Learn all about barbarians and how to use them in our guide to this aggressive class
What are barbarians in D&D 5e?
Barbarians are fierce warriors with primal instincts whose primary approach to just about anything involves brute force and a reckless abandonment of self-preservation. They are frontline warriors first and foremost and generally deployed as a party tank and damage dealer though fighters and paladins are also both adept in these roles.
Barbarians differ from their martial counterparts though, in their more primal, reckless and instinctive approach to battle. Rather than entering the fray clad in protective armor, highly trained in swordsmanship or even the divine magic of a paladin, a barbarian prefers brute strength, honing their body to physical perfection rather than relying on training and strategy.
Part of what makes barbarians so formidable is that they will often enter a rage in battle, allowing them to shrug off all but the most lethal of wounds while dealing considerable amounts of damage. They also rely on the primeval knowledge and training from a primal path, tapping into the powers that influence their nettle rage to enhance their abilities. At 3rd level, you’ll be able to choose a primal path that determines the abilities you’re able to tap into.
How to play as a barbarian
In a word, “Smash!” Barbarians are built to be thrown into the heart of combat, soak up the damage that might have gone on squishier characters, and hurt anything that isn’t an ally. Oh, and don’t forget to rage; rage is definitely your friend.
Unlike more utilitarian classes like bards, rogues and artificers, barbarians tend to have little utility outside of combat with few skills and little need for abilities beyond strength, constitution and dexterity. This doesn’t mean a barbarian has nothing to do outside of combat. They’re likely not bad at stealth with a lack of noisy armor and decent dexterity; but chances are, for most jobs there will be party members more capable of doing the job.
Barbarians are the ultimate melee warriors, they deal high damage, are naturally tough and can brush off more damage than other classes. They’re a straightforward class, but also highly effective at what they do and a very useful option to have in combat. For these reasons, they make great options for new players too as they aren’t burdened with the complexities of spellcasting or the variety of options some other classes have.
If you can’t smash it, a barbarian is unlikely to be your best option for it. They don’t offer much in the way of utility, often lack skills that are useful outside of combat and often don’t have the same capabilities for the subtler arts such as investigation, negotiation or spellcasting. This doesn’t mean they don’t have any utility outside of combat. Breaking down doors, intimidating local crooks and utilising some interesting primal abilities are all still great ways for a barbarian to get involved outside of combat.
Barbarian class features
|Party Role||Melee Damage, Tank|
|Main Ability||Strength and Constitution|
|Saving Throws||Strength, Constitution|
|Hit Dice||1d12 + Consitution modifier per level|
|HP at 1st Level||12 + Constitution Modifier|
|Spell Casting Ability||N/A|
|Armour Proficiency||Light armour, medium armour, shields|
|Weapon Proficiency||Simple weapons, martial weapons|
Saving throws: Barbarians get proficiency in strength and constitution saving throws. Strength saving throws are rare so provide little value but constitution saving throws are common and often nasty if failed too so are really great saving throw to have.
Hit dice: Barbarians get more HP than any other class. No other class gets d12 hit die and this is one reason for their tankiest class status.
Proficiencies: Simple and martial weapon proficiencies mean barbarians can wield a great range of weapons. Handy for maximising on damage dealing. Light and medium armor proficiency means you get access to half plate (once you can afford it) which will give you plenty of protection. You do get unarmored defense at 1st level which allows you to combine your constitution and dexterity modifiers to your AC when unarmored which can negate the need for armor which can be useful depending on how you allocate your ability scores and can exceed the AC of half plate. You’re proficient with shields and can use these when using unarmored defense for an extra 2 AC at the cost of some damage dealing. Mathematically, this tends to be an effective trade-off but is less fun!
