Barbarians get d8 HD and fight as a fighter of their level, have prime reqs Str and Con, and trade a bunch of weapon proficiencies and ability to use plate away for a pretty strong stealth ability that penalizes enemy surprise rolls, a bonus to init and surprise rolls, ability to roll twice for mortal wounds and choose, and a proficiency based on land of origin, which also determines which weapons they can use. Options include viking (Climbing, gets two-handed melee weapons), nomad (Precise Shooting, gets lance and composite bow), and tribesman (Running, gets... pretty crappy weapons). Unfortunately, all those Fighting Value tradeoffs mean they're at 2600 XP to 2nd level.
Between the lack of plate and the slow leveling, my players have pretty much dismissed this one. The thing here is that compared to other fighter-variants like assassin, explorer, and spellsword, it's not really clear how barbarian is supposed to fight. Explorer is supposed to do archery, and they have tremendous synergy built into the class so that they're good at it from 1st level (granted, Prof Tax for Precise Shooting, but that's a separate issue). Spellsword fits naturally into a second-row spear-and-sleep in plate role right out of the gate. Assassin's a little weirder, but it's pretty clear that you're supposed to be sneaky out front to get in the backstabs (but we rarely use them that way, because we consider plate a prerequisite for front-line).
Barbarian sends mixed messages. The Con prime req, d8 HD, and Savage Resilience suggest that you should be out front taking the hits, but you don't have plate and party healing resources are limited, so this seems like a Bad Playstyle. The surprise modifier suggests that you should be trying to get the drop on people, which certainly benefits from being on the front line. The three backgrounds bring Climbing, Precise Shooting, and Running, which are not good, solid front-liner abilities. Sure, Climbing can help you get into position to surprise people, but then you still need to capitalize on that. Precise Shooting doesn't synergize with surprise well at all; if they're surprised, they're probably not in melee yet. It lets you follow up surprised ranged attacks once melee is engaged, if you want to roll dedicated archer... but then you should've been an explorer for the faster leveling, Dex prime req, and crazy-good wilderness stealth. Running lets you close or get out, but generally combats start at pretty close distances so it's most likely going to be used for escape, which requires the rest of your party to accommodate an aisle of retreat through the phalanx (and even then, how often is that little bit of extra movement going to make the difference?).
So I think this is how barbarian's supposed to work:
- Be in the front line
- Enemy fails surprise about half the time because you are naturally stealthy. You, of course, do not fail surprise much because you have Combat Reflexes
- In the surprise round, you charge in with a spear or two-handed weapon and Ambushing and try to cleave up a bunch of guys in the surprise round and force penalized morale rolls
- If that works, then they flee and you win
- If that doesn't, they whale on you, Con and Savage Resilience keep you alive until the party can recover you or you can disengage.
- If you don't get surprise, you are sad, possibly fall back into the second row.
It's sufficiently-impetuous for a barbarian. It's sort of skirmishy, like Keegan's History of Warfare would lead us to expect of primitive peoples. It's a much more aggressive way to play than our typical fighter, higher-risk and higher-reward; when it goes right, it's a combat-win in the surprise round, and when it goes wrong, you're out a bunch of healing.
The thing here is that Ambushing is clutch for capitalizing on those "surprise, barbarian!" moments. And indeed, the suggested template for Barbarian has Ambushing. The only other class proficiency which seems to me to really compete with Ambushing is Armor Training, which gives you plate and turns you into a slow-leveling fighter with Savage Resilience. Ambushing just completes the class' natural synergy.
Which is why, if I were to redesign Barbarian, I'd get rid of the origin proficiencies, give all Barbarians Ambushing, and standardize a weapon list with: polearm, lance, spear, sword, composite or longbow (the important weapons), javelin, dagger, battle-axe, short-sword, two-handed sword or greataxe. Possibly vary weapon list with origin, or maybe do away with origin entirely. Then for your first-level class proficiency, you have some real options:
- Fighting Style: Shield in combination with a spear boosts your defense after the charge - run in for d8x3, then switch to one-handed spear and draw your shield (as a free action). Also scales nicely as magic shields become available.
- Berserkergang lets you double-down on the ambush; if they're all dead or fleeing before they get the opportunity to attack, the AC penalty doesn't matter, and the to-hit bonus stacks up ridiculously with Charge and Ambushing (seriously, +8 to hit is a lot). For best results, combine with polearm for d10x3.
- Combat Reflexes or Alertness mean you're never surprised, can always capitalize when the enemy is surprised
- Skirmishing or Running to get back out
- Sniping if you want to do bow-ambush from the second row on surprise, then switch to polearm or spear once melee is joined (this feels like a very solid way to play a first-level barbarian)
- FS: Two-Handed and FS: Polearm continue to be mediocre at first level - the two-handed damage bonus is small, and the polearm init bonus is outdone by Combat Reflexes
In the wilderness, get a horse and a lance and continue to charge from ambush, then disengage for horse-archery or more charges. In mass combat, your synergy breaks down; you can get Command and leads troops OK, but surprise doesn't really work. You might still be able to use Ambushing in commander-duels if you bring potions of invisibility, but generally I'd expect a barbarian with typical magic gear (chainmail, shield, sword) to lose to a fighter of equivalent level with similar magic gear (plate, shield, sword) in a straight-up fight. Maybe I'm discounting the Con bonus you probably have from the prime req, though. Polearms get much worse at high levels because magic ones aren't on the treasure tables, and even two-handed swords are sort of DM's discretion with the sword table. Magic spear (+ magic shield) is probably your best bet, if you can find one.
To address some potential objections: it's true that this is a more generic conception of barbarian. It doesn't have the origins, and it doesn't try to model three different historical societies in a single class. I'm OK with that. When D&D players hear barbarian, they're looking for reckless offense. I'm OK with giving it to them. This may not be Rage as expected, but it still plays like the barbarians we know and love. It's also true that this barbarian class is slightly gamey; the weapon selection is strong, and the abilities synergize well. I'm OK with that too - they pay for the weapon selection with the Fighting Value tradeoff XP, and abilities synergizing well is fine when explorer and assassin do it.
Compared to fighter, this barbarian has greater ability to end combats before they begin, but has to assume greater risks to do so. Compared to assassin, barbarian is tougher and better able to deal with the ambush going wrong, and has stronger stealth at low levels but weaker stealth at high levels. Compared to both of these classes, it levels more slowly.