Class is back in session with this revival of Class 101. This series takes a close look at every subclass in the Player’s Handbook, and break down that subclass’s strengths, weaknesses, thematic elements, and everything else a player would want to know before playing this subclass. Starting with the first class in the Player’s Handbook and its most iconic subclass (the one found in the Basic Rules), this week’s entry is the barbarian class’s Path of the Berserker.
Story of the Berserker
The berserker snarled and panted like a dog as froth filled the corners of his mouth, and stamped his bare foot onto the chest of the panicked hobgoblin beneath him. The berserker’s eyes were wide and were so shot with blood that they seemed to glow crimson in his fury. His muscles bulged and veins popped with every miniscule movement of his thick-corded arms. He laughed in short, manic bursts like a howling ape, and raised his blood-slick greataxe to the sky—then brought it down in one swift, furious stroke.
You are a berserker. The thrill of battle turns you into a warrior possessed by an uncontrollable and all-consuming frenzy. If you want to play a character that lives for battle, that is a relentless survivor, and is the scariest and most intimidating son-of-an-orc on the battlefield, the berserker is the right path for you.
A character may become a berserker for a number of reasons. The Path of the Berserker is, of course, based off of the mythic Norse berserkers who wore bear-skins and fought in a “trance-like fury.” Once relieved of this fury, the warriors fell into a deep lethargy that could last for days. Some sources believe that this battle fury was the result of hallucinogenic drugs or alcohol, and you could play a berserker whose frenzy was created by a magic potion, or a maddening substance.
A berserker could also be played as a person possessed by a devil, demon, or other evil spirit. When battle begins, the spirit sometimes takes control of the berserker and grants that warrior incredible martial power, and the cost of sapping their vital essence.
A berserker in the vein of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde is a balance of the two above archetypes, incorporating elements of both alchemy and a savage alter-ego. On the other hand, you can play a berserker without incorporating any of the above stories. Grog Strongjaw, the beloved goliath barbarian of Critical Role, was a berserker without any mystical qualities. He was just a warrior prone to fits of frenzy when defending those he cared about.
No matter what story you create for your berserker, you may want to know a few things about how this subclass plays before you commit to playing it.
In short, the berserker is the logical extreme of the barbarian class. The berserker improves upon the natural strengths and flavor of the barbarian, and leans heavily into the class’s existing weaknesses. The barbarian gains access to four subclass features in addition to their barbarian class features, gained at fairly regular intervals at 3rd, 6th, 10th, and 14th level. You can read all of the Path of the Berserker features for free in the D&D Basic Rules. In summary, your subclass features allow you to:
- Enter a frenzy to improve the offensive power of your Rage.
- Become immune to fear and certain enchantments while raging.
- Use your fearsome presence to terrify one of your opponents.
- React to damage by attacking the creature that wounded you.
Benefits of Playing a Berserker
First and foremost, the berserker is a straightforward class. It’s an excellent choice for first-time D&D players, as it’s streamlined, but still offers choice; most of your abilities are active rather than passive—meaning you get to choose when to use them, rather than simply always gaining a benefit. Most of these abilities are offensive in nature, such as gaining an additional attack during your frenzy and making reactive attacks during enemy turns. This is a good balance for the surprisingly defensive core barbarian class.
The defensive abilities the berserker does get are actually quite potent. The Mindless Rage feature grants immunity to being charmed, which nullifies one of the classic banes of the barbarian: being dominated by an evil wizard or vampire and forced to fight your party.
Despite the berserker’s individualistic and combat-focused features and narrative theme, you can actually be a strong team player—especially when you gain the Intimidating Presence feature. Once you have this feature, you can still contribute to fights that make it difficult to employ your combat abilities. By frightening a creature, you seriously hinder its offensive and capabilities and restrict its movement, making it easier for your party to defeat it. This also has application in social situations, a setting which barbarians typically suffer in.
Drawbacks of Playing a Berserker
The berserker’s greatest strength—Frenzy—is also your greatest weakness. The drawback of entering a Frenzy is gaining a level of exhaustion afterward. A single level of exhaustion confers disadvantage on all ability checks, which is troublesome but not incapacitating. By the second level, however, you also suffer halved movement—which makes it difficult to get into the fight at all. And by the third, you suffer disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws, a devastating disadvantage for any melee fighter!
A berserker should never gain more than 2 points of exhaustion through the Frenzy feature, which essentially limits your use of Frenzy to twice per long rest—a serious restriction for a core feature. And all of these drawbacks stack with points of exhaustion gained from monsters or the environment, making it very likely that berserkers will suffer worse than most in harsh climates.
The only way to cure exhaustion is by completing a long rest (which cures a single point of exhaustion) or by being soothed by a greater restoration, which also only cures a single point of exhaustion. Unless you have a 9th-level cleric around to help, or a significant supply of potions of vitality, your core subclass feature is a tool to use sparingly.
If you’re playing in a home campaign, I strongly suggest your DM to adopt one of the following house rules, for your sake:
- All levels of exhaustion are cured by a long rest.
- The first use of your Frenzy after completing a long rest doesn’t result in a level of exhaustion, but all subsequent uses before your next long rest apply exhaustion as normal.
Suggested Berserker Build
If you’re building a berserker from 1st level, you should choose a well-rounded race like human or half-elf, or a race that skews towards Strength, like half-orc or mountain dwarf. Strength should be your highest stat, and Constitution next. However, make Charisma your third-highest stat, to make use of the Intimidation skill (to say nothing of your Intimidating Presence feature at 10th level). Additionally, instead of relying on your Unarmored Defense feature, invest in the best suit of medium armor you can afford. This is typically scale mail at 1st level, but you should constantly be on the lookout for new medium armor.
As usual, your character’s background is up to you. You can come up with all sorts of interesting stories and oddball characters by pairing unlikely backgrounds (like Sage or Acolyte) with a class as thematic as barbarian.
I would recommend choosing GOLD instead of EQUIPMENT at the end of character creation, and using that gold to buy a greataxe or greatsword, a few throwing weapons like hand axes and javelins, and a set of scale mail. If you’re still worried about your defenses, you can sacrifice a bit of offensive power and purchase a war axe or longsword and a shield, instead of a greataxe or greatsword.
When the time comes to pick a feat, the Great Weapon Master feat is a perfect choice for an aggressive barbarian like you, and it pairs well with the advantage on attack rolls gained by your Reckless Attack feature. Tavern Brawler is a fun and thematic, if not exceptionally powerful, feat that makes it easier for you to fight unarmed.
Also, once you reach 5th level in the barbarian class, you may wish to divert from your current path to multiclass into fighter for three levels. This three-level “dip” into fighter grants you the powerful Great Weapon Fighting Style, an Action Surge for more attacks, and the Improved Critical feature if you choose the Champion fighter subclass, all of which synergize well with your offensive barbarian features.
If you want more advice for building a barbarian, check out Barbarian 101. Have you ever played a berserker? What advice would you give to players that want to play this subclass?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their sweet kitties Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.