In the first two posts of this series, I’ve discussed the history of the ranger class from OD&D to 2e, along with the peripheral additions that splatbooks added to it. Now that I have a little writing time again, I’m going to see if I can wrap up 3.x through 5e in this post – rather a lot of terrain, but anyone who’s read this blog before knows I am not afraid of bulky wordcounts, amirite?
Up to this point, we’ve seen the ranger class trend from “warrior with assorted mystic stuff” in OD&D and 1e, to a blend of warrior-druid and light skirmisher in 2e. Even with the conceptual expansion offered in the Complete Ranger’s Handbook, it remains a lesser infinity of character concepts, as compared to the cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief of that edition. It would still be possible for a party composed entirely of rangers to feel distinct from one another, but it would be harder than some other classes.
The ranger of 3.0 is a stripped-down vision of the class. Most of the class features of previous editions – hiding in shadows, moving silently, calming animals, surviving in the wild, and so on – have been relocated to the skill system. Tracking is a skill-reliant feat in 3.0, and one that rangers get for free; the rest of those features cost the ranger skill points, and the ranger’s 4+Int bonus skill points don’t amount to enough to cover all of the bases convincingly. Of course, the ranger has the option to stay below the skill rank cap and spread more widely, but that means slightly worse odds at things that used to be the Special Toys of the ranger class.
Rangers still have spellcasting, now up to 4th level spells. It’s now a custom spell list rather than a subset of other classes’ spell lists. They also have two other major features: two-weapon fighting (as long as they’re in light or no armor, perhaps leading one to wonder why they even receive medium armor proficiency) and Favored Enemies.
I’m guessing everyone here is already familiar with the problems underlying the Favored Enemy class feature, but just in case, I’m going to rehash it here. When Favored Enemies are one of the main things you get from your class, it’s up to the DM to decide how often you use your class features – even a dedicated effort to pursue creatures of your favored enemy type only works if the DM allows it. Also, it’s really weird that you can only choose your own race as a Favored Enemy if you are evil – it’s a lingering bit of thinking from 2e’s rule that you can’t control your hatred of your Favored Enemy enough to meet with them civilly.
Getting to choose five creature types out of sixteen would be bad enough, but some of those creature types are subdivided (Humanoid Type, Outsider Type). So oddly you can be a dedicated foe of good Outsiders without being evil, but you can’t be a bounty hunter of your own race. (I don’t remember if surface elves can choose drow as favored enemies without having to be evil.) The kinds of creatures you face in a campaign also change drastically over the course of 20+ levels, so spending an early Favored Enemy slot on goblinoids – a nearly universal low-level foe – is just an error in 3.0, where by 20th level your bonus against your first Favored Enemy type has scaled up to +5… against something you will never, ever fight. What I’m trying to say is that the ranger’s Favored Enemy options have blatant right and wrong answers in 3.0, which is why the ranger is one of the most changed classes as we move into 3.5. The last big problem with the Favored Enemy rule is that it only scales up to +5 – at 20th level,even with six or more attacks per round, that’s only a hair above trivial for a primary class feature.
The ranger also gains two good saving throws, rather than one. This is a life-or-death advantage over fighters and rogues after around 9th level – while they lack a rogue’s Evasion, they fare quite a lot better against deadly neurotoxin and other high-level save-or-die effects, and they do better than fighters against breath weapons and an arcane caster’s AoEs. Helpful, but probably not enough.
The most common takeaway from the 3.0 ranger is that it’s one of the two best classes in the game (rogue is the other) to use as your first character level, and then never take another level of it – a Ranger 1/Fighter X is perceptibly better than a pure fighter in all but corner-case applications.
I could look at this as an “internal” development of an edition, as Unearthed Arcana was for 1e, but that would be pretty thoroughly disingenuous – if you have to buy all of the books over again, it’s a new edition. Anyway, the ranger gets a major facelift in 3.5. The class’s concept changes absolutely as little as the designers could manage, while getting more potent in every aspect. 3.5 boils down the skill list slightly and gives rangers more skill points, so they can do a much better job of performing the huge variety of tasks that rangers are supposed to excel in.
