The Ranger Class, Part Two

In my last post, I looked back to the ranger class of OD&D, 1e, and 2e. When I started that post, I had the now-comical notion that I might discuss all six editions at once. The tale, as the Professor and GRRM have been known to say, grew in the telling, and so it is doing now. Before I move on to 3.0, I want to look at development within editions: 1e’s Unearthed Arcana and 2e’s Complete Ranger’s Handbook and Skills and Powers, which I mentioned in passing before. Ironically, on the same day that I hit Publish on my first post about rangers, WotC released their own retrospective of the Big Four and the Ranger. The bit of history on how rangers came to use two-weapon fighting surprised me.
Looking at the work of tabletop designers, the second book discussing a class, race, Clan, Kith, or whatever may be even more revealing as to the designer’s thought than the first book. (Okay, this is only true if both books have the same design and development team, or you’re comfortable treating the whole company as a single hivemind.) The second book within the development cycle of the edition is where you see the things that the designer came to see as errors, lacunae, things cut for space limitations, and weird new ideas that arrived too late. It’s often and rightly said that design is a conversation; splatbooks are other ways the conversation might have gone, footnotes, the longer versions of Jon Stewart’s interviews that are online because they won’t fit into the Daily Show’s 22-minute format.
Now for the other view of splatbooks: seriously, did they get that name because the writers just flung a bunch of poop at a wall to see what would stick? (They did not, but it’s a fun – or painfully apt – false etymology.) From the earliest days of OD&D, Gygax was releasing new rules content for money, as with Supplement I: Greyhawk. New options for players and DMs inevitably increase the players’ power relative to previously published content; sometimes the new content for the DM keeps up and sometimes it does not. (The Thief class of Supplement I is a rare exception, but only because the initial design of the class is so badly flawed.) Splatbooks can create a sense of a content treadmill, of keeping up with the Joneses Bigbys, that focuses attention on rules and undermines the central role that character and story should hold.
Unearthed Arcana (1e)
Which brings us to Unearthed Arcana, a book guilty of some of the worst excesses of power creep, as well as introducing classes that are flagrantly detrimental to party cohesion. We’re not here to talk about the cavalier or the barbarian today, though. The ranger just has some expanded detail:

  • Remember what I was saying about Tracking systems being kludgy? Apparently the previous system didn’t have enough fiddly modifiers for Gygax’s tastes, because this section doubles down on percentage modifiers and how actively tracking changes your other actions.
  • There’s also a detailed list of tracks you can correctly identify in the wilds, because some more table lookups are what the game needed.
  • The “giant” creature class gets more creatures added to it – it’s almost as if Gygax realized that expanding the Monster Manual diluted the frequency of the ranger getting to use this ability. (While Gygax was actually coming from a place of naturalism rather than balance, the balance consideration has everything to do with the ranger’s design change from 3.5 to 4e.)
  • As a fighter subclass, rangers can gain weapon specialization, which hugely increases the speed with which they gain attacks per round, and grants bonuses to attack and damage.
    • Whoever named “double specialization” should have been handed a thesaurus.
  • There are tight restrictions on the ranger’s weapon proficiencies prior to mid-levels. Interestingly to me, the game still steers the ranger toward spears, a practice that abruptly ends in 2e and all later editions.

Taken together, what we see is clarification on the non-combat side and a power bump on the combat side; I’d like to think that Gygax was seeing that fighter-types didn’t have enough to look forward to at mid-to-high levels, compared to the radically burgeoning powers of the spellcasters. It’s graceless by modern design standards, but it’s one of the most forgivable parts of all of UA.

Complete Ranger’s Handbook (2e)

Oh god, kits. Ironically, kits are a central part of what ruined 2e (since they were often hilariously unbalanced), whereas the subclasses that make 5e as versatile and interesting as it is are unmistakable cognates of kits. In a particularly brain-straining twist, this book makes vague gestures in the direction of being backward-compatible with 1e rangers. They also apparently had to fill a whole book with just one class, so the book opens with an “As you know…” exposition that reprints the entire class writeup of the 2e Player’s Handbook.

A very high-level summary of the book’s optional rules:

