With Icewind Dale looming on the horizon, new campaigns will be starting, new players will be joining the game, and weird nerds like myself will be gearing up for a whole new round of adventures. As the Wizards of the Coast release grows nearer, now is the time to refresh your knowledge or learn an entirely new class. No matter if you’re an expert DM, have never made a barbarian, or maybe never played dungeons and dragons, this guide is for you.
I understand that “best” is different for everyone. In D&D there is no right or wrong way to go about expressing your creativity. We’re just focusing on character optimization here. If you want to make a Gnome Barbarian have at it, just understand why and how they’re not optimal for this class.
I’ll really only be focusing on the Players Handbook and Xanathars Guide to Everything. Just to make this a bit easier.
We’re going to cover 4 things here -
Race - That’s going to be your foundation. Your racial choice will give you lots of wiggle room down the line.
Skills and Backgrounds - These are important for so many reasons, but making your barbarian into a damage cushion is important. Picking a good background gives you some great roleplaying potential.
Primal Path - There were some AMAZING paths released with XGE. We’ll talk about the Path of the Totem Warrior and the Path of the Ancestral Guardian in this guide, but serious shout out to Zealot and Storm Herald paths. They’re super creative, but in my opinion, just not as useful to min/max overall.
Feats - The optional Feat rule is a must use for your barbarian. There are one or two Feats that would really hurt to not have once you get to later levels.
When we talk about character race in any context we have to focus on the needs of the class. In this case, barbarians primarily need strength, constitution, and Feats to be super successful. That essentially leaves us with three solid choices for your barbarian.
Goliath - My personal favorite because of Stones Endurance, Natural Athlete, and Powerful Build. All that in conjunction with a +2 to Strength and +1 to Con makes this a great pick. Stones Endurance lets you reduce damage as a reaction once per short rest by 1d12+ making you extremely tanky. Natural Athlete gives you proficiency in athletics by default, something every barbarian should have. And Powerful Build lets you move, lift, and carry objects as if you were one size larger than you are. We did the math and my barbarian can lift 1080 pounds, which is both hilarious and incredibly useful.
Human Variant - If we’re being honest, this is a better overall choice than Goliaths. The only downside is that not all DMs will allow them. They offer a solid +1 to strength and constitution AND a free Feat at level one. I’ll get to Feats a bit later, but suffice it to say the benefits to that starting Feat outweigh all the other races’ starting bonuses combined.
Half-Orc - Kind of like the Goliath in the stat boost, the half-orcs just replace the racial traits with Darkvision, proficiency in Intimidation, Relentless Endurance (which gets replaced later anyway), and Savage Attack. Savage Attack allows you to add an extra hit die on a critical, which stacks super well with some Feats. Overall, this race just doesn’t give quite as many extra treats to the barbarian class.
Skills and Backgrounds
Skills for a barbarian are simple. Focus on Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity, in that order. Wisdom is somewhat helpful depending on the build, but it’s truly not necessary.
One of the huge benefits for most barbarians is an unarmored boost to your AC. Directly from the handbook, “While you are not wearing any armor, your Armor Class equals 10 + your Dexterity modifier + your Constitution modifier. You can use a shield and still gain this benefit.” For early levels and players with a DM that’s stingy about giving away decent gear, this is paramount.
You also quickly get advantage on Dexterity saving throws, so sacrificing a bit there for a boost in your Strength and Constitution is totally worth it.
Backgrounds are great. If you and your party love the roleplaying aspect of Dungeons and Dragons, the background you choose from the Players Handbook or create for your campaign can really add an extra layer of immersion. There are really no huge downsides to any of them but my two favorites are:
Pirate - because… duh… you get to commit petty crimes and get away with it. That, plus being good at sea is great depending on your campaign. Athletics and Perception are two super important things for any melee character and being a pirate gets you proficient in those by default.
Outlander - Wander is a great ability depending on how strict your DM is. Having an additional language and proficiency in athletics and survival is nice as well.
Here is where the meat and potatoes of your character really come to light. Your primal path crafts your backstory, the essence of your character. It also greatly impacts your level advancement and your play style. When I’m crafting any character, I spend more time researching the character tree than anything else. For barbarians, it boils down to a tough choice between two paths, but for very different reasons.
Path of the Ancestral Guardian - This is my personal favorite. I feel like the role of a barbarian is to be the balance between a fighter and a rogue. They’re there to get in front of enemies, keep attention on them, and take as much of the damage as possible. Ancestral Guardian helps do that while giving some great party defense benefits. At 3rd level, you can corner enemies into focusing on you. At the 6th and 14th levels, you can save your party’s ass with Ancestral Shield and Vengeful Ancestors.
Consult the Spirits is the only mixed bag in this. It doesn’t help in combat but allows you to summon an ancestor to help you out. This is great for when the DM is trying to be a smartass and you can’t figure out what the best course of action is.
Path of the Totem Warrior - When this dropped in 5th edition it was a BIG deal. Out of all the builds in D&D I honestly think it’s on a list for the top 5 broken. If you choose a Bear as your totem spirit, Elk or Wolf as your 6th level Aspect of the Beast, and Elk or Eagle for your 14th level Totemic Attunement mod, you’re essentially unstoppable.
You have resistance to all but Psychic damage. You and your party get DOUBLE movement speed (that means up to like… 80 feet for some barbarians, it’s a no brainer) or you can be an extra sneaky boi. AND you reliably get to knock enemies prone after an attack while giving them an extra 1d12+ damage… or you can fly. In all honesty, the only reason you wouldn’t choose that build is that you don’t want the game to be too easy. Sometimes I wish I would have for the Bottlecap Brigade, but Ang is my favorite regardless.
As I said above, seriously love the concept of the other XGE Paths. Zealot makes you very difficult to actually KO (plus it’s hella creepy) and Storm Herald lets you get super creative using elements in battle. Those are great picks if you’re wanting to diversify.
Alright, last but not least, Feats. Most of what I covered above was chosen with these feats in mind. If you’re really looking to optimize your Barbarian, you need these in your toolkit.
Great Weapon Master - I’m going to take some time on this, it’s important for a few reasons. First, if you role a critical OR kill an enemy you get an extra attack. This means at level 5 you could potentially attack 3 times in one turn.
This is even more useful if you were to multiclass to Fighter level 3. Not to digress too much regarding multiclassing, but if you’re running a long campaign with your friends and hoping to get to level 20 with a barbarian, don’t multiclass. For one-shots or short campaigns, I’m a huge proponent of putting 3 levels into a fighter and the rest into barbarian. You can definitely min/max with that. However, at Barbarian level 20 you get a massive 4 point stat boost to both Strength AND Constitution, capping at 24 points each. That’s God mode.
With the automatic advantage you get to every attack that you make with Reckless Attack at second level (I mean that... make it automatic and have an understanding with your DM), the fact that Great Weapon Master also gives you +10 to your damage output while only sacrificing -5 to hit is nearly broken. It also substantially boosts the probability that you’ll roll a critical. Take this Feat at first level instead of an ability boost, or just be a Variant Human. It’s too helpful to disregard.
Sentinel - This is a must before level 14, I’d recommend it at 4th level. It absolutely punishes enemies for getting close, even more so if they try to attack a party member that’s close to you. This also eliminates the need to choose Bear as your Totemic Attunement at level 14. You’re already drawing plenty of attention between Ancestral Protector or a Bear totem.
Luck - I mean, yeah... that’s a no brainer statistically.
As an option, keep Tough, Alert, and Polearm Master in mind. They add great little boosts where some builds wind up needing them.
Well, there you have it. Everything you need to know to make a barbarian… or at least some of the things that you need to know… There’s a lot to D&D.
Get creative, let me know what I missed in the comments. Like I said at the beginning of this, there’s no perfect way to play D&D, and sometimes having ‘technically’ the best character just isn’t the actual best character for you. And that’s OK! Just have fun and play the game!