So…there’s been a lot of talk about the ranger, recently. This is, mostly, due to Wizards deciding that the class might need a tune-up. And by tune-up, they of course mean that the class needs to be remodeled from the ground up. This is after they already came up with an alternate, spell-less ranger progression. Add onto that the fact that EN World recently came out with two new ranger archetypes with their EN5ider line, and Kobold Press presented the Hivemaster in Southland Heroes, and rangers have been quite a popular topic of late.
But why? What makes the ranger so interesting? That’s kind of an easy question to answer, and yet it’s a bit difficult. Rangers are cool, man. Take a look at Aragorn, or his cooler alternate identity: Strider. Just think about the first time he shows up, sitting across the room, watching our heroes in dark silence. Then, later, he busts out his fightin’ skills and wrecks face on Weathertop. Dude’s a badass, is what I’m saying. Or what about Benjen Stark, in A Song of Ice and Fire? Just think about the mystique built around the idea of being a ranger when you first meet him. How much does Jon want to be part of that elite group? How much do you feel for him when he gets chosen to be a steward? Because, to him, and to us, being a ranger MEANS something. Being a ranger is like being a member of an elite team of super-soldiers who “range” out into the dangerous wildlands. Who WOULDN’T want to be among their number? And, of course, let’s not forget my favorite ranger of all time. His name is Max. His world is fire and blood. Yes, Max Rockatanski, Mad Max, is most definitely a ranger. He wanders the wasteland, mapping what he finds, occasionally helping others. But more than anything else, he is a survivor. He even has an animal companion in The Road Warrior (that’s Mad Max 2 for you international folks).
My point is that rangers are, thematically, badasses. That was their origin. And even to this day, it persists. Whether we’re talking about Aragorn, Benjen, Max, or even D&D’s golden boy Drizzt, rangers are designed to be…cool. They’re survivors, warriors, and natural guides and guardians. They can be warriors on the wall or stalkers in the night.
So why is everyone trying to modify and re-write the ranger? Well, I think because the class, as it stands in 5e, doesn’t really convey what people desire. They can talk all they want about whether or not the class is “balanced” compared to other, comparable martial characters, but I think that it really comes down to how the class feels when it’s being played. I mean, compare it to the new Ranger that Mike Mearls and the Wizards team released recently. Yes, it is quite a departure from the original ranger mechanically, but even they admit that it’s intended to be a return to the class’s original concept and flavor. It’s about changing the feel of the class, finding something that makes the ranger unique, and still remains true to the class’s origin.
Maybe they’ve done that. The general opinion I’ve seen on the interwebs, however, is not a positive one. Other bloggers have introduced the idea of a class-divorced ranger: a fighter who uses the Outlander background and focuses on two weapon fighting and bows. But is that sufficient? Does that cover the full extent of the class’s themes? Over the course of the next couple articles, I’m going to take a deeper look at the ranger as a class. What does it do right? What does it do wrong? And then, I’m going to take what I’ve learned and try to construct some form of “definitive” ranger. Will I succeed? Probably not. But, hey! As anyone who knew me in my Pathfinder days would tell you, class design is my forte. So let’s see what I can do.
What the Core Ranger Does Right
Before I piss and moan about what’s wrong with the class, let’s talk about what it actually does right. Because it actually does a surprising amount right. The interesting thing to note here is that almost all of the ranger’s core class abilities are totally focused around non-combat. Other than their fighting style, land’s stride, feral senses, and foe slayer abilities, their features all surround the exploration pillar of the game. But I’ll get more into that later on.
Natural Explorer. I don’t like that this ability is limited to a particular set of terrains, but I’ll talk more about that when I get to Favored Enemy. In general, though, this ability is pretty freakin’ sweet. It’s entirely exploration-based, but the abilities really flesh out the idea of a ranger as someone who is completely aware of their surroundings, and spends their lives on the outskirts of the world. I also like that the abilities it grants tend toward the mechanics of 5e’s backgrounds. It just gives you abilities. Difficult terrain doesn’t slow overland travel, you can’t become lost, you learn additional information while tracking. Other systems would have die rolls attached to these, but 5e established the idea of simply granting a blanket power with their backgrounds, and that’s what this feels like to me. It’s an expanded background power, and that works. The ranger, I feel, more than almost any other class (perhaps barring the monk) is distinctly tied to a particular thematic concept. So much so that it almost feels like a background in and of itself. And this ability really sells that feel.
Land’s Stride. Why does the ranger have to wait until 8th level to get this ability? Seriously. This feels like an ability that should be acquired much earlier. The ranger should be the mobile warrior. He’s the fighter who didn’t learn from an academy; he learned how to fight by wrestling wolves and outrunning axebeaks. He might not know all of the fancy moves that a genuine fighter might know, but he can make his way across the battlefield like nobody’s business. I love this ability. I love what it says about the ranger’s fighting style. But I feel like it should definitely be acquired earlier than 8th level.
