Tales from the Gazebo – Head First: Barbarians, Part 3

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Head First: Barbarians, Part 3
By Cape Rust

Here we are, week 3, dedicated to barbarians, and the hits just keep coming. Last week I discussed a few barbarian concepts and the introduction of a code to drive barbarians. This week I will get back on track and discuss some interesting multi-classing options and barbarians without borders.

I will use the term multi-classing because, let’s face it, if you are using a system that is class-less then it is kind of hard to have a multiple of something that does not exist. All GMs handle multi-classing differently and there are thousands of forums out there providing advice on “optimizing” your character for the best power gaming experience. Most of the forums approach this from the player standpoint, but rarely take the GM into consideration.

As a GM, aside from trying to give your players what they want (within reason), you have to consider what type of game you are running and how these odd multi-class “Franken-Barbarians” will fit into the greater scheme of things. At its core, the barbarian is a tool of physical destruction; add some magical powers and things can get out of control really quickly. I do recommend that if you are going to allow a casting, raging, wilderness warrior you steer them towards divine magic rather than the more esoteric arcane. Divine magic tends to compliment statistics that will benefit the barbarian more than those traditionally used to drive the arcane arts.

Speaking of the arcane arts, we have all heard of the Bard-Barian. If you can’t figure out what this multi-class combo is, you might want to re-think running games. Charisma is the key attribute for bardic spellcasting in D&D and unless you plan on allowing your player to become a tribal chieftain, charisma is normally a throw away or at least a low priority stat. But the skald-like barbarian is a really fun character to have around. Your player has someone who can buff the party and take a few hits, besides there is something cool about a character that wades into battle swinging a great axe and singing a bawdy bar tune! Characters like this are normally valued by their tribes, especially if their tribe follows an oral tradition (he said oral, huh, huh). As a GM I recommend developing a backstory with your player or asking them to develop a backstory as to why their character left their tribe. Was it to hear new songs and tales? Did they get caught rutting with another person’s mate? Do they hold a secret so important that if they were captured by a rival tribe it could upset the current balance of power? There are quite a few plot hooks right there. Develop or find a magical song that is said to bestow great power, if sung correctly, and include that as a possible spotlight challenge for that Bard-Barian. Magical instruments or revealing stories of ancient history all work to make this mash up work.

The barbarian-druid is always fun to have around; this is a good way to make a beastmaster without bending the rules. If this is the route your player wants to go, I recommend keeping any weapon restrictions that might be in place for the druid alive and well. This is one of those combos that, if played correctly, can be a total juggernaut. Here is a character that can rage, summon animals to help fight and later on can shape shift. This is one of those multi-class combos where I like to restrict the player to one type of animal that they can summon and shift into. A totem animal if you will. This might seem jacked up at first, but it keeps the game moving. I the character can only shift into one animal and summon that same type of animal; they only need to keep stats for ONE type of animal. This will help balance things out a bit as well. I have been known to switch the ability to spontaneously summon animals for the ability to spontaneously heal people (but never while in a rage). This adds an interesting dimension to this combo, try it some time. The barbarian thief can be fun, some people call them scouts.

The barbarian-cleric combo is a bit like the druid combo, and depending on what domains your player selects can really bring the heat. In that case I always make the player choose a nature deity or a deity that is in line with their tribal beliefs. I recommend discouraging the fighter barbarian combo, because while makes for a tough, hard hitter I like to make my players choose one or the other. There have been some games where the story of a game I’ve been in has made the transition from Barbarian to fighter a natural progression.

A barbarian-wizard while possible just isn’t something I allow, sorcerer maybe, but… for me that is still pushing things a bit. No matter what you allow as a GM think before you say yes and make sure you can program some special events that will challenge your multi-classed barbarian. Now I’m betting you are wondering about the whole “barbarians without borders,” well here goes.

Many systems place rules on barbarians like the need to be crazy and chaotic. Why can’t they be lawful? Why can’t they have a code like we discussed? Why can’t your players’ barbarians come from a highly developed and sophisticated culture that happens to be completely different for the current predominate culture. Think Europeans in an Oriental culture. Make the barbarians in your world nimble, rather than strong; play with making them smart rather than strong, mix things up! Don’t be afraid to alter the rules of some types of magic for Barbarians if those alterations are balanced and most importantly fun. The point is, your players don’t have to play “Mogra smash” if you make it worth their while. I know some of these suggestions might cause you to rage, but I can assure you by making them things will be interesting.

There we have it, I have touched on those rage filled, hide armor wearing, fast moving wilderness fighters. Next week we will start on bards, that class you love to hate.

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