Deep Dive - Barbarian Class

Deep Dive - Barbarian Class

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For our next step into the Deep Dive series, we are going to take a break from the spells and move into the realm of character classes. The best place to start is the Barbarian, which, in our opinion (Chris' opinion), started off as the most overpowered class, and has continued that tradition up to and including 5e.  So let’s take a look at the men in loincloths, the Barbarian.

The Barbarian was introduced in Unearthed Arcana for AD&D in 1985.  A subclass of the Fighter, the Barbarian quickly became the go to “hit things” class in the game.  As they progressed through the editions, the class quickly became a fan favorite in the Fighter class (replacing the Paladin, who, while they got spells, does a great deal less damage than the Barbarian). Some of the more important key stats for the Barbarian class by edition are listed below. Please note that some of the editions have a ridiculous amount of information on the Barbarian class - looking at you 2e - so we are only hitting on some of the information we felt was most important. If you feel like we are missing a key piece of knowledge or have a delightful story of being in a loincloth, please let us know in the comments below!

AD&D Barbarian

Key Features

• HP Die: d12 through 8th level, then 4 HP per level
• Saving Throw Bonuses: +4 to poison; +3 to paralysis, death magic, petrifaction and polymorphism; +2 to rod, staff, and breath weapon attacks.
• Must be Human, can be any non-lawful Alignment
Hatred of magic, including magic items and magic users
• Can hit creatures immune to non-magical attacks starting at 4th level
• Summon the Barbarian Horde at 8th level

The first incarnation of the Barbarian felt more like a combination of Tarzan and a Viking. They were skilled in running, jumping, climbing and a whole bunch of other skills that were extremely helpful in an unforgiving wilderness. But they were also tough and hardy warriors, many times wielding a shield and an axe, with animal skins for armor.  This combination of skills made them incredibly powerful in outdoor surroundings, but less so in dungeon and city settings.



The hatred of magic in AD&D puts them at a grave disadvantage in the early levels.  They refuse to use magical weapons or armor, and will go out of their way to destroy any magical items they may find in their early adventures. Of course, this is immediately watered down starting at 3rd level, where they can start using potions, and at 4th level where they can use magic weapons. They still dislike like magic users with the passion of a thousand burning suns, but it seems like such a waste to take such an interesting disadvantage, and eliminate it right away.

Going further, this hatred of magic puts them at odds with magic users of all types and makes for an interesting party dichotomy. While Clerics aren’t hated as much, they are still viewed with suspicion. What we also found interesting is that for a class that hates magic so intensely, they are given the ability to detect illusions and magic starting at first level. It seems odd that a class that shuns magic, and therefore knows very little about it, would have a 25% chance at 1st level to be able to detect magic, but I suppose it helps them track down those artifacts to destroy.

And finally, we reach the Barbarian Horde, an insanely OP ability the Barbarian gains at 8th level. If the Barbarian is in their natural terrain, they can summon a horde of Barbarians numbering the Barbarian experience-point total divided by 1000. So at 8th level the Barbarian can summon 275 of his comrades to assist in any number of ways. While it takes a week for the horde to arrive, and they will only follow a very specific set of directions, imagine having a small army of 500 Barbarians, when you are only 9th level no less, helping you storm the walls of a castle for a number of weeks equal to your level! (To be fair though, level 9 is a MASSIVE achievement in AD&D and other Fighters were getting castles at this point.)

2e Barbarian

Before we dive into the 2e version, let us say that TSR went full blown into the money making business.  There are handbooks for every character class (including the Ninja, which I totally forgot about and will be getting soon) and the Barbarian is no exception.  At 134 pages, the information can become overwhelming.  I’ve been struggling to plod through, and I can tell you it’s been painful at times. I now see that the layout of D&D hardcovers has always been horrible, whether by TSR or WotC. Why do I find the spell progression chart three pages after we talked about spells for the shaman, and are now in the subsection of Homeland terrain? Please, please, please hire a halfway decent editor WotC.

There is no way we can hit everything here, but hopefully we can hit upon the highlights. It was a difficult decision to decide on what to put in and what to leave out.

