Going into D&D Next, what is the essence of the barbarian class? I decided to look at this question. Is the barbarian better described as a berserker? Is the barbarian a light infantry class that's constantly on the move and charges around the battlefield? Why is the barbarian one of the three least popular classes over at Wizards.com? After going back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Unearthed Arcana book I found that the barbarian class in 4th edition doesn't really look much like it's 1st edition ancestor.
What is a barbarian?
The 2nd edition Complete Fighter's Handbook says, "This is not the barbarian of history, but the barbarian of fantasy fiction. He's a powerful warrior from a culture on the fringes of civilization."
Second edition revisited the class in the Complete Barbarian's Handbook where it says, "The barbarian fighter's extraordinary stamina and physical skills let him survive in the most punishing environments. He relies on muscle and wits, overcoming hardships with brute force and sheer determination. His weapons are crude, his tactics unsophisticated, but his passion and courage makes him the match of any warrior."
Third edition says, "From the frozen wastes to the north and the hellish jungles of the south come brave, even reckless, warriors. Civilized people call them barbarians or berserkers and suspect them of mayhem, impiety, and atrocities."
Fourth edition says, "Barbarians are savage warriors who deal out powerful blows from their mighty weapons." Because of the new power source, Primal, 4e goes on to add that, "As a barbarian, you have a link to powerful nature spirits and other primal forces bound to the warriors of your tribe by the songs and totems of your legacy. These spirits lend energy to your rages, transforming you into a devastating force on the battlefield."
Hit Points: except for 4th edition, the barbarian usually had the largest hit die (1d12 per level) in the game. In 4e barbarians were a striker class and strikers had less hit points than defenders. The 4e barbarian was the only exception as it was a striker with hit points equal to those of a fighter or paladin (but not greater than those defenders and the barbarian did suffer in that it had fewer healing surges per day).
Armor Class: 1e and 2e barbarians (Complete Fighter's Handbook) were proficient with any armor, however, the 1e barbarian was rewarded with improved dexterity bonus to AC if it did not wear "bulky or fairly bulky" armor. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook version was limited to padded, leather, studded leather, or hide armor. 3e barbarians were limited to light and medium armors. 4e barbarians were similarly permitted cloth, leather, or hide armor. The 4e version lost the ability to use shields (whereas 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition barbarians were able to use shields).
Weapons: 4e barbarians lost their weapon proficiency in ranged weapons, most notably bows. All other editions gave barbarians proficiency is just about all weapons (other than exotic weapons in 3e).
Overall, 1e barbarians could move faster, climb cliffs and trees, hide in natural surroundings, surprise opponents, have back protection against thief attacks, excel at leaping and springing, detect illusion, detect magic, hit as if they carried magic weapons, and in general detested magic. They also had a few more wilderness skills depending on their environment and background.
The barbarian warrior kit (Complete Fighter's Handbook) had a basic focus on wilderness skills as recommended nonweapon proficiencies. Required weapon proficiencies were battle axe and bastard sword. A free bonus was the endurance proficiency. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook version could move faster and carry a heavier load while still being able to move faster than other encumbered characters. They could fight with two weapons. Also the class regained leaping and springing, back protection, and climbing.
A major change was introduced to the barbarian class in 3rd edition. Barbarian rage became the core feature of the class. Previously raging was limited to the berserker kit for the fighter class or within a certain subset of kits for the barbarian class. 3e barbarians also received fast movement (as in 1e/2e), uncanny dodge (similar to back protection in 1e/2e), and damage reduction (at higher levels). Barbarians had more skill points per level than many classes and were given a selection of wilderness skills reminiscent of their previous edition abilities.
With 4th edition, they took a certain style of 3e barbarian (probably the most common style) and made that style the narrowly limited focus of the barbarian class. The class continued the 3e focus on rages and was basically hit things really hard with a really big two-handed melee weapon. This was later broadened so that small characters (halflings & gnomes) could play barbarians. The skill selection continued to reflect a wild lifestyle. You chose a build in Player's Handbook 2, either you charged around the battlefield or you frightened your opponents with your roar of triumph. The attacks often focus on doing a lot of damage or embodying an "animal totem in human skin" (a quote from 2nd edition).
What was once an option (berserk rages) is now the only option. Fans of the 1e/2e barbarian may not have wanted that mandatory change. The original flavor seems to be heavily influenced by Conan, probably too narrowly since Conan might best described as a Fighter/Thief multiclass character. Some people I've talked to suggested that the barbarian class is a very slight variation on the fighter class and is unnecessary. On forums you see comments that "barbarian is a culture, not a class" and berserker should be the class with barbarian as a background (theme) option for characters of all classes.
Barbarians are supposed to be "really strong" but the strength attribute is completely divorced from class (and equally necessary for the fighter class) so it is difficult to differentiate the barbarian class on this aspect. Frenzied rages gave the feeling that barbarians were really strong which helped drive home the point but at a cost. Barbarians are supposed to have incredible stamina. This theme seemed to lessen over time. Barbarians relied less on equipment, presumably because they were from a less technological society.
Bring back into focus the animalistic physicality of the barbarian class.
It would also be fun to see the return of the anti-decadent, quirky, unsophisticated code of honor that was followed by "uncivilized" people. An example code of honor should be an inspiration for roleplaying and not a mechanical requirement in order to play a barbarian. The inconsistent use of a "must be non-lawful" alignment restriction seems incompatible with the barbarian code of honor (though both are from 1st edition) but perhaps barbarians are just a little too pragmatic to always follow their own rules.