Balduvian Barbarians by Jim Nelson

Four down, four more to go. Last time, I covered the bottom four barbarian subclasses, and today I finish the list. As a reminder, there are three main categories I look at as I judge the power level of each of these subclasses: combat strength, allowance for a range of powerful builds, and how it interacts with multiclassing.

4. Beast

Beast Attack by Ciruelo

The newest addition to the barbarian, the Beast has to be one of my favorites when it comes to flavor, but this subclass lacks the robust mechanics needed to push it higher on the rankings.

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.

As I mentioned with the Armorer artificer, unique class/subclass weapons must either work with existing powerful options like Sharpshooter and Great Weapon Master or be strong enough to compete without them. Where the Armorer’s weapons failed this test, the Beast barbarian is a bit more complicated.

Bite and Tail are both bad offensive options. Bite doesn’t do enough, and its healing feature is too restrictive and weak to make up for that low damage. Tail also doesn’t deal enough damage to be worth using, but it does have a subpar defensive ability that you can use if you don’t want to use any other weapon options. I’ve seen it compared to the Shield spell, but it’s much closer to the Defensive Duelist feat, one of the worst feats in the game. The AC increase isn’t useless, but it only works on one attack and is a variable bonus that can’t be relied upon.

Finally there’s Claws. I’ve seen people claim that with the Dual Wielder feat you could make three Claw attacks as an action and follow those up with a fourth bonus action attack. However, I do not believe this is possible RAW.* Two-Weapon Fighting has very specific requirements, one being the weapons be held in the character’s hands. Claws cannot be held. This problem isn’t unique to the Beast barb; any character trying to use unarmed-type attacks runs into issues with the poorly worded Two-Weapon Fighting rule. I believe this is why Wizards of the Coast included an extra attack in the Claws base package, as a pseudo Two-Weapon Fighting.

However, thanks to some…creative use of sheathing, unsheathing, and dropping a pair of one-handed weapons, it is possible to get four attacks using Claws once you reach level 5. This pushes Claws ahead of a character using Great Weapon and Polearm Master with no bonuses. It still suffers from a lack of magic-item support and will fall behind well-built martial characters using weapons with magical bonuses, but it’s enough to make this subclass worthy of consideration.

Beast Claw attack ordering

For those of you interested in the nitty-gritty of getting four attacks, here is what you need and how you do it round to round:

  • Required
    • Two one-handed weapons you are capable of using for Two-Weapon Fighting
      • You start the fight with these sheathed.
  • Turn 1
    • Bonus action: Rage
    • Action
      • 3 Claw attacks
    • Object interaction
      • Draw 1 of the one-handed weapons
    • Turn two
      • Action
        • 2 Claw attacks
        • 1 attack with the one-handed weapon
      • Object interaction
        • Draw the other one-handed weapon in your other hand
      • Bonus action
        • Make the Two-Weapon Fighting attack
    • Turn three and beyond
      • Free action
        • Drop one of the one-handed weapons
      • Action
        • 2 Claw attacks
        • 1 attack with the one-handed weapon
      • Object interaction
        • Pick up the other one-handed weapon in your other hand
      • Bonus action
        • Make the Two-Weapon Fighting attack

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 weak for one acquired at 6th level. Even if it gave all three of these bonuses, it would still be a bad feature. Movement options in general are on the lower side of the power curve in 5E. They’re not useless, but definitely not what you want as your only level 6 feature. Since we have to choose one, I’d say the climb or swim speed options are the best, depending on where your character is adventuring.

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.

Another bad ability. This feature targets what is on average a strong monster save, and even if the monster fails, the results are middling at best. 5E monsters deal a lot of their damage through multiple attacks, so forcing the target to make a single attack against one of their friends is only outputting between 50 and 25 percent of the monster’s per-round damage. The 2d12 damage is so much worse than a paladin’s Smite it’s not even close.

