Playing a First Level Barbarian

Barbarians are tough. Barbarians are strong. Barbarians are incredibly fun to play.

Here are a few notes on how to play them effectively at first level.

What is the Barbarian best at?

The barbarian does the most damage of any first-level character with two-handed weapons. They need to be raging while doing so, but even the fighter doesn’t deal as much damage.

Barbarians are the toughest – have the most hit points – of any character. They get hit more than the heavy-armoured fighter, but while raging they take half damage from weapon attacks. They can just keep going and going.

The most effective barbarians tend to wield greataxes in combat. Greatsword or maul works as well, but you lose a lot of what makes you special if you use a one-handed weapon. Experienced players can wield smaller weapons effectively, but you’re generally best with the biggest weapon around.

A barbarian fighting with sword and shield can be effective, but it’s not what the barbarian is best at.

What should the Barbarian do in combat?

The Barbarian is best in melee combat; that is, hitting people with a sword or axe. However, you don’t want to leave the squishy wizard unprotected.

In most combats, you shouldn’t move away from the other characters. Stay with the other party members and hurl javelins or hand axes at the enemy. Once the enemy engage you in melee, draw your sword or axe and hit them.

There are two exceptions to this: when fighting enemies with bows or other long-range attacks, and when fighting spellcasters or dragons.

In the first case, you want to run up to the enemy as quickly as possible and hit them. There’s no point in staying back and being hit while you can’t attack back.

In the second case, you’re fighting an enemy who can hit the entire party with an area effect such as thunderwave or a breath attack. Don’t bunch up in this case: scatter, find cover and look to engage the foe.

When you get the money, buy a bow. A longbow is best. You won’t be as good with it as with your melee weapon, but at least you will be able to attack flying creatures.

When should a Barbarian go into rage?

The first-level barbarian gets two uses of rage each day. You can expect between four and six combats each day (it’s typically fewer in D&D Adventurers League play). You won’t be able to rage in every fight.

So, pick the best two to use it in.

The fight against the final boss of the adventure? That’s one.

Otherwise, look for fights against one or more very tough foes, or fights against a lot of enemies. It’s not worth raging when fighting four kobolds. Raging while fighting twelve kobolds? More worthwhile. Fighting an Ogre? Rage!

Remember: Rage ends if you don’t take damage or make an attack. (I’ve seen a barbarian win initiative, go into a rage, then Dodge. The rage immediately ended. Don’t do that!)

Should a Barbarian wear armour?

A first-level Barbarian with a 14 Constitution and a 14 Dexterity has a 14 Armour Class when not wearing armour using the Unarmoured Defence ability.

A first-level Barbarian with a 14 Dexterity and wearing Scale Mail has a 16 Armour Class.

Once you can afford it, it’s worth getting medium armour. I don’t recommend using a shield in most combats – wield a two-handed weapon instead!

What race should I be?

Human, Half-Orc, Mountain Dwarf and Dragonborn tend to make the best Barbarians.

What abilities are most important?

You want your Strength to be high. Your Constitution is also important as it affects how many hit points you have, as well as your Armour Class if you don’t wear armour.

Dexterity helps you with initiative, armour class and ranged weapons. Wisdom aids you with many of your skills.

Charisma and Intelligence tend to be the lowest ability scores of a barbarian but look at which skills you want.

What skills should the Barbarian take?

Every barbarian should be proficient with Athletics. This allows you to climb and jump further than normal.

Your other skills? You should discuss with the rest of your group what skills they are taking. Try to cover as many skills over the group as you can.

  • Animal Handling (Wisdom) – very campaign dependent. Comes up occasionally; discuss how useful it might be with your DM.
  • Athletics (Strength) – this gets used a lot by barbarians
  • Intimidation (Charisma) – scaring people into telling you what you wish to know or into running from you is frequently useful, though you should try to pair it with a decent (12+) Charisma score.
  • Nature (Intelligence) – knowing about the dangers found in the wilderness can be useful but check with your DM how much he or she will use it. Requires a decent Intelligence score to be worth taking.
  • Perception (Wisdom) – very useful skill, as it helps you notice ambushes.
  • Survival (Wisdom) – dependent on the campaign but used a lot if you’re travelling in the wilderness.

You gain additional skills from your background. Work with that to gain an array of skills that will be useful to your party and try to match your better ability scores to your skills.

Reckless Attack?

At second level, you gain Reckless Attack. You get to make your melee attacks with advantage, while lowering your defences. This is a great ability, and you’ll want to use it most of the time. If you’re fighting an enemy with a very low armour class, it isn’t worth it (oozes, zombies, etc.), but against any creature with a decent armour class? It’s worth it. It’s best used while you’re raging, as having resistance from their attacks is useful.

Primal Path?

You have a lot of options once you reach third level as to how you want to specialise your barbarian. The one I see chosen most often is Path of the Totem Warrior, with the first totem as Bear. That gives the barbarian resistance while raging against all damage (except psychic), not just weapon damage. Yes, this is tremendously useful.

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4 Responses to Playing a First Level Barbarian

  1. Alastair says:

    An interesting post, thank you.
    Will you do similar posts for other classes? (I hope so! :o) )

  2. I’m playing a Level 8 Barbarian and I found AC is very important. I switched from 2 handed to sword and board for survivability. Worked best for my experience.

    • says:

      At higher levels, the use of sword + shield becomes far more feasible, and you have more abilities to distinguish you from the other characters.

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