The DnD 5e Barbarian Guide

Published on July 16, 2020

In this guide, we will be examining the 5e Barbarian’s Class Features and how you can optimize your Barbarian through choosing your Race, Ability Score, Spells, and Feats. This article will focus primarily on content from the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook, but will also delve into some of the content in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

What is this guide?

This guide is meant as a deep dive into the DnD 5e Barbarian. For a quick overview on the Barbarian Class, see our breakdown of the DnD 5e Classes. You can see the Barbarian Class Features here.

In this post, we will be examining the Barbarian’s Class Features and how you can optimize your Barbarian through choosing your Race, Ability Score, Spells, Feats, etc.

The color code below has been implemented to help you identify, at a glance, how good that option will be for your Barbarian. This color coding isn’t a hard and fast rule; there are plenty of sub-optimized options out there that will be viable to your party and will be fun to play.

  • Red isn’t going to contribute to the effectiveness of your character build at all
  • Orange is an OK option
  • Green is a good option
  • Blue is a great option, you should strongly consider this option for your character
  • Sky Blue is an amazing option. If you do not take this option your character would not be optimized

So if you’re ready, grab the biggest weapon you can find and smash away!

Did you know?

D&D Beyond can help create your characters by making choices using a step-by-step approach. Full customization and control of your character, none of the flipping through hundreds of pages to reference obscure rules.

Before You Start

Races

Barbarians need STR and CON, and lots of it! Critically important is to choose a race with a size of greater than “small” so that you won’t roll with disadvantage with heavy weapons.

Dragonborn: STR bonus is just what we’re looking for, and Breath Weapon gives the Barbarian some AoE presence. CHA sees some fringe benefits with the Path of the Berserker subclass.

Dwarf: CON boost and Darkvision. Not terrible, not ideal.

  • Hill: More hit points isn’t bad, but not needed since the Dwarf already gets a bonus to CON and Barbarians have the highest hit dice. WIS saves are common so a bonus here also helps.
  • Mountain: Adding a STR bonus to the Dwarf’s racial traits makes this a perfect choice for a Barbarian.

Elf: DEX is okay, and there are some other racial traits here that are nice to have. Sadly, a STR bonus would be ideal and elves lack that.

  • Drow ElfNo STR bonus and sunlight sensitivity. Terrible.
  • High Elf: Barbarians are the furthest thing from a caster class (unless multiclassing). Don’t pick a high elf unless you don’t care about optimization at all.
  • Wood Elf: Again, WIS helps somewhat with saving throws.

Gnome: Gnomes are classified as “small”, making heavy weapons pretty much useless. INT is also not what you’re looking for.

  • Forest: Not worth sacrificing heavy weapons for.
  • Rock: Not worth sacrificing heavy weapons for.

Half-Elf: CHA score increase plus two other ability scores of your choice makes a decently well rounded Barbarian. Free skills are also always welcome.

Half-Orc: The traditional choice for Barbarians, and for good reason. STR and CON score increases, Darkvision, and Intimidation skill proficiency are all ideal. Relentless Endurance and Savage Attacks are redundant with the Barbarian’s class features.

Halfling: Halflings are also “small” sized and you want to take advantage of those heavy weapons.

  • Lightfoot: You’re a Barbarian, hiding is the last thing you want to do!
  • Stout: Small CON score increase and poison resistance can help with survivability.

Human: Humans are always decent.

  • Vanilla: A regular human will be well-rounded. 
  • Variant: Variant humans are usually good, and this is no exception for Barbarians. Variant humans can boost their STR and CON and also get a free feat. Feats will be discussed further below.

TieflingCertainly more suited to a caster.

Ability Scores

Ability Score Increases (ASI) at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level.

Barbarians value STR above all else, followed by CON. DEX shouldn’t be ignored so you can either equip armor or rely on the Unarmored Defense class feature.

