Last Updated on November 28, 2022
A mighty warrior bellows out a war cry that echoes through the surrounding mountain range and charges into battle. Volleys of arrows bounce off of her, and she effortlessly bats away goblins and bugbears as she makes her way toward the orc general. Nearing her target, she leaps into the air, an ancient rune-covered sword held aloft.
She falls toward her foe, her weapon aimed to kill. Spirits of her ancestors surround her and infuse her with all the strength of those who have come before. For a moment, her teeth seem to extend to match those of a great tiger, her eyes dilating like those of a great cat. Finally, she connects with her target, the massive blade ripping open the creature’s chest and watering the land with green blood.
Our hero stands tall and looks out at the war raging around her. She throws her sword over her shoulders and, with a smirk, utters two words: “Who’s next?”
From He-Man to Conan, Red Sonja to Black Krrsantan, Thundarr to The Incredible Hulk, barbarians have always been something of a legendary force in comics. Few other characters have such a pension for violence and bloodshed, all wrapped up in incredible imagery and earthshaking rage.
In D&D, we really double down on that concept of rageful, scantily clad, hyper-violent berserkers that pop culture has taught us to love. Barbarians are a class that embrace their primal instincts and use that to fuel their adventurous spirit.
Every class in D&D is unique and powerful in its own way, but barbarians really stand out as the class with the most raw untamed power. Their disconnect from “civilized” mannerisms allows them to tap into the wild energy of their ancestors, of their spirit guardians, or of whatever force guides them in their adventures.
Fortunately, this departure from complexity means that we end up with a class that is very easy to learn without compromising any of the fun. Grab a good weapon, get ready to roll some dice, and you’re good to go. To a barbarian, every problem can be solved with a little dose of aggression added to the equation.
Still, even the most straightforward classes require a bit of explanation. After all, you still get a wealth of powerful features that you’ll use to conquer your foes. On top of that, you’ll still have decisions to make so that you can build a character that is truly unique to you.
That’s where I come in. In this guide, I’m taking you through all of the (minor) complexities of the barbarian class from ability scores to multiclassing and backgrounds to roleplaying suggestions.
Why Play a Barbarian?
Barbarians are an extremely easy class to play. Truly, the piece that makes this class so appealing is that whether it’s your first character or your 51st character, you’ll have no problem shaping them to do exactly what you want them to do without having to worry about resources like spell slots or superiority dice.
Ease is great, but in most games, easier often means weaker. That is nowhere near the truth when it comes to barbarians in 5e. Their signature ability, Rage, gives them incredible resilience and power. With it and every other feature you pick up along the way, you’ll be rolling stacks of dice when you deal damage and avoiding quite a bit of damage every time an enemy manages to hit you.
All of this power really just reinforces the first point that I’ve made:
Barbarians Are Easy To Play
I should probably clear up what I mean when I say “easy.” It might be a bit more appropriate to say that they are a simple class, but whatever, they’re synonyms. Barbarians don’t let us be mindless players or anything like that; instead, they eliminate a lot of the complexity that is common in other classes.
One of the most common things I see with new players is something gamers like to call “analysis paralysis.” It’s what happens when you’re trying to solve a problem and you’re overwhelmed with options.
“I could persuade the guard to let us in. Or, I guess I could use Charm Person on them since we probably won’t be seeing them again anytime soon. Of course, I could always make us invisible so that we could sneak by… Oh! Maybe I can use an illusion to distract the guard, and we won’t even have to go invisible…”
Yikes, right? I get it though. Games really don’t get more “open world” than a ttrpg does. Without a little video game prompt asking you to take path A or path B, it’s all up to you to find your own solution and weigh the impacts of each.
This doesn’t just happen when dealing with overworld obstacles either. A lot of players will run into these same conundrums in combat because they have to balance their resources while also worrying about the consequences of their actions.
I won’t say this goes completely out the window with barbarians, but it certainly isn’t anywhere near as common as it will be for most other classes. The goal of barbarians is often quite simple: bash in a few heads and growl at anyone who’s in your way.
Barbarians Are Powerful
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, barbarians don’t sacrifice power for simplicity. This class has one of the best DPS (it’s actually DPR, but Damage Per Second is a more common phrase) of all the classes. Sure, at insanely high levels, they might be running a bit lower than a well-built wizard, but that’s to be expected when one of these characters can literally change reality.
All of their features play so nicely into their strengths, which is basically just to be very strong. Basically, as soon as you take this class, you’ll start to see a tremendous amount of successful attacks that are dealing a lot of damage. With a good race to support this and the right weapon, you’re basically unstoppable.
I know I’ve kept their power a bit cryptic here. I’ll go into their features more in the next section and then in-depth below, but rest assured, all the power I’m talking about here is just coming from the base-class features. Once you start adding in the effects of the subclasses, you really start to see just how dramatically good this class is at kicking names and taking ass.
Of course, power doesn’t just come from how hard you can hit. It comes from how hard you can get hit and stay standing. Barbarians definitely continue to qualify here. Their Rage feature makes them the only class to outright receive resistances to damage types. Plus, without ever having to don a piece of armor, they get a gorgeous AC, probably to the tune of 17 or 18 without much effort.
Barbarians Are Fun To Play!
Sure, every class could (and should) have this argument. After all, if no one is having fun with a class, why would it even exist? Still, barbarians tend to have this simple-minded nature that’s really just a blast to play. It’s just so relaxing to be able to take a break from normal life and smash things to bits with your big axe. Who wants to leave work for the day and sit down to crunch numbers on their optimum AOE output? (Also me, but then again, D&D is my job.)
