Rippling thews, big axes–there’s a lot to love about Barbarians. But it takes more than brute strength to play a barbarian. We’ll show you how.
Barbarians are an iconic part of not only D&D but also Fantasy literature in general. After all, beginning with some of the foundational inspirations like Conan or Fafhrd, the warrior with big muscles and an even bigger weapon is a staple of adventure stories. With might and sometimes a bit of magic, a barbarian can be very rewarding to play in D&D.
As far as classes go, this is one of the better ones for new players. They tend to be a little more advanced than fighters, but that’s only once you start getting into archetypes. Fighters have to remember their second wind and feats, barbarians need to remember to rage and what their bonuses are while raging. But barbarians are still fairly straightforward once you figure out how they work. So let’s take a look at what makes them tick.
Rage Against The Machine (and everything else)
Perhaps the most defining feature of 5E barbarians is their primal rage. Anyone can get angry, but only a barbarian can tap into that wellspring of emotion to unleash a primal surge of power when the chips are down. It takes a bonus action to activate, but it gives you extra damage and resistance, and you have the ability to get advantage on your attacks at the cost of making it easier for your enemies to hit you in kind. Once you rage, you’re empowered for the next ten rounds, as long as you can keep attacking hostile creatures or taking damage.
The ability to draw on that extra power defines the barbarian. Subclasses typically change what your rage does and how it affects the world around you.
But at the end of the day, activating your rage is going to be your go-to move. This is the class to pick if you want to play a hero that can endure when everything seems impossibly tough. If you want that, “now the real fight begins” moment, that’s a barbarian.
Barbarians are also adept at taking and mitigating damage. The resistance granted to you by your rage, as well as class features like Danger Sense (which gives you advantage on Dex saves), and Feral Instinct that ensures you tend to go first, and you can never be surprised. But all of this serves as a vessel to propel your rage-enhanced attacks at your enemies.
Where you get your variety is in your subclasses. So let’s take a look at those.
Ancestral Guardian This is a very team-oriented class. When they say Guardian they mean it, Barbarians on this path excel at making sure that enemies attack them, either by making an enemy take disadvantage on attacks not against you, and giving targets other than you resistance to damage. They also gain the ability to negate damage being dealt with a reaction, which, combined with their ability to grant resistance to damage makes them a very strong protector indeed.
Berserkers are good at what they do, and what they do ain’t pretty. These guys are all about damage dealing. With an extra attack and the ability to make an attack as a reaction, they are very good at hewing down foes. They are great at keeping themselves in the fight, as they can prevent themselves from being charmed or frightened, while simultaneously frightening enemies. The only drawback is that to get the most mileage out of this archetype, you’ll invite exhaustion, which is the hardest thing to deal with in 5E.
Path of the Beast barbarians transform themselves into avatars of primal spirits–they can awaken a bestial soul within themselves that grants them a natural weapon like a bite or a claw or a spiny tail, each of which grants you extra effects in combat. As you grow in level, your transformation grows as well. If you want your rage to make you super saiyan, this isn’t a bad option.
Path of Wild Magic on the other hand, blends martial mastery with magical mayhem. This is a path for barbarians who are infused with magic from the Astral Plane or the Feywild or wherever, really. When you rage, you unleash a torrent of chaotic magical energy that will either help you, harm your enemies, or bolster your allies. This is a great subclass for barbarians who want to have every fight feel different from the last.
Storm Herald This subclass is very much a support one. Storm Heralds gain an aura that causes enemies to take damage or allows you to grant temporary hit points and eventually resistance to an elemental damage type to your allies. This is a great archetype for barbarians who want to bolster their friends and deal out the occasional extra bit of damage. But if you want damage to be your main focus, you’re better off with Zealot or Totem barbarians.
The Totem Warrior is a powerhouse of teamwork as well as Endurance. There are three options, but really, the one you want is bear. Like unless you’re deliberately choosing not to pick bear because you want a different option, pick bear. You get resistance to all damage except psychic while raging. I had to look up what the others do, and maybe eventually you’ll want one of the other abilities, Wolf has some good stuff, and Eagle is kind of cool. But Bear totem best totem.
Zealot – quite possibly my personal favorite barbarian variant. Zealots are a very durable class, and they do pretty decent damage as well. Their subclass abilities make them an excellent anchor in any fight. Especially if your campaign makes it to 14th level and you gain Rage Beyond Death, which lets you soldier on even past 0 hit points while raging.
That’s the barbarian. Melee powerhouses, and surprising bastions of teamwork, the barbarian can be fun when you’re looking for that meat and potatoes experience.