There are several classes that can be considered martial classes in 5th edition D&D but if you are the hack and slash type, it’s hard to argue with fighter and barbarian being the two standards for martial classes. Grab a weapon and attack. Stay in front and protect the squishy spellcasters and utility party members who can’t take a beating.
Both of these classes tend to serve the same purpose in the party, but is one clearly better than the other? Which class should you pick if you are taking one over another?
When comparing these two classes fighters tend to be better for versatility and sheer number of attacks while barbarians are better for absorbing damage and dealing huge melee damage in single attacks. Your preferred playstyle determines which martial class is best for you in 5th edition D&D.
Barbarians and fighters are great martial characters, and you can easily have a great campaign playing either class. But in a head to head comparison, which one comes out on top?
Why the Barbarian Is Superior to the Fighter
If you are a hack and slash first time Dungeons & Dragons player who wants things as easy as possible, barbarian is the way to go. This isn’t to say that the fighter is a complicated class, but there are more options. Especially if you go with battlemaster as your Martial archetype.
Barbarians attack, rage, attack, rage, attack, rage, and possibly attack again. That’s pretty much it at the early levels, but they do it so, so well.
The barbarian is the only class whose hit die they roll during level ups is a d12. That means a 25% chance each level up of getting the max hit points fighters can get, or even more.
If your DM does the “full hit points on level up” house rule that is extremely popular with many D&D campaigns, then the barbarian is beyond awesome. At level three your spellcasters are lucky to have 15 total hit point. You have 36 before you figure in Constitution bonuses.
Sometimes It’s Good to Be a Savage
Early levels if you go with the Bear Totem you take only half damage from every type of damage except psychic – which you will almost never run into. This effectively doubles your hit points. Imagine being able to absorb 75 points of damage at level three.
Yeah, the right barbarian build can do just that.
Barbarians have the option to keep doing more damage, which also makes them popular. Fighters tend to do damage by using their trained skills for extra attacks, the four hits is better than one strategy.
Barbarians are the ones who use “If I cut you in half, you can’t hit back,” mentality for fighting.
Are you raging? Your attack gets extra damage from the rage table based on your level. Savage.
Want to make sure you hit? Go reckless to give yourself advantage on your last melee attack. Your opponent gets to attack you at advantage, but who cares? You’re kinda built for that.
At 9th level you get to add an extra dice to critical hits to be even more brutal. If you get to climb all the way to level 20, a 4 point boost takes your maxed out strength bonus from +5 to +7. You also max out Con to a +7, instantly giving you 40 extra hit points since those boosts are extended to all your previous levels.
That’s a pretty epic boost.
Hit Points, Protected Hit Points, and So Many Hit Points
Barbarians take damage like no one’s business, and their melee attacks are just brutal. Expansions to the base Player’s Handbook add some interesting sub-classes, through from a pure standpoint the Totem path from the base book is the way to go.
Especially when competing with a fighter.
If you go to level 20 with maxed out Constitution and add the Tough feat, even the nastiest DM is going to have a hard time cutting through a barbarian’s vast pool of hit points.
- The d12 is the highest HP die in the game
- Since Constitution is one of your main two stats, you tend to get more HP every level up from the CON bonus
- Since you’re simple, the Tough feat is a great add since you’re not sacrificing everything
- You take 1/2 damage to most types of damage, effectively DOUBLING your already massive level of hit points
Surprising Number of Role Playing Options
While barbarian invokes an image, and it definitely does keep you within certain parameters, there’s a LOT you can do within those parameters. You can play a classic Conan the Barbarian type character. If you want to go a bit wilder you can do a Tarzan type of character.
From history you have the Vikings, the Scottish Highlanders, the Germans of the Teutonic Forests, Boudica of the Celts, the “horse barbarians” like the Mongols, the Huns, and others. The Zulus, various Native American tribes – you can find barbarians everywhere from a wide array of backgrounds and while they all have those common traits…they play very, very differently.
Within the barbarian family, there are many roles you can choose to play.
Short List of Why Barbarian Is Better
- D12 hit dice are amazing
- Bear Totem at 3rd level is pretty insane, especially if you’re tanking
- Primal Champion is an excellent Level 20 bonus
- Easy built-in roleplaying aspects
What Type of Player Should Pick Barbarian
- True beginners intimated by the game since barbarian is the simplest class mechanically (rage, fight, tank, repeat)
- Players with the duty of tanking for the squishy spellcasters in the party
- Players tired of dying in every single campaign they play in (especially if you have my luck with dice rolls)
- Anyone this class appeals to
Why the Fighter Is Superior to the Barbarian
Right off the bat, ESPECIALLY since the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the fighter is now a much, MUCH more versatile class than the barbarian. That doesn’t mean the barbarian doesn’t have some neat sub-classes, but because of how Battle Master works, the ability to build a specialty or niche fighting class in a customized way adds around 20+ options.
