There are some character builds out there that might as well be sitting in a hall of fame.
Since races in 5e (or you know, D&D in general) all come with features and ability score bonuses, it’s no wonder that some race/class combos seem to be a lot more prevalent than others.
It’s for that reason that instead of talking about a halfling barbarian today, we’re going to dive into one of the paragons of the martial world.
This article is all about building the best half-orc barbarian.
Creating a Half-Orc Barbarian
Even if you are completely new to tabletop games you might have some idea why these two pair together. Orcs tend to be a bit more savage than your average humanoid race, at least in most fantasy genres.
Thematically, we get it, but there’s also the mechanics of D&D to consider, and they back us up really well in quite a few ways. Let’s jump in!
Quickstart Guide: Half Orc Barbarian
Stats: You’ll prioritize Strength first, followed by Constitution.
Armor and Weapons: You won’t want any armor, and just about any martial weapon will do the trick. A greatsword is possibly the best weapon in the game.
Offensive Actions: Go into a rage as much as you can and deal your rage damage. You’re basically always getting new ways to deal more damage, but the more you can crit the better since several of your abilities allow you deal extra critical damage. Basically every feature, or optional feat you might pick up, is an offensive option for you.
Defensive Actions: Defense is more passive for a barbarian, but you’ll have a solid unarmored defense and some great resistances from your rage. You also tend to be pretty hardy, staying at 1 HP instead of going unconscious is an effect that both your class and race provide you with. Subclasses will likely offer more defensive abilities.
Subclass Decisions: The subclass options are just the best subclass options for a barbarian in general, so you’re going to be looking at Totem-Warrior and Wild Magic as your primary choices. Just about any subclass is good, but both of these have incredible abilities with a huge amount of variety.
If you’ve ever popped open the Player’s Handbook, or maybe traveled over to DNDBeyond.com, you might have read the Quick Tips, the shortest guides ever on how to build a character for a given class.
The Quick Tip for barbarians tells us to “put our highest ability score in Strength, followed by Constitution,” along with suggesting the outlander background.
At least the first part is excellent advice. Barbarians are attackers, they use their incredible strength to overwhelm opponents and let loose massive attacks while they’re enraged.
Whether rolling to attack, making a grapple check or simply trying to break something, a barbarian’s strength is going to come in handy.
As for constitution, that’s the ability that ties in to our health. It would be very silly to make such an insanely powerful melee combatant that can easily get knocked out by a mere goblin.
So the entire mechanics of the barbarian class is built around being able to take a hit. Barbarians even use their constitution as armor, thanks to their Unarmored Defense feature, but more on that later.
Half-Orcs give a +2 bonus to strength and a +1 bonus to constitution, the perfect spread. Fortunately, races are more than just numbers and description. They also get features that allow them to do some pretty incredible things
Half-Orc Racial Features
Ability Score Increase: +2 Strength, +1 Dexterity
Speed: 30 ft.
Age. Half-orcs mature a little faster than humans, reaching adulthood around age 14. They age noticeably faster and rarely live longer than 75 years.
Alignment. Half-orcs inherit a tendency toward chaos from their orc parents and are not strongly inclined toward good. Half-orcs raised among orcs and willing to live out their lives among them are usually evil.
Size. Half-orcs are somewhat larger and bulkier than humans, and they range from 5 to well over 6 feet tall. Your size is Medium.
Darkvision. Thanks to your orc blood, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Menacing. You gain proficiency in the Intimidation skill.
Relentless Endurance. When you are reduced to 0 hit points but not killed outright, you can drop to 1 hit point instead. You can’t use this feature again until you finish a long rest.
Savage Attacks. When you score a critical hit with a melee weapon attack, you can roll one of the weapon’s damage dice one additional time and add it to the extra damage of the critical hit.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Orc. Orc is a harsh, grating language with hard consonants. It has no script of its own but is written in the Dwarvish script.
Now, not all of those are super important to worry about. Language, size, speed, Darkvision, age, and alignment are all things that will come in handy but don’t really matter too much when picking a class.
While a speed of 30 lets you get around and Darkvision lets you see in most places you might be adventuring through, they’re both common enough to ignore.
We’ve already covered the ability scores, so we have Menacing, Relentless Endurance, and Savage Attacks left to consider. I know you can read what they do, but let me try to explain how these abilities are helpful.
Menacing fits really well with a character that could intimidate someone just by snarling at them, especially one that’s probably a decent bit bulkier than most characters they encounter. Normally*, we use charisma for intimidation checks so this means even with a less impressive charisma score we can still get the feel of being an intimidating, menacing, force to be reckoned with.
