Kevin has been playing tabletop games for almost as long as he can remember and currently edits for Jon Brazer Enterprises.
Introduction to the Barbarian
The barbarian may lack the fighter’s sheer number of feats or the rogue’s massive pool of skills, but he makes up for that by being one of Pathfinder’s most mobile and versatile martial classes. Thanks to a selection of excellent rage powers, many of which are better than feats, the barbarian is a serious contender in the running to be the game’s best all-around melee class. With more versatility than the cavalier, fighter and paladin and more raw power than the ranger, the barbarian performs well in many combat situations and has some application outside of battle, thanks to his higher number of skill points than the fighter or paladin.
What They Lack
What the barbarian does lack is a variety of fighting styles—the class’s abilities lend themselves best to fighting with the biggest two-handed weapon you can find (numerically, the greatsword is nearly always best, as usual). Barbarians lack the sources of bonus damage that make two-weapon fighting a highly favorable choice, and with their focus on dishing out pain, they don’t take well to sword and board fighting, either.
Customization With Rage Powers
That doesn’t mean you don’t have room to customize your barbarian, though. Rage powers are often better than feats, and they’ll end up really defining any barbarian. Because they’re such a big part of the class, they take up a large part of this guide. There are a lot of rage powers to choose from, and Paizo’s earliest rage powers are underwhelming in many ways, so it’s important to highlight the ones that will really make your barbarian shine.
The other half of this guide will talk briefly about melee barbarians and archer barbarians and provide a short sample build for each.
By default, every barbarian gets to choose ten rage powers (one at every even level). Many barbarians will have more thanks to the Extra Rage Power feat, which is a great way to fill open feat slots for a barbarian with a simple combat style. Paizo’s released a wealth of rage powers in the Core Rulebook, Advanced Player’s Guide, and Ultimate Combat. Tackling them all would make this guide rather unwieldy, but there are a number worth highlighting, as every barbarian’s going to want at least some of them.
This rage power is a great early choice that grants a particularly nasty barbarian a bite attack during his rage. For a two-handed fighting barbarian, this gives you an extra attack each round that has a pretty good shot of landing with a high Strength score. Animal fury also has nice flavor synergy with the beast totem line of rage powers, if you’re looking to create a barbarian that’s really more animal than human.
This series of totem rage powers starts with two average rage powers, but grants with the third power one of the most coveted abilities for any melee: pounce, which allows you to make a full attack after a charge, greatly enhancing your ability to do damage on the move. Lesser beast totem gives you two claw attacks while raging. These aren’t much help while using a weapon, but if you ever find yourself disarmed or otherwise weaponless, you won’t be that helpless.
Beast totem itself gives you a scaling natural armor bonus while raging, which can help counteract a barbarian’s lower than normal armor class. The real meat, though, comes with greater beast totem, which you can take at 10th once you have the other two powers. This is the one that gives you that sought after pounce ability. Pounce is easily worth the investment of three rage powers, so the beast totem line of powers comes highly recommended. Keep in mind that a barbarian can only have one set of totem rage powers, so if you decide to take beast totem, you lose access to other powers such as chaos totem or spirit totem.
Come and Get Me
Barbarians can soak up a lot of damage with their high hit point totals and particularly daring ones can use that capability to make themselves more deadly in combat. Come and get me lets you grant your enemies a +4 bonus on attack and damage rolls against you for one round, but any attacks made against you provoke an attack of opportunity from you. This extra attack is resolved before your opponent’s, so if you hit hard enough, you might never have to worry about taking that extra damage.
This power can be tricky to use, but if you have steady healing available, you can use it to drastically increase your damage per round. Make sure you take the Combat Reflexes feat with this one, and definitely consider the invulnerable rager archetype, which trades uncanny dodge for increased damage reduction.
The elemental rage powers let you deal additional energy damage on your attacks. While a standard barbarian with a two-handed weapon won’t have a large number of attacks, these powers do make two-weapon fighting slightly more useful for a barbarian, as this is one of their only sources of bonus damage outside of strength.
