The barbarian is a savage warrior from a primitive culture, who relies on pure rage or primal magic to overwhelm foes. Or so they are generally depicted. But as with all classes, you can use the mechanics of the barbarian to represent a wide variety of stories. In this post I’ll look at how the barbarian fits into Eberron, and present some alternate ideas for barbarian characters that could fit into any campaign.
Sometimes you just want to be an actual barbarian, and Eberron has a number of options that fill this need. Bear in mind that just as every priest isn’t a cleric, not ever warrior from a savage culture is a barbarian; classed barbarians would typically be elite warriors and champions.
- Talenta Halflings. That’s right: our iconic barbarian is a halfling. This Dragonshard calls out the fact that “The Talenta druid believes that her ancestors are all around her, affecting every aspect of life“… which makes Xanathar’s Path of the Ancestral Guardian an easy option for a Talenta halfling. But I can also see a pint-sized Berserker, or a Totem Warrior with the totems renamed… the Eagle becomes the Glidewing, the Wolf becomes the Clawfoot, the Bear can be the Threehorn.
- The Carrion Tribes. The people of the Demon Wastes are savage killers bound to fiendish Overlords. For a PC, the main question is why you broke with your tribe and left the Wastes. The simple answer is the Drizzt approach: you had a revelation that now sets you in opposition to your ancestors and their demonic patrons. Perhaps you were going to be sacrificed because you have the potential to shift the Prophecy in a way that harms the Lords of Dust – and now you seek to discover how to bring that destiny about. An interesting possibility here is that your “Rage” could actually be drawing on the power of your Overlord. You could be bound to Rak Tulkhesh, and that connection still gives you power in battle… even as you oppose his plans. If your rage has such a supernatural element, it makes a good justification for Xanathar’s Storm Herald path. Strangely, you could also justify the Zealot path with necrotic damage… with the argument that even though you are drawing on the POWER of an Overlord, you don’t revere them.
- The Ghaash’kala. The orcs of the Demon Wastes use the power of the Silver Flame to fight the Lords of Dust and the Carrion Tribes. Traditionally this is a case where I’d say “You don’t have to take the barbarian class to be a barbarian”; when I played a Ghaash’kala half-orc, he was a straight-up paladin. The Ghaash’kala certainly have paladins and clerics, but Xanathar’s Zealot path for the barbarian is a way to combine these two things together.
- The Eldeen Reaches. Barbarians are often presented as a primal path, which is entirely in keeping with the Druidic sects of the Eldeen Reaches. You could definitely find barbarian champions protecting the roving tribes of the Towering Woods. I’ll talk more about shifters in general below. The Totem path is an easy match for any of the Eldeen sects, but I could see Storm Herald or Berserker working just as well. And the Zealot path could actually be an interesting one for a warrior of the Children of Winter – not actually worshipping a god, but channeling the power of life itself in their pursuit of undead and others who violate the natural order.
- The Shadow Marches. The Marches are split into the largely civilized clans and the more savage tribes, and you could definitely have a tribal warrior who follows a barbaric path. Berserker is an easy choice for the typical half-orc barbarian, but Totem is equally logical for someone who follows the ways of the Gatekeepers.
This is an easy few, but there are definitely other options. Xen’drik, Q’barra, Droaam, the tundras or deserts of Sarlona – there are lots of uncivilized regions a character could come from. With that said, a barbarian doesn’t have to BE a barbarian…
A RAGE BY ANY OTHER NAME
As with the bard, let’s take a moment to look at the concrete mechanical definition of a barbarian.
- d12 hit die – the best hit points of any class.
- Proficiency with martial weapons, shields, and light and medium armor… essentially everything except heavy armor.
- A skill set that certainly skews towards nature (Nature, Survival, Animal Handling)… but that includes the more general Athletics, Intimidation and Perception.
- A barbarian is a survivor – something reflected by Unarmored Defense, Danger Sense, and Feral Instinct.
- A barbarian is fast – as reflected by Fast Movement and Feral Instinct.
- A barbarian can choose to take advantage on their attack rolls, at the cost of providing advantage to enemies that attack them. This is called Reckless Attack – but there’s no reason it can’t be presented as a calculated martial technique.