  • A new table for penalties to Hide in Shadows and Move Silently, if your character does decide to wear armor heavier than studded leather. (As opposed to “infinitely high penalty.”) It’s a precursor of sorts to 3e’s Armor Check Penalty. Though the penalties are quite severe, I appreciate re-opening the door to rangers not outright losing major class abilities when they use their full range of armor proficiencies.
  • The book introduces the concept of each ranger having a primary terrain – a concept that will resurface in some ranger prestige classes in 3.x, and again in 5e’s ranger class. I suspect that it was an independent invention each time, rather than a conscious reference to earlier usage.
    • But wait! There’s also Primary Terrain Specialization, where you get actual mechanical benefits in your primary terrain, for the low low price of sucking in the other eight terrain types. This rule highlights the fundamental problem with having a primary terrain in the first place – we’ll come back to this in 5e.
  • Much more detailed lists of modifiers for Tracking nonweapon proficiency checks, including still more ways in which a ranger’s Tracking is objectively better than any other class’s Tracking.
  • A similar expansion of excessive detail for Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, Favored Enemy, Animal Empathy, Nature Lore, Survival… okay, I get that extra detail is the point of the Complete Ranger’s Handbook and it was very, very 1993 when this book was published, but damn. I think I feel bad for Rick Swan, the designer, who clearly had far more pages to fill than compelling content to fill it with, It’s tough when your whole book is one fairly niche class (and hard to qualify for in 2e), and you don’t have a lot of content that would be useful for other characters.
    • I can’t help but notice how much the effectiveness of skill use has increased since 2e – that is, how much usefulness you get out of a single success. For example, a single Survival check according to the CRH gets you enough food for two people, or enough water for two people, or basic information that ordinary people probably know. In 3.5, you have this instead. And then there’s 5e, which solves the problem of endless table lookups for skill use by offering basically no guidance… anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
  • Then there’s the chapter on Followers. I guess it makes sense for a book on rangers to be in the weeds. Rangers go from being a little bit of a pet class to being a way-too-many-pets class, but I never have exactly understood what was supposed to happen with 20+ followers in 1e and 2e D&D games. That seems like a lot to manage, for a game that has never had a manor-management system that was quick to resolve.
  • The tone of the writing here – and the tone of 2e’s core books – contrasts sharply with what I’ve gotten used to in 3e and later editions. Restrictions and chances to punish errant players abound, and there’s a sense that class abilities are privileges rather than rights. I can appreciate that they’re putting story above rules, but there’s a confrontational tone that suggests distrust of the players and a whole lot of fights at the table.
  • Next up is kits – I’m certainly not going into every kit, but I want to highlight some of the kits that carve out new conceptual space for rangers.
    • Wanna be a super freaky treehugger? The Greenwood Ranger is for you. Extra limbs. Photosynthesis. Seriously.
    • This guy.
    • They call them justifiers, but really it’s these guys. They’re the “more fighter” one.
    • There’s also the “more caster” one, the Seeker, and the “more rogue” one, the Stalker. It’s an indirect acknowledgement that the ranger is a delicate balance of three different classes, and changing up that balance is the easiest way to make two rangers differ.
    • The Guardian: what if a ranger were more like a paladin, but couldn’t go on any adventures that were more than a few miles from his house? I would venture to guess that there just about do not exist any campaigns in which this would not be a deal-breaker.
  • A way to play a ranger of a normally-forbidden race? Sure, it’s a band-aid solution to a massive design problem, but at least Rick Swan tried!
  • Fifteen new proficiencies for rangers, presumably because the existing proficiencies don’t split those hairs quite finely enough.
  • Some new spells.

So the Complete Ranger’s Handbook clearly recognizes that it is working with one very narrow archetype, the goodly wilderness warrior, and tries to push out the boundaries of that concept much as 3.x’s prestige classes will do. Adding detail to rules of the ranger class – new opportunities for DMs and players to dicker over modifiers, basically – doesn’t do anyone any favors. In all, the Complete Ranger’s Handbook has everything you’d expect of a splatbook from any time in the last 20+ years, for better and for worse.

Skills & Powers (2e)

Fortunately for the patience of my readers (charming creatures that you are), the section on rangers in Skills & Powers – a book that one might justly call 2.5e – is mercifully brief. For those who gave it a pass or started playing D&D long after its publication, the point of Skills & Powers was to let players customize race and class on a point-buy basis. Speaking as someone who got his start in third-party publishing by writing a similar product for 3e, I can’t say too much, but let’s be real: point-buy is just not a real great idea for races and classes.

The ranger point-buy option introduces just a few new things you might purchase instead of the normal class abilities of the ranger: a bonus with bows, some additional Thief skills, Sneak Attack (remember, this is the relatively difficult-to-use and less impressive 2e-era backstab), weapon specialization as a fighter, pass without trace, and speak with animals. Overall, the options don’t go beyond More Fighter, More Thief, More Druid, though the More Druid options are thin on the ground. I’m surprised that better spellcasting wasn’t so much as offered.

Overall, S&P doesn’t add much to the conversation beyond an acknowledgement that it would be nice to support a little more variation within the ranger class, just as the CRH did. They could have done a lot more with this if they had focused on ways to double down on existing class functions – superior animal empathy, archery, or favored-enemy interactions, which in general terms summarizes much of the CRH’s approach to kits.

In all, these three books do move the conversation forward in small ways, though none of them can really address fundamental design issues of the ranger class in their respective editions. UA is more like a maintenance pass of clarification and a bump in power. The whole Complete series of 2e expands class concepts, albeit in relatively tame ways save for the Greenwood Ranger. It’s strange to me that the Complete series didn’t share in the tone of… most or really any of the published settings that set 2e apart – sure, most of them fit into Forgotten Realms okay, but they’re almost completely divergent in tone from Planescape, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Birthright, Council of Wyrms, Al-Qadim… TSR had the raw material to go completely nuts with the ranger, but hindsight is 20/20 here. It just makes me wonder about what could have been. There’s a passing reference to planar rangers as a kit the DM could homebrew, and Ranger-Knights (way to bring back that title, guys!) as a kit for those who hold land within a feudal structure – again, left as an exercise for the reader.

Skills & Powers was a whole new thread in the conversation: radical customization, a trend that carries through to 3e in a quite different form. It’s the first time we see that level of rules-control presented for players to use, and in that light I think Skills & Powers is the true point of departure between the “early” editions – OD&D through 2e’s initial release – and everything that came after. It’s 180 degrees of difference in how the players are expected to engage the game’s system. 5e clearly sets out to find a happy medium between these modes – D&D Basic for those antithetical to customization, and the Player’s Handbook for those who want modest customization. (Pathfinder is still there for you if radical customization makes you happy.)

Next time, I’ll talk about rangers in 3.x on through 5e, though the odds are strongly against me covering every ranger-relevant splatbook in 3.x.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *