Fixing the Barbarian Berserker
A few months ago we did a revamp to the Battlerager Barbarian from the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, and as I noted back in that post, I hadn't been planning to fix existing subclasses, but I found myself wanting to do that back then, and I'm glad I did, because it needed help.
The other day I came across the Berserker Barbarian from the Player's Handbook again, and I was reminded how much I didn't like that subclass either, and as I looked at the features of the subclass, I realized how few changes needed to be made to make it an attractive alternative to the Totem Warrior and Xanathar's subclasses. So I spent a lunch break making a few tweaks, stepped back, and what follows here is what I came up with.
As we did with the Battlerager, we will begin by looking at the thematic concept of the berserker and how it applies to a barbarian class (as opposed to, say a fighter), and then we will examine the issues of the subclass that justify taking time to fix it. We will then move into our proposed fixes to the subclass, complete with a printout for showing your DM.
I. High Concept for the Berserker
A berserker - or "bear sarker" was a warrior that was "bear-skinned." In truth we know nothing beyond this - maybe they work bearskins? Maybe they were ferocious and fought like bears? Maybe they were hard to wound like bears? We really don't know for sure what was intended from the time, but we know one thing: they were good warriors, capable of great feats of martial prowess.
So at the very least a "berserker subclass" should do that: give you a good baseline for killing things - if not being resilient - in battle.
Over the centuries the term has taken on a meaning of its own: often these are half naked (if not fully naked) warriors who fight with an overwhelming battle fury, seemingly immune or inoculated to pain and fear. So it is not surprising that this is a barbarian subclass, as it is a martial class that relies on rage and can perform well without armor. It should, however, aid you in avoiding being afraid of your opponent.
And finally the warrior inspired fear. Whether this was because they were badly scarred, made terrifying sounds, or something else varies from story to story, but the critical issue is that there should be a terrifying aspect to this warrior: you don't want to fight them if you can help it.
This is a cool concept for a character - it really delves deep into the roleplay aspect of the character, allowing you to bring a lot of natural charisma and imagination to the character concept. And so with this in mind, let's look at why the Berserker subclass needs a fix.
II. Issues with the Berserker
I'll start by saying it's not all bad - in fact, most of it is very good about 80% of the way through each of the four abilities. The issue is typically right at the end, where the rules team...I guess decided that they had to put some skids on it lest it be more powerful than the other barbarians that were coming down the lane? Because that's the closest I can find as to a reason for the decisions that were made.
Best case scenario the rules team got too conservative at the last moment with every ability. Worst case scenario a core subclass was released that was not thoroughly tested and it falls flat compared to almost every other barbarian subclass that has come after it (save perhaps the Battlerager, maybe the Path of Wild Magic).
So first off, your keystone ability is the ability to perform a melee attack with your bonus action, even if you don't take the Attack action on your turn. This is awesome - it allows you to chew through enemies like a berserker. Problem: once your rage is done you take a level of exhaustion, meaning that after 1-2 uses of Rage you are far less effective for the next few days. And that's a problem, especially if you routinely have 2+ combats per day.
If the ability allowed you to, say, roll a Constitution saving throw to see if you take exhaustion that would be one thing (we don't recommend that below, but I could see that being okay). If you suffered a level of exhaustion until you took a short or long rest that would be okay (not great and not thematic for me, but I could live with it). But suffering a level of exhaustion in addition to having to spend a use of Rage to even use your primary ability? Come on!
Totem Warriors at this level are getting really cool abilities like resistance to almost all damage, give your allies the benefit of Pack Tactics (so a Wolf Totem Barbarian kobold gives everyone in the party Pack Tactics), increase your speed, etc. Ancestral Guardian barbarians can protect allies by basically forcing enemies to attack them instead of a defenseless ally, and Zealots save the party hundreds of gold to bring you back from the dead. So with this as background, does the berserker really need to spend a resource (Rage) and suffer a level of exhaustion (which is slow to remove) to get...an extra attack each turn they rage? It seems a bit too harsh to me.
At 6th level you get a cool ability: you can suppress the charmed and frightened effects on yourself while you rage, and cannot be charmed or frightened while you are in your rage. This is excellent as this is one of several ways to gut barbarians: keep them from fighting so that their rage drops and they don't do damage. Problem: the moment that your rage ends you resume any effects you have.
If Rage lasted for 1 hour that would be one thing, but it lasts for 1 minute, and there are a good number of abilities that last longer than 1 minute (classic example: Charm Person, which is available to 1st level spellcasters, lasts for 1 hour). And as a berserker who has reached 6th level, you shouldn't look hardcore in battle and then suddenly find yourself spellbound smelling flowers. It's not thematic.
At 10th level you get your "I make you fear me" ability, and it's cool: you frighten the target until the end of your next turn (guaranteeing that you can take advantage of getting advantage on the attack), and since they have to get beyond 60ft of you to end the effect it's hard to escape this. The issue is twofold: first, you're losing your action to do this, which at this point is 2 attacks (which is what barbarians do well). Sure, you can perform a bonus action attack, but 1 attack at advantage against the target v. 3 attacks at advantage (with Reckless Attack)? It doesn't seem good to me.
