Thursday, September 2, 2010

Barbarians & Fighters (yeah, this again)

AKA Making Your Game More Fiddly
AKA The Great Hit Point Debate

Boy, I sure do blog a lot about barbarians for a guy who (historically speaking) hasn’t liked ‘em, hasn’t used ‘em, and haven’t played ‘em. I am sorry for grinding the same axe AGAIN but I keep going back and forth on the subject in my head. And now that I’m working on my book, I once again find myself looking at the subject and flipping back into the category of “barbarians need their own class.”

Ugh! The problem really is a two-fold one.

Problema Numero Uno: Give the fighters their due.

Fighters in B/X play have a limited number of advantages. They can use any weapon and armor. They use D8s for hit dice. Their attack chance and saves progress faster than other classes. They go to level 36. At high levels, they may make multiple attacks.

Barbarians (who would also be human and so should ALSO go to level 36 for the sake of design consistency) have historically owned the abilities of fighters PLUS possessed other additional advantages. This was balanced out by giving fighters additional abilities (weapon specialization in AD&D, bonus feats in D20) or by making pre requisite restrictions and slower advancement (AD&D only).

Now requisite restriction and slow advancement is a 0 incentive to play a fighter over a barbarian. Leaving aside the fact that many people aren’t running long term campaigns anyway (one-shots and pre-gens for limited sessions has been all I’ve seen), at the higher levels, the rate of advancement tends to even out anyway. And pre-reqs can always be fudged (“just roll until you’ve got ability scores you want to play”).

As for ADDING special abilities to the fighter: no. Flat no. A fighter fights…those are his abilities and advantages. I’m not going to institute a whole class or feat or weapon proficiency system into B/X JUST SO THE FIGHTER DOESN’T SUCK IN COMPARISON TO THE BARBARIAN. That’s f’ing ridiculous. Jesus!

Anyway that’s #1.

Problema Numero Dos: Friggin’ Howard and Leiber.

Nevermind the imitators (including James Silke’s literary version of Frazetta’s Death Dealer). Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber created two extremely noteworthy “barbarians;” each one exceptionally worthy of “adventurer status” in any D&D game. Hell, they’re practically the archetype adventurers.

Conan and Fafhrd

While both Conan and Fafhrd have the trademarks of standard fighting men, they share several abilities that are NOT standard to the D&D fighter class.

- Heightened senses, generally attributed to a non-civilized upbringing
- Climbing ability (again learned in the wilds) that translates directly to action unobtainable by lesser men…Mouser can match Fafhrd but he is, after all, the archetypal thief
- An ability to track and sense direction in the wilderness
- An ability to move faster and/or with more stealth than “civilized men”

Other abilities…such as their robust stamina, great strength, and catlike reflexes I attribute to normal ability scores and character advancement. Obviously these guys have a high Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, as well as a good number of hit points and several levels of fighting ability. These things don’t have to be modeled in a barbarian class, per se. They’re already modeled in the game (Howard and Leiber just “rolled up” exceptional characters). But the other abilities are new and would appear to need modeling.

That’s problem #2.

See the conflict? The “heroic barbarian” archetype of literature requires a few “extras” that distinguish it from the typical human fighting man. However, stacking those “extras” on top of a fighter’s ability fails to give the fighter his due…it upstages him, over-shadows him. Why would anyone want a fighter when they could play a badass barbarian instead?

So it comes to this…basically, I am working on my 3rd (4th? Maybe…) attempt at creating a B/X Barbarian. Maybe I should leave well enough alone, but so far I’ve been un-satisfied with the results of…well, with all my prior attempts to date. Here’s what I’m considering:

A) Barbarians are a Class (i.e. classification) of humans…like fighters, clerics, and thieves. As an ambitious, adaptable human, barbarians may reach 36th level (so no, no knock-offs of the dwarf or halfling class).

B) Barbarians have the same ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, Constitution) as any other adventuring class and there are no pre-set restrictions (for example, barbarians don’t have to be illiterate unless they have a low Intelligence…like any other class). Like all B/X classes, they have one or two Prime Requisites; they also have minimal requirements to choose the class (probably Constitution 9). You can have scrawny, malnourished barbarians or fat and clumsy barbarians.

