We’ve completed our first full rotation of the twelve classes, and exhausted all the content that the Basic Rules have to offer—as far as classes go, that is. This next wave of the Class 101 series will appraise every subclass within the Player’s Handbook and break down each subclass’s strengths, weaknesses, thematic elements, and everything else a player would want to know before playing that subclass. Because of this, you will need to own the Player’s Handbook (or purchase the subclass a la carte on the Marketplace) in order to make full use of this series.
As we return to the first class in the Player’s Handbook, we look at the versatile and choice-driven Path of the Totem Warrior; a mighty warrior that uses the wisdom of animal spirits to understand and communicate with the natural world in times of peace, and draws upon those same spirits’ ferocity to guide their blows in times of conflict.
Story of the Totem Warrior
“What—is—it?” the totem warrior growled. He sat cross-legged, reaching out to the spirits of nature for guidance—when his party’s bard approached him. Another meaningless quip, the warrior thought. Nevertheless, he opened one eye and let his connection to the world beyond the world dwindle for a moment.
The bard’s usually smiling face was a locked in a grim scowl, and he said nothing. The totem warrior noticed his silence after a moment, and opened his eyes fully. He returned fully to the world, and stood. “What is it? Speak,” he said. A hint of worry crept into his gruff voice.
The bard started slowly, his voice choked with emotion. “I just heard word… that my village…” He paused, angry tears coming to his eyes. The totem warrior nodded simply, and touched his massive hand to the bard’s shoulder. At the same time, he stooped for his battle axe, and took it in his other hand.
“I understand. Come with me, then. There is no time to lose.” He took the bard’s hand in his, and set off at a full run. The bard stumbled and tried to keep up, but the totem warrior’s massive strides and wind-swift speed left the bard panting and struggling as they rushed down the rocky path. “Can you not keep up?” the totem warrior asked, not slackening his pace. “Then run no longer!” He yanked the bard’s arm so hard he thought it would pop from its socket, and slung the minstrel upon his broad shoulders.
“Wolf who runs through the forest primeval,” the warrior muttered as he ran. “Lend me your senses, that I may track our enemies. Hasten our journey so that these villains can do no further harm.” The bard could swear that he saw a streak of lupine gray suddenly appeared within the warrior’s mane of thick, brown hair, and his posture lowered, as if he were tracking a scent upon the earth.
Path of the Totem Warrior Features
The Path of the Totem Warrior grants the barbarian a bevy of choices that will help you play the Totem Warrior barbarian in a handful of different ways. While they aren’t quite as customizable as a druid or other spellcasting classes, the abilities that the Totem Warrior gains can make them versatile and fearsome combatants. 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 Totem Warrior features in the Player’s Handbook. In summary, your subclass features allow you to:
- Choose an animal spirit to grant you a combat boost while raging.
- Choose an animal spirit to grant you superhuman powers while traveling.
- Conduct a ritual to commune with an animal spirit to learn about the land around you.
- Choose an animal spirit to grant you a greater combat boost while raging.
Benefits of Playing a Totem Warrior
Those who follow the Path of Totem Warrior become the most unkillable warriors in the world of D&D. While all barbarians are resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage while they rage, Totem Warriors who gain the power of the Bear Totem at 3rd level become resistant to all damage (except psychic) while enraged. However, if you want to be a more aggressive warrior, there’s another option available to you: the Eagle spirit, which allows you to get into and out of combat quicker, and with less danger. Finally, barbarians who want to be team players can follow the Wolf totem, which lets them give their allies advantage on attack rolls like the pack leaders they are.
All this to say, the Path of the Totem Warrior has something for everyone. Nearly every subclass feature has three different spirits to choose from, all of which grant different powers. While some of these powers are stronger than others (it’s very easy to call the Bear Totem the best choice at 3rd level, for instance), they all have potent effects in combat. Or in travel, or even social interactions! The Totem Warrior’s 3rd level Spirit Seeker feature, which lets them communicate with animals, and their 10th level feature, which essentially allows them to cast commune with nature as a ritual, makes those who follow the Path of the Totem Warrior effective in more areas than just combat—a welcome addition to the eminently combat-focused barbarian class!
Drawbacks of Playing a Totem Warrior
The main drawback of the Totem Warrior subclass is that, while it’s a very flexible subclass, it isn’t a very adaptable one. What does this mean? Let’s compare the Totem Warrior to the druid class, for a moment. Every day, a druid chooses a list of prepared spells from a large list of spells available to them through their class. Now, Spellcasting is one of the druid class’s core features, so it makes sense that the Totem Warrior subclass wouldn’t be quite this versatile. Choosing four features over the course of 11 levels seems about right. The challenge is that there’s no rule allowing you to change the features you’ve learned.
