D&D 5e Character Optimization – Barbarian
There are a lot of character builds that are going to be lost on Wizards of the Coast’s community page this week (or was that last week?). One of my favorite is the Gentleman’s Guide to Proper Barbarism, and there is another that can be found on http://www.giantitp.com, I’ll Never Die! I’ve pulled together the two Barbarian build posts (mainly from the Gentleman’s guide), kept the standard Build formatting colors, build structure, and put together a compilation of those two optimization & decision building guides. There are some navigation links that will let you jump around the guide, and I hope you find all of this information useful.
- Ability Scores and Races
- Class Features
- Primal Paths
- Skills and Backgrounds
- Weapons and Armor
Hopefully soon we will have the History of Barbarians on Tribality, so I will leave all that up to Brandes. So for now, I will just go through all the options and rate them as I have witnessed the power of a Barbarian at the table. I would like to hear your opinions about the build, so you can add a comment, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. So pick this class if you want to be the Tank and also do tons of Damage.
This is all mechanical optimization for a Barbarian character. If there isn’t a clear cut benefit of one option over another one option then go with flavor. This first run through is a compilation from several sources, and I have made edits as I have worked on it. I mainly wanted to grab the information before it was deleted by Wizards of the Coast. This is all just complete opinion, and I will tweak it as I read through your comments and suggestions. So I plan to treat it like a living editable document with many changes in the immediate future.
From this point forward, the standard optimization color coding is being used:
Gold = The best choice. I will use this very rarely.
Sky Blue = This is better choice
Blue = Very strong choice
Black = Solid choice. There are better options, but this is okay
Purple = Not top tier. It may have niche use, but better options exist
Red = Mechanically weak. I would stay away.
If you have to choose Standard Array, then the choices depend on what Race you choose. With a Half-Orc, I would first choose: 14-13-15-8-12-10. That would bring them up to 16-13-16-8-12-10 with racial bonuses.
If you don’t like that then just go ahead and max out all the physical scores: Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. That would be 15 – 15 – 15 – 8 – 8 -8 with point buy, and with Half-Orc gets you: 17-15-16-8-8-8. Beefy!
Strength  – Your offensive output is tied to your Strength score with nearly half of your class features tied to this ability.
Constitution  – Another top tier stat. Hit points are just too important to let slide. If you want to stay unarmored, it is doubly important.
Dexterity  – Highly desirable. If you plan to be a Dexterity Based Barbarian, then switch this with Strength.
Wisdom  – 3 of your class skills are tied to it, and one of those is Perception. A “nice to have” stat.
Charisma  – Intimidation is based off of it, but not much else *unless* you go Path of the Berserker.
Intelligence  – Classic Barbarian dump stat. It hurts your Int saves, but that’s about the only impact you feel.
Half-Orc [+2 Str, +1 Con] This is my choice for a Barbarian. You get the Intimidation Skill, and the racial bonus to the stats are perfect, with bonus to Strength & Constitution. Darkvision remains a great choice. Savage Attacks with a great axe is super strong starting off at the start. All in all a great choice for an offensively minded Barbarian. Relentless Endurance is a cool feature, but the Barbarian class does get something similar at level 11: Relentless Rage, but can be used only if you are raging, it’s not automatic & you get to do more than once.
Goliath [+2 Str and +1 Con] Ability scores are practically tailor-made for the barbarian, the free Athletics skill ensures easy grappling, and Stone’s Endurance makes an already durable character fiendishly difficult to kill. However, Stone’s Endurance will compete for other reaction options, so these guys are a step below the Half-Orc.
Aarakocra [+2 Dex] The ability score bonuses are okay, as +2 Dex helps with AC and potentially weapon usage, but what really makes these guys silly is their 50ft fly speed. Combine that with a polearm for reach and barbarian durability, and you have a character that likely just won’t ever die. The +1 Wis helps ensure this, as well, bolstering a fairly commonly attacked save.
Dwarf: [+2 Con] This is a strong choice for a Barbarian but the weapon racial adders seem to be wasted.