STR: Barbarians want to hit things, and hit them hard. They also want to hit things with the biggest weapon they can get their hands on, so pump STR as high as possible.

DEX: Good DEX means a higher AC and access to better armor options. People will expect you to fill the role of the tank, so consider some DEX.

CON: As the tank, expect a lot of hits to come your way since you will likely be on the front lines. With Unarmoured Defense, your CON bonus also contributes to your AC.

INT: Dump for sure. You’re not out here trying to get a PhD.

WIS: WIS saves happen all the time, but Barbarians will likely survive even on a failed save.

CHA: Helps with Intimidation and the Path of the Berserker subclass.


Barbarian Class Progression

1st Level

Hit Points: Barbarians are blessed with d12 hit dice, the best around.

Saves: CON saves come up very often, and STR saves do happen now and again. 

Weapon/Armor Proficiencies: Barbarians have access to most of the weapons and armor they could ever need.

SkillsOnly two skills from a small list, but there are some good options here.

  • Animal Handling (WIS): Usually not too helpful, especially if you cant speak with animals.
  • Athletics (STR): You’ll likely be the athlete of the group, and also the one to grapple or shove your foes.
  • Intimidation (CHA): Intimidation seems like it was made for a scary looking Barbarian, but it is unfortunately not a STR based skill.
  • Nature (INT): Your INT will be pitiful, so you won’t be able to make good use of this skill even if you wanted to.
  • Perception (WIS): The best skill in the game. If you can get Perception, it’s usually the right choice to pick it up.
  • Survival (WIS): Survival proficiency can save the whole party. Get it if nobody else does.

Rage: This is the reason to play a Barbarian. Advantage on STR checks and STR saving throws, bonus damage, and damage resistance pairs perfectly with the playstyle. Rage is also the reason not to go for heavy armor proficiency since you don’t get the benefits in that case. Regardless, running around without armor or medium armor should serve you just fine.

Unarmored Defense: Perfect for roleplaying if you want to play the typical shirtless Barbarian, and can help give a boost to AC at early levels. Once you have access to the best medium armor (half plate), Unarmored Defense is strictly worse for most stat combinations you will likely achieve. This means you should really only boost your DEX high enough to equip medium armor and let your damage resistance and large hit point pool handle the rest. On the other hand, with 20 DEX + 20 CON + a shield, you can attain the highest possible AC for playable classes D&D 5e, so that’s pretty cool too.

2nd Level

Reckless Attack: Perfect for landing devastating blows against your enemies. Attack rolls against you having advantage doesn’t matter too much due to your damage resistance and substantial hit points. You aren’t (quite) invincible though, so be careful using this when completely surrounded since all attack rolls against you will have advantage.

Danger Sense: Advantage on DEX saves is awesome and definitely will contribute to your longevity in battle.

3rd Level

At 3rd level Barbarians may choose their Primal Path. None of the options are outright unusable, so choose the subclass that benefits your party the most or simply the one you think you will enjoy.

Path of the Ancestral Guardian

Source: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

As the name implies, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian excels at tanking and protecting your party. For that purpose, this build is one of the best in all of D&D 5e, but if you’re looking to maximize damage you won’t find that here.

  • Ancestral Protectors: Ancestral Protectors strongly discourages your enemies from attacking anyone but you when they are affected by it, which is exactly what you want as a Path of the Ancestral Guardian Barbarian.
  • Spirit Shield: An amazing use of your reaction that scales decently well. There’s absolutely no reason not to use this every round of combat unless your Rage wore off. Your party members will be delighted!
  • Consult the Spirits: Augury and Clairvoyance are both powerful utility spells that you can cast without any magical prowess. You can only cast one of them every short rest but that doesn’t detract from how good this feature is. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of Augury, especially when playing with indecisive people.
  • Vengeful Ancestors: Increases the usefulness of your Spirit Shield for free! Redirecting damage from your party members to whatever you’re fighting every single round is really strong.

