Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Barbarian Alternative

Of course, I realize AFTER posting my barbarian rant I realized I had already posted my own B/X version of the barbarian. Obviously, Blogging & Beer don’t always mix.

Well, in defense of my reverse stance on barbarians, I will say that PREVIOUSLY I was caught up “in the moment” when everyone was high on Pat’s excellent B/X Sword & Sorcery mix. However, even in B/X there’s very little reason to have a barbarian “class.” For reasons already cited, I feel that “barbaric” is a descriptive term that is easily applied to any of the original archetypal classes, and a barbaric fighter makes a fine “barbarian.”

That being said, the REAL REASON for my barbarian rant was as prelude to THIS post wherein I give an alternative class that, while perhaps non-archetypal, doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else.

The Beastmaster.

Now I’m sure plenty of you are rolling your eyes and recalling Marc Singer’s bronzed perfection and vapid/obtuse face from the 1982 film, but give me a moment or two to make my case.

Yes, I too have seen the (TBS Beloved) film about a hundred times on television, and Singer makes me wince a way Schwarzenegger never did (at least in the original Conan the Barbarian). But the story is pure fantasy…there’s no “real world” equivalent of the places or cultures in the film and the thing could easily be translated as a straight D&D adventure (with about as much “story” as usually comes from such adventures; i.e. not much), including the “dungeon setting” (temple) that the title character has to navigate towards the end of the movie.

Characters that communicate with beasts and birds…and who use those alliances to overcome obstacles…are nothing new in fantasy literature or film. Tarzan is, of course, the ultimate “beast master” character, and Sheena: Queen of the Jungle is his female counterpart. But other characters with animal buddies can act as inspirations for a beast master character from Kipling’s Mowgli to James Silk’s version of Frazetta’s Death Dealer.

Would Disney’s Cinderella or Snow White be considered beast masters? Quite possibly…and it doesn’t get much more fairy tale than that.

Unlike the barbarian, there’s really no archetypal equivalent of the beastmaster in D&D as written. Hmm, I may need to elaborate a bit so you folks know exactly where I’m coming from.


The “barbarian” ALREADY has an archetype in D&D. It is called The Fighter. Not true, say some, the barbarian class of AD&D provides better hit points, freebie bonuses, class restrictions, and a number of “skills,” none of which are possessed by the fighter class. HOWEVER:

- Inflating hit dice or additional ability bonuses are not a “change of archetype.” They’re simply “grade inflation.” If you want every barbarian to have a huge number of hit points & cat-like grace say “your fighter needs a DEX and CON of 13+ (or 16+) to be considered a barbarian.”

- Class restrictions are artificial impositions that can be placed on any character class by any player. The DM can say, “To be considered a true ‘barbarian,’ you may not wear armor heavier than X.” Alternatively, the DM could say, “To be considered a true ‘barbarian,’ you may not start with more than X gold at 1st level.”

- Skills? Skills?! This is D&D, not D20! Characters have ability scores, and per B/X, ANY character can try to climb a rough, rock wall with an ability check. If you want to climb a sheer surface, play a thief. It’s not like there are giant sheets of marble for ‘barbarians’ to practice on “in the wild.” Don’t be ridiculous.

[by the way, the same thing goes double for the Cavalier class. There is already a cavalier archetype in D&D. It is called The Fighter. Write your OWN “Code,” folks!]

That being said, there’s NO equivalent of the beast master, despite the character’s presence in fantasy fiction. Yes, a high level cleric can “speak with animals”…but a beast master is NOT a cleric. They’re usually scantily armored (hello, Marc Singer!). They don’t have any truck with the undead. They don’t “pray” or “worship” (most appear to be fairly animistic if anything). Often, they use edged weapons (knives and spears). They aren’t granted other spells by a deity.

But really it IS the communication with animals that truly sets the beast master apart from other characters. The beast master doesn’t cast study or cast spells; hell, they can get by being illiterate pretty easily. But the ability to speak with animals AT WILL, and be listened to and gain the trust and friendship of animals…now that really is a special attribute of the beast master “class” that is unavailable to any other class.

So now we really come down to it: what the hell got me thinking about the beast master in the first place? Well, the Compleat Adventurer, of course. Of all the character classes in the book it is, interestingly enough, the beastmaster class that I’ve always remembered (its presence and its accompanying illustration) all these years. While we never had a “beast master” back in our old campaign, this is the kind of character that WOULD HAVE fit right in with the house-ruled weirdness we did have!

Not that I’m totally satisfied with the beastmaster class as written in the CA. It’s a little too convoluted and “record-keepy” for my taste; though it would be about on par with your standard AD&D character class (no more than, say, the assassin or monk). But AD&D, while definitely my “first love” in RPGs, is a game I’m no longer interested in playing, and so I’ll have to do some condensing and tightening to make it fit for my preferred B/X play.

Hmmm…level titles will be tricky. I don’t want to get stuck with terms like “man-cub” or “monkey boy.” I suppose I should read Burroughs to get some more flattering ideas for a beastmaster character class.

; )


  1. I actually did my own stripped-down version of the Beast Master idea a while back. It depends on my stripped-down base classes,, but you could fake it in B/X by taking the cleric, changing fighting capability/hit dice to those of fighters, dropping spells, and using "turn undead" to command animals instead.

  2. Man! I was JUST talking about hacking a beastmaster class for our B/X game. Looking forward to your thoughs and writeup.

    This took me towards was another classic archetype flawlessly represented in early 80's telefiction - MANIMAL. Perfect for B/X as it's really neither race nor class.

    With either one you can certainly put in lots of flavor, but I think the challenge for B/X (as you point out) is to build solid mechanics and let the player add their own spices.

  3. There's a Beast Master class for Swords and Wizardry: