Barbarian 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Relentless Fury
A half-orc barbarian stood at the base of a cliff, straight-backed, bare-chested, and proud. He squinted upward into the sunlight, gazing at the silhouette of the warlock that stood atop the precipice with pact-bound blade in hand. The warrior hefted his greatsword and pointed it at his foe. He snarled, baring his two tusk-like canines.
“Come down and fight, coward!” he roared. “Stop running. Stop hiding. You’re just making me angry.”
The warlock cackled, his spidery fingers crackling with eldritch energy. “I should think not,” he shrieked. “I can see the blood on your brow! You cannot hide the weariness in your eyes, nor the twitching of your fatigued muscles. If you wish to strike me down, brute, then climb. Climb and fight.”
Tired as he was, the half-orc barbarian could not take the warlock’s taunting. He felt his bile rise, his pupils dilate, his mouth begin to froth. Rage took him, and the world shifted into a deep shade of red. His muscles bulged and his senses grew keener. A furious, bestial roar escaped his lips, and even the prideful warlock felt a shiver run down his spine. He had consorted with demons, but even their chaos could not have prepared him for the primal hatred of a frenzied barbarian.
The barbarian leaped at the cliff face, dug his bare fingers into the rock, and began to climb. He would taste blood that day. His blood? The warlock’s blood? It did not matter who lived and who died, not now. All that mattered to him was that blood would be shed.
You are a barbarian, a wrathful warrior that prizes raw strength over all else. Your tempestuous fury sharpens your senses and drives you towards superhuman feats of power. As a mighty warrior, you can unleash your might upon your enemies as a powerful Offensive combatant, harry your foes as a sturdy Defensive warrior, or protect your allies as an unstoppable Tank.
Because of your many defensive class features, playing a barbarian gives you the opportunity to play one of the most durable characters in Dungeons & Dragons, while still striking fear into the hearts of your enemies with your incredible offensive power. Your choice of subclass also grants you a wide variety of highly thematic roleplaying choices. Even if you chose to play a barbarian because you just want to fight and not worry about social interaction, your flavorful class abilities give you some easy ways to slip into character like a master roleplayer.
Quick Build Expanded: Building Your Barbarian
This isn’t a character optimization guide, but the first step in playing your class effectively is building it effectively. The Quick Start guidelines in the Player’s Handbook are a good start, but don’t go far enough for most new players. Here’s an expanded Quick Start guide. This guide assumes you’re using the D&D Beyond Character Builder, which includes helper text for new players.
- Under “Character Preferences,” turn off “Playtest Content” and “Show Unarmed Strike.”
- Choose your Race. While characters of any race can be a good barbarian, you may want to choose a race that improves your Constitution or Strength scores.
- Half-orcs are the quintessential barbarian, and their +2 bonus to Strength and +1 bonus to Constitution play directly to the barbarian’s strengths. Other half-orc racial traits such as Relentless Endurance and Savage Attacks also mesh well with your goals of dealing lots of damage and not dying.
- Mountain dwarves are excellent barbarians, as they gain an unprecedented +2 bonus to both Strength and Constitution. As a dwarf, you also gain access to the dwarf-only Battlerager subclass, which focuses on grappling opponents and wearing spiked armor.
- Humans are also iconic barbarians, cut from the same cloth as Robert E. Howard’s famous Conan the Barbarian. If your DM allows feats in your game, picking up a feat like Great Weapon Mastery, Shield Master, or Sentinel at 1st level gives you a huge boost in power and flexibility.
- Choose Barbarian as your class (obviously).
- Choose skills that fit who you want your character to be. Skills that play to your strengths are useful, but also consider shoring up some of your weaknesses in order to make yourself a more balanced character. This part is up to you!
- Think about what role you want to fill in the party—Offense, Defense, or Tank. We'll look at this choice more closely down below, but for now know that Offense focuses on dealing damage, Defense focuses on staying alive, and Tanking focuses on protecting your allies.
- Choose where to put your ability scores. If you want to play Offense, put your highest ability score in Strength, and place your second highest in Constitution. If you want to play Defense or as a Tank, place your highest in Constitution and your second highest in Strength instead.
- Select a background that supports your character concept. Your choice of background can help you make strong roleplaying choices; a barbarian that has lived as an Outlander their entire life is a totally different character than one that lived for many years as a Soldier, but then defected from their regiment!
- Finally, choose your starting equipment by clicking on “EQUIPMENT” when prompted to “Choose EQUIPMENT or GOLD”. Choose:
- A greataxe or a greatsword
- Two handaxes
- An explorer’s pack and 4 javelins
What Kind of Barbarian are You?
As a barbarian, you may be expected to take on the role of a ferocious warrior that tears through enemies like rice paper, but there are more options available to you than sheer Offense. Thanks to your massive pool of hit points and easy access to damage resistances, you can be a potent Defense hero, weathering any blow while using feats and class features to keep your enemies from reaching your allies, interrupting rituals, or stealing vital magical artifacts. By walking the middle road of offense and defense, you become a dangerous Tank—forcing your enemies to fight you instead of your allies by getting in their faces and never relenting in your onslaught.
(And note, this guide uses Offense, Defense, and Tank as shorthand. No part of D&D refers to characters in this way, but it’s an easy way to discuss the different roles characters serve in the party.)
Your role in your adventuring party probably won’t crystallize until at least 3rd level, when you choose your Primal Path (hereafter referred to as a subclass). You may wish to decide which subclass you’ll choose now, so that you can plan your character’s theme, aesthetic, or mechanical build in advance.
As an offensive barbarian, you’ll focus on wading directly into the fray and killing enemies with impunity, safe in the knowledge that your hit points and damage resistances will keep you alive. Your Offense-focused subclasses are the Path of the Berserker (Player’s Handbook), the Path of the Battlerager (dwarves only; Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide), and the Path of the Zealot (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything).
Once you reach 5th level or anytime thereafter, you may also wish to multiclass into fighter for 3 levels to improve your raw damage output. Pick Great Weapon Fighting as your Fighting Style and choose the Champion archetype to gain the Improved Critical feature, which synergizes well with the barbarian’s Brutal Critical feature (and potentially the half-orc’s Savage Attacks trait as well).
As a defensive barbarian, your job is to intercept enemies and stay in the fight for a long time by trading a little bit of offensive power for increased survivability. Your Defense-focused subclasses are the Path of the Totem Warrior (Player’s Handbook) and the Path of the Storm Herald (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything).
Tanking is a unique role that involves a mix of offense and defense. Your goal as a tank is to force enemies to attack you instead of your less durable companions. This means that you need to be enough of a threat to your enemies (or at least enough of a hindrance) to force them to attack you, while still having enough defensive power to survive their attacks. Some of your subclasses also grant you features that let you goad enemies to attack you instead of your allies.
Your Tank-focused subclasses are the Path of the Totem Warrior (Player’s Handbook) and the Path of the Ancestral Guardian (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything).
Fighting like a Barbarian
For the first three levels of play, your combat style will be roughly the same no matter what kind of role you want to play in the party. While certain choices can change this, like playing a human and picking a role-defining feat at 1st level, playing a barbarian is generally fairly simple at low levels. You want to Rage as much as possible so that you can wade into melee and deal lots of damage.
If you do play a human, you can choose a feat at 1st level. Some feats are more or less powerful depending on the types of challenges your DM sets before you, but some always-good options include:
- Offense. Choose the Great Weapon Master feat. When paired with Reckless Attack, this feat can send your damage output through the roof.
- Defense. Choose the Shield Master feat. As a Defense barbarian, you may wish to use a shield and a one-handed weapon to improve your Armor Class, and Shield Master will help you make the most of that tool.
- Tank. Choose the Sentinel feat. This feat encourages enemies to attack you by punishing them for trying to move past you.
At 1st level, you gain the Rage and Unarmored Defense features. You will use your barbarian Rage throughout your adventuring career—it is perhaps your single most important class feature, since many of your subclass features will grant you bonus powers while you're raging in addition to its already formidable list of benefits. Don’t forget to add the damage bonus you get from raging to your damage rolls!
Unarmored Defense seems very powerful, and it allows you to live out the classic fantasy of the bare-chested, Conan-style barbarian, but it essentially boils down to just giving you some free armor. Most of your staying power comes from your incredible hit point pool anyway, so don’t be afraid to forgo this feature in order to wear some snazzy magic armor if you need to. This feature's main benefit is that it allows you to leap into battle without having to spend time donning your armor. Its utility is situational, but it can be very useful if your party is ambushed while sleeping.
At 2nd level, you gain the Reckless Attack and Danger Sense features. Reckless Attack is a vital tool for both Offense and Tank-focused barbarians. Offensive barbarians will gladly accept the drawback of being easier to hit in exchange for advantage on their own attack rolls—but this feature poses a win-win scenario for Tanks by letting them deal serious damage and by making them a more attractive target for their enemies.
Danger Sense is powerful, but situational. Its power level will vary wildly based on what kind of campaign you’re playing in. A dungeon-crawling campaign with lots of traps or a campaign with lots of mages spamming burning hands and fireball? Splendid. A campaign with lots of poisonous creatures and invisible spirits? Much less powerful. Try not to forget about this niche feature when it actually comes into play.
At 3rd level, you get to choose a subclass and truly embody your character’s role in their adventuring party.
If you chose the Path of the Battlerager, you need to find or make a set of spiked armor. Talk to your DM about this equipment; since this armor is essentially a core class feature, work with them to make it an easy piece of gear to acquire. Your Battlerager Armor lets you deal a little bit of extra damage each turn by “dual-wielding” the spikes on your armor.
If you chose the Path of the Berserker, you gain the Frenzy feature. This is typically a straight upgrade to your Rage feature, but it comes with the drawback of exhausting you at the end of a frenzy. If you have a cleric or a druid that can afford to soothe that exhaustion by casting greater restoration once you hit 2 levels of exhaustion, use Frenzy as often as you want! If you need to wait until a long rest to restore your exhaustion, maybe only use it in the most important fights of the day.
If you chose the Path of the Zealot, you gain the Divine Fury and Warrior of the Gods features. The latter feature is very flavorful, and may save you some gold in the long run, but is just a cherry on top of your other class features. Divine Fury, on the other hand, is a serious boon. Dealing extra damage equal to 1d6 + half your barbarian level every turn while raging in addition to your usual bonus rage damage is impressive on its own. Dealing it as radiant damage pushes this feature over the top, since only a handful of monsters are resistant to this rare damage type.
If you chose the Path of the Totem Warrior, you have a great deal of animal totem powers to choose from. Fortunately, the choice is fairly clear when it comes to your choice of Totem Spirit at 3rd level. The bear totem grants you resistance to (almost) every type of damage in the game. This increases your staying power in every fight involving creatures more complex than simple melee damage dealers, making you a credible threat against dragons, spellcasters, and all sorts of other creatures.
If you chose the Path of the Storm Herald, your Storm Aura feature poses some tough choices. Each of these options are roughly equal in power, so choose based on your preference. Desert makes you more effective against swarms of small enemies, Sea makes you more effective against a single powerful enemy, and Tundra lets you aid your allies as long as they stay close to you.
If you chose the Path of the Totem Warrior, you must choose between three powerful animal totems. The bear totem is just as powerful while tanking as it is while defending, but you may wish to choose the wolf totem instead. While choosing the bear totem makes you a durable defender, it might actually discourage enemies from attacking you because their attacks are less effective against you than they are against your allies who lack damage resistance. By choosing the wolf totem, you instead grant your allies advantage on attack rolls against enemies adjacent to you while you’re raging—incentivizing the enemy to hit you hard and fast so that you fall unconscious sooner.
If you chose the Path of the Ancestral Guardian, the Ancestral Protectors feature you gain at 3rd level is very similar to “taunt” mechanics in video games. Using this feature makes it almost worthless for the creature you affect with this feature to attack anyone other than you. Comparable to a paladin’s compelled duel, this feature is the single most effective tanking tool that a barbarian of any subclass can acquire.
At 4th level, you gain an Ability Score Improvement or a feat. You should either increase your Strength or Constitution score by 2 points, or choose a feat that suits your combat role. These feats are listed at the top of the “Fighting like a Barbarian” section.
At 5th level, you gain an Extra Attack whenever you take the Attack action, effectively doubling your damage output. Hooray! You also gain the Fast Movement feature, increasing your walking speed by 10 feet while you aren’t wearing heavy armor. This feature is less exciting, but a flat increase to your movement speed is almost always useful. It lets you get into fights faster, exit fights faster, and protect your allies more effectively.
Art of Yasha from Critical Role by Julia Corsi (@bioswear)
Making your Barbarian your Own
As usual, this 101 guide focuses primarily on your character’s “build,” stressing mechanical power over roleplaying or characterization. While barbarians are one of the most combat-focused classes in D&D, you should never ignore the other two pillars of the game: exploration and social interaction. If nothing else, having a clear idea of who your character is just makes you more fun to have at the gaming table. Think of Grog Strongjaw, the goliath barbarian of Critical Role. Even though his character had simple motivations—drink ale, have sex with women, and protect his friends Scanlan and Pike—his antics were always able to make his fellow players laugh. These simple motivations even led to some incredibly emotional moments, though we won’t spoil them here.
Feel empowered to play against type, too. An intelligent, bookish barbarian is a fun twist on the usual dumb brute archetype. Even Conan, the quintessential barbarian, possessed great cleverness and won as many fights through guile as he did through strength of arms. Don't worry about having a hard time roleplaying as a barbarian; even the most straightforward of characters can be fun to play.
Grab your greataxe and prepare to rage!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in a five-room apartment/dungeon in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two furious kitties, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.