- Mountain Dwarf [+2 Str] gives very strong +2 bonus to Strength that is perfect for a martial class.
- Hill Dwarf [+1 Wis] is good with the hitpoint increase which helps with damage resistance tanking, but the loss of a +2 Strength for a +1 Wisdom bonus hurts.
- Duergar [+1 Str] gives a +1 Bonus to Strength, Superior Darkvision and Innate magic of Enlarge, invisibility makes it a good choice, but with Sunlight sensitivity makes him very limited. [SCAG]
Halfling [+2 Dex] An increase in Dexterity like the Elf, but you also get the Lucky Racial feature. I love playing a Halfling, the down side is being a small slow creature that gets disadvantage with the typical Barbarian weapons. I would dip a few levels of Rogue to take advantage of Sneak Attacks with finesse weapons (you can still use Strength with those).
- Stout Halfling [+1 Con] is the better choice of the two base subraces.
- Lightfoot Halflings[+1 Cha] being much lower that the Stout.
- Ghostwise Halflings [+1 Wis] puts it in the same boat as the Hill Dwarf except there is not hotpoint increase, only telepathy. Pass! [SCAG]
Dragonborn [+2 Str, +1 Cha] Strength is great, but the Charisma bonus is not needed. The benefits you get though are pretty decent. Resistance to an additional damage type is always welcome but is wasted at higher levels. You do get an Area of Effect Attack AoE attack that uses one of the Barbarian’s secondary ability scores (Constitution) for the DC. The Dragonborn makes for a great Barbarian with a magic trick up his sleeve.
Half-Elf [+2 Cha, and +1 to Str/Con] On the surface the Half-Elf makes for a somewhat “meh” Barbarian. The bonus to Cha is not the most useful. However, it does have some other nice perks to go along with it. Darkvision, Fey Ancestry and two extra skills are actually nice perks. It makes for a slightly atypical Barbarian, but it isn’t mechanically terrible.
- Half-Elf Variants [+2 Cha, and +1 to Str/Con] Reducing Skills for flavor. I don’t think it’s good for a Barbarian.
Genasi [+2 Con] You start off with a bonus to constitution. This might not be a bad choice, but there are 4 subraces [PotA]
- Air Genasi [+1 Dex] Might be a good choice for a Dexterity based Barbarian
- Earth Genasi [+1 Str] Not a bad choice, and you get to move over difficult terrain and get into the action quickly
- Fire Genasi [+1 Int] Darkvision, fire resistance and flame cantrip. I wouldn’t
- Water Genasi [+1 Wis] Might be a worse choice than the Fire Genasi
Elf [+2 Dex] The Barbarian Elf is not the best choice, but darkvision and sleep immunity are good mechanical choices for a martial class like a Barbarian. Here is how I would rank the three subraces:
- Wood Elf [+1 Wis] each of these gets a wasted weapon proficiency, but the Wood Elf has an increased speed gets you to the enemy quickly,
- Drow [+1 Cha] that would be a nope
- High Elf [+1 Int] gets a double nope.
- Eladrin [+1 Int] and a triple nope even with Misty step [DMG]
Human [+1 to All scores], The typical Human isn’t the best fit for a Barbarian. There is a lack of racial ability benefits that the other races.
- Variant Human [+1 to Str and Con and a feat] If Human Variant is allowed, that’s a whole different story. That turns the Human into one of the best choices for a Barbarian, from one of the worst. Slightly behind the Half-Orc, and even with the Dragonborn.
Gnome [+2 Int] Similar to the Halfling, because of the small size but without the benefits of Lucky or the Dex Bonus.
- Forest Gnome [+1 Dex], the bonus to dexterity is okay, and the speaking with animals is not needed with the Barbarian.
- Rock Gnome [+ 1 Con]. I just don’t see it, so Pass!
