I have been thinking about barbarian a lot lately. As part of an endeavor begun here with the invoker, I have been doing a fresh archetype pass for all the classes. Barbarian took me quite a while to hammer out something that fit – wandering cultists of Dendar the Night Serpent who take the nightmares of others into themselves – but it reminded me of some of the issues I have with the class.
Mad About You
Barbarian is an interesting class to dive into with a fine tooth comb. It’s a martial class with a lot of combat options and features…but somehow falls short when taken as a whole. One of the glaring failures is the fact they receive none of the fighting styles most of the other weapon-heavy classes possess. Instead, rage is the be-all-end-all for the class. The concept of rage is fairly loose – rage stemming from fierce animals, rage from “the pain in the world,” rage from…bloodlust I guess, rage from ghosts, rage from the ferocity of nature, and rage channeled from the gods. That’s a lot of rage. Still, let’s set aside rage for the moment.
Barbarians have all sorts of things in which they are proficient…and don’t mesh with the rest of their class features – or exist only to use with a specific archetype. For example, medium armor. Now, I would argue it’s probably best for barbarians to wear a breastplate or even half-plate (if they are playing up the whole “sneaking is for cowards who can’t fight!” thing.) Why? It’s pretty easy to have a small dexterity bonus and get a bigger benefit than using unarmored defense to its full extent. That’s…not great. Of course, Battlerager barbarians require this medium armor, and thus baking it into the class makes sense if you don’t want to waste a feature on proficiencies. However, this style of design does some weird things to what should be marquee features.
Unarmored Defense, Fighting Styles, and Mitigation
Unarmored defense – one of the earliest barbarian features – is a way to support the Arnold Conan or The Last of the Mohicans. The issue comes down to the calculation. It provides an AC based on your Dexterity and Constitution modifiers. This is fine…until you look at rage. Rage doesn’t provide you much in the way offensive benefit unless you use Strength-based weapons. This means Dexterity is likely to be a tertiary stat for you, and Constitution is unlikely to have a +4 or +5 modifier when you pick up the feature. You certainly could stat that way, but it definitely goes against what I have seen and discussed with a moderate amount of players. The reason I doubt this is the majority of your other features hinge on successful attacks or your Strength score. Putting Constitution over Strength devalues those features – provided you are playing a full-level campaign.
Now, you can use a shield with unarmored defense, but you can do that in armor, too. Unfortunately, shield provides its own challenges. Barbarian is unique in that so many features are damage oriented, but they don’t get fighting styles. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does create some “feels bad” situations due to the features that are present. Let’s walk through a few to help paint a better picture.
Tanks for Nothing
A barbarian wants to be a tank. They pick up shield, and their AC is a totally reasonable 18. When they rage, they get a respectable damage boost from their one-handed weapon, and superior survivability due to hit die size and resistance to the most common damage types. Reckless attack can serve as an incentive to invite attacks, but an effectively doubled hit point pool disincentivizes it right back – carriers not withstanding Unfortunately, that’s the totality of the pressure the base barbarian – I will discuss archetypes later on – brings to the fight.
Other classes filling frontline roles provide pressure through group support. The incentive to disable them is a lot higher than the incentive to disable a barbarian. Something as simple as the protection fighting style – even in the woefully imperfect rules as written state – adds an additional layer of pressure for the fighter or paladin that the base barbarian doesn’t possess. While certainly anyone could pick up the sentinel feat, fighter gets additional early opportunities to do so without any real opportunity cost due to bounded ability modifiers. Paladins have additional group support through passive aura and active spells – most being concentration presenting an additional reason to target them. This spell pressure proves true for bards, clerics, and druids who want to focus on tanking.
Now, the Ancestral Guardian archetype in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything does a great job of providing group pressure. It’s excellent at mitigating damage for others and using a 4e style mark mechanic to force creatures to want to attack them. It’s more raw mitigation than Battlemaster fighter, though definitely without the massive damage, utility, and control Battlemaster brings to the table. Oath of the Ancients and Oath of Devotion paladins provide piles of avoidance and mitigation, so they still probably provide more group pressure. The same is true for spellcasters running a tank role, as spell scaling is phenomenal in 5e.
The fact Ancestral Guardian is in a supplement also matters. It means Adventurer’s League players might see it phased out unless it constantly gets reprinted. While this doesn’t affect a lot of players, it affects a meaningful subset of players. Classes with strong cores will prove more attractive over time due to the fact it doesn’t require constant reprint bloat in future works. It’s something to consider, and I try and keep it in mind when discussing relative strengths and weaknesses.
As a final note on this, primal champion at 20th level does a pile of heavy lifting. Having a +7 bonus from Con and Strength does wonders for your personal pressure – upping your AC and damage quite meaningfully. The issue is it comes at 20th, and isn’t likely to affect the majority of play experiences. If a lot of your play takes place at 20th, and you can guarantee both scores are 24, it changes my argument considerably. However, focusing on the other nineteen levels is what I have chosen to do – correctly or incorrectly.
