Table of Contents:
A 5e Guide for Barbarian Bard Multiclassing
Turn your sweet bardic music into angry music and get ready to become a dwarf metalhead, we're going through bard/barbarian multiclassing. Bard and barbarian is an interesting mix, but just picture your frothing mad bardbarian hero war yodeling their way over fallen enemies into the thick of battle. Barbarians are slabs of tanky meat and bards are the premiere skill, roleplay, and ally support class, combined they can get the best of both worlds! With a unique blend of features across every aspect of play you’ll be the perfect thrash metal rocker or screaming battle lunatic for every occasion. Bulk up on protein powder, grab an axe, and start studying a bunch of sheet music as we go through everything you need to know.
Why Play a Bardbarian?
There are two main paths when combining bard and barbarian. The first is actually just a well-rounded character with a lot of gameplay options. The barbarian class is very combat oriented with very little to do out of combat and roleplay heavy sessions can turn into a usual grind. The bard can be good in combat, but most of its features surround skills, roleplay, and buffing up your allies in combat. Put them together and you’re a true jack of all trades, excellent in every situation with resistance to physical damage and more hit points than you can shake a lute at. The second path is GRAPPLE MASTER. The barbarian and bard features can be uniquely lined up to create a wrestling god that can grab and toss around demons with an almost irresistible grapple. If either of those builds sound like fun character designs, read on.
What are the Downsides?
You can’t cast spells or concentrate on them while raging, so in combat you really have to choose between raging and spellcasting. You can still use your bardic inspirations while raging so you’re still getting utility out of your bard half, it’s just not a clean mesh of your abilities. And, if you’re going the grapple route a lot of enemies have easy solutions to the grappling strategy. Sure, it will completely wreck some monsters but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Many late level enemies are too large to grapple or have some magical way to evade you. The bardbarian build can be uniquely useful, but it’s not a massive “power build” like some other multiclass combinations.
What Level Does a Bardbarian “Kick In”?
Well, there’s no specific feature synergy if you’re just multiclassing bard and barbarian in general. There is a specific kick in level if you’re going for the ULTIMATE GRAPPLING build, and that’s technically 4th or 8th level depending on how you look at it. By 4th level you’ll have both rage and the lore bard’s increases to your Athletics checks, so you could count that as kicking in. I’d really only consider it “functioning properly” though once you’ve gotten to the 3rd level of bard and you’ve gotten up to 5th level of barbarian for the extra attack. Once you have all that you’ll be able to grapple and shove an opponent all in the same turn and that’s where the game plan really kicks in.
Do I Take Barbarian or Bard First?
You could technically take either, but I recommend going Bard for your very first level. Bards get any three skills at first level, and you don’t really lose anything taking barbarian 2nd. The major difference is your skills, and your saving throws. Taking bard first gives you more skills. Taking bard first gives you Dexterity and Charisma as saving throws, while taking barbarian first would give you Strength and Constitution as saving throws.
Both paths will work out fine, but I think you’ll get more utility out of that initial bard level.
What Class Features Do We Care About?
The more vanilla version of bardbarian doesn’t have any specific features to mesh into each other, so what features you care about are really up to you. If however you’re going for a WrestleMania style grapple fiend there are a few key features we’re “going for” when putting together a grapple bardbarian.
Barbarian Features for Bardbarians (Grapple God Mode)
- Rage: Honestly why most people multiclass into barbarian, but we’re going after one of the lesser-known parts of rage. Rage grants you advantage on all strength checks, which is conveniently what grappling uses for both the grapple check and the shove attack. So as long as we’re raging, we’re basically getting constant advantage on everything we’re doing. And we're still gaining all the other good stuff rage normally gets, like extra damage and resistance to the most common damage caused by incoming enemy attacks.
- Extra Attack: The grappling strategy really relies on grappling and shoving a creature in the same turn, which means we really want a 2nd attack so that we can do everything on the same turn.
- Extra Movement: Our game plan is to grab somebody, shove them prone, and then either punch them to death or drag them into something nasty in the area like off a cliff or into a roaring campfire. Our movement is halved while dragging our unfortunate friend along, so every little bit of extra movement helps us get where we need to be.
- Spellcasting: Raging mostly locks spells out of combat for you since you can’t cast or concentrate on them while mad. For the most part you’ll be using spells for out of combat utility and tricks, which is fine, but there are a few very interesting spells that you can benefit from in combat that don’t take your actions or your concentration. More on that later (mostly longstrider for extra speed).
