Pathfinder Class Analysis 1: Barbarian

Amiri, the paragon Barbarian from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, illustrated by Wayne Reynolds
Amiri by Wayne Reynolds, from the PFCRB

Core Concept: While they’re not a class I’ve personally ever wanted to play, I think barbarians have a legitimate niche within fantasy adventures. Fighters are soldiers with expertly honed weapons skills and knowledge of military tactics. The fighter class can’t represent the brute ferocity of the wild-man. If you are to imagine the battles between Rome and Gaul, it would be hard name meaningful similarities between the warriors on the two sides. What I’m a little less fond of is the rage mechanic which is part-in-parcel of every barbarian class. I don’t actively dislike rage mechanics, they’re flavorful and they work fine. I just don’t think it’s such a perfect fit for the barbarian concept that it deserves to be ubiquitous.

As an example, I once made a class called the Whirling Berserker which received  a bonus to attack rolls so long as she attacked a different target on each turn. As such, the character would be most effective if she moved through a battle, attacking everyone she passed, rather than engaging with a single opponent.

So while I think the concept deserves some more creative thinking than it normally gets, I none the less approve of the class’s inclusion in the Pathfinder RPG.

Fast Movement:Movement speed is important to grid based combat. And while I don’t like to be forced to use a grid, I certainly like to have it as an option. The potential problem of Fast Movement is that it does tie a group down to using a grid, because if a grid is not used, then the barbarian player’s class is functionally gimped. That being said, I have GMed for several barbarians, and none of them have complained yet during the battles where I choose to run things grid-less.

That’s really a minor issue however, as Pathfinder combat is intended to be run with a grid. And when using a grid, the rate of movement has some very interesting effects on combat. If anything, I’d like to see more movement speed bonuses and penalties in the game.

Rage: I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think rage mechanics deserve to be ubiquitous, but it’s here, so lets talk about how it’s implemented.

Honestly I’d rather see rage be more dramatically powerful, but come with more significant drawbacks. As it stands, Rage is certainly…’balanced.’ It’s a boon to the class which allows them to be competitive in combat. But that’s a metric which I believe to be overrated. Not entirely without value, mind you, but certainly overrated. I won’t go into that now, but I recommend Brendan of Untimately’s thoughts on the matter.

Instead of a small bonuses and penalties, I want to see Barbarians hurl stones that weigh as much as they do–but I also want them to have a possibility to attack their fellows, or flee from a flashy magical effect. I haven’t thought out how this might be implemented, but I’d enjoy it a lot more than a +4 bonus to Strength and Constitution. Snore.

Rage Powers: Despite myself, I love rage powers. They overcomplicate the class, confuse new players, and encourage veteran players to concentrate on their character’s ‘build,’ rather than improvement through play. But all of that aside, I think Rage Powers are awesome. They’re elegantly flavorful, and lend the rage ability the type of drama I was lamenting the lack of above.

Consider that when enraged, a character could gain the ability to see in the dark, or run twice as fast, or deflect swords with the sheer bulginess of their muscles. It is fun, and awesome. And–better yet–most every one of the rage powers presented in the core rulebook avoid my problem with feats. They’re mostly improvements to stuff the character could already attempt, or legitimately new abilities, rather than agency-damaging game options.

Though I do love them, I think Rage Powers might benefit from being made much more powerful, and acquired much more slowly.

Improved / Uncanny Dodge: There’s not a lot to say about this pair of abilities. They might be seen as complications, but at least they’re not minor, fiddly ones. The inability to be caught flat footed, or the inability to be flanked, change a lot about how combat will work. The pair works well with barbarian flavor–particularly if you consider my alternative to ‘rage’ noted above–so no complaints on that front either.

Trap Sense: This, on the other hand, is a minor fiddly complication; and not one which fits particularly well with Barbarian flavor. I’ve always hated Trap Sense, even for rogues. Perhaps it might carry more weight if traps were deadlier in Pathfinder. (Of course, traps are plenty deadly in my games. But not in Pathfinder raw.)

Damage Reduction: I think damage reduction is a really elegant mechanic, and one of the best innovations of D&D 3rd edition.* I think it’s also a good fit for the Barbarian, since they’re so ferocious and battle scarred that minor blows have completely ceased to phase them.

Greater / Mighty Rage: While I’m okay with rage as a barbarian ability, I do not like these kinds of rage ‘upgrades.’ I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but it makes the character’s progression seem stilted. I would much rather see rage improve organically. So instead of +4 strength at level 1, +6 at level 11, and +8 at level 20; rage could simply give characters a 25% increase in strength. As the character’s strength improved, so would the strength bonus they received when they raged.

As an alternative, all improvements to rage could come in the form of something similar to rage powers.

Indomitable Will: I can’t help but feel this ought to just be a rage power. Maybe it was deemed to be out of balance with other rage power options, but as I mentioned, I think rage powers ought to have a more dramatic effect anyway.

