The Path of the Ancestral Guardian Barbarian (Xanathar's Guide to Everything, p. 9-10) is an extremely powerful barbarian. It pretty much makes your allies invulnerable against an enemy boss.

But it does nothing for your own health. It will greatly incentivize enemies to take you down first to be rid of your annoying Guardian benefits.

Assuming I'm currently level 3 as an Ancestral Guardian, and leveling soon to 4, my stats are average (point buy), and I have no healing from allies, what is the best way to maximize my survivability for fights to come?

  • I'm willing to look into multiclassing, if there's a valid strategy there.
  • I don't expect anyone else to grab any healing abilities.
  • I'm not interested in specific magical items. (Potions and other common/uncommon magic items are fine)
  • I expect the campaign to last until about level 10.
  • By character level 10, I would like to have at least 6 levels of Barbarian
  • Emphasis on surviving against bosses, if possible.
  • Expected about 2 combat encounters per day.

If it helps refine your answer, my party consists of:

  • A Champion Fighter (who is very cowardly and selfish, doesn't tank much)
  • A Fey Warlock (fairly standard, supportive player)
  • An Evocation Wizard (who lives to blow stuff up)
  • A Ranger/Rogue (who uses stealth and long range)
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 31, 2018 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ We need your current HP and AC (better yet if you can give us Dex and Con as well) to actually be able to "optimize" something. The race is also very important. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Aug 2, 2018 at 8:30

4 Answers 4


Take the Mobile feat

Your goal should be to get into melee, apply your ancestors to the boss, and get away. With the Mobile feat (PHB, p. 168), you won't provoke opportunity attacks from enemies you attack, and you'll have extra movement (in addition to a barbarian's own extra movement) to leave range. If at least one of your allies stays near the enemy, the enemy has a tough decision to make: eat an opportunity attack (or three) or attack your now very tanky allies.

In practice

One of my current Adventurers League characters is an Ancestral Guardian / Battle Master using this strategy. When I originally wrote this answer, he was an Ancestral Guardian 6 / Fighter 2. Since then, he has capped out at Ancestral Guardian 16 / Battle Master 4.

Throughout all tiers of play, he has been extremely effective at preventing damage on myself and my allies. Why be a Bear Totem barbarian when your ancestors turn your whole party into Bear Totem barbarians! As far as encounters and magic items go, AL tends to have 3-4 encounters per module, and my character only had a +1 weapon for levels 5-7 without feeling weak.

Other considerations

  • You mention that the Champion fighter in your group is cowardly. The nice thing about this build is that (unlike the Cavalier from Xanathar's) you can...encourage...allies to synergize with you without forcing them. Fighter not tanking? Apply your ancestors and use your 50' of movement to run past your cowardly ally. The enemy will likely engage with the fighter since it can't reach you. When it misses the fighter, play up how your ancestors distracted the enemy. Your allies will learn that ancestors equal safety.
  • It's usually better to apply your ancestors to the least damaged enemy first and then leave them so you can attack the most damaged enemy with the rest of your party. Your ancestors do nothing if the enemy is dead.
  • If an enemy is highly mobile and dangerous, you can stand back and apply your ancestors from 150' away with a longbow.
  • If you also multiclass into fighter, the Battle Master's Menacing and Goading Strikes (PHB, p. 73-74) are like a mini ancestors effect. They synergize well with the rest of the build.
  • As @Ben Barden pointed out, the Sentinel feat on the fighter (PHB, p. 169-170) in your party would assist with this playstyle by preventing even mobile enemies like dragons from leaving to hit you.
  • I would not recommend taking any feat or other feature that uses your reaction. At Level 6, you get Spirit Shield, which prevents an average of 7 damage per round as a reaction. That's similar to casting healing word every round without using resources! With the hit and run playstyle, you often won't be next to enemies to use an opportunity attack, so you can (and should) use Spirit Shield every round.

Bonus math

This build always feels strong in play, but I was wondering how strong it actually is.

TL;DR: the wizard, protected by ancestors, survives longer than the reckless-attacking barbarian.

The PCs

Class AC Con HP
Ancestral Guardian 5 19 +3 55
Champion Fighter 5 20 +3 49
Hunter Ranger 3 / Rogue 2 16 +2 42
Evocation Wizard 5 15 +1 27
Archfey Warlock 5 14 +2 38

Since this question focuses on survivability, I am assuming that the barbarian is using a one-handed weapon and a shield. If not, a hit-and-run playstyle becomes even better. (I would recommend a two-handed weapon to anyone trying this build.)

The monsters

This fight will be a Deadly encounter, as it is the boss fight. The PCs will face:

  • One CR 5 Gladiator (MM, p. 346)
  • Five CR 1 Duergar (MM, p. 122)

A fireball from the evocation wizard will seriously injure or kill several Duergar, leaving the rest for cleanup by the warlock and the ranger/rogue. With that in mind, let's focus on the Gladiator. The Gladiator attacks three times with a +7 to hit, each dealing 11 damage on average (18 on a crit).

