I’ve recently started a Forgotten Realms campaign with Kainenchen and two of our friends, Sam and Ryan. Sam created a tabaxi ranger, planning to go for the Beast Master conclave. (Conclaves are cooler than archetypes, as a descriptor, so I’m running with it.) She has only a little 5e experience, so I was talking her through spell selection, and… man, spell selection is not kind to Beast Masters. I’ve also spent a lot of time lately listening to Laura Bailey playing Vex’ahlia in Critical Role, and… man, even with power-ups from player effort, the group has no idea how to make Trinket more of a help than a hindrance. (In case this changes later in the show, I’m currently on Episode 39.)
My point here is, I know of a game that has spent the last 14 years exploring the fun of playing a hunter with a beast companion, and I don’t know why D&D isn’t taking more inspiration from it. I think one of the most important gaps is in spells to make the beast companion the centerpiece of your gameplay, as your conclave choice suggests that it would be.
As it happens, Dan Dillon – one of the internet’s greatest proponents of Beast Masters – agrees with me at least enough to write this Twitter thread. (Seriously, read the thread, make it part of your campaign.) I’m not trying to put words in his mouth, but our Tome Show discussion on rangers came to agreement that the ranger spell list overall has some issues.
The problems are somewhat different for rangers in general and Beast Masters in specific. Here comes the general: there are way too many spells that require Concentration. From the Player’s Handbook‘s 46 ranger spells, the following require Concentration.
1st level: detect magic, detect poison and disease, ensnaring strike, fog cloud, hail of thorns, hunter’s mark*.
*This, obviously, is the most important one on the list.
2nd level: barkskin, beast sense, locate object, pass without trace, silence, spike growth
3rd level: conjure animals, lightning arrow, protection from energy, wind wall
4th level: conjure woodland beings, grasping vine, locate creature, stoneskin
5th level: swift quiver, tree stride
On one hand, 22 out of 46 spells requiring Concentration isn’t wildly off the norm. On the other, let’s be honest, hunter’s mark feels more like a feature that should just be almost-always-on than a spell, doesn’t it? It’s not for nothing that Matt Mercer doesn’t pay attention to the Concentration on Vex’s hunter’s mark/hail of thorns combo – also, that allowing those to be cast in the same round is one of their house rules. The simplest, possibly the best, solution to this whole mess is to make hunter’s mark a class feature that the ranger can use a number of times per day equal to… maybe Wisdom bonus, maybe proficiency bonus, I don’t care. It doesn’t require Concentration, and doesn’t stack with the spell of that name, which stays in the game for when you run out of uses of the feature (and for other classes to pick up through subclasses or Magical Secrets).
Ensnaring strike, hail of thorns, and lightning arrow are all Concentration-until-you-attack, very much in the vein of a paladin’s smites. Paladins can convert spell slots into damage without casting a spell, though (thanks, Divine Smite!). Further, lightning arrow triggers when you attack, not when you hit.
Now, why are these three spells like this? Why are they bonus actions to cast with Concentration, rather than just… an action to cast? In principle, I think it comes down to the Extra Attack feature. Obviously the game has no problem with spells that require weapon attacks (cf. greenflame blade, et al.), nor with spells that have no effect on a miss (guiding bolt, among others). I think the deal is that they want rangers to get the full benefit of their Extra Attack feature while still casting the spell, and they went with Concentration to “bridge the gap” between the bonus action and the action.
I hear you drawing in a breath to tell me that this design is unnecessary! I got you, fam. If the Player’s Handbook were written today, with all that they’ve learned since 2014, I’m betting they’d change the design of these spells. I don’t know for sure, of course – that’s what makes it a bet – but the fact that they didn’t expand on this particular style of spell in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything looks like a sign from on high to me. Instead, zephyr strike is actually worth Concentration because it has an ongoing effect.
The simplest fix for ensnaring strike, hail of thorns, and lightning arrow is to cut Concentration and their duration (they now last until the end of your turn or the first time you hit), change their casting time to 1 action, and add a line that if you have the Extra Attack feature, this spell allows you to make your Extra Attacks with a weapon you are wielding.
Looking for a more interesting fix, you probably want to give them some ongoing effect so that maintaining Concentration on them past the first hit is something you might want to do (as with zephyr strike). I’m not sure what these would be. Hail of thorns deals slightly subpar damage compared to the expected Multiple Targets damage, at 5.5 (1d10) in a 5-ft radius, versus 7 (2d6) on DMG p. 284. Changing it to just… deal 2d6 damage helps, but even with that, hail of thorns would be an unimpressive AoE. Getting enemies to cluster for the AoE when they haven’t yet engaged your team’s melee line is hard, and at most you’re probably hitting two targets. Usually, you can just choose the targeting of your AoE carefully, placing it far enough behind your enemies that your friends are safe and cooking S’mores, while your enemies are learning to live with a melted face. Hail of thorns, though, requires the target that you hit to be the center of its area, so you’ll hit anyone other than a polearm-wielder who has engaged them in melee.
Ensnaring strike is the least worst of the three spells I’m calling out – it has a useful ongoing effect, until the target saves. Also, restrained is a great condition to apply.
