"I would like to Rage."
- – every barbarian player ever
"Barbaric rage and unrelenting savagery make for a powerful ally."
Barbarian characters have been a staple of fantasy at least since Conan the Barbarian (ie. since the beginning) as "noble savages" (to a varying degree of "noble") who impress with their might and courage. Today, barbarians in fantasy retain this image of a savage warrior, clad in simple or primitive clothing that rely more on brute strength and chaotic violence than any precise fighting style or cunning. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a barbarian with more than 10 INT in D&D ? Derp.
The term "barbarian" comes from the ancient Greek βαρβαροί or "Barbaroi," and is used to designate an uncivilised person or a person of an inferior culture. In reality, practically all foreigners or those who did not speak Greek were deemed to be "barbaros" and sometimes the term was used even for Greeks from other states. Later on, the term was picked up by the Romans and used to designate anyone who could beat them reliably in a fight and wasn't a rival empire or another Roman army; it is particularly associated with the migrating tribes that ultimately conquered them during the dark ages and after that it referred to Goths and Vikings more specifically. In the pre-modern Chinese view of the world, there was the "Middle Kingdom" (China itself), the center of human civilization which was surrounded by Barbarians which got more barbaric the further away you got from China.
Barbarians are usually the subjects of the best fantasy movies. Conan the Barbarian and The Barbarians, as well as Fire and Ice, are excellent examples of awesome, cheesiness, and awesomeness and gayness, respectively.
Barbarians in D&D
The very first Barbarian appeared in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition, in the Unearthed Arcana splatbook. Here, it was a variant Fighter who had a background in a primitive culture; as a result, they have certain abilities (some shared with the Ranger, such as wilderness survival, others unique), but also very strict penalties against using magical items or associating with wizards. This mark 1 barbarian has a D12 hit dice and better saves than the fighter; it can also Climb Walls as per a thief of the same level, as an increased ability to surprise foes (3 in 6, or 4 in 6 in familiar territory) or resist being surprised (90% resistance, 95% in familiar territory), has a 5% per level chance of nullifying a Backstab, has increased jumping abilities, has a 5% chance per level of Detecting Illusion (maxes at 75%), a 25% (+5% per level) chance of Detecting Magic (maxes at 90%), and access to the Ranger abilities of Survival, First Aid, Outdoor Craft, and Tracking. Plus potentially access to regional skills such as animal handling, horsemanship, running, handling small boats and imitating animal calls. Also, depending on their level, they can strike creatures normally vulnerable only to enchanted weapons of a specific potency; starting at "can hit +1" from level 4 and increasing by +1 every two levels thereafter, a level 6 barbarian for example can hurt creatures normally resistant to anything less than a +2 weapon, whilst level 12 barbarians can hurt anything that normally needs a +5 weapon.
The downside? They cannot use ANY magical items at 1st level, and in fact are actually compelled to destroy them if possible. As they reach certain levels, they gain access to magical items (starting with potions at level 2 and culminating at "most magic items available to fighters" at level 10), and no longer need to destroy those items, but, shockingly, most parties didn't seem to want to keep them around in the time it took to reach those thresholds. Gee, I wonder why someone literally compelled to smash loot in an edition built around looting might be unpopular?
The next version of the Barbarian was as one of the kits seen in the Complete Fighter's Handbook. This is a kit restricted to fighters with Strength 15+, and all it does is add a +3 bonus (or -3 penalty) to reaction rolls. It was, frankly, rather stupid and nobody ever bothered with it.
The Unearthed Arcana barbarian would return in 2e with the Complete Barbarian's Handbook, alongside the Shaman, a kind of barbarian cleric. This version lost most of its 1e powers, retaining only the D12 hit dice, the enhanced leaping/climbing affinities, and the backstab resistance. It also gained the ability to dual-wield weapons, and far less stringent restrictions on magical weapon use or associating with spellcasters. It also double-downed on the idea that Barbarians hail from pre-Iron Age cultures, and included various kits based on those cultures.
Ultimately, the AD&D barbarian was not very well received, and might have passed forgotten into history...