Consider this; you chose the ultra-powerful Bear Totem option at 3rd level, granting you across-the-board damage resistances. This is probably the most frequently useful option, so it makes sense that you would take it. However, there comes a time when it would be incredibly useful to grant your allies advantage on attacks against the same creature you’re attacking. However, you can’t switch which totem you’re using during this rage—in fact, you can’t switch it ever! You can choose a different totem for a different class feature later on, but the one you chose at 3rd level is yours for life.
This lack of versatility makes the Totem Warrior less fun to play than it could be. If you’re playing a Path of the Totem Warrior barbarian and feel pigeonholed into just doing one thing (tanking damage, giving advantage, and so on) then consider asking your Dungeon Master if they can introduce this custom feat, if you’re using the optional Feats rule in chapter 6 of the Player’s Handbook.
Prerequisite: Path of the Totem Warrior
You are one who speaks with many different animal spirits, rather than only one. As a friend to many spirits, you gain the following benefits:
- When you enter a rage, you can decide which animal spirit grants you a benefit while raging. You can change the benefit of either your Totem Spirit or Totemic Attunement to a different animal, but you can’t change animals from both features at the same time.
- You can change which animal spirit grants you a magical benefit from your Aspect of the Beast feature when you finish a long rest.
Like most classes in D&D, the barbarian doesn’t choose their subclass until 3rd level. If you’re playing a barbarian from 1st level and think you want to follow the Path of the Totem Warrior later, you should choose a race that improves your Strength and Constitution scores. This includes the dragonborn race, which gives you some extra Charisma in case you want to be a more personable warrior (and their Breath Weapon’s grows more powerful based on your Constitution, too, which should be high as a barbarian!). You could also play a mountain dwarf, who are both hardy and strong. Half-orcs are also blessed with incredible physical strength, and make excellent front-line warriors. Humans are also good barbarians, and the feat they gain at 1st level only adds to their versatility.
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 with a class as thematic as barbarian. Were you born as an Outlander to a nomadic clan? Or were you a Sage that decided to give up your life of academic study to become a warrior and attune yourself to the pulse of the world?
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. Your Unarmored Defense feature will keep you safe even without armor, but it relies on your having a high Dexterity bonus to stay protected. If you want to focus on dealing damage with giant melee weapons, this scale mail will help keep your Armor Class high even without a lot of Dexterity.
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. On the other hand, dipping into the rogue class allows you to find a potent synergy between your Reckless Attack and Sneak Attack features—though you will have to use a shortsword or another weapon with the finesse property to make a sneak attack.
What animal totems do you pick at each level? It’s a good question, as each totemic spirit grants powers that best serve a particular role: tank or damage-dealer.
If you’re a tank, you should choose Bear at 3rd level, any totem at 6th level, and Bear again at 14th level.
If you’re a damage-dealer, you should choose Wolf at 3rd level, Eagle at 6th level, and either Eagle or Wolf at 14th level, depending on whether or not you would rather move yourself or stop your enemies from moving.
If you’re using the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide and playing in the Forgotten Realms, there are actually two additional totems available to you: the Elk and Tiger totems. Both tanks and damage dealers would love to expand their skill proficiencies by choosing the Tiger at 6th level, and if you’re playing a damage-dealing Totem Warrior, the Tiger is an excellent choice at 14th level as well. In games with lots of overland travel, the Elk spirit is an amazing option for your entire party.
Once you’ve maxed out your Strength and Constitution scores (or even just one of them), you can increase your offensive or defensive power with a few incredible feats. The following feats are good picks for Totem Warrior barbarians:
Great Weapon Master. These days, it practically goes without saying that Great Weapon Master is one of the best feats in the game. Choosing this feat will send your damage output into the stratosphere.
Mounted Combatant. If you tend to ride into battle, this feat is an amazing boon. Since this feat allows you to redirect damage meant for your mount to you, and since you’re one of the best tanks in the game, you have nothing to fear while mounted. The free advantage on attack rolls against unmounted combatants is great, too.
Polearm Master. For barbarians that want to pump out as much damage as possible, this feat helps you make the most of that bonus damage you get while raging. You don’t have many other opportunities to gain a bonus action, so this feat is actually quite useful for you.
Sentinel. Pairing this feat with the Bear Totem option at 14th level makes your enemies’ lives a living nightmare of disadvantage and free attacks.
And, obviously, the Animistic Pantheon feat presented earlier in this article isn’t part of the official D&D rules, but it was literally custom-made for this subclass. If you want more flexibility and your DM is okay with allowing homebrew content, this feat is a great pick!
If you want more advice for building a barbarian, check out Barbarian 101. Have you ever played a Path of the Totem Warrior barbarian? 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, a member of the Guild Adepts, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and other RPG companies. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.