So you’re thinking of playing a barbarian in your forthcoming 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign? A commendable choice. This is one of 5e’s most powerful and fun classes, with a tonne of cool options and builds – especially if you go down the Path of the Totem Warrior.
A strong mechanical base aside, the class allows for fantastic roleplaying flavour that that goes way beyond the stereotypical beer-drinking, brainless brawler most gamers end up playing (sorry Grog, too predictable!).
In this guide, I’m going to look at a few ways to optimise a barbarian build for maximum effectiveness. And more importantly, I’m going to look at ways we can create a three-dimensional character that rages against the mainstream interpretation of this class…
Article Content Menu
- A Barbarian’s Role in the Party
- Barbarian Build (Optimisation)
- Roleplaying a Barbarian
- More Resources
The Barbarian’s Role in the Party
Barbarians play two roles in most 5th edition D&D parties. Firstly they are excellent “tanks” that occupy enemy monsters and soak up hits that would kill puny wizards and rogues. They are the only class to get a d12 for their hit dice and their rage feature (the class’s defining ability) gives them resistance to bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage. In other words, they can soak up A LOT of damage. The bad news is that they can’t rage while wearing heavy armour, and so they tend to have weak AC, meaning you are going to get hit A LOT. Still, you have little to fear from being on the front line, and with some canny optimisations you will often be killing your foes before they even have a chance to take a swing at you.
Giving it out
Aside from taking it, barbarians are the best damage dealers amongst the martial and non-caster classes in my experience (not counting the Paladin, and their spell-slot charged divine smite ability). Barbarians get a damage bonus to melee attacks when they rage, and their 2nd level reckless attack ability pairs brilliantly with the (somewhat overpowered) Great Weapon Master feat to reliably dish out deadly blows. Reckless attack also improves the number of critical hits you roll, which pairs with their brutal critical feature that kicks in at 9th level (and improves at 13th and 17th level).
Personally, I love being on the front line in combat, instead of pussy-footing around at the back, and if you like being in the maelstrom of battle you’ll enjoy playing a barbarian. The class’s tactic of trading mighty blows with their opponents in a fast and furious contest to see who is toughest and strongest is far more fun, IMHO, than wrapping yourself up in plate armour and a shield and slogging foes into slow submission with a one-handed weapon. Yawn! If you feel the same, keep reading…
Let’s look at how to optimise a powerful barbarian, that performs its role to great effect.
Best Race Options
A great barbarian is built around high Strength and Constitution, so naturally any race that gives us a starting boost in those stats is a favourable choice.
The dwarf berserker is a bit of a fantasy cliche by now, but if you can’t resist a +2 in Str and Con, I won’t judge you for playing a mountain dwarf.
The half orc is a perfect fit, with a +2 to Str and +1 to Con, plus the Menacing, Relentless Endurance and Savage Attack abilities, while their complicated heritage can be something you utilise in your character realisation. Did they grow up with humans or with orcs? Do they try to contain their orcish rage, or embrace it?
If you’re planning on a playing a goliath (from the new player races in Volo’s Guide to Monsters), chances are you’re planning on playing a goliath barbarian. Similar to the half orc, you get a +2 to Str and +1 to Con, and the skills Natural Athlete, Stone’s Endurance and Powerful Build are great complements to the class. Lore-wise and their tough tribal society is a perfect fit for the stereotypical Vikings-style barbarian… we will flesh out tribes further along in this article.
However, my favourite race for a barbarian is definitely human. This not only gives me a chance to dip into real-world history for direct inspiration (more on that later), but if I select the feat variant I can choose a feat like Dual Wielder, Great Weapon Master or Savage Attacker straight from the off… you also gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.
As outside shouts, a lizardfolk barbarian could be quite interesting, you could draw inspiration from Warhammer’s elven wardancers to make a wood elf barbarian, or you could possibly try a conflicted half elf barbarian, who might act an ambassador between their savage tribes and more civilised societies.
