Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Barbarian Week: the Unearthed Arcana barbarian

After a near-TPK interrupted Barbarian Week, I bring you more shirtless sandal-wearing slayers for your enjoyment in celebration of my own barbarian-themed book release.

The first roleplaying barbarians I dealt with were in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition. I remember trying to tease out the class stats from the hints in issues of Dragon magazine. But our first real taste was the release of Unearthed Arcana.

Barbarians are singularly powerful characters, tempered by extremely high XP numbers early on. You need 6001 xp to get to level 2, 12,001 for level 3. On the bright side, all of your level titles are Barbarian, so you're name level at 1st level. That's only sort-of a joke.

Barbarians get double HP bonuses from CON. Double AC bonuses from DEX if they have non-bulky or no armor. They get 1d12 hit dice (and cap out at 8, with a +4 per level after).

They have some minor downsides to themselves: Some required weapon proficiencies, illiteracy, and they can't use Alignment Language (as if that was such a big thing in my games.) Also, they can't be dual-classed.

Otherwise, for the barbarian, it is all upside. They have:

- multiple outdoor proficiencies
- excellent jumping ability
- Detect Illusion
- Lots of Saving Throw bonuses (some flat, some level-based)
- Detect magic
- tracking (outdoors only, but as a ranger of the same level)
- leadership
- ability to hit creatures only hit by magic weapons.

Their downsides are small but significant. The class is a strange one, for AD&D. First off, it's a loner class. Most of the class's abilities aren't useful if all your friends don't have the same ones. Plus. you have a bunch of level-based restrictions. No associating with magic-users at all until level 6 ("if necessary!"), restrictions on magic item use (significant, but not critically so), no potion use until level 3, no associating freely with clerics until level 2 (must be hard being a tribal cleric, eh?), and similar restrictions.

Of course, gaming being social, these aren't restrictions on you, but on your friends. They can't run guys who aren't compatible with you. You've got abilities which restrict who you associate with and powers that work better if folks aren't around.

All that said, they aren't that powerful. Their high HP makes them difficult to kill, their low AC without real armor is useful but doesn't compare well with full plate and shield (especially magical.) The high XP cost to level means regular fighters (especially with weapon specialization) can hit well in excess of the times a barbarian can.

It's just their "can't associate" based on class and not alignment that makes them a difficult class.

War Stories

We had few Barbarians run in our games back when I was running 1st edition AD&D.

The aforementioned problems were the main reason - no magic-users allowed, leery of magic items (pretty necessary early on, especially if you lack a spellcaster friend) and you can't associate with clerics until level 2 (6000 experience points away!). In other words, it was meant for solo play.

I GMed for a solo barbarian that sticks out. My cousin ran him, solo. He made him up using the 9d-3d dice progression from the back of Unearthed Arcana. We did max HP at first level, so he had 20. He had a 17 or 18 DX that I recall, so he had AC 3 with nothing but a shield, and 18/something high strength. He did well solo - it was hard to kill him with the normal complement of levels 1-3 modules.

I remember him getting to level 4, and his luck held on the HP rolls - he had 76 or 78 HP (I want to say 76). By that point he could use magic weapons (which made his ability to strike foes who need a +1 or better to hit useless), he wasn't remotely killable by most things, and only his ST hit bonus let him hit the kind of monsters he needed to face to level.

It was just odd. I remember him almost dying in some encounter from The Book of Lairs, but that's about it. The side game for him eventually petered out as we shifted to Rolemaster and GURPS games.

How did this influence GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Barbarians?

More or less, I was influenced by the same sources. While I ran into the barbarian class before I ever knowing read any Conan books (maybe the comics came earlier - probably, actually), the influences mainly show in what I wanted not to do:

- make barbarians into magic-fearing loners.
- heap massive abilities onto a character at a growth cost
- needlessly restrict your choices (you have six weapon proficiencies, here are three of them spelled out for you)

I felt like that was a valid type of barbarian, but not the only one. So the influence was more "like the books we both read, without these odd class restrictions."


  1. I never liked the significant restrictions on the AD&D UA Barbarians, which is probably why I never played one. I think I DM'd a game once (with some older guys) and I didn't strictly enforce that restriction. The guy playing one had a tough fight, and if I recall, good 'ol critical hit table led to a lost nose. I very much like GURPS Barbarians. D&D 5E does a good job as well.

  2. I particularly like the shirtless savage because:

    1. Yeah. I found a REH quote for it, but "Shirtless Savage" came out of Conan comics and all those barbarian movies, Conan and otherwise. It's how you dress, so there must be some upside besides lower encumbrance!

  3. Unearthed arcana was always too "new school" for me. To me a barbarian is a Ad&d 1st edition players handbook fighter Whose PC likes to pick a battle axe and not wear a lot of armor.

    1. I was playing for only a few years when UA came out, so it fit with everything else we used - stuff from Dragon magazine, mostly. It seemed right in line with everything else. There wasn't a "new school" to us in my early days, only new D&D stuff. Plus like I've said a lot of times here - the best AD&D game I ever ran was UA-based. A cavalier-based paladin, a ranger/druid, a fighter with weapon specialization . . . that was a great campaign.

      I don't think I ever, once, saw a lightly-armored fighter in my games. Giving up AC was too foolish, and the upsides (more movement? magic plate does that too! Cheaper? No one ran out of starting cash and found a lot more fast) were basically non-existent. A D&D 5e solution of DEX bonuses applying to


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