Character Build: Path of the Zealot Barbarian

Path of the Zealot Barbarian

I recently got the opportunity to play a one-shot.  Originally I mulled around the idea of trying out the Oath of Conquest Paladin again as I only played mine for one session, but then I remembered I’d yet to even touch a barbarian in 5e.

Oftentimes I see people complain about barbarians being boring so I was hesitant to try it out even though I had an interesting character idea.

Turns out, the barbarian has super fun and has a lot of great features. You just need to think of ways to play them that aren’t “me big strong dumb brute” to make them more interesting!

Thankfully, the Path of the is a unique take on barbarians so few that walk this path will be pigeonholed into that stereotype. You’re a holy warrior whose rage brings about divine fury and judgment. What’s not to like?

three barbarian subclasses from xanathar's
Barbarian subclasses have a ton of flavor packed into them. Path of the Zealot is no exception to this. Credit: WotC

Goals of this Build

Strong Frontline Tank

While there are no assigned or necessary roles in 5e, it’s always beneficial for the party to have someone on the frontlines taking a beating. In MMOs you’d refer to this person as a tank. In D&D we mostly just call them “the barbarian”.

I’m kidding, but barbarians are phenomenal tanks. Rage effectively doubles their health pool thanks to your resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage. Danger Sense and Fanatical Focus both give you ample opportunities to pass important saving throws. The DM is going to have to be creative to bring us down.

Yet even if they do, the Path of the Zealot has two features that make it easier for the party to resurrect us and allow us to continue fighting while making death saves.

We’re not going to have to change or tweak much to become the premier frontline fighter of the party with this build.

Heavy-Hitter

Barbarians are notorious for being able to take a beating. What kind of people would we be if we didn’t return these beatings in kind? Not barbarians, that’s for sure.

Y’all know how much I love Great Weapon Master so it should come as no surprise to you that it will make another appearance in this character build. While the -5/+10 power attack is a fantastic boon for this build the feat also gives us another usage for our bonus action which is something the barbarian class lacks.

When the party doesn’t need us to focus on tanking we can throw caution to the wind and utilize Reckless Attack to give our accuracy a boost. Combine this and Great Weapon Master and you’ll have a hell of a power attack that you can reliably hit with.

Our critical hits will become even more deadly as we level thanks to Brutal Critical. We’ll be able to fish for crits with Reckless Attack and unleash an army of D12s on the DM’s creatures.

We can’t cast fancy AoE spells or provide a whole lot of utility for the party, but by gods, we’ll be the masters of single-target burst damage.

Books Needed for this Build

Player’s Handbook

Player’s Handbook

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Optional Player Races

Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica

Volo’s Guide to Monsters

Level 1

Class: Barbarian
Note: I went for a mono-class build for this one-shot.

Background: Acolyte
Note: Choose your background based on flavor. You can switch out the two skill proficiencies or even the feature per the book. I originally used the Outlander background but in hindsight, Acolyte is quite fitting!

Race: any +2 Strength race or Variant Human
Note: I would opt for a race with +2 STR and either a +1 in DEX or CON. I rolled my barbarian as a variant human because our race choices were limited for the one-shot we played in. I probably would have opted for a Goliath or Minotaur otherwise though!

Ability Scores: This was done using point buy. Check out this article for more info on point buy!

STR:  16 (+3) – +1 from Variant Human
DEX:  14 (+2)
CON: 16 (+3) – +1 from Variant Human
INT:   8 (-1)
WIS:  10 (+0)
CHA: 8 (-1)

Note: Having at least +2 in Dex helps bolster Unarmored Defense or maxes out our AC if we elect to wear medium armor while waiting to boost our Constitution some more. Intelligence and Charisma are fine dump stats, but I opted to at least ensure that my perception, insight, and Wisdom saving throws were decent.

Skills Athletics & Perception (Class), Acrobatics (Race), and Insight & Intimidation (Background)
Note: I swapped religion for intimidation in my background, but rolling with religion is still a flavorful choice for a Path of the Zealot Barbarian.

Post Level 1

Ability Score Increases (ASIs)

There are a total of 5 ASIs on our journey from level 1 to 20 barbarian.