Path of the Battlerager

Source: Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

Path of the Battlerager is a strange subclass. The most important thing to know is that it is restricted to Dwarves, but luckily Dwarves are one of the best races for Barbarians. Secondly, to even consider playing this subclass you need to make sure that you can get spiked armor. It is probably a good idea to talk to your DM about this and make sure they are willing to let you acquire it relatively early on. Aside from these oddities, the Path of the Battlerager is not particularly strong compared to the other subclass options. It can be fun, however, especially when played as a grappler build.

  • Battlerager Armor: This is what encourages you to grapple. Not great damage, but it does give an extra attack as a bonus action.
  • Reckless Abandon: Temporary hit points add survivability. They come at the cost of using a Reckless Attack so the mediocre AC of the spiked armor may be problematic.
  • Battlerager Charge: Dashing as a bonus action helps you close distance and get your attacks or grapples in effectively.
  • Spiked Retribution: The damage on its own is quite low but it will add up if you get attacked a lot, which is very probable.

Path of the Berserker

Source: Player’s Handbook

The Path of the Berserker is what most people would associate with the Barbarian archetype. If you just want to hit things, and be really good at hitting things, this is the subclass for you. While none of the features are overly exciting or unique, this build is straightforward and effective.

  • Frenzy: Frenzy makes your damage go through the roof. One level of exhaustion isn’t too backbreaking, but by three levels of exhaustion your character will start having a really tough time doing anything in a fight. 
  • Mindless Rage: Smart enemies will try to stop you from participating in the fight if they notice how much damage you can deal. Charmed and frightened are annoying conditions that can be hard to get out of, so Mindless Rage really comes in clutch.
  • Intimidating Presence:  Not the best since it uses your action, especially if you are one of the main damage dealers of the group. If for some reason you can’t attack (enemies are out of reach of melee, for example) this is a pretty good way to spend your turn. If you plan on using Intimidating Presence regularly, you probably shouldn’t be dumping your CHA stat.
  • Retaliation: Great way to get in more damage and make use of your reaction when toe to toe with a baddie. 

Path of the Storm Herald

Source: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

The Path of the Storm Herald adapts well to change. Starting at 3rd level, every time you level up you may choose an environment from desert, sea or tundra, and that affects what abilities you have access to. Unfortunately, you don’t always level up when it would be ideal and you usually don’t know what dangers lie ahead. Still, it’s mechanically interesting and will keep things fresh, all while being useful to whatever party makeup you run with.

  • Storm Aura: Auras are cool! To keep it going after the turn you start raging you do need to use your bonus action though.
    • Desert: The damage isn’t great and it does indiscriminately affect all creatures in the aura. If you want some small AoE damage the Desert aura works well.
    • Sea: Only single target, but at least it won’t hurt your allies like the Desert aura. The damage is still pretty low though.
    • Tundra: Temporary hit points for everyone in your party! If they are within the aura, that is. Plus you can do this every turn, topping up as you see fit.
  • Storm Soul: If you know that you will come across a lot of fire, lightning, or cold damage, the choice here will be obvious. Nothing here is essential to the subclass so the usefulness really depends on what you will be dealing with in the campaign.
    • Desert: Probably the safest bet since there are many sources of devastating fire damage (Fireball, anyone?).
    • Sea: Unless you care about the lightning damage coming your way, water breathing and swimming speed is very situational.
    • Tundra: Not sure what you would use a giant ice cube for, but I’m sure people have found a purpose. Resistance to cold is about as useful as lightning.
  • Shielding Storm: Looks good on paper, but your aura’s radius is quite small and if you know you will be hit with some powerful AoE elemental damage, sticking that close together is a terrible idea.
  • Raging Storm: Makes your aura more useful, so all three options will be quite good.
    • Desert: The damage here will never be huge, and there is a DEX save involved. Still, it’s a potential option for your reaction.
    • Sea: If you manage to knock your enemy prone, the rest of your attacks will have advantage (this is used as a reaction!). If your Rogue friend is higher up in the Initiative order than that enemy, free Sneak Attacks!
    • Tundra: Great at preventing a fleeing opponent from doing so.