Lightning arrow… maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see how this comes anywhere near expected damage values. It’s a 3rd-level spell that deals 18 (4d8) to its main target, or half that on a miss, followed by 9 (2d8) to targets within 10 feet, half that on a successful Dex save. A 3rd-level spell should deal 21 (6d6) damage to multiple targets, or 28 (8d6) if it’s fireball. If you want to bring this one into line while still accepting Extra Attack/Volley inclusion (it’s ideal for pairing with Volley, if your enemies do you a favor and cluster), you can still sneak at least one more d8 into the AoE damage values – it’s costing you both a 3rd-level slot and an 11th-level conclave feature (not to mention the precious Spells Known slot).
Lightning arrow also shares the AoE targeting issues of hail of thorns. The other big thing you can and should do for hail of thorns and lightning arrow is to just let them target creatures of your choice, rather than each creature.
Now let’s contextualize this for Beast Masters. Hunter’s mark doesn’t apply to damage your companion deals. Your companion deals melee damage, so hail of thorns and lightning arrow are excessively close air support. The good news is, that frees up some of their Spells Known and their Concentration for things like barkskin and stoneskin, as well as beast bond from XGTE (though beast bond is really only for melee Beast Masters).
Ultimately, the issue is that the spells just aren’t as reliably useful as their image from supporting fiction would lead a new player to expect, so they generate disappointment. Concentration is a limitation of that sort for every caster class – but then the supporting fiction doesn’t insist that you can do all of these things simultaneously. There’s a lot more that could be said about the whole of the ranger spell list and what it needs. I won’t say it’s impossible that I’d come back to this topic someday. For now, though, I’m moving on.
Now, it’s great that rangers get cure wounds and healing spirit, for all of the latter spell’s many problems (and the new, different problems with the fix Jeremy Crawford has posted to Twitter). There are some gaps in that list that I’m here to address. We’re seeing a huge proliferation of Cool Tricks in other class spell lists, while the needlessly restrictive number of Spells Known is also discouraging new spell design for rangers. Screw that. (That also means that rangers dearly need spells to serve multiple functions, if at all possible.)
1st-level evocation (druid, ranger)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V, M (a feather, some scales, or a tuft of fur)
A beast of your choice that you can see within range regains hit points equal to 2d6 + your spellcasting ability modifier.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the healing increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 1st. If you use a spell slot of 3rd level or higher and the target is a beast that died within the last minute, you can return it to life with 1 hit point. This use can’t restore missing body parts.
3rd-level transmutation (druid, ranger)
Casting Time: 1 minute
Components: V, S, M (a pot of ink)
Duration: Concentration, up to 8 hours
A willing beast of Medium size or smaller that you touch is transformed into a tattoo, scar, or similar mark upon your hand or arm. The tattoo or scar significantly resembles the beast. The beast remains somewhat conscious while transformed, and if it ceases to be willing (such as the charmed condition ending), the spell ends. When the spell ends, the beast appears in a space of your choice within 5 feet of you.
Gift of Frenzy
2nd-level enchantment (druid, ranger)
Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: 30 feet
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
Your familiar or beast companion surges with power and rage. It gains 10 temporary hit points, and until the spell ends, it can’t be charmed, frightened, or paralyzed, and it deals an additional 1d6 damage with its natural weapon attacks. Any temporary hit points remaining at the end of the spell’s duration are lost.
Murder of Crows
5th-level conjuration (druid, ranger, warlock)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S, M (a piece of raw or decaying flesh)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
A murder of maddened crows descend upon a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point you choose within range. The sphere spreads around corners. The sphere remains for the duration, and its area is lightly obscured. The sphere’s area is difficult terrain.
When the area appears, each creature in it must make a Constitution saving throw. A creature takes 4d8 piercing damage and is blinded for 1 minute on a failed save. On a success, they take half as much damage and are not blinded. A creature must also make this saving throw when it enters the spell’s area for the first time on a turn or ends its turn there. At the end of each of its turns, a creature blinded by this spell can make another Constitution saving throw. On a success, the creature is no longer blinded.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 5th.
Heal beast is, on one hand, about getting more throughput (ranged and more healing done) by restricting the applicable targets, and also about giving you a quicker way to recover from the sudden death of your whole subclass. I can’t think of any other subclasses that can just… die, and take a whole long rest to recover. Obviously, you still have this problem until you get 3rd-level spells at 9th level, or your druid buddy gets 3rd-level spells at 5th level, but you’re still not paying a diamond for your subclass’s revivify. It costs a precious Spells Known slot and can’t heal your non-beast party members, so I feel like the extra throughput just makes it a little safer to get Fluffy into the thick of things.
Conceal beast is about getting your companion around large cities or across exploration hazards that they can’t naturally handle. To put that another way… this is to give Vex a way to shut Scanlan up about Trinket. Maybe for some folks that bit of byplay is endearing or funny, but I’m annoyed on Vex’s behalf every time because I imagine hearing it at my own table. Fortunately, the Beast Master in my FR campaign went for something easier to conceal.
Gift of frenzy is hunter’s mark for the Beast Master set, but 2nd level and with other functions in order to carve out its own story. I’m not sure whether it clashes with intended Beast Master gameplay or offers a viable alternate approach to Beast Master gameplay, but it’s probably one of those. As with all of these spells, I’ve given them to druids as well as rangers, because animal friendship is a spell that hides its potential usefulness through lack of guidance.
Murder of crows is a shameless lift from WoW and a reskin of insect plague. It seems to me like something some rangers should be able to do. I’m not entirely satisfied with it, because it is so close to its source, but nothing more compelling was coming to me at the time. Blinding enemies is, of course, an incredible benefit to weapon-users… like both the ranger and a beast companion.