The Ranger Class, Part One

So I have this ongoing difference of opinion with Kainenchen over the ranger class, as a shorthand for the whole system of having more than four classes. Does D&D need more classes than cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard? Can all other important class concepts be represented by some multi-class combination of the Big – nay, even Fantastic, this is fantasy after all – Four? (Also it does not take a physicker of fire-works to get that Mr. Fantastic is a wizard, the Human Torch is a rogue, the Invisible Woman is the cleric – well, a City of Heroes bubble-defender anyway – and the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing is a fighter. But I digress, and note that there’s a lot of room for amusing debate over those class assignments.) Why do rangers get druid spells? To tackle the troubling topic of the tree-hugging trooper, I have written you this lovely blog post.

First, Some History

Now, the ranger class first put in an appearance in an article in The Strategic Review, slightly before the dawn of recorded time. (Yes, people were writing about D&D before they wrote about world history – priorities, folks.) Thank God for the internet: it’s still available. I could go into all of the bizarro problems with Joe Fischer’s article, but to be fair to him, tabletop game design had been invented about twelve months earlier and no one knew what the fuck they were doing yet. So let’s approach this with a liiittle more empathy, and just look for the things that are going to inspire later iterations of the class.

Okay, spellcasting starts at 8th level. Sure, why not. Oh, wait, not just clerical spellcasting; rangers alternate levels of clerical and magic-user spellcasting until, at 13th level, they cast spells as a third-level cleric and third-level magic-user. The article is brief enough (as they all were in The Strategic Review) that there’s no room for flavor text explaining why in heaven’s name the ranger should dabble in divine and arcane spells, but I guess it’s a broad-band way to cover every trick that Aragorn could possibly be interpreted as using? And in D&D, elves use magic-user spells…? It’s a stretch, for sure.

The fact that Ranger-Lords (that’s 9th level, for those of you unfamiliar with OD&D/1e level titles) can use items of clairvoyance, clairaudience, ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation is pretty open to interpretation. Is it because they have first-level magic-user spells? Maybe. A tangential reference to Aragorn and the palantiri? I honestly don’t know if that’s a stretch of logic or not.
This earliest ranger introduces the damage kicker against creatures of a certain type – in this case, the “Giant” type, which for reasons surpassing my understanding is the category term for all land-dwelling monstrous humanoids, I guess? All it says is “Kobolds – Giants,” but in 1e, Gygax will clarify that to spell out a list of all the monsters that apply, and it is indeed just about every land-dwelling biped that isn’t a human, dwarf, elf, or halfling. At the highest levels, this damage kicker is more egregious than that found in 3.5e, while monster hit points are much, much lower, so this really is a defining advantage, and applies to enough targets that it is immensely useful and probably completely unfair, unlike the later iterations of this ability.
Okay, let’s get on through some of the other features:

  • Kludgy system for tracking. To be fair, non-kludgy systems for tracking are a myth.
  • Better at avoiding surprise. The system here is actually less nonsensical than what will follow in its place.
  • 33% XP kicker. Sorry, what? This goes away at 8th level? And this is somehow balanced by not granting +10% XP for high ability scores? ‘Kay.
  • Ability to use healing and disease-curing scrolls, starting at 8th level – well, if you’re going to give them cleric spells, let them use cleric items, sure, fine, whatever. (Permission to use your hard-earned treasure that is a consumable item isn’t a big deal.)
  • Did I mention 2 hit dice at first level? For some reason even this is a feature worth preserving into 1e.
  • Followers at 8th level, including the outside possibility of another ranger or a golden dragon.

But wait! There are also punitive restrictions, important to mention here because they’re going to survive nearly-unaltered all the way into 2e.

  • If you change alignment, you lose all of your class features! Only the pure of lawful heart can slaughter other humanoids with such skill…?
  • No possessions beyond what you can carry. For rangers, this makes a little bit of sense, though I have to wonder how it intersected with treasure-for-XP rules.
  • May not hire others to do any kind of work for you. (Ahem, presumably because the medieval service industry is slavery and slavery is Neutral or Chaotic?) Okay, what’s actually going on here is that OD&D and 1e are built on the assumption that players would hire scads of red-shirt NPCs to come along on adventures. I assume that each player had their set of hirelings for each adventure, and this means you can’t do that, so it’s a restriction with real teeth, as far as changing up your gameplay goes. I’d guess that it sharply increases your chances of getting horribly murdered in battle, since you don’t have a pile of NPCs to soften up the opposition and soak up damage.
    • The ranger does eventually get followers, and the language here suggests that the restriction against hiring people to die for you goes away at that point, but it’s open to a lot of interpretation.
  • No more than two rangers in a team, but they can have as many allies as they like. (Presumably this is because more than two rangers are like herding cats, which is Chaotic…) I have no idea what the point of this restriction is, except to maintain “game balance” by making sure there are only two egregiously overpowered characters on a team? 
    • God help you if both of them gain a ranger as a follower at 8th level…

