Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Barbarians Are Coming!

Speaking of my brother, I’ve completely neglected my earlier intention of blogging a bit of AD&D ramblings this week.

The Unearthed Arcana was released in 1985 and I had mine by November of that year. How do I know this? ‘Cause I still own my original copy, and inside the front cover in the huge cursive scrawl of my 10-year old brother is written “Happy 12th B-Day Jonathan!” At the time, I was pretty angry that he would desecrate an otherwise pristine and newly minted AD&D hardcover with such terrible hand-writing. Now…well, I’m appreciative that it gives me an excellent anchor point in time when considering my AD&D evolution.

[which, by the way is a totally different blog post…I started writing out my personal gaming history a couple weeks ago, but put the project on hold when I got to page 7 or so]

While many folks have bad-mouthed UA over the years, it was probably my hands-down favorite TSR volume between 1985-88. In fact, my original copy is so worn from use that you can’t even read the writing on the spine. It just opened up so many possibilities to our evolving AD&D campaign at the time, including and especially (bleah!) Comeliness. Ha. My co-DM Jocelyn picked up her UA before me, and she had us all roll up the new stat for our existing characters prior to even telling us what we were rolling. While this would color much of the campaign for years to come, I was fortunate enough to actually roll an 18…not bad, JB!

HOWEVER, as I’ve gotten older more grognard-ish, I find myself pretty much distanced from AD&D in general and the Unearthed Arcana in particular. My 36-year old eyes peruse the pages and find most of it elicits a big “eh,” even from things that really got us cranked as youngsters.

That being said, one thing that generally failed to energize us, even in our wide-eyed youth, were the new character classes.

Oh, well actually that’s not entirely true…those of us with thieves (or thief multi-classes) weren’t against throwing the occasional acrobat in the mix…after all, many of the standard thief skills remained the same as did the attacks, saves, hit points, etc. But for the most part, all the players in the campaign were satisfied with the “basic” classes present in the PHB…fighters, clerics, magic-users, and (of course) bards. None of us played those goody-goody paladins, and the cavalier’s Code of Honor held even less appeal for us (back in the day, munchkinism wasn’t much of a factor and role-playing alignment and class restrictions was fairly strictly enforced, so the Cav code was a pretty big deterrent from adding percentiles from all the ability scores).

And the barbarian, sheesh!

Only one player ever brought a barbarian to the table and that was my younger brother, no doubt influenced at least in part to the Bobby the Barbarian character in the Saturday morning D&D cartoon, as well as the rest of the group’s perceptions of my younger brother (again, influenced in part by the D&D cartoon). To us, barbarians were not some powerful character class with D12 hit dice and bonuses up the wazoo…instead, he was some nut job that didn’t use magic items(!!) and who lost that fine Dexterity bonus if he strapped on plate mail armor!

In a long-running campaign that had plenty of high-level characters with a ton of magic items bulging from their pockets, the barbarian character looked pretty pathetic by comparison. Especially since those “double ability bonuses” didn’t apply to the barbarian’s Strength attribute (sure you could hit a monster only affected by magic weapons…but wouldn’t you prefer to simply use a magic weapon that increased the to hit and damage of the weapon in question? I sure would!). Even my brother would eventually chuck the idea of a barbarian, falling back instead on the fighter character who (especially with weapon specialization) was a much more formidable character in combat than the primitive, magic-hating barbarian.

[years later, my brother would tell me that he chose the character in part because the IDEA of playing a barbarian appealed to him; it was the concept, not the class as designed that was interesting. OH…and also the influence of my friends and I]

As a DM, the barbarian was a pain in the ass for young kids who were not interested in creating “barbarian cultures” for our game world. Our adventures took place in cities and kingdoms…civilizations with nobles with plenty of gold. Why would we want to play some spear-chucker or axe-wielder…especially when those weapons have so little damage potential compared to the ubiquitous swords of the AD&D world.

