The Essential Guide to 5e Barbarian Subclasses

Your Essential Guide to 5e Barbarian Subclasses

So, you’ve played a few sessions as your new Barbarian character. You get to 3rd level and…get a little lost.

Maybe you haven’t really looked at the 5e Barbarian subclasses yet. Maybe you’re new to Dungeons & Dragons entirely. Or, maybe you’re just not sure what you want to play.

The Barbarian 5e subclasses, called Paths, are surprisingly varied.

Yes, they revolve around "hit things hard." But, each Barbarian Path offers unique ways to build your character into the awesome force of nature you want.

This easy guide to the 5e Barbarian subclasses will help you make your decision when you need to make your choice.

  1. Path of the Berserker
  2. Path of the Totem Warrior
  3. Path of the Battlerager
  4. Path of the Ancestral Guardian
  5. Path of the Storm Herald
  6. Path of the Zealot
  7. Which is the Best?

Alright. Let’s get to it. Starting with the Player’s Handbook.

Path of the Berserker

5e Barbarian Paths, Path of the Berserker
Berserker Barbarians are all about attacking | Source: DnD Beyond

We gonna start with the first available option for the Barbarian.

Berserker Barbarians represent the savage and brutal warriors in your DnD game. Far and away they prioritize doing as much damage as possible as fast as possible. Also, they’re one of the better subclass options for beginners due to their easy-to-play mechanics.

Now, this is really the Barbarian’s Barbarian.

Berserkers enjoy the luxury of simplicity. Many of their features focus on improving your character’s combat capabilities.

Pros of the Berserker Barbarian

Berserker Barbarians gain features that improve their combat prowess. This includes things like making additional attacks at a bonus action and reaction.

They also can’t be charmed or frightened while raging once they reach 6th level. And trust me, that’s actually pretty helpful. As a Dungeon Master who has charmed a Barbarian into attacking her party mates and watching the fear it instills, that’s a fantastic bonus.

Also, Berserkers in 5e are easy to play.

They make very good introductory characters for players new to the hobby. Since they don’t do anything too weird or crazy and focus on dealing damage, they’re great for showing new players how D&D works.

But, that simplicity is also the Berserker Barbarian’s downfall.

Cons of the Berserker Barbarian

The biggest issue with Path of the Berserker Barbarians is their simplicity and proneness to Exhaustion.

First off, the lack of more unique features means 5e Berserkers are regulated to combat-focused damage dealers. Which is fine on its own. Every table needs to fill the Damage party role with a couple different characters.

But, they don’t even get anything to really augment their damage. All they get is one more attack as a bonus action at 3rd level. And then, they get to use their reaction to make an attack when they take damage at 14the.

So, you’re not even getting that other attack until high level play. And, you can’t even do it whenever you want. You have to wait for some poor mook to slap your Berserker Barbarian to do it.

Second, and this is arguably the worse offender, the 5e Berserker’s Frenzy feature gives you a level of Exhaustion.

I won’t go into Exhaustion in detail. That’s an entire post on its own. But, gaining levels in it is bad.

But, for our purposes, here’s the first two levels of Exhaustion:

  1. 1 Level: You have Disadvantage on all Ability Checks
  2. 2 Levels: Your speed gets halved

What does this mean for the Berserker Barbarian?

Well, everytime they enter a frenzied Rage, they gain a level of Exhaustion. Which means, by 3rd level, if you use Frenzy twice, you get two levels of Exhaustion just for using your class ability.

So, you’d need to take multiple long rests to get back to normal afterwards.

It’s like you’re being punished for using the Berserker’s class features. Which isn’t a good time.

Path of the Totem Warrior

5e Barbarian Paths, Path of the Totem Warrior
Totem Warrior Barbarians are one of the more customizable Paths | Source: DnD Beyond

Next up, let’s take a look at one of the more customizable Barbarian Paths.

Totem Warrior Barbarians take on aspects of animals to improve the combat prowess or utility outside of battle. They get to choose which animal aspect they take whenever given the option.

