There are a couple of archetypes that really got it bad in 5th edition, much to the chagrin of their fanboys and girls. I must confess that I didn’t shed a single tear for either of the edition’s two biggest victims: the ranger Beast Master and the barbarian Berserker.
The former breaks the Hipsters’ no. 1 rule of D&D etiquette, which states that players should never control familiars, pets, steeds and henchmen (or ‘sidekicks’ to give henchmen their new gender neutral term! I guess ‘henchfolk’ was never going to catch on…), so I was positively pleased to see it sidelined. Meanwhile, the latter feels like the blandest possible flavour of barbarian. It’s basically barbarian-squared, and the fact that it’s almost unplayable as written in the Player’s Handbook was an easy problem to file at the bottom of my 5e fix list (note: I don’t actually have a 5e fix list).
But recently I stumbled across a couple of threads about the Berserker and had a quick and simple idea on how to ‘fix’ the archetype’s problematic Frenzy ability, and that frustrating ‘level of exhaustion’ cost that basically ruins everything. My idea was to simply take away the exhaustion penalty and make Frenzy’s bonus action attack a limited resource ability – you can use it a number of times equal to your Constitution modifier, after which you have to finish a short or long rest (or something along those lines).
Then I read a few more Berserker-related threads/comments, checked out a video on the topic, and saw that the whole archetype needs a bit of rethink, as the path’s 10th level ability, Intimidating Presence, is pretty useless too. As I started to mull over what a player really wants when they play a Berserker, a bit of inspiration hit and I homebrewed, in my head, a completely new version of the sub class that I think would be a) suitably powerful and b) a lot of fun to play.
So here it is now on ‘paper’… I’ll keep the flavour text light as the more poetic prose isn’t flowing today. Design notes in italics!
PATH OF THE BERSERKER (HIPSTER REMIX)
For some barbarians, rage is a means to an end — that end being violence. The Path of the 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.
Starting at 3rd level, you can channel your anger to dominate the battlefield. Whenever you enter a rage, you gain a number of fury points equal to your proficiency bonus that you can use to fuel various features. When you spend a fury point it is unavailable to you until you rage again, and you lose all unspent fury points when you finish raging. Once depleted, you may choose to replenish your fury points, but each time you do so you gain a level of exhaustion.
Design notes: Ki points, Superiority dice, Bardic inspiration… these are some of the most fun mechanics in the game for me! They offer choice and fun decisions to players. They also make balancing easy… you can fine tune this on your table by simply reducing the number of fury points for example. Tying the resource to the rages (instead of to short or long rests) felt right, firstly for ease of tracking and secondly for flavour. The option to replenish your fury points by taking a level of exhaustion is a nod to the original Berserker of course, and still allows for that epic last stand…
You revel in bloodshed – including your own! When you take damage, you can use your reaction and spend a fury point to gain 1d6 + your Constitution modifier of temporary hit points. They vanish if any of them are left when your rage ends.
Design notes: The idea that damaging this guy / gal, could actually make them stronger amuses me a great deal. This feature feels totally on brand for the Berserker! Maybe + your Proficiency modifier is better. Scales better!
Relentless Aggression (aka “There will be blood!”)
Your bloodlust will not be denied. If you miss with a melee weapon attack, you can spend a fury point to make a single melee weapon attack as a bonus action.
Design notes: Originally I just had this as ‘you spend a fury point to make a bonus action attack’ but the more I thought about it, the more that felt not quite right. It’s just so powerful to be able to make a second attack a round at 3rd level with your main weapon, especially when paired with the Great Weapon Master feat and the Reckless Attack ability. There’s a reason that the design team put such a punitive cost on this ability. My version, apart from being resource limited, means that the Berserker’s damage output doesn’t get silly… but rather it gets reliable. This also offers better synergy with the GWM feat, because hit + kill you get a bonus action attack anyway via the feat… miss, spend a fury point and try again!
Retaliation (aka “Barbaric Rebuke”)
Why flinch, when you can hit back harder? When you take damage from a creature within 30 feet of you, you can use your reaction and spend a fury point to make a single attack using a one-handed melee weapon or unarmed strike.
Design notes: This feature is informed by two main considerations. The first is that the Berserker shouldn’t be a build exclusively for two-handed weapon fighters. The version in the Player’s Handbook offers zero synergy with the two weapon build, but by offering several reaction features (and not just bonus action ones), I allow for the possibility of the Ragnar-inspired axes-a-blazing build. The second is that I don’t want to wait until 14th level for Retaliation to come online, as it does in the PH. Again, an additional attack with a greatsword or greataxe is too powerful, so I’ve limited this to one handed weapon – although (with Ragnar in mind again) it can be a thrown melee weapon! Note: I still wanted a two-handed weapon wielder to have fun with this feature, so I added ‘unarmed strike’. The image of a Berserker elbowing someone in the face for daring to attack to them is one to cherish I feel. (And with their Strength + rage damage bonus is still a decent amount of damage!).