They also get a new class feature or an improvement of a previous one at every level up to 11th, as opposed to the markedly sparse 3.0 ranger. The new combat-focused class features make damn sure that 0% of all rangers consider using any fighting style other than archery or two-weapon fighting, because it would cost them three virtual feats (i.e., bonus feats for which they do not even have to meet pre-requisites). Similarly, no one cares that the 3.5 ranger loses medium armor proficiency, because any ranger who did wear medium armor would lose access to those combat features and the very important Evasion. Considering that it’s a Dex-focused class anyway, these restrictions are overkill – the game is telling rangers to stick to light armor or no armor in an unnecessarily large variety of ways.
The 3.5 implementation of Favored Enemy is better, but it’s a band-aid solution. The damage bonus for a favored enemy is doubled, which means it’s at least meaningful at high levels. You still only get five Favored Enemy types out of 32 Type/Subtype options, and a lot of those options are still things you’re destined to outlevel. It helps a bit that you don’t have to make your first Favored Enemy your biggest bonus later on. What it (and a lot of 3.5 needs) is a more generous approach to respending character choices.
Moving on – rangers also pick up non-combat features beyond skill usage and spellcasting.
- Wild Empathy is Animal Handling on steroids. It’s a throwback to 2e, but I don’t see that as a bad thing in this case. Its implementation is more logical than 2e’s.
- Endurance as a bonus feat. Sure, why not – but if you’re reading this and you have a cool war story about how Endurance saved the day or was a plot point or whatever in a game, please share it, so as to counter my contention that no one ever cared about Endurance.
- Oh hey, an animal companion, just like druids get. Except, of course, that your animal companion advances half as fast as the druid’s, so your combat-focused class is stuck with an animal companion that can’t really contribute for long.
- I’ll venture an assertion that may or may not stand up to scrutiny: a class can either be a Pet Class or Not, but going halfsies with a weaker pet (unless it’s purely for scouting and interaction, as with a wizard’s familiar) is as good as giving the character a class feature that doesn’t work right, because a weak pet is a liability. (Arcane familiars are supposed to be partial liabilities.) The 3.x druid and ranger should have had identical pet progression, and as a result also needed to be tuned so that their other features were roughly equally potent. The druid pet is good and, with the druid’s deep well of pet buffs, possibly too good. The ranger’s pet just doesn’t keep up with the scaling power of enemies.
- Woodland Stride is a really nice ability that DMs should set up opportunities to use. It gives the character a minor unique interaction with a common terrain feature. If it takes a class ability to get your PCs to care about really exploiting the combat area, so be it – but that’s 4e design thinking, so I’ll kind of let 3.x off the hook for it. (Also, if it looks like you’re going to have an urban or dungeon-focused campaign, you should have multi-classed out of ranger already.)
- Swift Tracker makes rangers better users of the Track feat than other characters with the feat. Fine, whatever. At this point I kind of hate presenting Tracking as the ranger’s main schtick, but I get why it’s done: if you are not an expert, tracking is the most goddamn amazing thing to watch someone do, and it’s thematically appropriate to a wilderness-survival expert.
- What bugs me about it is that it’s a pretty narrow function, in terms of what it contributes to most adventures. A Tracking sequence, much like an extended traps sequence, is going to involve one or, at best, two members of a party for a series of dice rolls. In most applications I’ve seen, there aren’t a lot of other choices to make – you just keep rolling and either succeed or fail. On the other hand, 3.x had no concept of a group skill challenge, which might have at least helped here.
- Camouflage is a pretty cool ability, and I always like scenes in movies where it’s done in a cool way. My only objection in this case is that it’s a relatively mundane ability, so it should probably show up at a lower level than 13th. In 3.x as a whole, 13th level is getting into some blatantly superhuman stuff.
- Hide In Plain Sight, on the other hand, is the blatantly superhuman stuff – successfully hiding from someone who is actively observing you at the time. This does really exacerbate the problems of the gulf between a highly-trained Stealth character and an untrained (because it’s not a class skill) Spotter. Since this lets you hide even while in combat, there is just nothing that the poor-to-mediocre Spotter can do to find you, ever, even if you were engaged in melee combat a moment before.