This isn’t to say that you can’t play an incredibly wise, intelligent, or charismatic barbarian that solves more problems with their words than with their fists. That can be a lot of fun too and definitely gives Jekyll and Hyde or Hulk vibes. The point is that you don’t have to.
When you sit down to play a barbarian, your higher-level functioning can take a back seat. You get to embrace your animalistic side. I can’t think of a healthier way to take some existential dread and frustration than assuming the role of a muscle-bound jock ready to beat a goblin with another goblin.
The Barbarian’s Defining Features
This class is almost 100% defined by its “Rage” feature. This ability, which bolsters a barbarian’s strength, offense, defense, and overall resilience, is the basis of just about everything going on from level 1 to level 20 in the base class and the subclasses.
Much like a spellcaster is centered around their ability to cast spells, a barbarian is centered around their ability to go into a wild berserker rage. This is, again, where that simplicity comes in. There are moving parts to the rage feature but none that have to be painstakingly calculated or rationed.
Rage lasts for a full minute, which is the entirety of almost every combat encounter you’ll run into. That means it’s as simple as letting loose at the beginning of combat and procedurally crushing your enemies until there’s no one left.
But what does rage actually do? Again, I’ll go more in depth in the class-progression section below, but I can definitely give you an overview to whet your appetite.
When a barbarian enters a rage, they gain resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage; gain advantage on Strength checks and Strength saving throws; and add extra damage whenever they hit a target. These abilities only go away if you are knocked unconscious, end it as a bonus action, or you go a full round without attacking a hostile creature or taking damage.
That alone is enough to make a barbarian a significant threat. I mean, the fact that you are strongly encouraged to never stop attacking is already impressive, but the fact that those attacks are going to be doing huge amounts of damage is definitely a win.
As you level up, every feature will either be complimenting or directly adding to the Rage feature. One of my personal favorites is Reckless Attacker, which lets you throw caution to the wind and gain advantage on your attack rolls for a turn at the expense of creatures having advantage on attack rolls against you until your next turn.
This might seem like a bit of a raw deal, but with incredible AC, resistance to several damage types, and the highest Hit Dice of any class, it’s not that big of a deal if creatures get advantage on their attacks against you. Maybe tread carefully around powerful spellcasters and demons, but at that point, you’ll have other ways to deal with big threats.
The Barbarian’s Limitations
No class is perfect, and barbarian isn’t an exception to this rule. Its lack of complexity can sometimes mean a lack of viable options, and a lot of barbarian players will find themselves eagerly waiting for the next combat (or prematurely starting it). Players who want to deeply engage in all aspects of D&D might want to consider another class or at least entertain the prospect of multiclassing.
A lot of characters have their niches inside and outside of battle. Rogues are just as stealthy in the heat of combat as they are in the depths of a dungeon. Artificers can whip up solutions to puzzles and traps just as readily as they can handle themselves in a large fight.
Barbarians, on the other hand, don’t have any glaringly obvious ways to deal with social or environmental hazards. Many DMs will at least throw in the gimme of making Intimidation checks with strength instead of charisma (a more-than-reasonable compensation), but not every problem can be solved by yelling in someone’s face and brandishing your weapon.
Some of the subclasses try to tackle this issue, giving players a bit more agency by introducing features that interact with more than just combat, but these will never really feel as deeply ingrained or accessible as they might with a whole class built around solving problems.
Still, every problem has a solution, and the barbarian class isn’t without saving for players who are looking for a bit more than total carnage.
The simplest way to solve this is to be a creative player. If you’re having a hard time rolling good stealth checks, you can always try to soften your footsteps or camouflage yourself somehow.
I’m a firm believer that straight-up checks, nothing more than a d20 against the DC, should only be made if the character doesn’t try to do something to benefit their situation. Having a hard time opening a door? Add some leverage into the equation. Trouble convincing a guard to let you in? Sweeten the deal with some gold or some secrets.
Not everything has to be solved with magic or natural talent. A clever player in control of a barbarian is an excellent way to prove that skill and cunning are all that matter.
The other way to deal with the barbarians’ lack of extra interaction is to be a bit less of a barbarian. Multiclassing is a concept that might seem “advanced,” but it’s as simple as taking a few levels in another class to gain new features and end up with a unique build. We’ll talk more about the ins and outs of this later, but in general, taking a dip in another class is a great way to diversify your playstyle.
The Barbarian’s Role Within the Party
A barbarian is by and large a tank. They take hits so others don’t have to and dish out loads of damage in the meantime. I mean, your standard barbarian is often “built like a tank,” so this one should be pretty obvious.
A barbarian’s goal in combat is to get right up in the enemies’ faces and clobber them while the rest of the party does what they need to get into position. Often, you might end up taking on a majority of the minions while your allies all gang up on the big bad. Doesn’t that make you feel special? You’re the big bad of your party.
Of course, roles often factor into more than just combat. While you might not directly become the face of the party, you do still have value in the world outside of a battle mat.
There isn’t a perfectly comprehensive list of roles out there (although our article on party composition comes damn close) because everybody has different ideas of what constitutes a role.
Still, I would add “The Muscle” to the barbarians’ roles in a heartbeat. Often, just having you around will make it easier for the face of your party to negotiate. Think of Tony Stark’s “We have a Hulk” line in The Avengers. You don’t even need to be the one doing the talking because just your presence, just your mere existence, will be enough to keep quite a few people in line.
How To Roleplay a Barbarian
Let me start off by saying that there is no “one way” to roleplay a barbarian. You can play your barbarian in absolutely any way that you want, and you’ll still be doing it right. That’s not to say that I can’t provide some guidelines; I just want to make sure that you don’t get stuck in the tropey barbarian character because you feel like you have to.
