The Resolution Will Not Be Optimized: A Barbarian/Wizard Multiclass Experiment
To ring in 2017 in a spectacularly nerdy way, Geek and Sundry made a resolution to find a barbarian/wizard build that “makes sense.” Not only are the images of the hulking barbarian brute and the frail, hyper-intellectual wizard at odds, but the mechanics of these classes make them difficult to combine together in a way that isn’t a colossal failure. But dammit, I love a challenge, so I’m going to help them. Clearly, it will not be the most optimized build in the history of 5th edition DnD, but it may be possible to built something that performs decently while retaining a useful combat role. Let’s find out!
I Would Like To Rage
To take advantage of Barbarians’ most potent feature, Rage, we can’t cast or concentrate on spells in the heat of combat, so we want our WizBarb™ to do all their casting when they wouldn’t be raging: before or after combat, and with spells that wouldn’t require concentration in combat. What does that leave us?
Out-of-combat utility Traditionally a sore spot for Barbarians, whose need for high scores in the physical stats often leave them with little to do off the battlefield. With the Wizard’s extensive spell list, our Wizbarb could sacrifice some of his tankiness to gain utility off the battlefield, using Knock on locked doors rather than the “knock things down with my hammer” approach a Barbarian usually uses.
Buffs and Debuffs Though there are better options on other spell lists, some buff and debuff spells are notable for their lack of concentration, and we can easily see a Barbarian running up to an opponent, using a touch spell against them, and then raging as a bonus action to absorb the retaliatory damage from their weakened foe.
Magical Tank This uses Wizard abilities to augment the pre-existing combat strength of the Barbarian, which is a tremendous tank class. The Wizbarb will try to protect their friends, not only by drawing aggro, but by using spells to help them absorb or deflect damage.
Let’s Get Mechanical
How will we distribute our stats? Barbarians often rely on STR, while Wizards typically dump that stat and opt for INT. Fortunately, both Barbarians and Wizards like high DEX and CON as secondary stats, so although this build will be a touch multi-attribute dependent, requiring good STR, DEX, CON, and INT, it’s not as bad as it could be, getting our INT just high enough to qualify for a multiclass. We will choose a race whose stat bonuses augment at least two of those stats. Mountain Dwarf offers +2 to both STR and CON, and in a standard array, that allows us to put our odd-numbered stats into INT and DEX and pump them later when we’re using more of the Wizard abilities that would require them. So our starting stats might look like this:
Starting Stats (with Racial Bonuses)
STR 16 INT 13
DEX 15 WIS 10
CON 14 CHA 8
Now the fun starts: what levels do we take and when?
The first level is a no-brainer: we take Barbarian so we get the Constitution saving throw proficiency. This will allow our Wizbarb to add their proficiency bonus on concentration checks — we won’t be using a lot of concentration spells because the concentration would be lost while raging, but when we do cast them, we want them to stick. Traditionally, this dip would also enable our Wizbarb to use light and medium armor, allowing them to cast while wearing such armor, but because they’re a Mountain Dwarf, they already have those proficiencies. Overall, this is similar to the Fighter dip many full casters take to get these proficiencies. It would be tempting simply to stop here and continue as a wizard the rest of the way up, but a single-level dip, while technically a multiclass, isn’t in the spirit of this exercise, so we’re going to continue.
Those first few levels of a campaign often pose survivability problems, especially for squishy casters, so we’re going to take a bunch of our Barbarian levels early so we can live to multiclass another day. We go for a full five levels of Barbarian, taking the Path of the Bear Totem at Lvl 3 along the way. When we get our first Ability Score Improvement (ASI) at Lvl 4, we are going to use those ASIs to pump our odd-numbered stats, DEX and INT, by 1 a piece, bringing them up to 16 and 14 respectively and getting us to +3 and +2 modifiers. The DEX bonus will improve our initiative, which will let us get our spells out and our rage up early in the round, and will soon allow us to take advantage of spells that use DEX (see below). By Level 5, we have our Extra Attack in place and we’re ready to take our Wizard levels.
It’s Wizarding Time!
