D&D 5e: Alternate Barbarian Rages 1


Both Stands-in-Fire and Samhaine have done some great writing about barbarians lately, thanks to the experience of having two barbarians in the party at the same time. You should definitely read what they have to say, but the short version that I care about for this post is that barbarian rage is sort of a non-choice. If you’re not raging, you’re a subpar fighter-type. If you are raging, your tactics become tightly constrained. This is where I point out that Grog seems awesome in Critical Role thanks to Matt not being a stickler for rules, like the rules on what ends a rage. (But he ignores the rules even more for Vex, so whatever.)

Minimum Rage

In general, barbarian subclasses take the base rage feature and tack on more functions to that. Just as a reminder, the baseline function grants:

  • Advantage on Str checks
  • Advantage on Str saves
  • +damage when you make a melee weapon attack using Strength. Base +2, improves to +4.
  • Resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

You lose:

  • The ability to cast spells.
  • The ability to concentrate on spells.
  • The ability to wear heavy armor. (That is, you couldn’t start the rage in the first place if you were wearing heavy armor, unless you have a subclass that fixes this.)

Your rage ends if:

  • 1 minute passes.
    • This sort of gets amended at 20th level, as you have an unlimited number of rages per long rest.
  • You become unconscious.
  • Your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature or taken damage since the end of your previous turn.
    • This gets amended by Persistent Rage at 15th level.

Let’s see what goes on here. Advantage on Str checks and saves is sort of a Beast Mode move, making you a super athlete, but your rage ends almost immediately unless you’re taking damage. Okay, rages aren’t meant for exploration challenges; that’s a missed opportunity.

I think people go into the barbarian class and rage in particular expecting more than a fairly-forgettable damage bump that doesn’t surpass the Duelist fighting style until 9th level. Brutal Critical is likewise pretty forgettable in output. Reckless Attack shares this point’s restrictions – a melee weapon while using Strength. In a recent Happy Fun Hour, Mearls digs medium-deep into why that restriction works the way it does, and he noodles with the idea of sorta-kinda working around it. It is, in short, the rogue’s fault – they didn’t want rogues to make Reckless Attacks as a way to have always-on Sneak Attack. But y’all… if you’ve taken a bunch of rogue levels, you don’t want to take all the face-punching that Reckless Attack brings your way. You know what, this is not the place for this argument.

Resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing – now that is why you’re here. Functionally more-than-doubling (thanks, rounding rules!) your hit points against the most common damage type, when you already have huge hit point totals, is pretty eye-popping. Sure, most barbarians have an AC that is mediocre at best, but still. The obvious goal here is to give you permission to wade into the thick of the fight and take a huge number of hits, while still being comparatively easy to heal up again.

Losing the ability to cast or concentrate on spells is particularly about blocking off some of the further exploitation of Moon druid/barbarian multiclassing, as well as many other flavors of spellcaster multiclassing. This is an unfortunate decision in itself, if you take into account that basically every other melee weapon-wielder has no trouble exploiting caster multiclassing.

Why does rage end the way it does? One-minute duration, sure, no problem. You become unconscious, well, sure. The attack-or-take-damage part, though… that has a lot of little effects. WotC may regard all of these as good things, but they have the effect of eliminating most tactical options and replacing them with WAAAGH!

  • The Dodge action is mostly out for you, since it means enemies can ignore you for this round and make your situation get worse. You need to be spending your action to attack or charge (with the Charger feat).
  • Readying an action to attack is a riskier proposition for you than for others – if your trigger doesn’t happen, you lose more than just your action. Readying an action to do anything else is a terrible proposition for you, unless you are 100% sure you’ll take damage.
  • Grappling, fortunately, stays on the table for you – it’s explicitly an attack.
  • Escaping a grapple is not.
  • Dash (except with the Charger feat or the Eagle Totem feature), Disengage, Help, Hide, Search, and Use an Object are, naturally, off the menu for you too. These are less surprising, but their absence (and everything about this restriction) has unfortunate consequences for encounter design.
  • On the plus side, picking up Shield Master so you can Shove (it’s an attack!) as a bonus action opens up tons of options for doing something else with your action.

To summarize, then, the barbarian class puts forth probably the narrowest playstyle of any class. If you’ve come for the class’s core story, you may find that the mechanics are too restrictive and don’t support some barbarian-adjacent concepts. The Action Hero, for example, would need rage to carry them through high-octane chases or exploration scenes. A two-weapon frenzy attacker, who fights like some sort of wolverine, is reasonably well attested in the source fiction but underwhelming and awkward to build here.

