Fixing the Barbarian Battlerager
So, it will likely not surprise you if you follow Dungeons & Dragons releases, that people were generally unimpressed with most of the subclasses released in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (SCAG). One of these subclasses is the Barbarian Battlerager, and it has taken a beating over the years because of how ineffective it is (both at low levels and high levels, which is rare in D&D) and how much it takes away from the archetypal concept of a barbarian.
And I found this sad, because the concept of the subclass came from an actual group of dwarf warriors from a novel, and I really love the idea of bringing things in lore to life through mechanics. So I decided one night (as my wife was out and I had time) to sit down and rework the Battlerager.
Now it's worth noting upfront that lots of other people have done this too, and it's one of the most reworked subclasses out there. But similar to what I did with the Way of the Four Elements Monk, I want to spend a few minutes discussing the high concept of the Battlerager, and then dive into the issues we have mechanically with the subclass as presented in the SCAG, and then close out by looking at the changes I'd make to it if someone wanted to play a Battlerager in one of my games.
I. High Concept for the Battlerager
The Battlerager is a dwarf warrior type from the Sword Coast where "day-to-day survival is a struggle." We learn from the SCAG that "Dwarf barbarians are famed and feared warriors among the fiercely proud clans that have relaimed territories like Mithril Hall and Gautlgrym." They are distinguished by their spiked armor, which covers them from head to toe, allowing them to tear into enemies all around them as their rage carries them into battle.
So the lore on these guys is cool - really cool! It gets your imagination going and makes you want to find the nearest goblin cave with a whole squadron of these guys. The unfortunate thing, however, is that the subclass has a lot of issues that hold you back from making those imaginative visions a reality.
II. Issues with the Battlerager
The Battlerager has a few issues. First, the bonus action is used for too many things with this subclass, making it hard to effectively use everything you should be getting from this subclass. Since entering into your rage, dealing spike damage, and a Dash action are all tied to bonus actions, it is hard to take advantage of the subclass during your turn.
The second issue comes from the spiked armor itself. As-written the armor will likely lower your Armor Class (which is not great for barbarians), sets a pretty early cap on your Armor Class, and in exchange does not do a lot of damage to your opponents, with no means of scaling the damage as time goes by. So in exchange for capping your AC at 16 (or 18 with a shield), you get an extra 1d4 Piercing damage if you hit with an attack (which is lower than what your damage would be if you were using an offhand attack with a handaxe, mind you).
Third, the upper level abilities are very weak. Some would argue this is an overall problem with 5th Edition (a lot of the really good stuff comes early), but as regards the Battlerager this is very true. You get a 10th level ability that is similar to half of a Rogue class feature that they get access to far earlier, and your limited version of this ability only applies when you are raging. Your 14th level ability is situational as well, and doesn't scale well over time (3 damage to an enemy at 14th level? You're up against monsters with 100+ hit points easily by this point in the game).
So there's a reason we picked the Battlerager Barbarian: there's a lot to fix here. So let's jump into how we plan to fix this subclass.
III. Fixes to the Battlerager Barbarian
You can find a printer-friendly version of our revamped Battlerager build to show to your game master here, thanks to the team at Homebrewery.
So first off, looking at the 3rd level ability, you get two things. First, you gain the ability to use spiked armor. Since it's medium armor you already have proficiency with it, though it's taking the place of your Unarmored Defense, which is a really big loss for a Barbarian, as it hurts your ability to take advantage of your exceptional Constitution score.
So the first change we are going to make is to change the stats of your spiked armor: instead of a 14 + DEX (max of 2), we're going to change it to a 14 + CON. So you will lose your Unarmored Defense, but it's not likely (at least not typically) for you to have higher than an 18 DEX, so you're not actually losing anything. In fact, you're actually gaining 1-2 AC at lower levels instead, but this bump doesn't make the subclass "broken" especially compared to what other Barbarian subclasses get at 3rd level.
The second thing you get is the ability to perform a bonus action attack with the spikes (5ft range), dealing 1d4 piercing damage. Additionally, when grappling a creature, you deal 3 Piercing damage if your grapple check succeeds.
Now, the first complication with this approach is that entering your rage is a bonus action. So realize upfront that the turn in which you enter your rage you already cannot use the linchpin element of your subclass because you only get one bonus action. That's a problem.
