In the first article of this series, I left out an important item: the Oriental Adventures barbarian class. My plan for this article is to cover it as briefly as possible, then move on to 2e’s Barbarian kit (from the Complete Fighter’s Handbook) and the Complete Barbarian’s Handbook. Just for completeness, I’ll also touch on the Berserker and Savage kits. I’m also covering the Amazon kit, even though… yikes, in 72-point font.
Part One | Part Two
Oriental Adventures 1e
The flavor text is so minimally changed to fit this book that you could miss it if you didn’t look closely.
- Instead of rolling more dice to generate ability scores, this turns back to demanding ability score prerequisites to keep out the rabble: Strength 15+, Dexterity 14+, Constitution 15+, and Wisdom 16-. (Yes, I mean 16 or less.)
- As if you would organically create a barbarian with a 17 or 18 Wisdom?
- The XP base drops from the stratospheric 6001 to reach 2nd level, to a mere 4001. It extrapolates from there in the ordinary way, which means you’re still pretty steadily a level or so behind your friends – and that gap expands dramatically if you reach high level play.
- The last big difference is that the rules around associating with various kinds of spellcasters gain teeth: the barbarian earns no experience points if they adventure with wu jen or spirit folk below 6th level, and their experience points are halved at 6th and 7th level if wu jen or spirit folk are in the party. Congratulations, we now know what “won’t associate with” means, and it means “you don’t enjoy the game.” What a pointless and fun-sinking rule.
- The rules that allowed your nonmagical self to harm creatures that require +1 or better weapons to strike are gone, but you can still use magical weapons from 4th level onward.
- Barbarians are automatically of low birth in OA’s caste rules. That… does help explain why they’d want to summon a barbarian horde and smash something, sure.
- Healing (previously First Aid) loses its ability to treat natural poisons.
- The “familiar terrain” bonuses to Surprise is gone, but still present in Hide in Natural Surroundings.
- Keep in mind that OA is one of the first appearances of the Nonweapon Proficiency (NWP) system, so this class plugs into that – your starting habitat determines your choices of starting NWPs.
That’s pretty much the size of it for the OA barbarian – you’re mostly worse off and there aren’t any crucial new ideas introduced, but your experience point table goes from outrageously awful to merely the worst by a fair margin.
2e: The Barbarian Kit
Just as a refresher, I covered the AD&D 2e fighter class and the Complete Fighter’s Handbook back in 2017, when the world was young and we were all so innocent. Because CFH has tons of kits, I didn’t cover any of them in detail. Please take it as read that this content is intensely racist and anti-Indigenous.
- In principle, paladins and rangers can take this kit too – the Complete Fighter’s Handbook was the first book to introduce kits, so they had to work for everyone at first.
- Minimum Strength of 15 to enter this kit. You can belong to a tribe but not take this kit with a lower Strength.
- You gain Endurance as a bonus NWP.
- Your starting gear is limited to whatever the DM thinks your tribe could have had. Really missing a chance to discuss trade with neighbors, here… such as that upstart Imperium on the other side of the Alps…
- Your special benefit and hindrance (every kit needs a special benefit and hindrance) are that good Reaction rolls become very good, and bad Reaction rolls become very If you’re not familiar with 2e’s Reaction rolls – or like me, you had expunged them from memory by dint of effort – a bonus is subtracted and a penalty is added.
- There’s a separate Amazon kit for women fighters, but this kit includes a note that female characters can be barbarians. How nice of them.
It’s hard to imagine looking at anything that came before this and saying to yourself, “the most characteristic trait of barbarians is that people either really like them or really hate them,” but that’s what happens in this text.
This kit makes it into the “generic” kits of Player’s Option: Skills & Powers. The ability score requirement changes to Strength and Constitution 13+ (okay, it’s S&P, it uses your sub-stats, let’s skip it for now), and tones down your Reaction roll adjustment from +/- 3 to +/- 2.
The Berserker Kit
My love for you is like a truck.
- Minimum Strength of 15.
- As above, this kit can go to other Warrior-group characters – the text discusses the possibility of a Berserker paladin.
- You can’t start with proficiency in any ranged weapon.
- You gain Endurance as a bonus proficiency.
- Same limits on starting gear as the Barbarian – this is, in concept, a Barbarian with the dangerous extra stuff turned on.
- You gain a bonus to Reaction rolls from people whose tribes have Berserkers (and an equal penalty to Reaction rolls from everyone else).