- Deep Gnome [ +1 Dex] Superior Darkvision and Dexterity bonus. Good for a Rogue, but lacking for a Barbarian. [SCAG]
Tiefling [+1 Int and +2 Cha] If there was one race that is just flat out bad for the Barbarian in almost every way, it’s the Tiefling. Sadly, the stats don’t line up at all, and the spell casting ability loses a lot of its power since you can’t cast whilst Raging. Resistance to fire is nice, but you can grab that with the Dragonborn and come out with better stats and a nicer perk ability.
- Tiefling Variant [+1 Int and +2 Dex] Would be a great option along with Winged for a Dexterity based Barbarian, but you would lose Infernal Legacy. That’s cool because your Charisma is probably very low. [SCAG]
Aasimar [+1 Wis & +2 Cha] Darkvision, resistance and spells. This isn’t a great choice for a Barbarian. At all. Stick with Cleric or Paladin for this race. [DMG] These racial abilities really matter starting at the lower levels, but as the game progresses, the impact is lessened after each level is gained. So if you want to play a Tiefling Barbarian, then go ahead. If you can survive into the mid tier, then the drawbacks of the race are drastically lessened.
These features are automatic upon leveling up, so this is more opinion about the effectiveness of the class
Rage The Barbarian’s main mechanic is Rage. It does have limitations though, and they are important to note:
- No heavy armor allowed. Rage won’t work with anything bigger than medium armor.
- The damage bonus only applies to attacks using Strength. No Dex based finesse Raging.
- Melee weapons only. You can swing your hand axe and get the damage bonus, but you lose that bonus if you throw it.
- You can’t cast spells whilst Raging, nor can you keep up concentration on spells already in play.
The ugly part of Raging is that you don’t get your Rages back after a short rest. You need a long rest to regain your uses. This makes you carefully consider when you’ll use these bad boys.
The flashiest part of Rage is the damage bonus. More numbers is always good. More damage means more deader enemies. But the real benefit is the resistance to 3 different damage types. This is especially true at low level. This resistance is what lets the Barbarian stay in melee longer than most other classes, and be less afraid when exchanging hits with the bad guys, and the Bear Totem Spirit allows even more resistance.
Unarmored Defense: Dexterity and Constitution to AC when out of armor is certainly nice, and allows you to play a shirtless raging crazed berserker Barbarian!
Reckless Attack You allow your attackers to hit you with advantage, but so what? This doesn’t take an action to perform, and if they get a hit on you, the damage is halved when you are Raging. Might be a good reason to multi-class with Rogue to get automatic Sneak Attacks with finesse weapons.
Danger Sense: Dexterity saves are very common, pair this up with Resilient Feat, and this class feature becomes sky blue.
Level 3, 6, 10, 14
Primal Path and Path Features: These are in the next section with two choices to pick
Level 4, 8, 12, 16, 19
Ability Score Improvement This is just typical for all the classes, and you should focus mainly on Strength and then Constitution. Bumping up Strength & Constitution before level 20 is necessary to get those to 24. There are about 3 really good Feats to choose from for the Barbarian. But bumping up ability scores have the greater mechanical benefit.
Extra Attack The same a Paladin and Ranger, but falls behind the Fighter class.
Fast Movement This is another reason to stay away from Heavy Armor. The increase in speed is great and works well with
Feral Instinct Moving first is great, especially for the Barbarian. You have the chance to dive in and do some serious damage, and then try and keep enemy attention locked on you and your superior level of hit points. Plan ahead with your party, and you will be able to setup some pretty cool and effective combos.
Level 9, 13, 17
Brutal Critical This is where crit fishing may start to become interesting for you. Looking for ways to increase your crit range (3 levels of Fighter, for example) may be interesting. Note that the Half-Orc has a similar ability, which stacks with this, making crits even more dangerous.
Relentless Rage Again an element of Risk vs Reward. Being able to keep on fighting despite hitting 0 or fewer hit points can be amazing. That being said, it’s also an excellent opportunity for the enemy to have another shot at killing you outright.
Persistent Rage This ability keeps you Raging even when an effect could stop you. Without it, you drop out of Rage on any turn where you do not attack, or do not take damage. Considering the smattering of spells and other effects that can lead to this, Persistent Rage becomes a welcome addition to an otherwsie somewhat clunky mechanic.
