Introduction

Barbarians are all about getting angry and dealing damage. They have a ton of hit points, resistance to damage, and Rage gives a wonderful bonus to damage. Barbarians don’t get much in the way of skills, so generally they’re stuck as combat monsters, but they function equally well as a Defender and a Striker, and certain character options can even expand them into a limited Support role.

After reading this handbook, I encourage you to read my Barbarian Subclasses Breakdown.

Table of Contents

Disclaimer

RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational. Nearly never useful.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
  • Green: Good options. Useful often.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.

I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and I can’t guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

RPGBOT is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.

Barbarian Class Features

Optional Class Features are detailed below under Optional Class Features.

Hit Points: d12 is the biggest hit die available.

Saves: Strength saves are fairly rare, but Constitution saves are common and typically very problematic.

Proficiencies: Medium armor and martial weapons will get you a long way, but you get no tool proficiencies, and only two skills.

Rage: Rage is the Barbarian’s defining class feature. The bonus damage isn’t huge, but it’s reliable and consistent. The resistance to damage makes Barbarians exceptionally durable. You can rage multiple times in the same encounter if you absolutely need to, but your number of rages per day is limited, so try not to do so if you can avoid it.

Unarmored Defense: This is great flavor for the Barbarian, but won’t do much good for you unless your abilities are very high. Your Dexterity and Constitution modifiers need to total +7 to match the total AC bonus provided by half plate armor. That’s generally achievable by level 8 unless you rolled for ability scores, and assuming that you started with 14 Dexterity and largely ignored Strength. More realistically, you should expect to hit 20 Constitution by 12th level, and even then Unarmored Defense will only break even with Half plate. If magic armor is an option you’ll need to put an ability increase into Dexterity before you have a good reason to drop your armor.

Reckless Attack: Rage makes you resistant to damage from normal weapons (Magical weapons which do weird damage types still work fine), so advantage on attacks against you doesn’t matter as much. Go crazy. Kill all of the things.

Danger Sense: In medium armor your dexterity probably isn’t fantastic, but advantage on any save is fantastic.

Primal Path: Barbarian subclasses are briefly summarized below. See my Barbarian Subclasses Breakdown for help selecting your subclass.

  • Ancestral Guardian: Conjure up the spirits of your ancestors to defend yourself and your allies in battle.
  • Battlerager: Dwarf barbarians who specialize in fighting in spiked armor.
  • Beast: Manifest teeth, claws, and other fantastic bodily features, and tear your enemies to shreds.
  • Berserker: Adds the ability to go into a Frenzy while raging, making you even more dangerous at the cost of levels of Fatigue.
  • Storm Herald: A nature-themed Barbarian, adding features thematically tied to your choice of “Environment”, which you can change every time you gain a level.
  • Totem Warrior: Choose from Animal-themed benefits at several points, allowing you to customize your barbarian to fill several roles in combat.
  • Zealot: A great option for reckless players, or for players who tend to die frequently, the Zealot is exceptionally difficult to kill and can be raised from the dead without the expensive material components usually required to do so.
  • Wild Magic: Throw unpredictable magic into the mix, gaining a randomly-selected buff every time you rage, allowing you to do fantastic things like teleporting in combat.

Extra Attack: Two attacks means potentially twice as much damage in a turn, and twice as much opportunity to apply your rage bonus to damage.

Fast Movement: Amusing, but not game-changing.

Feral Instinct: You are basically immune to surprise attacks. Advantage on initiative will allow you to go first frequently, so be sure to get into position to keep enemies from reaching your squishy allies.

Brutal Critical: This feature has several problems. The intent is to make critical hits the Barbarian’s source of additional damage at high levels where fighters get a third attack and paladins get Improved Divine Smite. Unfortunately, the math just doesn’t work out. Reckless Attack allows you score a critical hit roughly 9.75% of the time, which is more than average but not so often that they’re consistent. Brutal Critical also mandates that you use a greataxe to maximize the benefits, which discourages you from using weapons like a greatsword or a maul. Even then, each Brutal Critical die adds just 1.2 damage per round on average with a greataxe (assuming 2 attacks and Reckless Attack). You need all three of those dice to match Improved Divine Smite, and you don’t get the third die until level 17.

To summarize: Brutal Critical feels very satisfying, but the math is not good.

Relentless Rage: This will keep you conscious for a long time if you get hit with a low numbers of high-damage attacks, but lots of small attacks will raise the DC too quickly for this to remain effective. Be sure to eliminate weak but numerous enemies before your HP starts getting scary.

Persistent Rage: There are very few effects which can end your rage prematurely without knocking you onconscious.

Indomitable Might: By now you might very easily have 20 Strength, so you’re guaranteed to get a ridiculously high roll on any Strength check. Remember that saves and attacks aren’t checks, so you still need to roll high on those.

Primal Champion: The equivalent of 4 ability increases all at once. Your abilities should be absurd by this point, so now may be a good time to abandon your armor in face of running around slaying monsters in your undergarments.

