Too Angry to Die: Building a Tanky Barbarian
  • Too Angry to Die: Building a Tanky Barbarian


    This article is the first in a series of guides to building characters in D&D 5E. The plan is to get into some wackier character concepts further down the line, but we’re going to start with something simple (and, conveniently, right at the front of the Player’s Handbook): creating the most durable barbarian possible.


    Image sourced from Pixabay.

    When the wild tangle of battle has ended, the winner isn’t the person who dealt the most damage or delivered the best one-liner, but the one who’s still standing. And barbarians can be very, very good at winning.

    The Basics

    Barbarians are naturally tough characters. They gain more hit points per level than any other class, while their unarmoured defence trait encourages players to pump up constitution scores as high as possible, giving them even more health.

    The fact that they take half-damage from most conventional attacks while raging - and they will almost always be raging during combat - solidifies this raw survivability even further.

    However, the massive health pool of the barbarian is usually countered by the fact that they aren’t that hard to hit. Well-oiled pecs and a winning smile may be the iconic barbarian look, but they can’t quite match a half-inch of steel when it comes to stopping arrows. If we want to boost their staying power in battle, we need to find a way to increase these defences.

    Early Choices

    The two most important stats for any barbarian are strength and constitution, so ideally we want to start with a race that starts with bonuses to both. Fortunately, that makes for a pretty long list.

    Half-orcs and goliaths make for solid barbarian, and both gain abilities that boost their endurance in one way or another. However, these powers have limited uses so you may want to look at two choices that can offer benefits that are always online, though you’ll probably want to ask your DM before running them at the table.

    First up are the duergar, a sub-species of dwarves that hail from the deep tunnels of the underdark. Not only do they have access to the excellent stat boosts and poison resistance common to all dwarves, they also have advantage on saving throws against illusions and charms - both common tools that sneaky DM’s can use to exploit barbarians’ weak mental defences. This bonus is countered by a crippling weakness in full sunlight, however, as well a tendency towards evil that can make them hard to roleplay.

    Finally we have warforged, the wonderful mechanical marvels introduced in the recent Eberron releases. These guys have integrated armour that can let your barbarian match the chainmail-clad fighter for AC, and it only gets better as you level up. The only real problem is that despite appearing in The Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron the current rules for warforged are considered playtest material, and as such are subject to change.

    Assessing Archetypes

    For the first few years of 5E there was only one real choice of archetype when you were building a rock-hard barbarian. The Path of the Totem Warrior gave you access to the Bear Totem Spirit at third level, upgrading your raging damage resistance to include every type of damage other than psychic.

    This is incredibly powerful and means Totem Warrior is still the go-to archetype for boosting your own survivability, but when Xanathar’s Guide to Everything introduced the Path of the Ancestral Guardian it gave players the chance to create something that more closely resembles an MMO tank - a warrior that intentionally draws their enemy’s attacks away from weaker party members. Their most powerful ability penalises one enemy for attacking anybody but them, and though it’s not ideal against hordes it works wonders when confronting a handful of powerful foes.

    Gearing Up

    The iconic image of the typical barbarian involves a huge weapon and very little in the way of clothing, let alone armour. If your aim is to build a super-tough barbarian, however, you may have to tweak that image a bit.

    For a start, the greatsword or greataxe is replaced by a one-handed weapon and a shield, while the exposed flesh is covered up with medium armour, ideally half-plate, unless you’re rocking a warforged chassis. It is possible for a barbarian’s natural defences to outmatch any armour eventually, but that requires you to either roll incredible stats at the start of the game or reduce damage output by boosting dexterity over strength.

    On the subject of damage, the switch from a two-handed weapon to something like a battleaxe or warhammer is going to cost you around two damage per hit, but the extra AC provided by a shield can help you stay alive in tricky situations.