Barbarians are not angry simpletons by default. That’s just how we are taught that barbarians act, and most people fall into it as a sort of trap. It’s not a bad way to play the character, but it’s not the only one.
Barbarians are, in fact, an archetype of character with deep connections to their ancestral roots. Often, a barbarian comes from a tribe or ancient culture that exists in contrast to the “civilized” societal norms.
The PHB says this about the class:
“These barbarians, different as they might be, are defined by their rage: unbridled, unquenchable, and unthinking fury. More than a mere emotion, their anger is the ferocity of a cornered predator, the unrelenting assault of a storm, the churning turmoil of the sea.”
I want to really dial in on the “…more than a mere emotion…” part because I feel that it’s the most important. Their rage isn’t just an emotion; it’s a state of being. It’s like a shark that smells blood in the water, his eyes go black, and it’s time for the kill.
I will go deeper than the PHB does, though, and say that barbarians can channel whatever sort of power they want for their rage. Obviously, this will be heavily impacted by your subclass, but at the end of the day, you get to decide what the ancient methods of your tribe are.
You can call upon the great animal spirits to guide you in your hunt, or you can infuse yourself with the power of magic runes and undergo some sort of transformation.
Heck, your “rage” doesn’t have to be rageful at all. You can make your barbarian into a serial killer for all I care, someone who’s precise and methodical and who absolutely loves to kill. Or, you can make your barbarian a sheepish child who is possessed by the spirit of a menacing brute that only wishes to protect the innocent (a more brutal Shazam kind of thing).
When it comes to roleplaying a barbarian, the only important part is that you have an understanding of how rage works for you. The options are endless, but if you figure out exactly what makes your character tick, you’ll easily be able to put together how they act when they’re not fighting anyone.
You can also look at some pop culture examples. There are a lot of heroic characters that fit the archetype, even if they’re not your standard muscle-bound Viking clad in a lion’s pelt. Here’s a small list of characters you might be inspired by:
- Bruce Banner / Hulk
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- The Thing
- Conan the Barbarian
- Red Sonja
- Drax the Destroyer
- Marv (Sin City)
Black Citadel’s Ranking and Tier System
In our ongoing series of 5e class guides, we use the following color-rating scheme:
Red – C Tier. Red options can sometimes be situationally useful and might make for an interesting narrative choice, but they are largely less effective than other tiers.
Green – B Tier. A solid choice but nothing that is absolutely critical for a build, or it can be very good but only situationally.
Blue – A Tier. An excellent choice. Widely regarded as powerful in some way, useful, highly effective.
Purple – S Tier. The best of the best. Objectively powerful or transformative in some way. No choice in D&D is essential, but these options are definitely worth considering when you create your characters.
The Barbarian Class Progression
The very basics of any class are the hit dice, proficiencies, and equipment that they start off with. Before we jump into the actual features of the class, let’s take a brief look at what we’re working with here.
Hit Dice: 1d12 per barbarian level
Hit Points at 1st Level: 12 + Con modifier
Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d12 (or 7) + Con modifier per artificer level after 1st
Barbarians have exceptional Hit Dice to work with. In fact, a d12 is the best hit die in the whole game. These incredibly high health stats mean that we’ll be able to take hits like a champ when we do get damaged. Luckily, resistances and our high AC can almost make this a nonissue, allowing us to comfortably sit at a resting HP well above any of our allies.
Armor: Light armor, medium armor, shields
Our AC is an important part of assuming the tank role. After all, it’s more than just high HP that allows us to take hits; it’s the fact that most of the hits should be missing us. You might think that this means a barbarian should be clad in heavy armor, but that goes against our Rage feature and the general aesthetic.
Instead, since we don’t have to funnel any high stats into the mental-ability scores, we can set up to get our dex bonus to give us a great AC even with light armor.
Of course, all this flies out the window when we realize that the Unarmored Defense feature, which we’ll touch on in a bit, can let us get an AC higher than heavy armor. With that feature, though, we still get to use a shield so we can in fact get an extra +2 boost.
Weapons: Simple weapons, martial weapons
Weapons are barbarians’ spell slots. With every weapon at your disposal, it’s easy to build any kind of barbarian you want. Mounted lancer? Check. Berserker with a great axe? Check. Your classic anime character with a 7’ greatsword? Why the hell not.
It should be noted that your bonus rage damage only triggers when you make a melee attack, so don’t get too caught up in the concept of a rageful bowman.
It’s a bit of a bummer that we don’t see some sort of primitive tools made for the barbarian akin to the Thieves’ Tools largely associated with rogues. Introducing a tool of this caliber would greatly improve the utility of this class outside of combat.
I would personally give artificers looking for more utility the choice of any one of the following tools: Herbalism Kit, Woodcarver’s Tools, or Leatherworker’s Tools. This is just a small selection that I feel could be easily reasoned to fit a more tribal-focused character.
All that being said, if you really want a tool, you can just center your background around it and pick one up there.
Saving Throws: Strength, Constitution
These are the two abilities that you’re more than likely to have the best scores in. It only makes sense that this is where you’d have the added proficiency bonus to really ensure you don’t have to worry about nasty effects.
The combination of these two means that it’ll be hard for creatures to impose restrictions on you that aren’t based on mental attacks. Grapple and poison saves are the two most common areas (respectively) where you’ll see the most benefits, and these are definitely saves that are frequent impositions on an adventuring party.
Skills: Choose two from Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival
Skills are a variable part of the game; their frequency of usage highly depends on a DM’s style of play. Admittedly though, this is a pretty good set of skills to choose from. Perception and Intimidation definitely stand above the rest, but just about any of these can actually be very impactful in the right hands and setting.