Optional Class Features

Introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Optional Class Features offer ways to add additional features or replace existing ones. These rules are optional, and you should not assume that your DM will allow these features without consulting them first.

Assessments and suggestions for specific Optional Class Features are presented here, but for more information on handling Optional Class Features in general, see my Practical Guide to Optional Class Features.

Primal Knowledge (Addition): The Barbarian is notoriously useless outside of combat because their class features are almost exclusively dedicated to acts of violence. The one tiny sliver of non-combat functionality which they get is their skills, and while they get the standard 2 class skills their skill options are often only situationally useful so most barbarians are locked into Athletics and Perception because those are the only consistently useful choices. Adding 2 more skill proficiencies does a lot to improve the Barbarian’s non-combat capabilities, and granting them past level 1 means that the barbarian can grow and develop as a character, learning new skills in addition to new and exciting ways to hurt stuff.

I recommend granting Primal Knowledge to all characters who take barbarian as their primary class and whose race doesn’t provide additional skill proficiencies. Even for races which do provide skill proficiencies, it’s probably still a good choice to grant this but consider how your player feels about their character’s capabilities outside of combat before you make a decision.

I recommend considering it on a case-by-case basis for class dips. Most multiclassed barbarians will go to level 3 to get Reckless Attack, and the additional skill may an unneeded benefit for what may already be a very powerful character.

Instinctive Pounce (Addition): At this level the Barbarian has Fast Movement, so many barbarians will have either 35 ft. or 40 ft. speed. Moving half of that speed when you begin a rage allows the Barbarian to get into melee faster, which is essential since the Barbarian is essentially a melee-only class.

I recommend allowing Instinctive Pounce on all barbarians whose subclasses don’t add a complicated secondary effect when they rage (such as the Path of Wild Magic’s roll on the Wild Magic Table). The amount of extra movement isn’t going to break the game and it won’t be helpful in every fight, but it makes the Bonus Action to Rage feel less like a tax and more like an actual tactical decision point. It also allows the DM to set encounters in larger areas without accidently punishing the Barbarian, thereby offering the DM more options for encounter design.

Ability Scores

Barbarians are all about their physical ability scores. If your scores are good enough you can forgo armor, so it’s nice to have adequate Dexterity and Constitution to beat the AC bonus provided by half plate.

Str: Barbarians are all about lots of Strength and big weapons, so Strength should almost always be your best ability.

Dex: 14 Dexterity is great to boost your AC with half plate. If you prefer to go armor-less, look for an item to boost your Dexterity so that you can spend your ability increases on Strength and Constitution.

Con: Second only to Strength. Barbarians take a lot of damage, so you need all the hit points you can get. Constituion also powers Unarmored Defense.

Int: Dump stat. Intelligence saves are very rare, and Barbarians don’t get any Intelligence-based skills.

Wis: Wisdom saves are common, so don’t dump it, but don’t put a ton of effort into improving it.

Cha: Charisma only matters for a couple of the Barbarian’s skills, and for the Berserker’s Intimidating Presence. If you went for Totem Warrior and didn’t pick up Intimidation, you can dump Charisma and use the points to boost your Wisdom.

Point BuyStandard Array
  • Str: 15
  • Dex: 14
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 8
  • Wis: 10
  • Cha: 10
  • Str: 15
  • Dex: 13
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 8
  • Wis: 12
  • Cha: 10

Barbarian Races

Look for bonuses to Strength, Constitutions, and medium size so that you can effectively use big weapons like a Greataxe and survive your relatively poor AC compared to a fighter or a paladin. Damage resistances and other things which improve your durability are great, and things like Darkvision and extra skills can help outside of combat. Avoid innate spellcasting.

For a classic barbarian feel, the Half-Orc and the Mountain Dwarf are good choices. For a durable barbarian, the Goliath and the Yuan-Ti are great choices. For high damage, go for variant human and consider the Great Weapon Master feat at first level.

For help selecting a race, see our Barbarian Races Breakdown.

Barbarian Skills

  • Animal Handling (Wis): Not really helpful for the function of the Barbarian, but the flavor makes sense.
  • Athletics (Str): The only Strength-based skill, Athletics is more than climbing and swimming. You use Athletics for grappling and for pushing enemies, both of which can be excellent options for Barbarians.
  • Intimidation (Cha): If you’re built with a bit of Charisma for the Berserker’s Intimidating Presence, you can be good at Intimidate. Otherwise, skip it.
  • Nature (Int): Intelligence is a dump stat for Barbarians, but if no one in the party has access to Nature it’s not an awful choice.
  • Perception (Wis): One of the most important skills in the game. At least two people in the party should have it, but more is always better.
  • Survival (Wis): Adventuring tends to involve a lot of wandering around in untamed wilderness, so Survival can be very helpful to your party.