The summary for the 3.5 ranger is that it slightly narrows (because there wasn’t much left to lose) the range of character concepts that the “ranger” umbrella supports, but it supports its actual concept much more robustly. I have some data points here on whether the class justifies its existence (which, you may recall, is the question of this whole series of posts). Specifically, I ran a 3.5 game in which there were no rangers, and up through 8th level or so, the multi-classed fighter/rogue was at least as good as a pure ranger would have been. (His desire for an animal companion – not like that, you perverts – was a recurring plot point.) In the various 3.0 and 3.5 campaigns I ran, I think I had one 3.0 ranger and one 3.5 ranger, both archers. They were devastatingly powerful, but that was a function of 3.x archery being amazing rather than either of them using their class features. (Oh, Rapid Shot, what an egregious damage engine you are…)
Thus far in the series we’ve occasionally seen big shifts in the ranger, as in 2e to 3.0 and 3.0 to 3.5. Those are peanuts compared to the shift to 4e. It would be ridiculous to be too surprised about this – every class underwent radical change. Having to strip the ranger down to either Martial or Primal powers forces this kind of change – while there were variant 3.x rangers that dropped spellcasting for other features, 4e is the only edition in which the core ranger does not cast spells of any kind. As a result, the ranger is a midpoint between the fighter and the rogue, without much focus on nature. WotC later introduced a Primal spellcasting archer (also with a thrown weapon option), the Seeker.
The structure of 4e is such that I can’t really talk about class abilities in a bullet-point way without actually tackling every single power. The core of each 4e class is its passive abilities at first level, though; for rangers, that’s Fighting Style, Hunter’s Quarry, and Prime Shot.
Fighting Style is the decision point between a Strength ranger and a Dex ranger, two-weapon fighting or archery. Melee rangers get a superior two-weapon fighting option that amounts to an average of +1 damage in the off-hand, and Toughness to cover the fact that they’ll be sucking up more damage in melee than an archer build would. Archers get Defensive Mobility, which provides an AC boost in a situation that is their primary weakness.
Hunter’s Quarry is a reminder that rangers are a striker class, and a one-and-done replacement for Favored Enemy. In essence, your Favored Enemy is whatever you’re fighting right now – useful for making sure you don’t have trouble taking advantage of it. I’m pleased that this mechanic survived largely-unchanged into 5e, in the form of a spell.
Prime Shot is a carrot to get archer builds to play the positioning game. Accuracy is a big deal in 4e, but +1 isn’t much of a carrot. The basic concept is good – the puzzle of 4e combat is undermined when characters don’t really ever need to move – but a lot of tiny bonuses is the essential problem of 4e in the first place. (Like many design criticisms, this is obvious only with the benefit of considerable hindsight.) Of the two archer rangers that played in campaigns I ran, I seriously doubt either of them remembered they had this ability, much less went to the effort of figuring out positioning to make it work.
A later book, Martial Power, added a build that made the ranger a pet class, primarily by requiring the ranger to share her action with her pet. This build is substantially more nature-directed than the core melee or archer options. Overall, though, it’s almost as hard to find a nature theme in 4e’s ranger as it is in OD&D, aside from a substantial number of the powers having an animal in the name. It fits into the overall style of 4e just fine – if 4e is for you, the ranger is great, and if 4e isn’t for you, neither is its ranger. The pet-class build is chiefly notable as the clear jumping-off point of the 5e ranger’s beast master path.
As with a lot of aspects of 5e, the ranger has more in common with its 2e and 3e forebears than with its immediate predecessor. Taken as a whole, this ranger is probably the most purely nature-focused iteration of the class TSR or WotC have ever released, for the simple reason that 5e places Exploration as one of the three pillars of action in gameplay, and that’s where this class outshines all others (excepting possibly the druid, who cheats by way of a quite robust spell list). The class still has problems, though I think it’s a conceptual step in the right direction.
- Proficiency in light and medium armors, shields, and all weapons that are currently in the game. Of the three “primary” saving throws – Dex, Con, and Wis – the ranger gets Dexterity proficiency, which is a little surprising until you realize that paladins aren’t proficient in Con saves either. I’ll be curious to see how the 5e saving throw scheme works in the long term.
- Strong skill selection, though to cover the class’s core competencies they pretty much have to pick up a complementary Background rather than a contrasting one. I feel like rangers might be Doing It Wrong if they don’t take at least Nature, Perception, Stealth, and Survival. Oh, you only get to pick three? Too bad, so sad. Outlander and Folk Hero help you finish covering your bases, but I think that other rangers of other Backgrounds may play oddly. Also, the Skilled feat is a great choice for… absolutely everyone, unless your DM just doesn’t like out-of-combat dice rolls or something.
