Rage Against the Campaign

To compliment my series of how-to articles on various aspects of homebrew, I decided to do a sister series covering each of the game’s classes and how they do what they do. To that end, I flipped back in the PHB from Rogue (where else) and got ready to do a post on the first class, alphabetically – bards.

Then I remembered that barbarians are a thing*, and here we are!

*That was a joke. Barbarian fans, please don’t cleave me with your giant axes.

 

Click below, it’s all the rage right now!

 

On the Origins of “Bar Bar”

To begin, lets take a quick look into the past… all the way back to the origins of the barbarian itself.

In Ancient Greece, the “civilized” Greek peoples enjoyed deriding their “less civilized” neighbors. One of their premier jokes was on the subject of these cultures’ languages – to the Greeks, they all sounded like “bar… bar… bar…

Yes, the word barbarian comes from the ancient Greek equivalent of “na-na na-na boo-boo.”

Over the centuries, barbarian came to have many different meanings. In Dungeons and Dragons, the barbarian class was intended as a epitome of the concept – a strong, mighty warrior from a culture outside the dominant one of the setting. For a campaign set in an Eastern-flavored society, a barbarian would most likely be compared to the Mongols. For a more European campaign, a barbarian would be a raging warrior from the fringes, like a Viking or other “heathen” culture.

At its core, the barbarian is a warrior who focuses on strength of body and of will. Things like armor and other advanced technology are meaningless – everything the barbarian needs can be found within.

 

A Barbarian’s Features

Next, lets run down the basic features of the barbarian. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment.

1st Rage, Unarmored Defense 11th Relentless Rage
2nd Reckless Attack, Danger Sense 12th ABSI
3rd Primal Path #1 13th Brutal Critical +
4th Ability Score Increase (ABSI) 14th Primal Path #4
5th Extra Attack, Fast Movement 15th Persistent Rage
6th Primal Path #2 16th ABSI
7th Feral Instinct 17th Brutal Critical ++
8th ABSI 18th Indomitable Might
9th Brutal Critical 19th ABSI
10th Primal Path #3 20th Primal Champion, Unlimited Rage

 

Now, why don’t we talk about what this all means.

 

The base of the barbarian class lies in rage – a barbarian without rage just isn’t much of a barbarian at all. And when you look at Rage, you can find out a lot about the class’s playstyle in general.

There are a couple of parts to the feature we call Rage. Most are, ultimately speaking, defensive – advantage on Strength checks and saves will mostly help to keep you alive (or enable grapples for days), and resistance to weapon damage is also quite hardy. But here’s the catch – Rage also lets you add a flat damage bonus to every single Strength based attack you hit. This bonus rises as you level, and provides for a significant amount of damage over the barbarian’s career. Because this bonus applies each time you hit, you are strongly encouraged to hit as much as possible.

You can see this trend continue in Reckless Attack, which allows you to hit even more often. Advantage on all your Strength attacks (coincidentally the only type of attack that gets bonus damage) means you’re going to hit frequently. However, it also leaves you vulnerable as it gives opponents advantage on their attacks against you. This problem is then solved by Unarmored Defense, which lets you ignore Dexterity and pump Constitution for both Armor Class and Hit Points. A higher Armor Class offsets the effects of advantage on your enemies attacks, and more Hit Points allows you to take the extra hits when you have to.

 

So, what can we boil this down to so far? Well…

  • Hitting on each attack is more important than having multiple attacks. A miss is straight up wasted damage potential.
  • Dexterity is for chumps, even though its one of the best defensive stats in the game. But you have Constitution, so who cares?
  • You’re big, angry, and (most importantly) visibly easier to hit. Your bare torso and obviously reckless technique make that all too apparent.

Next, lets talk secondary features.

 

It’s All Pros with this CON

As we’ve established, barbarians have a complicated relationship with Dexterity. That is to say, they don’t have a relationship with Dexterity because they’re too busy with their life partner, Constitution.

But there’s a problem. Dexterity accounts for a vast majority of defense in the game. From AC to the ridiculously common DEX save, the entire stat is a powerhouse of survival. A character with low Dexterity is just asking to fall into a pit trap, onto a fire-breathing dragon, and then get smacked forty times by a slime.

The barbarian gets around these problems in a few ways. Unarmored Defense we’ve already discussed – it completely negates the need to have a good Dexterity for your AC. And for saving throws? Danger Sense does the job. Initiative? Feral Instinct.

Even Fast Movement plays a part. By increasing the barbarian’s move speed, the feature allows for the class to be as nimble as it needs to be when moving around a battlefield, which is all that really matters to a barbarian anyway.

Constitution, Constitution, Constitution. It’s all about that CON.

 

Barbarians Have Feelings Subclasses Too

I’ll be honest – if I hadn’t decided to do these alphabetically, I probably wouldn’t have started with barbarian. Out of the Player’s Handbook classes, only barbarian and monk have only one subclass.

Yes, I’m aware they both technically have two. Its just that one of the two sucks in both cases.

For ease of use, I’m limiting these articles to Player’s Handbook content only. Not everyone has the other resources out there, so they aren’t the best to cite for those new to the homebrewing scene.

In the PHB barbarian has two subclasses – Totem Warrior and Berserker. The latter one sucks. It’s core concept includes giving yourself a level of exhaustion, one of the most powerful and difficult to cure conditions in the game. It just doesn’t work, so we won’t bother speaking about it.

So lets look at Totem Warrior. You’ll find a table breakdown of its features below, for easy reference.

3rd Spirit Speaker (ritual spells), Totem Spirit (resistance/Dash/advantage)
6th Aspect of the Beast (carry weight/vision/tracking)
10th Spirit Walker (more ritual spells)
14th Totemic Attunement (taunting/jumping/unbalancing)

 

The Totem Warrior fulfills a few key needs of the barbarian class (which Berserker actually doesn’t). Primarily, the subclass provides some non-combat features for the otherwise combat-obsessed base class.

With the ritual spells granted in Spirit Speaker and Spirit Walker, the barbarian now has a place in the party besides “dumb hit things guy.” You can be a spiritual leader of sorts, or a down-to-earth friend of nature. Aspect of the Beast adds even more to this – you could carry more as a stoic strongman, you could boost your vision and become a valuable scout, or you could track like a ranger while sucking in combat at least 50% less.

Even with the more combat-oriented features (Totem Spirit and Totemic Attunement), the Totem Warrior subclass continues to fill in gaps rather than change the base. No matter your choices, your basic combat role is the same – hit it very hard. All that changes is the role your hitting-stuff plays.

The Bear totem in both features focuses on making you a tank. First you boost up your defense to insane levels by getting resistance to all damage (save psychic – psions take note). Then you make it even more impossible for enemies not to hit you. You were already a tempting target with your reckless fighting style and seemingly low armor, but now even a clever, cunning creature can’t help but focus you down first, or risk missing constantly against your friends.

The Eagle, meanwhile, focuses on movement. Having Dash as a bonus action is an immense mobility boost (trust me, I’m a rogue), and protection from opportunity attacks just sweetens the deal. Then, you get to FLY, essentially. More like jump, but with your movement speed… what’s the difference?

Lastly, the Wolf. I’d say this is the most radical of all the options, since its the one that actively affects your friends in a support manner. Rather than defend your allies, you grant them advantage on their attacks to better their combat potential. Then you get the ability to knock things down, further strengthening the attacks of your nearby allies.

Oh, also remember that you can mix and match these to your liking.

 

In future articles, I hope to focus less on individual subclasses and more on comparing those that are available, trying to feel out generalities. With barbarian, however, that isn’t very useful. Berserker sucks, truly. Exhaustion is one hell of a drawback, and the rest of the subclass’s features are somewhat bland.

So, based on just the Totem Warrior… what is a barbarian subclass?

  • An opportunity to expand the class’s non-combat abilities and choices.
  • A chance to refine the class’s in-combat role beyond just “hitting things very hard.”

 

The Sum of its Barbarous Parts

In the end, the barbarian is a combat class through and through. Its origins lie with societies that had combat as their primary contact with the “civilized” culture that named them, and nearly all of their features in D&D revolve around hitting things.

Subclasses can provide a respite, but there aren’t very many examples to look at. The Totem Warrior certainly expands the class’s non-combat potential, but its just one thing to look at in a sea of possibilities.

For a barbarian, combat involves hitting things as much as possible. Each miss is lost damage on a scale that no other class can compare with. A greataxe-wielding, 2nd level fighter with 16 Strength is missing out on 4 damage minimum. A raging barbarian in the same situation is losing out on 6 damage, a 50% increase.

To facilitate this type of combat, the barbarian can open themselves up to punishing attacks from their enemies in exchange for an easier time getting a hit off to use that sweet bonus rage damage. Any potential danger is handled by the barbarian’s absolutely ridiculous Constitution score (they can literally have a higher Constitution than any other player character in the game).

Lastly, the barbarian effectively throws Dexterity under the bus to save Constitution, utilizing Unarmored Defense to handle their AC and Danger Sense to take care of their potential weakness to traps. Feral Instinct even helps them ignore the need for Dexterity when determining initiative.

 

All in all, I think the barbarian is a very tight design. I started this post in a position of derision of the barbarian, since its a class that’s antithetical to everything I love to do in D&D (see: the name of the entire website). But good grief is it a solid design.

The barbarian does its thing flawlessly. Every feature feeds back into a central fantasy that is strong and enduring through the ages, and even the potential weakness in non-combat situations can be aptly handled by a good subclass.

Plus, I mean… what other use is there for d12s anyway?

 

Check back next time for the class I like to call “rogues, but with more guitars” – the Bard!

Thanks for reading!

Click here for the rest of my homebrew how-to’s!

2 thoughts on “Rage Against the Campaign

  1. Aziz M.

    Great write up.

    Though one thing about the barbarian that I dislike is that their rage feels like their default mode instead of a super mode.

    The fact that so many of their combat abilities are keyed to rage increases that. Instead of bring powerful warriors with a super mode, they just have constant angry mode.

    I’ve been wondering if giving the barbarians some non-rage abilities that simply get upgraded during their rage would have been more interesting.

    1. Anathemys

      Thanks! I also had much the same thought when I was working on a new barbarian subclass recently. I worried I was loading everything onto the limited resource of Rages.
      That’s when I realized – everything is on Rage so the subclasses can add non-Rage features. They just don’t do a good job of it.

      Anyway, that’s definitely something I’d add if I went back to do a second go at this article. I’m glad you liked it though!

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