We all know the standard barbarian trope that we have come to love, not quite so smart, rippling with muscles, and carrying a weapon that is too large to be considered normal. Personally, I love playing them in Dungeons and Dragons. If you have followed our Blades of the Defiant stream, my character, Deimos, is mostly fighter, but has taken some barbarian as well.
For me, whenever I considered barbarians, I had images of Arnold Schwarzenegger swinging his mighty Atlantean sword and hacking down cultists of James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom). Conan the Barbarian was an awesome movie when I watched it as a teenager. However, as I look back on the character, I have come to think that maybe he is not the mindless killing machine we have come to consider him as. If he is not that, then how would we build Conan in Dungeons and Dragons. I wanted to dig deeper into the character that is Conan and so I purchased the Conan the Cimarron Omnibus on Audible.
The Omnibus is a collection of works about Conan by Robert Howard. It stretches back to when he published in the Weird Tales magazine, as well as some of the books about Conan. It was an exhaustively long listen, but I managed to power through it. If you are interested in learning more about Conan, I would highly recommend this book, just not listening to it on Audible. The performances were fantastic, but if you were not paying close attention, you might move from one story to the next and not realize it. This happened to me a couple of times and I could not figure out what happened to the characters I had been listening to. Turned out they were not in the next story.
In the story, Conan is only referred to as a barbarian because of what he wears and where he comes from. He does not fly into rages, although he is quite brutal in battle. He has a rather high intelligence when it comes to certain things as well. He knows of the gods, battle strategy, and even some parts of geopolitical issues in his world. He becomes a king in a brutal fashion, cutting of the head of the current ruler of Aquilonia and taking his place, but does not show any of the typical barbarian tropes we associate with them all. In this case I think of Grog from Critical Role Campaign one. He was dumber than a bag of soup and really only spent his time hitting things really hard, or making us laugh as he talked to Craven Edge in the privy. Conan, in the stories, proved to be a different type.
In one of the last stories in the Omnibus, he is working out a plan that uses quite a lot of cunning and stealth for it to work. There were betrayals and layers to his plan that the stereotypical, dumb barbarian could not work out if he tried. I wanted to see why people considered Conan to be the dumb barbarian trope, and since I could not find it in the books, I decided to turn back to my original source material on the subject, the 1980s movies.
In the first movie, Conan the Barbarian, we are introduced to how our hero became the last of his people. Thulsa Doom rides in with his warriors and slaughters everyone except Conan, even cut off Conan’s mother’s head right in front of him. He then takes Conan to work as a slave. The movie kind of glosses over whatever happens next in Conan’s life. He becomes a gladiator of sorts, then is trained by the greatest warlords of his time to become a killing machine. It is shortly after that he is freed and allowed to go on his own. I’m not going to go into plot things here, don’t want to spoil the whole movie after all. In short, he partners with a rogue and begins to learn the ways of the thief as well.
The only thing I could see from the first movie that made Conan a “dumb barbarian” were Arnold’s lines. However, that’s not really something to blame on the character himself. Some of them were good lines, it’s just when they are delivered in a thick Austrian accent they don’t sound as poetic as they could have been. Also the thing about crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women doesn’t help show the more intelligent side of the hero.
I tried to use the second movie for some examples as well, but after listening through bad ass stories of Conan fighting things in a most epic fashion, and watching the first movie, with more bad ass fighting and killing, I finally realized why Conan fans hated the second movie so much. Instead of Conan the Destroyer it seemed more like Conan, the family friendly buff dude that escorts a princess.
My final conclusions for Conan, if he were to be classified by the Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons classes ended up as such. I would start him off as a fighter. He would need to level at least to three in fighter so he could take an archetype, Battle Master. In the books he performs parries and other things that are similar to the maneuvers they get. Then I would add some barbarian levels. Truthfully, I was thinking straight Berserker for him, however, Krom plays a large part in the Conan mythos, so maybe a Totem Warrior instead. Either path would work really. Finally, I would have to round him off with some levels of rogue. In the books he spent time as a pirate, so a swashbuckler rogue would finalize my setup for Conan.
This leads to some difficult play in the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons since they have only published levels and experience amounts up to twenty. Multi-classing does take some out of each class. However, if you want to stay true to the material, maybe your DM would allow you to supplement some things from each class.