What I am seeking here is the logic that makes the Form of the Beast so enticing. From what I understand, it would take a 2d6 greatsword attack and reduce it to a 1d8 bite/tail attack, or two separate 1d6 claw attacks, which seem weaker to me. Are the additional features that strong? Is there something I missed in making them simple natural weapons? Is there a way to make it more powerful than the greatsword? What am I missing?
2\$\begingroup\$ Depends on how big the barbarian is and where you put the fulcrum. \$\endgroup\$– Tim PederickFeb 5 at 15:49
\$\begingroup\$ @TimPederick haha \$\endgroup\$– Victor BFeb 5 at 21:16
I'm currently playing a Beast Barbarian. Here's what I've noticed.
Claws are especially good because you get N+1 attacks. Others have addressed the damage increase, but I think your question misses an important fact: the bulk of your damage comes from the Rage+Strength bonus, not the dice. Also, if you have advantage, you're have it for two attacks instead of just one - and you can give yourself advantage from Reckless Attack!
The downside of spreading the damage into multiple attacks is if you're fighting enemies with damage reduction... but that's pretty rare in DnD 5e. Compare that with forcing more CON saves for spellcasters with concentration spells, I think more attacks comes out ahead.
The tail is nice for playing defensively, as others have pointed out. Since it has Reach option also gives you a bigger radius from which to make Opportunity Attacks.
I don't use the Bite form very often since I rarely enter combat below half health. Still, if your party is running low on healing, this is a nice option to stretch your HP.
And now my favorite benefit: the versatility. You have all of three options (Claws, Tail, Bite) available to you before combat even starts! You don't have to choose a feature at the end of a rest; you choose it once you start raging. I love playing casters and half-casters; having the flexibility to adapt my tactics based on the encounter is very appealing.
You're also not dependent on your weapons. It's not every day that adventurers needs to fight without their equipment, but if you do lose your equipment - whether through imprisonment, shipwreck, theft, or confiscation - the Beast Barbarian is one of the best classes to keep going.
You'll probably give up the Great Weapon Master feat. There's not a lot of benefit to two-handed weapons. On the plus side, you get to have a shield. And it wasn't as though you have GWM and are stuck with it forever; now you can pick a different feat like Sentinel, Charger, Resilient, Fighting Initiate, Mage Slayer, Toughness, Shield Master, Slasher, or whatever else catches your eye.
2\$\begingroup\$ @VictorB The claws count as a Natural Weapon, similar to a bears. These do not act the same as unarmed strikes, and would not benefit from the unarmed fighting fighting style. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 2:27
1\$\begingroup\$ For the bite attack, the ability states "Once on each of your turns..." so at fifth level you can heal 3HP from 2HP at fourth, but you cannot apply it for every attack. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 2:29
1\$\begingroup\$ @JonAristotle Thanks, fixed. I guess you can tell I don't use Bite very much. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 18:44
1\$\begingroup\$ @VictorB I'm usually not wielding a weapon before combat, and "you could draw your weapon as part of the same action you use to attack" (PHB 190, "Other Activity on Your Turn"). So if I leave my longsword in my scabbard and choose not to rage, there's no penalty. I plan to take the Interception fighting style as a feat - I have never run out of rages, and the other frontliners are squishy. If I wanted a more aggressive style, I'd probably choose Charger. I think it'd pair well with the level 6 feature that extends your jump capabilities. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 19:05
1\$\begingroup\$ @VictorB: IIRC, majority opinion is that the Bite form is rarely the best choice, pretty under-tuned. A good chance of blocking one big hit with a tail (at any HP) is better except in corner cases where you start at low HP and you're facing lots of tiny attacks per round so blocking one is inconsequential. Or where all the incoming damage is save-based, not targeting your AC, and claws to end the combat sooner isn't better for some reason. (In 5e, often the best defence is good offence, or prevention (AC boosts or debuffs). Healing to keep up with damage usually doesn't go far.) \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 20:48
You're only looking at the raw dice.
The Bite is capable of restoring hit points. Especially for a raging barbarian with damage reduction, gaining some extra hit points every round can go a long way. (If you're not hurt, don't manifest the bite form, it indeed won't be better than your sword.)