Arguably the best option, Totem Warriors are a great option for almost any campaign.

Totem Warrior Options

So, what are your options for the Totem Warrior?

There are quite a few and they each give you different benefits. So, we’re gonna break each one down briefly to give you an idea.

Bear
Bear Totem Barbarians prioritize filling the Tank party role. Your character gains features that focus on resisting damage, improving their Strength skills, and hindering enemies from attacking your allies.
Eagle
Eagle Totem Barbarians focus on improving your movement in combat. They also improve your sight to make your character more valuable outside of battle.
Elk (SCAG)
Like the Eagle, Elk Totem Barbarians move faster thanks to their animal aspect. But, they’re able to extend a movement bonus to their allies outside of combat.
Tiger (SCAG)
Tiger Totem Barbarians are less combat focused. Instead, they make your character more agile and give them more skill proficiencies.
Wolf
Wolf Totem Barbarians are another combat-heavy animal aspect. They grant advantages to your allies in combat, help you track while adventuring, and get a little bit of battlefield control later on.

Pros of the Totem Warrior Barbarian

The biggest upside to the Path of the Totem Warrior is their customizability. You get to piecemeal your character build as you go rather than locking it in when you make your initial choice.

Want the damage resistance of the first Bear option but some of the movement bonuses from the Eagle? Go ahead.

And, the best part?

Pretty much all the options are good. Almost all the animal aspects are viable choices. And, they all help a great deal in some way.

That being said, the first Bear option is the best of the bunch. Hands down.

Resistance to everything except psychic damage while Raging? That’s such a good pick.

Cons of the Totem Warrior Barbarian

There’s…not a lot bad with the Totem Warrior.

Honestly, the worst thing about it is that you’re still lacking in non-mundane attacks. If you come up against something that resists (or flat-out ignores) non-magical damage, you’re gonna have a bad time.

So, while you’re either resisting more damage types or moving all over the place, you’re still at a disadvantage against certain foes.

But, that’s true for a lot of classes. So, it’s only so much of a detriment to Path of the Totem Warrior Barbarians specifically.

There’s also the ribbon abilities that you probably won’t use. Or, you’ll use them so infrequently that they won’t matter. Looking at you Spirit Seeker. But, maybe you’ll get more use out of them. Who know?

Path of the Battlerager

5e Barbarian Paths, Path of the Battlerager
The Battlerager 5e Path blends offense and defense | Source: Brian Hagan

The only Barbarian Path that came out with the Swordcoast Adventurer’s Guide (or SCAG).

This is a weird subclass.

Battlerager Barbarians get access to a special type of medium armor; spiked armor. This armor fuels a lot of their class features

Pros of the Battlerager Barbarian

You get the ability to use spike armor. Which is kind of cool.

It’s a medium armor which means you can still get the benefits of your Rage. And, you still add up to +2 to your Armor Class. So, you don’t need to prioritize Dexterity that much.

Also, the 6th level feature Reckless Abandon is pretty cool.

Basically, anytime you use your Reckless Attack Barbarian class feature, you gain temporary hit points equal to your Constitution modifier. So, if you don’t have any temp HP, you can re-up it everytime your attack recklessly.

Cons of the Battlerager Barbarian

Now, here’s the rub.

If you’re playing Rules as Written, only dwarves can be Battleragers.

But, this is easy enough to fix. All your DM needs to do is lift the restriction.

No, the real issue is your character’s reliance on spiked armor. And, the fact that your subpar class features.

The idea of spiked armor is for passive damage, right? Well, the most you do is three piercing…

…That’s it. Three whole piercing damage.

Also, you only do that when you succeed on a grapple check until 14th level. Which means all you get is a bonus action to roll a d4 and using your action to maybe deal three damage.

It’s just…not worth it.

Also, this damage only works while you’re wearing spiked armor and Raging.. If you’re not wearing armor (like if you’re ambushed in the middle of the night), you can’t even do the little extra damage granted to Battlerager Barbarians.

So, is the Battlerager good in 5e?

