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DnD 5e - Barbarian Subclass Breakdown

Last Updated: September 16th, 2020

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.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

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.

Introduction - Primal Path

Barbarian subclasses make a signficiant difference in how your barbarian works. Sure, every barbarian is going to get angry and hit stuff, but there's much more to it than that and your choice of Primal Path will do a lot to define your barbarian.

Barbarian Subclasses

Ancestral GuardianXGtE

This archetype diminishes the Barbarian's role as a Striker, and dramatically improves its role as a Defender. If you have squishy melee allies like monks or rogues in the party, they'll benefit greatly from this archetype. The only drawback is that the archetype provides no abilities which increase your damage output, which makes it important to have another Striker in the party to compensate. It also notably doesn't have an ability to consume your Bonus Action, which makes this archetype a viable choice for two-weapon fighting if you're desperate for a TWF barbarian.

The Ancestral Guardian's biggest problems are that it doesn't provide additional damage output except Vengeful Ancestors (which may be totally fine if your party already does plenty of damage) and doesn't make you any more durable than the core barbarian class features. This is very much a subclass dedicated to protecting your allies at your own expense.

  • Ancestral Protectors: This is an amazing "taunt" mechanic. Sure, the target can attack other people, but they do so with Disadvantage and do half damage. At that point, attacking anyone except you seems pointless.
  • Spirit Shield: There is no limitation on how often you can use this except that it uses your Reaction. This is a massive increase to your party's survivability, and even if this never scaled it would still be fantastic. The only problem is that you can't use it on yourself.
  • Consult the Spirits: Augury and Clairvoyance are two of my favorite divinations because they're simple, but extremely useful. Use Augury any time you make a major decision with unknown risks. Use Clairvoyance to scout around corners, behind doors, etc. By this level actual spellcasters will be able to do this with ease, but you can use this ability once per short rest without spending spell slots.
  • Vengeful Ancestors: As a reaction, reflect up to 4d6 damage directed at an ally back to the attacker. Amazing. You might encourage your allies to draw fire just so you can use this, especially when facing enemies with multiple low-damage attacks so that you can reliably negate all or most of the damage from a single attack.

BattleragerSCAG

The Battlerager's abilities center around the use of Spiked Armor. If you can't get spiked armor for whatever reason, your Primal Path suddenly becomes worthless. Even if you can get spiked armor, your AC is fixed at 16 (unless you get magic spiked armor or use a shield) and even with d12 hit dice that's still a huge problem. The class abilities give you some nice damage options but the abilities aren't as useful or as exciting as Berserker and since you're stuck in Spiked Armor you don't get to enjoy Unarmored Defense or half-plate like other barbarians. The racial restriction is also frustrating, but the dependency on Constitution means that a Dwarf would be a good choice anyway.

As a whole, the subclass is interesting but by barbarian standards it's very vulnerable, especially if you're not raging. If your DM is going to let you get magic Spiked Armor or if you have allies who can buff you with things like Shield of Faith that will make a huge difference. Either way, strongly consider feats like Durable and Tough to make yourself more survivable.

  • Battlerager Armor: A free attack as a bonus action is great. Don't forget that your rage bonus to damage still applies. The ability to deal damage when you grapple is also nice if you like to grapple. However, the armor's stats are bad and the 16 AC will be a constant problem for you, especially with Reckless Attack. Using the Bonus Action attack can be hard, too, because many barbarian class features are activated as a Bonus Action, including Rage.
  • Reckless Abandon: You're likely going to use Reckless Attack every turn in combat, and the temporary hit points reset every time you do so, dramatically improving your ability to endure damage. This will be crucial since your 16 AC is going to make you a huge target for any random kobold that's getting Advantage to hit you thanks to Reckless Attack.
  • Battlerager Charge: Similar to the Charger feat, but you can use multiple attacks as an Action. Unfortunately, since you want to use the same Bonus Action to attack with your armor it means that you needed to give up damage output to get into position to attack.
  • Spiked Retribution: Not a lot of damage at this level, but by now many enemies will have multiple attacks so it will add up over quickly.

BerserkerPHB

The Berserker is a the iconic Barbarian. If you want to get mad and wreck people's faces, the Berserker is a fine choice. However, its signature ability Frenzy has a complicated interaction with the Exhaustion rules which makes the subclass a difficult choice.

The biggest problem with the Berserker is Exhaustion. Frenzy is great, but very costly. You can manage one level of Exhaustion easily, especially since Rage grants Advantage on Strength checks which will offset the effects of one level of Exhaustion somewhat. Two levels of Exhaustion makes it hard to function in combat. Fast Movement's speed increase helps, but having a speed of 20 feet (less for some races like dwarves) makes it difficult to get around in melee. 3 is basically a death sentence in combat. On top of that, the only free way to resolve Exhaustion is to take a long rest, which means that using Frenzy can take several days to recover from if you use it repeatedly. You can also use Greater Restoration at a cost of 100gp per use, but that's a hard code to pay repeatedly, not to mention the spell slot cost.

