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The Power of Swole
Every problem is a nail if you've got a big enough hammer, and barbarians are the rage-fueled muscle class needed to bring that hammer down in dnd 5e. The 5e barbarian has some deceptive nuance to build and run, even if you do end up wielding it as a blunt instrument. Hulk smash your way through your enemies and let out a primal scream as we go through everything you need to know in this 5th edition guide.
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WHAT ARE BARBARIANS?
Technically the term barbarian came from Rome and it was a derogatory term for anybody not from Rome. In dungeons and dragons 5e we mostly get the term from "Conan the Barbarian", a musclebound survivor of savage wastelands dressed in a leather loincloth and madly hacking away at evil cultists with a massive axe. 5e does a pretty good job of representing that idea mechanically and playing a barbarian means playing a character that can survive almost anything as they murder everything around them in a bloody frenzy.
Some of the most iconic characters that would probably be barbarians in D&D include Conan the Barbarian, the Hulk, and Beatrix "The Bride" Kiddo from Kill Bill.
BARBARIAN CLASS FEATURES
Before we get into the builds and options, we should go through the fundamental features and default rules that define the barbarian.RAGE
Rage is the barbarian signature feature, one of your core defining abilities you gain at 1st level and will be using all the way to 20th level. As a bonus action you can choose to go "into a rage" and while you're raging you get a bunch of buffs including:
- Advantage on Strength checks and saving throws.
- Damage resistance to all the physical damage types, Bludgeoning, Piercing and Slashing damage.
- All your melee weapon attacks that use Strength do additional weapon damage. This extra damage starts at +2 extra and gets higher at higher levels.
You start off being able to rage twice a day and pick up more uses as you advance in barbarian levels. You may have to save them for important fights early on but after a while you'll generally be able to rage in every single combat.
Your barbarian rage lasts for 1 minute, or until you go a turn without attacking something, or until you end it yourself as a bonus action. Generally, you'll be making at least one melee weapon attack against a creature every single turn anyway but be aware of it if the hostile creature is playing keep away, you need to keep on attacking if you want to stay raging.
You've also got an odd limitation that shouldn't matter, in that you can't cast a spell or concentrate on spells while raging out. This could come up if you're doing multi-class shenanigans but won't be an issue if you're just playing the barbarian straight up.
Rage pumps up your attacks, while mitigating most of the damage you'll likely take in return. This makes you into a formidable meat shield and damage dealer so long as you're raging so don't forget to rage when you start fighting! The very first thing you should be doing in any serious fight is to get angry and swole about it.UNARMORED DEFENSE
Also at 1st level, you pick up the "muscles and loincloth" part of the Conan the Barbarian equation. While you aren't wearing armor, you get a special AC called your "Unarmored Defense". This special AC is 10 + Dexterity modifier + Constitution modifier.
This means that you could scream into battle while essentially nude and you'd still have about the same AC as an armored fighter would.
Even without spending all your ability points on it, this will usually equate to an AC of 15 or 16, and you can easily get that higher by improving your Dexterity or Constitution with ability score increases.RECKLESS ATTACK
Starting at 2nd level you gain the ability to perform "reckless attacks". A reckless attack is flavorfully like going for the jugular but leaving yourself wide open. This doesn't take any action to use, you simply choose to attack recklessly on your first swing of the turn. Your reward for this reckless attack is advantage on attack rolls for all your attacks! The price is that until the start of your next turn, attacks against you have advantage. This price and payoff is pretty big, and you'll need to think carefully about using it at the right time. I find right at the start or close to the end of a fight are the best times to attack recklessly. Right at the start you should (hopefully) be at or close to full hit points and can stand to take some hits in exchange for advantage on melee attacks. It can also be a good way of pushing those last few points of damage through when the bad guy is almost down.
