While running a campaign in Icewind Dale (Rime of the Frostmaiden), I have been taken with the Reghed Barbarians that live in the wilder part of this forsaken land. Living in this unforgiving winter that Auril has cursed this land with, the barbarians suffer on the harshest front. What was once a struggle to survive has become a battle with the chill of winter and power of death itself.
If we’re not careful, we get caught up in the tropes that make the genre. Just hearing the word ‘barbarian’ taints the way we see these people. We expect every man, woman and child in this frontier to carry levels in the actual class BARBARIAN.
I personally would love to see a raging toddler in a game. I know I’ve raised a few. And this all reminds me of Bobby the Barbarian from the 80s D&D cartoon.
But, it came to my attention that, obviously, there would be so many other classes represented among the ‘wild folk’. That being born a barbarian (little b-people) didn’t mean Barbarian (big B-class) And I set out to do a series. So far, we’ve studied the master artificer, the spectacular sorcerer and the wonderous wizard. This time, we’re going to go a little ‘down to earth’ with the ROGUE!
First off, you have to shed, once again, your preconceived notions as to what a ‘rogue’ actually is. To most, a rogue is a street savvy thief or a denizen of the assassin’s guild from the city. But the description in the Players Handbook lays it out more generally:
“Rogues rely on skill, stealth and their foes’ vulnerabilities to get the upper hand in any situation. They have a knack for finding the solution to just about any problem, demonstrating a resourcefulness and versatility that is the cornerstone of any successful adventuring party.” PHB p. 94
So the trappings that we are so used to when it comes to the rogue are just the trappings. We can just as easily flavor them for adventures in the wild. Now some of the subclasses are not optimum for this. But that’s why we have a number of them.
Unlike their warrior brothers, the rogues are built for speed. Given saving throws in Dexterity and Intelligence, they are made to be quick thinking on their feet. They are the spies, the infiltrators, the silent killers. There is a time for war and a time for precision removal. Even barbarians allow for a bit of surveillance and subterfuge.
Rogues are proficient with light armors like leather or studded leather. Usually not built as beefy as their raging cousins, they DO need a bit of extra protection. And it isn’t beyond reasonable for a barbarian to fashion such armor from the hides of the animals they kill. You can go as primitive or as sophisticated in weapons as you want. They get proficiencies with simple weapons, hand crossbows, long and short swords and rapiers.
As for skills, you choose from those that seem most unlike their wild selfs. But skills like Insight, Intimidation, Perception, Stealth and even Investigation or slight of hand are easily explained as a part of their upbringing and skill sets as barbarian intelligence. And, NO, that isn’t an oxymoron. Dare I say let’s keep away from the stereotypes here?
Before you begin to school me in the fine art of barbarianism and simply say that they would never sneak around or cowardly sneak attack someone, let’s stretch out examples from the northern European tropes of wild madmen who burn, rape and pillage everything in sight. Think of the Native Americans or the tribes of the Amazon. One of their hallmark abilities is to not be seen or heard, to ambush without warning or announcement and their skill in the art of surprising and instant kills. Did they have the ability to rage and use strength? Sure. But they just as easily used their dexterity to move quickly and silently; attacking from the shadows.
So, everything you get as a Rogue (Sneak Attack, Expertise in Stealth, cunning action, Uncanny Dodge, Evasion, Blind sense, Slippery Mind and Elusive) would make sense to appear among the barbarians. But what of the Archetypes? As I said, not all are optimal. They’re not supposed to be. But I found three that were and made we want to go out and build a Rogue of the Wild!
Scout is the archetype that makes the most sense and can be the easiest explained.
“You are skilled in stealth and surviving far from the streets of a city, allowing you to scout ahead of your companions during expeditions.”
Of all the settings that the Scout can be useful, having them live among the barbarians makes the most sense. They are ‘at home in the wilderness’ as well as around those that frequent the wild; Rangers and Barbarians. They serve as advance notice to a hunting or war band or even an adventuring party. They are AMBUSHERS, SPIES and BOUNTY HUNTERS. These could all easily be from the wilderness.
The Scout is good in a fight and are ‘hard to pin down’. The Skirmisher feature at 3rd level allows you to move half your speed in reaction to an enemy stepping within 5 feet of them. And no opportunity attack? Nice. Also at 3rd level, you are given the Survivalist feature. Not only do you receive the Nature and Survival skills, your proficiency bonus is doubled for any check that uses them.
This means instead of taking Outlander as one usually does, you can chose another background. Athlete gives you the skills: Acrobatics and Athletics. This could come in powerfully handy out of the frontier where quick movement and athleticism is key. Also, being a scout means you travel farther from the tribe than any other member. Far Traveler may be a good fit. Receiving proficiency in Insight and Perception would go a long way to making you an alert and capable scout. Both Smuggler and Criminal will get you Deception and either stealth or athletics according to which one you pick. As a scout, you may have been party to moving trade goods into to town or, as a part of your infiltrating of the towns, you got caught up in criminal activity to get the job done.
Being quick is the name of the game for the scout. So, Superior Mobility at 9th level increases you movement by 10 feet and gives you this add on if you have a swimming or climbing speed, as well. Ambush Master fits right in with a barbarian rogue’s ability to set traps to snare and surprise enemies. And, finally, Sudden Strike at 17th level gives you a chance at two attacks with two sneak attacks; just not on the same target.
Every tribe needs scouts to watch the parameter of their land, lookout for incoming danger or to spy out what the enemy tribe is up to.
