On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class

I’ve realized that one of the reasons why you don’t see as much gaming content here as you once did is that much of my energy now goes towards having discussions on game and Appendix N theory with Cirsova Contributor PC Bushi (whose story Antares will appear in our Fall issue) instead of blogging.

So, for those of you who mostly just follow the blog, I thought it would be worthwhile bringing the discussion over here to share some of our insights.

Bushi muses that Stark may have been a more likely inspiration for the Barbarian Rage trope than Conan. The most interesting highlights, though, are that I dug up both Tom Moldvay’s stats for Stark (15th level Fighter), which predates the official Barbarian PC class, and the first official writeup for a Barbarian class in AD&D. While the ur-Barbarian PC class does not feature a “Rage” ability, Moldvay’s Stark does, in which he ‘reverts to N’Chaka’ and gets crazy stat bonuses for a short period of time.

Bushi: So not that Conan doesn’t get pissed and kill people/things, but it strikes me that Eric John Stark is a more likely inspiration for the tropey barbarian rage.

HP: If you’re going to use “barbarian” as a distinct class in an RPG, Stark is the better source material in general.

Bushi: An interesting thesis. Tell me more.

HP: I sort of touch on it here.

Bushi: I don’t think any of that is wrong, but it doesn’t exactly make the argument that Stark is more of a barbarian than Conan. At least the literary Conan.

HP: I’m not saying he more of a barbarian, just better grist for a barbarian class.

Cirsova: I mean, I have made the argument in the past that Conan is what you get when you have 16 STR and 18 CON and say “Think I will roll a Thief then Dual-Class over to Fighter at some point so I can wear heavy armor.”

Gitabushi: Y’all might be overthinking this. D&D draws upon European history (or bad history) as much as fiction. And it draws upon fiction that draws upon fanciful variations of European history. That’s why the Cleric and Paladin are based on Catholic priest-warriors rather than Muslim. So rather than the Barbarian class being based on a literary figure, the class is best seen as based on the legendary Scandinavian Berserker that the literary figures are also based on.

Bushi: Sure. I’m just specifically thinking about the “barbarian rage” thing, which I think D&D probably made ubiquitous. I didn’t mean to imply that barbarians came from D&D. Was talking about “barbarian rage” as a game/media trope. Which I’m sure in part comes from historical berserkers, sure.

Cirsova: I somehow have the sneaking suspicion that most folks playing Barbarians wouldn’t know this and at best would picture Fafhrd & book Conan and at worst picture movie Conan.

“I am playing a barbarian. Basically he’s just a dude who is not Greek.”

And the game probably takes more inspiration from fantasy BS barbarians than actual Norse or Celtic warrior cultures. But it would be interesting to work some equivalent of the Ragnarok passion plays. It would make a great funnel.

Youth of the tribe go to collect their gravegoods, meet with the grave-maiden, fight the “werwolves” in the symbolic world’s death battle around winter solstice, then surprise! Something vaguely Fenrir-like shows up and starts killing people for realsies!

Count Donku: I’ve been beating this drum since forever, but Conan is definitely more of a fighter who dipped a few levels of rogue early in his career, which isn’t really optimal as a PC but he makes up for that with insane stat rolls.

Cirsova (aside): Actually, it would be good at early levels, because with the high con bonus and how quickly thieves level up, he’d have Fighter HP and decent thief skills by the time most folks were reaching level 2.

Bushi: I mean it kind of depends what we mean by “barbarian.” Conan is basically a tribesman who’s accumulated all sorts of different martial and leadership experiences, but Howard always stresses his disdain for civilization. In that regard I’m not really sure he’s any less barbarian. His sharp, primal instincts are often called by by Howard. What I’m referring to is more how Stark seems to fly into legitimate berserk rages and Conan doesn’t. Sure, but Stark also goes to cities. Not like he hates civilization so much that he’s become a hermit, either.

Cirsova: Stark also has PTSD from being left alone on hell world as a child having to fend off giant lizards with a stick until a space cop found and adopted him.

Bushi: Yeah, that could be a big contributor. Anyway my main point was that Stark seems to me like a likely genesis of the sterotypical barbarian flying into a fit of blind rage and killing everything. And yes, as [Gitabushi] says, that can go back further to berserkers.

Cirsova: Stark makes more sense if you look at him as more nuanced version of the Angry Black Man trope; he was marginalized himself, and is an outsider even in the world that took him in, so he sympathizes with and is angry for other marginalized peoples. Sometimes that anger boils over.

Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

Bushi: Also Conan is basically a proto-Celt, no?

Cirsova: Yeah

Bushi: I’m sure the Norse berserkers were an inspiration for these guys, even if they weren’t the only ingredient.

Cirsova: Also, Tom Moldvay has Stark as a 15th level Chaotic Good Fighter in AD&D. https://annarchive.com/files/Drmg028.pdf

Bushi: Did AD&D have the barbarian class?

Cirsova:  Stark’s stats apparently pre-date the Official inclusion of the Barbarian class. And Moldvay’s stats for Stark include “reverting to N’Chaka” ability, which is basically Rage. Dude, we are “an hour or two’s more research than I have time for” away from a major breakthru in proving you may be right! There is literally now evidence that would support the theory that “Berserker Rage mechanics as it appears as an ability of the Barbarian Class directly descending from some BS Moldvay cooked up to stat Stark.”

Okay, now to burst your bubble. Original AD&D Barbarian class didn’t have Rage. It was originally an outdoorsy, high HP Fighter/Thief/Ranger mix. https://annarchive.com/files/Drmg063.pdf

Bushi: My question is when did they pick up rage, and was there any cited or suggestion inspiration?

Cirsova: Well, I linked the original official class. I don’t know when Rage was introduced. I don’t have time to research it right now, but I’ll try to aggregate some stuff for a post next week.

Also worth seeing how Rage stacks up to N’Chaka Beastmode: +5 to hit +7 to damage +5 AC penalty +8 save vs. empathic spells/charms 2d4 rounds

There’s an interesting digression on the nature of Civilization vs. Barbarism, but I’ll save that for tomorrow!

2 responses to “On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class

  1. I believe the Barbarian rage ability appeared in the Complete Barbarian’s Handbook for 2nd Edition AD&D. It was added as an ability to one of the barbarian kits, and kits were essentially a bolt-on of benefits and drawbacks to a character class that you took at 1st level.

    That rage ability then went into the 3rd Edition D&D barbarian.

    Basic D&D had berserkers as a type of man encounter in the monster chapter and they would get a +2 bonus to hit rolls and +1hp per hit die when berserk, and would even attack allies.

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