Tuesday, September 2, 2014

5e PHB Classes: The Barbarian

Before I begin, let me say that these notes with intermittent commentary will at best be a pale shadow in comparison to the exhaustive PBH reviews over at The Walking Mind. You should read this only if you are still hungry for analysis and reflection after reading everything Rob Donoghue has written on the subject. Or if your internet doesn't go there, or something.

The questions posed by any iteration of the Barbarian are: Is it barbaric? I.e., does it have at least a little bit of the "Hulk smash" vibe? Also, how does Rage work? If it's overpowered or unimpressive, the whole class will be, well, overpowered or unimpressive. Finally, how does it compare to a straight fighter? Since both classes go hand-to-hand to hurt people and break things, they must on the one hand be carefully balanced with one another, and on the other hand significantly different from one another, such that the choice to take one or the other feels meaningful.

5e answers all those questions in the most satisfying way possible. Yes, barbarians are barbaric. They hurl themselves into battle unclad (Unarmored Defense, which now, in contrast with the Next rules, works with shields), sense danger (advantage to initiative rolls), attack recklessly (advantage to your attacks for advantage to theirs), do extra dice of damage on critical hits and, of course, they Rage.

Rage has improved since Next. It no longer counteracts the singular limitation of Reckless Attack, which is granting your enemies advantage on attacks. Instead, a powerful ability from early versions of Next has been resurrected, namely, resistance to slashing, piercing, or bludgeoning damage.

This makes a lot more sense as a mechanic for Rage. If Rage is going to make you superhuman, it shouldn't be making you superhumanly accurate with an axe, rather, it makes much more sense to make you superhumanly able to tolerate punishment. You can then, if you chose, get advantage for your attacks by compromising your own defense, trusting in your capacity to absorb punishment (high hp and resistance.) "Take one to give one" (as they say in boxing) feels much more like a barbarian as compared to "In the grip of a white-hot rage, I never miss."

For anyone confused by the new movie (or the talk show host), this is Conan

At 3rd level, you choose your "Primal Path" and, man, it's a tough call. On the one hand, there's the Berserker, who gets the "Frenzy" ability straight off, which gives you an extra attack per round (it's a bonus action, which becomes important as characters are allowed only one bonus action per round) at the price of exhaustion at the end of the fight (a state with significant downsides which is not easily reversed.) And at 14th level, they get the "Retaliation," which gives them another attack, this time a "reaction," against anyone who damages them in close combat.

On the other hand, the Path of the Totem Warrior brings with it Totem Spirit (3rd), which in turn allows you to chose "Bear" which . . . gives you resistance to all damage (except psychic) while raging.

It's hard to express how cool an ability that is. Psychic damage is rare. It would not be unreasonable to think of this, then, as an ability that doubles your hit points whenever you Rage. If you have 100hp, in effect you have 200hp, because virtually any damage you take will be cut in half.

Another way to think of it would be that Totem Spirit (Bear) grants you resistance whilst raging to fire, cold, poison, necrotic, radiant, acid, force, lightning and thunder damage. Sounds more impressive when you say it that way, doesn't it? Almost unbalanced. On the other hand, barbarians dearly love to hit things, and the Berserker, provided he's engaged in close combat with the Big Bad (and hence doesn't mind being a bit peaked afterwards) will be hitting things twice as often. Tough. Call.

Which brings us to the final, critical point of contrast: the Fighter. Does this Barbarian overshadow the Fighter or vice versa?


No. This Barbarian does all the cool things that made us[1] fall in love with Barbarians when they debuted in Unearthed Arcana (see above). They're fast, their reaction times are enviable, and you wouldn't like them when they're angry. They're tougher, not so much because of the few extra hit points as because of resistance. In their final form, at 20th level, they get +4 Strength and +4 Constitution, immediately giving them 40 more hp, +2 to AC, and all the other advantages associated with being the biggest, baddest, toughest mothers in the game.

Fighters, though, as we'll see, more than hold their own, maxing out at four (sometimes eight) attacks per round, rerolling failed saves, dabbling in magic or dirty tricks or easy crits, and generally being fearsome in their own right. Much more on this to come.

So if you are a stout patron of Linear Warriors, which one are you gonna prefer? Mechanistically, a stellar Barbarian needs three things: Str, Dex, & Con. A fighter really only needs one: Str or Dex. So if you fall in love with both classes, choosing between them for a particular set of dice rolls is going to be as simple as: how many high scores to you have?

The PHB class system is off to a great start.

Up next: The Bard

1. And by "us," clearly I mean "very old people who bought Unearthed Arcana when it came out."

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