D&D 5eHistory of the Classes

Unearthed Arcana: Ranger & Rogue Breakdown

This week in Unearthed Arcana we have three new subclasses: two for the ranger, one for the rogue, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane. They’ve drawn themes from a 3.5e prestige class, a 2e kit, and… well, the scout is such a universal concept that pointing to the 3.5 class (or the 2e kit? I think there was a 2e kit?) as its origin is just incorrect. Maybe we point to Lord Baden-Powell and salute the irony of a rogue that is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Horizon Walker

First up is the Horizon Walker ranger archetype. To my knowledge, the first Horizon Walker was a ranger-oriented prestige class in the 3.5 DMG, but I’m not doing the legwork to be sure of that right now. Anyway, the original was all about taking Favored Terrain to its logical high-level extension. I haven’t heard about it becoming terribly popular with the fanbase, but feel free to add your stories in the comments. What does the 5e subclass offer?

  • Much like the Deep Stalker, they have an expanded spell list – a new bonus spell known at 3rd, 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th. Alter self is the odd man out thematically, and I’m not totally sold on the idea that rangers needed to be yet another source of the fabulously OP banishment, but it’s basically okay.
  • Planar Warrior lets you spend your bonus action to ignore damage resistances and gain +1d6 force damage to your next attack that hits this turn.
    • Well, this does horrible things to the ranger’s action economy, for starters. This is an every-round drain on the ranger’s bonus actions, in fights where it matters. If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with damage resistances or not – the first round of a fight with an unfamiliar critter, say – you probably still like that extra d6 of damage and never having to worry about damage resistance (though damage immunity is still a problem). So, you know, this is a huge push toward great-weapon, archer, or weapon-and-shield rangers.
    • On the other hand, unless you’ve taken steps to deal damage other than B/P/S flavors with your weapons (not unknown, but not universal either), we’re talking about damage resistances that are nearly always ignored by magic weapons. Say what you want about “the game never assumes you have magic weapons,” subclass features that mostly do something if you don’t have a magic weapon are off-putting at best. Sure, there’s a 1d6 damage kicker… or you could be casting hunter’s mark or ensnaring strike or…
    • In the balance, then, this is a weird feature that is either amazing or nearly worthless, depending on the weapon in your hand.
  • Portal Lore gives you information on every planar portal within 1,000 feet: distance, direction, and destination. It’s neat to see that this is 1/short rest, or you can re-use it by spending a 2nd-level spell slot.
    • For the love of God, do not activate this in Sigil. Either your DM’s head will explode, or your DM will slap you on fire. 1,000 feet? In Sigil? That’s like 1,000 portals. (Or the DM could rule that they are all obscured with magic, and make this feature worthless. Yay! This is a micro-scale version of the Primeval Awareness problem.)
    • Granting this at 3rd level is also kind of awkward. This is the kind of feature that is probably a ribbon for your first five, eight, or ten levels, and then nearly overpowered if you’re running that kind of high-level game. Though Colin will (quite rightly) point out that you don’t have to be high-level to play in Sigil, most campaigns don’t shift to planar play until higher levels.
  • Ethereal Step gives you one round of etherealness, as the spell, once per short or long rest. I’m pretty sure this is going to prove to be super obnoxious in the longer term, with the ranger simply bypassing tons of challenges by passing through walls, floors, or ceilings – and just coming right back if they see something on the other side that they can’t handle solo. Also, conventional prisons are meaningless.
  • Distant Strike lets you teleport 10 feet as part of each attack an in Attack action. Oh, and if you attack two separate creatures, you get a third attack. This feature has no action cost or use limit. It is one feature that is better for two-weapon rangers than other rangers. It’s also hugely boosted by swift quiver.
    • This is really stylish video-game-y teleporting all over the map. Tactical teleports are just insanely powerful, what with ignoring opportunity attacks and stretching out your movement options. I guess my only real problem with it, though, is that it’s such massive showboating that no one else’s class or subclass features really keep up. If some characters have to worry about enemies’ conventional features and some characters can ignore them with impunity, that feels really bad at the table.
  • Spectral Defense is Uncanny Dodge without all of those pesky restrictions: no “you can see,” no “with an attack,” just “when you take damage.” For a 15th-level feature, it’s fine.

