Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class. Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.
Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D 5E.
As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.
The big, bad barbarian
With an origin dating back to 1982’s Dragon Magazine #63, the barbarian was introduced by Gary Gygax as a subclass of fighter. Presented as a tough survivalist with many skills suited to living a life in difficult terrain, the barbarian had the largest hit die of any class – d12 – that persists to this day. Coupled with their mobility and canny senses, they were adept at staying alive. Barbarians also had a large number of skills that were unlike other classes at the time, focused on wilderness survival. In that way, they were kind of like the thief, who had all the dungeon-delving skills one could want, making that class very popular when it was new. i imagine as D&D evolved and adventurers explored what lay above ground – away from subterranean labyrinths – the barbarian offered the kind of skillset that offered players a mechanical way to interact with the game.
Barbarians also hated magic.
AD&D second edition relegated barbarians to a fighter kit, later getting their own Complete Handbook.
In 3rd edition, barbarians gained their most distinctive feature – their rage. Unlike fighters, who gained their martial ability through training and discipline, the barbarian relied on primal fury in combat. Barbarians also decided that magic wasn’t so bad.
D&D 4E stuck with the rage and added a leader archetype to the mix with the thaneborn barbarian.
The iconic barbarian rage, although not what brought the class to the dance, continues to fuel the barbarian’s place in D&D 5E.
A tough nut to crack
Despite their immense popularity in D&D, i don’t have much experience with barbarians. i played one briefly that was inspired by the Marvel Comics character Troll.
In a campaign for my friend’s kid, where they woke up to find all the adults in the world had vanished, my barbarian was an adolescent female halfling bear totem warrior. She was raised by bears and believed herself to be one of them.
The only other experience i can recall with a barbarian was a player in an Adventurers League group when we played through Princes of the Apocalypse. She was an air genasi eagle totem warrior.
Both of those characters were mechanically suboptimal (bear totem because of the race – halfling – and air genasi because of the eagle totem). However, they both contributed to their respective groups and everyone at the tables had a good time, thus reinforcing my longstanding belief that a character you enjoy playing is far superior to the mathematically optimized options.
Nevertheless, it is challenging to conceptualize outside the box when it comes to barbarians. Their rage feature is so strong and iconic, looking at them in any way other than a battle-thirsty outlander warrior is difficult.
That being said, one of the best things about 5E is the backgrounds feature that adds new dimensions to characters. Optimally, players can choose backgrounds that sync up with their class, such as the outlander or folk hero backgrounds for a barbarian for example. On the other hand, something like the criminal gives barbarians some rogue-like abilities. Or maybe your barbarian was an acolyte of their people’s faith and their rage is a divine fury. Even a noble background can work well; perhaps your barbarian is from a landed family and is prone to frightening anger.
At the very least, all barbarians are tough – that’s their signature ability. Regardless of race, skills, backgrounds or the Primal Path chosen, barbarians can dish out and take incredible amounts of punishment. Beyond that, they have just as much room for customization as any other D&D character.
By steering away from mechanical and mathematical optimization, set your imagination free and instead create characters whose stories you want to discover. While D&D is a numbers game, it’s more importantly a storytelling game that rewards clever play and engagement with fellow players and DMs. You characters are more than the facts and figures on the character sheet!
Looking for inspiration
A few fictional characters come to mind that capture the D&D barbarian spirit. Chief among them is the uber-popular Marvel Comics X-Man, Wolverine. He’s incredibly tough, which syncs with the barbarian’s reliance on Constitution. In fact in 5E, barbarians’ Constitution not only adds to their prodigious hit point totals, it provides additional protection through their Unarmored Defense ability that ups their Armor Class. And, of course, like Wolverine the barbarian can enter a rage state that makes them a beast in combat.
For a different take on a barbarian character, modeling one on Wolverine you might forgo gravitating towards wielding the biggest weapon possible and instead try two weapon fighting with a pair of daggers refluffed as claw-like weapons. Incidentally, refluffing skills, abilities, weapons, spells and the like is one of the beauties of D&D – you can use the same mechanics along with your imagination to easily flavor characters however you like. A hill dwarf sounds pretty nifty, with their increased Wisdom enhancing your feral senses and their increased toughness.
For another literary barbarian, consider Fafhrd from Fritz Leiber’s amazing Lankhmar stories. With his companion the Gray Mouser, the pair are a couple of rogues who in some ways flip the script. Fafhrd is typically the more practical or level-headed of the two (although he does let his romantic nature get the better of him on occasion).
Oddly enough, Conan the Barbarian has very little in common with stereotypical D&D barbarians, despite his immense strength and shirtlessness. Conan is also highly intelligent and disciplined, and many before me have likened him more to a multiclass fighter/thief in D&D terms. On the other hand, there’s nothing keeping a player from assigning higher Intelligence to their barbarian and scaling the Tower of the Elephant to steal the treasure inside.
Wizards of the Coast has been posting weekly content under the Unearthed Arcana brand, offering playtest material for the different classes. These new class options continue the tradition that 5E has established by offering new directions to take your base class without having to multiclass – a huge win in my book!
The entry for barbarians is one of the most interesting of these, presenting several new options for the primal path players get to choose at 3rd level. They’ve done an excellent job here, coming up with some new takes that keep the spirit of the barbarian but imagining their rage and connection to the natural world in interesting ways.
The Path of the Ancestral Guardian translates that connection into a bond with the character’s past, calling on spirits of their forefathers and great historical warriors to aid them. In particular, the Consult the Spirits ability adds a new layer to the barbarian that allows them a bonus to Intelligence and Wisdom checks. This primal path reminds me a bit of the warlock class, not only mechanically but for roleplaying options, giving both the player and DM opportunities to incorporate the barbarian’s ancestral spirits into their interactions with the world. In this way, it is reminiscent of the Totem Warrior path.
The Path of the Storm Herald adds a bit of magic into the barbarian mix. Based on various environments – deserts, seas or tundras – these barbarians manifest their primal fury with elemental effects like a damaging aura and resistances. Later effects control the environment to make movement difficult, knock foes prone or keep them in place. The idea of your barbarian’s deep connection to their homeland environment manifesting as magical abilities lends a mystical quality to their toughness. Picking up the Magic Initiate feat would mesh well with this path.
Finally, there’s the Path of the Zealot. This one adds a heavily divine aspect to the barbarian, imagining them as holy warriors called by the gods to fight the neverending fight. The guys at Web DM discussed this in their video on barbarians and came up with several really neat ideas for this path. Zealot barbarians have a strong link between life and death. Among other things, they can be brought back to life very easily via magic. In this scenario, an entire culture could be built around the warriors of their past, holding them in reverence and keeping their bodies enshrined so that, when needed, they can be called back to life to fight the good fight. The Undying Court in the Eberron setting could inspire this sort of culture, elves whose revered dead are kept enshrined in a necropolis.
Roles not rolls
As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as character built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.
D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.
For the barbarian class, jacked-up Strength and Constitution and swinging a big axe as the party damage dealer is a perfectly excellent way to play a barbarian. But don’t rule out the countless other ways to bring your barbarian to life. A wolf Totem Warrior can focus more on tactics and surgical strikes with the rest of the party. An eagle Totem Warrior makes a terrific ranged scout. A Storm Herald might be the party’s battlefield controller. Even something like an elven berserker can work well – they might not depend on their Strength for everything and instead take advantage of a barbarian’s mobility and keen senses to make sure they’re wherever they’re needed most on the battlefield.
Outside of combat, barbarians can make excellent leaders, too. Consider something like a tiefling Ancestral Guardian, using guile, cunning and force of personality along with a few mystical tricks to inspire allies and even act as the party’s face.
The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, give the barbarian a spin. At their core, barbarians are incredibly tough and mobile, tapping into primal forces that fuel their passion and manifest in all sorts of ways. No matter what path you choose, a barbarian is going to hit hard and be difficult to take down.
Beyond that, think about what role your barbarian will play, not just in combat or in the party dynamic, but in the world and story you’re creating with your fellow players. Like any character, your barbarian is a unique individual with their own story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.