Ability Score Priorities

Strength >>>> Dexterity >= Constitution >>>> Wisdom >> Charisma = Intelligence

Strength is our bread-and-butter for this build since it’s going to be our primary stat for dealing damage. While we’re tanks first and foremost, in D&D there are no aggro tables for creatures. You need to impose yourself as a threat for creatures to attack. Oftentimes that means dealing a ton of damage. Max Strength ASAP!

Constitution and Dexterity are both fantastic secondary stats for us as both will increase our survivability and AC thanks to Unarmored Defense. Honestly, I may give the edge to Dexterity as we already have 16 Constitution.

Your choice of armor is going to be the deciding factor here, as well as whether or not you’ll be getting your capstone ability, Primal Champion. If you intend to wear medium armor for a bit or reach level 20, pump your ASIs into Con to max it out. Otherwise, load it into Dexterity and enjoy that Unarmored Defense.

Wisdom gets the edge on Charisma and Intelligence solely because it’s a common saving throw ability. Well, that and it will help our RP skills such as insight and perception. Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t touch these at all and instead focus on bolstering Dexterity and Constitution.

Feats

Alert – Negating creatures from gaining advantage on attacks against you when they are an unseen attacker is a decent perk in the right scenario. The +5 to initiative and inability to be surprised will still be nice even with Feral Instinct.

Great Weapon Master – I touched on this earlier, but Great Weapon Master is a fantastic feat for any heavy-hitting martial character. Reckless Attack makes barbarians one of the best classes to utilize the -5/+10 power attack from this feat as well. Plus, gaining a more consistent use for our bonus action is great for our action economy which could use a small boost.

Lucky  – This feat is always good. I can’t think of a build where having a few luck points wouldn’t be helpful.

Savage Attacker – I’m iffy on this feat as I think it would be more useful as a half-feat. Regardless, it won’t be the worst pickup after we get Brutal Critical. 

Sentinel – Enemies can’t choose another party member to focus on when you can prevent them from moving. This is a phenomenal feat for a tank to pick up due to its ability to force creatures to continue focusing on attacking you. Plus it gives you more opportunities to use your reaction each turn!

Class Features

Rage – Level 1+

Few classes get their class identity right at the start of the game. Barbarians are the exception here. Sure, they may miss out on the Fighting Style perks that similar martial classes get, Rage is way more fun.

At level 1 you’ll be able to rage twice per long rest. This amount increases as you gain more barbarian levels and there’s a whole table to tell you when you get more uses of Rage.

To rage you must use a bonus action which isn’t an issue for our action economy. If you need to decide between using Rage and something else, just use Rage.

Once you begin raging you will be unable to cast spells or concentrate on spells you’ve already cast, but you’ll gain a ton of additional powers. You’ll have advantage on Strength checks and saving throws, you gain a +2 bonus to damage with weapons that use Strength, and you have resistance to all bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

That’s pretty damn good, right? Well, keep in mind that the +2 damage bonus also increases as you level!

This rage lasts for an entire minute which is generally more than enough time to finish out an entire combat encounter. Well, provided that you either hit an enemy or take damage yourself that is. You’ll prematurely stop raging if neither of those conditions is met.

Many of our class and archetype features will work in tandem with Rage. Knowing when to use it to get the most out of your other features requires a bit of game sense, but you’ll get a feel for when you need the extra powers that Rage gives you as you play through the campaign.

a white-haired and bearded human barbarian wielding a greataxe and fully clothed in winter clothing
The barbarian art in the PHB is a great reminder that they aren’t all just naked bloodthirsty warriors. Credit: WotC.

Unarmored Defense – Level 1

As long as a barbarian isn’t wearing any armor they can add their Constitution modifier to their AC. Keep in mind that you can still use a shield and wear magical items that increase your AC while still benefiting from Unarmored Defense.

Mathematically speaking Unarmored Defense isn’t the best option for our AC in the early-mid game. Our +2 in Dexterity means that if we were to wear a breastplate we could have an AC of 16 and not have disadvantage on stealth checks. The problem with this method, of course, is that few early-game characters have 400+gp to shell-out for a piece of armor.

If you don’t care about stealth then scale mail will get you to the same 16 AC. Still, you’d have to save up 50 gp to purchase a set of it which could still take some time depending on your games.

