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Understanding the Barbarian- 5e

Updated on January 19, 2015

What is a Barbarian?

A Barbarian is a mighty warrior who generally uses his anger/passion to level enemies. They are often times considered tribal, outlandish people who are seeking treasure or adventure stories to bring home to the tribe. They'll stand tall against the mightiest of foes and bring them to their knees. There are those that would love to bring nothing but havoc to a civilized, weak society. There are those that champion just because it's the right thing to do, and it pays with wenches, mead, gold and a warm place to sleep. Some fight with honor. Some fight to win. Some would rather crack your skull while your sleeping.

We often associate the Barbarian to northern icy lands. This is both correct and incorrect at the same time. Barbarians just tend to come from lands close to nature in general, so a Barbarian may come from the prairie, or from the deep jungle, or from the rain shadow side of a great mountain. Don't let preconceptions take away from your creativity.

A little history on the matter-

the Barbarian class is a very powerful class- Strong, d12 hit die, swings what ever she has fairly hard, and always has interesting abilities.

However, what gave life to this class in the first place? It wasn't that Conan the Barbarian was just super imposed upon D&D...or was it? In the late 70's, the Barbarian class came in to existence as a class in OD&D with a d6 hit die, CON as a pre-requisite, and some severe armor penalties. The description of the class itself was based on Conan the Barbarian, Kothar, and Fafrhd. So, even from the very beginning, the Barbarian came into D&D with an urge to kick ass.

This is where I should tell you how to min/max

In previous editions of D&D, being a min/maxed character was really, really important. Certain races had to go well with certain classes, and if they didn' just had a bad time. The beauty of 5e is that Min/Maxing a character is actually the worse option- it just doesn't bode well. Here is your major problems with min/maxing in 5e:

1. There are spells that target every stat

2. Skills are no longer tied to points you can distribute

3. Enemies are considerably easier to hit, but have a higher HP

Now, I know that some races supposedly do Barbarian better than others- this can be argued. Most of the time, people consider humans, dwarves, and half-orcs for Barbarians. This is fine. Nothing is wrong with that. However, I propose that any race can do Barbarian, as 5e is not a big stickler on the necessity of being "optimized". For instance, a player of mine played a wood elf Barbarian. She may not as been as strong, but she knew what she was doing. Wood elves have an ability to where they automatically roll a stealth check with any natural weather event that reduces visibility. Talk about a scary Barbarian.

So in short, play any race with the Barbarian that you would find comfortable or fun.

Human Barbarian, Canadian edition
Human Barbarian, Canadian edition

So how do we make a Barbarian?

It's honestly pretty simple. Depending on how you are doing character creation is dependent on how your stats are going to look, but the principle should remain similar regardless. When it comes to allocation of stats, i recommend:

1. STR/CON- Barbarians have an ability to where a high constitution would be nice (covered in a little bit) and strength is used to kill things. It's a personal preference of mine to have a higher constitution over strength, however, do as you would want. They're both high priority.

2. DEX- Barbarians would like to have a good dexterity, since they can't wear heavy armor (not out of the gate, anyway) and have an ability that goes quite well with their constitution. Initiative is also based on dexterity.

3. INT/WIS/CHA- I would never tell anyone to dump stat these- So I am not going to. These are your mental stat's and help reflect your Barbarian's mentality. Planner? High intelligence. Can tell if someone's lying to him? High Wisdom. Inspires others or getting a guest for the evening? High Charisma. Now, do note that this is not the ONLY indicator of the Barbarian's personality, but it does help it come together.

After you add in your proficiency with saving throws, skills, and weapons/armor, it is time to talk about the class features.


Class Abilities as a whole

Unarmored defense- This is the ability I mentioned above. You get your CON modifer + DEX modifier to AC, and you can still wear a shield. It's pretty nice, once you figure in that you can have an AC higher than some heavy armor...while shirtless.

Rage- Adds a static +2 damage at level 1, advantage on STR checks and saving throws, and most importantly- resistance to non magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing. That is going to reduce incoming damage by half from almost EVERYTHING, allowing you to kick twice as much ass.

Reckless Attack- You receive advantage on your attack rolls while your enemies get to do the same. This sounds like a bad idea, but remember- if your raging you take 1/2 damage from almost anything anyway. this ability allows you to essentially kill things quicker.

Danger Sense- Gain advantage on dexterity saving throws against effects you can see. This is very nice, and can help make those pesky fireballs not as bad for you.

Primal Path- This will be discussed in more detail in a lower paragraph

Ability Score Improvement- At the standard rate of 4, 8, 12, 16, 19. these allow you to increase a stat by two, two stats by one, or if your DM allows, a feat.

Extra Attack- As a barbarian, you can make two attacks per attack action.

Fast movement- You increase your speed by 10 feet if your not wearing heavy armor.

Feral Instinct- You gain advantage on initiative rolls. This would be great even if that's the only thing it gave. But it's not. If for some reason you are surprised, you can act normally as long as you rage before doing anything that turn. It turns a bad situation into a manageable situation very quickly.

Brutal Critical- every time you crit, you get to add extra damage die based on the weapon you hit with. It's a very nice thing, especially whenever your attacking at advantage and have essentially 4-6 attack rolls a turn (4-6 chances at rolling a natural 20)

Relentless Rage- This ability makes the Barbarian the king/queen of badassery. If you get hit and your HP is dropped to below zero and you do not die out right, you can make a CON check to set yourself at 1 HP instead. This check is DC 10, and increases by 5 each time you do it. That being said, it resets on a short rest.

Persistent Rage- Your rage has no bounds on time any more- Rage to your hearts desire.

Indomitable Strength- If you make a STR check roll that's lower than your STR score, you use your stat instead. This means no more 1's anymore. You should succeed most skill checks and most saving throws at this point.

Primal Champion- You are the only class in the game who's STR and CON can exceed 20. This ability increases both your STR and CON by 4, to a max of 24. This is the cap ability and is clearly full of awesome, axe swinging badassery.

The guy with the sword is an excellent Barbarian.

Primal Path- Berzerker

Berserkers are a path of Barbarian designed for those that wish to hit hard and kill things quickly. This is best for those wanting to maximize hitting and battlefield control. Often times, a Berserker will be trying to topple a foe much larger than himself, or clean a room of orcs out by himself- He can certainly do it.

Frenzy- Getting a bonus attack at the cost of 1 level of exhaustion at the end of a rage does not sound exactly good at first glance- however, consider that this can be any weapon. Great Axes, Great Swords, the kitchen sink. Combine this ability with Reckless attack and you're guaranteed to hit something several times and probably make it a blood stained memory on your kitchen sink (or other weapon).

Mindless Rage- Cannot be charmed or frightened when your raging. This makes you a bigger badass, as you are one of the few characters who could just walk up to a dragon* (or other creature with a terrifying presence) and begin to wail on it. Beholders can't charm you with eye rays. Evil wizards can't charm you out of killing them dead. This makes you , as the Berserker, a Monster's Bane.

Intimidating Presence- So now, your are the one giving off a scary presence. The DC is 8 + Proficiency+ CHA, and can make a creature frightened of you till your next action. This can only be done as an action, so keep that in mind.

Retaliation- This ability allows you to smack a creature back that just hit you. It uses your reaction, but it's a nice way to swing in a possible of 4 attacks a turn. This is a pretty nifty ability.

*I wouldn't just walk up to a dragon.

Berserker- I will kill them quickly.
Berserker- I will kill them quickly. | Source

Primal Path- Totem Warrior

Totem Warrior's are fantastic in versatility. this type of Barbarian is more akin to a tribal warrior who uses the spirits to assist him in battle, similar to certain native american tribes. There are a lot of Role Play opportunities with this subclass, along with it's natural badassery, make it a very fun and open class.

Spirit Seeker- This ability/goal is something not to be shucked- you gain beast sense and speak with animals as rituals. This should set up the idea of the subclass- this Barbarian is attempting to get in attunement with the natural world. This is just cool, honestly.

Totem Spirit- The Totem Warrior gains the guidance of a spirit animal, often times influencing the physical characteristics of the Totem Warrior. This is really unique, as it gives another means of worship/dedication to an idea that would make sense as a Barbarian. However, there is even something cooler occurring here- it gives you abilities as well. There are three aspects to choose from.

Bear- the Bear Spirit makes one tough enough to stand up to any challenge.

at 3rd- while raging, resistance to all but psychic damage. This means your now even harder to kill, as if you weren't hard enough to kill in the first place.

at 6th- you gain advantage on all push, lift, carry, or break checks along with your carrying capacity is doubled. Not bad at all considering there are plenty of applications to be able to done with this.

at 14th- whenever your raging and there's a hostile within 5ft of you trying to attack other creatures besides you, it has disadvantage on the rolls. This is fantastic for protecting much weaker (non barbarian types) characters. It's also fantastic for setting up an amazing frontline as well.