And finally we have Rage – the heart of the barbarian. But what IS Rage? It’s a state the barbarian enters voluntarily and can end voluntarily as a bonus action. It is tied to combat, ending early if the user doesn’t make an attack or suffer an injury. It provides resistance to damage, advantage on strength checks and saves, and a bonus to damage with melee attacks. But does it have to be “Rage”? The character remains in full control of their actions and can end the state voluntarily; they aren’t somehow clouded by a fog of war. “Rage” is a state of heightened combat ability that can only be maintained for a short time; but if you change the name to Battle Trance or something similar, you can have a very different feel. Back in 3.5 we called out the idea that Dhakaani bugbears were trained as barbarians, but that “Dhakaani barbarians are not stereotypical savages; instead, the barbarian class represents a specialized form of combat training, with the Rage ability reflecting a consciously cultivated state of battle fury.” A similar approach is suggested for the Droranath dwarves of the Mror Holds: civilized warriors who cultivate battle-rage as a weapon. Both of these examples still present it as “fury” – but there’s no reason it has to involve anger. It’s a short period where you can do more damage in melee combat and resist physical injury, along with special abilities related to your path. Let’s look at a few more variations of the barbarian.
HACKING THE SHIFTER
At the moment there isn’t a strong conversion of the Shifter in 5E. But what defined the Shifter of 3.5? Well, depending on your subtype, you got a temporary boost to your abilities that could only be maintained for a short period of time, along with traits like fast movement and tough hide. If you’re willing to simply ignore defined race and class and to call your rage “shifting”, you can make characters that FEEL like shifter champions by combining different base races with the barbarian.
Beasthide Shifter: Combine half-orc and Bear Totem barbarian. You’re strong, durable, and when you shift you’re extremely resistant to damage.
Longstrider Shifter: Combine wood elf and Eagle Totem barbarian. You’re extremely fast, and when you shift you’re faster still. You can slip into the shadows of the forest with ease. And yes, there’s some elf traits that don’t make sense – but you can interpret elven trance as “light sleeper”, saying that the shifter does sleep but will always awaken should there be any threat.
Certainly, this isn’t a long-term solution to the lack of shifter statistics… but in the short term, it works surprisingly well. We used this approach in the first 5E Eberron campaign I played in, and over the course of seven levels of play it held up just fine.
THE REVENANT BLADE
The Tairnadal believe that their ancestors work through them. The Revenant Blade specializes in channeling the spirit of their patron ancestor. Set aside all the preconceptions of the barbarian and consider it as an elite Tairnadal soldier: lightly armored, blindingly fast and comfortable in the wilds (with a wood elf base and fast movement, a base speed of 45 and able to hide in natural environs). Their high hit points reflect exceptional skill as opposed to sheer physical durability. And their “rage” is about channeling the spirit of their ancestor and letting it guide them; let’s call it Revenant Trance. For such a warrior, their resistance to damage while “raging” doesn’t reflect physical durability, but rather a preternatural ability to avoid damage. The additional damage while raging reflects absolute precision. While Ancestral Guardian might seem like a logical path for such a barbarian, that path deals with spirits that manifest BEYOND the character. Personally I think the Berserker path is a good one, just with all the effects recolored. Frenzy reflects the amazing martial abilities of the guiding spirit, with the exhaustion that follows reflecting the difficulty of channeling the spirit; Mindless Rage – which simply protects from charm and fear – reflects the patron ancestor shielding the Revenant.
One could reasonably ask “If the damage bonus from rage is about precision rather than force, shouldn’t they be able to use it with a bow?” It’s a reasonable question. But the whole point of the ancestral guidance is that it only lets you do what the ANCESTOR excelled at. This idea is based on the premise that the ancestor in question was an exceptional melee combatant with a fighting style that placed offense ahead of their own safety (explaining the “Reckless Attack” ability). The character can USE a bow… but it’s not what their patron specialized in, and thus, they gain no special benefit when they use it during their Revenant Trance.
Barbarian can also be an interesting choice for a warforged… a skirmisher designed to hit fast and hard, who can temporarily go into an overdrive mode when things are at their worst. Given the concept of a warforged as an innately magical being, I can imagine the warforged physically transforming in “rage” mode – with the resistance to damage being reflected either by ablative plating generated on the spot or by a temporary hardening of all surfaces. Personally I lean towards the Berserker model for this style of warforged, but you could reflavor Totem to reflect design as opposed to spiritual interaction. Another interesting option is to take the warforged Zealot Barbarian as a warforged built to channel the power of the Silver Flame. As a side note, in the Shadows of Stormreach story I wrote for D&D Online, I envisioned the warforged Spike as a barbarian.