Best Stat Block
Using the standard stat block, I would build my human barbarian (using feat variant) like this…
Strength: 16 (15+1)
Dexterity: 14 (13+1)
Strength is obviously the barbarian’s key stat, while Constitution gives us both extra hit points and extra AC (thanks to “Unarmoured Defense”)… you may even want to consider swapping it with Strength! A half decent Dexterity is pretty essential for someone who doesn’t wear armour, while a lot of barbarian-flavoured skills (nature, survival, animal handling, perception) rely on Wisdom.
As you can see Intelligence and Charisma are my dump stats, but that doesn’t mean you have to pander to the old stereotypes in your interpretation of this class. A low intelligence in D&D terms simply means you are not well versed in history, religion and arcana. You are no academic, but it doesn’t mean you’re as thick as two short planks. A low to middling Charisma makes sense for a character whose savagery make make them magnetic to some and repulsive to others.
For my feat I would take Dual Wielder or Great Weapon Master, dependent on my weapons of choice. Let’s look at the options.
Fighting With a Two-handed Weapon
I really hate having only one attack, even at low levels, but if I combine a greatsword with Great Weapon Master and use my Reckless Attack feature (from 2nd level), I can already put up some numbers. In total, I can do 2d6 +3 strength, +2 rage, +10 (GWM) = 22 damage per hit, and the advantage from Reckless Attack should help offset the -5 penalty, at least against creatures with low ACs. If 22 hp is enough to kill someone, I get a bonus attack and the chance to do another 22 hp.
Fighting With Two Weapons
Alternatively, I can go with the Dual Wielder feat and utilise two weapons (longsword and battleaxe!), doing 1d8 +3 strength, +2 rage with my first attack and +1d8 +2 rage with my second = total 16 damage on average when I hit with both. Aside from getting my rage damage bonus twice (hopefully!), the advantages here are I won’t be using Great Weapon Master and incurring a -5 penalty, so I’ll be hitting more often. Also, as I will be less reliant on using Reckless Attack, I will also get hit less often, as enemies won’t be attacking me with advantage so frequently. Plus I get +1 AC from the Dual Wielder feat. I might need to pick up a level of fighter later to get the Two-Weapon Fighting style, so I can add my Strength modifier to my second weapon attack.
Overall the mega damage of the first option is maybe too much to resist. Certainly when my to hit modifiers improve enough and I get a second attack, then the two-handed weapon approach will be notably more deadly.
It might be that you want to have a main fighting style, such as using a greatsword paired with Great Weapon Master, but still have a shield and battleaxe for when you need to be a little more conservative.
The biggest decision you have to make when playing a barbarian is which Primal Path to take at 3rd level. I’m going to rate each of them out of 5 for Power and Roleplaying Flavour.
1. Path of the Berserker (Player’s Handbook)
“The Path of a Berserker is a path of untrammeled fury, slick with blood. As you enter the berserker’s rage, you thrill in the chaos of battle, heedless of your own health or well-being.”
This path is built around getting extra attacks, but comes at a huge price. Your core ability Frenzy means you use a bonus action each turn while you rage to make an extra attack, however at the end of the rage you suffer one level of exhaustion, a condition which requires a long rest to get rid of, with very few workarounds. To be honest, as this is the most bland interpretation of a barbarian out there, I’m glad it’s the one that got nerfed, as however handy an extra attack might be, I don’t want to spend the rest of the day getting disadvantage on all my skills checks – this is your fastest path to a very one dimensional character. Tip: if you are desperate to play anger personified and want to unnerf this path, instead of making the level of exhaustion automatic you could ask your DM to allow you to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw at the end of a frenzied rage (or DC 8, but with +2 for every round you frenzied) only gaining the level of exhaustion on a failure.
Roleplaying Flavour: 2/5
UPDATE: I’ve homebrewed a Berserker fix for 5e, with a new mechanic called ‘fury points’.
2. Path of the Totem Warrior (Player’s Handbook)
“The Path of the Totem Warrior is a spiritual journey, as the barbarian accepts a spirit animal as guide, protector and inspiration. In battle, your totem spirit fills you with supernatural might…”
When you choose this path you face another choice… which animal to choose as your spirit guide: bear, eagle or wolf (Player’s Handbook), or elk or tiger (Sword Coast Adventurers Guide). Each offers unique and flavoursome abilities at 3rd, 6th and 14th level, although in terms of power it’s hard to look past the bear and the wolf. The former grants resistance to all damage types (except psychic)… and it’s fun to picture yourself emerging from the flames and ashes of a fireball, singed but not stirred, to the dismay of an enemy caster. Choosing the wolf totem makes your barbarian the ultimate team player, granting advantage to your allies when they attack hostile creatures within 5 feet of you. Meanwhile, the eagle and elk offer incredible manoeuvrability and the tiger some added athleticism.