Eagle- the Eagle Spirit makes one a predator whom can fly around the battle field, dispatching targets with ease.

At 3rd- enemies have disadvantage on opportunity attacks against you and you can make a dash bonus action. That's really nifty when you have to cross a battlefield very quickly.

at 6th- you gain the ability to see up to 1 mile away without difficulty while being able to make out some fine details. Dim light no longer gives you disadvantage on perception check. Amazing if your hunting something, or trying to spy on an enemy encampment.

At 14th- you gain the ability to fly, given you end your turn on a solid surface or something to hold you aloft. This is amazing. The usefulness of this in general is absolutely fantastic.

Wolf- the Wolf Spirit makes makes one a leader of hunters.

at 3rd- Your party's rogue is about to love you for ever. Any ally making an attack on a foe withing 5ft of you has advantage on the attack. This is a great team work ability, and certainly deserves close attention.

at 6th- Gain the ability to track creatures at a fast pace and the ability to stealth at a normal pace. Tracking a foe just became very easy for you.

at 14th- Use a bonus action to knock a large or smaller creature prone when you hit it with a melee attack. This makes that prone target dead chowder very quickly, since there's not much anything can do prone. Very awesome ability.

Also, in addition to choosing 3 of the above abilities as you level (yes, you are not restricted to a single totem animal) you also gain the ritual commune with nature. This essentially lets your spirit animal communicate with you. In role play terms, that is one of the coolest things I have ever heard.

So What is the Difference?

Berserker Pro's- Frenzy allows you to get an extra swing in with a weapon, being immune to charmed and frightened, and reactionary attacks are pretty cool.

Berserker Con's- Frenzy causes exhaustion, which can stack up quickly into something bad if not kept in check. Also, you may not be as versatile as what you would like.

Totem Warrior Pro's- The ability to choose your totem spirit and what abilities you get are awesome. The abilities presented will make you a very versatile character.

Totem Warrior Con's- Your damage output is not going to be as high as the Berserker's, but you will make up for it in versatility and defense.

Feats to Consider

Tough- an extra 2 HP per level for a class with a lot of HP to begin with? Why not? With resistances, your extra HP is going even further.

Dual Wielder- If your going to want to get 3 weapon hits out of your 2 attack actions, this is the way to do it if your not a Berserker. This feat allows you to dual wield weapons that are no longer just light, so it's a good thing.

Great Weapon Master- -5 atk, +10 damage combined with advantage on every swing? This is screaming to be used with Barbarians using bigger, Two Handed Weapons

Mage slayer- advantage on saving throws when the creature casts a spell, and when they cast a spell you get to use a reaction to hit them? This is great for those folks that just really, really do not like spell casters.

Polearm Master- It's another good one, and a good way to get extra reaction attacks. Bonus action attack of 1d4+ STR is never a bad.

Savage Attacker- reroll weapon damage and use either total? Its not bad by any means.

Shield Master- If you are planning on sword and board, this is your go to feat. Shield bonus to your dex saving throws + advantage? Why not? The shove you can do as a bonus action is right up your alley as well, considering at a certain point you can use your STR instead of a roll.

Why not Fighter?

A Barbarian is a warrior based off of his primal instincts, raw power, and connections to himself or nature.

A Fighter is a professional warrior, using skill, training, and certain tactics to win a combat.

This is not to say that either one is bad. They are both good, competent warriors, but come from 2 different schools of thought. They are different mechanically as well, and that will be see with Understanding the Fighter- 5e

That is a lot of Information...

Good News! You don't necessarily need to know all of this while playing. However, here are a few simple things to consider when playing any barbarian-

1. Kill things aggressively in combat. The more kills you succeed at, the few times party members are going to get hit.

2. You probably have the most HP in the party. Don't be afraid to charge something, swinging your weapons loudly.

3. In Role Play, your character is not dumb/deaf/mute by any means. Interact as you would think a powerful warrior would in those situations.

4. Have fun. You chose this class to probably to be a bad ass like Conan, and you will as long as you have fun with it.

So to wrap it up-

Barbarians are mighty warriors. Players should consider this when role playing them at the table. 5e makes it a lot easier for anyone to tell a story about their character, and this allows for a multitude of interesting characters to be made and not be horrible at combat. This feature allows for a much easier return to role play, allowing for even more stories of grandeur to made. So, players, readers, other DM's and critics, go forth and crush your enemies. See them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women.

I am just trying to become better.

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