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I'm playing in a campaign where we are building and playing each other as characters. I'm planning to build one of the players as a barbarian as he is a former Muay Thai kickboxing instructor who has a tendency to get mad and go off on rants when he gets frustrated. The difficulty I'm having is that he is also a PhD biochemist (so should have a high Int), but Int is a classic dump stat for barbarians.

What barbarian features, or additional character modifications, could take advantage of a high Int?

Alternately, what additional character features, such as race or background, could take advantage of a high Int stat and still be synergistic with the barbarian class features? Character level is 5.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking if there is a barbarian subclass that uses INT for one of its mechanics or is this more about how to incorporate high intelligence into the roleplay for it? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 27 at 0:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nautarch Updated the question to be more specific. I am interested in the actual mechanics of the build of the character. Role playing is pretty straightforward, pretend to be the player. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jan 27 at 0:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is multiclassing an interest or do you really want this to be about being a barbarian? What level are you playing to? Are feats available at your table? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 27 at 0:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Barker: Thanks, that is a bit clearer. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 27 at 1:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this qualifies as an answer, but I'll change it if I'm called out. "High Int" is relative. A scientist and/or instructor could have only a 12 or 13 Intelligence and still be considered very smart, as "average" is 10. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Jan 27 at 13:35
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Int isn't a dump stat for Barbarians

It's a dump stat for everyone. It's the worst stat. The only characters who want high Int are those whose classes specifically require it, and that's pretty much only Artificers and, to a lesser extent, Wizards. That said, if you are building people as characters why are you using a point buy? If you think somebody should have a high INT, give them a high INT.

Balance doesn't need to be a concern here: the goal isn't to make characters who are equal, the goal is to make characters that possess a certain degree of verisimilitude such that they feel right as a caricature-ish stylized artistic representation of an actual person. Since having a high stat in one area, then, doesn't stop you from having a high stat in another area, there's no such thing as a 'dump stat'. Each stat should just be whatever it should be, and the character will work fine from there.

Nevertheless, there is exactly one Barbarian subclass that eventually gets one individual ability that interacts with Intelligence. The first version of the Ancestral Guardian primal path grants at 10th level the ability to grant yourself advantage on intelligence or wisdom checks thrice per long rest as a non-action before rolling. All other versions of the Ancestral Guardian get clairvoyance-related stuff instead, but the initial Unearthed Arcana version has this feature, which is the only feature that interacts positively with Intelligence for the class.


What about backgrounds or races?

There are lots of backgrounds that give you cool "I'm a smart person!" things. The features typically do not require nor benefit from a high Intelligence score. Some backgrounds can grant proficiency in Intelligence skills, but since when a class skill and background skill overlap you can choose any other skill proficiency, the skills a background gives are not a particularly big deal unless they are skills you don't want. Because of this, I'm going to limit this discussion to background equipment and features.

The best background for this character is probably the Simic Scientist. Their background feature essentially allows you to bypass Int checks by instead visiting the library-- similar to the Sage background but without any chance of failure and limited to INT-y stuff:

When you attempt to learn or recall a magical or scientific fact, if you don't know that information, you know where and from whom you can obtain it.

It's also the 'I'm a bio-engineer' background. They start with a book of research notes and also a bunch of biochemical stuff.

Failing that, the Izzet Engineer feature synergizes well with being a Barbarian. It lets you get access to blueprints for buildings and general architectural knowledge:

You have a basic knowledge of the structure of buildings, including the stuff behind the walls. You can also find blueprints of a specific building in order to learn the details of its construction.

That is helpful for setting up and selling a GM on scenes like this. It's not really related to biology, though, but most biology stuff in D&D is more likely to get a Wisdom check than an Intelligence one anyways.

You could also just take Sage or Outlander or whatever other background has a useful feature that works for you. None of them are specifically good for Barbarians in a contributes-to-core-class-functionality way, but many of them will indirectly help by letting you do stuff to make your barbarian-ness more frequently effective or by giving you options when your class features aren't helpful.

As for races, you are going to want something that contributes to your class's core competency there.

  • Ibis-Headed Aven gives Dex and Int and flight when not in medium or heavy armor (which you won't be in because you are a barbarian) and an ability that helps Int checks you aren't proficient in, so that might be worth looking at.

  • The Mark of Warding Dwarf gives you a bunch of okay stuff, a bunch of stuff that's really good but you already get from your class and it doesn't stack, +2 Con, +1 Int, and a couple of complicated Int-based thief-y or dwarf-y abilities.

  • Sea Elf gives you a swim speed and the ability to breathe underwater as well as in air and the ability to talk to fish and +2 Dex, +1 Con. If you are an Aereni Sea Elf, which is totally a legit totally fine thing maybe (or, rather, being an Aereni elf with the stats of a sea elf would be fine lore-wise + rules-wise maybe in Ebberon), you also get to trade out your redundant weapon proficiencies for Expertise in anything you want, which is pretty awesome. If you put it in Perception you get one less skill proficiency, which is sad, but it's still really good and can definitely help out a Barbarian who wants to do other things too.

