Welcome to our third in the series ‘When is a barbarian NOT a Barbarian?’. Now, just so you can understand and not get confused, were talking about PCs or NPCs who are born in a barbarian tribe, NOT multiclassing with the Barbarian class. This is more for fleshing out characters or NPCs than helping you build that Min/Max character you always wanted. If you play D&D long, you’ll find out that numbers and the ‘best builds’ are only a small part of the amazing story-telling device that this ‘game’ is.
Last week, we took the easy path and developed an Aberrant Mind Sorcerer. We also did a character reference on the shaman of the Bear Tribe of Icewind Dale during the Frostmaiden adventure book; Ulkora where we used this build for that very character.
This week, we tackle a much harder sale: a barbarian Wizard!
IT’S ALL A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
Now, before we can go into the meat of this, we have to suspend some stereotypes we’ve been stuck on for a while in D&D. First off, the whole aversion of barbarians to use much magic. Once again, that’s barbarian with a little b, not the class. As far back as 1st edition, they have built the wild men of D&D as not much more than nature magic. Now, that and several other bad stereotypes have been tossed to the wayside, thank god. But there’s still common misconceptions about both those born barbarians and the practitioners of learned magic.
Now, barbarians, for a long time are considered quite dull in the head. Even one of my favorite Critical Role characters, Grog, comes across mighty daft. The fact is that there should be quite a diversity of all attributes among even the barbarians. Not all barbarians should be super-brutes. And, therefore, there should be some of their kind that are more intelligent than those around them.
Some barbarian tribes, like the Elk Tribe of Icewind Dale, frequent civilization more than others. Not all barbarians are cut off from the cities. And, in the same ilk, not all are limited in their learning. In the Rhime of Frostmaiden, the Elk Tribe had a shaman that was a close friend of the tribal chief. The Elk King also respected the shaman because of his ‘understanding of the gods and spirits’. Now, as we play through this adventure, they will come to find that Mjenir, the aforementioned shaman, is, in fact, a wizard in his own right.
Now, before you let loose a million reasons why it can’t happen, let me point out some of the misconceptions about wizards that cause you to think this way.
The PHB claims that the drive to be a wizard is their hunger for knowledge. I see no reason why one of barbarian descent cannot follow their love and thirst for knowledge. The Elk Tribe of Icewind Dale frequent Ten Towns far more than the other tribes. They are still wild people, but are more accepting and peaceful. One with that thirst for knowledge could find sustenance in these towns. Now, mind you, this area is a low magic adventure area, but it doesn’t mean that a fledgling wizard couldn’t blossom from the wild. All it takes is one contact to teach them to read tomes or even how to gather spells and it’s on!
Assuming that no barbarian could ever be smart enough to learn such things is as prejudice as saying all orcs are evil or all elves good. I have mentioned and have told my players for decades that I believe in exceptions. A wizard rising from the wild is definitely an exception. I’m not saying the wilderness should team with such characters. I’m just saying that they should exist out there somewhere.
This makes for a great backstory. Your barbarian couldn’t gain the knowledge they craved staying with the tribe, so they set out to learn the world. They would be the best learning sponges; absorbing everything they come into contact with. It would be less ‘me barbarian…what do this do?’ and more ‘Oh! I’ve never seen anything like this. Show me how it works!’. Once you lift the limiting blinders off your eyes, you can open yourself to some real ingenious builds.
But, maybe the plan isn’t to leave the tribe, but to serve it like Mjenir of the Elk Tribe. Their learning would only go so far as the knowledge of Ten Towns. Although, they have a host of visitors to interact with to grow that need, possibly their vast knowledge of the Arcane comes from a tradition INSIDE the tribe.
What happens to barbarians who are born weaker? Some tribes would consider them a pariah and want them out. But, let’s say, one tribe (the Elk Tribe?) has a long tradition of honoring those born smaller and frail as a sign that the gods have sent them someone who may be able to continue the tradition of magic handed down from many generations. Or maybe, those who show an aptitude to learn whether they are weak of muscle or not would be trained to see if they could take the traditions of their ancestors and unlock the magic in their ancient tomes.