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 ability ranges in value from almost useless to decent, depending on the size and composition of your party. If you have a large party of martial characters, then your Beast barb is gaining up to 25 temporary hit points and generating five additional d6s of damage per round. However, if you’re in a small party or one made of up characters that don’t make attacks, this feature gets real weak real fast. Overall, I’d say this ability is okay, just a bit underwhelming for a subclass capstone.

Though most of this subclass’s features are bad, having access to four attacks per round at level 5 is good enough to push our bestial friend to fourth place

If you’re interested in the flavor of the Beast but wish it was more competitive, check out this rework I made.

3. Ancestral Guardian

Spiritual Guardian by J.P. Targete

This is the go-to subclass for players looking to make a controlling barbarian. I personally think people put too much stock in the “tanking” ability the Ancestral Guardian gets, but it is one of the better options out there if you want to play like a tank from World of Warcraft, taunting enemies and forcing them to attack you.

Level 3 – Ancestral Protectors

Spectral warriors appear when you enter your rage. While you’re raging, the first creature you hit with an attack on your turn becomes the target of the warriors, which hinder its attacks. Until the start of your next turn, that target has disadvantage on any attack roll that isn’t against you, and when the target hits a creature other than you with an attack, that creature has resistance to the damage dealt by the attack. The effect on the target ends early if your rage ends.

The only reason to take this subclass, and admittedly it is pretty good. It does have some weaknesses in that it can only affect one creature per turn and it does nothing to creatures that deal damage without making attacks. Still, this can be a good way to make sure at least one monster spends its turns trying to beat through the barbarian brick wall.

Level 6 – Spirit Surge

The guardian spirits that aid you can provide supernatural protection to those you defend. If you are raging and another creature you can see within 30 feet of you takes damage, you can use your reaction to reduce that damage by 2d6.

When you reach certain levels in this class, you can reduce the damage by more: by 3d6 at 10th level and by 4d6 at 14th level.

This ability is pretty good when you receive it at 6th level, especially if you combine it with your 3rd level ability to further reduce damage already being halved by resistance. However, damage in 5E scales up quickly, and you’ll soon find a few d6s on a single attack does little to impact enemy damage output.

Level 10 – Consult the Spirits

You gain the ability to consult with your ancestral spirits. When you do so, you cast the augury or clairvoyance spell, without using a spell slot or material components. Rather than creating a spherical sensor, this use of clairvoyance invisibly summons one of your ancestral spirits to the chosen location. Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for these spells.

After you cast either spell in this way, you can’t use this feature again until you finish a short or long rest.

A feature with literally no combat applications. If your GM is friendly to these types of spells, then this ability can be quite useful for gathering information, but you’ll still be down in combat effectiveness compared to most other characters.

Level 14 – Vengeful Ancestors

Your ancestral spirits grow powerful enough to retaliate. When you use your Spirit Shield to reduce the damage of an attack, the attacker takes an amount of force damage equal to the damage that your Spirit Shield prevents.

A small damage increase to pair with the small amount of damage prevention. Definitely disappointing as the subclass capstone.

I’m glad that subclasses like the Ancestral Guardians exist for the traditional tanking niche they fill, although in general I consider them weaker than many in the community. The gang of angry ghosts spook their way into third place.

2. Zealot

Ash Zealot by Eric Deschamps

The Zealot is the subclass I’d pick if I were to play a monoclassed barbarian. It does decent damage and has a very humorous level 15 synergy where you become unkillable for up to five minutes.

Level 3 – Divine Fury

You can channel divine fury into your weapon strikes. While you’re raging, the first creature you hit on each of your turns with a weapon attack takes extra damage equal to 1d6 + half your barbarian level. The extra damage is necrotic or radiant; you choose the type of damage when you gain this feature.

A nice early damage boost with decent scaling, my favorite part of this ability is the lack of cost to activate the feature. Instead of competing with features that use your reaction or bonus action, this can simply be added to that damage.

Level 3 – Warrior of the Gods

Your soul is marked for endless battle. If a spell, such as raise dead, has the sole effect of restoring you to life (but not undeath), the caster doesn’t need material components to cast the spell on you.