On the flip-side, you only get a couple of skill proficiencies to play with. Wilderness skills tend to fit well with barbarians but it can be worth discussing any skill gaps with your party and seeing where you can offer the most use.
|Level||Proficiency Bonus||Features||Rages||Rage Damage|
|1st||+2||Rage, Unarmored Defense||2||+2|
|2nd||+2||Reckless Attack, Danger Sense||2||+2|
|4th||+2||Ability Score Improvement||3||+2|
|5th||+3||Extra Attack, Fast Movement||3||+2|
|8th||+3||Ability Score Improvement||4||+2|
|9th||+4||Brutal Critical (1 Dice)||4||+3|
|12th||+4||Ability Score Improvement||5||+3|
|13th||+5||Brutal Critical (2 Dice)||5||+3|
|16th||+5||Ability Score Improvement||5||+4|
|17th||+6||Brutal Critical (3 Dice)||6||+4|
|19th||+6||Ability Score Improvement||6||+4|
The barbarian’s signature ability is also their best. A small but consistent damage boost to all attacks is a great boon. You can maximise this damage with some two-weapon fighting. More importantly, you get resistance to slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damage (one more reason barbarians are the tankiest class in 5e). On top of this, you get advantage on strength checks and saving throws.
The main downside is that you can’t cast spells while raging which isn’t an issue for pure barbarians, but does limit your multiclassing options. You also only get a handful of rages per day but generally, this is enough if you don’t overuse it.
Means you can fight in a loin cloth like a true barbarian! While proficiency in medium armor and shields can get you a pretty good AC anyway with half plate, this can be exceeded depending on your ability scores (and you can use a shield)
Advantage on attacks is great, but with advantage against you making an interesting trade-off. But you get to strike first in this situation so can be a hugely effective trade-off when used in the right circumstances.
Advantage on dexterity saving throws against a bunch of effects makes it easier to survive some really deadly stuff like fireballs and traps.
Two attacks means twice as much damage and extra benefits from rage. Really important for a frontline warrior.
Being more mobile is helpful giving you an extra 10ft of movement.
Advantage on initiative rolls means you can strike first more often and you usually can’t be surprised either.
Extra damage when you land a critical, though criticals aren’t all that common making it a sometimes handy but somewhat too uncommon damage boost.
Fantastic way to stay conscious after having your HP reduced to 0. If nothing else, you’ll soak up more attacks. In the best cases though, you’ll stay conscious long enough to finish off your enemies.
This feature provides little benefit as few things will actually end your rage prematurely anyway.
Guaranteed to have at least decent strength checks is pretty good, especially if you want to make a load of grapples.
Your strength and constitution increase by 4 each to a maximum of 24 which can be immensely powerful!
Barbarian subclasses in D&D 5e
At level 3, barbarians can choose a primal path which determines the source from which their rage powers come and enhances their rage. A barbarian’s primal path can come from a variety of sources like their ancestors, the fury of a storm or a hereditary link to giant-kin.
|Barbarian Subclass||Subclass Abilities||Source Book||Description|
|Path of the Berserker||Frenzy, Mindless Rage, Intimidating Presence, Retaliation||Player’s Handbook||Utilises their rage for maximum combat effectiveness.|
|Path of the Totem Warrior||Spirit Seeker, Totem Spirit, Aspect of the Beast, Spirit Walker, Totemic Attunement||Player’s Handbook||Channels the animal spirits of the world to aid them.|
|Path of the Battlerager||Battlerager Armor, Reckless Abandon, Battlerager Charge, Spiked Retribution||Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide||Utilises their body as a weapon giving little thought for self-preservation.|
|Path of the Ancestral Guardian||Ancestral Protectors, Spirit Shield, Consult the Spirits, Vengeful Ancestors||Xanathar’s Guide to Everything||Draw upon the power of your ancestors to increase your abilities.|
|Path of the Storm Herald||Storm Aura, Storm Soul, Shielding Storm, Raging Storm||Xanathar’s Guide to Everything||Your attunement with nature enhances your ability.|
|Path of the Zealot||Divine Fury, Warrior of the Gods, Fanatical Focus, Zealous Presence, Rage Beyond Death||Xanathar’s Guide to Everything||Your rage is a gift from the gods to enact their will.|
|Path of the Beast||Form of the Beast, Beastial Soul, Infectious Fury, Call the Hunt||Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything||You are attuned with the beasts of the world that enhance your abilities.|
|Path of Wild Magic||Magic Awareness, Wild Surge, Bolstering Magic, Unstable Backlash, Controlled Surge||Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything||Your rage shatters the bounds of magic creating unexpected effects.|
|Path of the Giant||Giant Power, Giant’s Havoc, Elemental Cleaver, Mighty Impel, Demiurgic Colossus||Glory of the Giants||You draw upon the power of giants to wreak destruction on your foes.|
Creating a barbarian
So you’ve decided that a barbarian is the character for you. Brilliant! But how do you make an effective and powerful barbarian character? Not to worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ll take you through some of the more advantageous options for creating a barbarian. Of course, D&D 5e is hugely flexible and there are many great ways to create a barbarian so you don’t need to stick to our advice, but the below advice will show you how to create an effective barbarian character.
