Some More on Barbarian Rage

Last week GitaBushi tried to troll PCBushi and me into getting into another lengthy discussion on the origins of Barbarian Rage in Dungeons & Dragons.

Fortunately, I saved us all a lot of time and trouble by finding this, which has some great answers on the subject.

If you recall from a couple weeks ago, I’d found that yes, there was a possible “ur example” of Rage in Moldvay’s stats for Stark, but it was not a feature of Gygax’s original Barbarian class, which was more an outdoorsy fighter (really more akin to a high-HP Ranger than what most folks think of as a D&D Barbarian today).

Although the barbarian was introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) in the Unearthed Arcana supplement, they were tribal wilderness warriors more akin to rangers, and didn’t have anything resembling the rage ability. It wasn’t until Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition that barbarians appeared with an ability with the actual name “Rage.” However, there were earlier versions of the Rage ability that just had different names.

In The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition) there is the Brute class kit which provides a barbarian with the “Wild Brawl” special ability, which is introduced with, “When fighting without weapons, the Brute can propel himself into a berserk frenzy.” However, “Wild Brawl” is mechanically entirely unrelated to Rage.

In the same book, the Ravager class kit provided the barbarian with the “Become Enraged” special ability, with which the “Ravager may work himself into a fighting frenzy, increasing his effectiveness in combat.” Mechanically, an enraged Ravager hits easier and does more damage, is hit easier, is harder to damage, and is harder to charm.

Also in AD&D 2nd edition there is a Warrior class kit exclusive to dwarves in The Complete Book of Dwarves called the Battlerager, which is “a fearless warrior, able to create an insane rage within himself which increases his fighting ability and distorts his physical features,” and therefore a dwarven barbarian in all but name. A Battlerager in “the Killing Rage” receives bonus hit points, bonuses to attack and damage, and an AC bonus, as well as being immune to charm-like effects, but may not stop fighting until there are no more enemies standing.

Similar to the Battlerager is the is the Berserker class kit for fighters in The Complete Fighter’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition). A Berserker takes a long time to “Go Berserk”, but once Berserk gains similar benefits and also can’t stop fighting until every enemy is down. Notably, a Berserker isn’t allowed to know their own hit points while Berserk!

The Complete Book of Dwarves was published in 1991, four years before The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook; but The Complete Fighter’s Handbook was published two years earlier in 1989, making the Berserker the first barbarian-like† character with an ability that is recognisable as a “rage” ability.

†Bear in mind that before D&D3, the actual barbarian class was restricted to humans, so fighter class variants like the Berserker and Battlerager was the official way of playing a non-human character that fulfilled the same class role despite not bearing the name “barbarian.”

 

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On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class Part 2 – Civilization and Barbarism

The other day, during the discussion about Stark and Barbarians, I noted that Stark does NOT come from the template of European Barbarians, and would be more akin to an African warrior or Indian wild-boy. Cirsova contributor Jon M. Weichsel (whose story “Going Native” will appear in our Summer issue) jumped in, and we drilled down a bit on the nature of “barbarians”, though it’s a digression that took us fairly far from the original topic of Dungeons & Dragons.

 

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.

JonWeichsel: Yes. Stark is closer to Mowgli or Tarzan than Conan. He was an orphan raised by savage aliens on Mercury and was then rescued and civilized by a human but still carries some of the savage ways he was brought up with. I wouldn’t call him a barbarian.

Bushi: I think there’s an argument for that. There’s also an argument that Mowgli and Tarzan would be barbarians, too. Comparing Conan and Stark in text, they’re both uncivilized men who can function in society but still hold it in contempt.

JonWeichsel: But Conan is a foreigner who adheres to a Barbarian code despite the pressures of civilization. With Stark/Tarzan/other feral children there is an internal conflict between their wild upbringing and their humanity.

Bushi: I understand the distinction as you are laying it out, but I don’t get how they can’t all fall under the barbarian umbrella.

Cirsova: Well, in part because we need to define what we mean by “Barbarian” mechanically. If we mean “Barbarian” in the 1e mechanical sense, Conan’s a Barbarian, Stark is not. If we mean “Barbarian” in the trope as it was understood during the 70s S&S revival, then yes [Stark is]. Also worth noting, in 1e, there’s no restriction on a Barbarian’s armor, so yes, your Conan-esque barbarian could be wearing full plate.

Bushi: I mean a barbarian can mean a tribesman, sure. But it can also just mean a savage, uncivilized person, no?

JonWeichsel: Stark does combine the feral child and barbarian tropes, but as far as literature goes, I’d say barbarian is a social class while feral child is a condition of being. Like, if you found some guy living in the woods who had been raised by wolves, would you call him a barbarian?

Bushi: I probably wouldn’t reject the classification, but it’s possible that [I] don’t have an accurate conception of “barbarian.” As I suggested, I’ve always just kind of thought “one who is apart from civilization; a savage.” I’m sure it’s a useful distinction, just not one I’ve drawn (though perhaps I should?)  Following that line of thought, it’s maybe barbarian vs wild man.

Cirsova: It’s a one-way window. The Civilized person can observe and perceive the Barbarism of another, but to the Barbarian, he simply sees himself and his way of life, not any barbarity. It’s a false/illusory binary. Because Conan and Stark and Tarzan have come to the other side, they can see their own Barbarism from the perspective of civilization, and they are analytical of their past and/or present condition.

Bushi: So would you class Stark, Conan, Tarzan the same?

Cirsova: We’re getting into philosophical stuff that doesn’t reflect at all on D&D’s mechanics, but they all existed in a condition that the civilized man would call “Barbarity”, they all move to a place where they could observe and reflect that Barbarity from a civilized perspective, and they all took very different things from their self-reflection on what the conditions of Barbarity meant and how they contrast for better and worse with a “Civilized” state. The reason it is a false/illusory binary is that the “Barbarian’s” state may also be one of Civilization and a Civilization’s may appear to another as a state of “Barbarity”. Barbarity is not an absence of civilization but a one-sided perceived drastic imbalance between them. Tarzan and Stark were born into more savage (less civilized) circumstances than Kull or Conan, but even Tarzan’s upbringing among the apes was not anarchic.

Bushi: Ok well. I am going to make the great leap and say that absent other evidence barbarian rage comes from Stark. Because it will help me sleep tonight.

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!