The Claws give you two separate attacks, which means you can cut down two weaker foes in one go, increase your odds of landing at least 1 hit, and if you hit both you deal your Strength damage and Rage bonus damage twice, so it can outpace the Greatsword in damage.
The Tail gives you Reach, which means you can attack enemies from more than 5ft away. It also gives you a defensive tail-sweep to reduce the chance of being hit by nasty attacks.
Each of these can be the right choice in some encounters, giving you extra defenses, extra attacks, or healing. But you'll see that when using it in play; if you're just looking at "how many dice do I roll", they all seem lackluster.
11\$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity, I did a bit of number-crunching in anydice (script here) - for a typical raging, recklessly attacking barbarian, getting to make 2-3 claw attacks instead of 1-2 greatsword attacks improves your expected damage by a few points, and even compares well to an equivalent barbarian using Great Weapon Master to boost their two-handed damage. And as a rule of thumb, PCs benefit from consistency - more smaller attacks is usually better than fewer big attacks, because making more attacks mitigates the chance that you whiff completely for a turn. \$\endgroup\$– CarcerFeb 4 at 9:52
The other answers cover things quite well, but one more thing is worth pointing out: Beast Barbarian may be especially attractive to Small barbarians, who can't wield the aforementioned greatsword effectively.
Before we consider the benefits of each attack, lets make a Very Standard Barbarian, we will call Vicky Stone. We will play with the standard array, putting our racial bonus into CON and STR to bring these scores up to 16. Vicky took the average rolls for health on level up, so at 3rd level Vicky has 35 hit points. Vicky can have an AC of 14 with Unarmored Defense, but 15 with scale mail and putting 12/13 in DEX, which I think by 3rd level Vicky will have come across enough money to purchase.
For the sake of simplifying the problem, we are only going to look at one monster Vicky is Fighting: a CR 3 creature, with the quick monster stats from the Dungeon Master's Guide p. 274
Lets consider 4 of Vicky's options for combatting this creature: a greatsword, a Bite attack, dual Claws, or the Tail (with 2 choices of source of damage). (we will ignore critical hits for simplicity).
The Creature has a +4 to hit, so it will be hitting Vicky's 15 AC 50% of the time. Dealing on average 22 damage/hit, halved for a barbarian's rage, the Creature will average out to 5.5 DPR (damage per round) on Vicky. This means Vicky can be expected to be knocked unconscious on her 7th round in combat.
With her relatively low DEX, she likely is going after the Creature in initiative, so she will be able to attack 6 times. Her greatsword deals 2d6+5 damage on a hit and is hitting 65% of the time against the Creature's 13 AC (averaging 6.5 DPR), so we can expect Vicky to deal 47 damage before being KO'd by the Creature. Not too bad, but let's see how it stacks up to the other options.
With this attack, Vicky is able to wield a shield while in her free hand. This means the Creature has only a 40% chance to hit this time. So the creature will now be dealing 4.4 DPR. Vicky is also healing 2 hit points 65% of the time once below half health, so after taking 18 or more points of damage (4 rounds), the effective DPR is reduced to 3.1 DPR; giving Vicky an additional 6 rounds conscious. With 9 rounds to attack with a 1d8+5 weapon, still hitting 65% of the time, Vicky can on average deal 55 damage before being KO'd.
Maybe not intentional, but the RAW interpretation of these claws allows the player to still wield a shield while using the second attack. So lets just take that 4.4 DPR - same as the bite - and see that Vicky will be knocked out by the Creature's 8th round of attacks.
So in 7 rounds Vicky makes 14 attacks with her claws, dealing 1d6+5 damage 65% of the time, for a total of 77 damage before being KO'd.
Tail; with Tail attack
Oh boy is this going to be a drawn out one for Vicky here. Her shield, plus her 1d8 bonus AC tail reaction, bring her effective AC from 15 to ~21. So our Creature now only has a rounded 20% chance to hit. That 22 DPR has been reduced to an effective 2.2 DPR, so Vicky can survive this onslaught for 16 rounds.
