New: D&D Shield Biter Barbarian
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! For the next two weeks we are looking at some new barbarian subclasses, as I've been watching a bunch of old Norse stuff, and that fed my thoughts on new barbarian subclasses.
Today's subclass is the Shield Biter: a taunting warrior that seems at first blush like a berserker, but with a very different focus in its abilities.
Shield Biter: Theme and Inspiration
Most barbarians are portrayed as savage attackers with two axes, or brutal warriors using massive greataxes. And that makes sense: both are cool, both are evocative, and their damage output is very good.
The Shield Biter is built off of the norse concept of a hearth guard champion who is so ferocious in battle that (and this may or may not have happened - the sources are a bit unclear) they are willing to bite the edges of their shields, causing their gums to bleed. This sign of ferocity intimidates their enemies as it whips the warrior into a fury, while also inspiring their allies to fight harder.
At first glance, this concept is pretty close to the berserker subclass, and if you think that I understand why - I did too until recently. But a few critical distinctions exist between the two high concepts.
First, from historical records it's hard to tell what a berserker even was: maybe it was a person who got into a frenzied rage, maybe it was just a good warrior, maybe it was just a warrior on the battlefield wearing a bear pelt. It's hard to say.
But more than that, the berserker concept focuses more on fearing nothing in battle and wild attacking, whereas the shield biter is more on display, acting in ways that unnerve an enemy and raise morale for their allies. So it's possible that some shield biters back in the day were also "berserkers," but they are described very differently in the chronicles.
So as you will see, the mechanics for these subclasses are very different. Whereas the berserker is a "one man army" that can attack a lot with a two-handed weapon (as you get the most out of the class when you swing a d10 or d12 damage die around) all while ignoring harmful conditions and scaring the wits out of his enemy, the Shield Biter is more support-oriented, heavily incentivized to reduce their damage in favor of taking a shield, and drawing enemy attention away from their allies and directing it toward themselves.
Shield Biter: Mechanics
You can find the details of the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to consider if desired thanks to the team at Homebrewery. Right off the bat you gain Shield Bash, which is your first incentive to take a shield over a two-handed weapon or a pair of weapons. This allows you to make an attack as a bonus action with your shield, which is basically on-par with a battleaxe or flail in your off-hand.
You also get a nice bonus if you get a critical strike with the shield, but I wouldn't plan on that happening all that often.
At 6th level we delve deeper into the control aspect of the subclass with War Cry, which allows you, as long as you are not silenced (so it makes a good opportunity to use the Silence spell on a martial class, something you don't see incentivized that often in the game!), to give allies within 10ft of you who are not deafened (yet another reason to use such a spell on a martial class! What is this!?!?!) advantage on their next attack. And since the ally just has to be within 10ft of you, this could benefit a ranged character, sneaky rogue, etc., as long as they are at your shoulder helping with fire support. It's a bit more dangerous for them, but hey - advantage is a nice benefit.
At 10th level we get Battlefield Challenge, with the barbarian calling out specific foes and challenging them to a duel. This spell works almost exactly like the paladin's Compelled Duel spell, except that 1) anyone can attack the dueling target, 2) it only lasts for 1 turn, and 3) there's no rule on how far they can move away from you. So this would be something you'd need to do constantly to a target that you don't want messing with other people, so it's less likely to work as often as a paladin spell, but hey, you don't need to spend a spell slot to do it. So that's a good reason to try it.
What this does, practically, is it encourages enemies to just pound into you, whether you challenge them or not. Since you can issue this challenge every turn, the only way to stop the effect is either to 1) somehow guarantee that they pass each saving throw (which I suppose a DM could do if you build the encounter and foes just right), or 2) shut you up. And that can be done many ways, but the most straightforward way is for people to concentrate fire on the shield biter.
And that's one of the unwritten advantages of this subclass: he's a magnet for enemy damage in ways that other barbarian subclasses are not, as almost all of the other subclasses are 1) very beefy, 2) very damage-oriented, and 3) don't offer much other than damage soaking and damage dealing (with the Ancestral Guardian excepted). So other than the nagging feeling of, "well, this person is the frontline fighter who invested in hit points, so we should probably let them use it," there's not a lot of reasons to not just throw 1-2 NPCs their way, tie them down, and then focus fire on the other party members. This subclass gives them that incentive: if you don't focus me down first, you're going to find it harder to hit my friends because I'm calling you out, boy.
And then at 14th level we get Melee Momentum, which allows you, when you drop a target to 0HP, to inflict disadvantage on an enemy's Wisdom saving throw to resist your challenge. This seems small, but remember where you are by this point in the barbarian class progression. By this point you have 1) Extra Attack (so 3 attacks if you hit with a shield, all using probably d8 damage die for their damage), 2) probably a +5 to your Strength damage (so you're doing, on average, 3d8+24 - or almost 40HP of damage - each turn if you hit with every attack), 3) two extra die on critical strikes (so on average +13HP for each critical strike you do), 4) a good chance of going early thanks to advantage on initiative rolls, 5) advantage on all of these attacks, regardless of whether you're in rage or not, and 6) giving allies near you advantage on their attacks when they fight.
And then, as a free thing you can do at the end of each turn, you can, after dealing a lot of damage, reduce the chance of a target to deal damage to someone else. And with this ability, the person is even less likely to pass the saving throw to avoid having to attack this juggernaught, and even if they do pass, they get disadvantage on attacks unless they attack the shield biter (who has a shield, so higher AC than most barbarians at this level).
It seems like a small thing, but this is huge: it basically guarantees that the big bad dude in the fight is out of the fight, one way or another. Either they are forced to move toward the barbarian (and might lose their action entirely), or they fail a lot of attacks. It's a small boost, but it's a good one.
From a damage perspective the berserker does a lot more damage thanks to that bonus action attack with a two-handed weapon (especially if you pair it with Great Weapon Master and/or Polearm Master). From a resilience perspective you're not at the level of the Totem Warrior (Bear) or the Zealot. But if you want to help your allies, kill stuff, and give yourself lots of roleplay potential baked into the subclass, may I recommend the Shield Biter.
Until next time,