- You can Go Berserk. This takes a full turn (ten rounds), so it’s only for fights you know are coming; once you’re psyched up, you can “hold” your Berserk for another five turns (fifty rounds). The rules for this span three pages (some of which is art) and include more drawbacks than benefits. First, the benefits:
- Immunity to charm person, friends, hypnotism, sleep, irritation, ray of enfeeblement, scare, geas, command, enthrall, cloak of bravery, and symbol. The comparison to the 5e Berserker’s Mindless Rage feature explains itself.
- +4 saving throw bonus against blindness, Tasha’s uncontrollable hideous laughter, hold person, charm monster, confusion, and hold animal.
- Immunity to the emotion spell, except that the Fear version of the spell ends your Berserk state with no other effect; the same happens if you’re hit with the fear Charm monster just reclassifies the caster as an ally, and doesn’t otherwise grant them control over you.
- Finger of death is delayed until your Berserk state ends.
- Immunity to KO results from punching and wrestling, and you take only half damage from bare-handed attacks. (I never saw these used with intent, but I imagine that the purpose of this rule is to stop your allies from knocking you out rather than any expectation that enemies would attempt such a thing.)
- You gain +1 to attack rolls, +3 to damage rolls, and +5 hit points.
- The Hindrances:
- Your current hit point total and damage that you take become secret values, tracked by the DM.
- You can’t use ranged weapons while Berserk.
- You have to keep attacking an enemy until they’re down, rather than bypassing enemies to get to a more important target.
- You can’t take cover from missile fire while Berserk.
- You have to make an Intelligence check if any ally does anything that could be interpreted as hostile. On a failure, you treat them as an enemy, and their presence keeps you Berserk until they’re down.
- You delay the effects of bless, healing spells of all kinds, and wither until you’re no longer Berserk. (You may be dead instead.)
- The taunt spell is always successful against you.
- You lose the 5 hp you got from going Berserk, and you’re exhausted (as ray of enfeeblement) for one round per round you were Berserk.
Overall, this kit is way more stick than carrot. The extensive beneficial immunities probably don’t come up that much; the downsides are a mixed bag too. It’s cool to see the first major appearance (I’m not scraping every Dragon Magazine issue for the off chance of finding a proto-Berserker today) of the rage mechanic that is going to define barbarians from 3.0 onward. The trend-line of Berserking/raging is steadily increasing utility and diminishing risk, because shaping good drawbacks that standard fighters don’t have to worry about is hard.
The Amazon Kit
This is sort of a barbarian? It’s at least an outlander. Being female is the only requirement. The text goes out of its way to say that “[i]n most campaigns, you don’t have to be an Amazon to be a female warrior: check with your DM for other ways to play a female warrior.” The text doesn’t suggest to DMs what that might mean – there’s no “how to do a sexism right” section in the DMG. I appreciate that the section ends with “In just about every real-world history and mythology, you’ll find female warriors in male-dominated societies; otherwise there would be no Joan of Arc or Atalanta of Calydon.”
Even outside the Description section and into the Role, the text grapples with the fact that this subclass is about sexism and punishing its folly. Even so, it puts it on the Amazon character to prove herself to her allies, presumed to be from patriarchal societies, and for them to prove themselves to her. I’ll suggest that this is a kind of intra-party friction that isolates the Amazon’s player in a way with a nasty failure state. The text expects that “only the most obnoxious of PCs would continue to give her trouble” – from the perspective of 33 years later, that reads like asking for trouble.
- No additional stat requirements.
- Spear and long bow are required proficiencies at 1st level, and you can only specialize in these two weapons.
- You gain bonus proficiencies in Riding and Animal Training.
- Your starting equipment options are somewhat limited.
- For your first attack against any opponent who underestimates you (possibly including PCs if “the player is role-playing honestly enough to declare that he, too, would underestimate her”), you gain a +3 bonus to hit and damage. Seasoned warriors aren’t affected by this – which means that when you need the bonus more, it goes away.
- The kit’s special hindrance is a -3 penalty to Reaction rolls from NPCs in patriarchal societies. This penalty goes away for characters who learn to respect you (do you actually make a new Reaction roll for the second and later times that you encounter someone?), “such as (presumably) her PC allies.”
- Oh dear lord, don’t base interactions with other PCs on Reaction rolls!
The Hindrance helps to bring about the Benefit, I guess? If you got the whole group, especially the DM, on board with smashing the patriarchy as your campaign goal, this could be a good time. In any other situation, your game is better off presenting egalitarian societies.