Barbarian ability scores
Strength and constitution are always a barbarians most important ability scores so you’ll want to prioritise these above all others.
Dexterity comes next. If you want to rely on medium armor, you can max out at 14, there’s no need to go any higher. If you want to push for unarmored defense (because loin cloths are amazing and you’ll get a higher potential ceiling for AC, at least eventually), then you’ll want to go higher here.
Wisdom and charisma come next, primarily because they’re regular saving throws and wisdom crosses over a bit with a barbarian’s more appropriate skills (like perception, animal handling and survival).
Intelligence is your least important ability score. You’ll use it very little so can dump it.
This is a little tricky as strength and constitution are not regular abilities for skills so barbarians are limited in the skills they can truly excel at. On top of this, you’ll get very few skills to be proficient in, however, we would recommend the following as good options for a barbarian:
- Athletics: A particular good option if you want to be doing a load of grappling and pushing (which would make sense). Also good for other things like jumping, climbing and swimming.
- Perception: Important for most characters as you’ll use it regularly.
- Intimidation: While barbarians tend not to be the most charismatic of people (and intimidation is typically a charisma based skill), the rules do state intimidation as an example of when a DM might choose to rely on a character’s strength for an intimidation roll. May be worth checking with your DM that they’d be happy to rule this way in appropriate situations though.
- Survival: Depending on your campaign, you may get varying degrees of usefulness out of this one, but can be quite important in wilderness campaigns.
A few other skills like nature and animal handling are available and work thematically, but probably offer little use. Nature isn’t an awful choice, but isn’t a common skill check. Animal handling comes up so little though, it’s probably not worth taking.
Best barbarian races
There are several things to consider when choosing a race for your barbarian:
- Ability Scores: Strength and constitution are the most important ability scores for a barbarian. Dexterity is also often a good option too. With more recently updated races, any race can have any ability score increased giving you more options here.
- Size: Medium size is usually important as barbarians will often use a two-handed weapon (small characters have disadvantage with two-handed weapons). This is less important if you’re opting for a shield or two-weapon fighting.
- Resistances: Damage resistances will protect your tank even more, especially if you’re planning on using reckless attack a lot.
- Movement Speed: Increasing movement speed can be helpful for getting into melee combat quicker.
- Innate spellcasting: Innate spellcasting can be useful for out of combat spells, but is pointless for spells you might use in combat (as you’ll likely be raging and not have a great spellcasting ability.
We’ve these considerations in mind, we’d recommend the following races as great options for a barbarian:
Extra long reach for hitting creatures further away, extra damage from surprise attack and proficiency in stealth all work together to aid a barbarian’s damage dealing. This pairs particularly well with feral instinct allowing you to be more likely to attack before others.
A centaur barbarian has a movement speed of 50ft at 5th level which is incredible (take mobile to go even faster)! Plus you can add some extra damage as a bonus action with charge (the mobile feat will also help you shift in and out of combat to keep getting those charges in).
Deep Gnome (Svirfneblin)
Magic resistance is excellent for barbarians who are vulnerable to spells. Advantage on stealth checks is great too and you get some innate spellcasting for increased stealth that won’t conflict with raging.
All 3 Dragonborn subspecies make great barbarians due to their AOE breath weapons (that only replace one of your attacks) plus a resistance. We’d lean towards Gem and Metallic Dragonborn because cones tend to work better than the line breath Chromatic Dragonborn have for damaging multiple opponents with a breath weapon. Gem Dragonborn also get temporary flight while Metallic Dragonborn get a more powerful breath weapon once per day.
Reduce the damage you take, resistance to cold damage and proficiency in athletics are all great abilities for barbarians.
The half-orc basically doubles up on brutal critical and relentless rage but it seems these abilities can be stacked (and you get aspects of these abilities earlier too). This means you’re more durable and your criticals are more brutal.