Indomitable Might Strength is your primary ability and you have Advantage on checks with it whilst Raging. This ability is nice as it helps eliminate terrible rolls, it just feels out of place for an 18th level ability.
Primal Champion This is icing on the cake. Right now, getting stats above 20 is really, really hard. The ability to get both Str and Con past that threshold is really nice. Of course, it’s a capstone ability, so it should be pretty darn impressive. Right Ranger?
The Barbarian has two choices for Paths. These two paths have some pretty different flavor, and help flesh out the Barbarian in different ways.
Path of the Totem Warrior
Spirit Seeker Lots of flavor, very little filling. This could be handled better by another Character in the party.
Totem Spirit– 3rd Level You get a choice of now FIVE animals here. They don’t have to be the same one at each progression.
- Bear – This makes you even more of a tank, which is great. Resistance to everything except Psychic damage can actually help turn a difficult battle around.
- Eagle – This is a fun mobility option that can be an interesting choice if your Barbarian plays against type a little bit. This isn’t the strongest choice if you have Rogues and Monks in your party that take better benefit of you standing still, but can be great for a party of a different composition.
- Wolf – This is the teamwork option. Allies gaining advantage is always a good thing. Advantage isn’t the hardest thing in the world to gain, but having it be always on for any enemy within 5’ of the Barbarian can be brutal with the right party makeup.
- Elk – Increased speed without armor. Meh. [SCAG]
- Tiger – Monk like jumping but static adders. [SCAG]
Aspect of the Beast – 6th Level Choose from these 5 options:
- Bear – Given your natural inclination to have a through the roof Strength, and having advantage on Strength checks whilst Raging, this actually seems rather lackluster. Not useless, but a little too situational.
- Eagle – On the one hand, the increased sight is very, very situational. On the other hand, not having disadvantage on Perception checks due to dim light is really, really good.
- Wolf: Again, very situational, but also useful to have when you need it. This really depends on the party makeup and the type of adventure you are on.
- Elk – Increased travel speed and up to 10 companions. Not bad, but not exciting either [SCAG]
- Tiger – Additional Skills that you might already have. If you want to be a skill monkey I suppose [SCAG]
Spirit Walker – 10th Level More flavor and allows the DM to bring out a Bear to talk with you. Neat!
Totemic Attunement – 14th Level – Last one of your 5 choices:
- Bear – This has to be the best Tank ability, if you’re not tanking, then go Eagle
- Eagle – A good way to hit flying creatures.
- Wolf – You will sacrifice damage for utility. This is fun simply because there is no save. If you hit the enemy, then they go prone.
- Elk – Knockdown and damage with a Bonus action. This is against a DC that is Strength based. [SCAG]
- Tiger – Bonus action charge ability. Seems a little weak. [SCAG]
Path of the Battlerager [SCAG]
The one thing holding this back is that there is a Dwarf restriction. Other than that, it starts off not so great, but with Reckless Abandon, it gets supercharged!
Battlerager Armor 3rd Level – Not much going for this. you get maxed out at 16 AC but you get a bonus action to hit a creature for 1d4 piercing damage. Seems like a waste.
Reckless Abandon 6th Level – Temporary hit points which will make you a super tank. Very Beefy.
Battlerager Charge 10th level – Dash action as a bonus so you can chase down prey. Not bad.
Spiked Retribution 14th level – Automatic damage against anyone hitting you. You can take on the hoards!
Path of the Berserker
Frenzy 3rd Level – Not really keen on this because there is a cost for the bonus attacks. You have to pay an exhaustion level after Raging. And those add up quickly with very severe penalties.
Mindless Rage 6th level – A solid ability as being charmed whilst Raging can be a terrifying prospect for your teammates.
Intimidating Presence 10th level – This is a fun ability that has a ton of flavor and fits the Barbarian very well. Why, oh why does it use Charisma for the DC? Considering that this is likely your second to worst stat, it’s just a terrible fit.