Key Features

HP Die: 1d12 through 8th level, then 3 HP per level
Addition of Shaman subclass
Fighter/Cleric Kits

So while there is a TON more information available now, we are going to focus on a few main things - the Shaman, Homeland Terrain, and the Fighter/Cleric Kits.  There is just too much information to discuss (unless we wanted the article to also be 134 pages long) and these are probably the two biggest additions to the class. For more details about Kits, check out this great resource!

Complete Barbarian’s Handbook ,  1995 TSR

Complete Barbarian’s Handbook, 1995 TSR

But before we dive in, I wanted to point out one interesting change from AD&D to 2e. Barbarians can now be lawful.  I think this is an underrated, but necessary and important change for the class.  Yes, when I normally think of a Barbarian, I think Chaotic.  But Barbarians have a very strict class structure within the horde, so lawful makes a lot of sense as an alignment option.

Now, onto the meat of the 2e Barbarian.

The shaman is a combo spellcaster/fighter. He starts with 1d10 hit die. He’s basically a Barbarian lite and a pretty damn good spellcaster.  They also have the same access to Barbarian armor and weapons.  Again, a pretty good spellcaster that can take a punch.

How and what spells the Shaman gets is simplistic and slightly confusing.  There are only a couple of small paragraphs that describe what spells the Shaman gets and how they get them. The first paragraph describes how a Shaman gets access to their spells.

Shamans have access to a limited number of spheres. If the DM allows a shaman to worship a specific mythos, additional sphere limitations may apply. A nature deity, for instance, may allow major access only to the animal and plant spheres. Some deities may allow spells normally denied to shamans; a fire deity might give major access to the sun and elemental spheres but deny access to the charm and necromantic spheres.”

Major access means that they can cast all levels of spells of that sphere, while minor means they can only access the 1st through 3rd level spells of that sphere.  I assume it is up to the DM to decide what access the Shaman has, based on what deity they choose.  This requires the Shaman and the DM to have an intimate knowledge of the deities, something that wasn’t as prevalent in old school D&D.  Maybe it was just me and my friends, but the Gods were something we gave very little thought too.  Sure, they released a Deities and Demigods book for AD&D, but I didn’t know that many people who actually used it. So based on what deity the Shaman chooses, the access to spells was listed as follows:

Major access: All, animal, combat, divination, healing, plant.
Minor access: Charm, elemental, necromantic, protection, sun, weather.
No access: Astral, creation, guardian, summoning.

Once again, the wording of this list is a bit confusing. When they say Major Access to All, they don’t mean they get access to ALL spells, but rather a set of utility spells that ALL Clerics/Shamans get access too. Yea, it’s a bit stupid the way it’s worded. The No Access list is interesting, and I agree wholeheartedly with not allowing astral spells, since the backwater shaman would have little to no idea of the astral plane.  Lastly, Shamans cannot use scrolls, since they cannot read or write because… of course they’re illiterate… I guess?

Shamans also have the ability to turn undead.  They are not as adept at doing so as the Cleric, being able to turn undead at two levels less than the Cleric can.  This seems weird to me for some reason, I have to wonder how much exposure the Shaman would have to undead in certain terrains, and feels a bit off to me. All Shamans must use their talismans to turn undead, much like a Cleric uses his holy symbol. But here’s what gets me when looking at the Barbarian guide for 2e. Where spells for the Shaman get a couple paragraphs that leave you wondering, the talisman gets over a page of information.  It goes into some detail about what the talisman can be and what happens if they lose it.  I don’t remember seeing anything about the Cleric losing his holy symbol in any of the editions and it makes me think that the writers really think that people who play Barbarians are complete morons.

Fighter/Cleric Kits
Kits are the first foray into both backstory and class archetypes. Each Barbarian picks a kit, either a Fighter or Cleric kit, during the character creation process and it determines a wide variety of skills and proficiencies available to the specific kits. Below is a list of what a Barbarian Kit consists of:

  1. Description  - Appearance

  2. Requirements - Ability scores needed for the kit

  3. Homeland Terrain - Where they live

  4. Role - Barbarian belief system

  5. Secondary Skills - Specific skills the barbarian may or may not have

  6. Weapon Proficiencies - Weapons they can use. Some kits have a required weapon

  7. Wealth Options - Player’s starting funds

  8. Armor and Equipment  - The starting weapon and armor the barbarian starts with for free

  9. Special Benefits - Advantages specific to the kits chosen

  10. Special Hindrances - Disadvantages specific to the kits chosen

  11. Spheres (Clerics only) - Spell types the cleric has access to

  12. Talisman (Clerics only) - suggested type of talisman

Note - Where it says Clerics only, it is referring to the fact that they also include reflavoring for Clerics to be Barbarian-like or from a Barbarian society. They make a note that Wizards are too sophisticated to be a Barbarian, and Rogues can only be from the city.