Fun fact: "Berserker" translates to "Bear Shirt", but the Berserker has nothing to do with bears.

  • Frenzy: When you absolutely, positively have to kill every living thing in a room. An extra attack as a bonus action gives you the action economy of two-weapon fighting with the damage output of a single two-handed weapon. However, Exhaustion can really mess you up, so use this sparingly, and be sure to check what penalties you get for each level of exhaustion (PHB pg. 291). Recovering from multiple uses may take several days to recover from, which makes this hard to use more than once in a day.
  • Mindless Rage: This makes you immune to two ways to take you out of combat without wearing down your huge pile of hit points.
  • Intimidating Presence: The effect only lasts until the end of your next turn unless you spend your Action to extend it. Fortunately, extending the duration doesn't allow the creature to make additional saves so you can use this to keep enemies frightened while your allies kill them at range.
  • Retaliation: More attacks are always fantastic, so get into melee and try to draw fire. Remember that this only works on enemies within 5 feet, so don't bother trying to use a polearm.

Storm HeraldXGtE

A reasonably easy subclass to play despite leaning heavily on the Bonus Action, Path of the Storm Herald is a great option for new players but still complex and interesting enough for veterans. It has a single decision point which you can change every time you gain a barbarian level, which is great for players who might have trouble deciding, and all three options are reasonably good.

The ability to change your Environment means that you can adapt your abilities to suit the needs of your party. However, you can only make this change once per level, and if your choice of Environment is problematic in an encounter you may be unable to make use of your subclass abilities. Storm Herald is also much more heavily dependant on your Bonus Action than most barbarian subclasses, so avoid two-weapon fighting and feats like Polearm Master.

  • Environment Choices: Your choice of environment defines the benefits of the subclass. You can only change your environment once every time you gain a level, so expect to be locked into your choice for several game sessions. Generally you'll be happy with your choice for a long time, but you might consider changing if your party composition changes, or if you get a new subclass ability that makes another option more appealing.
    • Desert: Excellent for raw damage and for handling crowds of enemies.
    • Sea: The worst of the three options, though not necessarily bad. You definitely want this in an aquatic campaign, but you might get better results from other options if you don't need to breath underwater.
    • Tundra: The best defensive option. Excellent if your party already does plenty of damage.
  • Storm Aura: Damage enemies or grant temporary hit points to yourself and your allies. Only functions while raging, but it makes your rage super cool.
    • Desert: If you don't have other melee allies, or if your party has trouble handling crowds of enemies, this is a good option. However, the damage is small and still consumes your Bonus Action, so if you need to use your Bonus Action for something else on a turn don't feel like you're giving up a whole bunch of damage.
    • Sea: Single-target damage, and the average damage isn't much better than the damage from Desert. If you have another melee ally who might get hurt when you activate Desert but you still want more damage output, this is fine.
    • Tundra: This can affect you and any number of allies in the 10-foot aura. Start every encounter within 10 feet of your allies and you'll always have temporary hit points. The ability to renew them as a bonus action means that you can consistently pad your own hit points while you're up front taking damage. On rounds where you've still got temporary hit points, you can use your Bonus Action for something else, but don't take that as a good reason to consider two-weapon fighting or Polearm Master.
  • Storm Soul:
    • Desert: Fire damage is one of the most common damage types.
    • Sea: Lightning damage isn't especially common. This will generally only be useful in aquatic campaigns.
    • Tundra: Cold damage isn't as common as fire, and the weak version of Shape Water isn't especially useful.
  • Shielding Storm: This requires your allies to stay within your aura, which in some cases might put them in the way of effects they're trying to resist, like breath weapons or fireballs. Still, it's an occasionally useful option.
  • Raging Storm:
    • Desert: A little bit of free damage on your Reaction.
    • Sea: Not your Bonus Action, but your Reaction. You won't be able to make opportunity attacks for the round, but the rest of your attacks will be at Advantage against the prone target, and you can still use your Bonus Action for the active effect of Storm Aura.
    • Tundra: Keep an enemy from running away. If you use Shove to knock them prone, they can't get back up because they don't have enough speed.

Totem WarriorPHB

Totem Warrior is more customizable than any other barbarian subclass, but it's also more complex to play because it has so many decision points. For a Defender, I recommend focusing on Bear. For a Striker, I recommend focusing on Eagle and Tiger. For a supporty type thing, Start with Wolf then pick up Bear for Totemic Attunement.