If you’re building up a head of steam to respond with “a lot of people like simple, and barbarian is for them!” then let me stop you there. That is why we have subclasses – so some can be simple and others more involved, but both stay fairly competitive over the long haul.

 

MAXIMUM EFFORT

My approach, then, is to try just changing the Rage feature. The rage in the Player’s Handbook becomes one specific type of rage; we’ll call it Stone Strength Rage. You know a number of rages equal to the number of rages you can use in a day, up to 6 at 20th level. When you enter a rage, you can use any rage you know. Features that require you to be raging work with all of these rages, though in some cases they may be redundant. Let’s not get bogged down in some of the outcomes there, and assume that if I really had to implement this, I’d be comfortable tweaking subclass features (such as the Bear Totem) as well.

This is, of course, inspired by 4e’s barbarians and their dizzying array of ways to express their anger. There’s no need for a Rage Strike feature to let you dump extra rage powers, though – unlike in 4e, here you can reuse a rage that is right for the situation, and it’s totally okay to have one super-situational rage.

Where necessary, you use the better of your Strength or Constitution modifiers to calculate saving throw DCs for your rages.

 

Bloodthirst Rage: It doesn’t matter how much blood you lose, as long as your enemies lose more.

  • You have advantage on Constitution checks and saving throws.
  • As a bonus action, you can deal 1d8 damage to yourself that can’t be resisted. If you do, your melee weapon attacks for the rest of this round deal an additional 1d8 damage. If your target’s current hit points are less than its maximum hit points, your melee weapon attacks deal an additional 1d12 damage instead.
  • EDIT: Your weapon attacks score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20.
  • You gain resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage while your current hit points are less than half of your maximum hit point total.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while raging. Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Hammerfist Rage: You fend off groups of attackers with powerful shoves.

  • You can enter this rage while wearing heavy armor.
  • You have advantage on Strength checks and saving throws.
  • As a bonus action, you can choose one creature adjacent to you and make a Shove attack against it.
  • When you do not have disadvantage on the roll and successfully Shove a creature, you can choose another creature adjacent to the first and make a Shove attack against it with disadvantage.
  • You can’t be moved from your current position except by magic that teleports you, or by a creature that is size Huge or larger.
  • You gain resistance to bludgeoning damage and thunder damage.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while raging. Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t used the Dodge action, attacked a hostile creature since your last turn, or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Cruel Steel Rage: Your blade fills the air, and those who come too near shall bleed for it.

  • You have advantage on Dexterity checks and saving throws.
  • When a creature that you can see ends its turn within your reach, you can make a melee attack against it as a reaction.
  • You deal 1d6 additional damage to creatures that ended their previous turn adjacent to you.
  • When you use the Attack action, you can sacrifice all attacks you would make with this action to deal your weapon damage (no ability modifier) to all creatures of your choice that are adjacent to you. If you do, you grant advantage on all attacks against you until the beginning of your next turn. (The point of the first clause is that you can still make an off-hand attack if you are fighting with two weapons.)
  • You gain resistance to piercing damage and slashing damage.

Edited: Taking this from the top, because I’m not happy with my original.

  • You have advantage on Dexterity checks and saving throws.
  • While you are fighting with two weapons, you can add your off-hand weapon’s damage die to the damage you deal with opportunity attacks.
  • While you are wielding a melee weapon in one hand and no other weapons, you can use your reaction to make a melee weapon attack against a creature that misses you with a melee weapon attack. If this attack hits, you do not add your ability score modifier to the damage dealt.
  • While you are wielding a melee weapon with two hands, you can use your action to attack up to three creatures that are adjacent to you. Each of these creatures must be adjacent to at least one other creature that you target with this attack.
  • When you make a Reckless Attack, you deal an additional 1d8 damage on a hit. You can deal this additional damage up to once per turn.
  • You gain resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while raging. Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t dealt damage to a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Tiger’s Rage: You use extraordinary speed for short bursts of movement, pouncing on enemies to tear them to pieces. (Tiger would also be a good additional Totem, as I’m sure many DM’s Guild products already attest.)

  • You have advantage on Dexterity checks and saving throws.
  • Your speed increases by 10 feet, and your jumping distance doubles.
  • You can move up to half your speed as a reaction when there is no hostile creature you can see adjacent to you.
  • When you attack a creature that was not within your reach at the start of your turn, you gain advantage on the first melee weapon attack roll, and your melee weapon attacks that use Dexterity deal an additional 1d6 damage.
  • You gain advantage on ability checks and saving throws against effects that would reduce your speed, and against the frightened condition.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while raging. Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Proud Lion Rage: You utter powerful roars that bring courage to your allies and dread to your foes. (See above re: good additional Totems.)

