So the hallmark of the bear warrior is a rather high Strength score, increased size, and some natural attacks, thanks to the bear forms he takes. It also requires Power Attack to enter.
Since you’ll be using unarmed strikes and natural weapons, unfortunately this answer becomes required reading. Sad to say, the rules here are complicated. But they are somewhat advantageous: basically, you can use your unarmed strikes and claws and bite all in one full-attack. So you’ll be pretty scary.
Doubling down on complicated, this build uses a lot of grappling, because that appears to be a theme with bears in D&D. I’m still apologizing to the DM for the last time I forced him to use those rules, so... consider that, before going down this road.
One of the best options for a barbarian is the goliath from Races of Stone, but as an LA +1 race it is unavailable to you. That leaves...
Dwarf. +2 Constitution is nice, bonuses against unpleasant things like tripping, bull rushing, and spellcasting are nice too. Slow movement is largely obviated while in bear form.
Human. Bonus feats are amazing, and this is no exception.
Mongrelfolk, Races of Destiny. If +2 Constitution was nice, +4 is that much better. They’re also kind of cool.
Water Orc, Unearthed Arcana. +4 Strength and +2 Constitution. −2 to all mental stats hurts... sort of but not really so much.
Warforged, Eberron Campaign Setting or Races of Eberron. Tons of options, tons of resistances and immunities. Built-in slam attack.
And for all of these, becoming a dragonborn from Races of the Dragon is possible. You get +2 Constitution, on top of whatever you already have (up to +6, in the case of mongrelfolk!), for −2 Dexterity (which you probably don’t care about). You also get your choice of special draconic features, the best of which is a pair of wings, allowing you to fly at 6th level (note that you will not keep these in bear form, which will be a problem at higher levels—strongly recommend you come up with a way to get your bear-form airborne at some point).
Dragonborn does erase most racial features; the only exceptions are subtypes, ability score bonuses, and movement modes. This means that dwarves lose a lot, and humans lose everything. Mongrelfolk and water orcs don’t lose much, on the other hand.
In the case of warforged, however, this is honestly a very cheesy option: almost all of warforged’s advantages are due to their Living Construct subtype. So a dragonborn warforged keeps almost everything good about being a warforged, and then adds all that dragonborn goodness on top. Do not do this without running it past your DM first. I’ve played in plenty of games where it is not at all unreasonable, but there are far more games where it’s unfairly good.
If your DM is OK with the dragonborn warforged, it is far-and-away the best option for you. If not, dragonborn water orc and regular warforged are very competitive with one another. Dragonborn mongrelfolk for the ridiculous Constitution could be fun. Since bear form nixes the dragonborn wings, though, I’d probably favor warforged.
Barbarian Variant Options
They have published many variant barbarian options, and several are very useful to you.
To begin, the City Brawler variant from Dragon vol. 349 loses martial weapon, medium armor, and shield proficiency, and gains Improved Unarmed Strike and Two-Weapon Fighting (unarmed strikes only) as bonus feats at 1st level. Since you weren’t going to use a weapon or shield anyway, and medium armors are pretty mediocre,1 this is a very good trade for you.
Since you have Two-Weapon Fighting, you can also get gloves of the balanced hand from Magic Item Compendium eventually to get Improved Two-Weapon Fighting. It’s probably not worth taking the feat yourself.
- Except for mithral full-plate, which you might have considered at mid-to-high levels. But it’s no big loss—by the time you can afford it, the increased armor AC isn’t all that valuable.
There are numerous alternate rages:
Rage, the original. +4 Strength and Constitution is good, +2 Will is nice, −2 AC is not a big deal (can even be a nice thing for drawing attention towards you and away from allies).
Ferocity, from Urban Class Features. +4 Strength is still good, but +4 Dexterity is almost meaningless to you, and you miss out on the Constitution. However, this version of rage allows you to activate it out of turn, even when flat-footed. That means you get the Dexterity bonus on initiative, and it also means you’re never going to not be in bear-mode if you don’t want to be. Particularly good for the Blazing/Frozen Berserker option, below.
Implacable, from Dragon vol. 330. A larger change than just to rage, since it also gives heavy armor proficiency and takes away fast movement. +4 Dexterity, +2 Constitution, +2 Will saves, and DR 1/– is a pretty nice defensive option, but losing fast movement is problematic.
Whirling Frenzy, from Unearthed Arcana. +4 Strength, +2 dodge bonus to AC and Reflex, and the option to take an extra attack in a full-attack in exchange for a −2 penalty to all attacks.