- Bardic Inspiration: Your bardic inspirations fall between the cracks of what counts as spellcasting and by the rules as written there’s nothing stopping you from bellowing war cries mid-rage and providing your allies some muscle-bound inspiration.
- Expertise: We’re on a quest to get our Strength (Athletics) checks as high as possible for grappling and shoving. Expertise lets us get double our proficiency bonus on athletics, drastically pushing up our max grappling rolls.
- Cutting Words: Specifically, we’re getting this from the College of Lore bard archetype, but this 3rd level archetype feature lets you use a reaction and a use of bardic inspiration to mess up somebody else’s roll. Why we want it in particular is the ability to cut our target’s opposing roll to escape or avoid our grapples and shoves. With this the odds of anything avoiding your grapple drops drastically.
Bardbarian Ability Scores
Since you’ll likely be going for a full martial strategy, and your spellcasting is taking a bit of a backseat, you’ll want your two highest ability scores to be Strength and Constitution. You’ll want both scores to get to a 16-ability score as quickly as possible, and if you can manage it, try to get up to 18 in Strength. Then you’ll need a decent Charisma, and you can really get by with as low as 12 Charisma, but I’d recommend working it up to 14. Any higher than that and you’re sacrificing too much in Strength and Constitution.
There aren’t really any specific feats needed for this build, so unless you’re trying to work something extra into the concept, I’d say focus on your ability scores.
Because we don’t need all that much Charisma, we can really pick our races just as if we were just playing a barbarian. That means we need races that grant some combination of Strength and Constitution.
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 bardbarians.
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 bardbarian 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 Bardbarian.
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 bardbarians already get. They also get a Daunting Roar which inflicts the frightened condition as a bonus action using your Con modifier 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 bardbarian is simply not dying.
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 bardbarian options (assuming your setting has warforged).
We’re trying to make a grappling build, so obviously we need the grappler feat, right? Nope, the grappler feat was badly designed, and we don’t need it. You can find more on that in our grappling article. Don’t spend your ASI’s on feats, build up your stats instead.
Bardbarian Optimal Class Progression
As with any multiclass, there’s an optimal path for advancing your character and ultimately a “correct” ratio of levels from each class. The bardbarian really comes online with 5 levels of barbarian, and 3 levels of bard. This gets us all the features we need to grapple with the best of them. We’re also not going to get much out of further bard levels for the grappling plan so you’re best off finishing out your character with more barbarian levels.
I’ve seen a lot of different versions, but they boil down to either prioritizing getting “online” as soon as possible, or prioritizing optimal ASI progression. So really the question comes down to if you’re willing to miss out on optimal ASI to get online quicker.
This progression has a bit of back and forth, but this gets us to “operational” grappling the earliest before hitting “optimized” grappling.
Level 1 Bard
Level 2 Barbarian
Levels 3-4 Bard
Levels 5-8 Barbarian
Level 9 Bard
Levels 10-20 Barbarian
You could also forget that 4th bard level (you’d just miss out on the ASI) and just head straight back into barbarian. Extra bard levels will increase the power and frequency of your cutting words, but more barbarian levels add to raw damage and power. And since the main benefit of the late levels in bard are more spells and spellcasting (which we can't use much of) I tend to recommend barb lvls over bard levels for the late game.
Best Barbarian Archetypes for Bardbarians
None of the barbarian archetypes add much specifically add anything to our grapple strategy, but there are a few that can take advantage of getting in close or help us close the distance:
Path of the Storm Herald
Path of the Storm Herald really wants to be in close to the enemy to deal damage with either the desert or sea options. Our master grappler is doing its best to get in fast and stay there so it’s a decent fit. I tend to prefer the sea option so that I don’t have to worry about proximity with my allies.
Path of the Totem Warrior
Most people when going for totem warrior go with the bear totem for the near full coverage of every damage type. We actually want to go for the often passed up “elk” option to get even more speed. We want to grab somebody and haul them off as quickly as possible and that extra 15 feet of movement (even if halved while grappling) is particularly helpful.
Best Bard Archetypes for Bardbarians
To get the most of our grapple build there’s only one bard archetype we want to go for and that’s the college of lore, however, if you're going for a more general multiclass then the college of swords is your best bet:
College of Lore
We’re getting a ton of skill proficiencies using this archetype but we’re here for the other 3rd level feature cutting words. With cutting words, we can dunk on whoever we’re grappling and give them a penalty to their attempt to escape our grapple. The later features aren’t that helpful so we’re really just dipping our toes in here for one specific feature, but it’ll be worth its weight in grappling gold. You also can technically get another feature at 14th level that can stack up your Athletics skill even higher, but I don't think it's worth missing out on that many barbarian levels.