Retaliation 14th Level – This is just great. Unless you’ve kitted yourself to use your Reaction every round, odds are it’s going to be reserved for people silly enough to move around you. This gives you a nice source of damage outside of your normal action resources.
Skills & Backgrounds
The Barbarian doesn’t fill the skill monkey role at all, they are geared for physical party support. Breaking things and breaking other things. Barbarians gain advantage on Strength based checks whilst Raging, so that is also something that may be good to remember.
Perception (wis) This is the most needed skill for all the classes. Pick it whenever you have the chance.
Intimidate (cha) Since charisma is unlikely to be a great stat for you, you will need to bump it up with your proficiency bonus.
Athletics (str) If you get Intimidate or Perception from your race or background then look to picking up Athletics or Survival.
Survival (wis) If you get Intimidate or Perception from your race or background then look to picking up Athletics or Survival.
Animal Handling (wis) Leave this for the Ranger.
Nature (int) This would be probably fit, but it is Intelligence based.
Non Class Skills
Stealth (dex) Could be fun to Surprise the enemy with a Greataxe to the face. 🙂
Acrobatics (dex) Less important than Athletics, but still nice to have.
Sleight of Hand (dex) A fun option
Insight (wis) Maybe
Arcana (int) Sort of strange for a Barbarian.
History (int) Doesn’t play to your strengths, but can be fun if you see your Barbarian as caring about stories and oral history.
Investigation (int) Also atypical and outside your comfort zone.
Religion (int) Leave this the Wizard, Harry.
Medicine (wis) Irrelevant for many classes
Deception (cha) Nice to have, but others in your group are probably better at it.
Persuasion (cha) When would a barbarian actually use this?
Performance (cha) Pass!
Your background generally gives you 2 skills, maybe a language or two, maybe a tool or two, a special perk, and a small amount of goods/gold. They can help flesh out your character a bit, offer some mechanical help, and help you better define where your Barbarian is coming from.
Pirate [athletics/perception] Bad reputation! You break things in town especially doors.
Sailor [athletics/perception] Two of the best skills for you. Add in a free Ship passage is great.
Soldier [athletics/intimidation] Some great skill potential here as well. I find the perk pretty restrictive though. It practically requires DM benevolence for it to be useful.
Criminal [deception/stealth] Stealth and Thieves Tools are very solid mechanical choices, especially if you are running without a Rogue in your party. Ragna the Red would be proud!
Outlander [athletics/survival] Probably the most iconic Background for a Barbarian. The two skills are on your skill list already, but one of them is Athletics, which is great. An extra language is nice, and the musical instrument can add flavor to your character. The perk is nice, though it does step on the toes of the Survival skill a little.
Entertainer [acrobatics/performance] Mechanically I wouldn’t go this direction, but if you want to bounce around before killing someone. Go for it.
Guild Artisan [insight/persuasion] If you want to make some clay bowls, pick another class
Acolyte [insight/religion] Not a great choice, but you might be able to make for an interesting backstory.
Charlatan [deception/sleight of hand] I wouldn’t pick this one there are better choices
Folk Hero [animal handling/survival] Both skills are on your class list but they’re the ones I wouldn’t pick.
Knight [history/persuasion] Maybe having going Knight with a couple of retainers to clean up your greataxe, but otherwise choose something else.
Sage [arcana/history] Like the Hermit, pretty atypical for a Barbarian. The two languages are nice, but the rest is rather “meh”.Urchin [sleight of hand/stealth] Stealth as a skill is great, and both Thieves Tools and the Disguise Kit are fun options
Hermit [medicine/religion] Stay away from this background.
More to come later…
If your game allows the optional rules for Feats, then here is how they rank:
Great Weapon Master Take it.
Lucky This is a really nice feat if you want to improve on your tankiness. The extra rolls can really help in a pinch, and regaining them a long rest lets you tie them into your Rages pretty well.