You have the following options for starting equipment:
- (a) a greataxe or (b) any martial melee weapon
- (a) two handaxes or (b) any simple weapon
- An explorer’s pack and four javelins
Unlike most classes where we write off the starting equipment as the simple choice, barbarians actually have some decisions that can impact their playstyle.
Let’s start at the given: an explorer’s pack and four javelins. The pack will contain your general adventuring needs, but the supplies are more geared toward outside travel and survival than they are toward dungeon diving. Then, we have four javelins, solid thrown ranged weapons to lean on as a last resort if you’re just not going to catch up to the big bad.
Then, we move toward the simple-weapon section. You can get two handaxes, two simple weapons for the price of one, or you can go for a bit more damage. Mechanically, handaxes aren’t very different from javelins. They’re both 1d6 simple weapons that have the thrown weapon. The difference is that the handaxe’s light property allows you to dual wield with ease.
If you wanted to deal more damage with a simple weapon, you’d have to go for a greatclub, a two-handed weapon that dishes out 1d8. It might seem overly barbaric, but it’s a great option as a backup for whenever your martial weapon gets damaged, dropped, or stolen.
This brings us to your main weapon. The greataxe is certainly a great choice with 1d12 slashing, but you can actually increase your average output by going for the greatsword or maul, which both deal 2d6. Either of these will also prevent you from ever dealing a measly one damage before bonuses.
Then again, at the end of the day, you should really be picking whatever weapons call to you most.
This feature is the central driving force behind the entire class. It bestows several benefits to you so long as you meet the requirements. Let’s start with the benefits that you receive when you enter a Rage as a bonus action on your turn:
- You have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saving throws.
- When you make a melee weapon attack using Strength, you gain a bonus to the damage roll that increases as you gain levels as a barbarian, as shown in the Rage Damage column of the Barbarian table.
- You have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.
So right off the bat, this looks pretty amazing. The most prominent piece of this is that you get to add extra damage to your strength-based melee-weapon attacks. This does include natural weapons as well, so if you’re clawed or horned, you have that to look forward to as well.
The damage isn’t insane, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. We start at +2 and eventually end up at +4. While it might seem small, we receive these bonuses at the same curve that magic weapons would receive theirs, and they only max out at +3. This is loosely related to the concept of bounded accuracy, and while it does add up to a whole lot of extra damage, it would be so much cooler if the curve was a bit steeper.
That being said, damage isn’t the only bonus we receive. We also get resistance from the physical damage types. That means we’ll be taking half damage from just about any weapon that does manage to hit us. We really only have to worry about spells (and some barbarians can even mostly ignore those).
Then, we have advantage on our strength checks and saving throws. This is huge and supports our ability to grapple and restrain enemies while making it virtually impossible for them to do the same to us. You can also use it for the tropey scene where a muscle-bound warrior fuels their anger to effortlessly break out of chains or some other related strength check outside of combat.
These benefits aren’t everlasting, though, and they don’t come without a few limitations. First, rage only lasts for a minute. It ends if we are knocked unconscious or if we choose to end it using a bonus action. It also ends if we end our turn without attacking a hostile creature or if we end our turn without taking damage since our last turn.
This piece of the rules encourages us to continue on our attacking spree, making rampage a slightly more fitting name for this iconic feature.
On top of the basics, we can’t rage while wearing heavy armor. We also can’t cast spells or concentrate on them while raging. These aren’t bad at all; it just means we’re focused on mobility and making weapon attacks. Aside from smites and spells like Booming Blade, there aren’t many we would want to cast during a rage anyway.
Lastly, we do have a limited pool of rage to draw on. As noted in the table above, we can enter a rage a set number of times each day, and we must take a long rest before we regain those uses.
This is an excellent feature, and while it might seem a tad bit lackluster at first, remember that this is the template for most features we’ll get from here on out, both from the main class and the primal path (subclass) we choose.
While we aren’t wearing any armor, our AC is equal to 10 + our Dex modifier + our Con modifier. This is a pretty respectable calculation, but it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have the highest AC in the game.
Realistically, most barbarians will prioritize strength and constitution as their primary and secondary ability scores, respectively. That means dexterity is coming in third place if we’re not trying to make a unique barbarian build with a bit of wisdom, charisma, or intelligence.
When we look at the standard point array (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8) and add in our average racial bonuses (+2 to strength and +1 to constitution), we end up with 17 Strength, 15 Constitution, and 13 Dexterity. That puts our con and dex bonuses at +2 and +1 respectively and only gives us an AC of 13.
Realistically, most methods of stat generation will place your highest scores above the standard array, and even your “average” rolls will be a tad bit higher. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we add 2 to our top three scores. That means we’re looking at an AC of 15, giving us about the same AC we’d have with a modest suite of medium armor.
This isn’t that bad, and our constitution just might be increased faster if we can afford some impressive medium armor. If we happen to have particularly good scores, we’ll definitely be in the clear. If our scores are lower, it might be a good idea to invest in armor as soon as we can.
As with many similar features, this is really as good as your ability scores are, and that’s just fine by me.
I know I’ve done a decent bit of talking about the barbarians’ lack of functionality outside of combat, but there is this feature that makes the class better at surviving harmful effects outside of battle as well.
Danger sense gives barbarians advantage on dexterity saves against effects they can see, such as traps and spells. Interestingly, the flavor text says “you gain an uncanny sense of when things nearby aren’t as they should be, giving you an edge when you dodge away from danger,” which would imply a bit of a spider sense. To me at least, that means you should be reacting slightly before you can see the effect.
So this brings up a bit of a RAW vs. RAI conversation. With rules as written, we’d say that you have to see the effect in order to gain this advantage. As in, you have to be viewing the effect as it happens in order to react accordingly.
