DMing for Barbarians
No, this is not about teaching Barbarians to dungeon master. They’d be terrible at it. This is about how to dungeon master so your barbarian player has the most possible fun. I’m going to be covering each of the D&D 5E classes. These columns will be based on 5E’s mechanical structure… but since 5E is the most “common descendent” of the editions, you can probably apply this advice to any kind of goblinsy talky-game. A lot of what I’m going to be discussing here will be the expectations of players, in any case.
On that note...
The first step in DMing for a player who wants to play a barbarian is to figure out what kind of barbarian they’re playing. In my experience, players mostly want to play three kinds of barbarians:
Some players just want to play a dumby dumb dummo. They want to speak with poor grammar, accidentally eat the oracle's scroll because they thought it was a fruit roll-up, and accidentally attack the good guys because they were too excited to be the cavalry. If well-managed, the Brick Barbarian will be a delight, providing an endless source of humor and forcing a lateral-thinking party to face some problems head-on. If poorly managed, a Brick Barbarian will annoy the rest of the party by smashing relics and starting fights they deeply wanted to avoid.
The trick to satisfying The Brick player is finding somewhere to channel their stupidity that is amusingly disruptive but doesn’t piss off the other players. The best configuration is probably if the Brick Barbarian trusts another character implicitly and that character is willing to mislead him for the good of the group. If you can’t find a way to sometimes get the Brick to play along, every session turns into a game of “argue with the fussy toddler” instead of thrilling heroics.
Ironically, combat isn’t when the Brick Barbarian shines-- that’s when he’s at his most predictable. The moments that the Brick Barbarian demands the most spotlight will always be when he’s most out of his element: crammed into a fancy suit at an aristocratic party, forced to figure out which of his wizards is the doppleganger, called to testify in court as the sole witness to a crime. And in these situations where the Brick absolutely does not belong, that’s where he actually has the most agency-- because he could change the fundamental nature of the scene just by choosing to be himself, or try to play along badly and see where it goes. I have a habit of putting an intelligence-enhancing item somewhere in a campaign so that the players can toy with the question of what their Brick would be like if he were smart.
The Noble Savage:
If your barbarian is grim, serious, and heavily critical of “civilized” life, she fits this archetype to a tee. Personally, I think a player usually walks into this kind of character because they want to learn to empathize better with a more “primitive” mindset, prove that there are merits to less techno-political forms of culture, and experience the familiar central-european fantasy as an outsider.
To play into this archetype is simple: Make your civilizations flawed. I’m a big fan of playing in worlds with much-less-than-utopian societies anyway, but make it a focus for your campaign and especially for narration at the barbarian. Point out to the barbarian how weirdly oppressive, grimy and repulsive these “advanced” civilizations are. And then, offer the opportunity to change things, preferably with an axe.
Conan, and the archetype he created, are actually at odds with most descendent depictions of barbarians in fantasy literature. Conan the Barbarian’s not just stronger than you. He’s also faster and smarter and sneakier. Conan is the ubermensch.
There are only a few ways to lean into a player’s Conanish character concept: First, have the world make assumptions. If the Conan looks like a dumb bruiser, have NPCs underestimate the Conan’s faculties and roleplay their surprise when she weighs in on an issue with insight and intelligence. Second, once the Conan’s mental fitness has been established, put your villains very off-kilter. A large part of the appeal of a Conan character is that their opponents should be intimidated of them not just physically but intellectually. Play up the fact that the player’s enemies are having a very hard time keeping a step ahead of a force that’s seemingly unstoppable and untrickable.
Now let’s talk about how to DM for barbarians in general:
Put an AC on the Gordion Knot
Figure out the break DCs on your locked doors. Know what’s on the other side of the dungeon wall even if it’s not another room.
Most DMs have an instinct to try to thwart lateral maneuvers players make to get around puzzles and other adventuring barriers that have a “correct” solution. This comes at the cost of player agency. Don’t magically reinforce the doors so they have to solve the rubix cube. Charging through the crumbling walls is just as fun a solution.
The 5th Edition DMG has rules for breaking stuff on pages 246-247. No need to memorize them, but do acquaint yourself with them so that you can make reasonable ad-hoc calls without cracking the book open.
And give your villains smashable props. You only need to describe the Lemure Queen’s crown glowing as a spell unfolds once or twice before players will want to smack it off her lumpy head-- how can they? If the archmage is drawing energy from the giant crystal in the middle of the room, how many hit points does that big dumb rock have, anyway?
Bars Wanna Wrassle
The defining feature of a barbarian character is almost always their tremendous strength, and they draw on tall tales and on notions of a culture amused by boasting.
Grappling probably almost never crosses your mind as a DM, and if it does, you probably think to grapple the squishy spellcasters to take advantage of their only weakness (which is their… you know... weakness). For most monsters, grappling a party member isn’t the most effective use of their action… and even for players it’s only circumstantially useful. But trolls aren’t master tacticians, and “she wrestled a troll and the troll lost” is the kind of fuel a barbarian’s legend can really get some mileage out of. Have your big dumb strong monsters sometimes get into a struggle of pure strength with the barbarian, who has advantage on those checks while raging.
Put Enemies Behind Deterrents
This is just a good principle of encounter design, really, but it’s especially good for barbarian players. Put certain enemies behind walls of fire, clouds of knives, prickly thorns, and other damage-dealing “soft obstacles.” The barbarian has a lot of hitpoints and damage soaking abilities and, whether brave or reckless, is probably going to jump at the chance to charge through the spikes.
Magic Items -- Make 'Em Metal
Barbarian players are usually looking to do things in a straightforward fashion, so +1 weapons and armor are generally fine without extra bells and whistles-- as long as they look cool. They're not going to throw away their father's broken greatsword, which they named Facechopper, unless you give them one with a skull for a pommel. If they're a totemic barbarian, try to give them something that matches their spirit animal. I had a barbarian once who got very excited about sharks (which he had only seen in a book once) and had a custom shark helmet and shark axe forged. He loved those stupid things.
Writing adventures with a barbarian in mind is mostly about finding ways to channel reckless force into productive avenues and to highlight their other-ized perspective. A barbarian player is a chance to show off your campaign world in a very different light.
That, and your barbarian player-- though they might often smash your stuff-- is never going to teleport around your encounters or surprise you with a shrinking spell. When you hand them a situation, you can usually be pretty sure of how they’ll react.