    It’s hard to plan for magic items in the world of 5E, but a Ring of Protection is always a nice find, as it not only provides another little boost for AC but also adds to saving throws. Similarly, a Mantle of Spell Resistance helps you to shrug off both fireballs and defeat the “mind control the murderous barbarian” strategy that so many evil wizards are fond of.

    This article was contributed by Richard Jansen-Parkes (Winghorn) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 17 Comments
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      The scariest Barbarian I’ve yet seen in combat in 5e...

      ...was a halfling.

      He was a nasty little bear totem guy (we’d call him a bear-bearian) who had high Dex and Con, hard as heck to hit, and because of his halfling luck racial trait and bear totem had no fear of reckless attack. He didn’t do quite as much damage due to slightly lower Strength, but if he was raging, he
      Would.
      Not.
      Go.
      Down.

      When he split off into Fighter Champion for four levels, it only got better. I played a healer and used to joke that spending my cure spells on him was like getting a “buy one get one free” coupon, thanks to his bear totem.
    1. BadBreath -
      I had plans for a tanking focussed Hobgoblin Bear Totem Barbarian/Druid of Moon Build for a "monsters" Campaign we were thinking of for our group... although getting the build to work well does depend on rolling well for stats (we roll instead of point buy or others) ...never played him as I ended up being the DM ... but might get to try him out sometime.
    1. Laurefindel's Avatar
      Laurefindel -
      If a game allows feats, Tough effectively gives a barbarian 4hp / level. It may not be the optimal feat, but if survivability is the ultimate goal, this goes a long way in increasing your hp. Your CON save is likely to be reasonably high, and you can still wear half-plate for AC.

      if not going bear totem, the pseudo-evasion ability granted by Shield Master can be handy. Besides, the shove option is always nice if you are going to pass on GWM in order to equip a shield.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      Quote Originally Posted by Laurefindel View Post
      If a game allows feats, Tough effectively gives a barbarian 4hp / level. It may not be the optimal feat, but if survivability is the ultimate goal, this goes a long way in increasing your hp. Your CON save is likely to be reasonably high, and you can still wear half-plate for AC.

      if not going bear totem, the pseudo-evasion ability granted by Shield Master can be handy. Besides, the shove option is always nice if you are going to pass on GWM in order to equip a shield.
      Good choices. At higher levels Resiliant (Wisdom) can help with the various control spells as well.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      For a tanky barbarian like the article mentioned, DEX barbarians rock. Higher AC, better dex save. If tanking is the #1 priority then avoiding reckless attack that makes easy to be hit, so it doesn't matter that can't add to DEX. Finesse weapons will leave a hand free for shield (dual wielding with melee rage bonus damage is an alternative, bonus action economy is not strained on a barbarian).

      This is more consistently tanky at lower levels, where Resistance is only maybe 1/3 of the encounters per day but high AC is forever. It will never compete with a STR barbarian even moderately focused on damage output -- STR is probably more well rounded for damage and tankiness, but since the article was specific about making a tanky barbarian, this is worth noting.
    1. VengerSatanis -
      "Hey, barbarian... catch!" [Sphere of annihilation] Your build doesn't matter.

      VS
    1. UngeheuerLich's Avatar
      UngeheuerLich -
      Bear totem is ok for a tanky barbarian. But often it is overkill. Normal resistances vs bludgeoning piercing and slashing are good enough in many circumstances. I'd rather have a different feature for a tank. Ancestral guardian is nice as well as wolf totem. Tanking and granting your fellow adventurers advantage seems like more damage mitigation because your party will set the enemy status to dead.
    1. PrintableHeroes's Avatar
      PrintableHeroes -
      It's all about the Mountain Dwarf, with +2 to Str and +2 to Con racial you can afford to invest in Dex. With Point Buy you're guaranteed to start with 15 AC (+3 Con, +2 Dex) which becomes 17 AC with a Shield.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by VengerSatanis View Post
      "Hey, barbarian... catch!" [Sphere of annihilation] Your build doesn't matter.