This is nothing mind blowing for those that have only played 5e, but when it came out, it added a whole new dimension to characters.  A character now had a story before they started playing.  The kits also introduced the idea of what we now call archetypes.  Previously, subclasses were actually just classes of their own, such as Fighter subclasses were Ranger and Paladin, but they were, for all intents and purposes, their own unique class. These kits provided flavor to the Fighter/Cleric class in the form of choosing a Barbarian Kit.

Below is a list of all the Kits. The ones we found most interesting also have an edited description of them, and you can find the full descriptions of all the kits in the 2nd Edition The Complete Barbarian's Handbook. There is no way to go into much depth on each kit, but this brief synopsis will hopefully help you understand what color each one brings to the game.

Brushrunner (Fighter) - Nearly naked running through fields Barbarians.
Brute (Fighter) - Caveman Barbarians.
Forest Lord (Fighter) - The Ranger Barbarians.
Islander (Fighter) - Jamaican Barbarians.
Plainsrider (Fighter) - Think Githyanki Barbarians.
Dreamwalker (Cleric) - Dropping peyote with your spirit animal Barbarians.
Flamespeaker (Cleric) - Pyromaniac Barbarians.
Seer (Cleric) - Arrogant Fortune Teller Barbarians.
Spiritist (Cleric) - I’d rather be a Druid Barbarians.
Witchman (Cleric) - I see ghosts Barbarians.

Ravager (Fighter)

The Ultimate Raging Barbarians.

Culled from the strongest and most bloodthirsty members of their tribes, Ravagers serve as bodyguards and manhunters, trained to kill with weapons as well as their bare hands. So violent is their reputation, Ravagers are even feared by their fellow tribesmen, who consider them unpredictable and perhaps mentally unbalanced. . . A strong sense of pride is perhaps their biggest flaw; he who insults or offends a Ravager may pay with his blood, if not his life. In many barbarian societies, Ravagers are considered the personal property of the leaders. They are bound to obey the leader’s every command and may even be traded to other tribes. Ravagers often resist such servitude, abandoning their homelands for the life of a nomad. . . He is contemptuous of civilization and has no patience for intellectuals. He considers hygiene the province of the weak; he takes pride in his mud-caked skin, his filthy loincloth, and his greasy hair. . . The Ravager’s mood swings are dram’s a list of all atic, even frightening. One moment, he may return a wounded bird to its nest; the next, he may fly into a rage because he has misplaced his axe. He smashes trees with his fists and screams at the top of his lungs, then dissolve into laughter if a companion trips and falls.

Wizard Slayer (Fighter)

Magic is the worst Barbarians.

The Wizard Slayer has few interests aside from destroying evil magic. He cooperates with his companions as circumstances dictate, but he is always seeking evil practitioners of magic. . . Grim and brooding, he may go for days without saying a word, brightening only at the prospect of encountering one of his hated foes. Wary of all forms of outworld magic, he avoids associating with the magic-wielding members of his party unless forced by circumstance.

Medicine Man/Woman (Cleric)

The healer, spiritual advisor and teacher of the tribe Barbarians.

The Medicine Man assumes the role of caretaker for any group with whom he aligns. He gathers healing herbs for the wounded, stays up through the night with the sick, and presides over funeral rites for the dead. While the concerns of outworld companions may be beyond his understanding, he is quick to lend a sympathetic ear. Despite his crude manner, many find his mere presence a source of comfort. The Medicine Man is unusually reflective for a barbarian, spending hours brooding over the cruelty of life or his failure to heal to someone in his care. On the battlefield, he fights fiercely and selflessly, risking his life to aid endangered companions.

2e really helped redefine a Barbarian and focused on where they came from as opposed to just being a class and abilities. It’s also fascinating how you could pick up being a Shaman, Fighter or a Cleric Barbarian… which is a weird thing to think about.