Polearm Master This feat gets a lot of love from those building melee characters, and for good reason. The ability to use your opportunity attack on people closing in with your is great. Just be careful how you mix it in. If you are a Berserker and gain the Retaliation ability, this feat loses some steam. Just make sure you understand what you are spending your Actions on routinely, and what you *will* be spending your actions on in the future before grabbing this feat. That being said, the Barbarian can make amazing use out of this based on the Action economy of this edition. Plan your build accordingly.
Resilient If you want to shore up your defenses a bit, this is not a bad choice, but it is a sharp cost for very specific survivability. If your DM likes to toss out things like Hold Person at you on a regular basis, this becomes great. If not, it loses some oomph.
Sentinel – This is probably one of the best feats for Barbarian. Combined with the Bear Totemic Attunement, you have a great attention grabbing ability.
Athlete +1 Str/Dex, etc. This will depend on your campaign. If your game is full of hacking and slashing, then skip it.
Charger Dash action into the battle, and then attack with bonus damage, or shove a creature. GOOD!
Durable – It’s okay with a Con bonus, and lets you heal up nicely during short rests.
Grappler As the Barbarian has a very natural affinity for Grappling, this feat can be a nice boon to have. This feat gives you the ability to restrain the enemy, which can be useful and also plays well into the Risk vs Reward style of play. It can be a little situational, but it’s absolutely a fun trick to pull out when it applies.
Mage Slayer While slightly specific, this feat works well with a Barbarian, especially one that focuses on mobility. Considering how a well played caster can wreak havoc, this ability can be a life saver.
Mounted Combatant Do you want to play your Barbarian as a mounted warrior? If yes, take this feat. If not, skip.
Savage Attacker Very good. This can turn a terrible attack into a great one. Whilst you can only use it once per turn, the more attacks you make, the more likely you will see this shining.
Shield Master – A great way to increase survivability. Taking zero damage from Dexterity related saves is great, and since you have advantage on those saves to begin with, that’s a ton of damage you can simply avoid. If you use a shield, this feat is a great pick.
Alert This is an okay good choice, +5 initiative, no surprise. But isn’t really necessary for the Tanking Barbarian.
Dungeon Delver Situational and you have class abilities that replicate some of the features. Flavorful, but maybe not the optimum choice.
Healer This feat might be necessary if no one wants to play the Healer
Inspiring Leader The Charisma investment is a little prohibitive for the typical Barbarian.
Keen Mind No particular benefit for the typical Barbarian.
Linguist There are better ways for you to learn languages. Outside of character specific reasons, this falls outside of the typical Barbarian’s zone.
Martial Adept Having only one Superiority Die hurts this ability a bit. It isn’t bad, but the impact of a single die at d6 isn’t terribly significant. There are better options available.
Medium Armor Mastery Your Con is generally higher than your Dex, which may limit how useful the feat is. If you aim for the Medium armor route you may see some benefit, but your stats may line up better for the unarmored route, in which case avoid.
Mobile If you are going for the high mobility route via the Eagle Totem, this can actually play nicely into your bag of skills. This one depends on your party makeup
Observant Perception is so important to a group that this feat warrants a look at if your group needs a spotter. Still, others may have a more natural affinity for the role, so this will depend on what you want your character to focus on.
Skulker – Atypical for the run of the mill Barbarian, but if you plan on going with a stealthy one (and it’s totally viable) this fat is very nice to have.
Tavern Brawler – Very cool flavor, but outside of fulfilling your character concept, you aren’t likely to see a ton of use out of this unless your DM skews the campaign in that direction, or unless you really want to invest in a Grappler.
Defensive Duelist Bump up to Blue if you are planning a Barbarian/Rogue Mix and using Finesse weapons. Otherwise skip.
Ritual Caster You probably won’t have the Intelligence, but you may have the Wisdom to gain access to this. Honestly, this falls to a character specific choice. Does it fit your concept? Then go ahead. Otherwise, you should probably avoid.
Sharpshooter – You are unlikely to used ranged attacks enough to really warrant a feat investment in them.
Skilled – Honestly, unless you have a specific concept in mind, pass on this.