So, wow. The Horizon Walker is one of the flashiest subclasses I have yet seen, which is a welcome change from the very low flashiness of the Player’s Handbook archetypes, and still outpaces the Unearthed Arcana variant ranger’s three subclasses by a fair margin. It has all the mobility, but it doesn’t have a lot of special offense or defense powers until 11th and 15th level. There needs to be a huge neon sign on this archetype that reads “Not Suited For Some Campaigns.” Because seriously, if you want to be able to put people in prison (without it being Azkaban) or avoid planar content, the Horizon Walker is not going to work for you. It’s also just weird to see such a high-magic ranger, in general. I don’t hate the Horizon Walker, but it’s an odd duck and I expect a deeply negative fanbase reaction.


Primeval Guardian

If you have been looking for a ranger archetype that is a serious defender, look no further. Maybe you loved the Warden class from 4e (I didn’t see it in play that much, but it had interesting things to say), the Greenwood Ranger kit in 2e, or this guy. The Primeval Guardian riffs on the ideas of the Oath of the Ancients paladin, as well: transformation to defend the forest as a force of nature.

  • By this point, an expanded spell list is no surprise. Primeval Guardians get classic druid spells – entangle, conjure animals, giant insect, insect plague. (The last of these hints at a darker spin on the archetype that isn’t deeply explored here.)
  • Guardian Soul at 3rd level is your big transformation. You can transform as often as you want, but it has one major drawback, so a lot of fights may be seriously inappropriate for using this feature. Your size becomes Large, which is great against some Huge or Gargantuan creatures. Your speed drops to 5 feet, which is the drawback. Your reach increases by 5 feet, and you gain a healthy pool of temporary hit points at the start of each of your turns (half your ranger level). This is a very big deal, but you need to already be in the position you pretty much plan to stay in when you transform.
  • Piercing Thorns adds 1d6 damage to one attack you make that hits per turn. Sure, it’s a fairly standard damage kicker.
  • Ancient Fortitude boosts your current and maximum hit points by 2 per ranger level while you’re in guardian form, and it carefully avoids taking away current hit points when your maximum hit points return to normal.
    • This feature accomplishes two things: it reflects the huge hit point total of the 4e warden, and it patches the fact that rangers need Strength or Dex and Wisdom, so they probably can’t spare one of their best ability scores for Con without totally failing at other core functions.
    • Sometime after the UA article went live, they edited the PDF so that Ancient Fortitude is a once-per-short-rest boost. Now that is rapid iteration.
  • Rooted Defense makes you radiate difficult terrain, with a 30-foot radius, that only affects your enemies.
    • I foresee this being a huge pain in the ass at the table, with a lot of stop-and-go changes in the DM’s narrative as the DM forgets to calculate a huge area of difficult terrain around the ranger (since the PCs get to ignore it, and marking auras on the map is more trouble than it’s worth). That was my experience of a similar feature in 4e’s warden, anyway.
  • Guardian Aura makes you radiate healing equal to half your ranger level to allies within 30 feet, but only works if they’re bloodied. (Goddammit, guys, just admit that you need Bloodied to be a technical rules term in 5e, because it’s just. So. Useful.) Between this

So yeah, it’s warden-y as all hell. Piercing Thorns is the only feature that isn’t central to the 4e warden design. It’s interesting that even on the day of release, Mearls says that Ancient Fortitude will probably see changes in playtesting, but hey, good to be up-front with internal expectations. It might deflate some of the fanbase’s tendency to get overheated with criticism. Or, you know, not. In general I like what I see here, though as with the Horizon Walker, it is unbelievably flashy compared to other ranger archetypes. It might be power-balance-neutral with the rest of the archetypes (hard to judge, and I’m not getting into it here), but it’s absolutely more rockstar to play, and that gives an impression that it is better.