With rules as intended, we have an edge on reacting to situations. This means that if we would be able to see the effect before it hits us, we have a better chance of evading. It means we have a heightened sense of awareness. By this logic, we should be reacting if it’s a visible effect in general.
This distinction, pedantic as it is, prevents scenarios where a boulder is rolling from behind you and you don’t get the advantage because you aren’t directly looking at it or the kind of situation where an axe comes swinging out of a whole in the wall but “you didn’t see it when the effect began.” It’s more of a “yeah, you could see this.”
Also, as a bit of a DM tip, I would give your barbarians the choice between sight and hearing as the trigger for this effect. You could even have this be a daily-choice sort of mechanic. People pay attention to different things at different times, and it makes for more interesting roleplay on the player’s part.
Reckless attack allows you to attack more effectively while throwing a bit of caution to the wind. When you make the first attack on your turn, you can decide to do so recklessly. This gives you advantage on strength-based melee-weapon attacks for the turn, but it also gives creatures advantage on attack rolls against you until the start of your next turn.
This feature is as good as your AC is. I mean, it’s always a good feature because it gives you the chance to just straight up kill your enemies before they can get an attack off on you. Of course, there’s a reason why this is called reckless. In order to make this work, you do have to compromise your defenses.
I find it helpful to think of this mathematically. I know, I said this was an easy class, but that’s why I’m doing the math for you. Advantage, statistically, works out to about a +5. So, it’s helpful to hold out your use of reckless attack until you have a good feel for your foes’ AC.
If you can easily get there without a +5, then you don’t have to worry about this feature or “lowering” your AC (since advantage makes it easier for your enemies to hit you).
Of course, there’s also the fact that this makes it easier for you to hit a nat 20. If you’re aiming for critical damage and you have the AC to spare, use this as much as you can and let loose. The better your AC, the higher your HP, and the more you can attack without any abandon.
This feature allows you to attack twice instead of once during a single Attack action. Essentially, this doubles your damage per turn, which is a huge spike to receive at 5th level. Many martial classes get this benefit, and barbarians would be much less effective without it.
I do think that barbarians could stand to receive an upgrade to Extra Attack down the line. The fighter eventually gains four attacks per action, and I don’t think it would be insane for the barbarian to eventually have three. After all, the two classes are very similar in their goals and abilities.
That being said, with your rage and the abilities that are soon to come, this really will turn you into a top damage dealer for your party.
Your speed increases by 10 feet when you aren’t wearing heavy armor. Yes, complimenting your rage, we have a feat that promotes mobility by cutting you off from heavy armor.
This is, in fact, a huge bonus. It probably increases your speed by at least 30% and means that you’ll be able to quickly traverse everything from a battlefield to a city chase.
However, you’ve probably noticed that I only gave the feature a B-ranking. This is because while it is a great bonus to have, it’s often not incredibly impactful. Barbarians don’t need to rush around the battlefield to do their job. They just need to get into the fray and start attacking.
It will definitely be helpful from time to time when you need to protect someone, when you can rush over to deal a killing blow on the big bad, or in most environmental hazards that have you running for your life.
You have advantage on initiative rolls. Additionally, if you’re surprised at the beginning of combat, you can still act normally on your first turn as long as you start your turn with a bonus action to enter your rage.
This is huge, giving you a potential “bonus round” of attacking your foes and dishing out damage. If you have taken proficiency in the perception skill (and your wisdom isn’t dismal), you shouldn’t be surprised too often, but it’s when you are surprised that things often tend to go very badly.
Once you hit 9th level, your critical hits will start doing massive damage. This is because the Brutal Critical feature allows you to roll an additional die of extra damage whenever you manage to get a critical hit on a melee-weapon attack. This is huge but also interesting considering the weapon strategies we talked about earlier.
It specifically states that we can add “one extra damage die when determining the extra damage for a critical hit with a melee attack.” While that will increase to two extra damage dice at 13th level and three extra damage dice at 17th level, it does refer to the specific number of dice, not a recurring amount of damage.
Normally, a critical hit lets you roll your damage an extra time. With a 2d6 weapon, that means a critical hit deals 4d6 (average 14) plus any bonuses. On the other hand, a 1d12 weapon would dish out 2d12 or an average of 13. Small difference, but it adds up over time.
Now, let’s look at a crit with Brutal Critical unlocked. That same 2d6 weapon will be dishing out 5d6 damage or an average of 17.5, while the 1d12 weapon will be dealing 3d12 or an average of 19.5.
Once we unlock this feature, you might think that our preferred weapon should in fact switch with this math. And well, it might. Unfortunately, the averages are a bit hard to calculate for me to really judge performance over a period of time. It depends on the ACs of the creatures you’re fighting along with whatever your actual bonuses are.
If you were guaranteed to hit, the 2d6 weapon does still perform marginally better since more of your attacks will be regular rather than critical. However, if we say that by 9th level we’re dealing with an average of 17 or so, then more of our attacks that actually hit will be critical hits. This means the 1d12 weapon is the way to go in those instances.
What I’m getting at here is that you may want to switch weapons once you start dealing this extra critical hit damage, but realistically, it depends on how often you’re getting critical hits. Or, more accurately, it depends on how many of the attacks you land are critical hits.
All the optimization math aside, this is an amazing feature no matter how you slice it and will greatly increase your damage output.
When you would drop to 0 hit points while raging (excluding when you die outright), you have a chance to instead drop to 1 hit point and keep fighting. To do this, you must make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw.
