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 "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 came into used mostly to designate the migrating tribes that conquered Rome 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.
GARRRRRR!!!! I SMASH YOU WITH GREATAXE FOR 1d12 + STR*1.5 DAMAGE! (interestingly, great axes and 1d12 weapons weren't in Dungeons and Dragons 2e and 1e horrible, isn't it? You could only deal 1d12 or better if you were attacking a size Large creature.)
Barbarians in AD&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.
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...
Barbarians in D&D 3E
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.
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.
Barbarians in Pathfinder
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.
Barbarians in D&D 4th Ed
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 was 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 D&D 5th Ed
Barbarians in 5th edition D&D are largely unchanged from 3.5 barbarians, except their rages are better (1/2 damage from all bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage, as well as damage bonuses) and can get 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 (and
not die putting heavy armor users to shame. Seriously, with Con 18 and Dex 18 your AC is 18, the same as a full plate). Their rage only applies to melee attacks now, though, so bows are less viable than previous editions.
They choose one of two paths at third level: the raging berserker, which was based of a prestige class from 3.5 and turns the Barbarian into a rage warrior of death, but, unfortunately, their primary power, Frenzy, is very poorly-designed, applying a crippling and hard-to-remove level of Exhaustion every time the barbarian chooses to activate it in exchange for an extra attack as a bonus action. Their other powers aren't bad, but it's a hard sell when the other path's powers are good out-of-the-box.
The other, more-popular choice is the totem warrior, which makes the Barbarian a little more druid-like, allowing him to commune with the animal spirits and channel the Wolf, Bear or Eagle to gain powers. Wolf is the pack-hunter one, giving you better tracking and stealth during travels, the ability to knock enemies prone instantly after attacking, and giving advantage to your friends when you are surrounding your enemy. Bear is the tanky one, making you resistant to all damage (minus psychic, because GET OUT OF MY HEAD, CHARLES) and forcing enemies to focus fire on you while raging, and making you better at pushing and carrying stuff. Eagle has the best utility ones, giving the barbarian a bonus-action dash, eagle vision (he can literally see something a mile away without a problem) and eventually allowing the barbarian to fly while raging... but not allowing him to maintain himself on air after his turn. So essentially, it's just the ability to jump your speed whilst raging. 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.
If neither of those tickle your fancy, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide not only introduced the new Elk and Tiger spirits for the Totem Warrior, they also introduced the Battlerager; named after a temp-HP-gaining Fighter subclass, it 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 specialises in hurling himself blindly into the fray so he can use his armor to rip 'n' tear people whilst he rages.
Xanithar's Guide to Everything brings us three additional subclasses. The Ancestral Guardian is able to commune with/summon its ancestral spirits while raging, giving it overtones of the Shaman from 4e. At 3rd level, as the Ancestral Protectors, they can just distract a single target within 5 feet as you rage, giving them disadvantage on attack rolls. At 6th level, upgrading to Ancestral Shield, they can transfer your rage-granted damage resistances to one ally for a turn. At 10th level, you can Consult the Spirits for Advantage on an Intelligence or Wisdom check 3 times per long rest. Finally, at 14th level, the Vengeful Ancestors can react to someone hitting you or an ally with a melee attack by beating the shit out of them, inflicting 2D8 Force damage.
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 is a Fire Storm, Lightning Storm or Ice Storm at 3rd level, which determines what sort of benefits you get whilst raging. Your aura starts off by inflicting fire, lightning or cold damage (as you'd kind of expect), then gives you either fire resistance, water breathing or cold resistance, then it extends that benefit to your allies, and finally it starts messing with the terrain around you; fire storms force enemies to make Strength checks to be able to move, lightning storms force enemies to make Strength checks to avoid being knocked flat on their asses, and ice storms just make all the ground around you difficult terrain.
The Zealot has a "holy berserker of the gods" feel to it, but can be refluffed into more of a necromantic Bloodrager type. It can veil itself in an aura while raging that inflicts necrotic or radiance (chosen each time you rage) on all enemies within 5 feet, no longer requires material components to be the subject of Raise Dead or similar resurrection spells, can choose to automatically end its rage to change a failed saving throw into a successful one, can unleash an inspiring battle cry once per long rest, and can keep fighting at 0 hit points so long as it's raging.
Unearthed Arcana in August 2019 created the Way of the Wild Soul subclass, which 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 take force damage to restore spell slots or grant temporary HP to allies, from 10th level can slap enemies that hit them with a Saving Throw effect whilst they rage for Force damage, and from 14th level can use their bonus action whilst raging to reroll which wild magic aura they get.
|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
|Artificer - Mystic|
|The Classes of Pathfinder|
|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|
Barbarians in other Things
Warhammer Fantasy - Warriors of chaos