College of Swords
A swords bard won't help you become a grappling god, but it will critically give you a fighting style and can really help you deal damage. I recommend the dueling style, as it'll still work well if you do decide to grab somebody (still one of the better strategies). You also get an extra attack feature at 6th level, making this the best option if you plan on going hard on the bard levels and light on the barbarian levels. We're getting a ton of skill proficiencies using this archetype but we're here for the other 3rd level feature cutting words. With cutting words, we can dunk on whoever we're grappling and give them a penalty to their attempt to escape our grapple. The later features aren't that helpful so we're really just dipping our toes in here for one specific feature, but it'll be worth its weight in grappling gold.
Really this is just bard spellcasting, but we’ve got to pick and choose carefully since we can’t really rage and use spells at the same time. What we can do is use our spells liberally for utility and roleplaying stuff outside of combat, and we gain access to healing spells even if we can't use them mid-fight. Consider yourself the utility caster/healer of the party out of combat, and the meatslab tank once stuff goes down. There are a scant few bard spells though that fit the narrow requirements of a long duration AND that require no further spell actions or concentration. I recommend picking up longstrider, see invisibility, and motivational speech. All of which can affect combat, you can cast them prior to combat, yet don’t require any concentration.
Putting it All Together
Ok, now that we’ve created our bardbarian, let’s take a look at what a 10th level bardbarian (6 barbarian/ 4 bard) can do.
Let’s assume that our bardbarian has 20 Strength, 14 Charisma, and took the elk option of the totem warrior archetype and the college of lore archetype. Let’s also assume that we took proficiency and expertise in Athletics checks and that we have cast the spell longstrider before combat.
Time to jump off the back rope and GRAPPLE!
We use our bonus action to rage at the start of the combat, as any good barbarian should.
Next, our movement speed should be base 30 feet, + 10 feet for our fast movement barbarian feature, and another 15 feet for our elk totem. Now this last bit may or may not happen depending on if you have a bit of preparation time before combat, but we’ve also got the spell longstrider adding in another 10 feet of movement speed. So, we can book it 65 feet using a single movement action, which should easily close the distance in practically every combat situation, with possibly some movement left over if our grapple goes well.
Once we make contact with the enemy, we use the attack action, but instead of a normal attack, we spend our first attack roll performing a grapple.
Performing a grapple means making a Strength (Athletics) check opposed by their Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics check. Let’s add up everything that’ll go into this check for us:
To start with you add your Strength modifier, so for us that’s a base of +5.
Next, we have proficiency with these checks, so that’s another +4 and we’re up to +9.
We also took chose Athletics as one of our expertise skills, which lets us double our proficiency to those checks. That’s another +4, and we’re up to +13.
And lest we forget, we’re raging, so we get to make this athletics check at advantage.
We’re still not done, because now we can use our reaction to use cutting words to make it even more likely our grapple lands. We roll a d6 and subtract it from our enemy’s check.
Altogether, we’re rolling a +13 check with advantage, and our opponent is rolling a check (with whatever bonuses they’ve got, usually between +3 to +8) with a -1d6 penalty. Odds are VERY HIGH that you successfully grapple this fool.
Now that your enemy is grappled, we go into the next phase of our musclebound plan which is the shove attack. We have an extra attack from our barbarian feature, and instead of making a normal attack for our second attack we do a shove.
The shove works almost identically to the grapple, and all our same bonuses will apply to it. The difference is that instead of grappling on a success, we get to knock our opponent prone.
Prone is an especially nasty condition in 5th edition. While prone any enemy attack will be at disadvantage, while we get to make our attacks against them at advantage so long as we’re within 5 feet of them.
So, assuming we’ve grappled our opponent and knocked them prone, we’re now in a situation were we can move 30 feet a round dragging along our enemy (65/2 rounded down is 30). All our attacks against them are at advantage, and all their attacks against us are at disadvantage! Either stab away with whatever weapon you have on hand or drag them into the nastiest threat in the area (like dropping them off a cliff). Even if there's no convenient hazard, you'll have advantage on all your attack rolls and should be able to deal decent damage, you get that rage damage per hit and you should be landing a ton of them. Just make sure to use one handed weapons since you'll be needing a free hand for yeeting that fire golem into the lake.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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