Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Barbaric Edge

All right, you guys finally broke me. You don't know how tempted I've been to break my self-imposed "blogging ban" this last week. Clerics! I want to write shit-tons about clerics! But I've held off and held off. I cannot, however, maintain silence in the face of a really, really good idea, even if I dislike its execution...especially when it fires my own pistons.

So it is with this latest post from John Slater over at Land of Nod regarding the "edge" displayed by the barbarian protagonists of Bob Howard (and emulated by pulp S&S writers everywhere). The idea that such rugged individuals, by dint of their hard lives and uncouth nature, are a cut above civilized folk is a standard fantasy trope...and one that begs for the modeling and re-modeling (or at least re-examination) of a "barbarian class" time and again. And again.

*Bleah* (that's the sound of me gagging)

I know I've taken a couple-three whacks at the idea over the years, though none of them have "stuck" in my own campaigns...though perhaps that's as much influenced by my personal bias (I like the standard B/X classes) and/or folks' aversion to the idea of playing some primitive malcontent stereotype. Regardless, having a barbarian "class" hasn't worked for me. It just comes down to a set of particular themed bonuses or abilities, and the CONCEPT of the character gets lost. This is why the barbarian class of 5E is so stupid. It's not about someone wanting to model a "barbarian;" it's about wanting a rage bonus in melee combat.

[yes, yes...for some of you it MIGHT be about playing a barbarian. Shouldn't it be a background than? Something to be added to ANY class...barbaric shamans, thieves, etc.? And just what background is a barbarian supposed to take, anyway? Aside from outlander, it would take a bit more effort to work with most of the other 5E backgrounds...but I digress]

The word "barbarian" comes from the Greeks, which they used for all those "uncivilized" Germanic tribes that lived north of their ancient empire. The word means "bearded guys" or hairy ones or something, but it's really a derogatory term for people who don't speak Greek. In other words, "I see you are talking, but all I hear is 'bar-bar-bar.'" Still, though, "beards." We see that today in Romance languages (barba means beard in Spanish, for example). It doesn't mean indigenous American, or spear-chucker, or "savage" (though these things can be inferred from the use of the term). It simply means, someone from outside our polite society.

Howard was a Texan and a bit of a misfit to boot, giving him real issues with regard to "polite society." This he communicated through his stories, both in the attitudes of his heroes and the circumstances in which they generally found themselves (strife and turmoil in the land caused by the decadent machinations of people in power). It's not surprising that a man who felt himself an outsider would write about outsider heroes, nor is it surprising that his characters would resonate with those seeking escapism from "real life" in the fantasy fiction of pulp stories. Anti-authority is a fine attitude to have, until and unless you need your streets paved, your police and firefighters to arrive in a timely fashion, or your post office and DOT office to be well-staffed and helpful.

But D&D is fun for the same reason: escapist fantasy (how often do PCs need a post office?). And PCs are fairly "outside normal society" by their acts and profession anyway, so it's fine and fair to indulge in a little fantasy barbarism of the Howardian staple...the hard dude (or dudette) that sneers at polite society, that solves problems in Gordian fashion, that has an aura of primal leadership (or animal magnetism). A type of character that has an edge, in other words...something gained by dint of their upbringing and uncivilized attitude. Here's how I'd implement it, mechanically, for B/X (or similar "basic" games):

1. To be from a barbarian tribe, you must be a human character, though you can be a cleric, fighter, or thief (magic-users, even those from barbaric backgrounds, have too broad a perspective to carry the disdain of barbarians...their arrogance is of the magician to the mundane and their "edge" is their spell-casting powers beyond that of mortal men). Your character must have a CON of 9+ to reflect the fantasy trope (in a sense, you are playing a new type of demihuman race).

2. Your "barbarian" begins with the following restrictions: you receive one-half the normal starting gold at first level (roll 3D6x10 as normal, but divide the amount by two). Your character speaks your own language (as "Human Dialect," see page B13) fluently, but can speak only broken, accented common (the "civilized" tongue). You begin with no other languages known, regardless of INT.

3. When dealing with civilized individuals of authority (gate guards, tax collectors, nobles, etc.) your character receives a -2 penalty to reaction rolls unless the person in question speaks your character's native language.

4. If your character has an INT of 13+ you may choose to learn a new language (up to your maximum additional languages known) every time you earn a new level of experience. Learning a language implies fluency and capacity for writing as well. Common may be chosen as a language. Being able to speak fluently in a person's language removes the reaction penalty above.

5. Your character gains the following bonuses as his/her "barbaric edge:" +1 to melee attack rolls, +3 hit points, +1 save versus mind control magic, +1 bonus to hear noise, +1 bonus to detect traps, +1 bonus to retainers' morale score.

6. Success and soft-living will gradually remove your character's edge; every time you go up in level, remove one of your edge bonuses (your choice of which is lost). By the time most barbarians reach 7th level, they are thoroughly "civilized."

7. A player may stave off the eroding effects of civilization by disdaining its decadent trappings. This includes taking following actions:
  • Never sleeping indoors unless the weather is bad (and even then, preferring a hard, bare floor to a cushy bed and soft pillows).
  • Eschewing wealth; discarding 90% of all monetary treasure (giving it away, blowing it in taverns/brothels, etc.), and never retaining more than can be carried on one's person and/or horse. Equipment purchased must be of the most practical type: no fancy clothes, decorative armor, etc. Most fantasy barbarians (either sex) never bother wearing pants.
  • Maintain a healthy respect and distance for enchantments; never possessing more magic items than the character has hit dice (so maximum of nine at levels 9+).
  • Display nothing but contempt for the decadence of civilized folks: sneer at their pointless politics, their indulgent foods, their polite manners. Character should be forthright and blunt in interactions and avoid slyness and dishonesty. 
  • Your character's word is his/her bond. Never break an oath.
This issue provides a good model
in the erosion of "barbaric virtue."
So long as the character abides by these restrictions, her barbaric edge is only lost every two levels gained (so at 3rd level, 5th level, 7th, etc.). No spartan lifestyle can completely halt the erosion of one's edge!

[if a character "falls off the barbarian wagon," she may jump back on upon reaching a new level of experience...i.e. after losing one edge at the standard reconsidering her decadent life and "getting back to her roots" (vowing to follow all strictures). However, only one such attempt at "atonement" is allowed...if the character succumbs to the temptations of civilized life a second time, there's no third chance!]

All right...we now return to our self-imposed silence. Shhhh...
: )


  1. This is an interesting take on the barbarian. I like it. In essence a barbarian is just a person raised differently. And I like how you implement the softening effects of civilization.

    1. @ M:

      Thanks. Credit to Mr. Slater for the inspiration.
      : )

  2. Cool. Clipped for future reference.