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This is a history-of-gaming question, and it has to do with the name choice between Barbarian and Berserkers. Due to the race-and-class mixing and matching of many different gaming systems, you can get combinations of barbarians with very non-barbaric races. Examples could include: "High Elf Barbarian" and "Gnome Barbarian." On the surface, these combinations seem unusual but otherwise OK. It gets worse when you grab a dictionary.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Barbarian:

1: of or relating to a land, culture, or people alien and usually believed to be inferior to another land, culture, or people

2: lacking refinement, learning, or artistic or literary culture

Berserk:

1: an ancient Scandinavian warrior frenzied in battle and held to be invulnerable

2: one whose actions are recklessly defiant

If you look at the features of a "barbarian" class, in almost any system, you notice that they align better with the definition of a Berserk (or Berserker). This is reinforced when you read about berserkers in norse sagas. Furthermore, if you look at the linguistic roots of barbarians, it was used to refer to anyone who was not of a particular culture.

Why do we call these classes "Barbarians" instead of "Berserks" or "Berserkers"?

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4 Answers 4

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By "almost any system" you probably mean "all the D&D-derived systems written in the last decade." In those cases, the reason is pretty simple.

0e - The 1970s

The first instance of a raging fighter was actually called a Berserker, published in Dragon issue #3 (October 1976) as "New D&D Subclass: The Berserker". (See also: In what edition of DnD was the Barbarians's rage introduced?)

1e - The 1980s

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e), there was initially no Barbarian/Berserker class. However, the Berserker was included as a monster in the Monster Manual (Men, Berserker, MM p.67), who we all remember fondly from the Village of Hommlett, that attack "mad with battle lust" all the time getting an extra attack or one attack at +2. When Unearthed Arcana came out the Barbarian class was introduced. Not only did it not rage, but clearly it wouldn't do to name it after an existing monster.

2e - The 1990s

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition, there was no Barbarian or Berserker class at all, but they were both introduced as fighter kits in the Complete Fighter's Handbook (PHBR1) - a Barbarian of the Conan ilk and then a separate Berserker that can go berserk. Later (very late, PHBR14 in 1995) they put out a Complete Barbarian's Handbook expanding on the Barbarian, which didn't add rage and instead hearkened back to the Unearthed Arcana barbarian from 1e, but continued to make the body of work labeled "Barbarian" larger. Up to this point, both were present as completely separate things.

From this we can see that your initial assumption is invalid for the first three decades of RPGing - there was no conflating of Barbarian with Berserker at all, they were considered entirely separate and equal types of character, and both appeared with similar frequency.

3e - The 2000s

In Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, they merged the two concepts as a raging fighter under the Barbarian class name, probably out of the immense conservatism/nostalgia that always infects the RPG landscape - in 1e it was called a Barbarian, and there was a Barbarian's Handbook in 2e, and so "bringing back the barbarian" was the thing to do. D&D effectively defined what a barbarian was, now with rage included, after this point, just as it did for the ranger and dual-wielding (see also: Where do dual-wielding rangers come from?).

A large percentage of other RPGs inherit more or less from D&D 3e, either explicitly (every d20 version following the huge d20/OGL explosion following the 3e release in 2000) or implicitly (even non-d20 games steal the D&D tropes liberally). People are now "used to" a raging fighter being a barbarian, and so correctness of historical terminology bows to the learned behavior of hordes of Baldur's Gate Xbox players. Outside the scope of D&D-influenced games, I think you'll see a lot of variation on what a raging barbarian type is called (if it even exists, as the basic concept of classes is very rare outside the D&D spread as well).

The 2010s

Of course 3.5e, and then Pathfinder, inherit this terminology. 3.5e's Complete Warrior (and Masters of the Wild as well, strangely) added a Frenzied Berserker prestige class for barbarians (double the rage bonuses, but would attack your allies). In D&D 4e, actually, there's a Barbarian introduced later on Player's Handbook 2 that has a subclass from Heroes of the Feywild called the Berserker with a class feature called "Berserker Fury." So the distinction appears again there.

Conclusion

Thus we can see that the observation you are making is both new since the year 2000 and is largely driven by the dominance of 3e D&D in the RPG conceptual space over the last 14 years.

