Thoughts on the Unearthed Arcana Barbarian Primal Paths

Barbarian primal paths have a problem, and that’s the Totem Warrior path. When one ability (the Bear Totem) is so good – gaining resistance to ALL damage except psychic – it’s hard to compete against that. With that in mind, here’s a few notes on the new Primal Paths that are spotlighted in playtest form in a recent Unearthed Arcana column.

Path of the Ancestral Guardian

Back in 4th edition, the default fighter was given several abilities that made it “sticky” – opponents would often be forced to attack it, and had moving past it to attack other, more vulnerable, characters. In many ways, this was due to the changing of the size of adventuring parties. In 1st edition, a party of nine characters, including three fighters in the front rank, made it impossible for monsters to get around them to the back rank when fighting in a 10-foot-wide corridor. The current edition of D&D, with movement made even easier around characters, the requirement for a “sticky” fighter is higher.

The Path of the Ancestral Guardian, therefore, allows a barbarian to take that role. The first ability gained, “Ancestral Protectors” is the stickiness: you can ‘mark’ (using 4E terminology) a foe which then can only attack your allies at a disadvantage, and has trouble getting away from you. The drawbacks to this power are significant: only one foe and it takes a bonus action (so two-weapon barbarians need not apply).

The next ability, “Ancestral Shield”, allows you to transfer your resistance to non-magical weapon damage to another character; unfortunately, it is a transfer, so you don’t have your resistance when you do this. This is a very corner-case ability. There may be times when it’s useful, but given (a) you have to be raging and thus in combat and (b) you’ll be hit more often than most characters, all-in-all this is a horrible power: entirely too situational, and rare that the situation comes up.

“Consult the Spirits” is a good flavoursome ability of little import, and “Vengeful Ancestors” allows you to do a small amount of damage to a foe that hurts a friend.

Overall, I’m not a fan of this primal path. The big problem is that it gets away from the core Barbarian experience – stand in the middle of combat and smash things – to something that weakens the core elements of the barbarian.

Path of the Storm Herald

This primal path is a lot more interesting; increasing the damage you deal to your enemies is always interesting, and the entire suite of powers are evocative and powerful. Too powerful? Possibly – but I’m in favour of anything that stops every barbarian choosing the Bear Totem…

“Storm of Fury” has two paths that are basically identical (Desert and Tundra) – they deal damage to every enemy that ends in the aura. Death to kobolds! The third path, Sea, deals more damage but only to a single foe. Being enemy-only is a good bonus, and the damage can become quite significant over a longer battle.

“Storm Soul” is great – resistance to a damage type and environmental effects, and the sea version allowing you to breathe underwater? Colour me a fan. “Shield of the Storm” extends the protection to your allies, although only having a 10-foot aura means that, when underwater, everyone will have to stay quite close to you or they’ll begin drowning…

And “Raging Storm” is really, really good, causing more problems with enemies moving than gained through Path of the Ancestral Guardian, though at a higher level.

Overall, I’m a big fan of this primal path, but it’s so good, it means that most of the other primal paths aren’t as worthwhile taking. Storm of Fury is better than the Berserker path ability (which has a drawback as well), and all the abilities are active and are useful in most circumstances. Hmm.

Path of the Zealot

Huh. This path allows you to be raised without needing a material component – of great comfort to all the clerics of Pelor that must keep tending you after you throw yourself into the midst of combat…

The idea of having a divinely-favoured barbarian is a good one, and of the three paths in the document, I’d say this is the closest to being balanced with the paths in the Player’s Handbook. “Divine Fury” can deal a significant amount of damage – although it should be noted that it affects allies as well as enemies!

“Zealous Focus” is great for resisting those domination or death effects that would otherwise take you out of combat, but there is a very high cost for using the ability. Ending your rage and not being able to use it again until you rest? It makes the level of exhaustion from the Berserker path look much more attractive.

“Zealous Presence” is very situational. It takes your action to use, which means you can’t attack (and generally barbarians are the highest weapon damage-dealers save rogues in the party). So, for it to be worthwhile, the rest of your party will need to be able to make attack rolls and with a potential that enough can hit that it makes giving up your attacks worthwhile. Given the rogue likely already has advantage, and the wizard isn’t casting attack spells at this level, it’s a special adventuring group that finds this useful. As I said, situational.

“Rage Beyond Death” is a classic barbarian power – the ability to keep on going even when you’d otherwise be dead. Just make sure you get healed before your rage ends! Note that you’ll die if you take damage that equals or exceeds your maximum hit points while at 0 hp; this power won’t save you then.

Path of the Zealot has its good points and its bad points. Great first and last abilities, the middle-level abilities aren’t so good. But that probably makes it more balanced, at least compared to Path of the Storm Herald.

That’s my take on these new paths. In a few hours, we’ll see the next set of archetypes that the folks of Wizards have for us…

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