- Favored Enemy is… not really combat relevant. It’s amazing for non-combat situations, unless and until the DM makes Recall Lore a key aspect of winning a fight. As mentioned before, though, Hunter’s Quarry (Mark) is still around to grant rangers a damage bonus that isn’t locked to some creature types. I can get behind this implementation: Favored Enemy has its primary effect during a span of play when the player has the most agency to declare what she wants to pursue. (She may still not get the party to drop what they’re doing and hunt down her Favored Enemy, but that’s at least some roleplaying grist.) Learning your Favored Enemy’s language is a nice benefit, too.
- I really love that if you choose a race of humanoids as your Favored Enemy, you get two of them – so maybe orcs and goblins – since the broad category of Humanoids You’re Going To Fight includes a lot of races. This feels like a great balance against choosing a whole Type of other creatures. Though Fiends and Undead are still a really smart pick for any ranger that expects a long-term campaign. Ending with just three picks off the Favored Enemy list is… still pretty much fine, because the ranger’s core gameplay experience doesn’t rely on Favored Enemy to be fun.
- At 20th level, the ranger gains Foe Slayer, granting an attack or damage bonus against Favored Enemies. This is probably one of the least exciting 20th level abilities in the Player’s Handbook, because melee-focused rangers won’t see that much benefit for pushing Wisdom to 20 before this point. (Archer rangers have more casting options, and thus more need to push saving throw DCs as high as possible.) A +5 attack bonus is quite convincing at any level, even just once per round, but +5 damage once per round is pretty forgettable against creatures with 250+ hit points.
- Natural Explorer is the focus on exploration gameplay that I mentioned. It’s pretty good, but what I especially care about is that it doesn’t just render the ranger or the party immune to the challenges of exploration, as one of the public playtest iterations did. It takes a good bit of the pressure off, or more realistically it lets the party face much more challenging environmental conditions and still expect to come through okay.
- There are problems, though. You start with one terrain type out of eight, and eventually increase to three. As Rob Donoghue has pointed out, this means that a ranger does the most essential ranger thing (really shining in wilderness situations and improving the party’s exploration capacity) only a small portion of the time. I can accept that a single ranger might not get these benefits in every terrain type, but I’m inclined to agree with Stands-in-Fire: a base of two types, scaling up to four (maybe even five) would be more satisfying.
- Fighting Style is one of those areas where I just don’t understand why they restricted options (as compared to fighters). That is, the Fighting Style options open to fighters are divided between rangers and paladins. I love the idea of supporting a Great Weapon or Protection ranger, or an Archer or Two-Weapon Fighting paladin. (If there had been a third Shattered Isles arc, I would have started an elf archer-knight, so this is a character concept that intrigues me.) The good news on Fighting Style is that Defense and Dueling options are solid choices for great-weapon rangers and sword-and-board rangers, respectively.
- I do wish there were a spear-based one, bringing spears (and tridents, I guess) up to the level of other martial weapons, without spending a feat. At the same time, I’m conflicted about that, because one of the things I love about 5e is that you can’t readily specialize yourself into a corner so that only one type of weapon could ever be of any use to you. There’s a middle ground here somewhere, but it needs a light touch to get it right.
- Rangers are spellcasters again. Surprisingly, they approach it with a limited number of Spells Known. I like that their spell list includes some spells that don’t appear elsewhere. My main complaint is that they have only one explicitly melee-friendly attack spell, compared to several archery-based attack spells. Altogether, pretty much fine.
- Primeval Awareness is interesting, in that it covers about 75% of the functionality offered in some of 2e’s kits – fiend hunter, undead slayer, dragonslayer, whatever. Primeval Awareness doesn’t pinpoint targets, and it costs a spell slot, but it is still very cool for covering rangers as sentinels against unnatural intruders. The odd thing about not offering location or direction is that increasing the radius of awareness (for being in favored terrain) is a mixed blessing.
- Land’s Stride is a near-duplicate of 3.5’s Woodland Stride. More good coverage for making rangers be about nature, while also being useful in constructed environments – wherever there’s difficult terrain.