One side note just to quash an issue I've seen come up, reckless attacks specifies that you have advantage on attacks this turn, not this round. That means if you're taking an attack of opportunity it will not have advantage, even if you just used reckless attacks the preceding turn.DANGER SENSE
Also starting at 2nd level, you pick up a powerful defensive ability. Not to be confused with uncanny sense, danger sense you gain advantage on Dexterity saving throws so long as you can see the danger, and it specifies that you don't gain the benefit if you're blinded, deafened, or incapacitated.
I've seen some weird interpretations of this ability floating around, but generally unless you're surprised, or the DM is pulling some "sudden blackout" style stuff to block your sight you should always get advantage on Dexterity saving throws.
Dexterity is one of the most common saving throws and it applies to some of the most used attacks like dragon breath weapons and damage spells like Fireball and Lightning bolt. Remember this feature when the dragon spits fire at you as it may very well save your character's life.FAST MOVEMENT
Very simple, once you hit 5th level you get to move 10 feet faster. It does have the stipulation that you can't be wearing heavy armor, but you shouldn't be doing that anyway. Take advantage of this and feel free to rush into combat or sprint to faraway targets. This fast movement can be great for chasing down that squishy target, or getting you to protect your squishy target.FERAL INSTINCT
Once you hit 7th level feral instinct grants you advantage on Initiative, which basically means you have a much higher likelihood of going first or early in combat.
This feature also lets you act while surprised. A lot of people get messed up by "surprise" but basically there will be some situations where one group gets the jump on another. In those cases the group getting jumped is "surprised" and doesn't get to act in the first round of combat. YOU however luckily now have feral instinct, and so long as you rage first you'll get to act in that first round instead of sitting there like a dummy.BRUTAL CRITICAL
When you reach 9th level your critical hits get dangerous. If you're using reckless attack, then the advantage on attack rolls really gives you a chance to "crit fish" and hit with a melee attack. Every time you make a critical hit, you get to roll that weapon's die again and add it to the total. This is ON TOP of the extra dice you're getting normally from a critical hit.
It is however only the 1 die, rather than all the dice.
So, say you brutally crit with a battleaxe (a d12 weapon), you're adding an additional d12 for the critical hit, AND yet another d12 for this feature, giving you a total smack of 3d12 (+ bonuses).
But if you hit with, say, a maul (a 2d6 weapon), you're getting 2 additional d6 for the critical hit, but only 1d6 for this feature, giving you a total smack of 5d6 (+ bonuses).
A small distinction, but one I've seen trip people up in the past.
Brutal critical improves at 13th level and 17th level, adding yet another weapon damage die each time. That means the mighty critical hit of a 17th level barbarian's battleaxe can be slamming in for 5d12!RELENTLESS RAGE
At 11th level you get A LOT harder to kill while you're raging even with grievous wounds. If you get dropped to 0 hit points, you just have to pass a DC 10 Constitution saving throw to pop back up to 1 hit point instead. Each time you do this the DC goes up by 5 until your next short or long rest, so you can't survive forever, but you CAN probably survive 2 or 3 hits farther than you would have which can make all the difference.
At 15th level you get rid of the "have to hit somebody every turn" part of your rage feature, and it sort of just turns on and off whenever you like now. This mindless rage is a bit of a token ability at this high a level, but it's nice not to have your combat options restricted anymore.INDOMITABLE MIGHT
Also a bit bafflingly token this high up, at 18th level you essentially get to auto pass lower Strength checks. Whenever you make a Strength check and the result is lower than your Strength score, you can use your score as the result instead.
So, say your Strength is 20 at this point (cause you know, swole), and you roll a measly 12 on a Strength check, you can simply take the 20 instead.
It's a nice feature to have, but I'd honestly expect to see something like this at a way lower level than 18th.PRIMAL CHAMPION
Finally, your 20th level capstone is a fitting bump of swoleness. Your Strength and Constitution scores each go up by 4, and your maximums go up to 24. Simple, does what it says on the tin, a buff to Strength and Constitution means hitting even harder and even more hit points for your meat shield.