Interestingly, there isn’t a set amount of times you can do this per day. Instead, each time you use this feature, the DC increases by 5. With a healthy constitution score and your proficiency bonus, this shouldn’t be too hard to achieve the first couple of times. After that, though, you’re going to need some outstanding luck to stay standing.
The DC does return to 10 when you finish a long rest, though, so this is very much still a daily pool resource; it’s just done in an interesting way.
This feature is great, and while I hope you never have to use it, there may come a time, especially with higher CR baddies, that it may just save your life.
Your rage only ends if you are knocked unconscious or if you choose to end it as a bonus action. Essentially, this only means that you don’t have to attack or take damage to maintain your rage.
I can’t say there are many 15th-level barbarians that shy away from attacking their enemies, but in cases where an enemy is just too far away or you manage to fall ill to some condition, this is actually going to be incredibly useful.
The reality is those instances will probably be few and far between. This is a feature that, while helpful, will largely go unnoticed until it feels like a lifesaver.
If your total for a strength check is less than your Strength score, you can use your score instead of the roll. This is huge. Since your strength is hopefully at least 20 at this point (there are more than a few magic items that can increase your score beyond the normal max), that sets a very high floor for your strength checks.
At a certain point, the only reason to roll will be to see if you can get a nat 20; other than that, you’ll be automatically succeeding on a vast majority of strength checks thrown your way.
The final barbarian feature increases your strength and constitution scores by 4, also increasing your maximum to 24. This is incredible but a bit dwarfed by the fact that you are, in fact, 20th-level adventure.
At this point in the campaign, you should have legendary items at your disposal, which means you’d be hard pressed to not have a belt of giant strength. There are three such belts that will automatically set your strength higher than 24 (fire giant – 25, cloud giant – 27, storm giant – 29).
Constitution is a bit harder to get above 24 by other means, though, and a +7 modifier tacked into your Unarmored Defense is pretty substantial for that AC of yours.
All together, we have a great feature. Whether or not your campaign goes long enough to see it come to fruition is entirely up to your play group.
There are a few optional features available to the Barbarian class. Normally, these are called variant features, thus the title of this section, and they are presented as an alternative option to a pre-existing feature. For the barbarians though, these are just optional additions, features you can take at no cost if you enjoy them and they are approved by your DM.
You gain proficiency in one additional skill available to the barbarian class. You gain another at 10th level.
This is a great little addition. Likely, this was created as a response to the barbarians’ general lack of competence outside of combat, and I’m grateful someone thought to do so.
As part of the bonus action you take to enter your rage, you can move up to half your speed. A bit of a berserker charge here, and it’s definitely welcome. It’s not game-changing, but it may just make the difference in a few pivotal combats, allowing you to get right up in your enemies’ faces quickly and efficiently.
Creating a Barbarian, Step-by-Step
So now we understand how the barbarian class works. Enter a rage, swing wildly, and deal loads of damage to your enemies, all the while getting better and better at taking hits from your enemies.
Now, let’s talk about some of the actual choices that you’ll have to make along the way. Most of these are character-creation options, but we’ve also included feats. All of these choices will impact your build, and you should consider them as a whole product, not individual pieces.
That being said, and I cannot stress this enough, at the end of the day, you should be picking whatever options feel cool to you, regardless of what any nerd on the internet is going to tell you (myself included).
Strength is definitely going to be our highest ability score. While Dexterity can be used for weapon attacks, it won’t receive our rage damage, a bonus we can’t afford to miss out on. Besides, strength dictates so many of the other features we have and supports the ability checks we’ll be making the most often.
After that, Constitution comes in a hard second place. In order to get the most out of our Hit Points and Unarmored Defense AC, we have to put the most into them that we can, and that comes from our constitution. This defines our resilience both in combat and in dealing with just about anything else that could mess us up.
Tier II: Constitution
Tier III: Dexterity
Dump Tier: Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma
Strength: “Apes. Together. Strong” and barbarians alone stronger. This class is built around overwhelmingly superhuman strength, and while there are some very niche builds that can afford to prioritize other scores, it’s basically a must to put as much as you can here.
Dexterity: Dexterity lets us move around the battlefield quickly and react quickly to peril, and it impacts our AC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t also dictate our attacks because then we would only have two ability scores to worry about.
As it stands, you should definitely keep this ability above a 13, but it should never be prioritized above con or dex.
Constitution: From our hit points to our Relentless Rage saving throws, this is an incredibly important score for us. It also impacts our AC if we’re not wearing armor to the point that if we get it high enough, we won’t want to wear armor.
Intelligence / Wisdom / Charisma: None of these abilities are important to a barbarian. At best, you could make an argument for wisdom to be the most impactful of all of these, seeing as it impacts our perception checks.
After that though, these scores can be arranged in any way you want. Determine for yourself what kind of artificer you want to play because you can lean into one of these as a basis for how you act outside of combat.
While these can all be dump stats, you should still try to keep them above 8 if at all possible. Below that, you risk serious consequences at the hands of spellcasters and not even powerful ones at that. The last thing we want is for a rampaging tank to become mind controlled by some wirey, evil wizard.
Choosing a race is all about picking up cool traits and abilities that make you better at what you want to do. It’s also about getting ability scores that complement the scores you’re focusing on. Luckily for us, races that prioritize strength and constitution are often going to have abilities that prioritize combat in much the same way that we do.
Custom Lineages and 5.5e
It’s worth noting that if you like the aesthetics and roleplaying elements of a particular race but their abilities don’t fit a fighter, you can recreate them using the custom lineage options available in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Also, the way that D&D 5e handles races and innate bonuses (or penalties) is set to change pretty dramatically over the next few years with the coming “Next Evolution of D&D” looking like it might do away with inherent ability score bonuses altogether, meaning you can play whichever race you want in whatever class and still have it be “optimal.”