- Hide in Plain Sight shares the name of an ability from the 3.5 ranger, but it’s more like Camouflage. Camouflaging paint should, in theory, be something anyone can try, which is why I’m glad that this ability grants a commanding bonus (+10? wowza) rather than just granting permission. I’m also glad there’s a one-minute prep time on this, because otherwise the next ability would be far more obnoxious.
- Vanish is a more restricted version of the Rogue’s Cunning Action ability, which is the only reason every ranger wouldn’t class-dip for two levels of rogue. (If you don’t think the campaign will go to 14th level, you should at least consider that option.) Immunity to nonmagical tracking efforts is an interesting minor feature.
- Feral Senses – blindsense out to 30 feet while not blinded or deafened – is fine at 18th level. I’d argue that it’s a better “capstone” ability – an achievement for sticking it out to the highest levels – than Foe Slayer.
Next up are the Archetypes: the Hunter and the Beastmaster. This looks like a tiny number of archetypes, and in a real sense it is, but at the same time, the Hunter has a good deal of internal variability, as each archetype feature has two or more options. In this way the Hunter appeals to both melee and ranged characters, though some specific options are useful for only one combat style or the other. Even better, none of the melee-friendly options require two-weapon fighting, so we can honestly say that there’s solid support for great-weapon or weapon-and-shield rangers. With the extra AC of a shield, Multiattack Defense can put your AC up to 22 + enchantment bonuses. I think you could reasonably expect to tank bosses with legendary actions with those kinds of numbers. Make a beeline for the Sentinel feat, and you’re set. Oh, hey, if you can find a feat slot for it, pick up Mobile with Whirlwind attack, and Escape the Horde becomes unnecessary. Which is good, the second benefit of Mobile is superfluous for rangers.
The short version is, I like the Hunter archetype a lot. And all of this without resorting to immunities! It’s a Christmas miracle. So what about the Beast Master? It’s closely modeled on the essential function of 4e Beast Master rangers, which is to say that you have to sacrifice part of your turn for your pet to attack. Other than functions that allow the pet to defend itself, what you really get is a (relatively fragile) damage sponge that grants advantage to the attacks of one party member. The pet’s ability to attack is not particularly better than the ranger’s, so it’s really only going to attack if it’s in a better position than you are, or you have negative conditions and it doesn’t. This gets a bit better at 15th level, when the Share Spells feature kicks in, but that’s a long time to wait for… probably still less effectiveness than the Hunter. The saving grace of the Beast Master, such as it is, comes from conditions or special attacks the pet may have, such as the panther’s Pounce or a wolf’s passive knockdown chance.
So that’s the 5e ranger. This examination has slightly improved my opinion of Hunter rangers, partially at the expense of Beast Masters. I think 5e’s ranger offers the best implementation (in its own system context) and the clearest theme, while retaining some breadth of options. Even so, it offers less conceptual versatility than fighters or paladins. Until and unless the DMG offers more depth on the function of Survival checks, I think many of the class’s functions could be covered by a fighter/rogue, fighter/druid, or rogue/druid with a suitable Background. Maybe even an Oath of the Ancients paladin. The class has compelling mechanics, but overall I look at the class as trading some of the fighter’s combat dominance for unique out-of-combat utility. If the Beast Master is up to snuff, I don’t yet see how.
Does the Class Justify Its Existence?
This is the question that drove me to write this whole series of posts. On a mechanical level, yes: the ranger handles its fighting and its stealth differently from fighters or rogues. On a thematic level, a druid with a more warlike outlook and a preference for conventional weaponry could be covered with a fighter/druid or rogue/druid. Once WotC has decided on more than four classes (or three, or two… reducto ad classless-ium), though, the ranger does an acceptable job of belonging. I would still like to see the class viewed through a more exotic lens, as the various paladin oaths or monastic traditions offer not only a different play experience, but also character outlook, perhaps even party role.
The ranger has always been a good chassis for my Outlander class – it’s an outdoorsy, ranged-weapon-wielding caster class. I could probably fit everything that the Outlander class needs into an Archetype, as far as that goes. A dark, creepy interpretation of the ranger would be new and different, too. The class started out as a warrior-mystic in OD&D; what would it be like to twist them back toward something like Kai Lords? (Yes, I know they were monks, but… look at those Disciplines!) A monastic order of rangers is pretty interesting, anyway, as a ranger with the Hermit or Acolyte backgrounds.