I’ll say it is a very thematic and cool image. But, the mechanics are wonky. So, unfortunately, I’d say it’s not great and there are better Barbarian Paths.

Path of the Ancestral Guardian (XGtE)

5e Barbarian Paths, Path of the Ancestral Guardian
Ancestral Guardian Barbarians call on the spirits of their predecessors | Source: Art of MtG

This is the first option that came out with Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (or XGtE).

Your character holds a special bond with an ancestral spirit. And, you can use that spirit to help you and your allies in combat and while adventuring.

It’s very thematic. I like to imagine a character’s great-great-grandparent standing beside them as they enter battle.

Pros of the Ancestral Guardian Barbarian

So, the main benefit of Ancestral Guardian Barbarians is their Tanking ability.

Starting at 3rd level, you gain Ancestral Protectors. This feature lets you impose Disadvantage for attacks made against other creatures on the first creature you hit on your turn until the start of your next turn.

…That’s a little confusing.

Basically, one creature, that you hit with an attack, has a harder time attacking your allies.

This is the core function of the Path of the Ancestral Guardian.

Your Barbarian stands as the Tank. But, instead of improving your Armor Class or Maximum Hit Points you help your allies. This, in turn, makes your Barbarian a higher priority target…at least in theory.

Later on, you can reduce damage done to creatures you can see as a reaction with the Spirit Shield feature. And yes, you can use Spirit Shield on yourself. So, you can either protect an ally or lessen damage done to your character.

Cons of the Ancestral Guardian Barbarian

The biggest problem with Ancestral Guardians is their lack of offensive features.

They don’t get any. Like, at all.

Sure, eventually their Spirit Shield reflects the damage it reduces back at the attacker. But, you need to hit 14th level for that. And, it’s not an offensive feature on its own. Its an improvement on an already defensive feature.

But, that’s the thing with the Path of the Ancestral Guardian. They’re more a more defense-focused Barbarian Path than some of the other options.

Path of the Storm Herald (XGtE)

5e Barbarian Paths, Path of the Storm Herald
The Path of the Storm Herald has some customization options | Source: Art of MtG

Here’s a fun choice if you want your 5e Barbarian to seem like an actual force of nature.

The Path of the Storm Herald focuses on augmenting your Barbarian with the power of weather and climate.

To start, when you choose this subclass, you get the Storm Aura feature. This feature gives three options to select from:

  • Desert
  • Sea
  • Tundra

Each of these vaguely translates to a damage type; desert to fire, sea to lightning, and tundra to cold. It’s not perfect as they do other things unrelated to the damage type. But, it’s close.

Really, the Storm Aura is your biggest benefit from choosing to play a Storm Herald Barbarian. It gives you a few other things to do on your turn as a Barbarian besides hitting things with your weapon of choice.

Pros of the Storm Herald Barbarian

Like the Totem Warrior, the Path of the Storm Herald gives you customizability for your character. So, you get to tweak your Barbarian to fit the theme you want to play.

The Storm Aura choices augment your Barbarian in combat. But, they also have a few neat features for outside of battle that help in your adventuring utility.

Cons of the Storm Herald Barbarian

Unlike Totem Warriors, Storm Heralds are locked in to their inital choice. So, say you chose Sea; you’ll get the Sea subclass abilities everytime you’d gain a Storm Herald subclass feature.

Also, as cool as the features are, they can be a little underwhelming.

For example, if you chose Desert, you can deal an automatic 2 fire damage to each creature within the 10 foot radius of your Storm Aura. Now, that’s a lot of damage if that radius is full of enemies. But, it doesn’t really scale. The damage increases to 3 at 5th level, 4 at 10th level, 5 at 15the level, and 6 at 20th level.

Yeah, that can be a lot of damage. Not to mention it’s free with no save or Armor Class to beat. But, at higher levels, 6 fire damage…isn’t a lot.

Also, fire is one of the most resisted damage types in DnD 5e. So, chances are, you’re doing less damage then that.