A funny flavor feature that can be very useful in campaigns where the GM refuses to give the party any diamonds to power Revivify. If this were the Zealot’s only 3rd level feature, I would be very sad, but in addition to Divine Fury, it’s fine.

Level 6 – Fanatical Focus

The divine power that fuels your rage can protect you. If you fail a saving throw while you’re raging, you can reroll it, and you must use the new roll. You can use this ability only once per rage.

A decent option, although the lack of a flat bonus to the reroll means that unless you’re already good at the save you’re making, odds are you’ll wind up failing the roll twice and wasting this ability.

Level 10 – Zealous Presence

You learn to channel divine power to inspire zealotry in others. As a bonus action, you unleash a battle cry infused with divine energy. Up to ten other creatures of your choice within 60 feet of you that can hear you gain advantage on attack rolls and saving throws until the start of your next turn.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

This ability would be great if it followed later 5E conventions of tying how many times an ability could be used to proficiency. As a single use per long rest, it’s pretty meh for a 10th level feature. Good the turn you use it, but it’ll be a while before you can do so again.

Level 14 – Rage Beyond Death

The divine power that fuels your rage allows you to shrug off fatal blows.

While you’re raging, having 0 hit points doesn’t knock you unconscious. You still must make death saving throws, and you suffer the normal effects of taking damage while at 0 hit points. However, if you would die due to failing death saving throws, you don’t die until your rage ends, and you die then only if you still have 0 hit points.

This is both the coolest and strongest barbarian subclass capstone. Dying generally has a negative impact on a character’s effectiveness, and being unable to die neatly counters this. This works amazingly with the base barbarian 15 feature that lifts the rage requirement that you make an attack or take damage each turn to maintain it. Now you’re literally unkillable while raging outside of taking your full health in overkill damage or some auto-kill effect like Power Word Death.

I tried to kill the Zealot before it could make it this high in the rankings, but it refused to die and secured second place.

1. Totem Warrior

Werebear by Carl Critchlow

Surprising roughly no one, we have the Totem Warrior in the number-one spot. I wish I could say the subclass earned this place due to a selection of interesting abilities that work together to produce interesting and powerful options, but it doesn’t. Most of these features are average to bad, and the subclass’s power is derived in its entirety from its level 3 feature.

Level 3 – Spirit Seeker

Yours is a path that seeks attunement with the natural world, giving you a kinship with beasts. At 3rd level when you adopt this path, you gain the ability to cast the beast sense and speak with animals spells, but only as rituals, as described in chapter 10.

Not this level 3 feature, this is very bad. Moving on.

Level 3 – Totem Spirit

You choose a totem spirit and gain its feature. You must make or acquire a physical totem object—an amulet or similar adornment—that incorporates fur or feathers, claws, teeth, or bones of the totem animal. At your option, you also gain minor physical attributes that are reminiscent of your totem spirit. For example, if you have a bear totem spirit, you might be unusually hairy and thick-skinned, or if your totem is the eagle, your eyes turn bright yellow.

Your totem animal might be an animal related to those listed here but more appropriate to your homeland. For example, you could choose a hawk or vulture in place of an eagle.

Bear. While raging, you have resistance to all damage except psychic damage. The spirit of the bear makes you tough enough to stand up to any punishment.

Eagle. While you’re raging and aren’t wearing heavy armor, other creatures have disadvantage on opportunity attack rolls against you, and you can use the Dash action as a bonus action on your turn. The spirit of the eagle makes you into a predator who can weave through the fray with ease.

Elk. While you’re raging and aren’t wearing heavy armor, your walking speed increases by 15 feet. The spirit of the elk makes you extraordinarily swift.

Tiger. While raging, you can add 10 feet to your long jump distance and 3 feet to your high jump distance. The spirit of the tiger empowers your leaps.

Wolf. While you’re raging, your friends have advantage on melee attack rolls against any creature within 5 feet of you that is hostile to you. The spirit of the wolf makes you a leader of hunters.

Here we are. Thankfully, we can ignore most of this text wall and focus entirely on the Bear option. Resistance to all damage types except for psychic is so powerful that this subclass could have no other abilities* and it would still be the best barbarian subclass.