You can combine the lesser version of the power with the standard version to deal 1d6 damage of one energy type and 1d6 of another for one round, though you can only do so once per rage. If you do decide to take the two-weapon fighting path with your barbarian, also remember that any energy damage your weapons deal from magical properties will stack with the energy damage from elemental rage.
While fiend totem isn’t as useful overall as beast totem (because pounce is so hard to pass up), the middle power in this chain of three powers has one useful application. The fiend totem power causes any enemy striking you in melee to suffer 1d6 points of piercing damage. You can combine this with the come and get me rage power (see above) to encourage enemies to attack you and get that piercing damage more often. Keep in mind that taking fiend totem does prevent you from gaining access to greater beast totem entirely.
Increased Damage Reduction
A barbarian’s damage reduction is his primary form of defense since raging lowers his armor class. You can take this rage power three times to increase your damage reduction while raging by 1/-, and since you’ll probably nearly always be raging in combat by the time the power is available, the increase is almost a permanent one.
While this rage power shouldn’t take priority over a number of others, if you’re unsure which power to take once you’ve got all the main ones out of the way, quick reflexes has some synergy with come and get me in allowing you to make an additional attack of opportunity per round.
Just about any barbarian with Power Attack is going to want this rage power. While raging, the barbarian can use reckless abandon to take a scaling penalty to his armor class in exchange for an equal bonus on his attack rolls. The power scales with barbarian level at the same rate that Power Attack scales with base attack bonus.
In effect, this means that the raging barbarian can transfer Power Attack’s normal penalty to attack rolls to his armor class instead, ensuring that he’s hitting as often as possible for as much damage as he can muster. The invulnerable rager archetype (mentioned above) works very well with this power, as the increased damage reduction it grants will make the loss of armor class less painful.
Generally, rage powers that only work once per rage are less useful than those that function for your entire rage (until, at least, you gain tireless rage or immunity to fatigue, allowing you to start and end a “new” rage each round). Strength surge is an exception to this general rule, though, because you often won’t need to make a combat maneuver check (or defend against one) multiple times per rage.
Adding your barbarian level to a combat maneuver check or to your combat maneuver defense will greatly increase your chances for success, allowing you to avoid being disarmed at a crucial moment, grapple a foe you couldn’t otherwise grapple, or succeed in any difficult combat where such a check may be the difference between life and death. Strength surge is weakest when your level is lower, so you don’t need to put off other powers to get it, necessarily, but it’s a highly recommended power for any mid- to high-level barbarian.
Superstition is something of a mixed bag. A scaling saving throw bonus against just about everything magical is incredibly powerful, but being forced to roll saving throws against beneficial spells (including healing spells!) can be quite the headache. If, however, you can gain immunity to fatigue, allowing you to end a rage prematurely when you need healing and then resume it once you’re patched up, superstition becomes a lot more attractive.
Having a single level of oracle with the lame curse grants immunity to fatigue once you hit 8th level as a barbarian, and you can also gain fatigue immunity as a human with the Heart of the Fields alternate racial trait from Advanced Player’s Guide. A 3rd level horizon walker (a prestige class from Advanced Player’s Guide) can also gain fatigue immunity by taking terrain dominance in the desert terrain. All of this may seem like a lot of work for a single rage power, but superstition is required for the following very powerful rage powers:
Eater of Magic
This power becomes available at 10th level, and gives you a second saving throw against any spell effect or supernatural ability in the event that you fail. As an added bonus, if you make the second saving throw, you gain temporary hit points based on the power level of the effect’s caster. Because saving throws often come down to saving or losing at higher levels, having a redo ability that isn’t limited to a particular type of save (as those granted by feats like Improved Iron Will are) can be very powerful.