Ancient tomes? Do we expect fancy scrolls or books from barbarians? No, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t learned to record these spells. There would be something akin to a animal skin; tanned and inscribed with the words both instructing and empowering those with the power to learn with magic beyond their wildest imagination. Once they show an aptitude in such learning, they would be able to scribe their own ‘spellbook’ or, in this case, a ‘spellskin’.
This way, the wizard could even leave the tribe and use the spells learned, continue to decipher the more powerful spells and/or inscribe new spells onto the skin. From here, they would advance just like any wizard. This unique build can open some entertaining, exciting and original role-playing.
D&D had attempted to do something like this in an article printed in DRAGON MAGAZINE #344 printed in June 2006. Calling it an Anagokok, they built it like a specialist wizard. Basically it got everything a wizard gets unless laid it out in this article. Unfortunately, having a chance to really blow the lid off of the stereotypes, they failed. In the first level, they gave them ILLITERACT feeding that barbarian means dumb thought that permeated most D&D character builders.
BACKGROUND: A GOOD PLACE TO START
I think beginning with the Outlander background, you can best set the ground work for you wild wizard. Just because they’re no powerfully strong doesn’t mean they don’t know how to survive. So gaining the Survival proficiency just makes sense. Athletics may seem like a waste, but consider this. Your character may not be a powerhouse, but, to survive the wild, they will have build some form of Athleticism. Both of these skills may save your wizard down the road.
It does get you another language to know on top of all of those you achieve with that high intelligence score.
Taking the Wanderer Feature in this background gives you excellent memory of maps and your surroundings for remembering later. You will have less trouble bringing to memory features and terrain as wells any settlements, fauna or inhabitants of the lands you travel through. On top of that, each day you can gather food for you and up to five people; perfect for a party. If there’s food available, you can get it.
From the skills offered as a beginning wizard, you could go for the more practical and choose from Insight, Investigation or Medicine. On top of the survival skills given by the background, knowing Medicine would put you on entry level healing too; making you hyper useful.
Or maybe your skills are more mystical and otherworldly. Then, chose from skills like Arcane, History or Religion. It’s possible that your connection with your ancestors has given you special knowledge of the gods, going ons in the world or the innerworkings of magic. Of course, a mix of the two is totally appropriate; it’s your character, after all.
SCHOOLING THE WILD WIZARD
As you can see above, they take the logical approach and make their magic akin to survival and nature. Now you could make a very useful PC using these spells alone, but it can be limiting. They took a great many of the damage spells like Lightning Bolt and Fireball away from them and it seems natural that they would deal in these types of Evocation spells that takes it cues from nature. In fact, this type of wizard would make a great abjuration specialist.
But you could argue that most of the schools are natural choices. As protector of their people, Abjuration magic would be an obvious choice. Possibly, they are the eyes of the tribe looking to the future and all of the possibilities of life. This individual would be a master of Divination magic and they would become more of an oracle. It wouldn’t be beyond the imagination for a wizard of the wild to call both animals and creatures to their side as a Conjuration wizard. Maybe they stand with the Chief using their Enchantment magic to influence allies and enemies alike.
It’s not beyond reason to build an Illusion wizard who uses images of animals or their ancestors to aid in the protection of their tribe. Your wild wizard could concentrate their studies or maybe the magic of their ancestors focused on Transmutation magic; altering the bodies of their warriors to do more damage or turning an enemy into a toad. You may even run into that dark barbarian tribe whose traditions are steeped in Necromancy.
There’s no end to the possibilities. You can truly unlock so many adventure paths just by looking at a group of people and a class in a different way. Go experiment. Or maybe you already have. Let us know what you have done with a wild wizard in the past. As I’m fond of saying, we do not build in a vacuum and sharing your experience can not only help us at the Magic Tavern, but all of our Tavern Mages out there!
WHEN IS A barbarian NOT A BARBARIAN?
ALSO CHARACTER REFERENCES BUILT OFF THE ABOVE CONCEPTS: