The Barbarian Sophisticate?
When most players think of a barbarian, the conjure an image of some sort of wild man perhaps tribal, often tattooed, and frequently covered in furs or pelts wield a rough looking ax or Ice Age spear.
No matter the race, a barbarian is nearly always some kind of uncivilized brute existing in the wild. They worship bizarre and often violent gods. They are rarely intelligent or, rather, are given some kind of feral wisdom within Nature. A barbarian is always other.
And this makes sense, historically. Or, at least, from a certain point of view…
James Haeck’s Barbarian 101 is a great start to get a sense of the traditional barbarian class character. When I made my first ever character to play, the half-orc Cade Talar, I used Haeck’s guide. But like many and most of us, it never really thinks about what it means to be labelled as a barbarian. Who is doing the labelling? To whom? And why?
Barbarian is a xenophobic, pejorative term imagining anyone not from or of one’s own community, nationality, or even race is inferior and base. It is the civilized who apply the term to others. Those who are called ‘barbarian’ don’t refer to themselves as so and, typically, not only have a unique culture but also a sophisticated civilization of their own. When we play a barbarian, we’re playing an outsider, someone otherthan the dominant (or dominating) civilization. We play our outsider as having internalized the ‘civilized’ culture’s idea of them, a ferocious warrior. Thus, we have the classic barbarians–half-orcs, mountain dwarves, and Uthgardt humans.
I like playing the barbarian. I enjoy its class features and find it to be a cornerstone character for a party. We all liked it so much, the Goliath race was created, and we got to see the iconic Grog develop out of Critical Role. Typically played as brutes, feral raiders, and impatient, irrational humanoids. This is how the class was written, but there is room in it to make it more, embracing the otherthan status while building up the character’s own civilization and role within it. There are more paths…
Because the etymology of ‘barbarian’ literally means someone unfamiliar or unable to speak the dominate language, we associate it closely with stupidity. In the worlds of D&D, adventurers encounter a deeply multi-racial and, thus, multi-cultural landscape. A literate barbarian is an oxymoron but no less a fact.
When I wrote my character, I envisioned Cade as someone who got furious when proper protocols weren’t followed or when bureaucratic norms were prized over practical needs. This may sound contradictory, but I imagined a barbarian as being a walking contradiction who upon closer inspection is logically consistent. Cade hates hassle–there are right ways to do things allowing us all to go on with our lives in a seamless, easy manner but doing so requires intuition and self-awareness. Likewise, rules for the sake of rules is really nothing more than an illusion maintained to remove thoughtful interaction, encourage mindlessness, and abdication of authority like safety theatre.
Embracing my barbarian’s race, half-orc, I strung out a back story peppering his character with speaking dwarvish with an Ice Dwarf accent, a pet badger as a child (leading him to take the Path of the Totem Warrior later on), and an obsession with reading. The latter led me to multi-class as a wizard learning pragmatic spells to aid him survive as a lone wanderer. This last trait then led Cade to find the deity he worships, Shaundakul, pushing him to travel to the farthest ends of the world in this case, Osse. This barbarian doesn’t worship or believe in deities, rather when he viscerally feels what they stand for, their philosophy, he chooses to follow it.
The effect of all this is a class I can play as the tip of the spear for my party and one giving me ample room to role-play. Roleplaying as Cade, using his voice and staying in his mindset, has been a major part of the party I’m playing with finding plot points of our campaign and just stumbling into hilarious situations. It’s made playing my first character incredibly fun and I think it has been because I’m breaking ever so slightly from the barbarian cliche. The great thing about Dungeons & Dragons, there’s nothing but options and paths–just choose and follow it where it leads.