Barbarian Backgrounds

This section does not address every published background, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don’t cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover the options which I think work especially well for the class, or which might be tempting but poor choices. Racial feats are discussed in the Races section, above.

Barbarians don’t do a lot with skills, and the skills you generally want are on the Barbarian’s class skill list. When looking for a Background, try to pick up skills which complement your existing skill proficiencies and which capitalize on your ability scores.

If you’re having trouble deciding, here are some suggestions:

  • City WatchSCAG: Athletics is great, Insight may be a hard choice and you won’t get much from the ability to speak two languages with your garbage Charisma.
  • CriminalPHB: This might work for a Wolf Totem Barbarian, especially if you have a Rogue in the party who can be stealthy with you.
  • Folk HeroPHB: Two skills from the Barbarian skill list, and a couple of tool proficiencies. Artisan’s Tools are probably a waste, but proficiency with land vehicles covers things like wagons which adventurers frequently travel in until long-distance magical travel becomes available. The theme works really well for a Barbarian who made a name for themself among their tribe, then set out to do some more heroics.
  • HermitPHB: Medicine and herbalism can be useful for a Barbarian, especially if you don’t have a healer in the party, but they’re still not fantastic options.
  • OutlanderPHB: The go-to option for Barbarians, you get two skills from the Barbarian list, but the other proficiencies are largely wasted.
  • SailorPHB: Great for aquatic campaigns. Two good skills from the Barbarian list, and boats!
  • SoldierPHB: Somewhere between the Folk Hero and the Outlander. Two good skills from the Barbarian skill list, and some fun tool proficiencies which likely won’t be very impactful but you still have a decent chance of actually using them successfully.
  • Uthgardt Tribe MemberSCAG: Two important Barbarian skills, but instruments, artisan’s tools, and languages are generally wasted on the Barbarian.

Barbarian Feats

This section does not address every published feat, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don’t cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover feats which I think work especially well for the class or which might be tempting but poor choices.

  • AlertPHB: Feral Instinct does plenty on its own, so you shouldn’t need this.
  • ChargerPHB: Great for closing to melee, but situational. If you can’t get into melee range with your movement it may be better to use your action to throw some javelins.
  • CrusherTCoE: At a glance this looks like it’s a great fit for the Barbarian, but it’s not as useful as it looks. The ability increases are great, but knocking enemies away you is usually a bad choice for the Barbarian, and since you have Reckless Attack it’s unlikely that you’ll benefit from granting Advantage after a critical hit. Your allies will benefit from the Advantage effect, but if that’s something you want you should consider Path of the Totem Warrior’s Totem Spirit (Wolf) feature.
  • ChefTCoE: Potentially more impactful than Tough or a +2 Constitution increase (unless you’re using Unarmored Defense), Chef provides a lot that the Barbarian can benefit from. The Constitution increase is obviously great, and the bonus healing on a Short Rest is helpful since the Barbarian tends to take a lot of damage and relies heavily on natural healing. The snacks, despite being small in number, provide an easy way to quickly acquire temporary hit points which can further stretch your party’s limited healing resources. The snacks are eaten as a Bonus Action, so if your subclass does’t lean heavily on your Bonus Action you can shovel snacks into your mouth while raging to mitigate whatever damage you’re taking. The damage resistance provided by Rage will make the temporary hit points more impactful, too.
  • Dual WielderPHB: Two-Weapon Fighting can be a good way to bring your bonus Rage damage into play more frequently, but since Two-Weapon Fighting uses your bonus action, this is a bad option for barbarians subclasses which use their Bonus Action heavily. If your Bonus Action isn’t doing much, combining Dual Weilder with Brutal Critical could be effective, though the smaller damage die between a d8 weapon and a d12 weapon makes the math complicated because you need to weigh the improve likelihood of scoring a critical hit against rolling bigger dice on a critical hit.

    If you’re considering two-weapon fighting, be sure to consider taking Fighting Initiate for Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting). The numeric bonus to damage is more effective offensively than upgrading from d6 to d8 damage dice. However, Dual Wielder provides an AC bonus and the larger damage dice synergize nicely with Brutal Critical.