As a Wizbarb, your most on-theme Arcane Tradition would be to study in the School of Wizard Tank, aka Abjuration; the Arcane Ward ability will give you a couple of what amounts temporary hitpoints (since once you’re raging it will be difficult to recharge the ward). However, the best mechanical option for a brief foray into Wizard is the School of Divination: its 2nd level ability, Portent, is like a poor man’s Lucky feat and is by far the best 2nd level Wizard ability available. The Bladesinger Tradition, available in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, offers some Wizbarb-friendly features, but its racial restrictions, as well as the inability to wear medium armor or carry shields while benefitting from Bladesong, diminish its value.
We don’t have a high casting stat and few spare ASIs to improve it, which means our spell attacks and saves will be low, so we’re going to focus on spells that don’t involve saves or spell attacks or any concentration that might be dropped when you start raging. Some suggestions include:
- Mirror Image. Wouldn’t it be great if you could diffuse some of the aggro you pull with your Reckless Attack? What if there’s a probability that duplicates of you take that damage instead? This is my favorite Wizbarb spell because it is supports the combat role without interfering too much with the Barbarian’s Rage or action economy. As combat starts, cast Mirror Image, Rage as a bonus action, and get in your enemies’ face.
- Rope Trick. The ultimate tank just puts their entire party in an extradimensional space while they take on damage from all foes, right? Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but creating a place for your ranged squishies to hide and climb up and down to take potshots from is pretty fun and a good way to protect your party! Just watch out for any readied actions aimed at the entrance!
- Misty Step. Mobility is important, and a teleport spell could potentially get you out of some sticky situations or into some fun, bloody ones! The downside is that Misty Step is a bonus action, and bonus actions should be spent raging (and once raging, you can’t cast Misty Step) or ending your rage to cast spells, which also requires a bonus action if done voluntarily. But if you’re ever in a situation where a Dash just won’t cut it, Misty Step is invaluable for a melee character.
- Mage Armor. You can’t always afford to take disadvantage on Stealth checks to wear half-plate, and with a DEX of 16, Mage Armor and a shield will get you up to AC 18, only 1 point less than you’d have in half-plate with a shield. If you don’t yet have access to higher-level medium armor or you’re in a stealthy party and don’t want to take the Medium Armor Master feat, this spell is pretty good value.
- Blindness/Deafness. With a spell save as low as ours, it’s iffy that this spell would land at all, but if you manage it, your target is going to have a sad, sad time.
- Color Spray. Blindness/Deafness may require a save, but this doesn’t. Color Spray gets you one round of blinded low-level enemies, and who doesn’t love advantage against folks who have disadvantage against you? You may not get an opportunity to attack these enemies while they’re blinded, but Because Color Spray is based on hit points, this is a good choice when you’ve rolled low in initiative order and your allies have already softened your target somewhat.
- Sleep. Similar to Color Spray, at low levels this spell will let you control the battlefield somewhat and reduce the number of foes actively attacking you; even if an enemy uses its action to wake up their ally, that was an action not spent attacking you.
Back to Barbarian
Ultimately, we go up to four levels in Wizard before switching back to Barbarian, enough to get us our next ASI only one character level behind the single-class members of the party. This also gives us access to three 2nd level spell slots. For this, we give up the 17th level 6th rage per day and the 3rd Brutal Critical die, which is not the greatest sacrifice compared to other class’ 17th level abilities. Yes, by multiclassing we also lost our final ASI and the Barbarian capstone, which is phenomenal, but such is the life of a Wizbarb. Conversely, once you get a taste of spellcasting, it’s tough to give it up, but just remember all the hit points wizards don’t have and that squishies make bad tanks.
There you have it, folks. If you want to be a Wizard/Barbarian, here’s how you could do it. Is a Wizbarb the best build in the world? Certainly not, but Barbarian 16/Wizard 4 offers solid tanking capability as well as a handful of spells to play around with if you’re careful about spell selection. As a wizard, you can cast whatever you can copy into your spellbook, so in addition to your four cantrips and twelve spells learned by your 4th level of Wizard, you can continue picking up 1st and 2nd level spells throughout your campaign.