Barbarians at the Table: Exploring Hack and Slash Gaming

Gaming is a form of escapism. A way to leave the dull confines of our day jobs, school and life in general. Even though we humans have conquered disease, viruses, mass genocide (in a significant portion of the world) and our own madness, we still desire to leave behind our boring lives and explore. It is our unbridled lust for exploration of new places and desires to act out our inhibitions that powers the gaming movement.Gaming has swept the modern world, even putting other forms of entertainment to shame. We humans desire to hack and slash. We want control over our world and to rule ourselves by the sword.


It is when we escape through gaming that we often “do” things we normally would not even consider in our modern society. Acts of power and violence are tossed around as we delve deep into the game we want to explore. We do not hold back from pickpocketing the town guard. Our trigger finger is ready to blow apart Stormtroopers, Nazis and the nearest obstacle in our way. In Table-Top fantasy games we often slaughter wholesale orcs and trolls without a care for consequences. It is this, shoot first and ask questions later many game masters have a problem with. The barbarians are at the table and ready to play. Can you game master with people whose primal instincts are in full swing?

We will explore in this article several reasons why we should entertain these barbarous gamers. Also we will look at the dark side of humanity, shunned, but still there in all of us. In our last few paragraphs we will explore ideas on how to incorporate consequences and alternatives for our barbarian gamer friends.


Artwork by Frank Frazetta

Noted psychiatrist Carl Jung spoke about “the shadow” in each and every person. This is something we deny exists in ourselves and we project on others. It can take on a life of its own called “The Other”. Anthropologist have found in every culture we humans portray some very dark elements. This list includes


  • Aggression and Proscribed Violence
  • Jealousy
  • Lies and Manipulation
  • Shame


The Greeks had a term for outsiders and people who acted primarily on the dark side of their nature, barbaros “barbarian” which is an antonym of the word polites or citizen. Often Greeks would hurl insults at each other with this term. We can see the barbaric nature of man is in all of us. Yet we strive to be good citizens, not giving in to our dark nature. But early man could not survive without these traits.

It is therefore good for humans to explore the dark side of their nature. You cannot know what to resist if you have no idea what you are resisting. Our highly civilized society has no room for random acts of aggression that lie within all of us. But growing up we find no outlet for our dark selves. Gone are the days of playing cops and robbers in the neighborhood. Gaming, can and should be used as a healthy, modern outlet to explore the dark nature of man and ourselves.

Game Masters should entertain tabletop barbarians for several reasons.


  1. It is a healthy outlet and exploration of the dark part of our nature.
  2. Our better selves can know what these acts feel like without actually performing them in real society.
  3. Healthy role-play of different personalities leads to empathy.


The last part must be emphasized. In order for us to be great citizens of the country we belong to, we must learn to practice empathy. What is empathy?

Noun: The ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

It comes from two Greek words, em- in and pathos –feeling.

Why do we need more empathy?

So we can understand each other and live in a civilized society. You can find a great article about empathy here.

While it is good to understand our dark nature, it is not good to have players run around without any consequence of their actions for many sessions. We are creatures of habit and game masters who constantly allow for players to do what they please without consequence miss a great opportunity for exploring our inner selves.

Just as in real life, if we rob a liquor store, we should expect jail time. In our table-top role-playing games we should allow consequences to happen. Players who go into a dungeon, kill all the orcs and leave with the loot should know there will be reprisal. The orcs should have relatives and clans with kin. They will be looking for blood. Also if the orcs robbed the dungeon from someone else, like a necromancer, this necromancer will come back to get his gold. This can be played off as cursed gold, marked by the necromancer and it allows the party to be tracked. The entire point is, make sure actions have consequences. This way you can show all sides of a player’s actions. Too often we get into a kill zone and just play out a slaughter-fest. If this is what you intend, then by all means go for it. But if you want your games to impact a player’s life, bring consequences into the game.

Another area to explore while delving into our dark selves is our ability to care about others. Motivating new players to care about their actions goes with consequences. Often we think still in family terms and keep our ideas about who counts as family at a tribal level. Give players a tribe to belong to. Even if it is a society of misfit adventurers it gives a sense of belonging. Often the dwarf berserker will not care about the elf minstrel. If the dwarf berserker joined a league with the elf whose uncle is a necromancer, that will give some reason for the dwarf to care about his elf friend. Bringing family and friend groups into a game raises the whole role-playing session to another level. It helps us practice empathy and find reasons to practice caring.

We all have a barbarian lurking inside of us. Denying this will not vanquish the dark part of our nature. It is healthy to explore this aspect of us through table-top games. The theater of the mind is a great simulator of life. With the right game master and players, a collaborative environment of storytelling and exploration can commence in a simulated place. Do not worry about new players smashing through everything. Encourage them to feel comfortable in their role and allow for them to explore who they are role-playing. Without this discovery within table-top games we cannot grow as mature, empathetic beings. Role-playing games can be a great way to create bright, empathetic citizens of our world.




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