Tough – Increasing your Constitution by 2 gives you 1 extra hit point per level, a better Con save and potentially an increase in AC.
Actor Lots of great flavor, but you already have a low Charisma score. Skip it
Crossbow Expert Maybe if you want to play a Dexterity Barbarian, but I’ll pass.
Dual Wielder Not compatible with Barbarian Frenzy.
Elemental Adept You don’t qualify.
Heavily Armored Bad choice. Too many of your class features don’t allow for Heavy Armor.
Heavy Armor Master See above.
Lightly Armored You already have proficiency.
Magic Initiate You aren’t outfit well for casting. You can’t cast whilst in a Rage, and by and large outside of utility or character reasoning, you won’t get that much from this.
Moderately Armored Nope.
Spell Sniper – Nope.
War Caster – You are not a caster.
Weapon Master – This is a wasted feat for a Barbarian.
Another optional rule is Multiclassing. So I started with a listing of all the classes, and then you can whittle them down to look at “dipping.” The main issue with a Barbarian is that with a typical low wisdom, and his two dump stats: Intelligence & Charisma, there aren’t a lot of options that are available that make sense.
Fighter – Even just a few Fighter levels can give you a ton of versatility in your play style. The Champion sub-class may be your more typical match thematically, but going the Battle Master route. Having on demand abilities that cause effects and up damage are great, especially when the recharge on a short rest. Most Barbarians won’t have the Int to make it as an Eldritch Knight, though it may actually be possible to do so using only Abjuration spells.
Paladin – Oh how I wish this build were easier to do, but the Charisma investment is really rough. Funelling spells into Divine Smite whilst Raging just sounds like a blast. I like the favor and fun of the pairing, but mechanically it just doesn’t work out.
Ranger – You can fit into this pairing pretty easily as well. The only real issue is that for the most part, you get a lot more out of multiclassing with the Fighter than you do with the Ranger. Still, this is a very sound fit thematically, and it’s not bad, not at all, mechanically. Part of the issue though comes from the fact that a lot of the Ranger’s “oomph” comes from spellcasting. Since you can’t do this and Rage at the same time, it is a clunky fit at best. The odd thing is that a few levels with the Hunter archetype can actually help your tanking ability. Strange, but abilities like Horde Breaker and Escape the Horde can go a long way towards your multi-enemy abilities.
Rogue – This can work for a very thematic build, but the restrictions on Sneak Attack make it a tough one to mix with the typical Barbarian. Really, the money abilities that the Rogue gives you are Cunning Action, Uncanny Dodge and Evasion. All of which can really help with your tanking. The Assassin Archetype gives you some useful kits as well as the Assassinate ability, which meshes nicely with the Barbarian.
Monk – Again, the Wisdom could be troublesome depending on your build. The big issue with this pairing is that there is some innate incompatibility here. Martial Arts only functions with Monk weapons, which are pretty atypical for most Barbarians. You also can’t be using a Shield, which eliminates tank builds. This leaves you with either a dual wielding style build or with a Polearm Master build using a quarterstaff. The other immediate issue is that the Unarmored Defense ability is wasted. This in’ts a bad build, just that it’s atypical and will require some outside of the box thinking to make work.
Bard – The Charisma investment is too high for the typical Barbarian to make. Whilst this makes for a flavorful style of character, the mechanics don’t interact all that well. Since you cannot cast spells whilst Raging, it becomes tough to really justify the experience. Still, this is a path you can consider if you want to be more of a skill-monkey, or perhaps have a small selection of spells to use in instances when you aren’t Raging.
Cleric – There is the Wisdom requirement. It is possible, but degrades your fighting ability. Not a terrible choice, but there are better.
Druid – Possible benefits from shapeshifting, but they are outweighed by needing to spend points into Wisdom like the Cleric.
Sorcerer – Any of the spell casting from these classes will be wasted on a Barbarian. And will just make you weaker. Nope!
Warlock – Double Nope!
Wizard – Triple Nope!
The principle is that you grab a few levels in another class to gain the most benefit from that class without nerfing your main class. The Barbarian really doesn’t have a lot of choices in The Dip, while other classes gain significant benefits from dipping.