Damage Incorporated Files for Bankruptcy
Core barbarian looks like it should make for a fairly high damage class, all things considered – provided you use a Strength-based weapon. Unfortunately, looks can be fairly deceiving. Base barbarian only gets two attacks per round, and rage damage on a hit scales from +2 to +4. For a barbarian using a one-handed weapon and a shield, this deals as much bonus damage as the Duelist fighting style does for a fighter. Unfortunately, fighters would also apply their ability modifier two additional times, eclipsing the barbarian. The two-weapon fighting style starts off much better than a barbarian who dual-wields, and ends up slightly better. Paladins end up doing slightly more damage through improved divine smite – with the caveat that the damage might be slightly lower or much higher.
Great weapon fighting is even more interesting. The Great Weapon Fighting fighting style increases the average damage of a two-handed sword from 7 + Strength Modifier + Bonuses to 7.8 + Strength Modifier + Bonuses, while the barbarian is getting a flat bonus to damage of +2 to +4 per hit. However, this still ends up being a meaningful bonus. An 11th level barbarian would deal – on average – 30 damage from their attack action. A fighter would deal 38.4, and a paladin would deal 34.6. Fighter continues to scale harder later on, as you would expect from a fourth attack. Prior to that point, a barbarian would end up doing more damage from a standard average attack action, but the gap is 25.6 compared to either 28 or 30. It’s closer than the gap in the opposite direction at 11th.
Brutal critical seems like it should be something to close this damage gap, but let’s take a look. Let’s assume you critical hit exactly on your 20th attack, and every attack hits for the purposes of this. Over ten rounds – twenty attacks for barbarian and paladin, and thirty hits for a fighter – the barbarian would deal an average of 310.5 damage, a paladin would deal 358.3 and a fighter would deal 391.8. Of that, 60 is rage damage, 16.8 is Great Weapon Fighting Style damage for the paladin, and 24.8 is Great Weapon Fighting Style damage for fighters. Even if the barbarian is 19th, she only deals 333.5. Heck, at 20th – with a 24 Strength – the barbarian only deals 377.5.
Ultimately, this means the only time the barbarian really outshines others in damage is between 5th and 10th levels, and only if they are wielding a two-handed weapon. Even then, this falls apart if you start looking at archetypes or the paladin uses spells. I don’t want to get into a rat hole of math and if-then statements. The point to take away from all this is that it is a very narrow band of shaky, heavily codified dominance.
As mentioned earlier, the XGTE archetypes do a lot to help the barbarian. Ancestral Guardian makes them into respectable tanks, while the Storm Herald does an excellent job of turning them into area of effect threats. Zealot…is probably awesome for NPCs. I could see where it could be fun, but it pales next to the other two released. The core archetypes fair a lot worse.
My Love for You is Ticking Clock
Path of the Berserker has a lot of issues. Frenzy is incredibly powerful low-end, but doesn’t scale well. It also has exhaustion tied to it, which is a major hindrance for the entire group – not just the barbarian using it. Mindless Rage provides immunity to two common effects, making it a solid power – even if immunity design is not something I care for. Of course, paladins splash around this same immunity to their entire group for just hanging around, but I digress. Intimidating Presence is flat out awful. Not only is it an effect that hardly works – frightened – but it costs additional actions and requires a fourth stat to be fairly high in order to make it at all useful. Unless there are scads of charismatic, strong, dextrous, and stalwart barbarians out there that I just don’t know about. Retaliation is a great feature, so no complaints there – other than to say other classes probably have a way to spend their reactions for damage in a similar fashion at that level. That’s not really a complaint.
All told, this is one great feature, one good feature, and two pretty bad features. I know some people might love frenzy, but the cost attached is just atrocious. You could flip it with retaliation and remove the cost and it fixes the issues entirely, while giving barbarians a bit more threat early on. Now that I say that, I’d strongly consider doing that as a house rule. Intimidating Presence could be fine if you made it Strength or Constitution-based and made it require a bonus action to extend it or made it concentration-based. I’d probably redesign it to be a triggered reaction to doing something impressive, instead. I’d have to think on it. I think the above rework is probably enough.
Path of the Totem Warrior is a fairly solid archetype with good design. Sure, the bear totem spirit is objectively crazy powerful compared to the other options, but the rest are all fairly balanced. It’s easy to say the bear totemic attunement is a great group pressure tanking ability, but it hinges on the targets being susceptible to being frightened. Once you are in the 14th level range, that’s not really something you will encounter often, sadly. Still, it’s a really flavorful archetype with a lot of good utility and some minor control. Importantly, it provides some group presence. It doesn’t do much in the way of increasing your damage, however. That’s not atypical of many subclasses, however. In theory, Path of the Berserker was the damage path you would take if you wanted to just wreck things, after all.
Rage against the Rage
Finally, we get to what I consider to be the core issue with the barbarian – rage. Rage is absolutely considered the defining feature for barbarians. It’s also an extremely limiting feature due to the initial design of the class and archetypes. For the most part, if an archetype feature is combat-oriented, it’s going to hinge on rage being active. Rage is a per-long rest currency, until you reach 20th level and you can rage without limit – like you have Twitter account or something. Unfortunately, until you reach fifteenth level rage is a fairly fragile condition. It takes a bonus action to activate, lasts one minute and ends early if you fall unconscious or if you go a round without being able to attack a hostile creature or take damage.