Just to finish things off – and this has really gone on long enough! – the ranger’s level title at 2nd level suggests that Aragorn was not the high-level badass that one might have been led to believe.


Now that we’ve got a baseline of the original ranger class, let’s see what happens in the first Dungeons & Dragons to bear the name Advanced. I know that a lot of people have warm and impregnable places in their hearts for this edition, but that’s because they were kids at the time (well, many of them were) and we were still in the first five years of tabletop game design as a concept.

Right off the bat, though, we see that rangers have faintly less punitive ability score requirements, and no longer get that +33% XP bonus – they now get bonus experience for high ability scores just like everyone else. We also still have:

  • Damage kickers for attacking “giant-class” creatures. This rule is unchanged from Fischer’s original, except for clarification of the creatures that qualify.
  • So about those surprise rules? Gygax really needed to invent something that allowed both sides of a fight to have non-standard chances to surprise and resist surprise. I would love to know how DMs resolved this in actual use.
  • Much more kludgy and cumbersome tracking system.
  • Now that there are druids, ranger spellcasting uses the druid list rather than a combination of the cleric and magic-user lists. If you accept the premise that rangers should cast spells at all, then this is a good change. If you don’t, I don’t know what to tell you, but this is where D&D planted its flag.
    • This covertly introduces another seismic shift in the class, as they suddenly gain the animal friendship spell. It’s easy to miss, if you’re not combing through the druid spell list, but it means that rangers (like druids) are a pet class, and by means of this spell can gain up to some number of HD of pets – how that number should be determined for rangers is not particularly clear.
  • Oh ha, ha I lied. Rangers still get magic-user spellcasting ability. Why? Er… because elves maybe (again)? I really don’t know what they’re getting at with this. I think this makes rangers the only class in the game with two distinct casting progressions?
  • Rangers can no longer use scrolls.
  • As long as the magic item doesn’t come in written form (seriously, ranger dudes, learn to read!), they can use clairaudience, clairvoyance, ESP, and telepathy items. Telekinesis and teleportation is no longer in-theme for the ranger of this brave new world.
  • The DMG’s rules for ranger followers still have outcomes that would wreck most groups’ gameplay experience, but Gygax clearly saw the most blatant problems of Fischer’s design and wanted to address them.
  • Rangers now have to be Good rather than Lawful, now that we have the 3×3 alignment matrix rather than Moorcock’s three-alignment system.
  • No interaction with the service industry until you are 8th level or higher – again, a clarification rather than change to Fischer’s rules.
  • Now up to three rangers can work together! Look out, world.
  • Rangers can now keep goods that their mounts can carry as well before having to donate the rest to some worthy cause (which, thank God, is now noted not to be a PC – I have never known a player who wouldn’t at least float this argument if presented with such a restriction). This does mean that rangers who wind up with a copper dragon follower have something of an advantage on the treasure they can retain.
  • Though it isn’t treated as an essential class function, rangers gain additional attacks slightly slower than fighters or paladins. I would love to know what the thinking was here.

Given the overall chaos of class design in 1e, rangers make as much sense as anything else does. (Someday we will have a serious talk about the weirdness of the 1e assassin.) Though paladins are the class that is famous for being difficult to qualify for (screw you, 17 Charisma), it’s still quite difficult to qualify for the ranger class.

This is the last ranger that looks to Aragorn as its primary source. During the decade of 1e’s publication, another ranger came onto the scene that, for better or worse (hint: I’ll be arguing for the latter), permanently changed how D&D handled rangers. That ranger received superior two-weapon fighting by virtue of a racial ability rather than as a function of class, but when they were writing 2e, they apparently decided there would be such an outcry among the fans that they gave rangers preferential two-weapon fighting rules while wearing studded leather or lighter armor. It is a defining moment in the class’s evolution, because you’ll notice I haven’t said anything up to this point about the armor rangers can wear in OD&D or 1e. That’s because they follow the rules for fighters – to use the terminology of later editions, they’re proficient in all armor, all weapons, and shields. OD&D and 1e rangers also don’t have any particular connection to archery, even if ranger is the obvious class choice for Aragorn’s elf archer buddy.