While not technically sub-classes, they open up a lot more options and allow you to build a fighter as you see fit. This is even before adding in the fact there are builds of fighter that use magic, psionic damage now (thanks to Tasha’s), or that min-maxer’s have already figured out the fighter archer build puts the ranger to shame.
That versatility is hard to argue with, especially if you want to play a martial class but have some creative ideas on how you want to go about it.
Action surge is the class ability that really makes the fighter stick out. The ability to do a turn, say action surge, and dive into another full turn is powerful. Especially once you have an extra attack.
The fighter not only gets one action surge, but picks up another one at a high level. While getting some healing with Second Wind is a really nice feature, the reason so many multi-classes are all one class and then two levels of fighter is to pick up the action surge.
The barbarian is built to be a monster at high levels while unarmored. The fighter is the other direction where they can basically use any armor or weapon out of the gate. The versatility here is where the fighter really shines.
That means the ability to upgrade AC through better armor, better shields, and not having to worry about whether or not you can use it along the way.
Plus one, plus two, or even plus three armor can make that AC from your plate mail fighter with shield shoot through the ceiling.
In games where the DM house rules masterwork armor, or awards magic armor, this adds some extra bonuses to the fighter that are definitely worth looking at.
Especially if wearing magical full plate. A literal magic tank.
Extra Attacks, Extra Ability Score, Extra Turns
The fighter might be basic in so many ways but the way you make that up is with more. No other class has more than 2 attacks in a turn. A level 20 fighter has FOUR.
We’ve already gone over the power of the action surge that basically gives the fighter extra turns when the fighter decides they need it. Can’t overstate how awesome a class feature this is.
They also have two more ability score improvements than any other class. This almost guarantees a maxed out Constitution for extra hit points, as well as a maxed out Strength or Dexterity depending on what combat style you have. If you are at a “roll your stats” table and do well so you max out stats early, those become extra feats.
Add in heavy armor master, great weapon master, tough, and lucky and you have a terrifying melee machine.
Archery based fighter? Switch out great weapon master with sharpshooter.
Lucky is always a good one and you can use feats to customize yourself as a mage killer, add extra movement to your character, or even the ability to re-roll attack damage on a bad roll.
There’s a reason virtually every min-max multi-class includes two levels of fighter.
There are just that effective, and their bonuses are just that good for almost any build.
Short List of Why Fighter Is Better
- Two Words: Action Surge
- Ability to wear armor (especially if your DM awards magic armor)
- More attacks than any other class at high levels
- More ability score improvements than any other class at high levels
- Some sub-class options with fighters who can also spellcast
What Type of Player Should Pick Fighter
- Loves martial classes but wants space to play around a bit with style
- Wants a fighting class that is really odd, different, or specific (Pugilist, Queen’s Rules!)
- Is going to multi-class (especially with a spellcasting class of any kind)
- Advanced players who want a min-maxed character and understand the system well enough to make one
Factors That Affect the Fighter vs. Barbarian Debate
Keeping in mind that many games have home rules, or many groups have limit levels on the campaign, these are considerations that can really drastically affect which class you will have more fun playing. As with all classes there are certain levels where they seem to
Ask about what optional rules or house rules your DM is using and about the campaign. If you’re maxing out at level 12 that has the barbarian and fighter looking far different than level 20.
Are certain feats off the table? Are you looking for hand to hand combat or doing something with magic or distance weapons?
These all heavily affect which class is going to be the best option to pick. But even with all of these being considered there is one question that should trump them all when looking to make your choice:
Which one would you enjoy the most? Which option excites you?
If there’s an obvious answer to that, then go that direction.
You can always try out the other class in a new campaign. These are both very beginner friendly classes and can be a lot of fun to play!
Check Out Our Fighter Vs. Barbarian Episode of Unqualified Experts
Yup. This was such a good topic, one that was so highly requested, that I asked Braden for another point of view. So one of our episodes of Unqualified Experts (our awesome YouTube show) was on this very topic.
Hope you enjoy the article and the barb vs. fighter video. If you have any questions feel free to leave a YouTube comment and we’ll do our best to give you our point of view and get you some extra information!
We’re always interested in talking more on D&D and other tabletop roleplaying topics, so stop on by and tell us what you think!
So that’s it. There’s plenty to like about both the fighter and barbarian classes, and the sub-classes have plenty to offer. If you like to hack and slash, or go into a rage while tanking all the DM can throw at you, you have your options.
Whatever direction you choose to go, make sure to have fun, crush your enemies, and try to soak up enough damage so the thin-robed spellcasters don’t die!
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.