[I guess there was a LITTLE munkinism in us]

Yes, this was long before my personal fascination with Viking culture and axes and my plethora of “concept characters.” As kids playing AD&D, we weren’t interested in “gritty” or “mundane” adventures. We wanted high fantasy, not drab and shabby.

And looking at the evolution of the barbarian class in the latest editions, it seems clear I wasn’t the only one “not feeling it” for the barbarian. This whole Rage ability and the Uncanny Dodge (hell, the whole flat-footed, etc. rules) seem specifically designed to “spice up” a drab character concept.

Of course, it just makes that concept even more ridiculous.

I mean, really…what the hell is the barbarian supposed to be? Ancient cultures considered outsiders to be “barbaric” and “un-civilized” but within their own cultures, these people considered themselves plenty civilized. Certainly the barbaric Northern hordes were wearing the same armor and wielding the same weapons as their civilized southern neighbors. And “savage” American Indian had no issue with adapting the “magic” of guns and horses once they were introduced (and once they were able to procure them for themselves...shout out to the Apache!).

If the barbarian class is based on Conan, then it is a flawed concept based on a flawed premise. If Conan had a distaste for sorcery, it was because the entire mundane civilization IN THE HOWARD STORIES had a superstitious fear of magic and witchcraft…NOT because he was some un-educated buffoon. If he is strong or agile or hearty, it is because he is strong, agile, and hearty (in game terms, he has high ability scores), not because of his “class.” The guy is a fighter…he fights. He wears armor (and clothing!)…the best he can find/afford.

[yes, yes…I’ve hypothesized Conan as a thief in the past. I’m allowed to change stance. And anyway, either fighter OR thief work better as concepts than “barbarian”]

I hate the barbarian as a class. Oh, yes, I had a 3rd edition Wood Elf barbarian character because AS A CONCEPT I liked the idea of a two-fisted, hand axe wielding elf looking to go out in a bloody haze of glory (and there’s no berserker Feat). In fact, the concept was totally based on a cool Magic card illustration called “Elvish Rage,” coupled with my own contrarianism (“what?! Why an elf and not a half-orc? That’s stupid!”).

But IN GENERAL, I hate the barbarian as a class. It is inappropriate to the game setting. It is unnecessary as a class distinction. It is ridiculous and un-wieldy to play. And (in my experience), it was pretty much UN-loved by everyone with whom I played.

For the most part, character classes in D&D (at least the pre-2nd edition editions) are ARCHETYPAL. Which is good as they are called “classes,” after all. There’s nothing archetypal about a “barbarian.” Barbarian is an adjective changed into a noun. You can have a barbaric fighter, a barbaric magic-user, a barbaric cleric, or a barbaric thief. Trying to distinguish the class by giving it a few bennies (extra hit points and such) doesn’t change the fact that all those barbaric idiosyncrasies can already be accounted for with simple character choice, ability scores, and role-playing.

And I really mean that. Your character has a 5 Constitution? Call him a “malnourished” barbarian. He has a 16 Constitution? Call him a “robust” barbarian. Or even BETTER…you have a character (any class) that rolls only 1 hit point? Call him a Robust Barbarian…that just happens to have bad-luck and suffer a career ending death from the first wound he receives!

The numbers are just numbers to be freely interpreted by the player (in conjunction with the DM, of course). Do you really need boat-building skill? Is the DM really going to fault you if you want your character to be able to whistle like a bird?

Well, maybe he/she will…if you’re playing AD&D with the Unearthed Arcana (or any later edition utilizing skills or non-weapon proficiencies). But that’s why I’ve moved back to B/X play!
; )


  1. Maybe Conan is like the Original Edition Elves. Both a Fighter and a Thief.

    He wakes up in the morning and decides if he feels thiefy or fighty today.

  2. Yeah, I had pretty much the same experience with Unearthed Arcana—initial wonderment followed by a distinct case of 'meh'. Though I must say most of the problem stemmed from the character classes—not the new spells or magic items. The latter held a few real interesting nuggets of goodness.