Normally, each of these aside from implacable is very competitive with the others. For you, though, there is an added consideration: bear form replaces the ability score bonuses of whatever you choose with the bonuses from bear form. The other effects of rage, however, stay.
That means the fact that ferocity improves Dexterity instead of Constitution, which is less useful to you, suddenly doesn’t matter because that’s all being replaced by the bear form’s bonuses. And you get to keep ferocity’s super-fast activation. Or you get to keep whirling frenzy’s extra attack.
So it really comes down to a question of ferocity’s immediate-action activation versus whirling frenzy’s extra attack. Considering that you’ll be using a lot of grapple checks (which can use that extra attack but worry much less about your attack bonus), I’d definitely go with whirling frenzy. As a bonus, you also get to keep the dodge bonus to AC and Reflex, though you’ll lose it while grappling anyway.
Complete Champion allows a barbarian to select a “spiritual totem” instead of fast movement. The bear option gives Improved Grab, which allows you to punch people and attempt a grapple at the same time. This removes a lot of the opportunity cost from grappling, and grappling sees a lot of bonuses from bear form.
Note that once you have the brown bear form from bear warrior, you’d get Improved Grab anyway. If you think that’s good enough for you, consider trying to justify having a lion spiritual totem, for Pounce.
Unearthed Arcana also has some totems, these representing your tribe rather than your personal spiritual animal. The bear option is decent, but technically incompatible with the bear spiritual totem: it wants to replace fast movement with the Toughness feat, and you don’t have fast movement because of the spiritual totem. See if your DM will allow it, though, with the spiritual totem “replacing” Toughness, though. Getting Improved Grapple, plus an additional +4 to grapple on top of that while raging, is solid.
Barring that, consider the wolf totem: it’s actually compatible, and Improved Trip is a solid feat. Or just keep Uncanny Dodge.
Dashing Step and Devil’s Luck
Back to Dragon vol. 349: the Dashing Step variant trades the 3rd-level Trap Sense bonus for the ability to remove the AC penalty while charging, which is nice enough (and way better than Trap Sense).
From the same article, Devil’s Luck trades the DR 1/– at 5th for +1 luck bonus to all saving throws, which is actually better.
The barbarian variants have already handled Improved Unarmed Strike and possibly Improved Grapple for you. You still need Power Attack to qualify for bear warrior. Therefore:
If you couldn’t or didn’t want to take the bear totem, you need to get Improved Grapple ASAP. The only reason to delay it is if you are a warforged and want one of the 1st-level-only warforged feats (several are very good).
Martial Study (charging minotaur) and Stone Power
Stone Power from Tome of Battle can be used in place of Power Attack for qualifying for bear warrior. Power Attack doesn’t work on unarmed strikes because they are light weapons, so that is a very useful feature. Moreover, Stone Power lets you take attack penalties, up to your BAB or −5 (à la Combat Expertise), and in exchange you get 2 temporary HP that lasts a round. Each round, new set of temporary HP. It basically means the first 10 damage each round doesn’t actually count.
Stone Power requires that you have a Stone Dragon maneuver, which you can get with Martial Study in the same book. In order to get it early enough, you’re going to have to take a 1st-level maneuver, so that means either charging minotaur or stone bones. Stone bones improves your toughness (it gives you DR 5/adamantine for 1 round, once per encounter), but costs you a lot of damage, so charging minotaur’s mobility seems superior to me. Plus it gives you a functional bull rush, for a bit of versatility.
Martial Study (mountain hammer)
Mountain hammer is one of the best utility options in the game, as it gives you an attack with +2d6 damage that ignores all DR and hardness. Cue smashing through doors, walls, whatever. You’ll need to be 6th level to get it, which is the only reason I don’t recommend it for qualifying for Stone Power.
Martial Stance (crushing weight of the mountain)
Available at 12th, crushing weight of the mountain gives you a constrict attack for 2d6+1½Str damage. You’ll be grappling, and this will make your grappling very, very dangerous. This is a big increase in damage for you.
Superior Unarmed Strike
As much as crushing weight of the mountain is eventually going to be your primary source of damage, you are still using your unarmed strike damage for things, and this feat, from Tome of Battle again, makes it scale somewhat like a monk’s does.
More Tome of Battle! Any time you’re attacking, take a −2 penalty to all attacks to get an extra attack that deals damage as your unarmed strike. Per this question, I argue that this also allows you to grapple, but even if not, another hit is another hit.