OPTIONAL BARBARIAN FEATURES
In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything every class got a set of optional features that act like a sort of upgrade patch to fix issues and improve things that needed improving. These are technically optional rules, but assuming your DM allows them, make sure to include these class features with your barbarian character:
Added at 3rd level and again at 10th level you get to pick another skill proficiency from the barbarian class skill options. This doesn't replace anything, it's just a straight up bonus. It's a somewhat token upgrade, but I think this was their answer to the complaints that barbarians don't have enough interesting features.INSTINCTIVE POUNCE
This new 7th level feature grants you bonus movement equal to half your movement speed whenever you first go into your rage. 9 times out of 10 I usually find that barbarians have the movement speed to get into 1st round melee as it is, but this can help guarantee it.
BUILDING A BETTER BARBARIAN
5e is fairly forgiving and you should be able to play your barbarian effectively no matter what options you choose. However, there are some major choices you'll need to make as you build your barbarian character.BARBARIAN ABILITY SCORES
For ability scores, there are two different paths you can take when building a barbarian. The first is to take your highest roll and put it into Str. This will maximize your ability to hit and deal damage with melee weapons and with your barbarian abilities. If you choose this option, put your second-highest roll into Con to get as much HP as possible when you level, but without sacrificing Str. Consider spending your ability increases until you get your Strength to at least 18.
The second path for a barbarian build is to put your highest roll into Con. This will maximize your HP as you level. Since barbarians do not wear heavy armor, some players believe this to be the best build for the class. If you choose this option, put your second-highest roll into Str so as not to harm your ability to use barbarian features and melee attacks.
Regardless of which of these builds you choose, put your third-highest roll into Dex. If you wear light armor or no armor, having a high Dex will help your armor class. Dex saves are also very common in D&D 5E, so that is an added benefit to having a high score in this ability.
There's only a couple of feats that should really be even part of the question on your ability score improvement, and other than those few (more on that later) you should be spending each ability score improvement mainly on improving Strength and Constitution as you gain each ability score improvement at 4th level, 8th level, 12th level, 16th level, and 19th level.
Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are not very useful at any barbarian level. Your Intelligence modifier and Charisma Modifier are the least useful, with Wisdom at least potentially useful just for the Perception and Survival ability checks. But each one is still a bad ability for you and you'll still be putting your bad rolls into these abilities.
You can choose any race but as a barbarian you'll want particularly high Strength and Constitution scores and should consider races that gain bonuses to those scores. The following races are optimal choices for a barbarian character:
Dwarves get +2 Con, so they are tough enough to fight without armor. Their Darkvision is helpful to any class, as is the resistance to poison granted by Dwarven Resilience. Mountain dwarves also get + 2 Str, making them even better as barbarians.
Selecting the earth subtype of genasi gets you +2 Con and +1 Str. These rocky lads get a once per long rest pass without trace casting that can let your barbarian travel surprisingly stealthy. It's a bit situational but you'll also be able to ignore rocky difficult terrain which can be the difference between getting into melee or playing catch up.
These mountain giants get +2 Str and +1 Con. Goliaths seem tailor made as natural barbarians in both stats and lore. Their Stone's Endurance ability will shrug off a good chunk of damage between each short rest, making your barbarian even more survivable.
Half-orcs get +2 Str and +1 Con, Darkvision, and learn Intimidate for free thanks to their Menacing racial feature. Both the extra crit from Savage Attacks and defensive help from Relentless Endurance are also helpful to a Barbarian. A half orc barbarian is truly a fearsome thing.
Variant humans get +1 to two ability scores. This can be used to get +1 to Str and Con, making Human a decent choice for barbarian characters. The extra feat can be used for Great Weapon Master, giving you an extra attack every time you crit or kill an opponent.
These mighty lions get +2 Con and +1 Str. Beyond the strong ability lineup they have a base movement speed of 35 feet which will stack with the movement bonuses barbarians already get. They also get a Daunting Roar which inflicts the frightened condition as a bonus action using your Con modifier and proficiency bonus on the DC, they'll learn to fear your barbaric lion roar!
