D&D 5e Playtest: The (Alternate) Ranger

In this month’s Unearthed Arcana, Mearls describes the community’s lukewarm-at-best reaction to 5e’s Ranger class and presents a very different vision of what that class name might mean. Quite a while back, I wrote about my own views on the class, and thanks to the State of the Game podcast, we’ve known for a little while that the Ranger was up for some kind of major variant offering. As with other first-look playtests, the article only includes levels 1-5.
If you’re already well-versed in the issues with the Ranger class, skip to The Revised Ranger, below.

The Issues

Mearls talks about how the original ranger had quite a few unique abilities, but one by one, most of those have become available to other classes. This happened for the most obvious of reasons: the abilities are strictly natural skills, so anyone should be able to learn them in a simulationist universe, right? (The validity of this line of thinking is all but irrelevant now; what matters is that the 3.0 designers believed it.)

At the same time, the ranger’s spells have been trending away from “low-end druid,” especially in 5e. Much like the paladin, they can heal and do additional damage with their spells; unlike the paladin, they are area-effect spells centered on the target of an arrow, rather than a pile of damage to the main target. That’s actually one of the problems – archery rangers can dump spells for extra damage, but it’s much more situational than a paladin’s smites, because you really want clustered targets. Also, as hail of thorns and swift quiver require Concentration, they’re mutually exclusive with hunter’s mark, the ranger’s go-to damage kicker. (Not that hunter’s mark would help with hail of thorns‘ damage, since that damage comes off a failed Dex save and not an attack roll.)

Did You Know? This week I learned that hex and hunter’s mark are intended (as long as you don’t lose Concentration) to carry over not just from one enemy to the next, but from one encounter to the next, as long as you’re within duration. As their durations lengthen with higher-level spells, you may be able to fit a short rest, or even a long rest, inside their durations without ending them. What I had missed all this time is that you transfer the hex or mark “on a subsequent turn of yours,” but not on your next turn. This kind of hurts my brain, but Jeremy Crawford confirmed it as working-as-intended.

I think the real problem is something other than thematic issues. It is true that the ranger needs more proprietary toys, but no amount of toys is enough if the ranger feels underwhelming in combat. At low levels, the ranger keeps up with other classes well enough in damage output – not with a paladin, but let’s not kid ourselves, the paladin’s smite damage output is completely bananas if there aren’t just tons of fights in every adventuring day.
The Hunter Archetype’s 3rd-level abilities all improve damage output to varying degrees. Colossus Slayer is the most reliable of them. When it works, Horde Breaker is better on damage. Giant Slayer relies on the DM to use Large creatures against you, and is really only a good idea for melee rangers. There’s also the 11th-level feature, which grants either a melee or ranged multi-attack; in a lot of cases this isn’t any better than the two attacks you’re already making with your 5th-level Extra Attack feature.
The other “damage kicker” for the ranger class is hidden in the feats, which… I really wish they hadn’t done, because it raises the specter of required system mastery. Sharpshooter lets you take a -5 to hit in exchange for a +10 to damage. This is a steep and risky trade… except that if you’re playing an archer ranger, you’re already sitting on a +2 attack bonus from your Fighting Style. -3/+10 is… not so much a choice. You should always do this.
In my view, the serious problem happens at 11th level. At 11th level, the fighter gets Extra Attack for the second time, primary spellcasters beef up their cantrips again, and the paladin gets a permanent +1d8 damage to all melee attacks. The rogue gets her sixth Sneak Attack damage die. These are all impressive boosts. The ranger gets… the ability to spread damage thinly in a horde, but no passive damage boost. A simple fix is available within the Hunter Archetype – just set the 3rd-level options to improve in some way at 11th level.

  • Colossus Slayer is obvious, as a parallel to the paladin’s Improved Divine Smite: let it improve to +2d8, still once per round.
  • Giant Killer is tricky, but advantage on the attack and +1d8 damage would still be pretty conservative in terms of power.
  • Horde Breaker is hard to improve without more or less being “even more Multi-attack,” but as with Giant Killer, advantage on the attack and +1d8 damage is playing it safe.

None of which even touches on the Beast Master. Look, I get that they didn’t want the Beast Master’s damage output to be head and shoulders over every other class, but this is too conservative – it doesn’t even keep up with the Hunter, much less the game’s other classes. It does have the advantage of, er, advantage – the pet can use the Help action for free to improve your attacks. It feels entirely too much like the pet replaces the ranger, since this literally happens whenever you want the beast to attack.

Hither came the Revised Ranger, with a concept disconnected from what has come before in D&D. If you read my History of the Classes column in Tribality, you already know that there’s a long tradition of scrapping even major areas of class mechanics if they’re not working, so connection to earlier editions doesn’t have to be a priority.