See Player’s Handbook.
Beginning at 10th level, you gain new ways to spend your fury points.
Your bloodlust inspires your allies. You may use a bonus action and spend a fury point to let out an almighty battle cry. Choose a number of allies equal to your Strength modifier that can hear you. They each gain 1d6 temporary hit points that last for 1 minute, or until you fall unconscious. You may use this feature as part of the bonus action you use to rage.
Design notes: I originally had ‘choose a number of allies equal to your Charisma modifier’ and then I remembered the barbarian’s average Charisma score… the chance to do this as part of entering your rage was a late addition that I think rounds off this ability nicely, making it both more practical and more realistic. (Update: I might change this to number of allies equal to your proficiency bonus, and then add Charisma to the hit point total).
You may spend two fury points to use your Retaliation feature using a two-handed weapon.
Design notes: I’m ok with this at 10th level, especially at double the cost.
You are capable of browning the pants of the fiercest opponents. You may use a bonus action and spend a fury point to attempt to intimidate a creature that you can see within 30 feet of you. If you win a contested Charisma (Intimidation) check they are frightened of you until the end of your next turn. If they win, the creature is immune to this feature for the remainder of the combat.
Design notes: I didn’t want to set up a saving throw mechanic for the one ability, and I like contests in general, so here we go… there’s almost no context in which the original Intimidating Presence in the PH would be useful, so making this ability dependent on a bonus action only feels like a no brainer (a Battle Master can do this with no action cost from 3rd level using the Menacing Attack maneuver!). This feature is a good option for two-weapon fighters in a round when neither of your two chances to make a bonus action attack comes online. When I think what this feature looks like, I’m imagining a blood-spattered barbarian pointing at a nearby foe and shouting “I’m coming for you next!” I don’t say as much, because 5e demands simplicity (the designers never include any logical exceptions to their rules, so I will stick with that formula), but I would offer disadvantage to intimidate Large creatures and give Huge creatures etc. immunity to being intimidated in this way. More on this topic, in this post.
You blaze over the battlefield like a rampaging bull. When you move at least 20 feet in a straight line and you hit a creature with a melee attack, you may spend one fury point to attempt to shove the target.
Design notes: With plenty of competition on how to use your fury points with bonus actions and reactions, I thought a chance to use a fury point without an action cost would be nice. To prevent it being overpowered, or overshadowing the Totem of the Wolf’s 14th level ability, I made it strictly situation dependent.
At 14th level, your victories empower you! When you are raging and you reduce an opponent to 0 hit points with a melee weapon, you regain all expended fury points.
Design notes: At first, inspired by a Reddit comment, I was thinking of some complicated combination of temporary hit points and a sort of barbaric action surge, whenever you reduced someone to 0 hit points. Then I considered fury points already give you extra hit points and extra attacks. So this simple feature is just bringing it all together, and rounds off this remix nicely, IMHO!
So there you go… players would you play it? DMs would you allow it? Hit the comments section!
As I mentioned previously, I actually feel the Berserker is a rather boring interpretation of the barbarian class when compared to some of the other archetypes (although this remix hopefully makes it mechanically interesting at least!). But whether you plan on playing a Berserker or not, I think you’ll enjoy my epic post about the barbarian class, with hints on the best builds and advice on homebrewing your own tribe, complete with ancestral traditions.
And finally, on the subject of barbarians, I can’t help but agree with this guy…
You ever thrown something… ever thrown something while angry? I'd argue for thrown weapons dealing a +2.. oh wait I'm a DM XD
— Matt R /BLM\ 🏳️🌈🏴☠️ (@Gaikokujira) September 13, 2017
For me rage’s damage bonus should apply to thrown weapons. If a man can’t live out his Vikings‘ fantasies using the rage feature, what point is there in playing a barbarian after all?
Further Reading / Viewing
New Animal Totem Paths
Since we’re talking about barbarians, this also feels like the right place to mention the new Totem Paths I designed a little while back, available to buy on the DMs Guild. Each supplement has a bunch of feats that really get the paths’ purring…. (I also made a Totem Path for the Cheetah, if you want a mobile barbarian that favours sword n’board or two weapons).
Ps. Want to See This Remix on the DMs Guild?
Let me know in the comments if this Berserker remix fuels your bloodlust! If so I’ll perhaps invest some time in tidying it up into a nice PDF, commission some art and make it available (for cheap!) on the old DMs Guild.