Barbarian Subclasses 5E: Ranking the Primal Paths

barbarian subclasses 5E

Like with every class, the barbarian brings with it several archetypes to choose from. There are currently 8 in total, and each of them has strengths and weaknesses. Unlike some classes where one option stands head and shoulders above the rest, there are different levels for a barbarian. In addition to a few options that are generally avoidable, several of these options also clump together at the top. To learn more, drop into our Barbarian Subclasses 5E Guide.

Our Criteria for Ranking the Primal Paths

Our rankings are not made on a whim. Altogether, we take into account five different factors into account when we rank these subclasses. It is worth noting that we only rate barbarian subclasses against each other. That means a subclass that ranks highly on this list might not hold up well against other classes. With that in mind, here are the factors we consider:

  • Design. Our first consideration is the quality of the subclass design. Good subclasses need useful mechanics that can be used regularly by players. Subclasses with features that are underpowered or unlikely to see much use will not rank highly on our list. I tend to give low-level abilities greater weight, as most characters will never reach level 20.
  • Clarity. The best subclasses are easy to understand. Overly complex or convoluted language can make a subclass a chore to play. Unclear language can even lead to conflicts if players and DMs disagree on what the terms of the subclass actually mean.
  • Fun. Subclass options should be fun. This means making meaningful choices and offering features that will not leave you underperforming the rest of your adventuring party. I think it is important to balance subclass choices between optimization and fun.
  • Theme. We also prefer subclasses that have a strong theme that ties the features of the archetype together. All things equal, we weight subclasses with interesting themes over archetypes that lack any sort of unifying theme or concept.
  • Versatility. We weigh subclasses that are versatile above those that are one-note. Being good at one thing is great, but offering many potential character builds is even better. Versatility is a major factor we consider.

What is the Best Barbarian Subclass?

Don’t want to scroll through the entire list? Here is our pick for the best barbarian subclass in 5E.

Path of the Totem Warrior

We love versatile subclasses, and the Totem Warrior has versatility in spades. You have the option to customize this subclass in multiple ways. You can build an incredible tank that can absorb all kinds of damage, pick up extra attacks, or even offer allies some utility by giving them advantage on attacks when they are near you. The Totem Warrior is a powerful option that is fun to play. It offers meaningful choices at multiple levels, making it an easy choice for our favorite barbarian subclass.

Barbarian Subclasses 5E Rankings

In creating this list, I am focusing on optimizing the strongest barbarian possible. Obviously, if your dream is to roleplay as a spike-wearing Battlerager, don’t let me stop you. With that in mind, this ranking is primarily focused on the benefits of each subclass feature and how they work with the base barbarian stats.

8. Path of the Battlerager

At the bottom of our list with a bullet is the Battlerager. This is an odd subclass for several reasons. First, it is limited to dwarves. This isn’t the end of the world as dwarves make fine barbarians, but these limitations are lame.

More importantly, this subclass is largely built around wearing spiked armor. Don’t have spiked armor? Most of the benefits of this subclass disappear. It’s not all bad as you can gain attacks as a bonus action and deal damage while grappling. The highlight is Reckless Abandon at level 6, which gives you temporary hit points when you use Reckless Attack. Not bad, but not enough to make this primal path worth following.

7. Path of Wild Magic

First introduced by Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the Path of Wild Magic introduces the same chaotic elements seen with Wild Magic Sorcerers. This is very much a “your mileage may vary” kind of subclass, as some players love its random, chaotic nature. Me? Not so much.

It is worth mentioning that the Wild Magic Barbarian has its own wild magic table and does not rely on the one that comes with the Wild Magic Sorcerer archetype. This is good, because that table had several harmful options. Each of the eight options on this table is at least beneficial. At higher levels you can roll twice and even potentially select your benefit, which is nice. In the end, it’s hard to optimize a character that relies so much on RNG.

6. Path of the Storm Herald

The Path of the Storm Herald is the first subclass on this list that offers you a series of choices. The subclass centers on elemental effects, and the specific effect depends on your choice of environment. These choices include desert, sea, and Tundra. You exude an aura that provides buffs depending on your chosen environment. The big drawback is that this aura only provides these benefits when you use your bonus action to activate it. Eating up your bonus action most turns can be problematic for some builds.

The buffs themselves are not bad, with each option dishing out damage and adding resistances based on the corresponding environment. Desert is based on fire damage, sea covers lighting damage, and tundra involves cold damage. Once you select your environment you are stuck with until you level.

