The Ranger Class, Part Three

In my last post, I looked back to the Ranger class of 1e AD&D. This is the history that Mearls and his illustrious cohorts have looked back to in creating 5e’s Ranger and Other Ranger, and as he has pointed out, 2e is a seismic shift in design vision for this class. Certainly 2e was my first introduction to the class. I think the design has some odd problems (thanks to hindsight), but it has permanently shaped my expectations of what a ranger is.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three


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.

Since this column is about history, I found it interesting that Zeb Cook (may he be hailed and feared – mostly hailed, he’s a really nice guy from the one time I met him) didn’t draw the Ranger’s two-weapon fighting feature from that dark elf that R.A. Salvatore was creating at nearly the same time. Independent invention is so weird sometimes.

Rangers finally shed their magic-user spellcasting, and have rather narrower clerical spellcasting options – only the Spheres of Animal and Plant. Across all editions, I think this is the low ebb of their spellcasting effectiveness, except for 4e where they are not a spellcasting class at all. They remain a pet class, but their only healing spell is goodberry. Other features include:

  • Tracking is a non-weapon proficiency, but rangers are automatically better at it than everyone else, and get better at it by leveling, without spending NWP slots.
  • The concept of the favored enemy is greatly changed – it could now be any single creature type 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 2015, 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.
    • Since I’ve talked a lot in previous articles about how the structure of Favored Enemy abilities implied the setting and the ranger’s role in the world. Now that we’ve switched from one very broad class of common creatures to a single creature type, the rules are no longer making a statement about what your setting should be like. It’s up to the DM to give the ranger’s (possibly adopted) homeland an enemy worth specializing in fighting. As later editions realized, it puts a lot of the onus of class balance on the DM’s choice of encounters, and/or the structure of wandering monster tables.
  • 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.
    • If you care what I have to say about alignment, I talked about it a good little bit in the Paladin article series.
  • 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. We do still have elements of Skirmisher/Wanderer/Guardian, Mearls’s recent three-point summary of the ranger: Skirmisher connects to their stealth skills and spells from the Plant sphere, Wanderer connects to their tracking and animal-empathy skills (and to some extent the Animal sphere), and Guardian connects to their still-fighter-like d10 HD and their favored enemy option, reduced though it is. Without as much AC to back it up, though, those hit points make the ranger a very secondary defender.

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.


Complete Ranger’s Handbook (2e)

Oh god, kits. Ironically, kits are a central part of what ruined my experience of 2e (since they were often hilariously unbalanced), whereas the backgrounds and 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.

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. It boils down to losing a lot of your ranger-ness in the majority of terrain types (since only one of the several can be primary).
  • 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.
    • Do you know, it is not impossible that I have already said two words on the matter of systemic density vis-à-vis tracking systems, but in case these references have evaded you, let me take this opportunity to correct the aforesaid lamentable oversight: It is all but intrinsic to tracking systems that they be kludgy.
  • 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 leaving it completely open to adjudication by the DM or the adventure writer. (This is both a strength and a weakness; it’s complicated.)
  • 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 the designer 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 3.0, 3.5, and… if I’m feeling really saucy… Pathfinder.


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Brandes Stoddard enjoys games of many kinds: video, tabletop, board, card, and live-action games. He runs Dust to Dust, a fantasy LARP in Georgia, and works in freelance game design and writing. He blogs about games at