The word barbarian brings to mind certain images. Snowbound brutes with fur cloaks and broad swords, their long hair whipping in the wind as they howl savage battle cries, undeterred by the exhaustion and pain that would plague merely mortal men. Hulking tribesmen on the endless tundra, their spears and hands bloody from the long day's hunt for game and enemies alike. Or, if you're a cultured sort of gamer geek, you might picture some of the old pulp magazine covers that prominently featured Conan, Kull, and the other barbarians created by Robert E. Howard and his ilk.
If you're playing an RPG, that is the imagery you're used to drawing on. However, that harsh image of the noble brute is only one interpretation of the class. A barbarian could just as easily be the son of a noble house whose muscular thews and lust for battle is a throwback to the warlords who founded his lineage in the wilder days of the empire. It could also describe a soldier who feels something stir inside him when the battle horns blare, and steel leaps into his hand. There are so many different forms these characters can take that there is no way to look at someone and say, with authority, that this person is a barbarian.
We get caught up on the name of the class, and it narrows our focus. It stops us from really branching out, and making characters that don't fall into the same molds that I mentioned above. The same thing happens when we look at the barbarian's signature ability; Rage.
Rage has a simple, mechanical effect. It increases your physical might and toughness, at the cost of your defense, making you a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. In games like Pathfinder, it also allows you to access certain powers that you can't reach when you aren't in the sublime state of mind that Rage brings. However, too often we just assume that all barbarians experience the same Rage, and that it looks the same, feels the same, and comes from the same place. That's why I've assembled 50 different flavors for where your character can draw fury and power from. This list is broken into three sections for your convenience.
It should be noted that this list is written for the Pathfinder roleplaying game. Other systems with the barbarian class and Rage class feature may find the flavor useful, but the suggested mechanics won't be applicable.
Lastly, if you're looking for additional gaming insights, check out my blog Improved Initiative!
All right, let's get this party started!
The Beast Within
Many warriors find that Rage bubbles within them, never more than a thought away. It's hard to control for some, but for others Rage is a state of mind.
1. Blood of The Beast: Your Rage comes from the bestial instincts that pump through your veins. Your ancestry is filled with lycanthropes, and you yourself might possess the powers of the Skinwalker. Beast Totem Rage Powers are ideal for adding this flavor.
2. Adrenaline Rush: You have a finely-honed sense of danger, and when it trips your switch, your body reacts in a big way. Rage Powers like Powerful Blow, Quick Reflexes, and Surprise Accuracy can bring across that your body is a finely-tuned machine, and when you pour in the NOS of adrenaline, you run right into the red for a short period of time.
3. Elemental Might: Somewhere in your family line, you were mixed with primal elements. Whether it was from a strange, magical experiment, or one of your ancestors lay with a lord of the djinn, you find that fire, lightning, or cold manifests when you Rage. Elemental Rage, Energy Resistance, Energy Absorption, and Energy Eruption all reflect where your Rage comes from.
4. Fiendish Heritage: Something wicked burns in your blood. Something that stirs when battle is called, and it's time to fight. Fiendish rage could be easily displayed by a tiefling character, but Rage Powers like the Fiend Totem (which grants natural attacks from horns and hoofs) is another way of highlighting your Rage's origin.
5. Short Fuse: This is perhaps the most stereotypical origin. You are a connoisseur of anger, and you deliberately keep yourself on the brink of violence. All if takes is one wrong word, and you let yourself off the leash.
6. Unusual Training: Training for combat wasn't just about how to hold a sword, or how to raise your shield. You were taught secret techniques that unlocked wells of strength inside you. Wells that would exhaust you, but which would let you clinch victory if used at the right moment.
7. Cold-Blooded Killer: There are times where your higher brain gets in the way of survival. When that happens, you stop thinking. There is no more right and wrong, good and evil; there is only living, and dying. If you want to live, your enemies need to die. You can sort out the morality when the danger has passed.
8. A Touch of Madness: There is something not quite right about you. You hear voices, they say. Sometimes you forget your name, or you become another person entirely. As long as your madness keeps you safe, and doesn't harm your companions, though, you're likely to be accepted. For a time, at least
9. Draconic Inheritance: The blood of dragons flows through you, and nowhere do you feel it more than with a sword in your hand. Dragon Totem Rage Powers, or even taking the Draconic bloodline for a bloodrager instead of the traditional barbarian, are great mechanics to back this up.
