D&D (and other such games) have taken the idea of the real life and mythology of the berserker and turned it into the barbarian class that we know and love in the game but for the most part they are simply a power that isn’t explored more in depth. However, with a bit of world-building forethought and player involvement, these often-ignored powers can come to the forefront to make those with these powers the terror in battle that they are truly meant to be.
Firstly, we need to start with some definitions.
Berserkers were champion Norse warriors who reportedly went into battle wearing nothing but animal furs, fighting in a trance-like fury often fueled by a combination of hallucinogenic mushrooms, alcohol, and madness.
Barbarians on the other hand are:
wild, uncivilized, and primitive people who are often portrayed as being brutal, cruel, and/ or warlike who may be admired and romanticized as noble savages. In the real world if you are not person who adhered to Greek culture, you were a barbarian.
Despite having definitions, throughout this article these terms will be used interchangeably, as the gaming idea of a barbarian as a berserker is inseparable.
Please note: These ideas behind these powers are based on Pathfinder, (but have been edited for conciseness) but with a bit of tweaking can be used for any version of D&D that has barbarians – or really any game that uses these concepts. Because of this, it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss what level these powers would be appropriate at. Neither is this article isn’t going to talk about whether the powers are standard, extraordinary, or supernatural.
Consider how to incorporate the following rage-based feats into your game(s). Keep in mind, unless it states it directly, that these powers are active only “while raging.”
One of the things that historical berserkers try to do that RPGs try and emulate is the fact that at the height of their rage, they were very animalistic in terms of their combat. According to this article, historically, the ultimate goal of going into a berserker rage was to “hamask,” which translates as “change form.” Those who changed formed by entering berserkergang where considered “hamrammr,” or “shapestrong.”
- Night Vision: The barbarian’s senses grow incredibly sharp while raging and she gains darkvision 60 feet. A barbarian must have low-light vision as a rage power or a racial trait to select this rage power.
- Claws: The barbarian gains a pair of claw attacks which do appropriate damage for his size 1d6 (M) or 1d4 (S). Draconic Blood, Lesser is one of the feats that gets this power. Other feats can be taken to increase the damage, allowing the character to perform a pounce maneuver, and inflict bleeding damage.
- Bite: The barbarian gets a bite appropriate to her its size 1d4 (M) or 1d3 (S). Additional feats can be taken to increase the damage to 1d6 (M) and 1d4 (S.) Another feat can be taken to cause bleeding damage. A further feat allows the biter to gain half the HP of the damage on a critical hit. Other feats allow the bite to overcome various resistances and obtain the grab ability.
- Grow: The barbarian grows by a size category
- Bloody Fist: allows the barbarian to rip out one of her opponent’s vital organs on a confirmed critical hit. If confirmed the opponent takes 1d4 points of Constitution damage as one of its vital organs is ripped free from its body. If the barbarian to eat the organ, he regains both HP and energy immunities/ resistances the victim had at half strength. The immunities/ resistances last for half the creature’s Hit Dice.
- Breathtaker: whenever you make a successful melee attack against an opponent that is holding its breath, in addition to any other effects caused by that attack, the opponent can’t hold their breath for as long as normal.
- Gore: when you hit with a gore attack as part of a charge, you automatically score a critical threat. An extra feat can be spent to deal 1d4 Constitution damage. On either of these, he must still confirm the critical hit as normal. Other feats can allow you to grow horns
- Scent: The barbarian gains the scent ability while raging and can use this ability to locate and later track unseen foes if another feat is spent.
Barbarians are known to be athletic and able to move around on the battlefield. These powers help her to do so both more efficiently and more efficiently
- Climber: When raging, the barbarian adds her level as an enhancement bonus on all Climb skill checks. Another feat can grant the barbarian a climb speed equal to his land speed.
- Leaper: When raging, the barbarian adds her level as an enhancement bonus on all Acrobatics skill checks made to jump. When jumping this way, the barbarian is always considered to have a running start. Another feat can be spent to break up the barbarian’s move.
- Swimmer: When raging, the barbarian adds her level as an enhancement bonus on all Swim skill checks. Another feat cam be spent to grant a swim speed equal to her normal land speed.