3.5e Barbarian

Thanks to whatever god you pray to… I prefer Tempus, after the insanity that was the 2e Barbarian, 3.5e returns to its senses and gives a complete class description in under 3 pages.  Added to that is the fact that there have been some additions to the class that take the class to another level. The rage mechanic once again pushes the Barbarian into OP territory, lest we thought he was slipping in ferocity.

Key Features

Hit Dice: 12 + Con Modifier at first level, d12 + Con Modifier every level
Fast Movement
Rage Mechanics

First and foremost, the Barbarian is no longer allowed to be of Lawful alignment. Sigh. This won’t be the last time they change this rule, and it does get tiresome after a while. I’ve argued why I think the lawful alignment works in 2e.  Though there is an interesting little tidbit added to the last paragraph on alignment for the Barbarian. It states that any Barbarian that becomes Lawful loses their ability to rage, and then becomes an Ex-Barbarian. Pretty stiff penalty, but they do get to keep all their other abilities. That said, Chaotic still makes the most sense for a Barbarian.

Fast Movement is an interesting ability added to the Barbarian, but it does get bogged down in the rules that come along with it. The 3.5 PHB describes the fast movement skill as such:

A barbarian’s land speed is fast than the norm for his race by +10 feet. This benefit applies only when he is wearing no armor, light armor, or medium armor and not carrying a heavy load. Apply this bonus before modifying the barbarian’s speed because of any load carried or armor worn. For example, a human barbarian has a speed of 40 feet, rather than 30 feet, when wearing light or no armor. When wearing medium armor or carrying a medium load, his speed drops to 30 feet. A halfling barbarian has a speed of 30 feet, rather than 20 feet, in light or no armor. When wearing medium armor or carrying a medium load, his speed drops to 20 feet.

Keeping track of this may seem easier in the time of D&D Beyond, but back when 3.5e was released, it was a bit more difficult. Sure, what armor you were wearing is easy enough to track. But weight load is an entirely different beast. It was rare that someone wrote down the weight of every single item they had in their backpack, and even if they did, then they’d have to track additions and subtraction for items to see how if that changed the weight load. It’s not as easy as it sounds, trust me.  Also, can you picture a halfling barbarian? They sound adorable.

Player’s Handbook ,  2003 WotC

Player’s Handbook, 2003 WotC

The big add in 3.5e was the addition of the Rage mechanic. Now, the Barbarian could become even more powerful in battle. Rage increased the Barbarian’s Strength by 4, Constitution by 4, +2 to Will saves (Wisdom save), but reduces their AC by 2. The Con increase is pretty nice, since it increases the Barbarian’s hit points by 2 per level. These are not temporary HP either.  For as long as the rage lasts, the hit points are treated like normal HP. Speaking of length, the rage lasts for 3 rounds plus their con modifier. The Barbarian can use his rage only once per encounter, and can only use it once a day until 4th level.  At 4th and every other four levels after, the barbarian gains the ability to use rage one more time per day. He can end the rage before the encounter ends, but the penalty is pretty stiff if you are still in battle; -2 to Str and Dex and can’t charge or run.

The improvements to the Barbarian in 3.5e vastly improve the Barbarian from the previous editions.  Rage is a huge addition to the class, and really helps shape the Barbarian through the next two editions. I also want to take this time to complain about how Barbarians can’t Read or Write unless you spend 2 skill points to give them literacy. Why do they think that every angry person with an axe can’t read?

4e Barbarian

Key Features

Hit Points: 15 + Con, gain an additional 6HP per level
Rage Powers
Huge variety of abilities

Oh 4e, the ill-favored middle child of DnD. While the system may be lambasted for being too video game-y, I enjoy how they went about creating unique powers for every class, and the Barbarian is no different, starting with the Rage powers.

Rage, in the past edition, was a set effect that did a specific thing and maybe at higher levels got a little bit better, in 4e they introduce a wide variety of choices and flavor for your Rage. Starting at level 1, you got one use of your Daily Evocation (which is your Rage) and you had four different Evocations you could choose from to modify your Rage, this could be a flat bonus to your melee damage to temporary HP every time you hit to more movement every time you were raging, and your Rage lasted for the entire encounter or if you entered a new Rage.

