Barbarians were first introduced to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in Dragon magazine (Gygax 1982:8). Given the interests of Gary Gygax, they were arguably part of the game all along – certainly, the cynical treasure acquisition and brutal man-to-man conflict were a staple of Conan long before Dungeons & Dragons incorporated those themes.
The term “barbarian” comes from the term “barbarous” representing a “foreigner” or anyone who did not speak one’s language. The Greek “barbarous” used this definition, and the related Sanskrit “barbaras” which means “stammering,” indicating that the term probably mean “unable to speak intelligibly” (Ayto 1990:52).
In 2nd and 3rd Edition, the barbarian was a brute, with the highest hit dice of any class (d12). Barbarians were survivalists and extremely nimble, with the ability to jump further and higher than other characters, run faster, and stealthy in outdoor environments. They were also highly perceptive, resistant to being surprised or attacked from the back, and had the ability to detect illusions and magic. Most tellingly, the barbarian avoided magic and destroy it given the chance.
The early version of the barbarian emulated Conan in all his aspects – as a thief, a plunderer, a warrior, and a savage. However, the barbarian’s failure to embrace magic items was a fundamental weakness in the long-term viability of the character. Dungeons & Dragons‘ advancement system was as much about the acquisition of magical items as it was about personal power through leveling. Even Conan used magic items, albeit unwillingly, against supernatural foes.
The barbarian changed significantly in 2nd Edition Unearthed Arcana, elaborating on the restrictions and improving his combat abilities to compensate. The class was made an official part of Dungeons & Dragons in 3rd Edition, replacing many of the powers with barbarian rage, which has a more immediate application on the battlefield. Gone were the magic item restrictions. By 4th Edition, the barbarian was once again removed from the core rules, to be added later as an optional class in the Player’s Handbook 2.
This description is a rough draft from my upcoming book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.