Regardless, once you slot one or two ASIs into Constitution or Dexterity you’ll be on-par with the breastplate and can throw it in the trash. Well, unless it’s magical.

This is a solid early game feature for the barbarian and a fantastic end-game feature. In the mid-game, though you may wish to consider wearing some medium armor and investing your ASIs in Constitution. Or don’t, a great tank still needs to take damage to keep the enemy interested.

Barbarians have some serious value at 1st-level between Rage and Unarmored Defense. I wouldn’t say that they’re a great choice for a level dip outside of a few specific builds, but these key features are quite powerful in the early game.

Reckless Attack – Level 2

This feature allows you to throw caution to the wind and launch an all-out assault on your enemy.

Before you make your first attack on your turn you can declare whether or not you’d like to attack recklessly. Doing so gives you advantage on all Strength-based attacks you make during YOUR TURN.

(Opportunity attacks or any other attack you make outside of your turn in the same round do not gain this benefit)

The trade-off for doing so is that all attacks made against you have advantage until the end of YOUR NEXT TURN.

This is a heavy price to pay, but combining it with Rage will help you soak up a large portion of the additional damage you take. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to swing for the fences with a -5/+10 power attack from Great Weapon Master!

Knowing when to go all-out and when to conserve your resources is barbarian 101. Reckless Attack is a perfect example of how this playstyle works.

Danger Sense – Level 2

Your keen senses give you an edge at dodging incoming danger.

This feature grants you advantage on Dexterity saving throws provided that you can see the effect you are rolling against. For example, dodging a swinging axe trap would be a Dexterity saving throw that you’d have advantage on.

You have to not be blinded, deafened, or incapacitated to gain the use of this feature.

This is a solid feature that further enhances our survivability. It’s quite consistent provided that you’re not up against enemies that can inflict you with any of the previously mentioned conditions.

Extra Attack – Level 5

Our old and trusted friend Extra Attack is back again!

You can now attack twice per Attack action.

Fast Movement – Level 5

As long as you aren’t wearing heavy armor, your speed increase by 10 feet. Keep in mind that this solely applies to heavy armor and not any armor so feel free to continue wearing medium armor if you chose to do so earlier.

10 ft. of movement is quite a significant boost as well and will allow you to outpace most land-based creatures with ease. Also for a brief blip in time, you’ll be on par with a monk’s movement.

Level 5 is a big boost for our character. Sure, Extra Attack and Fast Movement aren’t flashy features, but they’re super consistent and quite powerful.

Feral Instinct – Level 7

Your instincts are unmatched. You now have advantage on all initiative rolls. Talk about jumping the gun!

You’ll also be able to act normally during surprise rounds provided that you can meet two conditions. The first is that you aren’t incapacitated. The second is that you must immediately rage during your turn in the surprise round before you’re able to do anything else.

Feral Instinct has both a consistent use and a fantastic niche use rolled into a single feature. It’s quite fantastic even if it’s, again, not the flashiest new feature in the game.

Brutal Critical – Levels 9, 13, and 17

Here’s where the fun begins!

At 9th level, you gain an extra weapon damage die whenever you land a critical hit. You gain an additional die at levels 13 and 17.

If you get excited whenever you roll a crit then this feature will make those moments even more fun. Especially since you can combine it with Reckless Attack to gain more chances at landing crits.

If you’re a half-orc this feature will seem familiar to you, but fret not, you can use both this and your racial feature at the same time. That’s part of why half-orcs are fantastic barbarians, well that and the fantastic ASIs.

This is the feature that (eventually) makes the greataxe’s 1d12 damage pay off. If you have any doubts just check out ThinkDM’s fantastic article about when to use a greatsword vs. a greataxe.

Relentless Rage – Level 11

Have you ever gotten so mad you just can’t be killed? Well, once you gain this feature you’ll know the feeling.

If you drop to 0 HP while raging and aren’t killed outright you can make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw. Succeeding on this save has you drop to 1 HP instead of making death saves.

The catch is that every consecutive time you use this feature, the DC goes up by 5 making it increasingly unlikely that you’ll be able to pass the saving throw. However, the DC resets back to 10 after a long rest.

