Most people think when you roleplay a barbarian in DnD that you are just a dumb meat shield. While they are not wrong for most people, you can make a barbarian so much more!
If you want to roleplay a barbarian in DnD then work on the small things. How does rage work? What are tribal customs and why do you shun civilization?
This may seem like a small portion of what makes a barbarian, but each little piece makes up the whole. If you fully understand even 5 pieces of what makes a barbarian then you will be able to roleplay an amazing character!
The small things
If you want to roleplay a barbarian in DnD you need to figure out what makes them tick. For a barbarian, there are 7 unique options to your character.
- Savage culture
- Cultural differences
- The old ways
- Why your tribe doesn’t accept easy modern life.
- The rules of combat
These 7 options may be available to hermits or some other background option, but as a class, they are unique to you.
Rage is a big one. Determining how your rage works alone can shape your character. The mechanics of how rage works for you might be different than other barbarians. The cause of rage and where you draw your power from might also be different.
Your culture through totems or traditions is already different from others. This can define your character and lead to some fun cultural differences that are beyond just jokes.
The old ways. Your people follow the old ways and don’t accept modern life. What are the old ways? Why did you not chose to adapt to a much easier life in a city? Why did your tribe want to stay isolated?
Lastly, what are your rules of combat? Do you think that the strongest should survive? What about those who have not fully grown like children? Will you kill them or just disarm them? How about a barbarian that does not like to kill?
All of these are options that can shape your character. If you only explore 1 of these 7 options then your character will already have more depth than most barbarians out there.
So let’s dive into what makes a barbarian interesting to roleplay!
Your rage is a huge potential for roleplay. First, figure out what makes your rage work. Is it magic? Did you have to endure intense training in order to be able to rage? Was your rage discovered after a traumatic experience?
When you figure out what causes your rage you have taken the first step. To roleplay a barbarian in DnD with rage, reach into what makes the rage work.
If the cause is trauma, then maybe make your barbarian re-live the entire experience that caused him to rage. It is messed up, but it can have a huge impact on your character. For channeling the spirits or going through training, think of it as mental fortitude. Most of the time barbarians are more akin to ‘hulk smash!’ than majestic beasts.
If your rage is based on a traumatic experience they might be able to get triggered by things. It could be a form of PTSD and roleplaying a person who has PTSD could be interesting. It gets even more interesting when you consider that the PTSD is what makes you the most useful. If you end up getting over it your party might even sabotage your happiness for the sake of making you still be able to rage.
Channeling the spirits or going through specific training will mean that outwardly you are insane. Internally though, you are calm and collected. This alone will let you be different than the other dumb raging barbarians. You could give commands, make rational decisions, and do many other things that make you more interesting.
You can tell just from this short little snippet on rage that this one mechanic can allow you to roleplay a barbarian in DnD better than most barbarians. That is because we focus on small things. Grand flashy magic is nice, but true development comes from the things that make us a person. Not what we can do with unlimited power!
That is why we will continue with the small parts that make up your character.
Totems and tattoos are optional another interesting part of the barbarian. Not every barbarian will have totems or tattoos, but these are great opportunities to express yourself.
Tattoos in real life are not magical, but we still have them. People do not get tattoos ‘just because.’ There is a reason why a person gets a tattoo and it has a specific meaning. You can add this to your barbarian’s backstory. Give them a tattoo about how they made their first kill. Animal or humanoid. The choice will already tell others a bit about where the barbarian came from.
Totems are another huge part of roleplay a barbarian in DnD. If your tribe invokes the totem of the bear instead of the wolf, why? What is the story behind you being able to invoke the totem of the bear? Do you need to carry a bear totem with you at all times? If so does it need to be on a stick or is a bear hat a totem?
Each of these items is full of history, meaning, and character significance. When talking about tattoos you are telling others what you and your tribe values. Your totems can carry a religious significance with it and share a piece of your history.
This does not just pertain to totems and tattoos. You can apply this to other parts of your character. A hatchet that is only to be used to make sacrifices could be another strange item that you carry.
These strange items come from your culture. Your savage culture that we need to dive into.
As a barbarian, you come from a savage place. It might be the jungle, tundra, mountains or wherever else. These places are not merged with modern society. Your culture is a mystery that can be explored bit by bit.
Think of what a savage culture would need.
A savage culture would most likely be paranoid about survival. You, therefore, might have acquired some strange practices that make it easier for you to survive.
1 such practice might be that you need to cook every piece of meat before eating it and wash any fruit/vegetable before consuming it. Others might question why you are cooking rationed jerky, but if you don’t know or trust salting/smoking then it can be a character trait.
Your culture could value more than just raw strength. As a barbarian, you work in a tribe. Your tribe needs to survive and it does this through everyone’s strengths. This again does not mean that every strength is physical. Those who are elders or who know more might be valued for guidance and advice.
Your new tribe, the party, might require a leader. Instead of having a leader based on strength you might desire a leader who is practical and able to keep everyone alive through wit and knowledge. If someone should be the leader and doesn’t step up you can try to force that person since what they are doing, not stepping up, is wrong in your eyes.
Your savage culture can give you an almost infinite number of options to roleplay a barbarian in DnD. Take some time to figure out a few traditions and work from there. Your savage is now a person who just has a different culture. Speaking of different cultures.