Basically, you don’t get so many uses of rage, and more are always better. This feat from Complete Warrior gets you two more, which puts you in a pretty comfortable position. Take more if you feel it’s absolutely necessary.
Versatile Unarmed Strike
Basically, this feat from Player’s Handbook II lets you change your unarmed strikes’ damage type as a swift action. So you can deal piercing or slashing damage instead of bludgeoning. This is good for getting around DR. The fact that you have to use a swift action to swap sucks, but you probably won’t have a lot of use for them, so for you it works out.
But then again, your claws and bite provide these alternative damage types anyway, so it may not be worth the feat.
Blazing Berserker and Frozen Berserker
These two feats from Sandstorm and Frostburn respectively are mirrors of one another: when you rage, you get the [Fire] subtype from Blazing and [Cold] from Frozen. These subtypes each come with immunity to their own type but vulnerability to the other. Immunity means you take 0 damage, while vulnerability means you take 50% extra: 50% of 0 is still 0, so if you have both, you’re just immune to both.
Neither feat is worth it on its own; you want both to cancel each other’s vulnerability out or you want neither because the vulnerability is bad. Double-check with your DM before doing this, because such blatant removal of drawbacks may be looked on poorly by some.
If going this route, human becomes more interesting as a race because you can start with both right at 1st level. Also, the ferocity variant of rage becomes much more valuable, since you can turn on these defensive features right when you need them, even if caught by surprise.
Adamantine Body or Ironwood Body (warforged, 1st level only)
You get a +8 armor bonus to AC and DR 2/adamantine. For one feat.
You do count as if you were wearing heavy armor, complete with the reduction to 20 ft. movement speed, +1 maximum Dexterity bonus to AC, and −5 armor check penalty. But you don’t take non-proficiency penalties, which makes this compatible with City Brawler; that’s a little cheesy though and you might want to double-check with your DM.
Ironwood Body gives DR 2/slashing and +3 armor bonus to AC, which is slightly worse, but it also counts as light armor and has only −3 armor check penalty. Avoids that cheesiness.
What’s really cheesy is that this is also compatible with dragonborn. One of the few things dragonborn warforged do lose is their composite plating, but the feat doesn’t require, or even mention, that plating. So technically, you can take this even though the dragonborn ritual of rebirth removed your composite plating. Definitely check with your DM before doing that.
You can arguably eliminate the slow speed of the adamantine body with a tooth of Savnok from Tome of Magic. Technically, the adamantine body isn’t exactly armor, so the tooth doesn’t strictly speaking work (and depending on how much cheese you’re already pulling, your DM may force you to take your technicalities), but in most cases DMs will usually let it work.
Either is compatible with Improved Damage Reduction, improving your DR by 1/adamantine or 2/slashing (the latter is only an option for Ironwood Body, but both can get the adamantine version interestingly enough). Probably don’t have feats available for it, though.
Spiked Body (warforged)
Basically, a free extra 1d6 piercing damage on each successful grapple check. You’ll be making a lot of those. The damage is small, but it is something.
Cold Iron Tracery and Silver Tracery (warforged)
From Races of Eberron, these two feats each let your unarmed strikes and natural weapons overcome the appropriate DR. And you can have both, so you can overcome both. Cold Iron Tracery also gives +1 Will vs. spells and spell-like abilities, and Silver Tracery gives +1 Fort against the same, so those are nice-ish.
Not really worth two feats so much, but if these are becoming problems for you, they are a solution. Unfortunately, there is no adamantine variant. You could try to get your DM to let Adamantine Body do that, but at a guess that won’t fly (and probably shouldn’t).
I’m going to keep this section short by linking Ernir’s lists of necessary magic items, which is a great resource. Some special notes for you, however.
Here’s a way to overcome DR/adamantine. These get wasted on bear form, though. Make sure all your unarmed strike improvements carry over to gauntlet attacks before getting one! The rules around this are very unclear.
Necklace of Natural Attacks
From Savage Species, this amulet allows you to get actual special weapon properties for your natural weapons. Basically, this is how you power up your unarmed strike, claws, and/or bite. You have to pay for each, though, so think twice before paying for all of them when you’ll only be in bear form some of the time (though it will be most of the time).
Amulet of Mighty Fists
With two unarmed strike attacks, two claw attacks, and a bite, an amulet of mighty fists is actually cost-effective for you. However, since it can only get enhancement bonuses, and not real special weapon properties, you miss out on a lot of goodies. Ask your DM if it can have those as a houserule; if so, it’s better than necklace of natural attacks for you.