I personally lobbied to get the new Paizo APG barbarian/sorcerer class the "Bloodrager" called the "Berserker" for this exact reason - they have a barbarian/bard hybrid in there called the "Skald," which you can doubtless appreciate. The book isn't out yet, so we can hope that perhaps they'll swap out the lame portmanteau for a name with more historical meat behind it.

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Diablo 2, released in 2000 (same as D&D3), already had a "barbarian" class with a "berserk" ability. So I think the mainstream-culture conflation of the two is older than you imply. (+All the points for talking about how stuff in the popular culture is all about some widely-remembered bit of fiction rather than anything consistent or historical, though.) –  Alex P Apr 15 at 21:20
    
Eh, Berserk was but one of many possible barbarian powers in Diablo and it wasn't even really rage (turned damage to magical damage), but yes, obviously the two were very close in conceptual space to one another. Of course Diablo II is too late to have influenced D&D3, so at best we can prove parallel development by noting it. –  mxyzplk Apr 16 at 2:39

It's all about this guy.

Conan the Cimmerian by Mark Schultz, from Wikipedia

Conan the Barbarian established the trope of the "barbarian" as a strong and courageous warrior, made mighty by his rugged close-to-the-wilderness upbringing and stoic individualism. (Really it's the fictional American frontiersman with a sword instead of a gun.) Early Dungeons & Dragons was heavily inspired by sword-and-sorcery fiction. Later works are, in turn, inspired by early D&D.

Now, despite his "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth," Conan doesn't really rage in the sense of, like, going crazy and fighting without regard for his own safety. Descriptions of him often play up how he's cool under pressure — for example, Howard loves to compare him to a panther (powerful but also graceful and deliberate, rather than something a bit more in-your-face aggressive like a lion or a bear).

But, as far as I know, the original D&D barbarian didn't rage, either. That was added later, when "barbarian" and "berserker" became more conflated. Why did they become conflated? I'm just guessing here, but they're both immensely strong lightly-armored warriors representing wildness, and because fantasy barbarians are typically fictionalized northern European pagans. All it takes is for one person to coin the term "barbarian rage" and the two concepts are pretty much muddled together forever.

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Germanic cultures (and their nearby neighbors) wildly valued personal achievement and freedom over the values over safety and stability (compare their style of life with the Romans they fought). Thus the barbarian is a warrior because he fights on his own as a man, vs a soldier who fights as part of a unit and takes park in formations (such as the phalanx). I think you might be lensing things a bit improperly by too closely comparing it to the American West. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Apr 15 at 19:45

mxyzplk covered the history of the term in gaming, and Alex P has covered its history in fantasy literature (which greatly influenced gaming). I'll try to summarize the real-world context (which doubtless influenced the literature).

Barbarians

The word "barbarian" was really invented by ancient Greeks, and used for people who weren't culturally Greeks. The word has some negative, perhaps patronizing connotations, because the Greeks tended to think that Greek culture is best. A Greek saying - "whoever isn't Greek is a barbarian".

The Romans borrowed the term and the habit from Greeks, just like many other things.

Medieval Europeans glorified ancient Greece and Rome, and when they looked back on history, it seemed to them that Greeks and Romans were indeed very advanced and civilized, and the so-called "barbarians" (Germans, Gauls, Celts, Scythians and Huns) were not.

Thus, it became fashionable to say "barbarian" when what is really meant is "savage", "uncivilized" or "uncultured". To be pedantic, one can say that using this word seriously is perpetuating Greco-Roman xenophobic propaganda, and the usage is nonsensical unless the user himself is (ancient) Greek or Roman, or referring to the views of one. But there you go. Doubly amusing is the observation that hardly any of the people that the Romans called barbarians existed by the middle ages, and the Europeans who were so fond of calling others barbarians would most likely have been considered barbarians themselves by the Romans.

Incidentally, the Chinese also had such a view (whether justified or not) of their own customs compared to their neighbors: They also had a similar opinion of eg. the Xiongnu. When western sources translate Chinese texts, sometimes the word "barbarian" is used as an equivalent - but that's a bit awkward. The (ancient) Chinese obviously thought "barbarians" are people who are not Chinese, but to the Greeks or Romans, the Chinese themselves may have appeared barbaric.