This ability also works great for multiclassing. A Moon druid or fighter can take a Totem Warrior dip to greatly enhance their survivability and damage output.

Level 6 – Aspect of the Beast

You gain a magical benefit based on the totem animal of your choice. You can choose the same animal you selected at 3rd level or a different one.

Bear. You gain the might of a bear. Your carrying capacity (including maximum load and maximum lift) is doubled, and you have advantage on Strength checks made to push, pull, lift, or break objects.

Eagle. You gain the eyesight of an eagle. You can see up to 1 mile away with no difficulty, able to discern even fine details as though looking at something no more than 100 feet away from you. Additionally, dim light doesn’t impose disadvantage on your Wisdom (Perception) checks.

Elk. Whether mounted or on foot, your travel pace is doubled, as is the travel pace of up to ten companions while they’re within 60 feet of you and you’re not incapacitated. The elk spirit helps you roam far and fast.

Tiger. You gain proficiency in two skills from the following list: AthleticsAcrobaticsStealth, and Survival. The cat spirit hones your survival instincts.

Wolf. You gain the hunting sensibilities of a wolf. You can track other creatures while traveling at a fast pace, and you can move stealthily while traveling at a normal pace.

Although none of these are particularly good abilities, I would recommend the Tiger bonus, as skill proficiencies are always nice to have. Elk and Wolf both revolve around exploration, something 5E is notoriously bad at. I would caution anyone taking Elk or Wolf that they could easily go an entire campaign with their ability never coming up.

Level 10 – Spirit Walker

At 10th level, you can cast the commune with nature spell, but only as a ritual. When you do so, a spiritual version of one of the animals you chose for Totem Spirit or Aspect of the Beast appears to you to convey the information you seek.

This ability is also awful. Information-gathering spells are not something a barbarian really wants, especially not one as weak as Commune With Nature. Wizards and other casters can afford to take these situational spells because they can select a large number of spells. This is all our barbarian gets at level 10.

Level 14 – Totemic Attunement

You gain a magical benefit based on a totem animal of your choice. You can choose the same animal you selected previously or a different one.

Bear. While you’re raging, any creature within 5 feet of you that’s hostile to you has disadvantage on attack rolls against targets other than you or another character with this feature. An enemy is immune to this effect if it can’t see or hear you or if it can’t be frightened.
Eagle. While raging, you have a flying speed equal to your current walking speed. This benefit works only in short bursts; you fall if you end your turn in the air and nothing else is holding you aloft.
Elk. While raging, you can use a bonus action during your move to pass through the space of a Large or smaller creature. That creature must succeed on a Strength saving throw (DC 8 + your Strength bonus + your proficiency bonus) or be knocked prone and take bludgeoning damage equal to 1d12 + your Strength modifier.
Tiger. While you’re raging, if you move at least 20 feet in a straight line toward a Large or smaller target right before making a melee weapon attack against it, you can use a bonus action to make an additional melee weapon attack against it.
Wolf. While you’re raging, you can use a bonus action on your turn to knock a Large or smaller creature prone when you hit it with a melee weapon attack.

Finally a decent feature. If your Bear Totem barbarian makes it this far, then you get a better tanking option than the Ancestral Guardian. Looking at the other options, Tiger is probably the strongest, as an extra attack is better than knocking someone prone or maybe dealing a little bit more damage.

While writing this list I was hoping I’d find some hidden gem that would supplant the Totem Warrior as the best subclass. Unfortunately, the ability to effectively double a character’s health was simply too strong for the other subclasses to keep up. The Totem Warrior takes first place.

Unlike the artificer, reviewing the barbarian subclass did leave me feeling somewhat excited to play one if the opportunity presented itself. I’d probably pick the Battlerager or the Zealot, as they both look more fun than the boring Totem Warrior. The class is still pretty low on my personal list of favorites, but I’m glad I was able to gain some appreciation for it.

I have also created a tier list for those of you that are interested.

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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