I just made a barbarian for a charity livestream I’m on this weekend. Max is an orphaned urchin who grew up in a bad part of a big city. His father was a blacksmith, and Max believes that his father’s spirit is still with him, strengthening and advising him. To start off, this justifies a scrawny teenager with a Strength of 16; he doesn’t LOOK strong, but something gives him the strength to wield his giant maul. His Danger Sense reflects the guidance of the spirit… and his “Rage” is about letting the spirit take over and guide his actions. I went with Berserker as my path for the simplicity of it, and because I like leaving it as a mystery whether he actually IS haunted; perhaps he’s just crazy, or perhaps he’ll discover that the spirit he thinks is his father is something else. However, if I fully embraced this idea I could see running with Ancestral Guardian and having the spirits in question be the spirits of his immediate family; nothing says that Ancestral Guardian has to be an ancient tradition.
LYRANDAR LIGHTNING BLADE
The barbarian shuns heavy armor, and has excellent unarmored defense. Combine this with the speed and reflexes of the barbarian – Fast Movement, Danger Sense, Feral Instinct – and you can imagine a swashbuckler who relies on precision instead of force. In this case, Reckless Attack again becomes a conscious style that favors offense over defense as opposed to sheer wildness. I tie this to Lyrandar because it fits with the idea of the Storm Herald path… specifically the Sea path, which ties to lightning and water. In this case I envision a Lyrandar heir who enters a battle trance using the Mark of Storm. Given that the Storm Herald suggests an ongoing storm around them, you could see the physical damage resistance as being winds that deflect incoming blows. If I was going to CHANGE rules, I’d shift the Rage Damage bonus to be lightning damage and potentially switch the Strength-related bonuses to be Dexterity related – making this a path for a finesse-driven swashbuckler who might have no Strength to speak of – but that’s not an absolute requirement to make the idea work. Obviously this is awkward when, y’know, we don’t have rules for Dragonmarks – but the point of the Lyrandar Storm Sorcerer or Barbarian is that you can use the class abilities as a way to imply the presence of the Dragonmark even if you DON’T have rules for using it on its own. Alternately, you could drop the Dragonmark entirely, shift the Storm Herald focus to Fire, and imagine an Aundairian Flame Blade — a variation of the Knight Arcane focusing on martial prowess with a touch of fire. Unarmored Defense could be flavored as a form of Mage Armor instead of pure physical toughness, with the powers of the Storm Herald being ultimately arcane in nature.
BLADES OF FURY
Rather than being the product of a civilization, the abilities of the barbarian could stem from literal madness. Either the Cults of the Dragon Below or a deep faith in The Fury could lead to ecstatic battle-rage. Depending on which path you’re taking, things like Danger Sense and Feral Instinct could be flavored as being deeply attuned to primal instinct (through the Fury) or the same, but flavored in madness (“The little man on my shoulder told me to dodge, so I did.”). Berserker is an easy path for follow, but you could also reflavor Storm Herald’s Fire path to inflict psychic damage, suggesting a character in the midst of a psychic maelstrom.
I’m going to stop here, but please share your thoughts, questions and ideas about ways to use the barbarian! And as always: Nothing here is canon in any way, and thank you to my Patreon backers, who make this blog possible!
There is a old RTS videogame set in Eberron. In that game the basic infantry units are Silver Flame dwarven berserkers that use their religious conviction as fury.
I almost mentioned these dwarves in the original post, but they’re so obscure I skipped them. But since you brought them up… The game in question is called Dragonshard. The dwarves are the Hammerfist Dwarves, a clan that lives in isolation in the Demon Wastes, fighting the Carrion Tribes and the Demons and sustained by the power of an Irian manifest zone. Where the Ghaash’kala guard the Labyrinth, the Hammerfist Dwarves are deep in the Wastes. Like the Ghost Guardians, they oppose the darkness – but they have little contact with the Ghaash’kala.
Now: in Dragonshard the dwarves are serving with the Order of the Flame – the “Good Guy” faction – but they are not followers of the Silver Flame. Instead, they follow a tradition that runs parallel to the Undying Court of the Aereni: They have Deathless. It’s established that what you need to create Deathless is a strong manifest zone to Irian and deep devotion of a group of people. They have both in the Demon Wastes, and this has let them create their own tiny Undying Court; this is reflected by the other Dwarven unit in the game, the Deathless Guardian.
So the Hammerfist Dwarves do call on their faith when they fight, and this is about as easy a justification for a Path of the Zealot barbarian that one could ask for. On the other hand, because they are all about revering their ancestors and drawing on their undying power, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian is equally logical for them.