But for the debut of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Like the Sorcerer, the Barbarian of D&D fame is a true child of 3e. Everything that is viewed as iconic about the barbarian? Was invented by 3e, for 3e. They get d12 hit points, uncanny dodge, illiteracy, damage reduction and can fly into a rage for some stat bonuses at the expense of AC and passes out when the fight is done. Until you get Tireless Rage, dip into Horizon Walker or a billion other solutions past core. Notably, it was this incarnation of the barbarian that was back-adapted into 2e for Baldur's Gate.
Barbarian was changed a bit in the transition from 3rd Edition to 3.5. There Barbarian lost all their "empty" levels by gaining Trap Sense and Damage Reduction. While trap sense is normally considered super lame and Damage Reduction advances too slow to be meaningful, this does make Barbarians have zero empty levels. Alongside Ranger (who gained abilities other than superracism), Barbarian is easily the class that benefited the most from the transition from a strict look at the class themselves, but the introduction of Natural Spell puts Druid far ahead of it.
While Rage does scale, it does so quite slowly, and while they have no dead levels, the class features they get aren't very good. This and them losing their illiteracy if they multiclass makes them quite viable as a Dip Class or entry to Prestige Classes. In core only, Horizon Walker grants immunity to fatigue with a one level dip. One prestige class designed for them was Frenzied Berserker, which unfortunately causes you to lose control of your character and potentially kill the party. Bear Warrior is a much better Barbarian focused prestige class, which lets you get so angry you turn into a bear.
Barbarian is considered a tier 4. They are very good at smashing things in melee, and have some wilderness/physical skills that help a bit when that's not applicable, but are quite easy to shut down with some pretty basic challenges, like a monster that isn't just a grounded wall of meat (like one that can fly or turn invisible), can't do much beyond direct HP damage (or tripping if specialized in it) and their skills are only an accessory.
A lot like 3.5 barbarians, with the loss of illiteracy (unless your archetype forbids reading), the addition of more trap sense (pfffffff), a "rounds of rage per day" mechanic that went up with level and constitution modifier (good thing, unless you were dipping barbarian) and, the major new feature and draw, rage powers.
That's right, every two levels your barbarian bro learns a new way that getting really fucking angry can give him superpowers. These powers range from the useful (making combat maneuvers in place of regular attacks) to the impractically awesome (beating an opponent with another opponent) to the outright supernatural (sprouting claws and horns before gaining a pounce attack) to the hilarious (gaining big bonuses on swim checks)... That last one makes sense mechanically (rage buff strength, after all, and strength is the stat used in swim tests), but the mental image is never not funny. ("FUCK YOU WATER! WRAAAAAAAAGH!")
It's not necessarily top-tier, though it may be the best among its fellow beatstick classes, and it's certainly fun as hell and much more customizable than before. It's still tier 4, but the skill compression and rage powers make them more versatile. Lost a lot of its draw in 2014 when the Bloodrager class was released. Why play a guy who fights by getting angry when you can play a guy who fights by getting angry, grows claws, wings, and fangs when he gets angry, and can cast spells like a weak sorcerer? Shoot, with the "this really shouldn't exist" Primalist archetype, you can even get enough rage powers to make it practically obsolete (though practically everyone knows this to be utterly fucking cheese and thus refrain from using it). The only draws left are basically the few archetypes that can do things it can't, like the Invulnerable Rager for Damage Reduction shenanigans. Also the Bloodrager's rage is classed as a supernatural(Su) ability and so is affected by anti-magic. Whether it some how stops him being angry all together or just cancels the magical effects is down the GM. The PF Barbarian is also the foundation for Wrassle Baba, the D&D equivalent of Brock Lesnar.
Pathfinder Unchained offered a revision to the barbarian, introducing a rage that wasn't so dependent on stats (so now you get +2 to melee attack/melee damage/thrown damage/Will and +2 THP/HD to prevent death once rage runs out and your HP drops with your Constitution) and a few reworded rage powers. It was largely considered a sidegrade at best and a mild downgrade at worst since it lost out on all archetypes RAW. But it at least made it harder for you to instantly drop dead the second your rage ends at higher levels.