This rage power also requires witch hunter (see below), but grants the barbarian an ability no other non-caster can duplicate. With a combat maneuver check, spell sunder lets the barbarian suppress or outright dispel an ongoing effect, which includes powerful things like antimagic fields. Combined with the strength surge power, the barbarian can cleave through spell effects like nobody’s business. If there’s any rage power that sets a barbarian apart from all the other martial classes in Pathfinder, it’s this one.
Witch hunter grants a scaling damage bonus while raging against any foe with spells or spell-like abilities. This includes a very large number of monsters as well as any spellcasting villain (even if they only have low-level spells). This power becomes only more applicable as you reach higher and higher levels, making it (and superstition) very enticing.
Many More Powers Are Available
These powers I’ve highlighted are only about one-tenth of the choices available to a barbarian, but they’re some of the most notable ones. Some powers, such as those that only work once per rage (such as powerful blow), are great for any build that gains early immunity to fatigue, but I wouldn’t recommend putting off strong choices like the ones above for these. Other rage powers, such as those that focus on Intimidate (like terrifying howl) have synergy with feats like Dreadful Carnage and may make other rage powers (such as spirit totem) more attractive if they encourage you to focus on another secondary ability score.
As always, take my advice into consideration, but don’t consider it the gospel truth: One of the most rewarding thing about character building is finding interesting combinations on your own, so be sure to take a look at the other powers when building your barbarian.
Two-Handed Fighting: How to Best Smash Face as a Barbarian
As mentioned above, barbarians lack the wide range of combat styles available to fighters. Because more involved styles like two-weapon fighting or sword and board require heavy feat investments, barbarians are better off sticking to the tried and true method of picking up the biggest thing they can find and obliterating things with it. Sticking to two-handed weapons does leave the barbarian with some open feats that they can use to take Extra Rage Power, as well, which is great when so many of the rage powers are awesome.
- Your highest score should be your Strength. Though rage boosts your Strength score, its primary benefit is in skyrocketing your Strength to levels your fighter buddy can only dream of.
- After that, you’ll want your Constitution to be your next priority, as with your rage penalty to armor class (and maybe other penalties, if you have reckless abandon), your hit points are the only thing standing between you and death.
- If you’re planning on taking the come and get me rage power, Dexterity is useful (combined with Combat Reflexes, of course) to grant you more attacks of opportunity per round.
- Don’t let your Wisdom drop below 10 if you can help it, as it boots your Will Saves, and the last thing your party needs is an angry, dominated barbarian cleaving through all your squishy casters.
- Intelligence and Charisma aren’t terribly important to you, but you may want at least non-negative modifiers for both if you have a secondary focus on Intimidate and want the extra skill points to keep your ranks in it at the maximum level.
Just about every barbarian is going to want these feats:
- Power Attack, when combined with the reckless abandon power, keeps you hitting hard and hitting often and is the single most important contributor to your damage in combat.
- Raging Vitality gives you enhanced Constitution while raging and keeps your rage running if you ever get knocked below 0 hit points (which can otherwise kill you, since the loss of the temporary hit points from raging can suddenly put you past the death threshold).
- Raging Brutality is, like Power Attack, something of a no-brainer damage boosting feat, which lets you add your Constitution to damage rolls for a round at the expense of extra rounds of rage. By the time the feat is available, you should have plenty of rage rounds each day, so you’ll almost definitely want this feat, too.
- Combat Reflexes
- Extra Rage Power
- Furious Focus
- Dreadful Carnage
- Intimidating Prowess
- Two-Weapon Fighting
- Double Slice
- Improved Two-Weapon Fighting
- Greater Two-Weapon Fighting
Combat Reflexes has great synergy with the come and get me power, so if you’re taking that once you hit 12th level make sure you’ve got it out of the way by then. Extra Rage Power can fill any feat slot that you don’t need to fill with something crucial.
Furious Focus by itself is something of a waste for the barbarian (since reckless abandon makes sure you’re always Power Attacking without penalty), but it does open up Dreadful Carnage, which has nice synergy with the intimidating glare and terrifying howl rage powers. Intimidating Prowess works well for any build that has an Intimidate specialization.