You start with two rages, gain a third at 4th level, a fourth at 6th, a fifth at 12th, a sixth at 17th, and unlimited at 20th. Prior to 6th level, it’s not unreasonable to run into situations where you run out of rage uses before your adventuring day is done. From 6th to 11th, you still need to manage your number of rages, but you will probably be fine in most cases. From 12th onward, it’s going to be fairly unlikely you will run out of rages before you are done for the day and can sit through a long rest.
Unfortunately, this means you encounter situations where you can’t use large chunks of your class and archetype features because you can’t rage. Without rage, the class is abysmal. In order for this design to be acceptable, it means rage has to be incredibly strong. It does a fairly decent job at this, mostly due to the resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing it provides. Sure, the damage seems great, but the flat values and limited scaling present problems. As you can see in the examples above, the damage doesn’t keep pace, even at the extreme top end. This is all capped off with advantage to Strength ability checks and saving throws while raging. It’s a nice feature, but one that doesn’t come up all that often, limiting its efficacy.
The power of rage stems from the resistance it grants. It makes any barbarian – regardless of archetype – a pile of angry hit points. For the majority of the game, you are going to be resisting the damage being done to you – even if you are “damage focused.” Once you start tying all of your damage and survivability to it, it starts to become this sort of super state for the barbarian. Either the barbarian is in combat and raging, or the barbarian functionally doesn’t exist. This creates situations where rage seems exponentially more powerful as a result of all of the additional features tied to it. This makes the feature seem much more powerful than it really is.
Howling into the Void
I think I have done a good job of illustrating the shortcomings of the barbarian – even at the high-level I presented the above information. It should come as no surprise, then, that I believe the barbarian is in need of assistance. The goal should be to provide more options for the barbarian, and make rage more of a spotlight feature than it currently is while also making the barbarian stand on its own feet when not raging.
One of the first things I would look at is the scaling damage. Flat adds are easy to do math around, but it’s at odds with brutal critical. If we want to make barbarians burst-heavy, it makes sense to make rage damage a scaling die. Starting at a d4 and moving to a d8 would average out to close to the same, while working better when a critical occurs.
Rage also needs to change, and features that hang on rage along with it. Rage becoming a per-short rest currency instead of a long rest currency could allow it be more readily available at lower levels, while still mattering as a resource at higher levels. My initial thought is to make it scale more similarly to channel divinity for clerics. Start at one use per short rest and scale to three before becoming unlimited at 20th. This might seem a bit counterintuitive, but it will mesh a bit better with the rest of the martial classes and allows a bit freer use without feeling as if you are making the wrong decision by raging in a short encounter.
I’d also consider changing how the resistance of rage works. This is by far the most powerful feature, and it could use a slight tweak to allow the power to be spread around more evenly. One option might be gaining additional resistances as you advance – starting with a choice of bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing and gaining the others when you get more uses of rage or just at specific levels. Another scenario could be to do away with the resistance entirely, and have a pool of temporary hit points that refresh each round based on your level. Yet another could be granting temporary hit points when the barbarian enters range and using the resistance actively via reaction – limiting the amount of times they could benefit from it in a given round.
Of these presented, I prefer the last option. It makes the barbarian care about what’s going on, and might present scenarios where they take the full damage in order to do something else. Numbers would need tweaking, but a gut feeling of barbarian level times Constitution modifier or times a flat number (five maybe.) This needs a bit more thought to hammer out, but it’s worth discussing.
The way features work would need to be changed. I would love to see features do one thing if you are raging, and do an additional or different thing if you are raging. The goal is to allow barbarians to still feel as if they are going to be okay in combat if they are not raging – perhaps allowing for some Hulk-esque angsty on raging or not. For example, retaliation could work without raging, but when you rage you have advantage on the attack, knock creatures down, deal additional damage, or a hit could a limit movement speed. Frenzy could work out side of rage and maintain the exhaustion, while you lose it if you use it while raging – rearranging the levels you receive it, as mentioned above. There are a lot of potential options, but this gets the idea across.
Mentioned earlier in the scaling, if this is going to be a big feature, it needs to do more than it is doing now – even with the rage damage changes. It’s tempting to say it stays as is while not raging, but raging allows you to crit more often or does more. Champions already crit more frequently, so staying away from that if we can is good. Providing a secondary effect is a decent option – incapacitated, stunned, restrained, speed reduced to 0, something.
In the case of wanting additional currency to power effects, look to the barbarian’s hit points. Spending hit points to gain additional effects or strengthen existing effects is an option to consider. It simulates the blood-letting often associated with barbarians, and it’s something the barbarian has a lot of already. It represents a trade-off between the barbarian’s considerable survivability and increased offense or utility. This is more of an archetype suggestion than anything else.
The End My Friend
Thanks for sticking with me this long. I know this isn’t exactly a short article, and it covers quite a bit of ground. I love so much about 5e, and want to see areas that could use some love get that attention. Even if you don’t agree with everything I have outlined – or the possible solutions I suggested – I hope that it spurs some meaningful discussion about the barbarians.