4th edition initially left the Barbarian out of the game, one of the many things that triggered a kneejerk fa/tg/uy Raeg, whilst the designers tried to give it a more solid identity than just "Fighter who gets really angry".
Their decision? To tie it into the new mystical power group on the block; the Primal Spirits. Barbarians now mechanically emphasized their distinct culture background by having a certain level of affinity for primal magic, which mostly manifested through a deep, instinctive connection to totemic or guardian spirits. By allowing these spirits to partially merge with them, the Barbarian could carry out feats of superhuman prowess. But, unlike the similarly themed newcomer class, the Warden, the 4e Barbarian was more of a Martial/Primal hybrid; the bulk of its powers still relied on its combination of distinctly ferocious fighting style and the ability to tap into a "primitive" wellspring of feral vitality and brutish prowess, thematically very close to Conan and his "savagery-bestowed" might. Only the Daily powers, the Rages, were distinctly magical in nature, as it was in this state of primordial ecstasy that a Barbarian could open itself up to let a spirit channel its magic through their veins. Or, if they didn't want to be magical at all, they had a class feature called Rage Strike, which let them burn unused Daily powers with the Rage keyword to make a perfectly mundane (just really, really hard) blow.
Thus, Barbarians made their triumphant return in the Player's Handbook 2 and were surprisingly welcomed.
Like all 4e classes, Barbarians have a precursor to 5e's subclass system. For them, it's the class feature "Feral Might", which is more or less their particular fighting style, granting them a bonus Encounter power and bonuses to certain appropriate attacks. 4 Feral Might branches were ultimately released; Rageblood Vigor & Thaneborn Triumph in the PHB2, and the Thunderborn Wrath & Whirling Slayer in Primal Power.
- Rageblood Vigor gives you "old school" barbarians; they charge into battle headlong and rely on rage to weather the counterattacks as they kill shit. Their bonus power is Swift Charge (instant charge once a bitch dies), and they gain temporary hit points whenever they drop an enemy with their attacks.
- Thaneborn Triumph allows for "chieftain"-flavored barbarians; they dabble a little in the Leader role, as they work particularly well with others and specialize in Charisma. Their bonus power is the Roar of Triumph, which lets them penalize nearby enemy defenses once per encounter after killing an enemy, and their class feature is that enemies they bloody grant an attack roll bonus to the next attack against them made by either the barbarian or one of his allies.
- Thunderborn Wrath gives the most overtly magical barbarian subclass, with fluff about how their battle cries are so awesome, spirits of thunder follow them and join in whenever the barbarian starts hollering. They do bonus thunder damage to each adjacent enemy whenever they bloody an enemy, and their War Cry is like the Thaneborn's Roar of Triumph, except that it pushes instead of dropping defenses.
- Whirling Slayer permits dual-wielder barbarians who rely on mobility more than other barbarians, lashing out in all directions and skipping away from retaliation blows, which their class feature and their Whirling Lunge power supports.
The Essentials subclass for the Barbarian, the Berserker, was released in "Heroes of the Feywild". Overtly called a part-Martial Striker/Defender (in contrast to the Barbarian being pure Striker), it basically dropped the rages to focus on purely mundane attacks based on being tougher, stronger and quicker than a "civilised" man... you know, the same shit Barbarians could already do if you wanted to play them that way?
Barbarians in 5th edition D&D are largely unchanged from 3.5 barbarians, except their rages are better. While raging they get resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage, damage bonuses and advantage on strength checks, including athletics for wrestling people down. Barbarians can add their Con bonus to AC if they don't wear armor, meaning that you can now be a truly manly berserker and charge into battle without a shirt on, all the while having the AC of a knight in full-plate as enemy blades bounce off your manly abs. Their rage only applies to melee attacks now, though, so bows are less viable than previous editions. Barbarians have the easiest advantage generators in the whole game with Reckless Attack, which makes them the best class for great weapon master feat, offsetting that -5 to hit for massive massive damage. As they level up Barbarians get simple but powerful abilities, like increased movement speed, stronger criticals and ability to not die when they are killed. Oh, and they are also the only class that gets to go over the hardcap of 20 for Strength and Constitution, gaining +4 to both at level 20.