The ancestors

I will assume that the barbarian's ancestors are applied to the Gladiator every round. (There is a small chance that they will miss both attacks, even if they attack recklessly for advantage.) For anyone but the barbarian, the ancestors impose disadvantage on the Gladiator's attacks and will provide resistance against any damage the Gladiator may do.

The numbers

As a baseline, the barbarian will last 4.4 rounds against the Gladiator while attacking recklessly, or 6.9 rounds normally. The barbarian numbers assume that they have resistance to the attacker's damage. If the party faced a CR 5 Fire Elemental instead of the Gladiator, the barbarian no longer has resistance, but their ancestors still protect the party against all attack damage.

Class Base Rounds Ancestors
Ancestral Guardian 5 4.4 Reckless
Champion Fighter 5 3.4 18.4
Hunter Ranger 3 / Rogue 2 2.0 7.0
Evocation Wizard 5 1.2 3.9 No shield
Archfey Warlock 5 1.6 4.7

The wizard can last around 5 rounds protected by ancestors if they cast shield on the first two turns of the fight. If the barbarian took the Tough feat (gaining +2HP per level) instead of Mobile, they would last 5.2 rounds recklessly, or 8.2 rounds normally. These are still a far cry from the 18.4 rounds the fighter would survive.

The conclusion

The fighter becomes a truly incredible tank, surviving more than 5 times longer than without the ancestors. In fact, every PC survives longer than a barbarian who is attacking recklessly (all while allowing the barbarian to do so without penalty by keeping out of range). Who knows, you might even make a brave warrior out of your cowardly fighter ally!

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ This would probably synergize quite well with one of his allies taking the Sentinel feat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 31, 2018 at 20:56
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Math, tested experience, thorough analysis. But the icing on the cake is that there isn't much of a drawback. Other answers neglect to mention a level or two that doesn't improve defense but is required of their suggestions, but yours can be applied almost immediately. Hands down an exemplary answer. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 3, 2018 at 14:58
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Playstyle-wise, this sounds like a massive prankster. "Imma run up, punch it on the nose, and run away!" Ancestors proceed to protect his allies, apologizing for their prodigy's lack of responsibility. A barbarian prince being spoiled by his ghostly family. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 3, 2018 at 15:17
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify, you are saying that there is no penalty for attacking recklessly since he's out of range of the gladiator? \$\endgroup\$ Aug 3, 2018 at 15:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ A bit late, but you may also want to look into multi-classing into the Echo Knight (introduced in Xanathar's Guide to Everything). It provides many bonus action options, something that the Ancestral Guardian usually lacks, extra mobility to get in and out of melee range, and the option to even attack recklessly from a distance through your Echo! \$\endgroup\$
    – Scott
    Oct 29, 2020 at 16:47

Action Economy

The thing is: as an Ancestral Guardian Barbarian, you don't have many choices for Bonus Actions and Reactions until now. Your bonus action is essentially raging, unless you are Duel Wielding, and your reactions are Opportunity Attacks. We can find some ways to fill these gaps and increase your survival.

Battle Master

Battle Master is worth mentioning. You get more uses of reactions and maybe bonus actions. Menacing Attack and Parry are likely to increase your survivability. Menacing Attack has a similar effect to Shield (disadvantage to hit is roughly equivalent to +5 AC), but it requires you to hit and the enemy to fail a Wis ST, while Shield is guaranted. The bonus of Frightened condition is that you can move away (taking the OA) and if the creature is melee, it can't get closer to you to attack any more.


As mentioned by András, Rogue also gives you Bonus Actions to use during your action economy. The cons for getting two levels of rogues are there. You can keep disengaging with it, making the boss have to move towards you and giving your Fighter a lot of Opportunity Attacks as well.

I will note that, for many high CR creatures, taking an Opportunity Attack is better than taking their whole attack. OA is a single melee attack, dealing some kind of physical damage that you resist. Their Multiattack or special attacks can be way stronger and deal damage of a type that you do not resist. That said, Dashing away for being able to keep up constant hit and run might be better than Disengage.

Simply increase your Con by 2.

That increases your AC by 1 and your HP by 4 (and +1 for every level you get from now). Really, how much more consistent survivability can you expect?

Tactical choices

Red Orca's answer is worth reading as well. There are some feats that, instead of providing raw survivability (bonus AC, bonus HP or similar), provides you tactical ways to survive. These are harder to measure in order to "optimize" and depend on how well you use it.

As an alternative for melee hitting and running, you can simply attack using Throw Weapon and constantly kite the boss - while providing the Champion Fighter opportunity attacks if the boss goes for you. This doesn't require feats or multiclassing, simply some gold on throwing weapons (that can be recovered by the end of the battle). Note that rage doesn't require you to attack melee, nor does Ancestral Protectors, and it's overall better than Crossbows or whatever because it uses Str - which gets the bonus damage from Rage. Get these Javelin and start hitting.

