former, I'd do it like this: highly adaptable in terms of choice of kit and profession - any kit that works, any profession that pays as long as no manual labour is involved.

    Aside from weapons proficiency, what marks them out is their barbarian culture, which they still carry around with them, physical toughness, and environment skills.

    Disadvantages of being a barbarian:
    -Nutty barbarian codes of conduct, e.g. blood feud, honour code, geises etc, no manual labour
    -Drunkenness; hard to refuse alcohol.
    -Berserk Rage: Happens randomly* in combat and other stressful situations and when drunk. Adds to damage and to hit roll. However, if the enemy pass a morale test and aren't intimidated, then reduces your armour class. Also, there's a chance* of target fixation, and also of defective FOF recognition.

    Also, berserker rage ends randomly, leaving you stunned, but with possibility of going berserk again.

    *Perhaps of you roll 5 or less on D20, using modifiers from wisdom.

    If you to go berserk deliberately, it permanently adds 1 to your chance of going berserk, up to a max of 10. You have the option to reset this at each new level.

    Going berserk in non combat situations causes you to wreck things and people, with no real control - think rock star plus hotel room....

    Somebody else can use their charisma to try to end your rampage. Though this is hazardous.

  2. That looks way more complicated than what I'd aim for... and I think it overstates berserk rage too much. Which is actually in keeping with later role-playing traditions: people have been pumping up berserk rage for years.

    Looking at historical berserkers (Egil Skallagrímsson,) "berserk rage" looks more like poor impulse control than anything else. Easiest way to handle that in-game: the player explains any mistakes made in combat as "battle rage".

  3. Gretir the Strong, however, had poor impulse control, but takes out a load of berserks when they try to raid his mate's farm. So poor impulse control <> berserk.

    But I take your point. If you use Conan as a model, you just get a sort of Fighter/Thief/Ranger with some cultural baggage.