10. Meditative Fury: Some barbarians howl and snarl, becoming little more than savage animals. Others, though, attack in complete silence. They show no sign of pleasure or pain, scything down their foes with the unsettling quiet of a well-oiled machine.
11. Hermean Blood: You were considered a failure in Hermea's Grand Experiment, but every now and again true power shines through you. Ideally you'd take the Hermean Blood feat at level 1 to justify this explanation.
12. Force of Chaos: Most barbarians are a whirlwind of fury; you are a storm. Chaos beats in your soul, and it manifests when you fight. You are unpredictable, and the Chaos Totem Rage Powers can bring across how your Rage can warp probability all around you.
13. Hatred: There is something awful lurking inside you. A force of anger so pure that it has become condensed hatred. You suckle it, nurse it, and draw strength from it... but how long will it be until the toxic power twists you into a dark reflection of who you once were?
14. Your True Power: Warriors often hold something back, ensuring they have energy to last through the fight, and to take on other enemies besides. You hold nothing back, pushing your body to its limits. Fatigue is a good representation for this sort of Rage, but you should feel free to add other things as well. The Endurance and Die Hard feats, for example, would let you push through pain and injuries that would stop normal people, who might snap tendons or break their own bones by pushing past the limits their own body sets for them.
15. The Throwback: Your family ancestry is full of tales of great warriors and powerful knights, but that was long ago. You share their blood, though, and sometimes that blood breeds true.
16. Fury of Giants: You are giantkin. While you may look human, it's clear to all who meet you that a portion of your distant family resides in you. Rage Powers like Hurling, Smasher, and Ground Breaker mimic the ways that many giants fight, and if you are a human you can take the Racial Heritage feat to qualify for giant-only feats.
17. Family Blessing/Curse: Certain attributes are handed down from parents to children. Whether it's seen as a blessing or a curse, Rage runs in your family, and it's been passed down to you. You should ask what form your Rage takes, and ask how it's viewed by your character. Is it something he fights against, but gives into when he has no other choice? Or is it something he embraces, unsheathing this inheritance the same way he does his weapons?
18. Born on a Bad Moon: There are those who believe the alignment of the stars and planets at the time of our birth lay out a path for us. Those born under ill tidings, like blood moons and lunar eclipses, may have dark fates awaiting them, and dark powers to match.
19. Battleborn: Most children are raised on mother's milk, but your first taste was of your mother's blood. You were born on a battlefield, and that brutal entrance into the world has shaped you in ways you still don't quite understand.
20. Feral Fury: While you may look like any other civilized person, there was a time when you lived like an animal. Perhaps you were a feral child, raised by wolves or apes, and that version of yourself is never very far away. Beast Totem Rage Powers are useful here, but so are story feats like Feral Heart, which grant you additional bonuses when you receive morale bonuses.
21. Old Blood, Young Body: Resurrection and past lives are a noted phenomenon in Golarion, and if the soul of an ancient warrior is reborn into a new body then it may manifest itself in unexpected ways, lending power, skill, and abilities far beyond the warrior's normal capacity at times.
22. Inhuman Speed: From the whirling dervishes of the desert, to the unflinching bowman of the steppes, Rage manifests in many forms. In some cases it's an unstoppable juggernaut, but in your case it's the winds of a storm; fast, brutal, and deadly. The Savage Technologist archetype gives you a Rage that adds to your Dex and Strength, which is ideal for scimitar-wielding dervish dancers, quick draw gunslingers, or those who fling axes into their enemies' faces before anyone has had a chance to react.
23. The Terminator: While you have the skin of a man, underneath there is something else. Alien nanites surge through your blood, and cybernetic modifications flex beneath your mysterious scars. You may need to use the Eldritch Heritage feats to grant yourself the powers of the nanite bloodline, and you'll need your DM's approval to use cybertech modifications out of the Technology Guide, but cyberfiber muscles and wirejack tendons are as good an explanation for Surprise Accuracy and Powerful Blow as anything else, even if they only work sporadically if they're a justification for your Rage.
24. Vat Grown: You don't know who you are, or what purpose you were made for. Most of the time you're just you, but something happens when your stress levels get high. Your muscle memory knows what to do, even if you're not always sure. These instincts, which manifest when you Rage, are the residual leftovers of what you were made to do. Traits like Awakened From Stasis, and story feats like Forgotten Past, would be ideal for someone who is, in many ways, a blank slate with nothing but remnants of battlefield programming.