Tack onto this the fact that you can extend it by using your action to keep it in play is just adding insult to injury: you can stay at 1 attack for up to 1 minute to keep the frightened effect on until they run away from you, or you can just keep attacking 3 times and cleave through people. It seems like a cool concept that results in a dud.
And then finally at 14th level we get an ability that is 90% good: when someone hits you with an attack within 5ft of you (so too bad if they have Reach and strike you from 10+ feet away) you can use your reaction to attack them back. This is awesome: it is thematic to the subclass high concept, it's useful in almost every fight, and it plays to your strengths.
Two problems: first, this attack has a decent chance of missing because according to Reckless Attack it only affects attacks during your turn. So you're giving your target advantage to strike you, but you don't get advantage back against them.
The second issue is that if someone has Reach they can poke/slash/slice you and you can't do anything about it. Personally I think this is fine; Reach isn't that common, and you can easily close distance, so I'm not going to recommend a change on that score. It feels like nitpicking, but I'll note in passing that this is there and you should know it when you play a berserker: beware of pikes.
And that's the subclass - 10/10 on theme, as these are the right abilities for the high concept, but 7/10 in execution at pretty much every level. So let's fix this.
III. Fixes to the Berserker 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.
First off, at 3rd level we are keeping the same concept (as it fits well with the idea of a berserker), but with one big change: there's no exhaustion anymore. This is the one that's going to get me in trouble, but hear me out: this makes no sense. Historically (inasmuch as we have "historical records" of berserkers) we have no indication that they spent themselves to the point of exhaustion, and the tax for using this ability is way too steep in D&D (assuming you have 2+ combats a day which is likely).
Furthermore, since you start with 2 uses of Rage and go up to 5 (and later unlimited uses of Rage), the chances that you are going to be in a place where you are giving yourself exhaustion multiple times a day is way too high, and you could literally kill yourself this way by just playing your barbarian the way everyone plays a barbarian.
So instead, you get a cool ability that is on-par with "I have resistance to basically all damage" and other abilities that barbarians have at this level: you get to perform an attack with a two-handed weapon (or a one-handed weapon while using a shield if you want to be more defensible/feel more like a Viking) using your bonus action. Other classes can imitate this with a feat (albeit with lower damage) as early as 1st level, so this is not an unheard of or broken ability at 3rd level. And it thematically fits, so I think it's a good fix.
At 6th level you get 90% of the ability as-is: you can't be charmed or frightened while you are raging, and you don't have to suffer through being charmed or frightened once you enter your rage. The fix we are making: you end the effects. Since 1) you don't get access to Dispel Magic or Counterspell, and 2) up until 20th level you have a limited number of Rages, I don't have a problem saying, "And if you spend a resource you can end a spell on yourself." Plus once the berserker has entered their rage, it is unlikely that they will suddenly be afraid of that thing anymore once the rage ends, so from a worldbuilding standpoint it just makes more sense to end the effect.
This also adds a tactical element to the use of Rage: do you jump into Rage on Turn 1 to maximize your damage output and resilience, or do you wait and use it defensively to end an effect? Sure, you're immune to it while you're in Rage, but that means that a spell slot isn't being used to try to charm/frighten you, which could mean a bad effect on an ally, or something more dangerous coming out instead. Things to think about with this rewriting of the ability.
At 10th level we get our fear effect, and the change here is pretty simple: it's exactly the same ability, but instead of using your action you have to use it at the start of your turn. This is both simultaneously more freeing and more complicated than the original, adding a tactical aspect to how you use it.
Since it's at the start of your turn you can't move and then target someone: you have to use it at the start of your turn. But in exchange you're not giving up 2 attacks to do it: you can really capitalize on the Frightened condition (assuming you apply it) thanks to, well, still being a barbarian.
And since this uses your Charisma to apply the effect (which is probably your 3rd or 4th stat - probably 4th), the chance that you're going to get this to work is already low, so giving it to you as a free action is fine in my book.
And then finally at 14th level we have an exact reprint of the original with one small change: we specify that if you used Reckless Attack on the turn prior to suffering the damage, you can use your Reckless Attack on your opportunity attack. This encourages you to go all-in: always use Reckless Attack. Don't hold back: swing for the fences. So what if they attack you: you'll bash them right back. And that's what the mindset of the berserker should be.
It's funny how close the design team was with this subclass: things were going great and then boom: odd turn that makes it tricky/hard/impossible to use. But with a few tweaks, this subclass goes from one of the worst to a really good choice. I don't think it's quite as strong as the Totem Warrior or Ancestral Guardian, but I think it's up there with the best of the best options. If you enjoy it, consider asking your DM if you can use it in your next game!
Until next time,