Minotaurs get +2 Str and +1 Con. Sadly most of the cool stuff minotaurs get use a bonus action (which means you can't rage and do them in the same turn). However, once you are raging you get some amazing utility in Goring Rush that'll let you dash and attack, and Hammering Horns gives you some free shove attacks.
Orcs get +2 Str and +1 Con. They get a lot of the same abilities as half-orcs, but you'll trade out the damage potential of Savage Attacks for the ability to easily close the distance between yourself and your foes with Aggressive.
Beasthide Shifters get +2 Con and +1 Str. You'll also get the enhanced form of the temporary hit points gained from "shifting" which will make your barbarian much more survivable. +1 to AC when shifted as well and a rare flat AC bonus is nothing to sneeze at. Beasthide shifter is a good choice if your goal as a barbarian is simply not dying.
Simic Hybrids get +2 Con and can choose an optional +1 Str. While these are pretty setting locked onto Ravnica, if you have the opportunity to play them, you'll get a highly customizable barbarian. You'll be able to pick between gliding, climbing, and swimming speeds, and later between grappling tentacles, a bonus to AC, and even Acid Spit.
Tritons get +1 Str, +1 Con, and +1 Cha. The Charisma bonus is somewhat wasted but you're still getting boosts to both Strength and Constitution. Beyond that, you get a swim speed, the ability to breathe underwater, some fun racial spells, resistance to cold damage, and the cherry on top is Darkvision.
Warforged get +2 Con and can choose an optional +1 Str. Being a robot has its perks, and the "non-living" bonuses from Constructed Resilience come in handy. You get immunity to disease, you don't need food, water or air, and to top it off you get resistance to poison and a +1 AC bonus. All of it adds up to make warforged one of the most appealing barbarian options (assuming your setting has warforged).
At third level your barbarian gets a "primal path", this is essentially your barbarian subclass and a major choice that determines a lot of the fluff, flavor, combat style, and primary abilities your barbarian will have. You'll gain primal path features at 3rd level when you first select it, and then more features at 6th level, 10th level, and 14th level. Let's go through each of them one by one:
Path of the Ancestral Guardian
Zoinks! Barbarians’ ghosts! You get a crew of your ancestor's spirits whenever you rage that grant you a slew of abilities that protect your allies and focus your enemy's attention on you. This is one of the best options if you want to play your barbarian as a meat shield tank to keep your friends safe.
Path of the Battlerager
This is a sort of specialty niche path that is flavor locked as only an option for dwarf barbarians (your DM can choose to allow other races though). It's a grapple-focused path that relies on giving great big bear hugs while wearing spiked armor. It's a cute build that can be quite useful, especially in some bonkers multiclass builds. However, it doesn't do a whole lot on its own without a lot of work and I don't recommend it to new players.
Path of the Beast
In essence this path lets you play your barbarian like a werewolf, transforming when you rage with monstrous bestial features. At early levels you get your choice of natural weapons, between a bite that can restore some hit points, double claw attacks, or a big walloping tail attack. What's nice is that you get to choose between them every time, and you can tailor your form to the situation at hand whenever you rage. The class really takes off once you hit 10th level and gain Infectious Fury, which will let you add some serious damage either through making your enemies hit each other or just pure extra psychic damage.
Path of the Berserker
This path is meant for Viking-style berserkers who work themselves into a blind rage and are unleashed in a bloody frenzy. It's one of the most initially appealing barbarian paths but it's sadly a bit of a trap. The Frenzy ability gives you extra attacks in a rage, which sounds amazing, but it's at the cost of a level of exhaustion. Exhaustion sucks in 5e and there are very few ways to get rid of it outside of long rests. As a barbarian you'd normally want to rage in every combat and Path of the Berserker often makes that impossible. I highly discourage choosing this path, especially if you're a new player. This class also gets an intimidating presence feature which is great at higher levels for dealing with lots of baddies.