      VS
      But wouldn't that be the same for every build?
    1. BookBarbarian's Avatar
      BookBarbarian -
      Quote Originally Posted by VengerSatanis View Post
      "Hey, barbarian... catch!" [Sphere of annihilation] Your build doesn't matter.

      VS
      Only if the 2 ft diameter sphere completely engulfs the Barbarian. Otherwise it just takes 4d10 force damage right?
    1. FrogReaver's Avatar
      FrogReaver -
      Take sentinel. Move beside enemy. Dodge. This is tankiest barbarian.
    1. Ovinomancer's Avatar
      Ovinomancer -
      Quote Originally Posted by BookBarbarian View Post
      Only if the 2 ft diameter sphere completely engulfs the Barbarian. Otherwise it just takes 4d10 force damage right?
      DC13 DEX save negates. In 5e, the fear of a Sphere is mere.
    1. GlassJaw's Avatar
      GlassJaw -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      The scariest Barbarian I’ve yet seen in combat in 5e...

      ...was a halfling.

      He was a nasty little bear totem guy (we’d call him a bear-bearian) who had high Dex and Con, hard as heck to hit, and because of his halfling luck racial trait and bear totem had no fear of reckless attack. He didn’t do quite as much damage due to slightly lower Strength, but if he was raging, he
      Would.
      Not.
      Go.
      Down.

      When he split off into Fighter Champion for four levels, it only got better. I played a healer and used to joke that spending my cure spells on him was like getting a “buy one get one free” coupon, thanks to his bear totem.
      So glad someone mentioned this! One of the most fun characters I've played - 5E or otherwise - was a halfling barbarian. His personality was over the top but in addition, he fulfilled the role exactly what I intended: to always be the last one standing, or better yet, give his companions the opportunity to survive.

      Breaking down the build a bit more:

      • Bear Totem: No brainer. S/B/P alone is nice but resistance to things like poison and fire are really helpful because they come up fairly frequently.
      • Unarmored Defense: Not a requirement but nice to have to if your Dex and Con are both decent (14+). With 14s in both and a shield, you start at AC 16. As a halfling, you can start with a 16 Dex which bumps your AC up to 17. My character didn't wear much of anything actually. Higher Dex is also nice because you'll already have advantage on a lot of Dex saves.
      • Danger Sense: Advantage on ALL Dex saves against spells and traps. This is huge, especially when combined with Shield Master (see below).
      • Stout Halfling: Reroll 1s (HUGE), advantage against frightened, advantage against poison, "always on" poison resistance. Even Halfling Nimbleness works well with Fast Movement and resistance. You can move through enemies and eat the opportunity attack if need be. This allows you to control the battlefield and get to strong enemies quickly to engage them.


      Shield Master: This is where it gets crazy.
      • First, while raging, you have advantage on Str checks. Shoving is a Str check. Nice to move enemies or knock them prone for your allies to beat on (which provides advantage on melee attacks). Amazing against high AC opponents.
      • Add shield AC to Dex saves against a spell or affect targeting you. This save is at advantage because of Danger Sense.
      • Can use your reaction to take half damage against effects requiring a Dex save. This save will probably be at advantage because of Danger Sense. If you succeed, you take no damage. If you fail, you take a quarter damage if you are raging. It's improved evasion on steroids.


      Weaknesses:
      You won't be the primary damage dealer, and possibly not even the secondary, at least not until you get your second attack.
      Wisdom saves are your bane, especially against spells like Charm Person and Suggestion. This is nothing new for melee types though. Halfling Luck helps a bit here.

      In summary, the resistance to all damage is nice no doubt, but the bonuses and advantage on saves you get from halfling + barbarian + shield master is the real winner. It will be rare when you are not rolling advantage on a save during combat.
    1. UngeheuerLich's Avatar
      UngeheuerLich -
      Quote Originally Posted by GlassJaw View Post
      So glad someone mentioned this! One of the most fun characters I've played - 5E or otherwise - was a halfling barbarian. His personality was over the top but in addition, he fulfilled the role exactly what I intended: to always be the last one standing, or better yet, give his companions the opportunity to survive.