The Revised Ranger

This is a very different ranger, and in fact is pretty unlike every other class currently in the game; its closest relative is the 4e shaman, but with a rogue’s stealth-and-ambush tactics.

There’s one piece of… “why is this here, please?” in the flavor text. “Rangers are champions of the natural world. They are typically good aligned, and their link to nature gives them supernatural abilities. They are the paladins of the forest.” This is a throwback to 2e-and-prior, when rangers had to be Good-aligned. It seems like a really strange thing to dredge up, since their hit-and-run tactics are just as useful to the bad guys. This doesn’t matter to the mechanics, so it’s easy to ignore.

  • 2d6 HD per level. 
    • This works out to being half a point better than the barbarian’s d12, and to my mind this makes the ranger unique by taking away one of the barbarian’s claims to fame. 
    • I’m also a little perplexed by a purported skirmisher having the hit points for protracted, front-line combat.
  • No more medium armor proficiency, emphasizing Dex builds and the Stealth skill.
  • Dexterity and Wisdom saving throw proficiency.
    • This looks like an outright mistake; it’s the only class in the game with two common saves. I hope this changes, because this is not a sensible place to make an exception to the pattern of one common save proficiency and one rare save proficiency.
  • No change to the skill list, but they gain proficiency with the herbalism kit.
  • Ambuscade grants an action to Attack or Hide prior to all other actions, when you roll initiative. Since we don’t have “move actions” in 5e, I guess you can also move up to your speed.
    • This is the most egregious multi-classing bait I have ever seen. You know what fighters need? One level of ranger so they can take three separate actions (attacking four times per action at high level) in the opening round.
    • Also, the Thief’s 17th level ability looked really good until this showed up – this doesn’t have quite as broad of options
  • Natural Explorer is unchanged, which is a shame – it’s underwhelming as written, because at low levels you get to do your “best at exploration” thing in so few locales.
  • Fighting Style is unchanged, as is my disappointment that Great Weapon and Protection styles aren’t available to the ranger.
  • Skirmisher’s Stealth is a feature to make the ranger’s Stealth work better than anyone else’s – specifically, they can leave hiding, stab someone, and return to hiding without the chosen target actually seeing them. 
    • This is kludgy within the fiction, as I have a very hard time with this as a natural ability.
    • It’s also going to be a great way to abuse bosses. All you have to do is keep rolling well on Dex (Stealth).
    • Oh, and this is the bait for Rogues to class-dip for two levels of Ranger, as it converts the melee rogue’s tactics into something more like the ranged rogue’s tactics with the Sniper feat.
  • Primeval Awareness is unchanged. I would love to hear stories about this being used to good effect in games; certainly the ranger in my campaign doesn’t see this as useful.
  • Ability Score Improvement and Extra Attack are right where you’d expect.
  • The Revised Ranger’s subclasses are Spirit Paths. This seems likely to be a reference to the dark elf’s figurine of wondrous power, but it also plays a bit like the 4e shaman’s spirit companion… without the excessive fiddly number-crunching.
    • At least as far as we’ve currently seen, these can be invoked once per short or long rest, and summoned once per long rest. The invoke options are all fairly small, though the “Seeker’s Eye” power is probably the best of them; the summons are great, since the creature doesn’t soak up your actions in order to do things and can’t be disrupted if your Concentration is broken. (Edited: No, wait, it can totally be disrupted if you lose Concentration. That seems… super terrible for melee rangers, at least.)
    • The Guardian is a brown bear when summoned, and it grants temporary hit points once per short rest.
    • The Seeker is a giant eagle when summoned, and its invocation option grants everyone in your party advantage against the target creature until the end of your next turn. This could be a mighty lot of punishment. (Admittedly, faerie fire is also a good way to accomplish this effect, and for a longer duration.)
    • The Stalker is a dire wolf when summoned, and when invoked it grants a damage boost on one attack.

There’s a lot going on here, and the themes are kind of interesting, but I think those first two levels need another look. The Spirit Paths are cool, though it’s got nothing to do with the ranger of D&D’s traditions. Like I said, that isn’t a problem to me, though it looks like it’s drawing substantial flak from the broader community. It definitely positions the ranger further from “civilized” traditions and closer to the Totem Warrior barbarian path.

It’s also an unusually narrow conception of distinguishing factors between subclasses. What we see here adds two action options, but doesn’t change the ranger’s combat role or tactics much at all. Since each option is a different animal, it doesn’t seem like additional Spirit Path options would expand the class’s themes all that much. Maybe this is different at higher levels? I’ll hope so. (To be fair, I would be disappointed in judging many of the game’s subclasses by their initial ability.)

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