  • Svirfneblin is always a good race for Barbarians, since advantage on all mental saves shores up one of the class's biggest weaknesses. Beserkers benefit from this less than most. If you don't swap out Danger Sense for Survival Instincts this means you end up with proficiency on Str and Con saves and advantage on Dex, Int, Wis, and Cha saves. If you take the Ancestral Guardian path, your tankiness and stickiness combine well, which is pretty rare in 5e in my experience-- usually enemies either have no reason to attack a tank or no reason to not attack a sticky target but resistance to everything and d12 hp and high Con plus not attacking you comes with disadvantage and half damage and even less damage if you spend your reaction is enough to make being a tank work okay in this case, in my experience. Svirfneblin, like all gnomes, usually have the drawback of giving +2 Int which is usually worthless to everyone, but that is either good or irrelevant here.

  • Really, any race that's normally good for Barbarians is going to be good here, too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, but you should probably address “Alternatively what additional character features like backgrounds or races could take advantage of a high Int stat and be synergistic with the barbarian class features?” even if just to say there aren’t any of those either (which I’m not sure is true but seems plausible considering). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 27 at 0:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I disagree, as I addressed in my edits, because you can swap out skills however you want if they match class skills you take. I do end up recommending almost exclusively bg with Int skills, though, because those are the ones that have the features that are probably best here. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Jan 27 at 1:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ "pretty much only Artificers and, to a lesser extent, Wizards." Er, what? Why wizards to a lesser extent? Surely it's the other way around? Wizards are useless without INT \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 27 at 8:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Wizards don't need INT, it only makes their spells more likely to succeed and increases the versatility of their prepared spell selection" is a pretty wild take, to be honest \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jan 27 at 11:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS That's an heritage from past editions of D&D. At least on 3.X, you couldn't even prepare a specific spell if you didn't have at least 10 + the level of the spell you're trying to prepare. While there are other stuff that is dependent on it, a wizard that dumped int back then was literally useless, being unable to use its core feature. Nowadays, making a "low int wizard" on 5e is, while not optimal, certainly viable. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Jan 27 at 11:16
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Consider multiclassing Artificer

It may not be the most efficient route, since as usual, you can't cast spells in a rage, but it's certainly thematic if your game allows multiclassing and Eberron source material.

Pros of this approach include:

  • Infusions let you use some of your magical features without worrying about rage, whereas the other major INT-based class (wizard) would have little to do when raging
  • Experimental Elixer similarly doesn't care about the ability to cast spells, and may jive well with a biochemistry inspiration
  • Since multiclassing artificer only requires INT, this dip shouldn't affect your stat spread too much

Given that you're starting at 5th level, you may want 3 levels of artificer initially so that you can be in the alchemist subclass immediately (gaining access to experimental elixir, healing word to make good use of your INT, and that sweet biochem flavor). I wouldn't necessarily recommend going further than that as you level up, except perhaps to get the ASI at 4th level.

The idea here is to keep the flavor of smart scientist, along with some functionality, while keeping the majority of your character focused on your original angry combat specialist concept.

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This isn't that hard if you're willing to be slightly suboptimal in combat.

Classic human for many +1s

Barbarians are already a bit MAD, as is (ha), so we've got to run a bit lean to squeeze in your values.

You can end up with 14,14,14,14,14,11 (or any other combination, I'm not going to list them all) and have a minimal impact on combat efficacy; you'd have about a -1 compared to an optimal character on most things, but you'd be able to squeeze in everything.


I did this with a High Elf also and it was fine. Having a wizard cantrip did a lot for me to feel like the character was smart. He learned a whole spell! But I didn't like how hard it was to squeeze in the scores. Your mileage may vary, but the takeaway is to be okay with not getting all 16s like you're used to.

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Any build is good if you have fun

Sure, Intelligence is a classic dump stat for lots of builds. But if you want a Barb who is good a History and Investigation, go for it. There is almost always room for a 14 in whatever stat you choose. Remember, it's literally a Role Playing Game, so choose your role and don't look back.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Because of the game mechanics, saving throws, and skill checks, the dump stats are Wisdom, Dexterity and Constitution - when they are not already part of the main stat for a Class. \$\endgroup\$ – Senmurv Jan 27 at 9:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ So I have downvoted this as “not useful” per the tooltip description of what downvoting is for. That’s not because this is untrue or wrong. Rather, because it can be reasonably assumed that, except perhaps in questions that really advertise that someone is a new player and has no idea how things work, that this is already understood. The very existence of the question indicates that the lack of answer is inhibiting fun. So the “if you have fun” condition is only met if an answer is obtained, and this answer doesn’t provide one. Answers here are expected to be more than this. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 27 at 15:17

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