But, well, 1e was all about restrictions on race-class combinations, Legolas couldn’t possibly be a ranger in OD&D (because elf is a class), nor in 1e (because only humans and half-elves can be rangers).

I would love to know what the thinking was there, beyond “elves are better than humans, so we have to give humans access to the better classes.” This logic was spelled out explicitly in the 2e DMG to justify banning elf paladins, at least. Ending race/class restrictions is right behind dumping THAC0 as the best change made between 2e and 3.0.

So that ranger whose appellation I am assiduously avoiding? Yeah, he didn’t qualify for the class either, until 1989 and Second Edition.


There is a massive shift in tone for the 2e ranger, perhaps one of the greatest tonal shifts in the whole edition. Support for Aragorn is all but absent – you can wear any kind of armor and wield a bastard sword if that’s your thing, but you’re missing out on your class’s defining abilities. Rangers have actual stealth skills in 2e just as thieves do, rather than a fixed “surprise chance” as 2e’s elves and halflings still do, and it scales with level, finally maxing out at 15th level. These key abilities require studded leather or lighter armor, of course, as do the aforementioned superior two-weapon-fighting rules.

Rangers finally shed their magic-user spellcasting, and have rather narrower clerical spellcasting options – only the Spheres of Animal and Plant. They remain a pet class, but their only healing spell is goodberry. Other features include:

  • A kludgy system for tracking that forces all non-rangers to be much worse at the skill than rangers (since it’s a non-weapon proficiency and anyone could take it), and also improves with level automatically for the ranger.
  • The concept of the favored enemy is greatly changed – it could now be any creature that customarily threatens your homeland (because excellence in murder is the highest expression of Good in D&D). The ranger gains a bonus to attack rolls rather than damage rolls, takes a penalty to reaction rolls, and has a vague roleplaying requirement to seek out and destroy creatures of that type unless they have something more important going on.
    • Reading this in the design environment of 2014, it’s incredibly weird to see directions on how a ranger must be played at all, much less in the same breath as the rules text of a class ability.
  • Rangers gain animal empathy with natural animals, which raises some questions.
    • Why don’t druids have this ability also? Instead, druids are skilled at interacting with intelligent forest-dwelling creatures.
    • In a D&D fantasy setting, what the hell does natural mean when talking about creatures?
    • Why does this ability resolve as a saving throw rather than the reaction rules? (Answer: so rangers don’t need high Charisma scores.)
    • This is where I realize that AD&D 2e does more to support Crocodile Dundee than Aragorn. The studded leather should have been the giveaway…
    • But! This does model the scene with Aragorn and Brego.
      • Astute readers recall, of course, that Brego is not found in the Professor’s writings, so this is only valid support thirteen years after 2e’s publication.
  • Rangers gain followers, though they’re more likely to gain more pets rather than humanoid followers. I “appreciate” that the text gives the DM cover to be a douchebag and refuse classy followers such as tigers because it isn’t realistic for a tiger to show up in the area where the campaign takes place.
  • The punishment for committing an evil act (not “losing the Good alignment,” which would at least be a matter of multiple infractions) is losing all class abilities and quite likely a bucket of XP. I would like to point out that this passage and the similar one for the paladin class are probably the source of more douchebag-DM moments than the entire rest of the book put together, as well as decades of everyone and her grandmother misunderstanding the designers’ stated intentions for the alignment rules.
  • And still no interaction with the service industry until 8th level. By this point, it just looks weird and arbitrary.
  • Same old restrictions on retaining treasure.

The 2e ranger, then, is much more of a wilderness warrior and much less of a warrior who dabbles in various mystic traditions. The Complete Ranger’s Handbook goes much further afield with the class’s concept, and Skills and Powers opens the floor to egregious character optimization. You’ll have to imagine me clutching at my pearls in dismay upon seeing that one could build a ranger that didn’t cast any spells at all.

In my next post, I’ll tackle rangers in 3.x through 5e, when WotC ditches some parts of TSR’s ranger design and clings mercilessly to other parts of it. I’ll also talk more generally about what I see as the ranger’s conceptual role in the broader scheme of 5e.

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