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The Faces of Rage: Adding Character to Barbarians

The Faces of Rage: Adding Character to Barbarians

Attila the Hun by Eugene Ferdinand Victor Delacroix
I don’t always play barbarians, but when I do, I prefer huge, hulking characters with terrifying battle cries and a frenzied look in their eyes. Anyone who has ever sat at a table with a barbarian has likely noticed, though, that they’re sort of a one-trick pony: it’s all about the Rage, capital “R.” And why not? It boosts your Strength and Constitution scores, gives you bonus hit points and increases your resistance to mental control, all for a paltry Armor Class penalty. That’s not the problem . . . the problem is that just by calling the ability Rage, it gives players a prejudiced view of what happens when the ability is activated, and that can lead to stagnant character concepts. But if you change up the flavor, then your barbarians can each become unique.

What am I talking about? Isn’t Rage just a mechanical representation of the killing frenzy that only the less civilized can truly harness? Sure, if that’s how you want to play it out, but that doesn’t have to be the only explanation for it.

As a “for instance,” you could play a young barbarian who comes from a tribe that worships and feels a connection to his or her ancestors. Perhaps Rage represents a connection to your barbarian’s parents, grandparents, and the warriors that came before. You could show this by changing the weapon your barbarian fights with when raging, changing the way the barbarian fights, or even altering the tone of voice and manner of speech to sound more archaic. Alternatively, you might be playing a barbarian that treats combat like a sport. Rage could represent when your barbarian stops laughing and decides that it’s time to go to sudden death, making it a representation of the character’s true ferocity when your barbarian decides to give his or her all to a fight.

There’s an endless variety of ways that you can spin Rage to make your barbarian more memorable. Maybe, rather than shouting a battle cry, your barbarian fights in complete silence and with no emotion at all. By combining that with feats such as Die Hard or Orc Ferocity (found in the Pathfinder game), you’ve created a mystique for a barbarian that will make other players wonder why he or she fights that way, along with giving them a signal that your barbarian’s rage has begun. Maybe you have a barbarian who is an alcoholic or who’s addicted to alchemical performance enhancers, and he or she can’t use Rage without that stimulation. Perhaps the potion itself is the trigger, like the sacred herbs that some legends state that the Viking berserker was supposed to eat.

It’s sort of like the personas that professional wrestlers come up with; sure they’re all huge, strong, and tough, but it’s their flavor and their signature styles that make them good or bad, and that can make them memorable or forgettable. Once you know what Rage is to your character, you can then choose appropriate weapons, triggers, skills, and feats to best build off the story that you’re creating. If you do that, there’s a chance that your barbarian might just become one of the most memorable characters in the party.

10 thoughts on “The Faces of Rage: Adding Character to Barbarians”

  1. When I played my falfling barbarion during the days of Living Greyhawk, his rage consisted going into baser animal instincts. His higher mental functions would disappear and you found the beast hunting down his prey, the enemy. I enjoyed playing that character and interacting with others who try to calm him down and restore his higher mental functions.

  2. I actually used an urban barbarian for an older marine captain in a steampunk-ish Pathfinder game. The idea was that he fought with absolute focus and determination. The urban barbarian allows for a controlled rage that doesn’t preclude higher thought and avanced tactics.

    The GM didn’t get what I was going after at first. Then I showed him the picture I was using. Stephen Lang (You might remember him from shows such as Avatar or Terra Nova). Once he saw that, he got the whole idea of the character and how his “Rage” worked.

  3. Years ago one of my players had a barbarian who was a drug-addicted escaped convict. His teeth were permanently stained black from the drugs he would devour. I thought it was a great concept. Of course it didn’t stop me from eviscerating his character.

  4. While mechanically half decent, and i have enjoyed playing a barbarian, I have to say flavour wise the barbarian rage ability is still one of my pet peeves of the recent DND era. All barbarians have anger issues! all barbarians are illiterate! and they don’t do ANYTHING ELSE. *grumble grumble*

  5. I’ve only played a barbarian one time. He was a noble savage with a surprisingly good sense of humor and gentle manner, but when he raged everything changed. His voice died away. He wouldn’t cry out in pain or warning. Tunnel-vision locked his eyes onto his target and he attacked with reckless abandon, never uttering a sound. It was as if the rest of the world ceased to exist. There was only his quarry and him, nothing else mattered.

  6. I remember playing a kabuki inspired barbarian who used humiliation to power his abilities. Also a barbarian school of war who taught people with anger issues to channel their rage into combat. They were fiercely disciplined and controlled. Great article, illustrating how something as simple as a choice of name colours how we think of a mechanic, and how renaming it can have a large influence on how we think of it.

  7. Im currently in the process of making a partially insane barbarian. not insane like Damage, but literally insane. backstory being that he was sold to be a slave in the mines, got lost, and during his wander throughout the underdark, he lost his mind. eventually found his way out, but never fully regained his sanity. so in normal combat he will fight with precision, but in rage, he “blacks out”. forgetting where he is, who hes with, and whats going on. fighting for survival, he drops his weapons and fights with his natural weapons. punching, kicking and biting anything that threatens him, until that threat is gone. i might change it so that there were other miners with him so that i have an excuse not to hit party members, in case DM has me roll to see who i attack in a rage.

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