Path of the Storm Herald
Storm Heralds generate an elemental aura around themselves while they rage and get a ton of effects based on the environment (element) you chose. Two of the options are great damage dealers that stack on the hurt just for being near you while you rage. The third option is a healing buff for you and your allies. Grab this option if you want to play a DPS focused barbarian or have some healing abilities but I know I can't resist the allure of 1d6 lightning damage.
Path of the Totem Warrior
This path is meant for tribal warriors blessed by the spirits of nature. At level 3, choose Bear as your Totem Spirit. From now on, you take half damage from every damage type except psychic while raging. That's insane.
Beyond that first option (which should always be bear), you'll get later options between several boosts to specific exploration abilities and skills depending on the totem spirits you choose. This is a very flexible path, and assuming you take the 3rd level bear spirit a very durable one. I highly recommend this path to new and veteran players alike.
Another totem animal that has been realesed since the initial launch is the elk which some that give bonuses in movement. You can find the elk totem in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. (Read our Full Review Here)
Path of the Zealot
Zealots are raging religious madmen, but they're also just good all-round barbarians. Your zealot barbarian gets to just straight-up deal extra radiant or necrotic damage every turn and some very nice defensive abilities that can even shrug off death itself. Pick this up if you want a solid combat barbarian with a devoted religious bent.
Path of Wild Magic
Wild Soul is the barbarian answer to the wild magic sorcerer, you get random magical effects whenever you rage (all of them good in some way) and you'll get further effects when you're hit or fail a saving throw once you hit 10th level. And you even get detect magic as a barbarian! At 6th level you also get the Bolstering Magic ability that lets you restore your friend's spell slots at the cost of hit points. I can't understate how strong this is, and I recommend people give this a shot.
BARBARIAN BUILDS AND TACTICS
Barbarians are one of the most straightforward classes with the least wiggle room when it comes to the roles they fill as your party delves the dungeon. Barbarians are built primarily for two things: dealing damage and soaking up hits.BARBARIAN DAMAGE DEALING
You don't have to do much work to make your barbarian an effective damage dealer, but I find it boils down to two fundamental methods:
Big !&%$ Off Weapon. Barbarians are built for swinging a big martial melee weapon around. Your high strength and numerous melee features make you acutely skilled at introducing two-handed weapons to enemy ribcages. The only question becomes what weapon to use. Your weapon proficiencies include all simple weapons and martial weapons, so the world of death implements is your oyster.
The first argument is whether or not you want to sacrifice some damage output for reach, and I tend to argue that the answer is no. Glaives, Halberds, and Pikes all go down to 1d10 from the maximum 1d12/2d6 in exchange for the reach weapon quality that extends the range you can make attacks at. As a barbarian, a major part of your role is taking the hits, not trying to play keep away using reach weapons. Unless you want to play around with the sentinel feat, but more on that in the barbarian tanking section.
Step 2 then is deciding between the 1d12 weapons or 2d6 weapons. There's been a whole lot of online arguments about this issue, but fundamentally it boils down to the fact that 2d6 weapons have a higher likelihood of rolling average results, and a lower chance of rolling really low OR really high. Whereas the 1d12 weapons have a slightly higher chance of rolling really high OR really low, but a lower likelihood of rolling middle of the road.
The monkey wrench comes from your brutal critical feature, which benefits a LOT more from the 1d12 weapons but you won't be seeing that feature till 9th level.
My recommendation is to use one of the 2d6 weapons (greatsword or maul) for levels 1-8, then changing it out to a 1d12 weapon (greataxe) once you hit level 9 and beyond.
Finally, if you're running with this strategy, I highly recommend you take the Great Weapon Master Feat. This feat does two things, both of which are HUGE impacts on your effectiveness as a damage dealer. The first feature lets you make a bonus attack as a bonus action whenever you make a critical hit or finish off an enemy. The second works especially well with your reckless attacks feature. At the cost of a -5 penalty to your attack roll, you can deal 10 extra damage with each swing!