The Class Feature Variants UA gave Barbarians two benefits: Survival Instincts gave them double proficiency in two skills out of the gate, but cost them Danger Sense, and Instinctive Pounce replaced the default speed boost with the power to immediately walk up to half their speed in response to an enemy moving closer. Come Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, both of these got reworked so as to not replace actually vital features, a major plus. They now gain proficiency in an additional skill (from what they could take at creation) at levels 3 and 10, and level 7 grants them the ability to immediately move the moment they rage.
They also seem to be WotC's favorite target for weird subclass ideas called "Primal Paths":
- Path of the Berserker turns the Barbarian into a rage warrior of death. Compared to the other subclasses, it has more thematic similarities with early editions.
- Their first subclass feature is Frenzy, which can be used when entering rage to gain a bonus attack each turn for the rest of the rage. Besides the boost in damage, it also doesn't need the Attack action to be taken (unlike other sources of bonus attacks like Two-Weapon Fighting or feats), letting you Dash, Dodge, chug potions, etc. and then attack in the same turn. Any Barbarian's rage will end early if a turn passes without attacking or taking damage, so Frenzy's bonus attack maintains rage while freeing up your main action. The other unique part of Frenzy is that instead of being limited to 1/long rest it's tied to levels of exhaustion (an obvious nod to how rage in previous editions ended with fatigue and possibly at negative HP). Exhaustion level 1 isn't a big deal for Barbarians so they'll usually Frenzy once per long rest, but if the situation gets really dire you can Frenzy multiple times and increasingly overtax yourself; just remember that you'll be feeling it for a few days.
- They also gain immunity to charm/fright while raging (a nod to how rage in 3e gave a bonus to Will saves), Intimidating Presence (basically a single-target version of the fear spell), and Retaliation which lets them immediately strike back after being hit. Combined with Frenzy this adds up to a possible 4 attacks per round at level 14, all with advantage and enhanced criticals, without taking feats. All in all, this Path is a single-minded killing machine with no regard for defense.
- Path of the Totem Warrior grants abilities based on the selected totem spirit. It also gives you ritual-only spells to communicate with animals and to summon one of the spirits for information about the area. You can pick from the different totem spirits 3 times total, and each totem gives a different benefit based on whether you selected it first, second, or last, as shown in order below:
- Wolf is the pack-hunter one, giving advantage to your friends when you are surrounding your enemy, better tracking and stealth during travels, and the ability to knock enemies prone instantly after hitting them.
- Bear is the tanky one, making you resistant to all damage (minus psychic, because GET OUT OF MY HEAD, CHARLES), making you better at pushing and carrying stuff, and forcing enemies to focus fire on you while raging. Bear totem barbarian is pretty much the default barbarian tank.
- Eagle has the best utility ones, giving you a bonus-action dash and making opportunity attacks less likely to hit you, eagle vision (you can literally see something a mile away without a problem) and eventually allowing the barbarian to fly while raging... but not allowing him to stay in the air after his turn. So essentially, it's just the ability to jump your speed and change direction midair whilst raging.
- Elk is a weird set of mobility powers that makes you move faster while raging, makes your group faster when traveling distances together, and lets you run people over while raging.
- Tiger lets you jump better, skillmonkey a bit and eventually pounce on a target with an additional attack. Not great on its own, but if you're mix-and-matching, some of the powers aren't bad trades. Getting a couple extra skills is never a bad investment, for instance.
- Path of the Battlerager, named after a temp-HP-gaining Fighter subclass, actually borrows its lore from a special order of dwarf barbarians in the Drizzt novels, and so is a heavily armored barbarian who wears massively spiky armor and basically specializes in hurling himself blindly into the fray so he can use his armor to rip 'n' tear people whilst he rages. With an extra attack per round (admittedly an unarmed strike, but 1d4 plus modifiers is still a buncha damage when you're a barbarian) and bunches of temporary hitpoints to offset Reckless Attack whenever you use it, the main downside is that your powers only work when you're wearing a very-specific suit of very-mediocre armor.