With the Tail attack 15 times dealing 1d8+5 damage/hit, Vicky will be able to dish out 92 damage before being KO'd, which may be enough to defeat this creature before it defeats Vicky.
Tail; with Greatsword
Okay, so you read all this and still only care about swinging the big sword. The massive potential boost to AC from the tail still makes this a very effective subclass, even if that is the only benefit you want. ~4 added to AC as a reaction means the Creature is now hitting 30% of the time, for an effective 3.3 DPR; Vicky can expect to be conscious for 11 rounds.
This will give her 10 rounds to strike with the greatsword now, bringing her to 78 damage before being KO'd.
The Moral of the Story
Obviously, there is another several members of the party to consider, other creatures in the fight, multiattack, legendary actions, aggro, other ACs and damage rolls, bad luck, good luck, etc. It is also extremely unlikely your DM is going to ask you to enter a one-on-one slug fest for 16 rounds against a creature. However the effects of these beastly weapons are evident, and can be just as effective over numerous encounters and multiple enemies, as long as Vicky can enter a rage.
Also, while the tail seemed the most effective for total amount of damage dealt, this is very situational to the scenario set up here. More enemies decreases the tail's effectiveness, as Vicky can only use a reaction once per round; however the bite could mean your healer can focus on other targets, the claws can hit an additional creature at each round, and so on.
But even if we just look at the flat DPR of the Greatsword when compared to the Claws, when adjusted for the 65% chance to hit the Greatsword is dealing 7.8 DPR, and the claws are dishing out 11.05 DPR.
1\$\begingroup\$ Bite heals so little compared to the size of the hits most relevant enemies deliver. Maybe it could work better if damage were front-loaded? So you get to half HP tanking minions and stuff, and eating their opening burst attacks, then come closer to sustaining yourself(?) while there are fewer enemies left? But it's too weak to come close to really keeping you up for long. If you do choose to manifest the bite when you rage, you can still use a greatsword for the early rounds while above half health (often good offense is the best defence), and switch to biting + shield later. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 20:56
\$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes One issue with starting with the greatsword: switching to shield will take an action to equip it, which is valuable time in combat and may not be worth it. If a 3rd level PC enters combat at half health, and uses the bite for 3 rounds while taking damage each round, they have effectively given themselves an additional 12 HP, because the rage reduces damage by half. The math on the Tail may be better overall, but the bite may be the best choice against an enemy with a huge attack bonus, where the bonus AC from Tail might not be enough. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 7 at 0:31
1\$\begingroup\$ Oh, my mistake, you're right, equipping a shield is an action, not a free object interaction like drawing a weapon. Yeah, if you start combat close to or below half health (and that's still enough HP to likely not go down in one or two hits!), bite could sometimes be the best choice. 12 addition (pre-reduction) HP sounds nice, but in many combats at that level, 2 or maybe even 1 hit blocked by a tail over 3 rounds will be more than that. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 7 at 1:06
1\$\begingroup\$ Low levels like 3rd might be the best case for it, too, since HP out-scales your proficiency bonus rather quickly. 2 HP might be enough on one turn to matter for a 3rd-level barbarian, depending what you're fighting. And yeah it's maybe more consistent than the enemy having to roll within 1d8 of your AC before you can reduce damage, especially if your AC isn't high to start with. (The higher your AC, the more likely any remaining hits were not by much.) Or saving throw effects that bypass AC, but those are often not physical, not reduced by rage, in which case healing is less valuable. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 7 at 1:10
A greatsword takes two hands to wield. The claws require only one free hand. A bite or tail attack requires neither hand. Swapping to these options gives you more free hands to use for things other than your weapon. Several of the other answers have already identified the obvious advantage to this: you can use a shield. There are a lot of assorted other things one can do with a free hand, but the other big one is grappling.
If you grapple an opponent and shove them prone (both on PHB pg. 195) they can't stand back up. That gives you and your melee allies advantage on attacks against them, and them disadvantage on attacks against you and your allies. It also saves the perennial problem of how, as the party member who'd prefer to be taking all the hits, to prevent enemies running off and whacking your wizard. That makes it an excellent crowd control option for martial characters, even before considering the (oft hilarious) benefits of being able to drag your foes all around the battlefield. As a barbarian, Rage gives you advantage on all your Strength checks, making grappling an even more reliable option for you.