The flavour for this primal path is unbeatable. “At your option, you also gain minor physical attributes that are reminiscent of your totem spirit. For example, if you have a bear totem spirit, you might be unusually hairy and thick-skinned, or if your totem is the eagle, your eyes turn bright yellow.” Very cool, but you could take it further and have the totem spirit influence, not just your character’s physical traits, but their behaviour too. Those that follow the path of the wolf might constantly be sniffing the air, chewing on a bone, peeing on trees and looking after their pack. They might let rip with an almighty howl whenever they enter a rage.
When I created my Totem of the Leopard supplement (check it out on the DM’s Guild!) I came up with a table of eight behavioural traits that a barbarian who communes with a leopard (or black panther) spirit animal might have. Hopefully you agree with me in thinking that you could have a lot of extra fun on the table by using these ideas to flesh out your PC’s character.
d8 – Leopard Totem Personality Traits
1. I am nocturnal
2. I only eat meat
3. I prefer to sleep in a tree than a bed
4. I am an antisocial loner
5. I snarl when I’m angry
6. I observe my enemy closely before I attack
7. I am scared of fire and lightning
8. I hate water (even though I can swim just fine!)
For my Totem of the Lion supplement, the same table looks like this:
d8 – Lion Totem Personality Traits
1. I take great pride in my appearance
2. It is only right that the strong rule the weak
3. I am naturally superior to others
4. I never hide my displeasure
5. I protect my pride
6. …so they should prepare my supper, while I take a nap
7. I am scared of fire and lightning
8. My powerful demeanour masks my insecurities
By taking any of the official WOTC totem animals, one of my big cat totems (cheetah, jaguar and a revised tiger totem coming soon!), or even a new totem of your own making, you can really go to town here on customising your barbarian’s abilities and personality.
Roleplaying Flavour: 5/5
3. Path of the Battlerager (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide)
“Battleragers are dwarf followers of the gods of war… they specialize in wearing bulky spiked armor and throwing themselves into combat, striking with their body itself.”
Not quite my style, but kind of fun, your core ability is Battlerager Armor which allows you to make a 1d4 + Str + Rage bonus attack every round you rage in as a bonus action. That’s pretty damn good, as are your 6th and 10th level abilities. All are combat abilities however, and there’s not too much to grab hold of flavour-wise… I did find a bit more info here. The ritualistic singing and boar riding are nice touches you could utilise.
Roleplaying Flavour: 2/5
4. Path of the Ancestral Guardian (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
“Barbarians who draw on their ancestral guardians can better fight to protect their tribes and their allies.”
The 3rd level feature of this class, Ancestral Protectors, is similar to the Path of the Totem Warrior’s (Bear) 14th level ability, in that it effectively forces your foes to attack you and not your allies. However, that makes a lot more sense for a 14th level barbarian with over a 100 hit points than for a 3rd one, who, party tank or not, doesn’t want to have to soak up every last hit. The Spirit Shield ability of 6th level is much more useful.
“Barbarians who follow this path cover themselves in elaborate tattoos that celebrate their ancestors’ deeds. These tattoos tell sagas of victories against terrible monsters and other fearsome rivals.” There is some great roleplaying and backstory potential here, but I can’t help feel it would be more fun if, somehow, you could call on the spirits of specific ancestors to help you perform specific tasks. A homebrew version of this path tailored for your character could work better, where you could invoke the spirits of Grandfather A, Uncle B, and Great Great Great Grandfather C a limited amount of times per day.
Roleplaying Flavour: 4/5
5. Path of the Storm Herald (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
“When in a fury, a barbarian of this path taps into the force of nature to create powerful magical effects.”
