Friday, January 20, 2017

Breaking Down Barbarians    

As I discussed in my last post, Skills & Powers was an attempt to break down ability scores, races, and character classes into component parts, so that players could customize their characters more easily.  I think that this was a good idea, but poorly executed.  My goal is to try to do this in a way that is easier for the player (especially new players), preserves game balance, and offers useful tools to the gamemaster.

Let's start with barbarians.  There was a piece of art in Second Edition D&D that started me on my love of barbarians, despite the many flaws inherent in the character type.  It's by Jeff Easley, but he doesn't have a copy of it on his website.  I don't have permission to use it, but you can see it here.  It shows a muscular female barbarian grabbing an ogre-like monster by its nose ring, with her sword drawn.  Beside it, you can see that she has already sliced up the ogre's spiked club and shield.  At the time, it was a relatively unprecedented gender-flip of a very traditional image, down to the Conan loincloth, the Rambo headband, and the curly mullet hairstyle.  Barbarian started out as just a kit in Second Edition, although it was later made into a full class.  But it wasn't until Third Edition that barbarians really started to shine.

In Third Edition, barbarians were designed to be front-line fighters whose Rage ability gave them temporary bonuses in combat.  From a game design point-of-view, this was the first fighter type of character to have time-limited abilities.  Whereas before you could divide the party into "people who can do things all the time" and "people who can do things a certain number of times a day," and all the fighters were in the first half, barbarians were now in the second half.  The reasoning behind this is that Third Edition used a system of encounter-based balance to track party resources.  A party's resources included each character's hit points, but also the spells and abilities that were limited in use to a certain number of times per day.  The Challenge Rating (CR) system would rate each encounter or monster with a number that could be directly translated into the percentage of party resources that encounter was expected to expend.  This was great for gamemasters, because they could plan out encounters, knowing at about what time the group was going to have to rest or go back to town to restore their resources.

In Pathfinder, barbarians are still focused around their rage abilities.  However, there are several barbarian archetypes who do not rage, replacing that ability with a different one.  And, of course, all of the other barbarian abilities are also replaced by alternate ones in the many archetypes available to barbarians.  One problem with the class archetype system is, it is very hard to guess which abilities will be replaced with which!  There is no point value set to each individual class ability (nor am I suggesting that there should be).  Instead, it is done on an more crafted basis.  What this means, in practice, is that I might have to read through many, many archetypes in order to get the combination of abilities that works for my character.  Even then, I might have to take an archetype that doesn't really fit, because it is the closest thing I can find.

What I would like to do is to break barbarians down into a few large core components that can be swapped out easily, and without disruption to game balance.  Part of the challenge will be to balance out starting abilities from those that the class only gains access to at later levels.  Otherwise it will be too easy to select only from components that are "front loaded."  Fortunately, this is a problem that Pathfinder has addressed, somewhat, based on feedback from Third Edition D&D.  Because you could multiclass freely, many folks took the opportunity to take a single level of a "front loaded" character, such as the rogue, in Third Edition, before taking all the rest of their levels in a different class.  Pathfinder was written with awareness of that problem, and this should help us in our goal.


There are a lot of theories about historical berserkers, but they are generally associated with a warrior taking on the mystical aspect of an animal (a bear, a boar, or a wolf), and wearing the pelt of this animal instead of armor.  This signified that they were as a wild beast on the field, attacking anyone around them without mercy, and heedless of their own defense.  This inspiration is clearly at the forefront of the barbarian class.  Thus, berserker is the aspect of barbarians that focuses on rage in combat.

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Berserker component (number indicates approximate levels at which it is gained):
  • non-lawful class requirement
  • Intimidate class skill (1)
  • high base attack progression
  • rage and associated rage powers and abilities (1-20)
As it stands, this component is very powerful, and fairly well spread out throughout levels one through twenty.


Barbarians are described as living out in the wild and being uncivilized.  This aspect follows the root of the word "barbarian" itself, as a cultural slur against a group that you believe is less civilized or worthy than your own culture.  Obviously, there are a lot of problematic things about using the word barbarian to describe people who, in the real world, would bear the most resemblance to indigenous tribes.  We can mitigate this a bit by focusing on barbarians as living apart from any culture.  Like someone from any sort of civilized society who abandons it to go and live in the forest, barbarians live alone in the wilderness by choice, not by nature or nurture (both of which are tied to heritage, and not character class). 

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Survivalist component: 
  • Climb, Craft, Handle Animal, Knowledge (nature), Perception, Ride, Survival, and Swim class skills (1)
  • increased Fortitude save (1-20)
As it stands, this component is front loaded, and significantly less powerful over the course of time than Berserker.


Another focus of barbarians is their speed (fast movement), as well as their ability to move freely around the battlefield (acrobatics), and dodge out of the way of danger (uncanny dodge).  This fits the profile of a warrior who is likely going to be wearing little or no armor.  The Reflex and dodge bonuses granted by trap sense would also fit well into this component of barbarians.

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Agile component: 
  • Acrobatics, Climb, and Ride class skills (1)
  • fast movement (1)
  • uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge (2, 5)
  • trap sense (3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18)
As it stands, this component is front loaded for the first levels, but tapers off in usefulness very quickly after level 5.


The fact that barbarians gain d12 hit points is a big part of their draw.  Other abilities also play up the nigh-invulnerable nature of these warriors.  Which is certainly something that they need, since they are often on the front-line and often unarmored.  In later levels, barbarians gain damage reduction to further increase their ability to ignore being damaged.

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Tough component: 
  • 1d12 hit dice (1-20)
  • increased Fortitude save (1-20)
  • damage reduction (7, 10, 13, 16, 19)
As it stands, this component is fairly well balanced throughout the levels, but still not as powerful as Berserker.  Also, it lacks the interest and specificity of the other three components.

In my next post, I'll talk more about how to use these components, what might need to be changed, and how components can be used to create archetypes more easily!

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