Dwarves are hardy, resilient folk who value hard work and grit. This is present in the features and Ability Score increases as well as in the culture that comes along with the race. Dwarves are typically part of regular society, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have tribes that are more “primitive” than whatever the average world looks like around them.
While both of the main subraces will give us a +2 to constitution, the mountain dwarf takes the cake with a +2 to strength on top of that. That being said, the hill dwarf’s +1 to wisdom is a nice way to save a dump stat from being detrimental, and they have the Dwarven Toughness feature, which increases our hit point maximum by 1 for each level.
Either way, both are great choices that give us resistance to poison damage, advantage on saving throws against poison, a tool proficiency, and expertise in history checks related to the origin of stonework.
This race was made for barbarians as they give you a +2 to strength, a +1 to constitution, and a bunch of extra features that might sound very familiar.
As an example, you get Relentless Endurance, a feature that lets you drop to 1 hit point instead of 0. Hmm, where have I heard that before?
Or what about Savage Attacks, a feature that lets you roll an extra damage die on top of critical hit damage? Yeah, you read that right. These are basically ripped from the barbarian class, and luckily, neither of these conflict with the features we’ll eventually receive down the road.
So stack some crazy damage on critical hits, never die, and embrace the primal existential rage of a race caught between worlds.
These are my two favorite options, ones that I think are worth a wealth of explanation. But, since there are so many classes that utilize strength and/or constitution, there are a lot of races that work extremely well.
So, here are some more with just a brief blurb to get you excited for what they have to offer.
- Minotaur – +2 Str, +1 Con. Charge at your enemies and gore them with your massive horns.
- Ravenite Dragonborn – +2 Str, +1 Con. Make reaction attacks whenever you get attacked, along with the classic dragon’s breath attack and a nice damage resistance to boot.
- Warforged – +2 Con, +1 Any Other (Strength). A constructed barbarian that can avoid the normal blights of a living creature such as age, disease, and poison. Plus, a little bonus to AC is always nice.
- Goliath – +2 Str, +1 Con or Custom Bonuses. Reduce incoming damage, resist the cold, and enjoy the benefits of being a hulking humanoid.
Skills and Languages
The languages you choose should be based entirely around your backstory and the campaign setting you’re working in. The skills you choose, however, can determine what kind of a player you become.
Barbarians are offered six skills, and some are more generally better than others. As I’ve mentioned, Perception and Intimidation are two of the best for this class as they give you coverage in environmental and social situations (respectively).
All of the remaining checks work to provide you a way of interacting with the environment. Whether you’re ascertaining information with a good Nature check or using your wilderness experience to get an upper hand with a good Survival check, you’ll be able to get along pretty well.
Athletics might seem like a natural choice as it is the only skill that uses strength. For some barbarians, this may be true, but because your mental scores are typically going to be lower, your proficiency bonus is often used as a way to balance bad scores as opposed to complimenting good scores.
Then, Animal Handling is a total switch hitter. Unlike most skills, which will be prompted by your DM at appropriate times regardless of your proficiencies, you can actually have a lot of agency in choosing to wrangle and deal with animals. Therefore, if you make the most out of this skill, it might be very helpful, but if you wait for your DM to bring it up, it will probably be almost nonexistent.
Backgrounds, separate from your backstory, are how we determine what your character did before deciding to take on a life of adventure. While this doesn’t have a lot of mechanical impact, it can really decide how you end up playing your character. At the very least, it gives you some skills and personality traits to begin fleshing out your own barbarian.
The options I’m presenting are a mix of common and unique backgrounds that might apply to a barbarian character, not just ones that give you an optimized build. My goal is to show you that anyone can be a barbarian; it doesn’t have to be a class restricted to tribespeople and outlanders.
The 5e suggested background for the barbarian quick build is the outlander. This archetype describes a character who grew up far from the comforts of civilization in the wilds beyond the reach of any kingdom’s domain.
These characters know the wilds well and have a feature that allows them to recall terrain and landmarks along with the ability to find food and water. They could be looked at as a sort of survivalist archetype, but it goes deeper than that.
Living in the wild often means a deep connection to nature, whether that happened organically or if it was the product of some sort of tribal teachings. This sort of respect will often create resentment in the way most “civilized” folk go about their lives and can lead to interesting moral disputes.
At its core, this is a perfect background for barbarians looking to fully embody the stereotypical, Conanic traits one might think of when the term barbarian is mentioned.
Entertainers, warriors, or glorified actors? Why not all or any? These characters fight in grand arenas to entertain the masses, but the nature of their skills is really up to you. Maybe your character was a hardened warrior once who had grown soft fighting weakened beasts in a colosseum, or maybe this is more of a WWE situation and your character is little more than a muscle-bound performer who knows how to take a hit.
However you decide to model this sort of character, it’s going to be a fun experience. This gives you the opportunity to make every single combat a bit of a performance.
It also means giving yourself the opportunity to develop a slow story arc where you realize how deadly a real battle is, either through recollection or as a learning experience.
Who has more pent up rage than the youngest of a long line of children. Perhaps the youngest of a long line of children who receives little to no attention from their noble, aristocratic parents?
I’m not saying to create a character whose rage is nothing more than an adult temper tantrum. Instead, I’m suggesting that you build a character with some really unique trauma, one who can take out that aggression in the middle of a battlefield but who has enough charisma and social grace to perform well in society.
It takes your average bumbling-idiot barbarian and really flips it on its head, giving you a chance to become a calculated, yet reckless, warrior and socialite.