  • DurablePHB: Rage gives you resistance to weapon damage types, but you’ll still face problems from spells, and with only medium armor the Barbarian’s hit points typically rise and fall very far very quickly. Magical healing goes a long way, but much of your healing will come from your Hit Dice. Ideally your Constitution will be high enough to give you a big pool of hit points, so the Durable feat can go a really long way to keep your hit points high throughout the day.
  • Fighting InitiateTCoE: Very few options will be more consistently effective than increasing one of your ability scores. High-level barbarians who are fishing for critical hits might enjoy Fighting Style (Great Weapon Fighting), but the math still isn’t great. Blind Fighting is tempting since barbarians don’t have a way to handle invisibility, and Interception/Protection are tempting for barbarians without a feature that uses their Reaction consistently.
  • Gift of the Chromatic DragonFToD: The damage bonus is decent, and Reactive Resistance protects you from most of the damage which Rage doesn’t protect you from, dramatically improving your durability.
  • GrapplerPHB: Just a terrible feat in general. You don’t need it to grapple successfully.
  • Great Weapon MasterPHB: Barbarians are all about two-handed weapons, and Great Weapon Master offers some great options. Berserker Barbarians will find the extra attack benefit useful in fights with numerous weak enemies, allowing them to reserve their Frenzy for fights with large single enemies.
  • Heavily ArmoredPHB: Rage doesn’t function while you’re wearing heavy armor.
  • Heavy Armor MasterPHB: Rage doesn’t function while you’re wearing heavy armor.
  • Inspiring LeaderPHB: This is generally better for more charismatic characters like Bards or Paladins, but temporary hit points are great for Barbarians. If you’re building to utilize Frightful Presence, this might be worthy of consideration.
  • Mage SlayerPHB: Only useful in games which feature an abnormally large number of spellcasters.
  • Martial AdeptPHB: One superiority die means that you might get to use your maneuvers two or three times a day at most. Feats should be more consistently useful.
  • Medium Armor MasterPHB: You won’t be doing much stealth unless you went for Wolf Totem and have other stealthy people in your party, and the potential bonus to AC isn’t enough to justify this feat on its own.
  • MobilePHB: You already get a speed boost, and Eagle totem will provide similar benefits.
  • Mounted CombatPHB: Fighting while mounted can be a great option for Barbarians, and you have plenty of hit points to absorb any attacks which might target your mount.
  • PiercerTCoE: The only weapon which you’re likely to use this with is the Pike. I wouldn’t consider this a go-to combination, but if you’re building around critical hits the additional damage die stacks with Brutal Critical and also provides the reroll benefit of Savage Attacker. It might work if you can spare a feat for it, which is slightly easier since you also get a +1 Strength increase.
  • Polearm MasterPHB: The Barbarian has very few options which require you to be within 5 ft. of a target. The base class offers Retaliation, and the Totem Warrior has a couple options (Totem Spirit (Wolf) and Totemic Attunement (Bear)), but if you’re fine not relying on those options most of the time a reach weapon and Polearm Master can be tempting. The bonus attack provided by the feat is especially interesting since you can get the damage of a two-handed weapon while still getting as many attacks as though you were using two-weapon fighting. However, there are some Barbarian features which allow you to make extra attacks as a Bonus Action, and Rage is activated as a Bonus Action so you may find that the bonus polearm attack frequently goes unused. The ability to make an attack when something enters your reach is nice, but considering barbarians usually handle threats by charging them first you’ll likely find that this benefit also rarely applies.
  • ResilientPHB: I probably would not take this before you have hit your maximum in Strength and possibly Constitution, but Resilient (Wisdom) can protect you from magic which is frequently used to incapacitate characters like barbarians who typically have poor mental stats.
  • Savage AttackerPHB: This is a bad feat. The largest damage die (d12), yields an average of 2 extra damage per turn. The absolute best case scenario is a half-orc berserker with Brutal Critical critting with a greataxe, but even then it’s still only around 4.45 extra damage at the absolute most, and it’s still limited to once per turn.
  • SentinelPHB: This is fantastic for Defender builds, and solves the “Tank Falacy” issues faced by many barbarian subclasses, including the the Totem Warrior (bear totem) and the Path of the Zealot. Forcing enemies to remain in melee with you prevents them from running away from you in order to attack your allies.
  • Shield MasterPHB: The best part of this is probably the ability to shove enemies (possibly shoving them prone) as a bonus action. Wolf totem provides a similar benefit.
  • Skill ExpertTCoE: Barbarians have frustratingly few options outside of combat, and adding an extra skill can diversify your capabilities. Expertise in Athletics can make you nearly unstoppable at Grappling and Shoving, especially once you add the Advantage on Strength checks from Rage.
  • SkilledPHB: Helpful if your party has large skill gaps, but Barbarians aren’t very good at skills, so your utility is severely limited.
  • SkulkerPHB: Even if you are in a sneaky party, you should be leaping from hiding to murder things.
  • SlasherTCoE: The speed reduction is a great way to keep enemies from escaping you. Most creatures have a speed around 30 feet, and between Fast Movement and the speed penalty on your target, you’re very hard to escape even if the target Dashes. The critical hit benefit is great, too, but you can’t count on critical hits so you need to consider the ability increase and the speed reduction as the core of the feat. Like Sentinel, this is a great way to address the “Tank Falacy” because it makes it so much more difficult for enemies to simply ignore you and walk past you to attack your allies.
  • Tavern BrawlerPHB: If you want to go for Grappler, this feat complements it nicely.
  • ToughPHB: You need too many ability increases to make room for this feat unless you’re playing a Variant Human. Instead, boost your Constitution. If you’re playing a Variant Human and this is the feat you plan to take, consider a Hill Dwarf instead.