Combining this with Zealous Presence from Path of the Zealot may quite literally make you unkillable. Feel free to get very attached to this character because there’s no way you’re parting ways with each other unless they retire. 

Persistent Rage – Level 15

You get so mad that nothing can make you unmad. Grrrr

Your rage cannot be ended early unless you fall unconscious (unlikely) or you willingly choose to end it early (unthinkable). This just removes the “hit an enemy or take damage” conditions to keep raging.

I doubt there are many situations where you’re unable to meet either of those conditions in a round of combat. Regardless, a safety net is never a bad thing to have.

Indomitable Might – Level 18

You’re always strong. You’re never not strong.

If your total for a Strength check is lower than your Strength score you may opt to use your score instead. For example, if you rolled a 10 and have a 20 Strength you can call that your total was 20 and not 15.

This is a nice perk for high-stakes athletics checks or grappling foes.

A gray half-orc woman weidling a great maul
Orcs and half-orcs are phenomenal barbarians thanks to their unique features. Credit: WotC.

Primal Champion – Level 20

Don’t tell any of the other classes I said this, but the barbarian may have the best capstone in 5e.

At level 20 both your Strength and Constitution scores increase by 4. This increases booth abilities’ caps to 24.

That is a grand total of +2 to attacks and damage that use Strength.

That’s also +2 to AC and +40 to HP.

You have powers of an actual demi-god. Congratulations, you’ve raged so hard that you’ve given yourself supernatural strength.

Primal Path – Path of the Zealot

Barbarians who walk the Path of the Zealot are granted divine powers from their god of worship. These divine powers are channeled through the barbarian’s rage and will grant them increased survivability, additional damage, and even the ability to cheat death while they are raging.

Path of the Zealot many parallels to a paladin in how they serve their god. Though instead of spellcasting or casting a divine aura, Path of the Zealot Barbarians become more powerful warriors that fight in the service and name of their god.

For example, my barbarian worshiped Tyr so he used his instincts and gut to judge people. Evil people were brought to justice by his blade and good folks were protected by him.

Divine Fury – Level 3

You enter a righteous fury when you are raging. The first attack that lands on your turn while you are raging will take bonus damage.

The bonus damage is 1d6+(1/2 Barbarian Level) so it consistently scales as you level. The damage type of this feature is a choice between radiant or necrotic damage. You must choose the type when you first obtain the feature, but you really can’t go wrong with either choice mechanically-speaking.

It’s not a ton of damage, but it’s consistent damage that is unlikely to be resisted or shrugged off outright.

Warrior of the Gods – Level 3

If a spell is cast upon you to bring you back to life the caster doesn’t need to use any material components to do so. While this is a flavor feature first and foremost, it provides a fair bit of utility as well.

As a frontline warrior, you’re going to be taking the brunt of the damage. That’s fine because that’s what we signed up for, but it still means you have the highest chance of dying at any given time. The party won’t be surprised if you require a Revivify or a Raise Dead a couple of times in a campaign.

These spells are expensive so being able to shrug-off the 300-500 gp material cost is quite a nice perk for the entire party to benefit from.

Fanatical Focus – Level 6

While in your divine rage you can reroll a failed save once per rage. Think of it as a Luck point, but you a) always need to use the new roll’s result and b) can only use it on saving throws.

It’s quite a powerful feature. Especially for any saving throws that involve Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma since you probably won’t be allocating many ASIs into those, leaving their modifiers somewhere between -1 and +1.

It’s also a nice safety net for the odd times where even your Danger Sense fails you or you flub a crucial Constitution saving throw.

Zealous Presence – Level 10

You can use a bonus action to incite divine fury in up to 10 other creatures within 60 ft. of you. These creatures then gain advantage on all attack rolls and saving throws until the start of your next turn.

While you can only use this feature once per long rest, it’s quite an awesome combat utility feature to have for important fights.

Unlike many of the other features in the Path of the Zealot, Zealous Presence does not require the barbarian to be raging. It also only uses a bonus action which you won’t use outside of the initial use of Rage or the odd Great Weapon Master bonus attack. While the latter is certainly nice, giving up to 10 allies advantage on all their attacks for a round is considerably more rewarding.