This 10,000 gp ring from Dragon Magic grants Improved Unarmed Strike (which you really need to have without it), Improved Natural Attack (unarmed strike), and a poison that deals Con damage on a critical hit with an unarmed strike. It’s good enough as is, but you might ask your DM if you could get Superior Unarmed Strike from it since you already have Improved Unarmed Strike.
OK, so the above can work for you if you really do not want to multiclass at all, but there are a few options here that really warrant mentioning. Almost all of the best features of barbarian come at 1st or 2nd, so you potentially have a lot of levels you could play with while getting most of the above goodies. If nothing else, Barbarian 6 is a completely worthless level.
Crusader or Warblade
These classes from Tome of Battle allow you to skip a lot of the silliness with Martial Study above. Just take one level of one of these at 6th level instead of Barbarian 6, and you get several maneuvers which can include mountain hammer. Then Stone Power can be your 6th-level feat, saving you two feats. Plus you get a bunch of other maneuvers, and can take Martial Stance (crushing weight of the mountain) at 9th instead of 12th.
Crusader is my preference; it averages 1 HP less, but it makes up for that with its Steely Resolve feature and ability to heal itself (or allies) with Devoted Spirit.
You need feats. Fighter gives feats. Therefore, fighter is worth considering.
This variant fighter gets Improved Unarmed Strike and Endurance at 1st; Endurance is pretty crappy and you already have IUS, but you also get improved unarmed strike damage. It doesn’t scale like the monk’s, but it’s a little bit of a bonus. Much better if you can convince your DM to swap the second IUS for Improved Grapple (if you still need it) or Superior Unarmed Strike.
It’s also compatible with dungeoncrasher, below, as well as other fighter variants.
This fighter variant from Dungeonscape wants six of your levels, so you’d be a Barbarian 1/Fighter 6, but you get to deal 8d6+3×Strength when you bull rush someone into a wall. With this, you probably want to skip grappling entirely and go for bull rush feats: Improved Bull Rush, Shock Trooper from Complete Warrior, Knockback from Races of Stone. Also an excellent lead-in to the great warforged juggernaut prestige class in Eberron Campaign Setting, though that moves away from bear warrior.
While a natural extension of dungeoncrasher, you don’t have to be to consider this prestige class. It grants a lot of very nice features, including some great immunities. It will near-literally make you into a tank, as in the armored weapons platform used in modern warfare, albeit bipedal.
The awkward thing about warforged juggernaut is that you really want to take Stone Power at 6th level, the same level you want to start juggernaut. Technically, this is not allowed; I’d ask the DM if I could slide that in. Without that, things get awkward.
If you can, you can even do this without delaying bear warrior, by going Barbarian 5/Warforged Juggernaut 2/Bear Warrior 10/Warforged Juggernaut +3 (or Barbarian 4/Crusader 1). Both juggernaut and bear warrior require Power Attack, after all.
Warforged Barbarian 4/Crusader 1/Juggernaut 5/Bear Warrior 10
Assuming the DM okay’d combining bear totem and spiritual totem, and let me slide into juggernaut the same level I qualified, this is how I would do this.
For barbarian, I’d want city brawler, whirling frenzy, bear spiritual totem, bear totem, and dashing step. Crusader gets me mountain hammer and crusader’s strike, probably one of the Devoted Spirit stances.
I would take only the first two levels of warforged juggernaut at 5th and 6th, and then start bear warrior on time, only returning to warforged juggernaut after bear warrior is completed.
- Adamantine Body
- Improved Bull Rush
- Stone Power
- Martial Stance (crushing weight of the mountain)
- Snap Kick
- Cold Iron Tracery
- Silver Tracery
The tracery feats in whichever order seems more pertinent. If necessary, they could come before Snap Kick. If DR really isn’t showing up (or you feel you’re overwhelming it anyway), Extra Rage and Superior Unarmed Strike are decent options. Versatile Unarmed Strike might be worthwhile if you have a lot of damage-type DR instead of material-type DR.
Finally, the 3rd and 4th level of barbarian aren’t really doing anything here. I’d strongly consider taking levels of fighter to get Improved Bull Rush and, say, Versatile Unarmed Strike, or pugilist fighter for the slight damage boost and then Improved Bull Rush. Your 3rd-level feat can be Extra Rage to get you two extra uses, replacing and then some the one you would have gotten at the 4th level of barbarian. Plus, this way you avoid multiclass experience penalties, if you have the misfortune of playing in a game where they’re enforced.