And, Sea and Tundra have similar scaling issues. Sea less so because at least you’re rolling up to 4d6 lightning damage by 20th level.

But, even then, it’s only single-target damage.

Path of the Zealot (XGtE)

5e Barbarian Paths, Path of the Zealot
Zealot Barbarians in 5e are…really hard to kill at high levels | Source: DnD Beyond

Finally, we come to one of the more controversial 5e Barbarian subclasses.

Zealot Barbarians are all about survivability and vicious offense. They get features that let them do more damage, survive to fight beyond death, and make them easier to resurrect on the slim chance they do die.

This is another Damage dealer in the Barbarian’s wheelhouse.

But, their most notable feature is their relation (or lack their of) with death.

Pros of the Zealot Barbarian

So…here’s the deal. Zealot Barbarians are dang-near impossible to kill when they get to higher levels.

At 14th level, they gain the Rage Beyond Death feature. This keeps them alive and conscious at 0 hit points until their Rage ends. But, Barbarians get Persistent Rage at 15th level…

You see where this is going?

If a 15th Barbarian can Rage indefinitely only until they die. And, if a Zealot Barbarian removes that limitation, you’re basically immortal.

Which raises the question: can a Zealot Barbarian die?

And the answer is; yes. A high-level Zealot Barbarian can still die. It’ll just take more than simply slamming them with damage.

Spells like Sleep (a 1st-level spell, mind you) or Power Word Kill can do the job.

All this is on top of the other pretty cool features Path of the Zealot gives you. Like dealing additional necrotic or radiant damage and being able to reroll Saving Throws. There’s also granting advantage on attacks for a round to your allies.

Cons of the Zealot Barbarian

Honestly?

Much like the Totem Warrior, there ain’t a lot bad about 5e Zealot Barbarians.

The biggest hurdle is convincing leary DMs to even let you play one. And then, running the risk of becoming the target of your Dungeon Master’s ire as you survive encounter after encounter.

Aside from that, they falter much like other Barbarian subclasses against foes that resist mundane damage. But, even then, they deal necrotic or radiant damage.

There’s also the problem with distant enemies.

Your Rage only works on melee attacks. So, any ranged attacks you make don’t deal that damage. But then, your special Zealot damage applies to weapon attacks period. So, you’re still doing extra damage to the first creature you hit on your turn.

What is the Best Barbarian Subclass in 5e?

As with every class, this is entirely subjective.

But, since we’ve gone over each Barbarian Path officially available in DnD 5e, I can give you my opinion.

The best Barbarian subclass in 5e is the Path of the Totem Warrior. With it’s customization and awesome class features, it’s easily the best.

Remember: this is just my opinion. But, I will say, I’ve seen quite a few people across the internet agree with this sentiment.

And, here’s how I’d rank the Barbarian Paths in order of best to worst:

  1. Totem Warrior
  2. Ancestral Guardian
  3. Zealot
  4. Storm Herald
  5. Battlerager
  6. Berserker

It pains me to put the Storm Herald so low. But, the Zealot and Ancestral Guardian Paths are too good. Even then, it’s hard to really choose between those two for the second spot.

I went with Ancestral Guardian as second best because they can help their allies in ways the Zealot can’t.

That about covers the different 5e Barbarian subclasses. We only have six official ones so far, but I’ll add more to this post as they get released.

  • The Berserker Barbarian is all about attacking and is the most straight forward Path
  • A Totem Warrior Barbarian is customizable with different animal aspects
  • The Battlerager Barbarian is a blend of offense and defense (that does damage)
  • An Ancestral Guardian Barbarian is a thematic subclass that helps protect you and your allies
  • The Storm Herald Barbarian channels the elements of nature to augment their bodies
  • A Zealot Barbarian is the divine Path and focuses on survivability

One last thing; don’t let the pros and cons of each Barbarian Path dissuade you from choosing one over the other. Play the Barbarian you want to play.

If that means you want to try out the Path of the Berserker despite its flaws. Hey, go for it.

Which Barbarian Path is your favorite? Leave a comment with a story from your game.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.