Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Complete Barbarian's Handbook

I believe I've mentioned a couple of times that I was 1 book away from having a complete collection of the Player's Handbook Supplement series. I was only holding out on The Complete Barbarian's Handbook because the price online was higher than I was willing to pay. Well, about a week ago, I found a discounted copy and I decided to go for it. Nothing I hate more than having gaps in a collection . . .

Or so I thought.

This book . . .

Wow. . .

You know how I criticized the first batch of PHB Supplements for having the "Savage" Kit, which drew on uncomfortable racial stereotypes about indigenous peoples? Now, imagine an entire book worth of that, but worse.

Like, it's a little . . . embarrassing to own two books titled Oriental Adventures. That's not a good look in 2019. But the books themselves are . . . okay. A little bit problematic, but mostly just because they are conspicuously enthusiastic about drawing inspiration from East Asian folklore and cinema. Despite some (admittedly awful) exoticising of the subject matter, the first book, at least, built up Kara-Tur in the same basic manner as any other D&D setting - as a recklessly anachronistic mish-mash of everything the authors thought was cool. If a person of Asian descent gave me a pointed look and said, "Oriental Adventures? Really?" I'd blush and shuffle my feet and refuse to make eye contact, but I wouldn't worry about our relationship being in trouble. It's something we could work past.

The Complete Barbarian's Handbook?  I think . . . I think I may be ashamed to have a copy of it in my home. There's a genuine worry that one day I will die, and my survivors will be clearing out my possessions, and one of them will pick this book at random off the shelf, read a couple of paragraphs, and be like, "Did Uncle John keep a collection of white supremacist literature because he was one of those alt-right millenials we read about in history class?"

So, I first encountered the Barbarian class in D&D 3rd edition, but I never thought about it in racial terms (and if you ever want a quick definition of "White Privilege" you could do worse than "I never thought about the Barbarian in racial terms.") To me, it was more of a cross-cultural character archetype than anything you could trace back to a specific ethnic group. It was just what you called the generic heavy, the guy with the RAWR SMASH fighting style who was too earthy and uncouth to be invited to fancy dinner parties. They were the guys who fought more with ferocity than technique, and I never really questioned why they got Nature as a class skill or were always depicted wearing loincloths and fur boots.

But this is AD&D, where you can't have ninjas without fantasy Japan. Barbarians need a culture to explain where they come from. Specifically, they need a "barbaric" culture.

Let's just take a look at a couple of the Barbarian kits, shall we?

The Plainsrider. Expert horsemen. Their abilities are "counting coup" and "war cry." Huh.

Maybe the Islander. He believes in a life force called "Mana" and wears a grass skirt and shell necklace. . . Okay.

Flip forward a bit to the Barbarian priest kits. The first one, the Dreamwalker. They refer to the world we live in as "the Dreaming." Very interesting, but I'm starting to sense a pattern. Maybe we should let The Complete Barbarian's Handbook tell us what these "barbarian" cultures are like . . .

Actually, you know what, let's not. The original plan was to pull quotes from the book that showed how incredibly fucking racist it was and perhaps accompany them with a bit of snarky commentary that demonstrated that I knew exactly how awful all of these quotes were. But then my shift ended before I started writing and on my drive home, I cooled down and realized that the original plan would have been but a hair's width away from just me being a white guy sitting around and making tasteless race jokes.

I think you just have to take my word for it. This book is bad. Really bad. I am being 100% literal when I say that there were times my jaw dropped as I was reading this book because I could not believe that the words in front of me actually existed. I could not believe that a book written so recently could be so ugly.

And maybe I do have to quote something after all, lest I grant the book some kind of bad-boy mystique.  So I'm going to pick something bland and mechanical. It's not really the most racist thing in the book, but it is emblematic of the book's approach to race and/or culture:

Although there are no fixed maxima for a Barbarian's Intelligence and Charisma scores, the DM may wish to simulate his cultural limitations by a penalty from -2 to -6 (determined by the DM) to all Intelligence and Charisma checks made in the outworld. The barbarian uses his normal scores for checks in his homeland.
Yikes. I don't even know what to say to that. I think it cuts to the heart of the book's problems, though. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook posits a game where the "barbarians" are heroes. Seriously, neither of the introduced classes is allowed to have an evil alignment. And yet, it also presents a setting where "barbarian-" coded things are treated with contempt. Every aspect of the heroes' culture is just outright worse than what "civilized" people do. Even though the overall tone of the book is positive, it's just dripping with condescension.

Did you know Barbarians are superstitious? Barbarians are superstitious. In a fantasy game. There are elves and wizards and goblins and cursed items and dragons and literally a half-dozen creatures whose name is a synonym for "ghost," but the spirit-appeasing rituals of the Spiritist priest kit "have no obvious effect."

You know that the Spiritist is a fucking spellcaster, right? "He may address a tree by name?" Speak with plants is a fucking priest spell. He "fall[s] to his knees and beg[s] for mercy during a hailstorm?" Control Weather is a fucking priest spell.

How the fuck do you start with a character who believes they are surrounded by divine beings who will grant protection, guidance, and worldly power if treated with respect, add a class that gives people magical spells for staying faithful to their divine patrons and not somehow connect the dots between the two. This spellcasting adventurer who's granted power by their religion is somehow superstitious for believing that spirits intervene in the material world.

What the hell are you thinking? What is going through your head as you write this stuff? What is wrong with you?

Oh, yeah, racism.

UKSS Contribution: I'm not going to take anything directly from this book. I hate to break with tradition and leave a gap, but I'd feel gross. There are some cool things here, mostly associated with the spellcasting kits that are transparently appropriated from real-world cultures, but I have a feeling that those are watered-down and mutilated versions of beliefs and stories that are complex and interesting enough to anchor whole campaign settings when told correctly. I'll try to track one of those down and take something directly from the source.

In the meantime, I hate this book too much to immortalize it in that way.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes a tradition is better served by ignoring it. Good call.