This kit also appears in Player’s Option: Skills & Powers. The attack and damage bonus on the first round changes from +3 to +2, and the Reaction roll penalty in patriarchal societies is reduced to -2.
The Savage Kit
We’re still in Deep Yikes with the terminology here. It doesn’t get better.
- Requires Strength 11+ and Constitution 15+.
- Your starting weapon proficiencies are limited to your tribe’s weapons, with a suggested list but one the DM could customize. Once you encounter other weapons, you could learn to use them – “but it’s better roleplaying if he prefers to stick to the weapons of his tribe.” Ooookay.
- You gain bonus proficiencies in Direction Sense, Weather Sense, Endurance, and Survival.
- Your starting gear is four weapons from your tribe’s weapons list and up to ten other items that the DM agrees make sense for you.
- You choose one of four different spell-like abilities – not magic, technically, but described in terms of existing spells. You choose from alarm, animal friendship, detect magic, and detect evil. Setting my issues with the kit’s concept aside for a moment, I’m interested in the idea of some of these spells as inherent human gifts, consciously breaking away from the idea that humans are nonmagical as a lineage.
- Your special hindrance is that you can’t wear civilized clothing or any type of armor (have fun playing a completely unarmored Warrior in 2e!), or you take big penalties to attack rolls, damage rolls, and nonweapon proficiency rolls. So, you know, in exchange for one kind of nice ability, the game becomes full-on unplayable.
- Last note: the writeup ends with a discussion of how fitting a complex character history into a single kit is not easy. I appreciate the thought behind this discussion, as it was the driving force behind much of my Level Up Your Background PDF.
In any recognizable D&D campaign that includes combat, the Savage kit is essentially unplayable. People without access to metalworking have their own approaches to armor-making, and every part of this kit’s idea would be better with some acknowledgement of that.
The Savage kit also appears in Player’s Option: Skills & Powers, though significantly changed in function. They must have a Constitution of at least 13+, their benefit is a free +1 to three different NWPs (chosen from a list), and their hindrance is a -2 penalty to initiative in cities. That’s certainly a lot less obnoxious than “you can’t wear armor.”
Complete Barbarian’s Handbook
Rick Swan wrote The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook for TSR in 1995. It was one of the few class splatbooks I never bought, because flipping through it in the aisle of Waldenbooks and Media Play never quite hooked me. Reading this now, um, I feel reaffirmed in that decision. The book presents itself as updating the 1e UA barbarian specifically, but it distributes relevant features across most its 128 pages. I’m going to miss some stuff – this isn’t some seventeen-part Edition Wars series!
- Minimum 12+ Strength, 9+ Dexterity, 12+ Constitution. Strength and Con are Prime Requisites, so you only get your 10% XP kicker if they’re both 16+.
- The book’s term for the class is “barbarian fighter,” as opposed to the people who are barbarians. It is inconsistent about this within the first page that it introduces this idea, so… whatever.
- Human only. There’s a section on “demi-barbarians” later in the book that is full-bore incomprehensible, and I can’t cover it without breaking my personal rule against vituperation.
- No evil alignments. The text mentions that NPCs can be evil, but PCs should be cooperative and “retain the sense of ethics common to most barbarian adventurers.” Changing alignment doesn’t cost you class features as it would a paladin or ranger.
- d12 Hit Dice; you stop gaining Hit Dice at 10th level rather than 9th, as in the 1e UA.
- The XP progression is something reasonable! You hit 2nd level at 2,251 XP rather than 4k or 6k. Good job getting rid of one pointlessly harsh rule.
- You’re a Warrior for saving throw values, proficiencies, and THAC0 progression.
- If you’re reading a History of the Classes article, I’m going to assume you know that THAC0 stands for Troublesome (as) Heck Armor Calculation, Ow, rather than needing me to explain how it works.
- You have a base movement rate of 15 (compared to the ordinary human movement rate of 12). Increased speed from this point on becomes a fixture of barbarian class design.
- You carry heavy loads well, and functionally have a +3 bonus to your speed while encumbered (that is, mitigating speed penalties).
- The armor and weapons section assumes that barbarians don’t learn to use a wider variety of weapons and trust in a wider variety of materials when they encounter metal-working societies – nor do they work bronze on their own. This list, and similar lists of new weapons in later chapters, are incredibly constraining, and battle axes are just about the only decent weapon. You’re likewise limited to padded, leather, studded leather, or hide armor, with a few additional kinds of armor (all with ACs worse than hide).