Barbarian Weapons

  • Handaxe: Your go-to option for two-weapon fighting.
  • Javelin: A great disposable ranged option when you’re too far away to move into melee in one turn.
  • Greataxe: Brutal Critical means that a bigger damage die is better for you.
  • Greatsword: More reliable damage than the Greataxe, but not as useful with Brutal Critical.
  • Maul: Basically a blunt greatsword.

Barbarian Armor

See also: “Unarmored Defense”, above.

  • Half plate: Half plate will provide more AC than your Unarmored Defense until your total modifiers in Dexterity and Cosntitution equal +7. Expect to spend most of your career in half plate unless you need to be stealth.
  • Shield: Barbarians generally work best with two-handed weapons.

Multiclassing

This section briefly details some obvious and enticing multiclass options, but doesn’t fully explore the broad range of multiclassing combinations. For more on multiclassing, see my Practical Guide to Multiclassing.

  • Fighter: The Fighter’s Fighting Style ability is decent if you go for two-weapon fighting, but Two-Weapon Fighting is hard since Barbarians already have several options which allow them to attack as a bonus action, allowing them to match TWF number of attacks while using a two-handed weapon. 2nd level brings Action Surge, which is fantastic on any character. At 3rd level consider the Champion archetype to pick up Improved Critical, which will double how often you get to use Brutal Critical.
  • Monk: Unarmored Defense abilities don’t stack. You use whichever you got first, according to the official FAQ.
  • Rogue: A dip into Rogue for Expertise in Athletics will go a long way if you plan to use Shove or Grapple, but without the Fighter’s big number of attacks Shove isn’t always a great option. Cunning Action isn’t always helpful for a Barbarian and conflicts with the numerous class features which use a bonus action (Rage, etc.), so most builds shouldn’t go past level 1.
  • Wizard: Barbarians have almost exactly opposite abilities to Wizards, so there isn’t a lot of room for compatibility.

Barbarian Magic Items

Common Magic Items

  • Moon-Touched SwordXGtE: This solves two problems for the martial characters. First, the sword glows almost as brightly as a torch, allowing you to see in dark places without devoting a hand to a torch and without asking your allies to cast light or something. Second, and more important, it allows you to overcome damage resistance to non-magic attacks. Resistances like this are common as you gain levels, and the Moon-Touched Sword is an inexpensive way to overcome them until a better weapon comes along.

Uncommon Magic Items

  • Adamantine ArmorDMG: The protection against critical hits is nice since Reckless Attack grants enemies Advantage against you, doubling the likelihood that you’ll suffer a critical hit.
  • Boomerang, +1DMG: Helpful for thrown weapon for Strength-based builds that need an occasional ranged option, but javelins are cheaper and you won’t feel the need to rush to recover them.
  • Cloak of ProtectionDMG: Good on any character, but it requires Attunement and it’s not very interesting.
  • Eyes of the EagleDMG: Perception is the most frequently rolled skill in the game, and while the Barbarian isn’t fantastic with skills Perception is still one of your better skill options. Pass this off to someone with a better bonus if you can, but you may still find this helpful if that’s not an option.
  • Gloves of Missile SnaringDMG: Similar to the Monk’s Deflect Missiles feature, this is an interesting defensive option for melee characters. However, ranged missile attacks are relatively rare since so many monsters can’t fight at range and many ranged enemies will be spellcasters, so this is situational by nature.
  • Lantern of RevealingDMG: An excellent counter to invisibile enemies for a class without a built-in way to handle them.
  • Mithral ArmorDMG: Negate the Disadvantage on stealth checks imposed by half plate. Just as effective as +1 Breastplate, and it’s one rarity lower.
  • Periapt of Wound ClosureDMG: Barbarians have poor AC and huge hit dice, so spending hit dice is a crucial part of how you stay alive. Doubling the efficiency of those hit dice will keep you from becoming a constant tax on your party’s healing resources.
  • Stone of Good LuckDMG: Excellent on literally any character, but if you just want better defense a Cloak of Protection may be more effective. Stone of Good Luck shines if you’re heavily reliant on skills and ability checks.
  • Weapon, +1DMG: Barbarians are all about weapon attacks, so a numeric bonus to attack and damage is hard to beat. As you gain levels weapons more interesting than a +X bonus to attack/damage may be more interesting and more effective, but at the Uncommon rarity nothing can compete with a +1 Weapon for your offensive needs.
  • Winged BootsDMG: Excellent on its own, but Winged Boots are more limited in use than a broom of flying, and they require Attunement.