Now beyond that, this isn't too bad; I feel like it only works with sword-and-shield or two-handed weapon barbarians, as your bonus action would typically be used for an offhand attack if you were doing two weapon fighting (which I could totally see a dwarf with two axes being a Battlerager, so very possible that this could happen). This will also get in the way of the 10th level ability as you only get one bonus action every turn, so my inclination is to completely revamp this ability.
I'd make this change: when you move into base contact with a target you may make an attack with the spikes as part of your move action (STR + Proficiency dealing 1d4 Piercing on a successful hit), or two attacks if performing a Dash action. This way your bonus action is still free for entering rage, two weapon fighting (or taking the Dash action at higher levels - more on that later), and it thematically does what the character from the lore is supposed to do: throw themselves into their opponent. It also means that the way to stop a Battlerager is consistent with the lore: tie them down, and keep them from moving.
In addition, I'd add onto the grapple element of this ability that if someone attempts to escape the grapple and they fail they take an additional 3 Piercing damage. It's a small thing, but 1) a decent number of enemies in the Monster Manual have decent Strength so I don't feel like it's overpowered, and 2) it's not a ton of damage. So I feel like it's fine.
At 6th level you actually get an ability I didn't change at all, because I think it's actually really good. Whenever you use your Reckless Attack class feature while raging you gain temporary hit points equal to your Constitution modifier which vanish when your rage ends. This is fantastic: it's not a one-time thing, so as long as you are using Reckless Attack you are gaining temporary hit points (which will probably all disappear by the time your next turn comes around, just in time for you to do it again), which is thematically consistent and mechanically effective for a barbarian, as, again, we're taking advantage of that Constitution modifier we've been working so hard to build. So no changes here: leave this one as-is.
At 10th level we're in trouble again: as I noted the Dash action being able to be taken as a bonus action had issues with the old writing of the spiked armor rules, and we've mostly gotten rid of that, but the issue here is that on its own this is like half of a Rogue class feature that they get far earlier. On its own this is just not a powerful thing that you'd expect for a 10th level ability.
At this point, if these last two traits remained as-is, there's little reason to take a Battlerager past 8th level. You're much better served switching to Fighter or Rogue.
So I'd give it one more thing to thematically improve the whole "wading into combat and using your armor to damage people thing," and that is that when you roll damage for a melee attack against a target within 5 ft, you may add 1d4 of Piercing damage to the attack (as you push up against him while attacking).
This is a small damage bump, and it's non-magical so it may be resisted or ignored by the target, but it keeps the thematic narrative going and it makes the 10th level selection a bit more attractive, as you can Dash as a bonus action, perform two spike attacks while dashing past people, and then use the Attack action for two more attacks with your main weapon and tack on 1d4 Piercing to each of those if you hit (which, if you're using Reckless Attack, you probably are). Now that's power.
And finally, at 14th level, this is a cool idea: opponents who hit you take 3 Piercing damage back. The issue is all of the things that have to be true to make it happen: you have to 1) be wearing your spiked armor (which makes sense), 2) you cannot be incapacitated (which makes sense), and 3) you have to be raging (which makes little sense, as it's them hitting you, not you lashing out at them in your rage). So I'd make a single change to this: I'd remove the "raging" part: "...the attacker takes 3 piercing damage if you aren't incapacitated and are wearing spiked armor." It's simpler to read, makes a lot of sense, and gives you a really cool ability.
The issue that I still have with this, though, is that it seems really weak for a 14th level ability. This is supposed to be the apex of the subclass, and all you get is a Reversed Heavy Armor Master feat that does damage instead of mitigating it. Is that really a 14th level ability?
So I'd also do one more thing to keep with the theme of the subclass: I'd also bump the damage of the spikes to 1d6 instead of 1d4. This means that on your turns you are doing more damage (and potentially a lot more damage, as you could be using your spikes twice while dashing and twice while attacking), and when it's not your turn you will do damage if you are hit by an attack (off of the core 14th level ability). So you're a damage dealing machine, even when it's not your turn.
Is this as cool as the Totem Warrior, Ancestral Guardian, or Zealot? Probably not. Is it cooler than the Berserker or any of the other barbarian subclasses that have been released? Possibly not. But does it feel like a more attractive option to you than it was before? It is to me. I feel like there's a unique and fun playstyle here of wading through enemies (and ideally goblins or other low hit point enemies) that is just waiting to be explored, and I'd totally consider playing one of these in a one-off game (which is worlds ahead of where it was when I sat down to do this exercise).
I hope you enjoyed this - let us know in the comments if there are other subclasses you'd like us to sit down and reevaluate!
Until next time,