Path of the Totem Warrior

Source: Player’s Handbook (expanded in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide)

The Path of the Totem Warrior is the complete package. There are options for tanking, dealing damage, movement capabilities, and aiding your party. On top of that, the gameplay with this subclass is less clear-cut and requires more thinking, making it very fun to play.

The expanded options for the Totem Spirit are the elk and tiger, found in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.

  • Spirit Seeker: Not useful most of the time, but a good reason to choose the Animal Handling proficiency when you roll the character.
  • Totem Spirit: This is an important choice. While there are five options, only three are worth considering.
    • Bear: The bear Totem Spirit feels outright overpowered. Resistance to ALL damage while raging (save for psychic) is insane.
    • Eagle: Great if you need some extra mobility on the battlefield.
    • Elk: You don’t really need even more movement speed and the eagle is typically better for that purpose.
    • Tiger: Jumping is rarely, if ever, beneficial.
    • Wolf: If you have other melee party members that can deal loads of damage on attack rolls, the wolf excels. If you have a party full of casters, this does nothing.
  • Aspect of the Beast: You may choose the same animal as at 3rd level or one of the other options.
    • Bear: Many people don’t enjoy playing with restrictive carrying capacity or just beg their DM for a Bag of Holding. However, advantage on STR checks comes in handy when trying to force your way through a locked door or other obstacles. Sadly it only works on objects.
    • Eagle: Nice for scouting, although Barbarians aren’t typically the choice for the party’s scout. If your race doesn’t have Darkvision then negating disadvantage on Perception checks is great.
    • Elk: If you play with travel time between locations and include random encounters, this is pretty useful. If you tend to just skip travel in favor of playing at predetermined locations, avoid the elk here.
    • Tiger: Proficiency in two more skills is pretty great, unfortunately two of the four options are already available as class-based skills.
    • Wolf: Similar to the elk’s Aspect of the Beast.
  • Spirit Walker: Commune with Nature as a ritual is often useful. If you’re struggling to survive in a new location, you can easily find food and water. It also helps if you’re looking for something in particular, like a building or a magical creature.
  • Totemic Attunement: You may again choose the same animal as at 3rd level or something else.
    • Bear: Draws fire from your weaker allies onto yourself. If you chose the bear at 3rd level, you will have resistance to the damage they throw your way anyways.
    • Eagle: Flying is endlessly useful, even if it only functions in short bursts. Make sure you have a plan before you launch yourself into the air! Or don’t, you’re a Barbarian after all.
    • Elk: Knock enemies prone and deal some damage at the same time as a bonus action. Really annoying to any opponent if you can pull it off regularly.
    • Tiger: Bonus action weapon attacks are always great, but you’ll have to fulfill the movement requirement to do so. In tight spaces or places with obstacles you may not be able to use this ability at all.
    • Wolf: Another way to knock enemies prone as a bonus action. No added damage but you only have to connect with an attack to use it, so your next attack can be with advantage. Choosing between this or the elk is a personal preference. 

Path of the Zealot

Source: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Cool for roleplay. Dying becomes more of an inconvenience than a game ending problem. Coupled with a bit of extra damage, the Path of the Zealot is a fine subclass but lacks any serious direction.

  • Divine Fury: Straightforward added damage on your attack. A portion of creatures do have necrotic damage immunity, but radiant damage less so.
  • Warrior of the Gods: Barbarians aren’t afraid of dying, and Warrior of the Gods makes coming back way more convenient. Spells like Raise Dead become practically free to use on you.
  • Fanatical Focus: Outright saves you from dying from powerful effects with a saving throw.
  • Zealous Presence: In a huge battle this ability gives your party a sort of “super” turn with advantage on attack rolls and saving throws. Would be a lot nicer if it worked on you as well though.
  • Rage beyond Death: You basically can’t die while raging. If you have a way to heal yourself for a small amount of hit points (magic item, potion of healing, etc.) then do so before ending rage so you don’t die.