Rare Magic Items

  • Amulet of HealthDMG: Setting your Constitution to 19 means that you don’t need to put Ability Score Increases into it unless you’re really certain that you want 20 Constitution. Less ASI’s into Constitution means more room for feats, but if you want to use Unarmored Defense or if you ever reach level 20 you’ll probably want your Constitution at 20.
  • Armor of ResistanceDMG: Excellent, but unpredictable in most games since you can’t perfectly predict what sort of damage you’ll face. Fire and poison are safe choices.
  • Armor, +1DMG: +1 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective.
  • Belt of DwarvenkindDMG: For non-dwarves, Darkvision and resistance to poison is extremely useful since most barbarians don’t get a way to provide them on your own. The increased Constitution is nice, too, especially if you’re planning to sit at 18 Constitution for a long time. Barbarians approach level 20 may consider raising their un-improved Constitution to 20 to enjoy their new 24 Constitution, but until level 20 that +2 bonus is really nice.
  • Belt of Giant Strength (Hill)DMG: The fact that this item exists makes putting ability score increases into Strength feel a bit silly. Imagine rushing to get to 20 Strength then finding an item that raises your Strength to 21 (more with higher rarities). Still, if you can get one you absolutely should.
  • Bracers of DefenseDMG: As much AC as a shield. If you’re relying on Unarmored Defense, these are fantastic and can easily make up the difference between +X armor and Unarmored Defence’s AC bonus. Given the choice, you might prefer a Cloak or Ring of Protection.
  • Cloak of DisplacementDMG: Among the best defensive items in the game. Taking damage from any source (spells, etc.) suppresses the effect temporarily, so make a point to kill anything that can damage you without an attack roll.
  • FlametongueDMG: Mathematically the +2 bonus to attack rolls from a +2 weapon will be a more consistent improvement to your damage output (especially with the growing damage bonus from Rage), but the Flametongue is way more fun. The 2d6 damage is multiplied on critical hits, too, and since barbarians score critical hits frequently thanks to Reckless Attack, multiplying the damage from Flametongue can provide a significant source of damage output.
  • Periapt of Proof Against PoisonDMG: Poison damage is very common across the full level range, so immunity to it is a significant improvement in your durability.
  • Ring of EvasionDMG: A great way to mitigate damage from AOE spells and things like breath weapons which can often be problems from front-line martial characters.
  • Ring of ProtectionDMG: Cloak of Protection is lower rarity and has the same effect.
  • Ring of ResistanceDMG: Most of the time you’ll want something common like fire, but get resistance to psychic damage if you can, and a bear totem barbarian has resistance to all damage.
  • Ring of Spell StoringDMG: You can’t cast spells while raging, so my usual Absorb Elements+Shield recommendation doesn’t work.
  • Sword of Life StealingDMG: Between Extra Attack and Reckless Attack, you’re unusually likely to roll natural 20’s on your attacks, making the Sword of Life Stealing very appealing. The extra damage is great, and the temporary hit points will mitigate Reckless Attack’s drawback.
  • Sword of WoundingDMG: Persistent damage that stacks with itself. It’s only 1d4 and only once per turn, but it stacks with itself and “once per turn” means that if you can attack again outside of your own turn (Opportunity Attacks, etc.) you can get additional dice very quickly.
  • Vicious WeaponDMG: Mathematically this is worse than a +2 weapon in every way. If you really like the natural 20 effect for some reason, go for a Sword of Life Stealing.
  • Weapon, +2DMG: Mathematically spectacular. It’s difficult to beat the math here.

Very Rare Magic Items

  • Animated ShieldDMG: Tempting for anyone not fighting with a one-handed weapon, but a Cloak of Protection is two rarities lower, works persistently, and arguably provides a better numeric bonus.
  • Armor, +2DMG: +2 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective.
  • Belt of Giant Strength (Frost, Stone, Fire)DMG: Much like a +X weapon, it’s hard to beat the math here. Raising your Strength above 20 is a massive benefit, and going up as high as 25 is spectacular. Between that and Reckless Attack you hit so reliably that you almost can’t miss.
  • Dancing SwordDMG: A great way to spend you Bonus Action if you don’t have many uses for it, but the sword only uses your attack and damage modifiers, so it can’t benefit from feats, class features, etc.
  • Frost BrandDMG: Less damage than the Flame Tongue, but higher rarity and it requires attunement. Yes, you get resistance to fore damage, but you can get that from dozens of other sources by this level.
  • Manual of Bodily HealthDMG: Permanent Constitution bonus and raises your cap by 2. Unless you’re using a magic item that fixes your Constitution as a specific score, this is excellent.
  • Manual of Gainful ExerciseDMG: If you reach level 20 and get the +4 Strength increase, you can hit 26 Strength and exceed the Strength provided by a Belt of Giant’s Strength of the same rarity.
  • Manual of Quickness of ActionDMG: Unless you’re worried about the cap on attuned items, a Cloak or Ring of Protection will be more effective.
  • Ring of RegenerationDMG: Short Rests exist for a reason. If you want this, consider a Periapt of Wound Closure instead.
  • Sword of SharpnessDMG: Basically a Vicious Weapon with a damage boost. The limb removal is neat, but only occurs on average once every 400 attacks (more often with Reckless Attack, but still not enough to make this good). A +3 weapon is massively more reliable and effective.
  • Weapon, +3DMG: Mathematically spectacular. It’s difficult to beat the math here.