Tireless Rage: I’ve decided I’m too tired and apathetic to write what I think about Tireless Rage. Instead, just go up and read what I think about Indomitable Will, because my thoughts on that ability are literally identical to my thoughts on Tireless Rage. I seriously considered copy-pasting it.

*Please forgive me, and correct me, if I’m missing a piece of gaming history here.

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7 thoughts on “Pathfinder Class Analysis 1: Barbarian”

  1. Nice article. I’m not keen on the barbarian class either, and in 30+ years of gaming I’ve only seen one ever played so maybe it’s not even that necessary for the game. The main problem I have with the class now is the vast number of rage powers (well over 100, and most of which don’t seem very “ragey” to me) and the slightly fiddly rage points mechanic. I’d like to see the list of rage powers trimmed to stay closer to the berserker archetype. Maybe also ditch the points accounting for some sort of Will save against a gradually increasing DC to keep raging or something. Anyway, good thoughts and I hope you cover the other Pathfinder classes as well.

    1. I plan to do at least the 9 core classes. If the series proves popular, then I’ll branch out into the non-core base classes as well. (I imagine those analyses will be much more negative!)

      I agree that there is serious bloat with regards to the rage powers. Perhaps my Feat Slot system could be adapted for Rage Powers?

      1. I’m glad you’ll be doing the others! And I think your feat slot system works even better with rage powers than feats!
        My personal opinion on the Barbarian class is that it belongs somewhere great, just that spot isn’t in D&D. I think in a game with Pathfinder’s multi-classing system (which I like as a system, if not thematically) the Barbarian would be fantastic to take as your first level, before moving on to something that works better in-game. I have a player in the OAD&D game I’m DMing who is running a Barbarian right now, and it hasn’t exactly been her favorite. In AD&D half of the Barbarian’s character creation is done by the DM, and mechanically it comes across as just a Fighter who gets hit more than he should, which doesn’t gel with my story-focused party, but at least it has given me plot hooks. Finally, I don’t at all like the art for the iconic Barbarian. Where does she keep that bloody oversized sword???

        This reminds me of another idea where I have all my players start at level two, and the two levels have to be in seperate classes…

  2. This is a good take on the Barbarian, LS. I’m not sure how in depth you plan on being with the nine core classes, but on the Pathfinder SRD there’s a listing of all of the archetypes and several for Barbarian take that boring old Rage (+4Str/Con) and make it more dramatic and cool, in my opinion.

    Urban Barbarian, for example, enters a kind of rage with clarity that gives a +4 bonus to Str, Dex or Con as the case may be, allowing for ‘rage’ that isn’t exactly about wild anger so much as channelled aggression.

    As far as Rage Powers go, I like that they’re little things because in my opinion the best games strike a balance between Role Playing and Roll Playing. I’d rather have a feature that does something cool like give me a bite attack or the scent ability than a mechanical +2 to something. That didn’t help explain, did it? What I mean is.. at least when I run, unless you go out of your way to make a Useless Chump (level six Barbarian1/Cleric1/Wizard1/Sorcerer1/Rogue1/Monk1) (this can be done now) you shouldn’t need to worry about your ‘build’ so much as playing it well.

    Also, Jimmy, the oversized Bastard Sword that the iconic Barbarian wields comes from a foray into Frost Giant territory her tribe sent her on as a suicide mission. It’s a trophy and her favoured weapon (only properly used during her rages). I’d imagine she holds onto it most of the day (pretty sure she has an 18 Strength at level one, and a 30 at level twelve o.o) or gets herself a Minor Bag of Holding to sheath it in or something. >.>

  3. As a DM i agree with most everything here in the post but as a player i don’t .

    As a player i enjoy having as many options as possible, and making unexpected characters that excel in their own right and break the mold of what is expected of a class. my favorite class to use as a launch point on this adventure of character building is the barbarian.

    The urban barbarian archetype was a saving grace for me as a player, as i love the idea archetypes present for added flavor and options to nearly any campaign.

    You say you want to see them hurling huge rocks and such, but what about people who get more focused as they sink into the primal depths of rage? The archetypes address many of the core problems you had, such as the Mighty Hurler throwing your boulders. but the huge list of rage powers is wonderful to have because you can build nearly any character you can imagine and that’s why my favorite class is the barbarian. It gives you the best foot hold for building a character with endless possibilities, rather than choosing a set of armor and weapon set as a fighter, or group of spells as a wizard.

    Take a barbarian, give him the urban archetype, make him Dex and Cha heavy, using wis and str as drop stats. Give him
    the stealthy and weapon finesse feats at first level, and give him a kukri or (insert finessable weapon) and you have a truly primitive rogue. He doesn’t know anatomy for sneak damage but instead tracks his prey from the shadows, and digs down into that primal rage to make his attacks have that killing edge his tribesman have. He could be a scout or regular hunter in the tribe rather than a warrior, but it shows not all barbarians are screaming whirling blood storms, the class is a starting point for any number of more primitive characters who weren’t raised to be calm and pristine.

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