25. Child of The Heavens: Angels are beautiful, and terrible, creatures. If one let even a few drops of its celestial blood into your family, then you might find it makes itself known in strange ways. If you take a trait like Sacred Touch, that could be ascribed to your divine ancestors. Rage Powers like Renewed Vigor, Renewed Vitality, and Renewed Life could all be ascribed to the holy power in your blood healing your body. Alternatively, you could combine those Rage Powers with the Celestial bloodline for the bloodrager.
26. One Foot in The Grave: Everyone thought you were a stillbirth, until you started crying. You've always felt comfortable in places dedicated to death, and even the chill of the undead has never really bothered you. In fact, your Rage shares a cold kinship with the unliving. Renewed Vitality would allow you to walk right through ability damage that should have you writhing on the ground, and renewed life would let you keep coming despite negative levels. While it's not necessary for you to play a dhampir, having an unusual appearance like pallid skin, or being cool to the touch, would make it clear where you draw your power from. The undead bloodline for the bloodrager is also an ideal way to manifest this power source.
While your Rage can't be taken away by the powers that be, like a cleric's magic or a paladin's smite, you may believe that the power flowing through you comes from a place outside yourself.
27. Gift From The Gods: Whether you pray to the Lord in Iron, or to the howls of the four winds, you believe that in times of need they fill you with their own fury. These characters should be devoutly religious, and their Rage Powers should represent the gods or spirits they believe grant them their power.
28. Demonic Possession: Whether you willingly entered into a pact with an outer being, or you were given to it as a host when you were too young to know differently, something whispers in your ear. And sometimes, it does more. The Possessed trait is ideal for this concept, as everything from the character's Rage powers to his size and strength could be examples of how the being possessing him has shaped him over his life.
29. Ancestral Aid: Many cultures revere their ancestors, keeping tokens from them, and calling on them for aid. Your Rage is when your ancestors enter you, fighting with you in greater numbers as you gain Greater Rage and Mighty Rage, bringing the force of your entire line to bear against your foes. The Spirit Totem Rage Powers, which surround you with swirling ghosts, are a great accessory for this concept.
30. Crusader's Fury: Paladins are the swords of the righteous, but the gods grant many gifts to their followers. Good or evil, barbarians may draw their Rage from their service to the divine.
31. Alien Influence: Whether they speak to you in dreams, of you have offered yourself to the beings of the Dark Tapestry, awful, squamous changes are happening inside you. An unusual appearance, such as developing too quickly, or having arms that don't match your body would bring across the strange influences on you. So would taking feats like Eldritch Heritage to gain the bloodline powers of the Aberrant Sorcerer, or opting for the Aberrant bloodline for a bloodrager. Note: Alien Influence is in this section because it's assuming these changes happened after you were born, and aren't an inherent part of you, even though they are, mechanically speaking.
32. Corrupted Warrior: There is power in darkness. Whether you found a forgotten shrine, an intelligent sword, or you stood on the brink of Rovagug's chasm, you gave up something good in yourself, opening the doors to foulness in exchange for wielding its might.
33. Holy Vow: You have sworn a vow to a sacred power, and that vow grants you strength. It's important to note that not all vows make you a good person, or restrict your actions. Samson swore not to cut his hair, or drink wine, and Yaweh granted him titanic strength. Strength which he often used for truly monstrous purposes, but he didn't lose it until he broke his vow.
34: Totemic Tattoo: You have been marked by forces beyond yourself. Whether you were tattooed in a ceremony that made you an adult, or you were born with a strange birth mark, you have been marked for power. The Scarred Rager archetype, and the Auspicious Mark Rage Power, might prove useful for you.
35. Anointed Champion: If you have been declared a champion, whether it be of your tribe, your faith, or another organization entirely, you may have gone through a ritual. This ritual gives you great purpose, but it also gives you power to achieve that purpose. In addition to appropriate Rage Powers, the Champion story feat might be appropriate.
36. Fetishistic Power: Tribal fetishes are items of great significance, and being gifted with one is a mark of respect. The fetish might be more than a design to you, though. It is, in a very real way, the source of your power. Which might be why, if it's broken, you have to replace it before you can once more tap into the power of the spirits. The True Primitive archetype has a mechanic that grants the character additional power based off trophy fetishes.
Sometimes Rage takes a trigger to activate, and knowing that trigger is essential for bringing out the barbarian's true strength. These are roleplaying suggestions only, as Rage is something a barbarian can activate at-will, as long as the character never gains a lawful alignment.
