Which Barbarian Primal Path Should You Choose?
A guide for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition
Your barbarian has survived their first few adventures, conquered their enemies and made it to level three. You must now choose which Barbarian subclass - or Primal Path - your barbarian will follow. This is an important decision as it will affect some of the class abilities that the character earns throughout the rest of their adventuring career.
In this article I will summarise all of the Barbarian Primal Paths currently available in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. I will evaluate the class abilities provided by these subclasses and discuss factors that may affect which subclass you choose.
The Player's Handbook offers two Primal Paths - the Berserker and the Totem Warrior. Additional subclasses are available from the Sword Coast Adventure Guide, Xanathar's Guide to Everything and Tasha's Caudron of Everything.
Berserker (Player's Handbook)
To many, the berserker is the archetypal barbarian. A ferocious warrior who makes devastating attacks while fighting in a blind rage.
When a berserker enters a rage, they can choose to also enter a state of frenzy, which allows them to make an extra attack per turn as a bonus action. However, once their frenzy ends, they gain a level of exhaustion. As the berserker gains levels, they also gain immunity to charm and fear while raging, the ability to frighten nearby enemies, and finally the ability to use their reaction to attack an enemy who has just hit them.
The berserker provides a range of powerful combat abilities. But their biggest problem is the level of exhaustion gained after each frenzy. Each level of exhaustion imposes significant negative conditions on the berserker, ultimately killing them if they ever accrue six levels of exhaustion. And the berserker only recovers from one level of exhaustion each time they take a long rest. Therefore, frenzying imposes significant drawbacks and should only be done rarely in times of significant need. There are other ways to gain bonus attacks, such as the Great Weapon Master or Polearm Master feats, which do not impose such harsh disadvantages.
Do play a berserker if:
You are playing a long campaign and can expect to benefit from the high-level abilities of the subclass.
Your group only has one combat per short rest.
You have some way of healing exhaustion easily.
Don’t play a berserker if:
You are playing a short campaign and will likely only gain access to the initial level 3 ability.
Totem Warrior (Player's Handbook)
Totem Warriors can channel animal spirits to provide a range of different abilities. Totem Warriors can choose from a selection of offensive, defensive and supportive abilities when they reach third, sixth and tenth levels. Totem Warriors also gain the ability to cast the Commune with Nature spell as a ritual.
The Totem Warrior subclass offers a greater degree of customization than most other barbarian subclasses. Depending on which animal spirits you choose, your totem warrior may play very differently to someone else’s. The benefits themselves are of varying utility - some are very strong while others are situational, so choose wisely. It is also worth noting that the majority are passive abilities that apply to your character automatically rather than active abilities that you choose to use.
Do play a Totem Warrior if:
You want to choose from a range of options each time you gain a new subclass feature.
You want a subclass that will grant passive benefits.
Don’t play a Totem Warrior if:
You want a subclass that gives you lots of extra combat options.
Ancestral Guardian (Xanathar's Guide to Everything)
The Ancestral Guardian turns the steadfast barbarian into a full on tank. While raging, you can impose disadvantage on attacks that do not target you, grant resistance to your allies, mitigate some of the damage they take from attacks and eventually reflect some damage back at your opponents. Everything in the Ancestral Guardian’s playbook is designed to discourage enemies from attacking your more vulnerable allies and instead try to get through your damage resistance and d12 hit points. Ancestral guardians also gain the ability to cast the Augury and Clairvoyance spells, flavoured as communing with the spirits of their ancestors.
The Ancestral Guardian subclass is one of the best tank options in the entire game - supplementing the barbarian’s high health and damage resistance with some very effective tanking abilities. If you have vulnerable characters in the party, your subclass abilities may literally keep them alive. But playing an ancestral guardian may feel different to other barbarians as you will want to focus on defensive character options over offensive ones. So if you want to play a classic frenzying warrior this may not be the choice for you. The Ancestral Guardian is also notably more reliant on you being in a rage than some other subclasses.
Do play an Ancestral Guardian if:
You want to be the party tank.
You can reliably maintain a rage for most of the combats that you are in.
Don’t play an Ancestral Guardian if:
You want to focus on dealing damage.
Battlerager (Sword Coast Adventure Guide)
Battleragers use spiked armour to inflict damage on their opponents. When raging and wearing spiked armour, battleragers can make a bonus attack to stab an enemy with your armour spikes. And when they successfully grapple an opponent, they deal 3 damage to the target of your grapple. As battleragers gain levels, they can also gain temporary hit points whenever they use the Reckless Attack barbarian ability, can Dash as a bonus action when raging, and inflict 3 damage whenever they are attacked in melee.
Officially, battleragers must be dwarves, but the Sword Coast Adventure Guide says that your DM may waive this restriction if they feel the subclass is appropriate for other races.
The Battlerager almost feels like a fix for the problems identified in the Berserker. It grants a similar ability to make a bonus attack when raging without it imposing such a disadvantage. The other abilities of the class likewise play on the image of a furious warrior attacking quickly and with reckless abandon.