The advantage of Javelin spamming is that you can actually maintain it during the whole combat. If you want to keep hitting melee and moving away, you would need a really large speed - or keep Dashing as Rogue as I mentioned earlier.


First, I would like to thank Red Orca for his great idea.

Deploy your Ancestral Protectors, then get away

If your melee colleagues are attacking the same target (as they should) you can protect them and yourself by hitting it once and moving away.

How to get away

If you provoke Opportunity Attacks while you leave, you did not gain much.

Mobile feat

Pros: You don't even have to hit, doesn't cost any action, and your speed also incrases
Cons: Costs a feat

Shield Master feat

Pros: While raging, you roll Athletics with advantage, unlikely anyone is able to resist the push, you get advantage on your attacks, as everyone else before the enemy's turn
Cons: Costs a feat, takes up your bonus action1

Battlemaster 3 levels:

Pushing Attack can be used on the same hit that triggers the Protectors

Pros: Renews on short rests, adds damage,
Cons: 3 levels are a lot2, decreased HP

Rogue 2 levels:

You can use your bonus action to Disengage

Pros: Disengage protects you from all Opportunity Attacks, not just the target's
Cons: Takes up your bonus action1, 2 levels are a lot3, decreased HP

Increase your AC

Defensive Duelist feat

It can be used with Finesse weapons, even if you use them with Str. This should not change your damage, hopefully you use a shield if your are concerned about your survivability.

  1. It is worse than you think, most fights last no more than 3 rounds, and starting the rage uses up the first bonus action
  2. A Fighting Style, Second Wind, and especially Action Surge are great on their own
  3. Cunning Action, Expertise are great, and Sneak Attack can be used with Finesse weapons, even if you use them with Str
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ You list 'costs a feat' as a 'con' for Mobile, but several of your other options also cost a feat and you only list their serious drawbacks under your 'con' heading. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 2, 2018 at 17:25
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint, you only have to stay 5 feet away, so he provokes an opportunity attack from your melee party members when he moves after you \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Aug 2, 2018 at 20:23
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @András You mean increasing the survivability by killing it faster? Fair enough. The only melee party member is the Champion Fighter, though. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Aug 2, 2018 at 20:26
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint, it is bad, but I meant this as an aswer for every Ancestral Barbarian, not just the ones with unfortunate party compositions. \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Aug 2, 2018 at 20:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Relevant question about the Shield Master feat: Shield Master - Can the shield push be taken before an attack? (tl;dr: No, the Shield Master bonus-action shove is dependent on you taking the Attack action, so you can only make that shove after you've finished the Attack action. So no advantage on attacks for you, unless the enemy chooses not to stand on their turn and then you are able to attack them next turn.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Aug 12, 2018 at 20:21

Are you a dual wielder? If so, a couple levels in fighter will greatly improve your odds. Dual Weapon Fighting from Fighter, combined with Dual Wielder Feat will both improve your AC, as well as your damage output. Will also allow you to Use weapons with Versatility while dual wielding, Sling a shield on your back. If the boss is having a field day hitting you, change modality, up your AC by 2.

Planning ahead here was the key for me when I was in your shoes. Starting with Fighter instead of Barbarian will give you proficiency with Heavy Armor. But wait, you say, I cannot rage in heavy armor! And my resistances!

Xanathar's lists a minor magic suit of armor you can doff as an action. Begin the fight turtled up, Plate, Shield, Defend.

Action Surge can get you out of trouble, and every melee should have it. Its a disengage in a pinch, or a quick potion, or more move to keep the gap wide. It's Fighter 2.

Healing Surge as a bonus action, may be just the stopgap you need also. If things are under control, drop shield, doff plate, Versatile weapons in each hand, now yer in half Damage mode.

At Fighter 3, Maneuvers will further your versatility, Menacing Attacks Fear cannot be underestimated.

Likewise, a couple levels in Paladin could also mean the difference between life and death. Defense might be your first pick, but if yer a biggun, Great Weapon Fighting Style will keep you alive longer by speeding te death of your foes

At 2nd level you gain Lay on Hands, and you CAN touch yourself with it. You can also cast a smidgeon of healing magic. Which won't be a problem, since yer In Tuna Board mode when holding a leader, so you can actually cast it! And then there's divine smite. Best defense is a good offense.

Actually, looking at it, I'd probably go to 2 in both, for both survivability and also DPS, quite a box of tools there, but if I had to just pick 1, Fighter to Battle Master

You're not by chance a Half Orc? First time they hit zero, they go to 1 instead, with the right feat they even get a melee attack in response. Gnomes, yes, Iplayed a Gnome Barbarian once, Have a great set of spell resistances innately. But these are not decisions you can make at level 3.

It's a messy stream of thought advice set, but I hope it helps. Get creative. Splash other classes. Use yer healers kit to mash out potions in downtime.

Good Luck


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