37. Deadly Programming: There is a command in your mind, just waiting for the right stimulus to pull the trigger. This could be a Manchurian Candidate style brainwashing, or it could be something more like the Omega Protocol mentioned in The Android Barbarian.
38. Demon in a Bottle: There is truth in wine, and for some there is strength. The Drunken Brute archetype allows you to drink as a move action that doesn't provoke attacks of opportunity, and Rage Powers like Roaring Drunk, Boasting Taunt, and others play into image of the drunken thug, who relies on the numbing effects of alcohol to keep him going long past when he should have dropped.
39. Roid Rage: While steroid rage isn't an actual condition, barbarians who dabble in mutagens may find they pay a heavy price for their chemical boosts. Combining the Drunken Brute with the alchemist archetype Ragechemist can create a nasty synergy of mutagen and Rage, making you a force to be reckoned with. It's also the basis for the Incredible Hulk Pathfinder character conversion.
40. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde: Perhaps one of the most famous face/heel turns in classic literature, there are times when Rage can make you into a whole new person. Of course, if you mix in the Master Chymist prestige class, or the Brute vigilante archetype, you can literally become another person, which will add an interesting element to your Rage. Especially when the changes begin to occur of their own volition.
41. Blood-Thirsty: There's a big difference between a scuffle, and a fight. Fights draw blood, and it's the sight of that red stuff that sends you into overdrive. Maybe it's the sight, the smell, or because it awakens a hunger in you (which might be particularly true if you gain a bite attack when you Rage), but even outside of combat you have to walk away if someone is bleeding, or risk doing unwanted harm.
42. Spiritual Incantation: You keep your true power locked away inside, but you were taught how to let it out when you needed to. By speaking a spiritual incantation, you let the power flow through you. While your transformation might not be as complete as He-Man, or Etrigan, the idea is the same.
43. Den Mother: When those you care about are put in danger, you are capable of feats you couldn't have managed even to defend yourself. When your allies, particularly those you care for, are hurt, something inside you snaps, and woe be to the foe who stands in your way.
44. Pack Leader: The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. This is truer than you than it is for others, as your close bond with your animal companions allows you to feel their bestial fury as your own. This setup works best if you have the Mad Dog archetype, or you have dipped into a class that grants you an animal companion.
45. Witch Hunter: You don't trust magic, and never have. When the spells start flying, your ax will soon follow. Rage Powers like Superstition and Witch Hunter work best for this concept, and races like half-orcs or dwarves which can take spell resistance as alternate traits may find that fits well with their stories.
46. Needle Freak: Golarion is filled with bizarre intoxicants, and strange drugs. Many of them grant bonuses to Strength and Dexterity, but users risk growing dependent on them. A barbarian who uses his Rage sparingly might believe his powers come from these holy plants, and it would take time (along with serious detox) for him to realize he can access his Rage without this crutch.
47. Hated Enemies: Some rangers excel at fighting their favored enemies because they've made a long study of them, and they know their foes better than their foes know themselves. For some, though, that knowledge is coupled with a burning hatred that goes beyond reason. Ranger/barbarians are ideal for this backstory, and it should be used in games where things like undead hunters, dragon slayers, etc. are going to be needed throughout the entire campaign.
48. Honor is All: There are some who live and die by the deeds attached to their names. Honor and glory is more precious than life itself, and that can push you past limits you didn't even know you had. The Barbarian Samurai combination, which uses Resolve to eliminate the fatigued condition that comes after Rage ends, is a good way to show a character who will go to inhuman lengths when it comes to his reputation.
49. Righteous Fury: There is no greater rush of power than the feeling of righteous fury. Whether it's in the service of a cause, or extracting well-deserved vengeance, a barbarian who feels he's in the right is nearly impossible to stop.
50. Black Powder Frenzy: There's something about the spark of the hammer, and the thunder of the gun that calls out to Rage. Fire and brimstone fly free, and the barbarian follows, shooting and striking as needs be. While the number of people who think guns and fantasy mix well is small, and the number of people who think barbarians and guns mix well is even smaller, there is something to be said for the benefits that come from the Savage Technologist archetype, even if it isn't paired with something like the Underground Chemist, or the standard gunslinger.
Rage On, My Wayward Sons
With this much Rage, I hope all of you find at least one option that speaks to you. Lastly, I just want to say that I hope this article has made everyone look at Rage in a different light, and that it's sparked at least a few ideas to make your campaigns better.