Moreover, it's questionable whether the Romans or Greeks had much contact with Xiongnu to apply the term to them, and it seems a little strange to apply this highly contextual term to people who never existed in the context of the culture that invented it in the first place.

In any case, the point is that the name of the Barbarian class is already an absurdity no matter how you slice it.

Berserker

The word "berserker" was invented by the Norse, to refer to those warriors among them who would fall into a furious trance in combat. So it is a term used by the Norse to refer to a certain custom of the Norse.

Contrasting with "barbarian": Clearly these words are very different. "Berserker" is a classification of class, occupation, or combat style (depending on how you look at it). "Barbarian" is a classification of cultural origin. Not all barbarians are berserkers (some are just women, children, or archers) and one may be a berserker without being a barbarian - there's nothing stopping a Roman from learning the same combat tactic and applying it, assuming berserkers were actually real (although his peers may accuse him of "taking up barbaric customs").

To the Greeks and Romans, one of the most obvious things about the people they called barbarians would be their ways of doing war (since especially the Romans liked to wage war on barbarians, and liked to talk about how barbarians do war). I'm not sure if any evidence exists of "berserkers" being actually encountered by the Romans or if the word was ever used by them (although apparently they did encounter warriors who use psychoactive substances in combat), but in a fantasy world with parallels to medieval Europe, you can sort of make a case for how the "civilized nations" would see all "barbarians" as berserkers. But even in our history, it is obviously absurd to use "berserker" in conjunction with, say, the "barbarian" Huns or Mongols who most certainly did not berserk.

Relation to roleplaying

At least in DnD, a barbarian may indeed go berserk, but barbarians are also skilled at things like finding their way in the wilderness, riding horses, traveling long distances on foot, tracking and foraging. Because "barbarian" is a word that would be used by a city-dweller to refer to a wilderness-dweller, naturally a "barbarian" would seem to the user to be very competent at surviving away from civilization, as well as being able to go berserk in combat.

On the other hand, a "berserker" is a word that would be used by a "barbarian" to refer to other barbarians, to whom the warrior would not seem any more adept at survival than the average person they meet (ie. other barbarians) but would seem to have a unique ability to berserk.

Since DnD seems to take place in the context of ersatz-medieval Europe, you could rationalize the name of the class in this way: Because the Barbarian can not only Rage but also has other "nature-y" skills, it's called a barbarian, not a berserker. "Berserker" classes tend to focus only on combat, not the survival aspect. Also, a barbarian may end his rage at will, and generally does not lose control over himself - while berserkers are often portrayed as having lost control, and often even failing to distinguish friend or foe.

However, fantasy terminology in general is sometimes nonsensical. Often synonymous words are treated as very different concepts - see Wizard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Witch, even Alchemist, which could be claimed to basically mean the same thing. See also how Warrior and Fighter are different classes, or the endless silliness in weapon names.

The High-elf Barbarians

If barbarian is a cultural term, then there is nothing wrong with a given species (which DnD for some reason incorrectly calls "races") being barbarians. Culture is not genetic. Even in reality, all barbarians and all non-barbarians were human, after all. Even if the species is mostly civilized, there may be small groups of individuals who exist in a savage state. Even in modern day there are savage humans.

Recall also the example of a Roman who decides to take on barbarian customs. There is also the related concept of otherwise civilized persons coming into extended contact with barbarians and "going native". So even if an individual is from a civilized species, AND happens to have been born and grown up in a civilized community, this individual may still be a barbarian or berserker without presenting any semantic contradictions.

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The definition for Barbarian according to Merriam-Webster is wrong in my opinion.

Barbarian came from the greek "Barbaros" which means: stranger, from another culture, uncivilized, someone from a tribal society. The greeks used to call barbarian, everyone that was not greek, that couldn't speak the greek language. They used this word as an insult and discrimination.

As the time passed, barbarian become to be used to reference someone with brute and primitive acts.

Nowadays, into the RPG world, the class Barbarian describes someone with a wild culture, from a society far from the emperion and not influenced by them, resulting in someone that doesnt follow the commun laws, without any etiquette rules, rude and primitive.

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