I mentioned previously that barbarians don’t make the best two-weapon fighters. If you have high enough rolls (or a really high point buy) that allow you to have the necessary Dexterity for the feats without sacrificing Strength or Constitution, a two-weapon barbarian can work a lot like a standard two-handed one.
Two-Weapon Fighting means you’ll definitely want the elemental rage powers, and Double Slice does actually give you a slight numbers advantage over two-handed fighting (though it’s quite a feat investment to get there). For most barbarians, I don’t particularly recommend two-weapon fighting, but if you’ve got it in mind for your character, it’s quite possible to make it work.
Barbarian archetypes aren’t generally particularly transformative—most of them won’t really change your fighting style in significant ways.
- The invulnerable rager (Advanced Player’s Guide) trades uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge to gain increased damage reduction, which is useful to just about any barbarian, though.
- The titan mauler does provide a straight damage increase by the numbers, though you have to give up fast movement for it.
- Other barbarian archetypes, such as the mounted fury, are best looked at on their own, as they tend to shift the barbarian’s combat focus significantly.
Bringing It All Together: Sample Build
So with all of this in mind, here’s a pretty straightforward sample build for a 5th-level barbarian. More so than fighters or rogues, barbarians have a lot of choice in their feat and power selection, as they don’t require much at a base level to hit a solid level of performance. This build is a standard damage dealer, focused on dishing out hurt and leaving all the talking to other party members better suited to it.
Human Barbarian 5
Ability Scores (15 Point Buy): Str 17, Dex 13, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 8
Feats and Powers
1 Combat Reflexes, Power Attack
2 Reckless Abandon
3 Extra Rage Power: Animal Fury
4 Lesser Beast Totem
5 Raging Vitality
With this build, you’re set up for a lot two big rage powers in the future: greater beast totem and come and get me. You can swap the Extra Rage Power for any feat of your choice, really (say, Intimidating Prowess if you want some more social . . . grace), but having an extra attack is always nice. At 6th level, you’ll want to grab the beast totem power so you can take greater beast totem at 10th level, but otherwise many of your feat and power choices are open after that, allowing you to customize your barbarian however you see fit.
Barbarians may lack subtlety and social grace, but they bring so much firepower to a combat situation that they’re a worthy member of any party. They don’t quite out-damage a fighter in terms of pure numbers, but they make up with that with so many awesome rage powers that allow them to respond to situations fighters are often left helpless in (such as highly mobile fights or opponents with a lot of magical protections).
With a better skill selection and more skills in general, barbarians aren’t as hamstrung outside of combat as their more civilized counterparts, either. Just be sure to keep careful track of your hit points because you’re going to be taking a lot more damage than the party fighter in most situations, and you’ll be able to bathe in the blood of your enemies all day long.
Happy gaming! (Or face smashing, or whatever.)
redfox4242 on June 24, 2012:
Thanks for posting this guide. I knew to Pathfinder and I am looking for practical advice for building my barbarian.
Barnsey from Happy Hunting Grounds on April 12, 2012:
Agreed, I purchased the PDF of Bestiary 3 and book of the damned 3 and did a review of them here on hubs in order to promote them. I was overjoyed when I learned that they continued improving 3.5 D20! Thanks for the link!
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on April 12, 2012:
Thanks, Barnsey. Glad the guide was helpful! As for the rules, you probably already know about Paizo's reference document at http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/ but in case you didn't, you can take a gander at everything for free there.
Whenever you can, though, I really recommend picking up the actual books. Paizo's done a lot of good work so far with 3.5 and I'd like to see them keep that up. :)
Barnsey from Happy Hunting Grounds on April 12, 2012:
Quite awesome and informative! I am unable to purchase the rules from pathfinder at the moment so your hubs have been a great boon to me. Lets keep'em comin' big guy! Great Hub!