Barbarian 20 – Primal Champion it has to be pretty good to give this last level up! That’s a lot of Hit Points and Weapon efficiency you’re giving up.
Barbarian 19 – Ability Score Improvement – Well you went this far, I hope it was worth it.
Barbarian 18 – Indomitable Might – This isn’t spectacular, so go ahead and dip a 3rd level into something…
Barbarian 17 – Brutal Critical (3 dice) Don’t give this up… You may have gone Champion to get the Higher Crit probability. You’d just be swapping it for an ability score improvement.
So that is what you’re giving up. I don’t think it balances out but
Fighter 1 – Fighting Style, Second Wind The benefits here are pretty straight forward. A small self heal which is nice at low level, but loses oomph as you go higher, and the Fighting Style ability. The Fighting Style ability is really, really nice.
- Dueling – A tankier Barbarian benefits well from the Dueling ability to pop out additional damage.
- Two Weapon Fighting – A TWF Barbarian gains a great deal of extra damage from the related ability as well.
- Great Weapon Fighting – The GWF related ability is also nice, but a smudge lower than the other two.
The others in general don’t measure up quite as nicely. Remember you gave up Primal Champion for this one.
Fighter 2 – Action Surge helpful at lower levels… Im on the fence about this one.
Fighter 3 – Martial Archetype – This third level gets you a Martial Archetype and Battle Master looks pretty good, or you go with Champion and get the Improved Critical ability. If you want that third Fighter level, you have two options. If you are thinking about the critical fishing route, the Champion Improved Critical ability is very strong. But it’s an all or nothing idea. If you aren’t going to work at critical hit fishing, it may not be all that. On the other hand, the Battle Master gives you some great utility abilities, as well as some increased damage when using them. Regaining your damage dice after a short rest is really nice too, as it gives you a little something between Rages. Not a bad swap for Indomitable Might, and in the end Primal Champion.
Weapons & Armor
The Barbarian has some odd limitations on what weapons are really effective for him. Rage requires a Strength based melee weapon, so ranged attacks are out. This leaves you with Strength based attacks generally using one of three setups:
Great Weapon – The simplest path to high damage, and some would argue it is not the best. Feat synergy is pretty strong, but it is feat intensive which will impact your stats. It’s classic Barbarian though, and still a very solid choice, and pretty economical in regards to your Actions. Consider looking into the Polearm Master and Great Weapon Master feats, while also looking at Sentinel. Weapon wise, for pure damage you want to look at the Greataxe, or if you go the Polearm route the Glaive and Halberd.
Two Weapon Fighting – This build benefits from a level dip in Fighter to get your Strength damage on your off hand weapon. It also requires the Dual Wielder feat. This build will likely yield the most potential damage per round, you just have to be careful with your bonus actions. Remember that things like Rage take one, as do other feats and the knock down from the Wolf Totem ability. Mixing damage types will likely yield the best results, so pick 2 of Battleaxe/longsword (slashing), Morning-star (piercing), War hammer (bludgeoning).
Sword and Board – Increased survivability is always nice. A Barbarian with a shield makes for a nice tank. A Barbarian with a shield and the Shield Master feat makes for one of the best tanks in the game as your abilities mesh so well with it. A 1 level dip into Fighter will help bring your damage up with the Duelist Fighting Style. Preferred weapons here are the battle-axe, longsword and war hammer.
Armor -vs- No Armor
The Unarmored barbarian is definitely strong, but if you want to take more feats, then you’ll need to get armor because you are not maxing out your ability scores for Unarmored Defense.
My suggestion. No Armor.
Dexterity -vs- Strength
I’m not getting into that argument. I like my Barbarians with Great Axes. But I will go through that in the near future.
So as I said before a lot of this information was pulled over from WotC Community boards, and then I reformatted for ease of use. Let me know what you think as I continue to tweak all of this over the next few months.
Thanks for reading.
[Last Edit: 2015-10-29 0022 EST]