- Path of the Ancestral Guardian is able to commune with/summon its ancestral spirits while raging (meaning that if you are a dragonborn you can summon the ghost of a dead dragon), giving it overtones of the Shaman from 4e. Don't be fooled, though; this is the tanking subclass. At 3rd level, as the Ancestral Protectors, they can distract any enemy you hit while raging, imposing disadvantage and halved damage on attacks not targeting yourself. At 6th level, upgrading to Spirit Shield, the spirits can use your reaction in response to a nearby creature taking damage and reduce the damage. At 10th level, you can Consult the Spirits once per short/long rest to cast augury or clairvoyance without spell slots or materials. Finally, at 14th level, the Vengeful Ancestors can react to someone hitting an ally by beating the shit out of them, inflicting force damage equal to the amount of damage prevented by Spirit Shield.
- Path of the Storm Herald, meanwhile, has a little in common with certain Rage Powers from the 4e Barbarian, in that it's a barbarian who taps into primal magic while raging to cloak itself in a shield of elemental energy. You need to pick whether your storm comes from the Desert, Sea, or Tundra at 3rd level, which determines what sort of benefits you get whilst raging. Your aura starts off by inflicting fire damage to everyone in your aura, zapping one target with lightning, or giving temp HP to nearby allies, respectively. These effects can be reactivated as a bonus action during rage. Later your choice gives you fire resistance, lightning resistance and water breathing, or cold resistance, at all times. At 10th level your aura extends that resistance to your allies, and finally it gains more powers to use against foes, dealing fire damage, knocking down a target, or freezing it in place. Two of the auras require saves every turn for middling damage, which means that this subclass can slow down a game something fierce.
- Path of the Zealot can be summed up as "holy berserker of the gods/Khorne Berserker", but can be refluffed into more of a necromantic Bloodrager type; the crunch can be summed up as the "MAN LITERALLY TOO ANGRY TO DIE" meme made manifest. It inflicts extra necrotic or radiant damage (chosen when you gain this feature) to the first target you hit on your turn, allows you to be resurrected without burning through those expensive diamonds, can choose to re-roll a failed saving throw once per rage, can unleash an inspiring battle cry once per long rest, and can keep you fighting at 0 hit points so long as you're raging. It's recommended to yell about spending your blood willingly and your god blessing your ravaged body while you rage.
- Path of the Wild Soul is basically the first official 5e Bloodrager. These guys have access to a pool of wild magic when they rage, which results in them gaining overtly magical effects to their raging rather than being able to rage and cast spells. A Wild Soul Barbarian can Detect Magic Constitution modifier times per day and gains one of eight random wild magic auras when it rages, from 6th level can grant spellcasters a random spell slot or grant a small bonus to any rolls for everyone else, from 10th level can re-roll which wild magic aura they get whenever they get hurt, and from 14th level can roll their magic aura twice and pick the most favorable one.
- Path of the Beast is basically a shamanic simulation of lycanthropy - less potent but with no side effects like uncontrollable frenzy. Beast barbarians transform into half-animal monstrosities when raging, growing natural weapons, choosing each time for great flexibility:
- Snapping jaws or giant mandibles to bite people with, which actually lets them heal a bit if they damage their target. The healing is rather small, but over the course of battle it adds up to quite a lot. Great for tanking at early levels, almost on par with Bear Totem, although later that healing drops off compared to the level of damage you take.
- Claws on hands that grant one extra attack. Not extra attack as a bonus action, just extra attack. This is flat out better than Berserker with the only downside being rather mediocre d6 damage die of those claws. The obvious damage dealing option.
- Long prehensile tail is a hard hitting reach weapon, pretty much a pike/lance that works at close range and don't take hands. For when you need to hit hard over hitting a lot. More importantly, if someone you can see within 10 feet of you hits you with an attack, you can use your reaction to apply a d8 to your AC!