Hide in Plain Sight. I don’t know why they went with “hide in plain sight” for this feature’s name. It should seriously just be called “camouflage.” Hide in plain sight, to me, suggests the idea of using a disguise or persona to avoid detection, rather than pressing yourself against a wall while covered in leaves and dirt and shit. It’s the purview of rogues and bards, not rangers. Camouflage, however, is PERFECT for rangers, and I love it. 10th might be a little steep in terms of level, but it’s forgivable.
Vanish. Another cool ability that comes too late. I mean, really? This is a weaker form of an ability that the rogue gets at 2nd level, paired with something that the ranger should have much earlier (covering your tracks) and the ranger has to wait until level 14!? Pardon my elvish, but what the fuck?
Feral Senses. Dude. DUDE! Blindsense!? AND you don’t take disadvantage when attacking invisible enemies? That is some Daredevil shit! And it makes total sense when you consider the ranger’s capabilities. It’s the logical conclusion of the idea that is proposed: a warrior with a deep connection to the world and the wilds. An ultimate tracker capable of using all of their senses to their advantage. Of COURSE a ranger should be able to put all of this together and create a daredevil-vision way to see the world. I LOVE this ability. Yet again, however, I feel it comes a little too late. When compared to the rogue’s Blindsense ability, which comes 4 levels earlier, I just feel like the ranger gets a bit cheated. Not only does it fit into the ranger’s thematic progression more readily than the rogue’s, but at 18th level, the ranger is basically never going to get to play with one of its coolest toys except in the most drawn out campaigns.
Problems with the Core Ranger
So, yeah. The ranger’s got some pretty sweet toys. It’s also got some superfluous toys that are outdated and, frankly, underwhelming.
Favored Enemy. I mean, really. Is there anyone out there still defending the merits of Favored Enemy? It’s an ability that specifically limits your effectiveness based upon what the DM throws at you. And it means that EVERY enemy ranger, in order to be truly effective, needs to have favored enemy targeting the PCs’ races. In terms of creating an interesting core concept, it worked WAY back when it was published for OD&D in Strategic Review, when it targeted basically every enemy a player character was likely to face (seriously, just read Brandes Stoddard’s Articles on the ranger. “Giant” covered just about everything), but as the ability gradually narrowed down into its most limited form in 3.5, it became less and less of a utility, and more of a hindrance to the whole…you know…gameplay thing. Yeah, it can be cool to state that you specialize in killing demons or aberrations or whatever, but in practice it means that either the campaign’s scope becomes extremely limited as the DM has to cater to your specific enemy, or you become significantly less effective as you encounter enemies against which you gain no bonus. If you want to see a way to do the hunter style properly, look no further than the 5e ranger’s own Hunter archetype. It focuses on combat styles instead of specific enemies, making you much more effective in many more situations.
Fighting Style. Rangers should get all of them. There’s no Aragorn option for two-handing. Nor a Thorin Oakenshield option (yeah, I know he’s more likely a Battlemaster fighter, but let me make my point). Give the ranger all of the options. And the Paladin, too. Why limit them in THIS way?
Primeval Awareness. There’s a really good idea hidden inside this ability. There’s a moment in The Two Towers, where Aragorn puts his ear to the ground and is able to determine the size of the orc party, their location, and their destination. In the book, I believe it states that he’s listening to the “rumour of the earth.” This idea of rangers being semi-psychic and able to literally communicate with the world itself has been toyed with before, but I think that this is the most direct translation of the idea. And I like it. A lot. However, in terms of practicality, I don’t really see it as a big winner. It’s basically just a lesser version of the “commune with nature” spell, and its use is very, VERY limited. As a ribbon, it’s fine since it accompanies your first ranger archetype feature. But I really don’t see it as anything other than a neat power with little utility and some historical context.
Foe Slayer. I don’t want to dislike this ability. In theory, it’s actually kind of neat. It’s an attack/damage kicker against favored enemies. Except, as I’ve already discussed, favored enemies are bunk. And you have to wait until 20th level to gain this kicker. It’s your friggin capstone! Fighters get a fourth attack, monks never want for ki points, paladins become demigods, rogues can auto-hit once per rest. Rangers…gain up to +5 on either attack OR damage rolls against a narrow number of enemies, based upon what the DM decides to throw at them. Sure, it CAN be cool if you chose demons and you guys get to finally face off against that demon lord you’ve been chasing. But Wisdom is already a tertiary ability score, and the payoff is simply not worth the investment. I’d rather take two levels of fighter to gain Action Surge. Foe Slayer is thematically vapid and does little to inspire me that the ranger is worth a 20-level investment.
What about Spellcasting?
Spellcasting is…huh. You know, the more I think about it, I really don’t know how I feel about spellcasting in a ranger. On one hand, it seems like a quick-and-dirty way to establish the ranger’s connection to nature and its inherent mysticism. However, there’s a deep-down part of me that feels like that mysticism should be more thoroughly explored than just by stating “the ranger gets spells!” As it stands, ranger spells are highly utilitarian, and I actually like them a lot. However, I wouldn’t be opposed to deconstructing the idea and making something more uniquely…ranger.