This is the roguish archetype that is just a ranger in disguise, so we really have three ranger archetypes today. It’s one of the only times we’ve seen the same archetype name reused in a different class, since the fighter version of a non-spellcasting ranger was also called the Scout. I dunno, this is one of the places where there’s a small-but-vocal portion of the fanbase that will reject everything about the ranger until the class is rewritten from the ground up to not include spellcasting, but Mearls has made it superabundantly clear that that’s just not the direction they’re going. WotC tried it twice, didn’t like it, moved on.

Anyway, the rogue-Scout:

  • Survivalist grants proficiency and expertise in Nature and Survival. No real surprises here; this puts them on even footing with a ranger in their Natural Explorer terrain, aside from ability score differences.
  • Skirmisher means you don’t need to spend your precious bonus actions to Disengage nearly as often – you can spend your reaction doing some of that instead. The first creature to rush at you gets to attack, but the others have to rush to wherever you went with this movement instead. Which might be out of their maximum move distance.
  • Superior Mobility is a simple 10-foot speed boost, which also makes Skirmisher better.
  • Ambush Master draws somewhat on the ambush-related powers we’ve seen in the various UA rangers. Its function is really weird, and reminds me that initiative is one of Mearls’s least favorite rules that they didn’t change in 5e.
    • Anyway, if any of your foes are surprised, no matter when you go in the turn, you can spend your bonus action to move your allies’ initiative up by 5, though not higher than your roll. Because one enemy wasn’t paying attention, your allies go faster, possibly going faster than all of your enemies. Three-way fights aren’t nearly as common in gaming as they should be (because they’re cool), but this rule’s internal logic finishes breaking apart in a three-sided combat.
    • This also grants a brief speed boost to all of your allies. I have a hard time seeing how one enemy not paying attention makes everyone move faster, but I need to back off of the simulationism here.
  • Sudden Strike lets you spend your bonus action to make a second attack, and to use your Sneak Attack a second time in a turn as long as you’re attacking a different target.
    • Balance-wise, this is about on par with how an Assassin turns Sneak Attack hits into crits against surprised targets, but this feature’s situation is so much easier to establish than Assassinate or Death Strike. All you need is to be a bow rogue with two different enemies engaging your allies in melee. This could put you up to 22d6 + twice your Dex modifier. So, you know, whoa.

I don’t like Ambush Master, because I don’t like dicking around with the initiative order after the start of combat. Other than that, the Scout is so simple and stripped-down that it feels like not much happens. It holds back on the really interesting stuff until higher level, but the rogue combat script is one of the most tightly established of all the classes. It’s tough to add much more than passive bonuses without breaking something.

On a more personal note, my long-awaited son was born on the 11th, so please welcome Avicenna Stoddard. (If you don’t know why Avicenna is a boy’s name, you’re missing out on one of history’s great real-life D&D characters.)

  • MTi

    First of all, welcome Avicenna Stoddard, we hope you have a great time here on Earth.

    Secondly, I really like the nod they do to other settings. Now with the Horizon Walker, it is obvious they are thinking Planescape. Yes, the Portal Lore can be of an issue, but I believe you can bypass that easily as a DM. Although I find the said subclass a bit OP, I like what they did there.

    The same goes with the Primeval Guardian. This guy in a dungeon or secluded space could work wonders but in a more open spaced terrain I’m not very sure, at least until you get Rooted Defense, or just remain in your normal humanoid form and fight with your weapons.

    The scout is OK. I’m also not very fond of incorporating the Scout as part of the Rogue (yes, I did play a Ranger/Rogue back in 3.5e) but mechanically it works great. It kind of reminded me of the Scout of 3.5e. I also did not like Ambush Master at all, obviously they wanted to test this mechanic against the previous ideas they had with Scout and Initiative; I would prefer they put an updated version of these actually.