The second fit is the Assassin sublcass. These are developed for the more sinister aspects of the tribe and not all tribes would develop such skilled individuals as it would go against everything some stand for. But those barbaric folk who do not have such scruples, the Assassin is a stock and trade. Much like their brothers the raging Barbarians, they are skilled in the fine art of killing. The main difference is you never see the assassin coming. Masters of stealth and brewers of poisons, they are at home in the wild. An adventuring party traveling between towns has everything to fear of stealthy people of the wild hiding in the trees ready to strike. And where best to learn your way around poisons than where nature brews her own?
Assassinate at 3rd level, if you can go ahead of a target so that you get an attack before they even get started, you have advantage which is of paramount importance to your Sneak Attack. Plus, if they are surprised, its a crit!
The Assassin is the master at the fine art of infiltration and disguise. They are able to sneak into town unnoticed and exist among the ‘civilized folk’ without any of them knowing. This could be handy for gathering information about what the ‘town folk’ are up to. It could be important to the safety and longevity of the tribe. Infiltration Expertise (9th) gives you false identities and Imposter (13th) makes you the perfect mimic allowing you to easily take someone’s place. This gets you in close and, if necessary, Death Strike (17th) can be the final nail in his or her coffin.
PHANTOM or SPIRIT OF THE ANCESTORS
The one I’m most excited about using is the Phantom subclass. These are the rouges that ‘walk a fine line between life and death’. They have a ‘mystical connection to death itself’. If you’re wondering how this fits into the wild and the barbarian lifestyle, it’s simple. Many of the wild folk may not have gods, but they revere their ancestors. Their connection with the spirits of their past aka their ancestors is stronger. Having a group that has focused on this connection enough to make use of it is only logical.
These dark types would work well with a Necromancer as the Shaman of the tribe. As NPCs, a dark wizard bringing the undead with them coupled with these dealers of death would make quite a tag team for any party encounter. And the Phantom could gather their Tokens of the Departed from not only their kills, but those killed by the Necromancer or any ally actually.
A good place to start with this build would be Haunted One Background. First off, it would give you Survival that would be a natural fit for one living in the wild. And it would also give you access to Arcana, Religion and Investigation as a skill. So this is where you can really individualize this build. Are they steeped in the workings of the gods as well as all of the other primordial spirits that roam their land? Maybe they understand the more mystical side of life and specialize in the inner workings of magic and magic items. Or, possibly, they are just adept investigators; finding the information their tribe needs to survive.
Chosing this background allows you to flesh your character’s backstory. Adding a horrific event or encounter in their past that they just can move on from will tells us a great deal about who your character is. And who doesn’t like a tragic backstory? Strangely enough, the feature HEART OF DARKNESS allows others to see that you have seen some serious shit. This helps you make connection to others as they share in your darkness and are more prone to help you, aid you or fight along side you as they too have seen hard times and relate with your character.
If your character is lacking in a skill or tool proficiency or you just want to be good at it one particular day, your level 3 feature, Whispers of the Dead, can help you fill in the gaps. This would help greatly as, storywise, a person raised among nomads of the wilderness may be missing a few campaign essentials. Weird enough, they draw it from someone they have killed or seen killed. You can keep a pet skill you gained from a friend or family member that perished in your chosen Harrowing Event from the Haunted One background. Or maybe you draw from some random stranger that you just killed. Whichever it is, it, not only, fills in the blanks, but gives you story and background fodder.
Wails from the Grave allow your rogue to roll off one Sneak Attack kill into another although at half of the damage. But Necrotic damage is involved also further emphasizing your PC’s connection with death. And you can do this as many times equal to your proficiency bonus. So, not only are you a sneak and a master of the surprise attack, but you can actually cleave into a another enemy. This makes the PC a whirlwind of death; striking terror into their enemies.
Not only are you a more adept dealer of death, but you also take tokens off your victims. At 9th level, these Tokens of the Departed, although limited in number, can do multiple things from advantage on Death Saving Throws and Constitution Saves to doing another Wail from the Grave to basically using a Speak with the Dead. This further flavors your character’s connection with the underworld. Your resistance to death and damaging spells and your ability to speak with those who you have killed, make you a more resilient and versatile character. And damn spooky too.
Your feature at 13th level draws you closer and closer to that underworld you’re so fond of accessing. Ghost Walk is just what it sounds like. You have cemented your reputation as a mystical ghoul among your people and just about anyone else you come into contact with. Becoming intangible and phasing through solid objects makes for an amazing rogue.
Death’s Friend is sort of a let down, but, at 17th level, you find the connection drawing closer with free trinkets and increasing the necrotic damage given to all with your Wails from the Grave.
This is a great build for that aloof character that has a dark side. It’s actually THE dark side. Although the background makes them sound accessible, they actually are far from it. I can see a character like THE CROW; a dealer of death and vengeance with no real mercy or sympathy for the living. Their connection with death and the dead doesn’t help them really cope with life. Instead, it seems to drag them closer and closer to the grave and what lies beyond.
Playing a Rogue with a wild lineage creates a dangerous new spin on the already deadly class. Those who were raised among the barbarians are stronger, faster, more separated from the ‘civilized’ folk and are left with a much bleaker take on life. A rogue usually has things going on in their background or personality that alienates them from ‘normal’ life and adding a harsh upbringing on the edge of life and death in the wilderness just makes so much sense.
This series came about as I’m preparing my campaign for Icewind Dale and I will be dropping a Character Reference article featuring one of each for the different tribes that exist there. But, honestly, you can drop these wild rogues anywhere the wild threatens to borders of civilization. Let us know some of the builds and stories you were a part of that featured such wilderness rogues. We do not brew in a vacuum and learn from your experience as much or more than from our imaginations.