Feats are an amazing way to develop your character and come up with a build that hits hard in all the ways you want it to. For a barbarian, we’re going to want to take feats that compliment our offenses or our defenses, but we can also grab up new abilities that give us utility outside of combat.
Just a quick note: feats can only typically be taken in place of ASIs, meaning you miss out on two ability score points. Your build should include probably two or three feats, and devote the rest of your ASIs to increasing Str and Con as much as possible.
Durable – Still gain a point in constitution and heal a minimum of twice your CON modifier whenever you roll a hit die.
Grapple – With your strength you’ll succeed in most every grapple you attempt so this is a surefire way to produce some advantage on attacks without needing to attack recklessly.
Great Weapon Master – This feat does two great things. It generates additional attacks when you either succeed in a critical attack or drop a foe’s health to 0, and it allows you to deal 10 extra damage at the cost of -5 to your attack roll. Paired with advantage and your monstrously high strength modifier, this could mean attacking and incapacitating several enemies in one turn.
Savage Attacker – You get to reroll damage once per turn, and not just one die but all your damage for a single attack. This is incredible and will stack incredibly high, especially when you get crits.
Tough – An extra boost to hit points is a great way to make yourself even more of a tank. Particularly, this is a good option if your AC isn’t quite cutting the mustard.
I have written an entire article dedicated to all the ways that you can multiclass a barbarian, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least a few pointers on how to entertain this concept if you’re interested.
Barbarians are almost a M.A.D class. Although they primarily rely on strength, no build is completely efficient without great constitution and dexterity to boot. This means that they work best with other characters using these abilities.
It also means that it’s very hard to even get your intelligence, wisdom, or charisma up to the prerequisites for most caster classes. This is fine because, after all, you can’t even cast spells while you’re raging.
With this, there are two main classes that work best for multiclassing: rogue and fighter.
Rogue will require you to pan a bit more into dexterity, but it will be worth it to pick up some incredible extra damage when you combine sneak attack and rage damage.
Fighters are a more obvious choice, and if you take 3 or 4 levels, you end up with some incredible subclass features, the ability to take an extra action on your turn, and a fighting style to empower however you’re already fighting in combat.
Beyond that, this class is simple enough that you can multiclass efficiently so long as you don’t spread yourself thin. Still, check out the full article for some specific build designs and a comprehensive guide on when and when not to take levels in other classes.
A subclass is where your character will really come into their own. The abilities you get here will further accentuate what kind of archetype you are building, and they will dramatically increase your capabilities as a powerful warrior.
Summon the spectral spirits of your ancestors who will protect you in battle and even give you access to a bit of divination magic down the line. Great choice for a tank who wants to lean into the spiritual side of this class.
A dwarven-only subclass that utilizes spiked dwarven armor to double down on just about every main class feature available. This is a great subclass for someone who likes barbarian just the way it is and only wishes that they got a bit more bang for their buck.
A bestial spark burns within you, one that allows you to take on physical characteristics of an animal that will help you in combat and when overcoming environmental hazards. Great for someone who wants to unleash the beast.
This class is intended to be a truly terrifying, frenzied attacker. Instead, it comes across as a bit of a jumble of features with no clear tagline. It’s still an option but not a great one for just about any build.
A barbarian who channels the might of the storm and creates an aura around them that brings the forces of nature to your side. While you can choose between desert, sea, and tundra for the basis of your environmental impact, none of these are as impactful as they were designed to be. The flavor is incredible, but it pales in power to some of the other options presented by this class.
My favorite subclass of barbarian and the second article I ever wrote for this website, a totem warrior places their face in a spirit animal guardian and draws powers from its essence. The bear totem’s resistances make this one of the most impactful subclasses out there, but any of the animals are great.
Truly, if you want an iconic barbarian experience with some incredible theming and power, this is the way to go.
No, this isn’t a spellcasting barbarian. It is, however, an archetype of barbarians with magical energy inside them that can burst out when they rage, causing a myriad of wild effects. This magic also improves the natural abilities of barbarian, making it a unique subclass for players who want more than just your typical hac-and-slash adventurer.
Battling with the power of divine fury on your side means these barbarians are guided by their deities. This empowers your attacks and provides you with some incredible defenses, making this almost analogous to a paladin in many ways. A great choice for players who want more depth in their lore but don’t want to cast any spells to receive the paladin treatment.
Barbarian Quickstart Guides
Here are the basic selections for a few sample builds.
This barbarian uses their totem to put up some incredible defenses and goad their enemies into combat with them alone. They are a protective and fierce tank with a deep spiritual connection to their beliefs.
- Class/Subclass: Totem Warrior Barbarian 20
- Race: Half Orc
- Skills: Intimidation, Perception
- Background: Outlander
- Feats: Resilient, Tough, Great Weapon Master
- Weapons: Great Sword and hand axe with a shield
With the combined force of a monk and a barbarian, two deeply passionate warriors, nothing can stand in your way. Specifically, we incorporate a wide variety of animalistic powers, allowing ourselves to transform into a draconic presence that decimates our foes.
- Class/Subclass: Beast Barbarian 16 / Ascendant Dragon Monk 4
- Race: Ravenite Dragonborn
- Skills: Intimidation, Animal Handling
- Background: Folk Hero
- Feats: Mobile, Savage Attacker, Martial Adept
- Weapons: Mostly your own natural weapons
The barbarian is an amazing class. Without too much effort, you can become a force to be reckoned with. With a good bit of effort, you just might be the most powerful character to walk the lands of whatever campaign setting you find yourself in.
Remember, the goal of D&D, especially with a class like this, is to have fun. Let loose, don’t worry so much about all the insane mathematics of optimization, and swing wildly; let your emotions rule your actions on and off the battlefield.
As always, happy adventuring.
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.