      Breaking down the build a bit more:

      • Bear Totem: No brainer. S/B/P alone is nice but resistance to things like poison and fire are really helpful because they come up fairly frequently.
      • Unarmored Defense: Not a requirement but nice to have to if your Dex and Con are both decent (14+). With 14s in both and a shield, you start at AC 16. As a halfling, you can start with a 16 Dex which bumps your AC up to 17. My character didn't wear much of anything actually. Higher Dex is also nice because you'll already have advantage on a lot of Dex saves.
      • Danger Sense: Advantage on ALL Dex saves against spells and traps. This is huge, especially when combined with Shield Master (see below).
      • Stout Halfling: Reroll 1s (HUGE), advantage against frightened, advantage against poison, "always on" poison resistance. Even Halfling Nimbleness works well with Fast Movement and resistance. You can move through enemies and eat the opportunity attack if need be. This allows you to control the battlefield and get to strong enemies quickly to engage them.


      Shield Master: This is where it gets crazy.
      • First, while raging, you have advantage on Str checks. Shoving is a Str check. Nice to move enemies or knock them prone for your allies to beat on (which provides advantage on melee attacks). Amazing against high AC opponents.
      • Add shield AC to Dex saves against a spell or affect targeting you. This save is at advantage because of Danger Sense.
      • Can use your reaction to take half damage against effects requiring a Dex save. This save will probably be at advantage because of Danger Sense. If you succeed, you take no damage. If you fail, you take a quarter damage if you are raging. It's improved evasion on steroids.


      Weaknesses:
      You won't be the primary damage dealer, and possibly not even the secondary, at least not until you get your second attack.
      Wisdom saves are your bane, especially against spells like Charm Person and Suggestion. This is nothing new for melee types though. Halfling Luck helps a bit here.

      In summary, the resistance to all damage is nice no doubt, but the bonuses and advantage on saves you get from halfling + barbarian + shield master is the real winner. It will be rare when you are not rolling advantage on a save during combat.
      Stout halflings already have resistance vs poison. Bear totem is good but youbcan really do better. Especially since you take shiwld master anyway and so fire damage is often negated because it does have dex saves. Don't understand me wrong, but if you take a different path or a different subclass you can actually help your party kill things faster or negate some damage instead of standing around watching your friends die.
    1. Paul Farquhar's Avatar
      Paul Farquhar -
      Agree, this build is great for survivability, but it has little to prevent enemies ignoring them and attacking other party members.

      Just a mention: UA Dragonmarks: Mark of the Sentinel. Does require you to be human though.
    1. Eis's Avatar
      Eis -
      I love my little Halfling Barbarian....total dex build and only 9 strength so as someone said I am not the primary damage dealer.....but I have a great AC and I have the sentinel feat so once in the middle of melee I often get an extra attack as a reaction as enemies target anyone else...oh did I mention that I am also a defensive dualist? So if the enemy melee attacks ME instead of my ally I can add my proficiency bonus to my AC
    1. S'mon -
      I'm a big fan of the 5e Barbarian, but I would tend to counsel against building for survivability over damage. It tends to be massive overkill and in a tough situation you can end up with the rest of the party dead and the monsters free to focus on you - which is never good for survivability.

      My favourite combination is barbarian + glaive/halberd + polearm master + greatweapon master + reckless attack. Enormous damage, battlefield control, enemy will often tend to avoid closing on me & eating the opp attack. AC is fairly poor, but generally I *want* enemies to attack me rather than the squishy PCs - which basically covers everyone else except maybe the Eldritch Knight with shield/blur/etc - and even he can have a bad day when spell slots run out, whereas I'll likely just keep on trucking.
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