Player’s Handbook 2,   2009 WotC

Player’s Handbook 2, 2009 WotC

From 1st to 4th level you could Rage once a day, hence it being a Daily Evocation, starting at 5th level you got to choose another Daily Evocation, so you could now Rage twice a day, and these new 5th level Evocations had different effects like: make a secondary attack, regenerate HP every round, or deal lightning damage to everyone around you. Your rages were tied directly to the number of Daily Evocations you got and by Level 20 you had 4 uses of Rage a day and they all did something different! That’s pretty awesome and a lot better than just hitting things with the same mechanic over and over all day.

The other part of being a Barbarian in 4e meant you had a ton of options besides just raging and hitting things. You had different Daily and At-Will powers that you could use to help you in combat. These abilities were more than just you hit something and deal damage and was stuff like: bonuses to your initiative, regain Hit Points, allow enemies to hit you so that you get a bonus to your attack rolls and so much more. With all these different abilities that allow you to do more than just roll to hit for your action, it’s almost like you are a warrior wizard whose spells are different types of attacks. It’s a pretty exciting way to play a dude that hits things.

One last point to make about the 4e Barbarian is that they have several paths they can take once they reach 11th Level, they can go the more stock path of a Barbarian or choose a weird Paragon Path that gave them different powers that they could use through a day. This helps add more flavor to their build, even if it does come a bit later in the game. Here are the four paths in the Player’s Handbook 2 for 4e:

Bear Warrior - Become a literal bear Barbarians.
Fearbringer Thane - All your enemies quake in fear Barbarians.
Frenzied Berserker - Just keep hitting it until its dead Barbarians.
Wildrunner - Speedy Barbarians.

5e Barbarian

Key Features

Hit Dice: 12 + Con Modifier at first level, d12 + Con Modifier every level
Primal Path

5e has been universally acclaimed for going back to the basics for the grognard DnD players, combining a streamlined system with familiar mechanics from the past editions, and it seems like Barbarian takes a lot of inspiration from 3/3.5e of DnD. Not only does our Rage do a set mechanic, but we are back to Fast Movement(at 5th level), Unarmored Defense and being a simple “I hit things” class. I’ll be honest, it’s a bit of a let down compared to all the neat things you could pick and choose in 4e, but you do get more abilities in 5e than in 3.5e so that’s a win I suppose.

Let’s talk about Rage: it lasts a minute, which is different from other editions as 3.5 relied on your Con modifier to determine the duration, and 4e was the entire encounter. This is also the first time where your Rage can end early if you don’t get hurt and you don’t make an attack against a hostile creature in a turn. Also with Rage, you take half damage from Bludgeoning, Piercing & Slashing damage, easily the three biggest damage types in 5e. That’s pretty awesome, and if that isn’t good enough for you, you also deal extra damage per attack! You truly are a murder-hobo when you go the Barbarian path.

Player’s Handbook,   2014 WotC

Player’s Handbook, 2014 WotC

After your Rage, the next thing you have to look forward to is your Primal Path you get to choose at 3rd level, this is a subclass/archetype for the Barbarian that allows you to add more flavor to them. In the PHB, you have two options: a Berserker or a Totem Warrior. The Berserker is more focused on dealing damage and ending combat quickly. They get an extra attack if they go into a Frenzy Rage and can use their mere presence to scare away creatures. The Berserker is a pretty straightforward class for those not wanting to get too far into mechanics.

The Totem Warrior on the other hand really gives you the feel of a spiritual fighter. You have options at 3rd, 6th and 14th level to add to your Totem and gain abilities pertaining to that totem animal. This can be the Bear (3rd level) to give you resistance to all damage except psychic, a huge boon for those fighting more than just bandits, and at 14th level you can fly in short bursts as an Eagle totem! It’s pretty cool that you can mix and match Totem Spirit Animals and adds a bit of customization for you, though you only ever get 3 options per Totem Spirit in the PHB.

All-in-all, the 5e Barbarian is a great class for dealing damage, and some might even say its OP when it comes to doing just that. Personally, I really like all the flavor you get out of a Barbarian in 2e and love all the options you get in 4e. The Barbarian has had an incredible transformation throughout the editions, starting as a Fighter option and eventually becoming its own class in 3e and continuing it’s non-stop fury into 5e.

As we close this look into the Barbarian, I’d just like to take a moment to encourage you all to follow us on Twitter and get updates whenever we release a new Deep Dive article!

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