I adore the flavor packed into this feature. It nails the “divine warrior” archetype that this subclass is shooting for. It would be my favorite feature of the subclass if it weren’t for…

Rage Beyond Death – Level 14

I love this feature. It is a fantastic capstone feature for the subclass in that it turns you into an unstoppable god for a limited amount of time.

While you are raging, if you are reduced to 0 hp you are not knocked unconscious. You still need to make death saving throws, but you can continue fighting until you are brought out of your rage.

You still suffer all of the same effects of taking damage while at 0 hp while in this state. However, even if you would die due to failing death saves in this state you don’t die until your rage ends. Oh, and what’s more is you only die at the end of your rage if you’re still at 0 hp.

Someone can heal you while you are on the last turn or two of your rage and you’ll be perfectly fine. This is the kind of power only the chosen warrior of a god can have.

brown minotaur weilding a greataxe. they only wear a loincloth
Minotaurs not only make for fearsome foes. They can be fantastic barbarians as well! Credit: WotC.

Strengths of this Build

Our goals were to become phenomenal tanks and single-target damage-dealers with gold-like powers. I’d say this build gets an A+ in that regard.

Rage will give any barbarian the base survivability to be a phenomenal tank. That alongside your large health pool makes you an enticing combatant for enemies to target while still ensuring that you can stay alive long enough to dish-out some devastating damage.

Well, in the few cases where your constitution fails you, you at least have Relentless Rage and Rage Beyond Death to prop you up long enough for a party member to give you some healing.

Reckless Attack can be paired with Great Weapon Master and Brutal Critical to dish out some unmatched single-target burst damage while raging. Plus, we have Divine Fury to add more consistent damage to our bursty crits.

While barbarians themselves don’t have much in the way of utility, the Path of the Zealot does have a couple of nice utility-based perks to add to the mix. Warrior of the Gods can save the party a ton of coin throughout a campaign and Zealous Presence is a fantastic combat utility buff.

Your job is to be a loud, distracting target on the battlefield that will run right into the fray and cleave enemies without thinking twice. Your job is fun and you do it damn well.

Weaknesses of this Build

THERE ARE NONE AHAHAHAHAHA

Admittedly while this character was a blast to play it does have numerous shortcomings. For example, if anything required a Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma check/save the odds aren’t in your favor unless you have proficiency in said skill. Fanatical Focus can help prop up these tough saving throws, but it’s not always going to save your hide.

Also, gods forbid anything is outside of your movement or reach. Having to pull out a longbow is no fun. Especially since the majority of your fun combat features require you to use Strength to attack to make use of them.

Don’t even think about dealing damage to multiple creatures at once. it’s just not going to happen. The same goes for crowd controlling creatures with anything outside of a grapple check.

This is the price you pay to become a demi-god. Is it worth it? Absolutely, but know what you’ve signed up for.

Conclusions

It’s funny because I went into this one-shot hoping to check-off another class I’d yet to play in 5e. My hopes weren’t high as you constantly hear about how boring barbarians are. It turns out, it’s the people who are boring, not the characters!

Barbarians don’t have to be these dumb lugs that just care about fighting. I mean, 8 Intelligence isn’t even dumb it’s just slightly below-average!

Plus, the class is full of interesting features that change-up martial combat significantly. Playing a barbarian is a game of resource conservation similar to that of the battle master fighter. You need to judge when the best time is to use your resources to play it effectively.

I played a Path of the Zealot Barbarian in the service of Tyr. His path was one of atonement for his sins and bringing the evil-doers of the world to justice. While he wasn’t the smartest man in the world, he was quite insightful and trusted his gut feelings or his friends to suss out complex situations.

Path of the Zealot is a fantastic archetype and gives you an easy way out of treading down the path of the “brutish combatant” stereotype that so many players find themselves trending towards.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books and my other 5e character builds!

Sign up to get e-mail updates for new articles on Dungeon Solvers using the form below!

1 Comment

  1. I made a lawful evil acolyte zealot barbarian, a fanatical “every knee shall bow” priest who didn’t wear armor not because he was a tribal warrior, but because he trusted on his god to protect him. He was a lot of fun to roleplay, but ultimately every combat consisted of just whack-whack-whack with the marble temple pillar he used as a maul.

Leave a Reply