  • Spirit Seeker: Very situational.
  • Totem Spirit: Totem Spirit defines your combat tactics. Bear is for Defenders, Eagle is for Strikers, and Wolf is for Barbarians with other Strikers in the party.
    • Bear: You are basically an unstoppable pile of damage resistance and hit points. This is the go-to option at this level.
    • Eagle: Running around between enemies isn't something the Barbarian does on a regular basis, especially if you're the party's only Defender.
    • ElkSCAG: Barbarians already get Fast Movement, so your speed should be fine.
    • TigerSCAG: Jumping almost never matters in a game where you can gain magical flight. This is especially frustrating because it only applies when you're raging.
    • Wolf: This is extremely helpful for Rogues in your party. Rogues get Sneak Attack for attacking enemies threatened by an ally, but giving them advantage makes them considerably more reliable. Unfortunately it doesn't do anything helpful for you.
  • Aspect of the Beast: Remember that you don't need to select the same animal which you selected for Totem Spirit. The PHB options are mostly for flavor, but the options introduced in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide are considerably better.
    • Bear: Carrying capacity is usually ignored, and you can always buy a mule to carry your heavy stuff. The advantage on Strength checks only affects objects, and breaking objects isn't a frequent activity in most campaigns.
    • Eagle: Situational. The biggest advantage is seeing unimpeded in dim light, but if that is a problem you should get Darkvision.
    • ElkSCAG: Overland travel generally happens in plot time, so in most campaigns this will have no percievable effect.
    • TigerSCAG: If you needed any of these skills, you should have gotten them from your background or your free class skills. If you need more skills, pick up the Skilled feat.
    • Wolf: Very situational.
  • Spirit Walker: Commune With Nature isn't very powerful as far as divinations go, but it can be very useful when exploring new terrain.
  • Totemic Attunement: Totemic attunement is an improvement to your combat tactics established by Totem Spirit.
    • Bear: Force nearby enemies to attack you instead of your allies. They can still move away from you, but that draws an Opportunity Attack from a huge horrifying Barbarian.
    • Eagle: Fly over enemies. Fly into the air to hit a flying wizard, then land on something until your next turn. This might even look like Wushu fighting if you do it right.
    • ElkSCAG: This is a cool trip mechanic which allows you to knock an enemy prone without cutting into your attacks. You need to use it on large or smaller enemies, which covers most enemies, but at high level you'll frequently encounter very large foes which won't be affected by this ability and it really sucks to face big dangerous foes and not be able to use your most unique tactic.
    • TigerSCAG: Basically the Charger feat but better. Not only can you still use Extra Attack, but you gain an additional attack as a Bonus Action.
    • Wolf: Knocking an enemy prone gives you Advantage on attacks against them, including your second attack with the Extra Attack feature. Allies threatening that enemy can already get Advantage from you if you selected Wolf for your Totem Spirit, and you can already get Advantage from Reckless Attack, so this may not be very useful.

ZealotXGtE

A great choice for players who tend to die a lot, the Zealot makes surviving and recovering from death considerably easier. However, because many of its abilities are tied up in keeping you alive, it doesn't have great offensive abilities.

A lot of people contact me about this one to contest my thoughts on the matter, so let me elaborate on why I haven't given Path of the Zealot a better rating: In essence, the Zealot falls into a weird form the "tank falacy". The Zealot's biggest strength is that they are really good at combing back from death, which is a great thing for a front-line martial character. Unfortunately, that makes them an unappealing target for enemy attacks. Why should a monster spend its time hitting your barbarian with a mountain of hit points, frustrating damage resistances, and the ability to reroll a saving throw (Fanatical Focusw) when they could simply walk past you to go kill your allies who are doing considerably more damage than you are? If enemies are ever foolish enough to attack you, you can be raised at no cost and have a good laugh about it later, but none of that actually makes you more of a threat it a fight than a barbarian with no subclass at all.

  • Divine Fury: A whole bunch of bonus damage, and the damage type options are really good. You only get to use this once one each of your turns (you can't use it outside of your own turn), so if you're using Reckless Attack you likely don't need to scramble for additional attack attempts to guarantee that you'll deal this damage reliably.
  • Warrior of the Gods: Generally dying is something that you work very hard to avoid, but if anyone's going to die in combat it's a barbarian. Spells which raise the dead have expensive material components, and this allows you to bypass them. So long as you're friends with a sufficiently high-level cleric, you don't need to worry about an untimely death. At 3rd level, the only option is Revivify, but even at high levels Revivify is going to be a better option than spending a higher-level spell slot on something like Raise Dead.
  • Fanatical Focus: Excellent for save-or-suck effects, and since it works once per rage you get to use it numerous times in a single day.
  • Zealous Presence: Once per day and doesn't affect you. It gets more useful the larger your party is, so encourage your allies to summon creatures, use pets, etc.
  • Rage beyond Death: Drink a potion of healing right before your rage ends and you're functionally unable to die due to hit points loss while raging.