  • You can enter this rage while wearing heavy armor.
  • You have advantage on Charisma checks and saving throws.
  • As a bonus action, you can roar to bolster your allies. Choose up to three creatures within 30 feet that can hear you. They gain temporary hit points equal to half your barbarian level.
  • As an action, you can roar to unsettle your foes. Choose up to six creatures within 30 feet that can hear you to roll Charisma saving throws. On a failed save, the first attack they make before the beginning of your next turn suffers disadvantage, and if you are the target of the attack, they suffer 2d6 psychic damage when they declare the attack.
  • You gain advantage on saving throws against the frightened condition, and you gain resistance against thunder and psychic damage.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while raging. Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn, targeted a hostile creature with a roar, or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Coiling Power Rage: Like the coils of a constrictor, your strength is inescapable, a gradual doom to any in your grasp. You crush man’s skull like sparrow egg, is what I’m saying.

  • You have advantage on Strength (Athletics) and Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks.
  • You can grapple a creature or attempt to escape a grapple as a bonus action.
  • You can grapple creatures much larger than yourself. Add your Strength and Constitution modifiers together. If the total is 5-9, you can grapple Huge creatures. If the total is 10+, you can grapple Gargantuan creatures.
  • A creature that starts its turn grappled by you suffers 1d4 + your Strength or Constitution modifier bludgeoning damage. A creature that attempts to escape your grapple and fails suffers this damage as well. This feature continues until you release the creature, even if your rage ends first.
  • Your grapple does not end when you are incapacitated or fall unconscious.
  • You gain resistance against damage from weapon attacks dealt by a creature that you are grappling or that is grappling you.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while raging. Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you don’t have a creature grappled and haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then.  You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

I’d be tempted to keep going with energy-related rages, like a Blizzard Dancer rage, that closely imitate the Storm Herald from XGTE. Let’s leave it here, though, because six new rages plus the core Stone Strength rage is enough for proof of concept.

I find the power balance hard to judge here. Resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing is so amazing that anything replacing it has to be similarly outstanding. Suffice it to say that any of these concepts could be beefed up or toned down without too much trouble. What I care about is the additional decision point of which rage to use, and the possibility of deciding to switch between rages mid-fight. I mean, we otherwise have a stance class with only one stance, right?

Because it’s the kind of thing I like, I’d actually prefer that barbarians didn’t automatically learn new rages after 1st level. Instead, they travel travel to other lodges and remote locations to persuade people, spirits, or intelligent beasts to teach them. That’s just me – I don’t write content to require that, because it’s not right for most groups.

I think I’ve been unsubtle about the source fiction of my concepts here. The cultural baggage around saying “I think a particular character is a barbarian” makes me reluctant to list sources. If we can all promise to understand that I’m talking about a non-pejorative D&D context… I mean, T’Challa shows us just how subtle, clever, and cultured you could go within the class. Also, why two-weapon fighting with natural or artificial claws needs some support in the barbarian class.

Edits: Many thanks to Stands-in-Fire for his thoughtful commentary on places where Bloodthirst and Cruel Steel. I’ve buffed up Bloodthirst to make it more competitive with Stone Strength rage, and I’ve totally overhauled Cruel Steel rage’s approach to its concept. I am concerned that Cruel Steel rage now feels more fighter-ish than barbarian, but sweeping strikes, aggressive response, and pouncing brutally on openings all kinda fit what I think a barbarian might do with those fighting styles. Since, well, barbarians don’t get the Fighting Style feature. =/


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One thought on “D&D 5e: Alternate Barbarian Rages

  • Craig Cormier

    This is a really interesting concept. I like the idea of having cultural “rage fighting styles” for different groups of warriors. I would definitely offer players in my group the opportunity to choose between the standard Stone Strength rage and one other culturally appropriate rage at first level. I think I’m with you in wanting there to be an exploration/find a teacher aspect to getting additional rage types, though I also take the point that this would not work for all tables.

    For clarification, you are proposing that the ability to learn more Rages (up to 6) is something that would just be layered on top of the existing Barbarian class, not the focus of some un-named Barbarian subclass? That seems to be what you are going for.

    I also agree with stopping at the more mundane types of rage. Though I would be interested to see subclasses that build on the concept and add new rage types focused on supernatural abilities. Or even just making a couple of supernatural rage types unlock when taking an existing subclass that has a supernatural focus. “Storm Rage” is learnable if you become a Storm Herald, etc.