- Leaping and Springing gives you a special table for your running leap, running spring, standing leap, and standing spring. By 16th level, your average running leap covers 26.5 feet, and your average vertical running leap is 9.5 feet. You’re leaping all the way over the tallest NBA players – a roll of 4 or better on a d6 puts your feet at the level of the rim.
- This is not a problem for 16th-level barbarians to be able to do. It’s normal extreme-action-hero stuff. I just think it’s interesting to think about these numbers in context.
- “Back Detection” shows up again, as a percentage chance to both dodge and counterattack an attack from behind. The example text clarifies that the dodging is just negating bonuses for attacking from behind, not avoiding the attack automatically.
- As I mentioned in the previous article, this feature is the seed of the 3.0 barbarian’s Uncanny Dodge and Improved Uncanny Dodge.
- Climbing works as the thief skill, but (unlike the 1e barbarians) your success chance isn’t halved for unfamiliar terrain or walls.
- You have a homeland terrain. While you’re in that terrain – which the text implies won’t be often – you’re proficient in Survival, Hiding, Tracking, and Animal Lore, and you gain a -2 bonus to surprise. You also gain some additional clear-cut applications of Survival.
- At the DM’s option, when you’re outside your homeland terrain, you might take a penalty of -2 to -6 to your Intelligence and Charisma checks. You can safely guess that I hate this idea, most of all because the game would never suggest that such a thing applied to a “civilized” street urchin who somehow got stranded in a distant land where the customs were unfamiliar.
- That brings us to the end of Chapter 1, but Chapter 2 is full of applicable restrictions… all of them centered around outworlder magic use, magic items, or any kind of metal. You do at least get XP for destroying magic items, slaying evil mages or priests, or being exceptionally superstitious.
- Also there are restrictions on languages, because I’m sure your friends at the table will appreciate you playing a character who shares no languages with them. There’s a whole subsystem (because of course there is) for communicating simple ideas with body language. I can’t emphasize enough how much you should read about Indigenous societies, ideally as written by Indigenous writers, rather than read this chapter.
- There are rules for your stronghold and followers at 9th level. The stronghold isn’t allowed to be particularly defensible – at most we’re talking about a tent or cave – while the followers are reasonably standard for fighters, but with the same low-quality equipment problems that your character has.
- There are in-depth rules for figuring out your Reaction roll penalty based on your weird behaviors. You can learn to act less weird, but you can’t ever fully assimilate into the dominant culture (you can’t reduce your Reaction roll penalty below -1). This is just gross from beginning to end.
This is pretty awful so far, but… there’s a whole lot of book left to go. I’m not covering kits in detail – that’s outside the scope of this article, sorry. Several of the kits introduce a rage-like mechanic of one kind or another, and all of them are much better than the Berserker kit I discussed above. Notably, the Ravager kit winds up more similar than not to the 3.x barbarian’s Rage feature. The Wizard Slayer, on the other hand, most resembles the 1e UA barbarian, with detect evil and detect illusion percentage chances, and their attacks striking as +1 or better weapons against resistant monsters. But hey: the Ravager and Wizard Slayer still have so many drawbacks and restrictions that they’ll be incredibly difficult to play.
There are a ton of new nonweapon proficiencies in this book, and again I’m not covering all of them. I do want to name-and-shame Horde Summoning: a proficiency you can buy at any time but can’t use until 10th level, and accompanied by more than a full page of rules. There’s nothing here that shouldn’t have just been folded into the rules for your Followers. Wild Fighting (reminder: “nonweapon” is not similar to “noncombat”) points forward pretty strongly to 3e’s Power Attack feat and 5e’s Reckless Attack feature – just much more punitive. There’s a check, and if you fail it, you get all the penalties and none of the benefits of Wild Fighting.
This is a transitional period for the barbarian class as a concept, with a gradually increasing emphasis on damage output and Action Hero Stuff. It still emphasizes things that exclude you from the core gameplay experience of D&D, though, such as gaining and using cool treasure. I’m guessing that players and DMs quietly ignored those restrictions on the regular, because (among other things) they don’t make narrative sense.
I am by no means a sensitivity reader or any other kind of expert, but I think the Complete Barbarian’s Handbook genuinely might be the most offensive and racist text in the whole history of D&D. Barely a page goes by without something shockingly awful, combined with an incredibly punitive gameplay experience. I haven’t read everything, though, and Maztica is one of those gaps in my knowledge. There’s still room for me to be disappointed.