Barbarian Class Guide for Dungeons and Dragons 5e
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. The class 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.
What Are Barbarians?
Technically the term barbarian came from Rome and it was a derogatory term for anybody not from Rome. In D&D 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.
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.
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 AC. Dex saves are also very common in D&D 5E, so that is an added benefit to having a high score in this ability.
Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are not very useful to a barbarian. Put 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.
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 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 a major choice that determines a lot of the fluff, flavor, combat style, and primary abilities your barbarian will have. 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
This path is still in “unearthed arcana”, which means it’s not quite official yet and is still getting tested. 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. This is an extremely fun and flavorful option, but I expect to see a couple nerfs or reworks when it becomes “real”.
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 levels 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.
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.
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.
Path of the Wild Soul
This path is still in “unearthed arcana”, which means it’s not quite official yet and is still getting tested. 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 even get detect magic as a barbarian! At 6th level you also get the Magic Reserves 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 path a shot before they nerf it.
Path of the Zealot
Zealots are raging religious madmen, but they’re also just good all-round barbarians. They get 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.
Best Barbarian Class Features
There are a few class features that barbarians can use. Here are the ones that are the most useful.
Makes your AC 10 + Dex modifier + Con modifier. Since barbarians can’t wear heavy armor, this feature is vital.
This is what barbarians are known for. Go into a “rage” as a bonus action. While in rage, you get advantage on all Str checks and saving throws; + 2 damage to melee attacks (which scales up beginning at ninth level); and take half damage from bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage types. This effect lasts for 1 minute. You can do this up to two times before needing a long rest to replenish it.
You get this feature at level 2. It lets you choose to give opponents advantage on their attack rolls in exchange for you getting advantage on your attack rolls. If you are in rage and your opponents are doing bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, this means your opponents are more likely to hit you for half damage.
On the other hand, you are more likely to hit them for full damage. So this is a pretty good deal for you.
You have to wait until level 11 to get this feature. If you drop to 0 HP while raging, make a Con saving throw with a DC of 10. If you succeed, you drop to 1 HP instead. Each time you use this feature, the DC increases by 5 until you take a long rest.
If you happen to be a half-orc barbarian, Relentless Endurance makes this even better.
If you make it to level 18, this ability makes you almost unstoppable. If your total for a Str check is less than your Str score, use your Str score on the check instead. Since your Str score will probably be 20 by that time, it essentially means that you pass every Str check (although the DM may optionally rule that you fail on a roll of 1).
If you manage to get your barbarian all the way up to level 20, this feature will allow you to increase your maximum Con and Str to 24. It will also give you 4 free points of both Con and Str. If you are still wearing armor at this point, it is time to consider fighting naked...or as close to it as you can get without offending the rest of the party.
For barbarian skills, use Athletics to shove, grapple, climb, and do other combat maneuvers. Use Perception to spot danger. And since you’re a big, mean barbarian, use Intimidate to get people to do what you want them to.
Best Feats for Barbarians
There are quite a few feats that are useful to a barbarian. So this list will not be exhaustive. But here are the essential feats that no barbarian should do without.
Great Weapon Master
Gives you an extra attack whenever you critical hit or kill an opponent. Also allows you to take a -5 penalty to an attack roll in exchange for +10 damage.
Lets you spend “luck points” to roll an extra die during a check, saving throw, or attack roll and choose which dice count towards the role.
Or you can roll an extra die for a foe’s attack. If your roll is high, make your foe use their own roll. If your roll is low, make them use your roll. Use this feat when you absolutely need to hit your opponent or when you can’t accept getting hit by them.
As a barbarian you’ll often want to soak up the hits that would otherwise go towards your squishier party members. Sentinel helps you do that by locking enemies near you using your attack of opportunity. Strongly consider this feat if you’re acting as the frontline tank for your party.
Increases your HP maximum by twice your level. From now on, you get an extra 2 HP every time you level, in addition to what you would usually get. This feat seems as if it was made for barbarians.
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 features are technically optional, 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.
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.
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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