Relentless Endurance is an ability that at first might not seem that impressive, but really is. Barbarians don’t take a lot of damage as is, and them staying up and in the fight is often what secures victory for the whole party. If something does happen that would knock them out, that’s a whole lot of damage your foes aren’t getting. This ability keeps you up whenever you’re not instantly killed**, which trust me, won’t often be happening more than once a day. \
Savage Attacks are what it’s all about. Seriously, this is such a cool ability. You might think it’s very unique, considering how powerful it is, but this is almost the exact same wording as a barbarian class feature, Brutal Critical, that comes in at 9th level. Half-orc barbarians not only get more damage on criticals than any other barbarian, they start getting that damage up to a whole eight levels early, as soon as you’re done writing up your character sheet.
DM Tips: Skill Checks
*The fact that half-orcs get the Menacing feature brings up a great topic. Why is intimidation based on charisma? According to the PHB (PG 175) , it doesn’t have to be. Different circumstances call for different abilities to be used for skill checks.
A lot of the ways a barbarian might intimidate someone will likely require great strength (i.e. grabbing someone by the neck and lifting them up) whereas a bard might be more charismatic about it (i.e. convincing someone that they aren’t in fact paralyzed and that they will inflict horrible pain upon their foe like this clip from The Princess Bride.)
Consider the situation before blindly following the recommended abilities that are attached to each skill.
Rules and Regulations: Instant Death
**Instant death is something that can happen in D&D 5e, albeit rarely. Where dying occurs if you are knocked out and fail 3 death saving throws before regaining consciousness, instant death occurs if you are knocked to 0 HP with excess damage remaining that is equal to or greater than your maximum HP.
Since barbarians quickly get the highest HP maximums out there, this will be incredibly rare.
Barbarians tend to let their weapons do most of the talking, leaving puzzles and intrigue to their party members. That being said, roleplay is its own pillar of the game, and you should do what you can to involve yourself in that process.
Barbarians aren’t extra skillful, but they do get to choose two skill proficiencies from Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival.
You’re already getting proficiency in Intimidation, so what else should you grab? Athletics and Perception is the safe bet. Athletics is almost always based on strength, which means if an athletics check is coming up, you’re going to be the best one for the job by far.
As for Perception, it’s one of the most used skills in the game, you should take it if you have the availability.
The rest of your skills are going to depend on your background.
I’m a huge proponent of backgrounds being used to further who your character is, not what they can do. When you choose a background, think about how you unlocked your barbaric rage, how you decided to fight with reckless abandon.
For a half-orc, that might just be something in your blood. Maybe you were trained by your orcish parent on how to use your rage to your advantage.
Maybe you were adopted and it was subdued until, during some traumatic event, you unleashed your inner rage and beat the snot out of someone.
Some backgrounds that fit more stereotypical narratives are as follows:
- Outlander: Proficiency in Athletics and Survival. A nomad who grew up in the wild.
- Soldier: Proficiency in Athletics and Intimidation. Unfortunately, the Intimidation bonuses won’t stack, but the background has a lot more going for it, like lodging and pay. Plus, it’s a less “tragic backstory” way of being a combatant.
- Gladiator: Proficiency in Acrobatics and Performance. A gladiator is a gladiator, you’re welcome. Picture Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok if you’re having trouble picturing a gladiator breaking out into a rage. A unique but inexpensive weapon also comes with this background.
Basically, the only thing left to do in filling out your character sheet is to choose your starting gear. Each background has their own list of equipment that you’ll add on, and the class itself has a few options for you.
I’ve bolded my selections for the options provided to you below.
- (a) a greataxe or (b) any martial melee weapon
- A greataxe is great, but a greatsword is greater. Greataxes deal 1d12, a whole lot of damage, but greatswords deal 2d6. Without getting into all of the math, rolling one die gives you an equal chance of rolling any number, whereas rolling two dice gives you a much higher chance of rolling in the middle. Rolling 2d6 also keeps you from ever rolling one total damage. I much prefer consistency to big rolls every once in a while, in the long term it gives you so much more damage.
- (a) two handaxes or (b) any simple weapon
- Handaxes have the thrown property, which means you can toss them at an opponent if you don’t have the will or desire to run up and cut them down yourself. Having two just means that you can throw and have one as a backup. And in the worst case scenario, you can wield these as two weapons at the same time, since they have the light property.
- An explorer’s pack and four javelins
- Shocker, we’re gonna take what they give us here.
Subclasses, Feats, and using your Abilities
Taking everything that we’ve talked about into consideration, let’s look at the characters that we can actually put together, and just how well they will perform.
We’ll have to choose a subclass, and it’s a good idea to get some feats to really round out the build, but after that you’ll be all set to charge into battle on your own.
There are eight barbarian subclasses and counting at the time of publishing. I think it’s a safe bet that Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons will include a draconic subclass, and I’ll be excited to give you my review when the time comes.
If our two primary abilities are strength (attacking) and constitution (hardiness), then it should come as no surprise that those are the two ways that the subclasses tend to go