Effectively “elemental barbarians”, this path is further delineated into Desert (fire), Sea (water/lightning) and Tundra (cold). Each has a “stormy, magical aura” that extends 10 feet in radius when raging, either injuring everyone (desert), injuring one person of your choice (sea) or bolstering your allies (tundra). I quite like the flavour of this path, especially the sea aura, which best lives up to the name ‘storm herald’. However, it seems a lot less powerful than the Path of the Totem Warrior for example, and when you’re regularly dealing out 20+ hp with your sword or greataxe are you going to get that excited about doing a d6 lightning damage, halved on a save? Also it seems counterintuitive that you can change the environmental effect when you level up.
Roleplaying Flavour: 3/5
6. Path of the Zealot (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
“Some deities inspire their followers to pitch themselves into a ferocious battle fury. These barbarians are zealots… in general, the gods who inspire zealots are deities of combat, destruction and violence. Not all are evil, but few are good.”
Hmmm it feels like we’re venturing into murderhobo territory here, and this class is based around a) doing even more damage and b) being almost impossible to kill permanently. I have to say, I don’t like this option from a DM’s perspective. The Divine Fury ability feels unimaginative and too strong, while the 14th level ‘Rage beyond Death’ is problematic. Overall, I find paladins annoying enough as they are, without needing to introduce a barbarian / paladin hybrid. You could potentially make an interesting character out of this path, by investigating the religious aspect (“your soul is marked for endless battle”), but I can’t help feel this class is going to pander to the worst instincts of the worst types of player. (As a side note, for DMs out there dealing with this class, and the issue of death not meaning much at higher levels in general, one of the best house rules we’ve introduced on our table is that coming back from zero hit points gains you two levels of exhaustion, and coming back from the dead costs you -2 on your Constitution. Death is at least mildly scary again).
Roleplaying Flavour: 2/5
Roleplaying A Barbarian
Drawing from History
The word barbarian comes from the ancient Greek word barbaros. To the Greeks, any non-Greeks made a “bar-bar” sound whenever they spoke, and so barbaros came to mean a savage outsider, who spoke an uncivilised and primitive language. The Romans adopted the same word, using it to describe the fierce peoples such as the Germanics, Celts, Gauls, Berbers and Huns, ie. the peoples they fought as their empire expanded.
Meanwhile the idea of a warrior who goes into a rage to become more fearsome in battle derives from the Old Norse word ber-serkr. Etymologists are divided on whether ber-sekr meant bear-shirted – ie. these fighters wore bear pelts, deriving their power from the strength of their bear spirit animals – or bare-chested, as these warriors displayed their courage by going into battle without armour.
Both these words give us ample ideas to work with already, and the rich real-world history that feeds our notion of barbarians means for me the human is my favourite choice of race. Reading into the backgrounds of the Vikings, the Celts, the Gauls, will give you scores of ideas of how you could roleplay a really well-defined barbarian, and even bring new mechanics to the table as well.
And let’s not forget non-European cultures that can feed into the barbarian class. The obvious example to me would be the Mongols, but there’s also the native Americans, the Mayans, the Aztecs and their jaguar warriors, the Aborigines and the myriad of African tribal cultures, such as the Zulus, the Maasai and the San Bushmen.
Drawing from Pop Culture
If dusting off the history books for inspiration doesn’t appeal, you probably have already stored in your head any number of second hand source material from pop culture that you can bring to your Dungeons & Dragons games.
From Ragnar’s Vikings and their human sacrifices, tattoos and prescient visions, to the horse-heart eating and blood magic antics of the Dothraki, barbaric inspiration is everywhere in the realm of pop culture and fantasy fiction, often filtered down from historic reality.
Bobby, He-Man, Conan, Red Sonja, Shaka, Hercules and Wolverine are all barbarians that you can be inspired by. But hat tip to the queen, or should I say ‘warrior princess’ of all barbarians… Xena!
Creating Your Tribe
A barbarian’s tribe is what defines their culture, including their upbringing, their values and beliefs and their behavioural habits. A well-constructed tribe will provide a seriously rich source of roleplaying flavour for your barbarian PC.