Legendary Magic Items

  • Belt of Giant Strength (Cloud, Storm)DMG: As good as a +4 weapon for Strength-based character, and that doesn’t even consider Athletics checks or saves.
  • Blood Fury TattooTCoE: The first ability provides a great damage boost which also heals you, and since it’s “extra damage” the damage is multiplied on a critical hit. The second ability provides a way to counterattack using your Reaction, and with Advantage on that attack it’s an easy and reliable boost to your damage output.
  • Ioun Stone (Mastery)DMG: Proficiency Bonuses apply to a lot of things and a +1 bonus goes a long way. Attacks, saves, skills, etc. all benefit.
  • Luck BladeDMG: Bonuses to attacks and saves, a once per day reroll, and it can cast Wish a few times (maybe. 1d4-1 could be zero). Green if it can’t cast Wish.
  • Ring of Spell TurningDMG: Given the choice, I would much rather haqve a Mantle of Spell Resistance simply because the Ring of Spell Turning doesn’t provide any protection against area effect spells. Otherwise, this is a really fun item, and if it provided Advantage on saves against area of effect spells it would shoot straight up to blue.
  • Ring of Three WishesDMG: Use this to do one of the things that risks permanently removing the ability to cast Wish, such as granting 10 creatures permanent resistance to once damage type. If you lose the ability to cast Wish, pass this off to another ally who will never be able to cast Wish by any other means. Repeat until the last charge is used.

    For more help with Wish, see my Practical Guide to Wish.

  • Rod of Lordly MightDMG: Allows you to easily change your weapon damage type, and provides three powerful offensive abilities which work in a variety of situations. Unfortunately all of the weapon types (with the exception of the Flametongue) are one-handed, which is hard for many barbarians.
  • Scarab of ProtectionDMG: An upgrade from the Mantle of Spell Resistance, the Scarab of Protection adds a limited benefit against necromancy and undead creatures, and doesn’t take up your cloak slot, leaving you free to take items like a Cloak of Protection or Cloak of Invisibility instead.
  • Vorpal SwordDMG: Mostly useful as a +3 weapon, but thanks to Reckless Attack you’ll roll natural 20’s fairly often.

Example Barbarian Build – Half-Orc Barbarian (Berserker)

Gnarg the Half-Orc Berserker

The pronounced muscles of his broad shoulders and back ripple with the simple action of brushing a whetstone along the blade of his greataxe. He wears no armor, a practice that has resulted in many scars from what must have been dozens of battles. He lifts his head from his task, turning it slightly to reveal a tusked mouth and heavy brow. The half-orc knows you’re looking.

— Boxed text provided by dScryb (affiliate link)

This is a “Staple Build”. This build is simple, and relies on options from the SRD and the Basic Rules wherever possible. If you need a functional build with nothing fancy or complicated, this is a great place to start.

This is a very simple build. Barbarians have very few decision points, and the biggest tactical decision they require in an encounter is whether or not to rage. Berserker adds the additional choice of potentially entering a Frenzy, but even that shouldn’t be especially stressful.

Abilities

We’ll mostly use the example ability scores described above, but we’ll switch the Strength and Constitution so that we can get 16 in both after the Half-orc’s racial ability score increases.

 BaseIncreased
Str1416
Dex1414
Con1516
Int88
Wis1010
Cha1010

Race

Half-Orc. Savage Attacks works great with greataxes, and I can’t think of a weapon that says “barbarian” more than a greataxe. It also stacks with Brutal Critical, so you get to roll big piles of d12’s at high levels.

Skills and Tools

Half-orcs get Intimidation for free, so we’ll pick up Nature and Perception.

Background

Soldier. Of the limited number of options in the basic rules, Soldier is one of the best options for us. Since we already get Intimidation proficiency, we can replace the redundant proficiency with something else. We’ll keep Athletics, and you can use the replacement proficiency to get Survival.

Folk Hero works equally well in terms of skills, and you can use your class skill proficiencies to get Animal Handling and Survival to turn both into open skill proficiency slots if you want something not on the Barbarian skill list.

Levels

LevelFeat(s) and FeaturesNotes and Tactics
1
  • Rage
  • Unarmored Defense

For your starting gear, take a greataxe, two handaxes, and the explorer’s pack and javelins. You don’t start with armor, but with 14 Dex and 16 Con Unarmored Defense gives you 15 AC. You might buy yourself a shield, but that will mean putting down your greataxe, and you’ve got 15 hit points for a reason, and Rage will give you damage resistance.

At this level you can only rage twice per day, but at first level adventuring days tend to be short because characters are so fragile, so you should be able to rage in most encounters.