While not very barbarian-like, you do get bonuses in areas you are weak. Advantage on all wisdom saving throws is excellent (wisdom saving throws are very common). You also get resistance to psychic damage and telepathy.
The main raw here is being able to frighten your foes with a roar. DC is based on your constitution so should be tricky to resist. Good option for crowd control.
Alongside an extra skill proficiency, you’re also able to shift your appearance to gain certain benefits in combat. Beasthide is great for extra durability, longtooth will let you deal extra damage and wildhunt is great if you know you’ll need to make a lot of wisdom saving throws (maybe you’re up against spellcasters).
+1 AC that stacks with unarmored defense plus resistance to poison damage, advantage against the poisoned condition and immunity to disease.
Backgrounds are normally good for providing a few extra skills though these tend to be less important for barbarians so there aren’t a lot of really good options here. Some that do work reasonably well for a barbarian include:
|Folk Hero||Rustic Hospitality||Animal handling, Survival||Social, Utility||Player’s Handbook|
|Hermit||Discovery||Medicine, Religion||Healing, Social, Utility||Player’s Handbook|
|Outlander||Wanderer||Athletics, Survival||Social, Utility||Player’s Handbook|
|Pirate||Bad Reputation||Athletics, Perception||Social, Utility, Exploration||Player’s Handbook|
|Sailor||Ship’s Passage||Athletics, Perception||Social, Utility, Exploration||Player’s Handbook|
|Soldier||Military Rank||Athletics, Intimidation||Social, Exploration, Combat||Player’s Handbook|
|Uthgardt Tribe Member||Uthgardt Heritage||Athletics, Survival||Social, Utility||Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide|
|Wildspacer||Wildspace Adaptation||Athletics, Survival||Social, Utility, Exploration||Spelljammer: Adventures in Space|
Feats can be taken to add additional flavour and abilities to your character in place of ability score increases or in certain other situations. Just make sure your DM is happy with you using feats. Below are some feats that work particularly well for barbarians:
- Chef: A great source of easy temporary hit points for the party plus extra constitution.
- Durable: Ensure your hit points increase by a solid amount, plus some extra constitution. Great for making you tougher.
- Gift of the chromatic dragon: Great options for reactive resistances and extra damage. Particularly effective as you can alter the resistance according to what hits you, and it only uses your reaction.
- Great weapon master: An extra attack if you score a critical or kill an opponent and +10 damage if you sacrifice -5 to hit. A great feat for a barbarian fightinf lots of low level monsters.
- Mounted Combatant: Great for melee characters if they’re going to be fighting on a mount often.
- Sentinel: Greater for a defender style barbarian. You can prevent enemies leaving your reach and get opportunity attacks when creatures in range attack an ally, basically forcing your tank status on enemies.
- Slasher: Increase your strength a bit, slow down enemies you hit and critical hits will also cause your opponent to have disadvantage on attack rolls next turn.
Handaxes are best for two weapon fighting and javelins are great for throwing when you can’t reach your enemy. You’ll likely want to go for big damage though so mauls, greatswords and greataxes are the way to go here. Mauls and greatswords are a tad more reliable for damage (dealing 2d6 damage compared to a greataxe’s 1d12) but greataxes with their bigger damage die means brutal critical is more effective.
Half plate is your best armor option unless you can get your dexterity and constitution high enough to make unarmored defense more effective which can happen at later levels. You can opt for a shield if you want to go more durable and less damage.
Best multiclass options
Because barbarians and spells don’t mix well, there a limited number of viable multiclassing options. We’d suggest steering clear of any spellcasting classes. This means excluding most classes. Beyond spellcasters, monks unarmored defense doesn’t stack with a barbarian’s making them a little obsolete here. With this in mind, there are only 2 sensible multiclassing options:
The big pull with fighter is fighting style and action surge. You can take yourself up to level 3, take the champion subclass and increase your chances of landing a critical which will make brutal critical more useful.
One level of rogue will give you expertise which you can put into athletics for super grapples or something like stealth if you intend to sneak around a lot. Sneak attack will give you some extra damage each turn too which is very handy. Second level will give you cunning action but this is less helpful for a barbarian that relies less on disengaging and hiding and is often occupying their bonus action with more important things anyway so one level in rogue is probably enough.