    So, all in all, I like the different themes explored. Mechanically all of them need some polish.

    • The Primeval Guardian has a lot of, um, idiosyncrasies that make it a bit strange in its current incarnation. Rangers don’t get heavy armor, so you’re relying on either half-plate and a good Dex or light armor and a great Dex to not just get hit every round. While not moving more than 5 feet while transformed. So you’re this weird flippy ninja tree while standing pretty much in place.

      I like that they are branching (har) out with the ranger, but the tree form definitely needs rethinking in my humble opinion to not be silly.

    • The Primeval Guardian’s new battle cry: “I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I OH GODDAMMIT JOSS.”

    • Colin McLaughlin

      I have a hard time with this argument in a general sense. Flippy ninja tree guy that stands in place is pretty much just drunken master :p

  • Colin McLaughlin

    Planar Warrior reinforces the awful structure that is Two-Weapon Fighting. Even if you have a magic weapon to ignore resistance, you get to deal an action-economy based damage kicker of a great type on the regular. Oh, and if you deal fire damage or whatever with your attack, say you have a sweet flametongue, you get to ignore their resistance to fire damage with it.

    Anyway, I greatly dislike this feature, and Portal Lore is dumb. As you point out, it is Primeval Awareness in small scale, but it has the added probably of being TOO useful at the same time.

    • Not to get all jargon-y here, but we might call Planar Warrior something like a “broad-spectrum ignore,” where you get to turn off a potentially wide range of the target’s abilities. Only in serious corner cases are you turning off more than three resistances at a time (like when you apply a blade poison to your flametongue slashing weapon, and toss in your d6 force damage), but still.

      From another perspective, it’s like saying: “Relative to the amount of damage my allies do to this thing, I am critting 100% of the time.”

  • Ish

    Count me as part of the crowd that wants a low- or no-magic Ranger. I guess I’m just a “sword and sorcery” guy at heart instead of a “high fantasy” guy.

    In most of the “sword and sorcery” stories, magic was a rare and mysterious force. Mostly used by the villains and if anyone on the protagonists’ side was a magician, they had probably devouted most of their lives to developing fairly low-end effects. The protagonists generally were men of action: combining intelligence, martial prowess, and luck in equal measure.

    D&D has been diverging from that formula since nearly Day One. So I get that it must not be what the market is hungry for… But I would like to see some of the “half caster” classes, like Ranger and Paladin, be given some sort of “Reverse Eldritch Knight” archetype option that _removes_ Spellcasting and replaces it with non-magical, skill-based tricks.

    • Yeah, literally no edition of D&D offers what you’re asking for. Maybe ironically, a rule set adapting Tolkien to the 5e chassis (Adventures in Middle-Earth) is a great low-magic ruleset, and could be turned to sword-and-sorcery quite easily.

    • Ish

      Oh, I’ve played every edition to date, so I’m well aware that D&D has always “defaulted” to something more on the High Fantasy end of the spectrum. 3.x and 4e seem, IMHO, to have been the highwater mark for that, with lower level BECMI and lower level 2e being the lowest ebb.

      3.x saw the great “Iron Heroes” supplement from Malhavoc Press. Although that book relied on more or less replacing the PHB with a whole new one. I’ve heard good things about the LotR supplement for 5e and will probably get it sooner or later. My concern there is that it might tie things too much to Tolkien’s legendarum and not work in other settings.

      Plus, as someone who mostly plays in and GMs for the Adventurers’ League these days, what I really want is an option that I can use in regular, bog-standard, D&D: A paladin and ranger archetype that arrests its Spellcasting advancement at third level, but gains other tricks to compensate.

    • The classes of AiME are chosen because they work for Tolkien, but they aren’t limited to Tolkien in any sense. There’s a lot of close reworks of existing 5e classes alongside new material, but the subclasses are all-or-nearly-all new.

  • Congrats! Welcome to the tribe Avicenna Stoddard.

  • Marandahir