2
  • Reckless Attack
  • Danger Sense

Reckless Attack is a great ability, but obviously it comes with risks. At this level I recommend only using it in fights against powerful single foes so you’re not taking repeated hits from groups of weak enemies, and even then consider raging at the same time to offset the additional damage you will inevitably take.

Danger Sense is helpful for mitigating damage from AOE effects which will typically deal damage types not resisted by Rage.

At this point you may have enough gold for a suit of Scale Mail, which will net you +1 AC, but after that start saving gold until you can get Half Plate.

3
  • Primal Path: Path of the Berserker
  • Frenzy

Our first subclass ability is Frenzy. It’s basically just better Rage, but you suffer a level of exhaustion when your rage ends. You don’t want to go past two levels of exhaustion, and now that you have three rages per day that’s a possibility.

The combination of Frenzy and Reckless Attack is the reason greataxes are appealing for the Barbarian, so when you need to deal a bunch of damage in a hurry you can Rage, Frenzy, and use Reckless Attack to deal a whole bunch of damage in a hurry.

4
  • Ability Score Improvement (Strength 16 -> 18)

More Strength means more attack and more damage.

5
  • Extra Attack
  • Fast Movement

5th level is an important milestone in 5e. Martial classes get Extra Attack, which roughly doubles your damage output. 5th level also requires proportionately more encounters worth of experience before you gain another level than any other level, so you’re going to spend a lot of time at 5th level.

Between Frenzy’s Bonus Action attack and Extra Attack, you get three attacks with Advantage (Reckless Attack) for a total of 6 d20 rolls, giving your probability of more than 26% to roll at least one natural 20, and every time you crit you’re dealing 3d12+Str damage, which feels really satisfying.

6
  • Mindless Rage

Attacking a barbarian mentally is the easiest way to shut them down, so Mindless Rage is a significant defensive buff.

7
  • Feral Instinct

Going first feels great. It’s usually not very important for barbarians because you don’t need to cast a spell to alter the layout of an encounter or something, but it’s still really nice.

8
  • Ability Score Improvement (Strength 18 -> 20)

20 Strength means that you’re as strong as you’ll be until you reach 20th level or find a really nice magic item.

9
  • Brutal Critical (1 die)
  • Rage Damage +3

Adding another d12 on crits adds roughly 1.9 extra damage per turn (assuming Reckless Attack and three attacks). On average that’s not much, but it feels very satisfying to roll 3d12 on a critical hit.

10
  • Intimidating Presence

Intimidating Presence is rarely useful because it eats your entire action. You could still Frenzy and attack as a bonus action, but I think the most likely use case for this is to begin a Rage solely for the purpose of chasing someone around and screaming at them.

11
  • Relentless Rage
This makes you exceptionally hard to kill while raging. Use Relentless Endurance first, then Relentless Rage after that. If you finish a fight and have used both at least once since you’re last rest, strongly consider a short rest.
12
  • Ability Score Improvement (Constitution 16 -> 18)

A Constitution increase means that your Unarmored Defense AC rises to 16, so Half Plate is still better. But you get a bunch of extra hit points, which is great.

13
  • Brutal Critical (2 dice)

Each greataxe hit die added by Brutal Critical adds roughly 1.9 extra damage per round on average (again, assuming Reckless Attack and three attacks). Between Savage Attacks and Brutal Critical, you’re now rolling 4d12+Str+Rage Bonus on a critical, which feels really awesome.

14
  • Retaliation

Finally a good reason not to get as much AC as possible, Retaliation means that taking damage increases your damage output. Of course, but this level an AC of 17 is not safe by any stretch of the imagination, so don’t go dumping your armor to try to trigger this. You won’t need to.

15
  • Persistent Rage
  • Rage Damage +4

Since you’re a Berserker, ending a rage can carry a bigger consequence than it does for other barbarians, and effects that prevent you from acting like paralysis can force your rage to end early.

16
  • Ability Score Improvement (Constitution 18 -> 20)

Your Unarmored Defense now matches the AC provided by half plate. Drop the armor so you’re no longer suffering Disadvantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks and wearing 40 lbs. of clothing. Of course, if you have magic armor that changes the math.

17
  • Brutal Critical (3 dice)

Another critical hit die, another 1.9 average damage per round. You’re up to 5d12 on a critical hit now, which is pretty great,.

18
  • Indomitable Might

Once in a while you need to grapple, lift something, break something, etc. and by this level you already have 20 Strength, so your minimum result is 20. That’s easily enough to pass normal ability check DCs, but you may lose grapple checks on very rare occasion,

19
  • Ability Score Improvement (Dexterity 14 -> 16)

A bump in Dexterity doesn’t do much for you, but at the very least you get better initiative and +1 AC.

If you don’t want to increase Dexterity, this extra ability score improvement is clear indication that you have room to consider a feat.

20
  • Primal Champion

+2 to hit, +2 damage, minimum of 24 on all Strength checks, and +40 hit points on top of what you got just for gaining a level.