But grappling requires a free hand, per enemy you wish to grapple. So you can't use it at all while wielding a greatsword. If you're grappling one enemy, you need to choose either a shield or a weapon. If you're grappling two enemies at once, you get neither. That leaves you with simply unarmed strike damage, which even with the Tavern Brawler feat is just a d4. Unless you have a tail, or a bite attack, in which case you can merrily hold two enemies (or an enemy and a shield), while still using a d8 weapon. This makes the Path of the Beast an excellent option if you plan to do much in the way of grappling.
I'll look at it at level 5 with 18 strength while in rage.
The baseline is a 2 greatsword swings for 4d6+12 or 26 damage.
The second baseline is a shield and 1d8 melee weapon for +2 AC and 2d8+12 or 21 damage.
With a Bite, you can do a greatsword attack and bite. You deal 2d6+1d8+8 (19.5) damage and heal 3 HP.
We'll go claw and shield for 3d6+18 (28.5) damage.
Arguably using item juggling you can even pull off 4d6+20 damage (two short swords, each turn either sheath or draw one of them, to activate two weapon fighting bonus action attack) for 34 average damage.
Or, make a greatsword attack, let go with one hand and make 2 claw attacks, for 4d6+18 damage (32).
This one offensively doesn't boost you, but it adds +1d8 AC as a reaction every turn, which can be pretty beefy. It is the best non-two-handed/heavy reach weapon in the game; so you can use it with a shield.
The greatsword damage is 26. Claw can do 32-34, significantly more. Or it can use a shield and still exceed greatsword damage at 28.5!
Other types of barbarian
Now, this doesn't guarantee it matches other barbarian types. But the point is that it a benefit, not that it is optimal.
Zealot with greatsword is doing 5d6+16 (33.5), and has boosted accuracy on 5.5 of it.
You're missing a few things.
The general evolution goes like this.
"2d6 > 1d6, so greatsword is better than claws/bite/tail especially once you get to level 5" -> therefore, beast barb bad
"wait. 1d6 or 2d6 doesn't matter much if i'm adding +4 from str and +2 from rage to each attack... even magic weapons don't close this gap fast enough to matter if it's 2 attacks instead of 1 or 3 attacks instead of 2." -> therefore, beast barb great!
"more attacks is good, but great weapon master exists and barb gets automatic advantage if they want it. +10 > +6, especially if it's +20 (two attacks) vs 6 (still that same 1 extra attack)" -> therefore, beast barb bad
"wait. if I have polearm master and great weapon master, I can attack with the haft as a bonus action... meaning I get 3 attacks anyway." -> therefore, beast barb bad
Beast barb's only really good for Small sized barbarians. That said, being Small and a Barbarian is kinda ass optimizationwise so it's still not a super great thing.
The tail has some utility regardless but only some. Generally, other kinds of barbarian (ancestral, bear totem) are superior for nearly any purpose.
3\$\begingroup\$ Ancestral or Bear Totem may be better, but I don't think you have made a convincing case. 1) You are comparing the other Barbarian with two feats to the Beast Barbarian who has zero feats. Are you surprised the Beast Barbarian fares worse? 2) I don't think the +20 vs +6 comparison is useful even as a first approximation: At 20 STR and level 5, you're comparing 4d6 + 34 vs 3d6 + 21. Your max damage is higher, but you have to hit with a -5 penalty... twice. I'm guessing the average damage favors GWM, but it's nowhere close to a 3-to-1 ratio. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6 at 19:24
\$\begingroup\$ @Glasses2C_Sharp the math has been done, the ratio is horrifyingly in the barbarian with gwm's favour. if you want to envelope it, AC 15 vs 2d20kb+3. There are more CR 5 monsters with less AC (often a lot less) than 15 than those with above it. Even NPC style statblocks tend to have low AC, with the exception of the Knight. Unless you are at the table of a GM homebrewing monsters to have much higher than usual AC, gwm can be expected to do considerably more damage than claw attacks. \$\endgroup\$– user2754Feb 8 at 6:34