But barbarians are cool! They get to hulksmash things! And they are near impossible to kill! Why do you want to fix something that ain't broken?
Hold on to your panties, youngling, and let me tell you why I would never ever ever play a barbarian in 5E.
Come, let’s walk the path of rage and recklessness.
I'll be honest, I need a bit of complexity in my gaming. A bit of crunch to wrap my head around, otherwise I risk getting bored. I guess this is why I never got along all that well with PbtA games. And yes, I know that some even consider Blades a PbtA game, shut up.
On the other hand, I also love the concept of barbarians. I guess there's just something fundamentally appealing to my lizard brain in playing a wrecking ball of a character who just destroys everything in his path through sheer power and refusal to give in.
So that kinda puts me in a bit of a predicament. I like barbarians, but mechanically speaking, 5E barbarians are boring as hell. Powerful, sure. Good sense of identity? Definitely. Offers great strategic and tactical decision-making? Erm…
Rage against the barbarian
To keep matters as short as possible: the 5E barbarian is boring and lacks decision-making on all fronts.
On a strategic level, a barb has close to no interesting decisions to make upon levelling up. No spells to choose, few features to pick and choose, little in way of inherent class customizability. You pick your archetype at level 3 and barring a few rare exceptions, you're locked all the way up to level 20. Even the few special abilities that you do pick up generally amount to a "you gain a numerical bonus of X when you do Y".
On a tactical level, a barbarian in combat is likely to just waltz up to an enemy and then wail at them ad infinum until one of them drops dead. No variation, no interesting choices. Best you get to decide is whether to use reckless attack or not. (Spoiler alert: You do. You use it every opportunity you get.)
Furthermore, due to having to prioritize physical stats (Strength > Constitution > Dexterity) an average barbarian has piss poor contribution outside of combat. Strength has only a single skill associated with it, Constitution has 0, and by default the barbarian gains few skill proficiencies and no tool proficiencies.
In short, little out-of-combat usability, few in-combat options and close to no customizability. On the other hand, we have excellent identity and flavour. Let's change the former, while screwing up the latter as little as possible.
The barbarian as laid out below is a fairly complex class. Not as complex or fiddly as a full caster, but significantly more complex than the vanilla barb.
I don't consider this an inherently good thing, to be completely honest. What I think would be the best way to design classes and archetypes in general would be to provide a wide array of complexity across the various archetypes, thus allowing the player to choose how complex he wants his D&D to be.
The vanilla barbarian fails at this and is just stupidly simple across all archetypes. Consider a fighter instead. The champion is the simplest of the simplest. No special abilities to use, no spells or the like. Just some flat numerical bonuses to your crit range, physical skill checks and the like. It's the ideal archetype for first-timers. The battle master is significantly more complex and allows for much more tactics in play. The eldritch knight is a half-caster, with everything that brings to the table.
The barb lacks this variety of complexity. A berserker is just as complex as a totem warrior is just as complex as the battlerager. Later archetypes, such as the storm herald and ancestral guardian alleviate this issue to a certain extent. In my opinion, this shows that even the fine folks at WotC noticed how bereft of interesting gameplay the original barbarians were and then sought to make them a bit more engaging.
With that said, the barb laid out below is significantly complex across all of the presented archetypes. Do with that as you please. If you want to skip the boring explanations for the various design decisions made in this redesign, just skip to the bottom of the article where you can check out the new (and improved?) barbarian in all of its glory.
Instead of just dumping the PDF on you and having you get on your merry way, I want to explain why certain changes were made. So, the design goals of this redesign were quite simple:
- Provide the barbarian player with interesting strategic decision-making, while also providing tactical depth
- Provide appropriate flavour and stay true to the core power fantasies
- Provide out-of-combat options and benefits to round off the class
The first and greatest obstacle towards achieving this was the barbarian's most iconic class feature: rage.
It is by far the greatest issue of the barb and it creates a butterfly effect for the rest of the class - extremely powerful, but also fairly scarce, especially at lower levels. This means that our angry friend will either be a subpar fighter without it, or a force of nature with it. The design choice to link most archetype and class features to rage ("While raging…") further exacerbates this issue. Then, in order to compensate for the huge power that rage brings to the table, the other features must be toned down to keep some semblance of balance between the barbarian and the other martial classes.
So, in order for this barbarian to be significantly different to the vanilla barb, rage had to be redesigned from the ground up. This decision, of course, boiled over into the remainder of the class, and most features had to be redesigned to accommodate this change.
Instead of rage being a simple button that the barbarian presses at the start of a combat, it is now a persistent resource that is dynamically gained and expended during battle. You gain rage by attacking things and by taking damage. You expend rage to:
a) have a better chance at hitting things (akin to Reckless attack)
b) deal more damage (instead of gaining a flat damage bonus to damage while raging)
c) gain temporary hit points (instead of halving physical damage while raging)
Additionally, many class and archetype features key off this resource. For instance, the berserker archetype will let you expend rage to intimidate enemies (akin to the Intimidating presence feature), while the totem warrior archetype will let you expend it to grapple as a bonus action, cast spells, knock your target prone or even temporarily shapeshift, akin to a druid.
Other notable changes are:
- Unarmored defense: the Dexterity bonus was switched over to a 1/2 Proficiency bonus modifier. The reason was this was to free the barbarian's hands up a bit and let him invest in mental skills over purely physical ones. Let's have a charismatic maniac, a wise old warrior, or a smart, holmesian brutalizer
- Brutal critical: let's you add a rage damage die to your crits, instead of an additional weapon die. The vanilla feature just basically tells you to use a greataxe and be done with it. This version does the unthinkable and doesn't mechanically penalize you for wanting to use a maul or a greatsword. Revolutionary, I know.
As for the archetypes, I only focused on the two archetypes presented in the PHB: the berserker and the totem warrior.
As you may probably already know, the berserker is mechanically a dumpster fire that almost seems to relish in your naivety at picking the archetype and thinking it'd be cool and powerful. The totem warrior is decent, and its design is also key for the redesign presented below.
In case you don't know, the totem warrior lets you do something fairly original and different in 5E. Instead of gaining a fixed benefit when you reach a certain level, you get to pick one of three offered features. That's great! That gives us something to choose from! Sure, most of the features amount to passive bonuses and the like, and don't really affect decision-making all that much, but it's a start. This choice among three different abilities is a design staple maintained across all of the archetypes presented in this redesign.
In short, whenever you gain a level that provides you with a new archetype ability (6th, 10th, 14th), instead of gaining a fixed ability, you may choose your new ability from three different options. These special abilities are unique to the archetype, which means that you cannot pick and choose across the archetypes. Plus, you may change any and all of these abilities whenever you level up, thus gaining an additional little bit of flexibility.
You will also likely note that very few special abilities provided to the barbarian in this redesign require an action to be used or activated. Instead, most defer to the bonus action "slot", or are activated under certain conditions without expending an action. This was done on purpose. The reasoning behind this was to not force the barbarian to choose between doing the mechanically optimal thing (i.e. attack) or do something cool (e.g. shapeshift). Only a few very powerful abilities are exempt from this general rule.
Furthermore, all special abilities that require a saving throw from the target(s) are keyed off Constitution. This is intentional, so as to allow the barbarian to branch out into any of the mental abilities and/or skills. I didn't want to repeat the mistake that WotC made with Intimidating presence, and demand that a barbarian have high Strength, Constitution and Dexterity by default, and then add the requirement for Charisma on top of all that.
I love barbarians, I really do. There's just something insanely attractive in wading into a cluster of enemies and leaving only bloody corpses behind while brushing off their attacks with ease. However, I would prefer if the class were not as mechanically bland as it is currently. I believe that the vanilla barb is a great fit for the inexperienced and mechanically unengaged players. For those with a need for a bit more depth and complexity, something a bit different is required.
The link to the redesign is here: Barbarian redesign.
Unfortunately, this redesign has not yet been playtested in any capacity. As such, it is highly likely that certain parts of it are imbalanced or bland, and the likelihood of editing oversights in the document is fairly high.