Do play a Battlerager if:
You want to play a berserker, but don’t like the idea of accruing exhaustion.
You want an offensive character.
Don’t play a Battlerager if:
The thought of attacking with armour spikes feels a little too silly for you.
Beast (Tasha's Caudron of Everything)
While many barbarians may have a bestial nature, barbarians who choose the Path of the Beast go much further, transforming parts of their bodies into those of animals. When a beast barbarian rages, they can choose to grow fangs, claws or a tail with which they can attack and apply special conditions. As a beast barbarian gains levels, these weapons become magical and can instil further negative effects in those hit by them. A beast barbarian can also gain enhancements to their swimming, climbing or jumping ability and can grant temporary hit points and damage bonuses to nearby allies.
The beast barbarian is a fantastic set of abilities that will improve your effectiveness in battle. One significant advantage of the Beast subclass is that you can frequently change your choice of benefits. You choose which type of natural weapon to grow each time you rage and change your physical enhancements each time you rest. This allows you to select the right class feature for each individual circumstance that you come up against. The Beast subclass does require rage for most of its abilities to function. The debuffs applied by your natural weapons are also limited to a set number of uses per long rest, which is unusual for barbarian subclasses.
Do play a Beast barbarian if:
You want a range of abilities that you can frequently switch out.
Don’t play a Beast barbarian if:
You want to fight with standard weapons.
You own or are likely to find powerful magic weapons during the campaign.
Storm Herald (Xanathar's Guide to Everything)
One of the most unique Barbarian subclasses, a storm herald conjures a 10 ft. radius aura around them whenever they rage, conferring beneficial or harmful effects on other creatures within the aura. When you select the Storm Herald subclass at level three you choose either a desert, arctic or sea storm aura, which determines the effects that your aura will produce. Effects include dealing fire damage to all creatures, granting temporary hit points to your allies, and conferring elemental resistance to your allies. You gain new aura benefits as you gain levels and can also switch between the three aura types at each level up.
The Storm Herald takes the barbarian in a new direction, being one of the only ways to apply significant area effects as a barbarian. As with many character options, the utility of this subclass will significantly depend on the aura that you choose. Some of them can make a significant impact on the state of a battle, others can be of little use and in some cases may actually cause more harm than good. Many aura effects also require your bonus action or reaction to use each round, so if you plan to regularly use those actions for other things, such as the Polearm Master feat or duel wielding, you won’t get as much value out of this subclass.
Do play a Storm Herald if:
You want to apply effects to multiple allies or enemies at once.
You want options that you can occasionally switch between.
Don’t play a Storm Herald if:
You want to use your bonus actions for anything other than your aura abilities.
Wild Magic (Tasha's Caudron of Everything)
When a Wild Magic barbarian rages, one of eight magical effects happens at random. For example, nearby enemies may be blasted by necrotic magic, flowers may bloom around you creating difficult terrain, or one of your weapons may be imbued with force magic. Each of the effects is beneficial. As the barbarian gains levels, they will also gain the ability to replace the effect when they take damage, and to conjure two effects at once.
Wild Magic barbarians can also sense nearby magical auras, grant d3 bonuses to allies, and allow allies to recover lost spell slots.
All of the possible effects generated by the Wild Magic barbarian’s rage ability are beneficial, and most are significantly stronger than most other barbarian level three subclass abilities. This is balanced by the unpredictability of not knowing which affect you will get ahead of time. But overall, unless you find extra randomness frustrating, this remains an excellent level three ability.
The other abilities of the Wild Magic Sorcerer are likewise excellent. Being able to sense nearby magical effects gives the barbarian some extra out of combat utility, and being able to restore your allies spell slots is an incredible support ability.
Do play a Wild Magic barbarian if:
You want a good mix of combat abilities and out of combat utility.
You enjoy using powerful but unpredictable abilities.
Don’t play a Wild Magic barbarian if:
You find random effects frustrating.
Zealot (Xanathar's Guide to Everything)
Zealots are barbarians who fuel their rage with religious fanaticism. While a zealot is raging, their first attack each round deals bonus radiant or necrotic damage. As they gain levels, they gain the ability to reroll failed saving throws while raging and eventually to continue fighting while at zero hit points while raging. Zealots can also inspire others with their zeal to grant bonuses on attack rolls and saves. If a resurrection spell is cast on a zealot, it only consumes half of the normal amount of material components.
The zealot’s abilities are a great set of combat bonuses. Applying a sizeable amount of extra radiant damage to an attack is very welcome. Getting to reroll one saving roll per rage is a very useful ability that will help to resist dangerous status effects that could otherwise take you out of the fight. And the ability to keep on fighting while on zero hit points is incredible. You have to be careful when using it though - you still need to make death saving throws and automatically fail a save if you take further damage while on zero hit points. But if you end your rage on at least one hit point, you won’t die. So its a high risk, high reward strategy.
Do play a Zealot if:
You want to keep on fighting when other characters would fall.
You want to boost your damage and those of your allies.
Don’t play a Zealot if:
You don’t like taking too many risks with your character.
You don’t want to play a religious character.