5th Level

Extra Attack: Every martial class is excited when they get extra attacks since it effectively doubles damage output. Now if only you could Reckless Attack with both attacks…

Fast Movement: You won’t want heavy armor so your Barbarian will get the benefit of Fast Movement. While very useful, especially if playing with battle maps, Fast Movement isn’t as impactful as most of the other Barbarian class features.

7th Level

Feral Instinct: Really useful. It’s a big deal for the Barbarian to be at the front lines to protect the more vulnerable party members, so advantage on Initiative helps there. Avoiding surprise attacks against you is another tool in your long list of ways to mitigate damage coming at your character.

9th Level

Brutal Critical: Does make critical hits brutally effective, but they only happen 5% of the time you make an attack roll.

11th Level

Relentless Rage: With a decent CON score you may be able to pull this off more than once per short rest, making you a real thorn in the side of your enemies. When you do finally get knocked to 0 hit points, hopefully you’ve had enough of an impact on the battlefield that the battle ends shortly thereafter.

15th Level

Persistent RageAn annoying part of Rage is that situations do occur where you can’t move or don’t have enough movement to engage the next enemy, causing it to end at an inconvenient time. Since you can only Rage a finite amount of times per Long Rest, Persistent Rage helps you conserve your uses so that you can activate it for every tough battle throughout the day. If your rage lasts longer than 4 hours, please consult a physician.

18th Level

Indomitable MightIf you like to grapple and have a maxed or nearly maxed out STR score, there won’t be much your opponent can do to stop you. Other uses for STR ability checks are often less crucial, but nice to have nonetheless. 

20th Level

Primal ChampionA fitting capstone for the Barbarian class, making you the tankiest tank who ever lived. If wearing medium armor, your Unarmored Defense may offer high AC when you reach level 20, so be sure to check both options.

Feats

Below are some feats that are often considered on a 5e Barbarian. Barbarians are lucky in that they really only depend on STR (CON and DEX are important, but not critically), so they can hold their own if choosing to take one or more feats appeals to you. Their effectiveness may vary depending on which Primal Path the character has chosen.

  • Alert: Barbarians already have Feral Instinct to aid during Initiative rolls. Additional Initiative improvements offer diminishing returns and are therefore wasted.
  • Grappler: If grappling is your thing this feat will provide loads of fun.
  • Great Weapon Master: Probably the best feat for a Barbarian using a two-handed weapon, regardless of build. Extra attacks from this feat will occur often when you’re in the thick of things. The bonus damage at the cost of an attack roll penalty is risky and should be used sparingly until your attack roll bonus is quite high.
  • Lucky: Lucky is a feat that is useful to any character.
  • Mobile: Redundant.
  • Polearm Master: Provides extra attacks in the form of bonus actions and opportunity attacks, but Great Weapon Master and Sentinel are better. It is rather interesting in combination with Great Weapon Master when applying the damage bonus to those extra attacks.
  • Sentinel: Sentinel really shines on a Barbarian. It reduces the options of enemies that are in your vicinity by restricting their movement and punishing them for trying to move away or attack someone else. Remember, you actually want to be attacked as a Barbarian (as opposed to those attacks hitting your squishier teammates).
  • Tough: Tough makes you even tankier, but it really isn’t worth the time. You’re probably better off increasing CON or DEX if you need survivability since those stats come with other benefits like bolstering ability checks and saving throws.

Hope you liked the guide! If you have any questions or feel like we missed something for the 5e Barbarian, go ahead and post a comment below. If you like our content subscribe to Arcane Eye!

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