I like to make characters. Coming up with character ideas, stat configurations, toying with different class/race/background combinations. As an exercise I’m taking the thirteen standard backgrounds and trying to come up with a character concept combining every class/background combination for ideas. Today I’m going to start, alphabetically, with the barbarian. If you like these ideas feel free to steal them, if you hate these ideas tell me I’m an idiot in the comments, and if nothing else hopefully they’ll inspire you to have some cool character ideas of your own.
Is there a God of Barbarians? (Crom?) Does he have followers? (Isn’t that a requirement of being the God of something?) Are those followers all non-multiclass Clerics? (Of course not. Some of them are Barbarians.) I think this guy spends all his time in the wilderness, communing with nature, learning from the bear and the wolf, and unlike a druid, instead of becoming one with nature, he learns how to smash it. Smash it real good. He is a totem barbarian, and he hates your cities.
This one is the one that took me the most time to think about. I’m imagining him as someone who was part of a barbarian tribe that was wiped out by some nobleman sending mercenaries to exterminate them off “his land”. This makes the barbarian a last of his tribe (a tired trope, to be sure, but still usable) who has somehow forged documents and is managing to convince people that he’s a long lost relative of the noble, and he plans to tear the man limb from limb when he finds him. He’s like Tarzan, only he has a plan.
Conan always considered himself a thief, even though he was built like a small mammoth. Barbarian thieves could also be bandits, hanging out in the outlands, the desert or the forest, waiting for unwary travelers to come by, and rob them through force. And of course that eventually means that the law will come looking for them, and he enjoys that, because then he gets a chance to crack skulls.
My first thought was circus strongman. I like the idea of him showing off feats of strength, lifting wagons full of hay over his head and bending bars for the amusement of local villagers. But then I also thought he could go the route of the guy who shows up to wrestle bears in front of a crowd. And in a D&D world, he could also wrestle owlbears or something equally ridiculous. Imagine a wagon pulls into your village with a caged owlbear, and then some giant dude in a loincloth made out of leopard skin lets him out and wrestles him for twenty minutes while the crowd oohs and aahs.
Folk Hero Barbarian
Basically I think of this guy as Hercules. He’s tearing the heads off lions with his bare hands and wrestling boars to the ground and beating them to death with their own tusks. The Folk Hero background is basically you’re a local legend, so the barbarian that single handedly ran off the evil despot Baron’s douchebag soldiers is where this guy’s story flows from. I like to think the townsfolk are simultaneously thrilled that he’s there to help, and ever so slightly concerned that if he’s having a bad day there will be a frenzied killing spree.
Guild Artisan Barbarian
What kind of artisan would a barbarian be? A sculptor! What could be a more barbaric artistic endeavor than using a hammer and chisel to tear apart a block of stone into a well-carved statue? As a hot-tempered artist his fighting style would definitely be berserker barbaric. He just wants to find new and interesting monsters to kill so he can carve their likeness into marble, along with his likeness taking stabbing them repeatedly.
How long do you have to live on your own in the wilderness before your response to everything is just, “I bash it.”? A week? A month? Twelve years? The reason people become hermits is because they hate other people, and Barbarians like to break other people in half. It’s a perfect flow. So the question is, why is your barbarian a hermit? He was probably overly violent and got kicked out of his village for solving all his problems with fist fights. Exiled. Forced to live in the wilds, where most men would have died, but instead he became stronger. And now? He hates that village. Those bastards that threw him to the wolves. Well, you know what? He killed those wolves. And he ate their meat, and wore their fur as a hat and used their bones to eviscerate other wolves, and now he’s back and he’s not happy about being thrown out there in the first place.
We could probably just follow Conan for like 5 of these, but wasn’t he made King at some point? And wouldn’t that make him a Noble Barbarian? To be fair, that’s not his background, it’s his future, but that got me thinking, didn’t Conan have a son? (Conn, I think.) And wouldn’t he be a barbarian with a noble background? I like this idea, the son of a chieftain of some non-city folk tribe or village. What does the Noble background grant you, History and Persuasion skills? Well, that tracks, you know the history of your people, and you can persuade cannibals not to eat you. But what could be cooler than the son of a proud chief being sent out into the world, expecting a level of privilege and subservience and then having to beat people to death with a club when they don’t treat you with the proper respect?
This is the default option given in the PHB, so it really shouldn’t need much consideration as far as creative ideas go. Outlanders are from “somewhere else” and don’t understand “normal society”. Like Conan. See how often he pops up? He’s synonymous with the word Barbarian, even though I suspect he’s more of a Champion Fighter. But Outlanders come from far away and the rules where they come from are invariably some Nietzsche-an version of “the strong are in charge”, like Klingons, or Orcs. If you’re an outlander you’re playing the basic, “I have to learn the ways of this land or fight my way to glory” style barbarian.
Sage is an interesting one because I like the idea that he’s spent his entire life studying how to kill other things. Like he’s some indigenous Australian Barbarian whose only mission in life is to kill all other lifeforms. He’s studied anatomy for the opposite of medical reasons. He doesn’t want to fix your broken limbs, he wants to know where to hit them so they break in the most painful way possible. He doesn’t want to know how your senses work, unless by knowing so he knows how to completely disable them with an overhand smash to the bridge of your nose. He’s almost like a non-secretive serial killer. Violence as an academic pursuit. Professor Bonesmasher.
The angry pirate is such a great trope, and again, if you know who Amra the Lion is, you’ll know that Conan has managed to pop up again. But pirates are great fodder for barbarians. They’re not military trained fighters, they’re all punch and swagger. And a former pirate who has some reason for adventuring is a fun idea. Maybe he had a traumatic experience with a sea monster and he’s vowed never to go back to the ocean. He knows a lot of things about the ocean, but that’s just a good reason to avoid it. He’s now a land shark, a tremendously powerful force in combat and someone with a sailor’s vocabulary and history.
I am imagining the Dothraki horde. Or anybody who was a follower of Genghis. Barbarians make great soldiers, as long as you don’t expect them to salute, or pay any respect to their commanding officers (unless their commanding officers are bigger and stronger than they are). They aren’t trained to perfect the art of using every weapon as much as they’re trained to let their inner insanity go free and just turn into whirling dervishes of blade and fury. So a former barbarian soldier who has won (or lost) a war and is trying to find that thrill of combat again makes a perfect reason for a barbarian to want to take up the adventuring lifestyle. Plus, as a soldier, they never let you fight dragons, so that’s a plus.
Born and raised on the streets the biggest and baddest of the orphan kids isn’t taught how to harness their energy into productive pursuits, and they aren’t taught how to hold a sword, or spin it around in a flourish to intimidate their opponents. Instead they learn anger and hatred, and they slam their bodies into people they don’t like, they use their fists and whatever weapon happens to be handy. And if you can get mad enough fast enough you can win any fight against the other street urchins. And now you’re grown, and surviving on the streets has become impractical, so you head to the town square where someone’s looking for “adventurers” to take on the local kobold clan who keeps kidnapping the noble’s children, and you see an opportunity to turn your ferocity into gold.
Ok, that’s it for today. 13 backgrounds, one class, a bunch of (hopefully useful) ideas. Now go out there and try not to just be Conan.