When creating your tribe think about the following…
1. Tribal Terrain
Where does your tribe hail from? A tribe’s terrain will do a lot to determine what they wear, what they eat, what type of homes they construct, what animals (and monsters) they come into contact with, and various other behaviour. Obviously a tribe that lives in the mountains or desert will find it hard to farm crops, possibly depending on trade for wheat and corn. A nomadic tribe meanwhile might bridge two different terrain types (and definitely won’t farm).
2. Religion & Festivals
Tribes folk tend to be religious and extremely superstitious. Does your tribe worship ancient forgotten Gods, not found elsewhere in the classic D&D pantheons? Perhaps they worship the sun or moon. Or do they worship the dead and the spirits of their ancestors? Maybe they worship nature, the elements and / or animal spirits. Or they could even worship a mysterious energy they feel in the world, a bit like The Force in Star Wars (or the Weave in the Forgotten Realms setting).
How is this religion manifested? Through daily prayers and offerings? Through sacrifices, and extravagant rituals? Through holidays and festivals, marked by natural rhythms, like summer and winter solstices, or the migrations of birds and beasts…. or even the awakening of terrifying monsters!
There’s a whole list of how peoples like the Vikings, the Slavs and the Sioux celebrated the summer solstice for example here, with practices like jumping over bonfires and setting wreaths of flowers down rivers.
Remember, festivals were often accompanied by feasting, orgies, spectacles, and tests of bravery and skill. The latter might include archery, wrestling, racing, drinking contests or jumping over bulls backs naked.
Finally you might want to consider if your tribe has sacred places, such as mountain tops, lakes, waterfalls, caves or even ancient monuments like Stonehenge.
3. Tribal Rites of Passage
A tribe’s culture is perhaps most sharply defined by its rites of passage. Here are the typical rites of virtually every human culture.
What happens when a new child is born? Are they dipped in ice water, to steel their constitution? Are they baptised into the tribe’s faith, in order to cleanse them of the devil and offer them entry into an afterlife.
ii. Coming of Age
Nearly every tribe has a ritual that marks a child’s passage into adulthood, although it might not be the same for boys and girls (see Gender Roles below). Real world examples you can use to inspire you would be cow-jumping, killing a lion (this rite of the Maasai helped inspired part of my Totem of the Lion title… check it out on the DM’s Guild!), or donning gloves filled with bullet ants, the insect with the world’s most painful bite.
From bangles that ward away evil spirits, to fathers spitting on the brides for luck, there are plenty of weird marriage traditions that survive to this day around the world. Here is a long list that might inspire you.
Every man or woman’s final rite of passage, your tribe should have a distinctive way of marking death. Is the corpse’s body washed, painted or purified? Is it disembowelled, drained of blood, or are stones put over its eyes, a gold piece left in its mouth? Are the dead buried or cremated, or thrown out to sea. If buried, are they buried alone, with their sword, with their possessions, or even with their husband or wife, or servants, that may be killed / sacrificed as part of the death rites. Is the burial accompanied by songs, lamenting, dances or speeches about their bravery and achievements in battle. Once buried, is the grave marked with a mound, tombstone or some other distinctive structure? Again, there is plenty of great inspiration to be found from history. One great, somewhat disgusting fictional detail from the book Dune, was that the Fremen, being residents of such a harsh, dry planet, sucked the moisture from their kinsmen, after death, as a means of preserving life.
4. Power Structures
Who is the leader of your tribe, and how is their leadership decided? Is it a council of elders, who select their own rank? Is it the strongest warrior, who is always liable to be challenged by a hot-headed youth? Is there a king, whose eldest son will inherit his throne. Or perhaps the tribe is matriarchal, and the burden of leadership falls to the eldest woman in the tribe.
Does the tribe have a caste system of sorts, of higher ranking members and lower ones, determined by their prowess in battle, age or lineage. How is that social system marked. Ammianus Marcellinus writes of the Agathyrsi, that they: “dye both their bodies and their hair of a blue colour, the lower classes using spots few in number and small—the nobles broad spots, close and thick, and of a deeper hue.”