C) Barbarians are NOT fighters: they have some additional abilities not available to the standard fighting man.

D) Barbarians are NOT fighters (redux); fighters fight and are the best at it over the long haul.

For the most part this early stab (or maybe I should say “axe swing”) at the class was…well, it was okay. The problem I have with it is over the long haul the barbarian’s hit points (D6 up to level 9, +3 hps per level after Name level) far outstrip any other class, including the fighter.

Recall my perspective on hit points? An abstract measure of how much DAMAGE a character can absorb…not just physical punishment, but combat prowess, endurance, luck, and canny fighting ability?

It appears to me that fighters and monsters (including, yes, the beastmaster) should own this category. At least over time.

But at low levels? Well, the young barbarian is a fairly fit and robust specimen of human, able to give any low-level fighter a run for his (or her) money. At the higher levels, yes, the fighter has “seen it all” and the canny vet knows the best way to spit the charging bull before he himself feels the axe bite. But that’s in the future…when the barbarian’s harsh lifestyle starts catching up with him (the savage life is nothing if not short and brutish).

Here’s what I’m thinking:

Barbarians roll D10 for hit dice up to 9th level, and then add +1 hit point per level thereafter. All other things being comparable, the barbarian will have better hit points than any other class up to level 17, equaled by fighters at 18, and surpassed by fighters at 19. Master thieves will equal their hit point average at level 36 (only) and clerics and magic-users will never come close.

Heck, it’s even reminiscent of AD&D and D20…where barbarian hit dice are one class up from fighters (D8 to D10, though, as opposed to D10 to D12). The difference is that HERE the pure fighter will grow to out-class the brute over the long haul.

Damn that arthritis from sleeping outdoors!

[having said all THAT, I am thinking of upping the Beastmaster hit point bonus from +2 to +3 per level after 9th. Why? Well, remember that the beastmaster uses D8 hit dice just like any other B/X monster…I don’t really want to up the hit dice type. On the same hand, Tarzan-ish beastmasters don’t wear armor…the hit points, representing his (or her) innate toughness and grace in combat is the beastmaster’s MAIN DEFENSE…and they are hand-to-hand combatants for the most part (Prime Requisite: Strength). Unlike a barbarian, I don’t think there’s any chance of a beastmaster out-classing a high level fighter, given the latter’s superior defenses and multiple attacks…in the end the beastmaster is, for all practical purposes, another humanoid monster to be put down by the fighter’s axe and blade]


  1. - Heightened senses, generally attributed to a non-civilized upbringing
    - Climbing ability (again learned in the wilds) that translates directly to action unobtainable by lesser men…Mouser can match Fafhrd but he is, after all, the archetypal thief
    - An ability to track and sense direction in the wilderness
    - An ability to move faster and/or with more stealth than “civilized men”

    So, Barbarians are Rangers?

    How are Fafrhd and Conan different from Aragorn?

    Barbarian as a class is superfluous. Just make a simple add-on "background" chart (or character options or *gasp* skill list to define the main classes).

    Because you're right about the default being the Fighter.

  2. I think your underestimating the cost of the class in terms of experience point requirement in Unearthed Arcana. It was, if I recall correctly, DOUBLE what most standard classes were and that never balanced out as the barbarian would always lag behind the rest of the adventuring party.

    At least in my experience. Then again Druids and Theives were always at the top level and 2nd edition giving specialty priest the druid advancement table lead to those bastiches always being at the higher tiers at first.

  3. @ The Myth:

    Rangers = spells, bonuses versus giant class, good alignment to maintain class abilities.

    None of that applies to Fafhrd or Conan.

    @ Joe:

    Again, it only comes into play in long term campaigns...and even there some people play fast and loose with advancement mechanics. To me, XP as a penalty is a non-incentive to play an "easy advancement" class.

  4. I put my "sleep spell" length examination of this topic over at: