Scab-Clan Berserker by Dave Kendall

Barbarians have been defined by the Totem Warrior subclass since Dungeons and Dragons 5E’s release, namely the Bear Totem Spirit feature that expands the class’s Rage damage resistance from bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing to everything except psychic damage. Nothing other subclasses bring to the table has been able to compete with effectively doubling the barbarian’s hitpoints.

With the two new barbarian subclasses included in the recently released Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Wizards of the Coast has a chance to unseat the reigning bearbarian king. Today, we examine the Path of the Beast subclass. Will it prove stronger than the Totem Warrior? Let’s find out, starting at level 3.

Level 3 – Form of the Beast

When you enter your rage, you can transform, revealing the bestial power within you. Until the rage ends, you manifest a natural weapon. It counts as a simple melee weapon for you, and you add your Strength modifier to the attack and damage rolls when you attack with it, as normal.

You choose the weapon’s form each time you rage:

  • Bite. Your mouth transforms into a bestial muzzle or great mandibles (your choice). It deals 1d8 piercing damage on a hit. Once on each of your turns when you damage a creature with this bite, you regain a number of hit points equal to your proficiency bonus, provided you have less than half your hit points when you hit.
  • Claws. Each of your hands transforms into a claw, which you can use as a weapon if it’s empty. It deals 1d6 slashing damage on a hit. Once on each of your turns when you attack with a claw using the Attack action, you can make one additional claw attack as part of the same action.
  • Tail. You grow a lashing, spiny tail, which deals 1d8 piercing damage on a hit and has the reach property. If a creature you can see within 10 feet of you hits you with an attack roll, you can use your reaction to swipe your tail and roll a d8, applying a bonus to your AC equal to the number rolled, potentially causing the attack to miss you.

Like many weak features in 5E, I love the flavor of this ability, but its mechanical value is questionable past very early levels. As I mentioned in the previous Armorer artificer post, subclass-specific weapons have two choices if they want to be good. They can either work with existing powerful augments like Great Weapon Master, Polearm Master, and Sharpshooter, or have enough inherent power to keep pace without class-agnostic bonuses. This ability does neither. I can see the Claws being useful at very early levels, but once players start finding magical items and bringing their feat combos online, its damage quickly falls off.

As for defense, this comes nowhere near what the Totem Warrior delivers. Gaining back at most 2-6 health each round while under half health is not nearly as powerful as the damage prevented by halving all damage. The Tail’s shield-like ability is also weak. Not only does it only work on one attack per round, but also one of the barbarian’s strongest features, Reckless Attack, makes it so much easier to hit the barbarian that 1d8 worth of AC is much less likely to save you than it would be for other classes.

Level 6 – Bestial Soul

The feral power within you increases, causing the natural weapons of your Form of the Beast to count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.

You can also alter your form to help you adapt to your surroundings. When you finish a short or long rest, choose one of the following benefits, which lasts until you finish your next short or long rest:

  • You gain a swimming speed equal to your walking speed, and you can breathe underwater.
  • You gain a climbing speed equal to your walking speed, and you can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.
  • When you jump, you can make a Strength (Athletics) check and extend your jump by a number of feet equal to the check’s total. You can make this special check only once per turn.

This feature is incredibly underwhelming. Gaining magic damage on weapons that by this time have lost most of their value is the strongest part, and it’s only useful for sub-optimal builds. Gaining minor movement bonuses is something I’d expect to see tacked on as a secondary ability, not a core subclass feature. Extra movement options are all well and good, but they can easily be replicated with various spells, and if they’re all a subclass gets, we’re left with a character that can be useless anywhere on the battlefield.* Even if the barbarian got all of these at once, this feature would still be bad.

Level 10 – Infectious Fury

When you hit a creature with your natural weapons while you are raging, the beast within you can curse your target with rabid fury. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw (DC equal to 8 + your Constitution modifier + your proficiency bonus) or suffer one of the following effects (your choice):

  • The target must use its reaction to make a melee attack against another creature of your choice that you can see.
  • The target takes 2d12 psychic damage.

You can use this feature a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

While much stronger than the level 6 ability, this feature is mediocre at best. Wisdom is an okay save to target,* but basing the save on the barbarian’s Constitution means the DC will be 1 or 2 lower than that of a normal caster, making enemies more likely to save. Compounding this problem is the fact that the ability’s charge is expended regardless of its success. When it does work, the extra 2d12 will probably be the stronger of the two options.

Monsters mostly derive high damage output from more attacks, not individual attacks doing massive damage. This means that even if your target is standing next to another enemy, the 2d12 will often deal more damage. The forced attack also has the problem that it still needs to hit and causes you to spread out your damage, which is usually a bad thing in 5E.

Level 14 – Call the Hunt

The beast within you grows so powerful that you can spread its ferocity to others and gain resilience from them joining your hunt. When you enter your rage, you can choose a number of other willing creatures you can see within 30 feet of you equal to your Constitution modifier (minimum of one creature).

You gain 5 temporary hit points for each creature that accepts this feature. Until the rage ends, the chosen creatures can each use the following benefit once on each of their turns: when the creature hits a target with an attack roll and deals damage to it, the creature can roll a d6 and gain a bonus to the damage equal to the number rolled.