5. Path of the Zealot

Path of the Zealot just sneaks into the top five of our Barbarian Subclasses list. I actually like this path, I just happen to think there are stronger options. While the theme of this subclass centers on avoiding death, some of its real highlights are its damage bonuses. At level 3 Divine Fury lets you tack on 1d6 plus half your barbarian level in either necrotic or radiant damage (your choice) on your first successful melee attack each turn. This is excellent, especially at lower levels.

At higher levels, the benefits are more hit and miss. The highlights are Fanatical Focus at Level 6, which lets you reroll a failed save once per rage. The downside includes features like Warrior of the Gods which eliminates the need for material components when someone casts a spell that restores you to life. It’s oddly specific and only really serves to save your party some coin.

4. Path of the Berserker

Arguably the most popular subclass is Path of the Berserker. If not for one specific complaint, this one would be much higher on my list. The Berserker is anchored by the level 3 feature, Frenzy. When you choose to frenzy rage, you get a bonus action melee attack every turn. This is a great boost to your damage output, but it comes at a price. At the end of the rage you take a level of exhaustion. Multiple levels of exhaustion take days to heal, limiting its usefulness. I hate these kinds of drawbacks given that most subclasses can just use their features without worry about harmful, long-lasting tradoffs.

The rest of the subclass is pretty nice. At level 6 you can’t be charmed or frightened while ranging, while level 10 gives you the ability to frighten a nearby hostile. Unfortunately, this is tied to your Charisma modifier, which could be lacking. At level 14 you get a reaction melee attack against a nearby creature that damages you, which is pretty great. This is a fun subclass, and if the exhaustion rules don’t bother you then by all means give it a go.

3. Path of the Ancestral Guardian

The final three subclasses on our list are all fantastic, and there is a case to list Path of the Ancestral Guardian at the top. While most barbarians are built as strikers, the Ancestral Guardian makes for an excellent Defender. It succeeds where many other defender attempts fail, given that it has a useful taunt mechanic against a single enemy. After all, what good is a mega-tank if your enemies can just run past you and kill your friends.

This taunt mechanic is known as Ancestral Protectors, and you get it at level 3. When you hit a creature with an attack, they get disadvantage and resisted damage any time they attack anyone but you. Not a perfect taunt mechanic, but not bad. At higher levels you can also use Spirit Shield at Level 6 to drastically reduce damage your allies take. At higher levels, you can redirect the damage you absorb from your friends and redirect to their attacker!

2. Path of the Beast

The Path of the Beast is a great option for someone looking for a nontraditional build. The build relies on natural weapons, making it one of the few cases where a barbarian passes on two-handed weapons. It is more complex than some options however, as there are several potential decisions to make. the good news is that you can alter these choices following any rest, which provides extensive optimization options.

At level 3 you select your natural weapons. This gives you the choice of a bite, claw, or tail attack. Each weapon has its advantages, with a tail allowing you to parry melee attacks and claws given you an additional attack. At level 6, these natural weapons are considered magical, which is especially powerful in a low magic setting. As you level you have options that let you swim or climb, add psychic damage to your attacks, or even curse an enemy and force them to attack another creature. The level 14 feature is also strong, as you and your party all get temporary hit points. The more members of your party accept this benefit, the more hit points everyone gets. I love this primal path.

1. Path of the Totem Warrior

At the top of our Barbarian Subclasses 5E list is the Totem Warrior. I love this class for its customizability. You have excellent options for serving as a Defender or a Striker. Want a well-rounded approach with some utility? There are options for that, too.

At levels 3, 6, and 14, you will choose from one of five animal totems. The totem you choose gives you certain buffs. The Bear totem gives you resistances, hit points, carrying capacity, and eventually powerful taunt abilities. This is the idea option for a defender.

Eagle makes you mobile and alert, giving you Dash as a bonus action, strong eyesight, and short-term flying ability. The Elk is all about speed, boosting not only your walking speed but your parties as well.

The tiger makes for the best striker. You gain powerful jumping ability, some additional proficiencies, and most importantly a bonus action melee attack when you move 20 feet in a straight line before an attack.

The wolf is the closest thing to a utility option as your friends get advantage against hostiles within 5 feet of you. You also get the ability to track creatures and eventually the option to knock an opponent prone with a melee attack.

Wrapping up our Primal Paths Rankings

That’s it for our Barbarian Subclasses 5E Guide. Did we leave anything out? Just want to argue about our rankings? Let us know in the comment section below!

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