- Swift Foot: The barbarian gains an always on 5-foot enhancement bonus to her speed able to be taken 3X. Another feat can be spent to allow the barbarian to be able to sprint once per rage, the barbarian can use a single full-round run action to move up to 6X her speed or a single full-round charge at up to 3X her speed.
- Rolling Dodge: The barbarian gains a +1-dodge bonus to her AC against ranged attacks equal to his current Constitution modifier (minimum 1), which increase as the barbarian gains more levels. Another feat may be spent to apply the bonus to AC as a bonus on saving throws
- Quick Reflexes: the barbarian can make one additional attack of opportunity per round.
Fear & Morale
Berserkers were known to be both fearsome and immune to fear. Here are some class abilities that exemplify this.
- Intimidating Glare: The barbarian can intimidate nearby foes. If successful, the foe is shaken for 1d4 rounds + 1 round for every 5 points by which the barbarian’s check exceeds the DC. Another feat can be spent to cause the opponent to be panicked for 1d4+1 rounds if they fail their save.
- Roar: Barbarian is granted a sonic attack that does 1d6 damage to demoralized enemies.
- Fight Response: If a barbarian faces a fear effect, she can enter a rage as an immediate action (if she would normally be able to do so). This consumes 3 rounds of rage, but she can maintain it normally. Any benefits from the barbarian’s rage apply immediately, so she gains her bonus on to save against the fear effect.
- Fearless Rage: While raging, the barbarian is immune to the shaken and frightened conditions.
Damage Resistance & Armor based powers
One of the reasons that berserkers were used as shock troops was because of their ability to shrug off damage that would fell an ordinary man. This often was represented by the fact that they were often unafraid of fire or iron weapons in the stories depicting them.
- Energy Resistance: Barbarians with this rage ability can shrug off acid, cold, and fire. This is historically appropriate because except for a pelt on their back, berserkers went into battle naked.
- Increased Armor: The Barbarians gets a natural armor of +1 which increase as the barbarian level increases. This could be attributed to being more situationally aware, being able to shrug off more attacks, or simply being more insensitive to blows.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Once per rage, the barbarian can try to avoid serious harm from an attack by making a saving against the damage that would be dealt by the attack. If it succeeds, the barbarian takes half damage and the damage is nonlethal.
- Guarded Life: While raging, if the barbarian is reduced below 0 HP, 1 hit point of lethal damage per barbarian level is converted to nonlethal damage. If the barbarian is at negative HP due to lethal damage, she immediately stabilizes. Another feat converts an additional hit point of lethal damage per barbarian level to nonlethal damage.
- Guarded Stance: The barbarian gains a +1-dodge bonus to her AC against melee attacks for the same number of rounds as to her current Constitution modifier (minimum 1). Every 6 levels this increases by +1.
- Deathless Frenzy: You ignore the effects of being at 0 or fewer HPs if you haven’t been there for 1 round, at which point the appropriate consequences for your current HP total take effect. Even death can be postponed this way, potentially allowing you to survive if you receive sufficient healing before the round is up.
- Increased Damage Reduction: The barbarian’s damage reduction increases by 1/— which is always active while the barbarian is raging.
- Fierce Fortitude: The character gains a +4 bonus on saving throws against diseases and poison.
- Internal Fortitude: While raging, the barbarian is immune to the sickened and nauseated conditions.
- Renewed Vigor: As a standard action, the barbarian heals 1d8 points of damage + her Constitution modifier. For every four levels the damage healed increases by 1d8.
- Regenerative Vigor: until her current rage ends, the barbarian gains fast healing 1, which can go up to fast healing 3. She regains HP from fast healing at the start of each of her turns.
- Renewed Vitality: the barbarian ignores the effect of 1 point of ability penalty or damage per two barbarian levels she has. Once daily, when a barbarian with ability penalties or damage ends her rage, she can reroll a saving throw against an effect that imposed an ability penalty or dealt her ability damage. If successful, she removes the amount she can ignore while raging.
- Renewed Life: While raging, the barbarian ignores the effect of temporary negative levels. Once per day, when a barbarian with temporary negative levels ends her rage, she can attempt saving throws to remove the number of levels she could ignore while raging.
There are a variety of rage based powers that can be used in your games, if the DM is open to exploring their use. Consider using these in your game, either by allowing the characters to use them or giving them to enemies you’re sending after your players for them to learn about. As always, feel free to like, comment, and re-share!