You can use this feature a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

This is another ability with cool fluff not backed up by its mechanics. At level 14, dealing an extra 1d6 damage per round barely registers against enemies easily topping 100 health. The added damage also only triggers on attacks, meaning spellcasters might not even make use of the bonus.

The temporary hitpoints the barbarian gets is by far the stronger half, but even that is pretty weak. As I mentioned earlier, many characters simply don’t have the extra ASIs lying around to boost their Con until very high levels. Even at level 14, there is a high likelihood of the barbarian having only a +3 Constitution modifier, meaning the most HP you can generate is 15. Even if we assume that the barbarian can do this to a full five targets every rage, this is still significantly worse than the level 3 Totem Warrior’s expanded Rage resistances.

What I’d Change

The first thing we need to change are the options from Form of the Beast. This ability is the core of the subclass and it should be a powerful option at all levels. I would increase Bite’s healing from proficiency to twice your proficiency. I would also remove the half health requirement. Even with doubled healing, the amount of HP per round is fairly low and having to wait until your health drops into one-shot range is simply too weak.

For Claws, I would change it to allow its use with Two-Weapon Fighting. I originally thought this would only require adding the “light” property to the claws. However, due to claws not technically being held in your hands,* they cannot qualify for Two-Weapon Fighting, so I’d also need to add in an awkward “this works the way you think it does” clause to the weapon.

Tail has the simplest changes, making it a heavy weapon so it can work with feats and fighting styles that require that type of weapon. I would also increase Tail’s damage and AC increase die from 1d8 to 1d10 to more closely reflect the polearm it’s impersonating.

I would also include options for players looking to increase their movement or defense options.

Carapace. Your skin hardens into tough hide or chitin. Your hit point maximum and current hit points increase by your barbarian level plus your constitution modifier. In addition, you have a +2 bonus to your Armor Class. 

This grants a powerful defensive option* for barbarians looking to use AC as a main defensive stat. This also introduces the question of whether or not the barbarian should use Reckless Attack, as now their AC is high enough that they might not want to make it easier for their enemies to hit them. It’s also important to note that I’m increasing max health instead of using temporary hitpoints, as temp HP doesn’t stack and there are now so many ways to gain it. I didn’t want the subclass’ main feature to be made redundant by the Twilight cleric standing next to them.

Wings. A set of wings sprout from your back. You gain flying speed equal to your walking speed.

This allows the barbarian to fully participate in combats with flying foes while being restrictive enough that the early access to flying doesn’t break encounters. Out of combat, the barbarian’s party would have to constantly deal damage to them to maintain Rage, and even if they did each Rage only lasts 1 minute, so I’m not too worried about this low level flight causing trouble. 

Next, I want Bestial Soul to build upon the natural weapons we gained at level 3. To do this, I’m throwing out all of the ability except the addition of magic to the natural weapon’s damage. Alongside this augment, I would add in a scaling bonus to hit and damage rolls: +1 at level 6, +2 at level 10, +3 at level 14. I’ve talked about this many times, but weapons like this need some sort of scaling bonus to stay relevant as the party picks up magical weapons.

To cap off the ability, I would allow the barbarian to manifest two of the level 3 transformation options. I want this subclass to feel like the embodiment of unbridled ferocity, attacking their enemy with every part of their body, and being able to manifest a combination of natural weapons accomplishes that nicely for me.

For Infectious Fury, I want to change it to be a reflection of the barbarian’s own transformation, forcing the enemy to fight while its body takes on unfamiliar forms. I would keep the wisdom save and add a clause that the ability is only expended if the monster fails. As for the effects themselves, I would have three options instead of two, one for each weapon.

Bite would cause the target to take twice your proficiency in damage and be unable to regain hitpoints until the beginning of your next turn, as it’s overcome with an insatiable bloodlust. Claw would cause the target to make all of its attacks at disadvantage until the start of your next turn, its appendages warped into unfamiliar shapes. Finally, Tail would reduce the target’s AC by 1d10 until the start of your next turn, unbalanced as it tries to rely on a tail it never had.*

These effects are obviously first drafts and their fluff can probably be made applicable to a wider variety of creatures, but what I want to stress here is that these abilities are a malevolent extension of what the barbarian uses to great effect. I would also allow the barbarian to manifest three of its transformations at once. This comes at a level high enough that everyone should be doing powerful things but not so high that most players will never see it.

Finally, I would change Call the Hunt’s extra 1d6 damage to instead allow each target of the ability to manifest one of the barbarian’s natural weapons, gaining the same +3 magical bonus that the barbarian has at this level. Assuming my attempt to make these weapons viable at all levels is successful, there should be a valuable choice for any type of character, even if it’s simply using Tail as a weaker Shield option. I would also like to increase the amount of temporary hitpoints gained per target. My initial thought would be to make it a +5 Constitution modifier, but that’s the kind of change that would need some examination to make sure it doesn’t make the barbarian unkillable.*

If this sounds like a cool subclass rework to you, it’s also available in standard D&D formatting. 

While I don’t think the subclass as written has any chance of knocking the Totem Warrior off its throne, I’m quite happy with the changes I’ve come up with. I sometimes finish these articles feeling like all I did was take a weak, boring experience and tune up the numbers without fixing the “boring” half of the problem. The subclass I ended with this time is one I’d actually be interested in playing, maybe doubling down on the whole beast-person vibe and picking Shifter as my ancestry.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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