5. Tribal Law
Most societies have rules against murdering one another, or stealing from one another, but you can bring your tribe to life by creating some rules that seem counterintuitive to modern society. For example, it might be perfectly acceptable to steal another’s husband or wife, if you can remove them at night from their marital home without a drop of blood shed. Or it might be normal practice to cut the tongue out of anyone who told you a lie. Meanwhile, if you have been defeated in battle, you must shave your head and you are forbidden to take part in any religious ritual or festival until you have won a great victory to atone for your failure. Obviously think of something that will work in the game. A good ritual might be that if someone spare’s your life in battle you become their slave, however in the context of the game that could mean you’re responsible for a tedious (for everyone else) amount of NPCs, or you have to give up your own PC because they are now the slave of some NPC.
6. Tribal Customs
You can have a lot of fun with tribal greetings alone. Rubbing the nose of the foreign princess with your own, or spitting in the face of a diplomat for good luck, should bring plenty of mirth to the table, as might peeing in the threshold of any door you pass through, or dancing in progressively smaller circles around anyone you would like to mate with.
For some real world inspiration check out this list of weird tribal customs and traditions.
7. Gender Roles
Men and women could have very different roles in your tribe. With the caveat of not offending anyone at your table, you might consider if women perform a more ‘traditional’ function of child-bearing and rearing, or if they also hunt and fight in battle. Maybe women are considered sacred and act at seers and priestesses, or maybe they are despised and feared, and therefore repressed by the male counterparts. Perhaps it is women who hold the power in your tribe, consigning the menfolk to virtual slavery from birth.
8. Tribal Dress
Make your barbarian PC stand out visually by leaning on the cultural heritage of tribal folklore. Crazy headdresses, splendid animal (and monster) pelts, bright war paint, intricate tattoos, and jewellery made of feathers, beads, bones and precious stones. Certain rituals might demand tribes folk wear savage, scary masks for the occasion.
9. Tribal Warriors
In some tribes every member is a warrior, in others warriors occupy a special social caste, often with their own set of rituals and privileges.
10. Battle Rituals
Going into battle can almost be seen as a rite of passage. As participants in a fantasy roleplaying game we often treat battle as a fun strategical challenge, throwing our PCs into the fray with glee, often as instigators of deadly encounters. That helps us forget the intensity and fear of going into battle, and the rituals that might accompany it. Fighting is part of any barbarians way of life, but typically they need to psyche themselves (and each other) up for the occasion, utilising warpaint, war cries, tribal drums and dances to buoy themselves and intimidate their foes. Before battle, in order to fight bravely, they need to make peace with the idea they might die – anticipating a hero’s place in the afterlife.
Other battle rituals involve what a barbarian might do to their vanquished foes, which typically might include killing them, torturing or humiliating them in a ritualistic way, taking prisoners as slaves, or even eating them. There’s also the question of what they do with their own dead, possibly bringing them back on their shields to their homeland to be buried.
11. Savage Can Still be Sophisticated
One last point I want to make about realising your barbarian, is that not every barbarian tribe needs to be a bunch of bloodthirsty cannibals that thrive solely on battle. It’s unlikely your tribe is full of literary academics, but it might have a rich tradition of oral poetry and story telling, it might have the ancient wisdom of gurus, seers and shamans passed through the ages, it might seek to bring order to cruder, more violent neighbouring tribes, and open trade routes with major cities. Consider the example of Genghis Khan who united tribes across the vast steppes of Asia, opened the Silk Road trading path, promoted religious tolerance throughout his Empire and preached equality before the law.
There are plenty of links throughout this article that will take you to more information. For a more academic read, Herodotus’ Histories introduces the reader to hundreds of tribes and their practices, pretty much all of which are now erased by time.
This video is also pretty cool…
As is this one… which features some great character concepts:
New Animal Totem Paths
And if like me you are attracted to the Path of the Totem Warrior barbarians, and building a tribe around them, then you might enjoy my Totem of the Leopard and Totem of the Lion titles. Both books have had super positive reviews so far, and with not only totem powers, but also powerful new totem-specific feats to choose from and flavoursome magic items, you’re half way to creating an unforgettable barbarian PC when you invest a couple of dollars in either of these…
What are your experiences playing a barbarian in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons? Please share your optimisation secrets, your flavoursome back stories, your victories, your frustrations and any historic or fictional inspiration you drew from below in the comments section…