By combining the great weapon master feat with the advantage gained from your reckless attacks you can push the bonus damage through even with the penalties. 10, 20 or even 30 extra damage a round (swing, extra attack swing, finishing off an enemy swing) is a massive DPS improvement even at high levels, and will turn your barbarian into a murder monster. The additional brutal critical chance on this already massive hit is great.
Double Stabbing. Any class can be a dual wielder, but for high damage output builds it's a particularly good option for barbarians. If you'll take a look back at your rage feature, you'll notice that the rage damage bonus triggers on each melee weapon attack. Each melee weapon attack means more rage damage and strength damage. Once you're out of the starting tier, it also gives you another chance to proc the brutal critical as well. Running a dual wielder is a complex thing in and of itself, but you can read more about it here. Key thing here is you want to make an attack as many times as possible if you want to trigger this. Two weapon fighting/dual wielding really comes in handy with this.BARBARIAN TANKING
The second chunk of barbarian strategy just comes from taking the hits for your party. With rage you'll be taking half as much damage from most attacks (all bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage), and with your mighty d12 hit die you have the hit points to soak up what damage does come through. There are a few key points that can make your barbarian that much more tanky though.
Half Plate. It may sound odd, but barbarians have proficiency in medium armor from the get go, and the highest end medium armor half plate can be just a bit better than your unarmored defense feature. Many folks think that half plate is heavy armor, but it's oddly not!
Half plate armor has an AC of 15 + your Dexterity modifier (maximum 2), so with at least 14 Dexterity you're at an AC of 17 with half plate armor.
Unarmored Defense has an AC of 10 + your Dexterity Modifier, + your Constitution modifier. Which in most cases will add up to 15 AC or 16 AC.
Your unarmored defense feature can potentially get much higher than that, but doing so requires a significant investment in your Constitution and Dexterity scores. You'll need to get your Constitution and Dexterity scores up to 18 each before it outpaces half plate. Doable, but not in early levels.
The other factors to consider are that half plate is quite pricey at 750 gp, and you may have to do some questing before you can even afford it. It also imposes disadvantage on Stealth checks, so sneaky barbarian strategies tend to go off the table. Generally though, without some magic item to perform better, half plate just provides the best AC.
My advice is to try and acquire half plate early on, and stick with it, getting your Dexterity only to 14. The alternative is to go full tank (max out both Strength and Dexterity to the best of your ability), but I feel that sacrifices too much combat ability when you leave Strength behind.
Sentinel. The Sentinel Feat does 3 things, drops a target's movement to 0 if you hit them with an attack of opportunity, lets you make attacks of opportunity even if they disengage, and lets you bop somebody as a reaction if they attack somebody who isn't you. All this culminates as a feat that turns you into a tarpit brawler. Once you close range with a target it's VERY hard for them to get away from you, and even if your allies join the fray they're punished for not going after you. This is exactly what a tank wants to be doing, keeping their allies from being the enemy target all while keeping them in range of your mighty melee attack. Speaking of your attacks, the sentinel feat is part of the infamous polearm build, a cheeky build that barbarians are well suited for. You can find a much more detailed explanation of the sentinel polearm build here. Don't forget that this melee attack with a melee weapon also gives you that chance to recklessly attack and use your GWM or fish for your brutal critical. Combined with your fast movement you can run to someone and then they can't get away....Barbarian Multiclass Options
We've written several blog posts on great barbarian 5e multiclass options. Check them all out here:
We’ve given you the best class features, skills, primal path features, races, and builds for a barbarian. Barbarians make a great addition to any D&D 5E party.
They may sometimes embarrass the other party members with their uncivilized attitudes. But when a fight starts, everyone will be happy to have the barbarian on their side. Now, what are you waiting for? Get out there and start cracking some skulls.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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