We established in the last section that a barbarian’s culture is different than a normal person’s culture. This can lead to some interesting scenarios.
- A barbarian will only eat bread if she/he washes it. This makes them hate bread and not understand or trust modern cooking.
- A barbarian might think it is okay to challenge a leader if they are weak. This might lead to them challenging a king to a fistfight in their throne room.
- “I could eat a whole cow!” “What part of the cow and how many cows?” (not getting jokes, but that is kind of cliche’
- Hearing about different gods for the first time. Or hearing about religion at all for the first time!
- Always eating the dead as a sign of respect. Even humanoids.
- Differences of worship.
- Different ideas on what kindness and nobility are. Nobility might be strength while kindness is potentially killing someone before they do something too stupid.
All of these examples could be cultural differences that lead to an interesting experience when you roleplay a barbarian in DnD. There are far more cultural differences than what I listed. They were just a few and most were open-ended for a reason.
We have many cultural differences that happen in the real world. They do not have to be as drastic as challenging a king to a fistfight in their throne room, but they do exist. It could be an awkward difference of greetings, customs that differ like slurping noodles, etc.
These differences will add a little bit to your character and establish them as a person instead of a high hit point meat shield.
These cultural differences might be because others have lost the old ways.
The old ways
The old ways is a mystery box. Everyone was at 1 time like you. They were barbarians but decided to turn their backs on this way of life. You have not. You understand what the old ways teach and still follow them.
Every cultural difference, the rituals your savage world has, all lead to this. The old ways might have been passed down to you from the gods. They might have come from something boring, but this is DnD. You can make up an interesting backstory!
The old ways came about for a reason. You can have an origin story on the old ways or just state ‘that is how it is.’ Either way is up to you, but once again you can have a lot of fun with this mystery box.
I don’t want to give you too many ideas because just letting you explore the possibilities will yield better results for yourself. So, I will stop there with the old ways, but it does beg a question.
Why do you choose the old ways instead of modern technology/life?
Shunning the world
You and your tribe have shunned the world. You do not accept modern technology and have not accepted magic on a wide scale as the rest of the world. At best, you probably have 1-2 shamans and that is all. So I have to ask, why? Why do you not want to live like everyone else?
We have instances of this in our real world. People decide to live away from modern society and want to keep their tight-knit communities away from technology. The Amish are a great example. They originally broke apart for religious reasons and their society went from there. Your tribe might have the same reason.
Other reasons might appear like the distrust of magic or technology. Why do they mistrust these amazing wonders? What if a tragedy happened in the past that nearly wiped out their civilization? What if that tragedy was caused by magic or technology? That is a pretty good reason to avoid and distrust modern daily living.
Their ways of life are another good reason why the modern world was shunned. The barbarian group might be nomads who move around. Not just to conquer and kill, but they might be more like gypsies who were displaced and had nowhere to go.
Your tribe could also be a minority that has never found a land that they could call their own. It was always owned or fought over by others. In addition to this, when you lost your land your tribe keeps the traditions of their fallen civilization alive with them.
The reason why you shun society can be sad, impactful, and more. Don’t let your distrust of magic/technology go unanswered. It is an important part of your character. So important, that this might influence your rules of combat.
Rules of combat
Why do you fight? In order to roleplay a barbarian in DnD you need to know why you fight. Do you fight for honor, glory, sport, survival, what? Your reason for fighting will shape your character.
If you fight for the sake of fighting then you are like everyone else. Most sane or even savage people do not just fight to fight though. There are reasons behind every conflict and your reasons might be more than just to hit things.
Your rules of engagement could be to use everything at your disposal in order to win and that victory is always possible. This makes your barbarian look at the terrain, party members, and even magic items in order to win. Yes, your barbarian can be a tactician.
Your barbarian can also be something interesting. They can be a pacifist. I know this sounds weird, but your rules of engagement may prohibit you from killing those who can think. This might lead your barbarian to wrestle their foes and be a beast while not killing anyone. Again, pacifism might be different for your barbarian and it just means ‘don’t kill my race.’ Which can cause an interesting clash in ideals when you cut down an elven child.
Honor might be another huge part. Your honor may be flawed and require you to kill someone with a weapon or within reach of a weapon. This could include women, children, and others who normally can’t defend themselves. In your society, they can and should learn how to defend themselves so it might be honorable to kill a child if you kick him a dagger.
There are quite a few ways to play a barbarian in DnD. You do not need to be a mindless brute who hacks and whacks their enemies to death. Even if your code of conduct for combat is questionable.
Roleplay a barbarian in DnD does not have to be hard. You just focus on what makes your character tick. Think of the small things that let them develop. Don’t worry about the flashy magic or rolling really well at skill challenges. Your mechanical purpose is there to take damage and deal damage. You can do that just fine, but it is up to you to make an interesting character out of combat.
If you focus on these small details you will not be bored of playing a barbarian. Most players get bored since they don’t have a developed character out of combat. They just want to hit stuff.
With your culture, the choice to shun society, rage and more you can have a lot of fun in downtime. If you are still interested in what to do in downtime, take a look at this article. It was more meant for Dms, but you can glean some information from this.
I hope that I helped you create a more interesting barbarian that ‘rawr smash!’ Have fun with your barbarian and roleplay your heart out in the ways that only a barbarian can.
Also, if you want to check out our other guides on how to roleplay different classes then check out our theory blogs here!
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!