D&D 5e: Half-Elf Barbarian Guide
Both half-elves and barbarians are popular choices of race and class, especially for new players. If you’re not sure if you want to go full fantasy as an elf or play something relatable as a human, there’s always the half-elf. It’s sort of like a metaphor for the human player learning to move from the mundane world into the fantastical, like stepping through the wardrobe doors in The Chronicles of Narnia.
For veteran players, half-elves still offer a rich role-playing opportunity in how they are caught between two worlds (more on that later). Barbarians also have a reputation for being a newbie’s class but I’d argue that with the new subclasses added by Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, they can be just as diverse and complex as any other class.
Half-elves and barbarians have a lot in common, but are they a good combination? Let’s find out by jumping right into how we build a half-elf barbarian character, starting with ability scores.
How to Make a Half-Elf Barbarian
You can randomly generate your stats using the “4d6 drop the lowest” method described in the PHB or you can take the standard array of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8. Barbarians are a simple class and fall into two basic playstyles: dealing loads of damage in a short amount of time and absorbing a lot of damage for the sake of your team. To borrow terms from Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs), the former playstyle is called Damage-Per-Second (DPS) and the latter is called Tank.
If you want to be a DPS barbarian, make Strength your highest ability score followed by Constitution and then Dexterity. If you want to be a Tank barbarian, make Constitution your highest ability score followed by Strength and then Dexterity.
If you think it’s at all possible that your game will go to level 20, I highly recommend keeping your Strength and Constitution as high as possible. Assuming you start them at 16 and 15, you can use your five Ability Score Improvements to raise them both to 20 by the time you reach the barbarian’s capstone feature: Primal Champion. Simply, this 20th-level feature raises your Strength and Constitution by 4 points each and also increases your maximum for those scores by 4 points each. It might be an extremely simple feature, but having +7 Strength and Constitution modifiers is amazing.
The last thing you have to consider with your choices from your race is what two skills you want to be proficient in thanks to Skill Versatility. You might want to just choose two from the barbarian list, but since you get to choose any skill you like then you might want to choose Deception, Performance, or Persuasion to compliment your racial +2 Charisma.
There are no official barbarian subclasses that use Charisma in any way, which is a crying shame, but that’s not to say it’s a waste to make a barbarian that is actually skilled in social interactions.
Subclass (Primal Path)
Without support for a high Charisma character, and how generic the half-elf’s features are, it’s somewhat hard to recommend a subclass. I don’t want to leave you without any direction on which subclass to pick though so in the next section I’ll run through some of my favorite barbarian paths and talk a bit about why they’re great for either the DPS or Tank playstyle. Hopefully, I’ll be able to persuade you to avoid the subclasses that are truly rubbish and guide you towards the ones that are actually any good!
How to Play a Half-Elf Barbarian
I feel a bit sorry for players who wanted to be barbarians before Xanathar’s Guide to Everything came out. The only two primal paths back then were the Path of the Berserker and the Path of the Totem Warrior.
Unfortunately, the Path of the Berserker just isn’t very good for one simple reason: it inflicts exhaustion on you for using its 3rd-level feature. Using it once or twice a day cripples you until you can long-rest it off. No other subclass in the game does this and it’s every bit as terrible as it sounds.
I did say earlier that there are no barbarian paths that sync with Charisma… but I was lying. This subclass does give you a use for Charisma with its Intimidating Presence feature that allows you to inflict the frightened condition on enemies. But the rest of the subclass is just so poor I can’t recommend it even if your race is giving you a boost to some of its features. For further persuasion on the topic, check out this article’s featured video.
Other than that one feature from that one terrible subclass, I can’t recommend any particular barbarian subclass on a racial basis alone. That being said, I can recommend the Path of the Ancestral Guardian and Path of the Totem Warrior for Tank builds and the Path of the Beast, Path of the Storm Herald, Path of Wild Magic, and Path of the Zealot for DPS. The Path of the Battlerager is dwarf-only (and also not very good) and, as I mentioned before, the Path of the Berserker is deeply suboptimal even if you use it in a DPS build as it was supposed to be.
That might have all sounded a little negative but as long as you don’t choose a bad subclass for your playstyle, your half-elf barbarian will have no trouble keeping up with the rest of your party. I assure you that it will be fine; 5e’s racial bonuses are usually pretty minor anyway so you’re not missing out on anything major if you choose to go with this combination. As we’ll see in the next section, the real strength of this combination might be in the narrative possibilities it offers more than the mechanical ones.
How to Roleplay as a Half-Elf Barbarian
The point that the Player’s Handbook makes over and over again is that half-elves are caught literally between two worlds: the world of elves and the world of humans. Humans mistake them for elves and elves mistake them for humans. There is probably a lot of frustration and abandonment in the life of a half-elf who doesn’t have an accepting family or community.
Someone I played D&D with once, who happened to be playing as a barbarian at the time, said “we’re adventurers, I think it’s normal for us to be a little messed up.” I think that’s never more true than with barbarian characters. Sure it’s fun for us as players to use the Rage mechanic to batter enemies to bits but for the character that rage must come from a very psychologically powerful source to be that effective in battle. Some barbarians might conjure a purely physical, artificial rage, I’m sure, but for our purposes, we’re going to assume your character is dealing with some issues. Who doesn’t love to role-play a character with issues?
Again, a half-elf’s life is one of frustration and abandonment. They learn from an early age to develop their charm as well as their skills so that people don’t just find them useful or impressive, they also find the half-elf delightful to be around. Can’t be abandoned if everyone loves you, right?
I can imagine a lot of them striving for perfection in their craft and to have a wide circle of peers to get by in life. The road might be hard but to survive without a family you have to go above and beyond. Those half-elves who try to take this road but can’t maintain their charming diplomat persona might become something else entirely though. Perhaps they become a robotic yes-elf for a benefactor, maybe they close their hearts and become cruel and jaded, maybe they just retreat from all social contact and live away from other humanoids where they won’t be judged.
Your half-elf might have had a brief stint as one of these archetypes, but that’s not where they ended up. No, they got mad. The half-elf barbarian is someone who rejects the social structure of humans and the shallow aesthetic sophistication of the elves. They reject it all and become an army of one, someone who can weather any attack be it verbal or physical.
What would be especially amusing would be if a character like this followed the Path of the Ancestral Guardians; you’d literally be grabbing your no-good ancestors’ ghosts and forcing them to fight alongside you! Or maybe it would be a more positive relationship where your dead ancestors are more willing to help you than your living ones? Whatever you choose, make sure there’s something to be angry about, even if you’re technically wrong to be angry about it! It makes for a more satisfying character arc when you finally find a healthy outlet for your anger.