Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Today we're looking at why you'd play a low Strength barbarian, defined as, "a barbarian with a Strength of 8 or less." Now this is an interesting one, as a lot of your Rage abilities specifically require the attack to be using 1) a melee attack (so ranged attacks don't involve Rage), and 2) it specifically requires the attack to be using your Strength stat. So this is something we will need to overcome when playing this character.
As always, let's look at the story reasons for becoming a low Strength barbarian, and then go into the mechanical choices we'll need to make to pull this off.
I. Character Concept
When you think of a "barbarian," the first image to come to mind is probably Conan. And why not: it's an iconic look, and explains the whole, "I don't use armor" aesthetic of the class.
But when you look at pan shots of people in the Conan films, you'll notice that they are not all high Strength characters: some of them are small, and still yet they don't use armor for aesthetic reasons. Some are also younger, and having not yet reached full maturity, it wouldn't make sense to give them a high Strength stat.
But there's also the non-Conan side of things which is informative. Perhaps your barbarian is modeled after the Scottish highlander (who were of good size on the whole, but some were normal sized like you and me), or maybe the character just gets angry and lashes out in their anger, not being "barbaric" in culture at all. There are a lot of reasons to play a low Strength barbarian, and any of these will work for us to flesh out the concept of the character.
Of course, the Rage mechanic, which is the primary reason for taking a barbarian, is still tied to Strength, so let's jump into mechanics to talk about how we get around the shortfall of using the core stat of the class.
II. Character Build
So first off, let's talk about math: what's the difference in effectiveness between a +3 from your Strength and a -1 (which is typically the spread when you first start out; we will talk about +5 and -1 a little later)? A variance of 20% for Attacks, and 25% (roughly, depending on your weapon choice) for damage. So that means that, roughly speaking, for every 5 attacks you do, you'll miss with one swing that you would have otherwise hit with, and you'd need to get roughly 1-3 more points of damage on each swing depending on your weapon choice.
Does that seem low to you? Probably, but that's D&D math.
To keep the game moving (and to keep it fun), it is relatively easy to hit something in the game: a 10 or higher on the dice is typically enough to hit, unless you are facing a creature with an AC16 or higher at lower levels (which is a surprisingly small number of creatures in the game), and by higher level play the creature needs to have an AC22 or higher to avoid being hit on a 10.
So your static bonuses don't decide whether or not you hit a target: it's based on how good you are at rolling X on a d20, with X sometimes being a 2, and sometimes being a 10, but most of the time not needing to be higher than a 14 or so, even with a negative in a stat. And when you factor in advantage on every attack from Reckless Attack starting at 2nd level, your chances of hitting are always pretty good.
So realize upfront that we haven't taken a severe penalty to our attacks even if we still use Strength. We may miss a little more, but it's not that bad. It does incentivize you not to take Great Weapon Master (as an additional -5 to hit is pretty debilitating to your chances of hitting), and dual wielding will help you get in more attacks each turn, so that's probably your best bet for damage, but even if you're just using a hand weapon and a shield, you're not that much worse off than you were before.
The damage side of things is actually even better, thanks to rage damage. Since you're adding 2-4 damage to all rage attacks, you're already doing above average damage with any weapon anyway when compared to other classes, so even having a -1 to your Strength rolls is the equivalent of another class having a +1 to their damage rolls. So even though you're doing less damage than another barbarian would, if you don't have another barbarian in the party, it won't be as noticeable.
So to kick this off, you can still use Strength. Just don't use Great Weapon Master.
So what do you gain by not having a high Strength stat? Lots of things! Not only can you afford to have good mental stats (like a high Wisdom for Perception), but you can have a better unarmored defense than other barbarians, as you aren't trying to pump up Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. You can just go all-in on Dexterity and Constitution, allowing you to start with the full AC16 at 1st level, or AC18 if you use a shield.
This is likely only a 5-15% reduction in hits against you at first, but that's also a 5-15% reduction than most barbarians get, which is nice especially at lower levels. Your average NPC (who gets a +4 to their Attack rolls) needs to get a 12-14 on the d20 to hit you (depending on whether you take a shield), so you're looking at 60-70% of attacks missing you outright. Add onto this your large hit point pool and your resistances thanks to Rage, and you probably aren't going down.
The other big thing you get from this is saving throws. Barbarians typically have to put everything into their physical stats, and that means you don't do well against non-physical saving throws. But this barbarian isn't as locked in, so you can flesh out your mental stats more. This makes you far more likely to resist spell damage, not be rooted in place, avoid being charmed - lots of things.
Plus when you add in the easier ability to, say, multiclass into Rogue or Paladin, you've got a really nice way to boost your damage and make up for your weaker Strength. A smite or sneak attack using a Finesse melee weapon involving Strength (like a rapier) will easily make up for the equivalent -4 (or -6 at the highest levels of play) that you're suffering to your damage.
But wait, that's not all! If you aren't set on being a melee character, this is a great way to build a non-melee barbarian. I know, you can't use Rage with ranged weapons (at least not until you see our next barbarian subclass - more on that in a few weeks), but let's just say you take a longbow or heavy crossbow with Crossbow Expert and you decide to never use Rage in an entire campaign. What do you get in exchange that you don't get from another class?
For starters, at 7th level you get advantage on initiative rolls an infinite number of times each day, which every archer in the world would love to have. More than that, you have the ability to never be surprised so long as you enter your Rage on Turn 1 of combat (which is nice to have up anyway, assuming you're not multiclassing with a caster class).
And as an archer you can still maintain your Rage - the wording says, "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." Note that the wording doesn't say, "attacked a Hostile creature with a melee attack": it simply says "attacked a Hostile creature." So if you shoot people to death at range, you can maintain your Rage.
Furthermore, your options open up a lot if you are not focused on maintaining Rage. If you just want the advantage on melee attacks, it could be nice to take a 1-2 level dip into Barbarian for your Rogue build, just to guarantee that you get off advantage on an attack to trigger Sneak Attack when you want it. If you want a healthier spellcaster, a 1 level dip into Barbarian will help, though I'd take it 3 levels, take the Bear Totem Barbarian dip, and add those sweet resistances to damage to keep you safe. Or you can go the Elk Totem Barbarian route and add 15ft of movement. Lots of options for keeping you alive.
And since you won't have an infinite number of rages until 20th level anyway, having something useful to do other than melee damage is probably wise anyway, as the lack of Rage will sap your hit points a lot faster for most barbarians. But if you don't have to focus on just doing melee damage (which is pretty much all the Strength stat is good for, beyond grappling, not being grappled, and not being knocked over, all of which you'd also avoid by not being upfront against the foe), you won't feel the loss of your Rage slots nearly as much as other barbarians would.
It's a really strange build - it's quite clear that the barbarian is the Strength-centric Fighter type (as Fighters are often built using Strength, but can also work really well as Dexterity-centric characters as well - more on Fighters in a few weeks), but the "Riddle of Steel" is helpful here in understanding barbarians: flesh is stronger than steel, as man can shape and form steel to its will. So shape the barbarian to your will, and prove the riddle true: outwit the math, because you are human.
In our next post in this series, we'll be discussing how to play a low Wisdom druid, and believe it or not the answer will not be, "Stay in Wild Shape all the time!" So stay tuned!
Until next time,