Tales from the Gazebo – Head First: Barbarians, Part 2

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Head First: Barbarians, Part 2
By Cape Rust

Last week was the genesis of my discussion on barbarians and how to incorporate them into your game, this week I’ll wrap up discussing different barbarian concepts and how GMs can integrate them into their game. I finished up last week’s article with some tips for your typical barbarian, so here I go with a few more concepts.

There is always the beastmaster. Yes just like the movie, several systems have prestige classes or templates that allow your axe swinger to follow a path like this. If your player has just watched the movie or TV series Beastmaster and really wants to play Dar, then here are a few things to think about. First where is the game going to take place? I only ask because this is a good way to determine what types of animals you will allow your player to have. If you are both OK with the fish out of water theme, then let them have something that is not normally found in that setting. But let’s face it a, polar bear in the middle of the desert is wrong and cruel, and only funny for a few hours. If animal companions are not normally included in the barbarian template or as a class feature, then just add them. That isn’t so hard is it? Just remember to take something away to keep the character balanced. I like that the Pathfinder system allows animal companions to “grow” with the characters. Most systems have mechanics for this, but it seems like Pathfinder took a little more time to create some balance.

One aspect of the Beastmaster that often gets overlooked is the actual acquisition of animal companions. Most of the time GMs just have those characters start out with the companions. By making the character seek out their companion, it makes the whole barbarian animal bond more meaningful. As a GM you should find out what types of animal companions your player wants and, even more importantly, why? Sometimes I like to take the type of animal companion the player wants and mix it up a bit. You can always just let the player have what they want (within reason) or another fun thing to do is develop an animal companion chart based on the player’s vision for their character, then have them roll for the animal. This adds a little randomness to the process and is lots of fun.

Now back to the companion quest. This quest shouldn’t be something that completely derails the game, but, especially for low-level characters, this is a great way to allow the party to get a feel for their characters and is a good bonding experience. Throw the group out in the woods, throw a few unfriendly animals at them and make finding the barbarians new friend a challenge. If the party includes a ranger or druid, this quest would be a good time for them to try to find their companions as well. Even if they start play with theirs, their abilities to influence wild animals can be a big help to our beastmaster in trying to convince the prospective animal to stick around and become their best buddy. However you handle this situation, try to make it interesting and fun for the entire gaming group.

One of my favorite variations on the barbarian is the noble savage. I normally use the American Native tribes as the template for this type of barbarian. I use American tribes because there is tons of useful and interesting information available about them and even as “uncivilized” as they were made out to be, their culture and civilization provide great character concepts. If the system you are playing in dictates that barbarians should be chaotic, you can simply ignore this rule (brakin’ the law, breakin’ the law!). You can also work with your player to establish a code their noble savage lives by; yea, sounds a lot like a Paladin right? In many ways it is, but in this case, that code is motivated by the characters tribal norms or personal norms rather than a concept like Lawful Good. For instance, in your barbarian’s culture it might be perfectly acceptable to use and even keep any item that is left unattended. In many places people would call that stealing, but maybe in your player’s tribe it was just the way things are. By working with your player and establishing these tribal norms, you create a deep and interesting character that is more than a raging meat shield.

There is no need to make this “code” too complicated, but it is good to write it down. Establishing this code is best done during character creation and by establishing it, the GM and the player can develop a fairly detailed background about the barbarian and the savvy GM can pick up some good plot hooks as well. By writing out this code, both player and GM have a set of guidelines that can be used to adjudicate a questionable behavior by the barbarian. Here is an example: if your player’s tribe didn’t believe in touching or taking things from a dead person, because they believed the items they had on them would be needed in the next life, but your character finds a wonderfully powerful great axe on a dead dwarf and takes it. You as a GM can then point out the written code and then the player, and possibly the rest of your gaming group, need to come up with a good reason why the barbarian would break his cultural norms to take the axe, other than wanting a really cool magical axe. If they come up with some good reasons, or they come up with a ceremony that would cleanse the weapon and make it useable for that character, let the game continue.

Several listings for shamans have taboos listed and some of these can quickly be adapted into tribal culture norms. The dead people and their items is a good one. Another one I love is counting coup. If you are not familiar with the practice, it is the act of insulting your foe by doing non-lethal damage to them before you actually kill them. Imagine having a player who has to hit an enemy two or three times before they can do actual damage. Views on members of the opposite sex, property, even certain animals are all things that can be incorporated into your noble savage to make them interesting and fun. I still have much more to cover with the barbarian, so check in next week for more info on these wild warriors.

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