- The obvious downside is that their natural weapons don't get the same cool effects high-end magical weapons do. The less obvious downside is freaking out towns guard and attracting all the werewolf hunters around. Jaws and tail don't take hands, so the Beastbarb can wield two weapons and a shield for great versatility, have an empty hand for wrestling people down, or even wield two shields (+2 AC don't stacks, but if both shields are magical, their enchantments do stack). Later they could make their beast-weapons magical and gain beastly mobility, either swimming and breathing underwater, crawling on the walls and ceiling, or jumping insane distances. They get to infect enemies with frenzy when they attack them, forcing them to either attack their allies or suffer decent psychic damage, and finally get to give their allies extra damage during their rage while also healing for each ally they catch.
Barbarians in Diablo
The very first Diablo game did not include a Barbarian class. One was designed for its expansion pack, Hellfire, but internal bickering between Blizzard North, Blizzard South, Sierra, and Synergistic Software (which were all owned by the same parent company) prevented its official inclusion. The relevant data and assets were still on the CD, though, so the Barbarian (and a fuckton of other disabled features, like the Bovine Plate quest) could be easily re-enabled with a simple text file.
This version of the Barbarian was more or less a modified Warrior. It sacrificed the Warrior's already-meager ability to use magic in favor of a slightly increased strength cap (255 instead of 250) and a vastly improved health pool. The Barbarian could also wield two-handed weapons in one hand, an ability that would reappear in later versions of the class. Because the dickheads at Blizzard wouldn't let Synergistic finish the class, it uses the same artwork and sound effects as the Warrior.
Diablo II included the barbarian as one of its five core classes. This version of the barbarian had some ability to use magic, though more in a "calling upon nature spirits" kind of way than a fireball-throwing kind of way. From the Hellfire version, it copied the ability to use two-handed weapons with one hand; from the Hellfire's other hidden class, the Bard, it copied the ability to dual-wield. Its signature attack moves included the ability to spin around like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Toons, cutting down everything in its path. The expansion pack, Lord of Destruction, included an entire fifth act full of nothing but barbarian NPCs, including ones that you could hire to follow you around and kill things for you.
Diablo III dares to be different and is thus contentious between longtime fans who expected more of the same from previous entries and fans of the designs and mechanics of the class who are new to the series. Many deride the entry for deviating from their expectations, others applaud the choices. Like it or not, pick the right equipment and skills and the Barbarians can rampage through entire hordes of enemies without fear. Then again, so can most other classes, but just not always in melee.
Interestingly enough, the male Barbarian in Diablo III was actually the same character as the Diablo II barbarian. Just older and, presumably, angrier that he has to do this all again.
Barbarians in Magic: the Gathering
Barbarians are/were a very common creature type in Magic the Gathering, and have usually been red. The first were the Balduvian Barbarians and Barbarian Guides from Ice Age.
Barbarians in other Things
Warhammer Fantasy - Warriors of chaos
Barbarian Prince (a solitaire board game from 1981) - Cal Arath
|Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Classes|
|Player's Handbook 1:||Cleric - Fighter - Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Warlock - Warlord - Wizard|
|Player's Handbook 2:||Avenger - Barbarian - Bard - Druid - Invoker - Shaman - Sorcerer - Warden|
|Player's Handbook 3:||Ardent - Battlemind - Monk - Psion - Runepriest - Seeker|
|Heroes of X:||Blackguard - Binder - Cavalier - Elementalist - Hexblade - Hunter|
Mage - Knight - Protector - Scout - Sentinel - Skald - Slayer - Sha'ir - Thief
Vampire - Warpriest - Witch
|Settings Book:||Artificer - Bladesinger - Swordmage|
|Others:||Paragon Path - Epic Destiny|
|Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Classes|
|Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Warlock - Wizard
|Tasha's Cauldron of Everything:||Artificer - Expert - Spellcaster - Warrior|
|Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft:||Apprentice - Disciple - Sneak - Squire|
|The Classes of Pathfinder 1st Edition|
|Core Classes:||Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
|Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
|Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
|Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|
|The Classes of Pathfinder 2nd Edition|
|Core Classes:||Alchemist - Barbarian - Bard - Champion - Cleric - Druid |
Fighter - Monk - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
|Advanced Player's Guide:||Investigator - Oracle - Swashbuckler - Witch|
|Secrets of Magic:||Magus - Summoner|