In terms of specifics, the ranger gains a lot of its combat prowess from its spells. Hunter’s Mark, Conjure Volley, Swift Quiver, Barkskin, Lightning Arrow, etc. are all staples in the ranger’s arsenal. Therefore, if you didn’t use spells, you would definitely have to find a way to make up for these losses. We’ll talk more about this as we get into the spell-less ranger next week, however. As for my definitive ranger, I’ve definitely got some ideas in mind.
The Right and Wrong of Ranger Archetypes.
Well, of course we have to talk about these. If we really are examining a ranger in any kind of depth, then we can’t leave out what amounts to about a third of their class abilities (minus Ability Score Improvements).
The interesting thing about these subclasses, as compared to those granted by other classes, is that they’re entirely combat-focused. Even the fighter, the class that is the definitive FIGHTING MAN (or WOMAN. We’re equal opportunity murderers here at Loot The Body), has an ability that is not focused around combat in each of its subclasses. It seems that the ranger’s subclasses were designed specifically to augment its combat prowess, as the core class itself is not necessarily focused around combat (as we’ve established).
The Hunter. I actually only have one gripe with this subclass, and that’s its multiattack function. The class would be better served, I think, by just offering a third attack, rather than two forms of multiattack. I fail to see how they really offer the ranger any real, meaningful choice with this feature other than “do you use bows or swords?” It’s their level 11 feature. It’s supposed to be a big milestone, and instead it’s got rangers grumbling about being pigeonholed into melee or ranged combat. None of the other features force you to make such a drastic, and frankly meaningless choice. You are rarely, RARELY going to hit more than three guys with either Whirlwind Attack or Volley unless the DM really decides to set you up, so just give the ranger a third attack.
The Beast Master. Oh, the Beast Master… what controversy you have wrought. And it all comes down to action economy, doesn’t it? See, the idea to keep the ranger’s companion relatively weak (4 x level hit points, CR ¼) is actually a smart one. The animal companion totally SHOULD be weak compared to the ranger, because otherwise the ranger is effectively controlling two characters. Their method was to kind of use the same method as the Angry GM did with Minions, where you are sharing actions. It’s a great idea for monsters. Not so much for players. The problem is that giving up your action isn’t exactly fun if you’re just making your minion, a decidedly-weaker creature, attack. It feels gamey, like a feature you might find in the DM tools of a grid-based tactics game or something. And that breaks verisimilitude, regardless of how you justify it by claiming that you’re using your actions to “give orders” to your companion. Because it still doesn’t make sense. If your wolf is standing right next to the guy it just attacked last round, and the guy already swiped at it with a sword, then why, exactly, is the wolf looking to you for orders?
I’ll talk about a more thorough fix once I get to actually building a new ranger. For now, though, I would say that the base “command” system should be patched with:
“As an action, you may command your companion to attack, dash, disengage, dodge, or help. When you command the companion to attack, it will keep attacking every round until you give it another command. If your companion isn’t already taking an action, it will automatically attack any creature that attacks it or you in melee. It will continue attacking every round until you give it another command.”
I hope that satisfies. I feel like it is still demanding enough to keep the ranger from effectively controlling two characters, but has enough wiggle room to keep players happy playing a beast master. It does bring up the question of what changes once you get to level 11. But, like I said, I’ll get to all of that once I actually start rebuilding the class.
You know, before writing this, I actually disliked the ranger a lot more than I do now. As I look at it, now, I actually find that I like a lot of what it has to offer. The biggest problems I seem to have is that a lot of its more superfluous abilities, like Favored Enemy and Primeval Awareness, come early in its lifespan, while its more interesting and evocative powers—hide in plain sight, vanish, feral senses, land stride—come late in its progression. Why is this a bad thing? One of the high points of 5e class design is the fact that, by 3rd level, you REALLY feel like you’re playing a member of your class. The fighter has a fighting style, an action surge, second wind, and some neat subclass features. The Wizard has 2 levels of spells, an arcane tradition power, and the ability to regain spell slots during a rest. The monk has martial arts, unarmored defense, ki powers, a monastic tradition, and the ability to deflect missile attacks with its fists.
The ranger, though? It has two abilities that specifically limit its effectiveness to particular enemies and environments (favored enemy and natural explorer), a fighting style—which is genuinely nice—spells, primeval awareness, and a ranger archetype feature that, on one side, is un-fun and limiting. You don’t feel like a ranger. And as we established above, feeling like a ranger means that you’re supposed to feel like a badass. You should be the party member who ventures off into the wild on your own to find supplies, and you’ll be able to take care of yourself if you run into trouble. Instead…I guess you can do that, if you’re in your favored terrain, and if the trouble happens to be the enemy that you specifically chose to target.
In other words, the ranger is a late bloomer. Its friends and cousins all get to play with their cool stuff early on, while the ranger gets to hang back and be a textbook on how to fight owlbears.
Next time, we’ll take a look at both variant rangers that the D&D team has presented to us in their Unearthed Arcana line: the spell-less Ranger and the…new Ranger.