After a week off, I’m back to finish off the ranger, like a horror-movie sequel. Throughout the series to date, we’ve seen the ranger transition from a super-fighter with a smattering of mystical abilities and an obligation to travel light and fend for herself, to a lightly-armored skirmishing warrior (with or without spellcasting, depending on edition). As in most things, 5e returns the ranger to an earlier thematic and mechanical place, while preserving as many of the well-learned lessons of 4e as possible. We also have a playtest alternate ranger to explore.
5e Player’s Handbook
Let’s take it as read that Mearls & co. discovered the historical problem with other classes looting the ranger’s Unique Stuff before or during the playtest, and the 5e ranger is trying to fix that. Based on broad fan reaction (and the fact that WotC is working on alternative class designs), something doesn’t click. In fact, I think it’s more than one thing.
The ranger gets:
- d10s for Hit Dice, a bit of return to form following a smaller “hit die” in 4e. Only the barbarian has it better.
- Light and medium armor, and shields.
- Medium armor is an odd duck in 5e. Light armor is great for Dex-based rangers – bows and finesse weapons. Medium armor is underwhelming for Strength rangers, who need a 14 in Dex just to feel like they’re getting by. It puts you within one feat of getting heavy armor, but if you wanted to use Stealth ever, that’s a pretty poor purchase.
- Needing a pretty good Dex in addition to good Strength and Constitution means that Strength rangers have a tougher road ahead of them than Dex rangers, who can probably get by with a 10 Strength, tops. God help you if you wanted a decent saving throw DC for your spells too.
- Proficiency in Strength and Dexterity saving throws, suggesting agility and athletics over mental resilience or even pure fortitude.
- Three proficient skills from a tolerably broad list; they can potentially be useful in a solid variety of non-combat situations.
- This series of articles has practically been a polemic on Favored Enemy as a concept, and here it is again. This time, you choose one creature type out of a list of thirteen, or two races of humanoids. You get a benefit when tracking them and recalling lore about them, and you learn their language. You get two additional favored enemy selections over the course of your progression.
- Note the total absence of a direct combat benefit. They wanted to keep you from feeling screwed over when your DM didn’t pit you against your favored enemy early and often. Good thought, but this implementation means that when you are up against your favored enemy, you’re scarcely better off than someone who has never heard of that creature type before. The combat payoff comes later. Much
- Natural Explorer is one of the Big Things to separate the ranger from other classes. In theory, exploration is one of the three great pillars of 5e play, and with a ranger in the party, the exploration game gets a lot easier. However, you gain these benefits in just one terrain type out of eight. If all eight were equally likely, the ranger would be good at her job 12.5% of the time – not exactly a glowing recommendation. This eventually climbs to three terrain types, by 10th level – so the greatest ranger in the world is still good at exploring less than half of all terrain types. This is one of the big supports of the Wanderer theme.
- Compare this to the ways the DW ranger did the same thing.
- The issue here is the chasm between mechanics and expected theme. It’s sensible game balance and doesn’t involve a lot of fiddly number-crunching, but the effect on gameplay is at odds with the source fiction and the average player’s expectations.
- One of the main effects is functionally Expertise (cf. bards and rogues) with all Intelligence or Wisdom checks related to your favored terrain. This could be a mighty lot of Expertise!
- As a side note, Favored Enemy and Natural Explorer are the crux of the “tracking system.” Since 5e doesn’t get into detailed breakdowns of skill use, tracking is a lightly-defined function of Wisdom (Survival). Only here do we learn that rangers can definitely glean the number of travelers, their size, and the elapsed time since their passage. 5e’s refusal to define its skill system makes weird things happen sometimes.
- Fighting Styles are a subset of the options open to fighters, specifically closing off Great Weapon and Protection. I think that both of those exclusions are a mistake – I see nothing in the world out-of-theme with a greatsword- or longspear-wielding ranger, or with a shield-bearing ranger. Even though it isn’t framed as a restriction, it still feels like one.
- The point here, I presume, is to communicate that some of the paladin’s and ranger’s combat ability comes from martial training and discipline, contrasting with barbarians, rogues, Valor bards, and blade-pact warlocks.
- Spellcasting works the same for rangers as it does for paladins, but with a very different spell selection. It’s a huge part of the ranger’s combat function, but they don’t have the pure smiting capacity of the paladin. Instead, they gain AoE damage on their ranged attacks, or a damage-over-time effect with a rather serious snare. Or they can just cast hunter’s quarry, which is probably the right answer, and because of its Concentration duration, is mutually exclusive with many other spellcasting options.
- Ensnaring strike is so close to being good. If you could stick-and-move your way through the battle, hitting each enemy once and casting this spell on them, you could work your way toward a very respectable overall damage output.
- The result is a class that is either pretty good against a single target, or great against closely-packed groups. If you squint, you can see the hunter/scout split of 4e Essentials, shoved into spell selection and the Hunter subclass.
- Most of the spell list’s variety is in utility effects, sustaining the ranger’s superiority in non-combat situations – but rangers have Spells Known, which means they’re much less likely to have the right spell for this Eleven spells known out of forty-six ranger spells is not great odds of having the right tool for the job, which strongly encourages rangers to just pick combat spells and have done with it.
- Primeval Awareness is the ranger’s answer to Divine Smite, and someone owes rangers an apology for it. Detecting creatures of a short list of “unnatural” types within one mile is not especially useful if you can’t narrow it down a whole lot more; even a cardinal direction would be a big help. Expanding the radius (and therefore the uncertainty) if you’re in your favored terrain is only intermittently a benefit. It wants so badly to be a “free,” low-rent commune with nature, but it doesn’t reach that mark.
- Extra Attack at 5th level.
- Land’s Stride is all about ease of movement in the wilderness, both for magical and nonmagical plant-based obstruction.
- Once I start thinking about what “pass through nonmagical plants without being slowed by them” looks like, this goes from an interesting probably non-magical ability to an odd very magical ability, because a straightforward reading of that sentence has the ranger phasing through tree trunks.
- I like that Hide in Plain Sight isn’t overtly magical, but is about training and preparation. It does mean that it comes up less often, though, and could probably stand to be shifted to appear earlier in the class progression.
- Vanish is a more limited version of Cunning Action, and comes at 14th Just giving rangers Cunning Action at some level higher than 2nd would have stayed completely in-theme – tell me that Dash and Disengage aren’t spot-on for the ranger’s Skirmisher themes. Vanish also makes you untraceable by nonmagical means.
- Feral Senses is… more or less Blindsense (a rogue class feature), but higher level, and kind of worse, but with thrice the range. Just giving them 30’ Blindsense while not deafened would have been absolutely fine, and simpler.
- Foe Slayer adds your Wisdom bonus to damage rolls against favored enemies. As so many have noted, this is one of the least impressive 20th-level “capstone” powers in the game.
Without the support of its subclasses, the ranger doesn’t carry all that much reliable combat punch, compared to its closest relative, the paladin. There’s no parallel of Improved Divine Smite’s passive damage bonus or the many and varied defensive boosts offered by Divine Health, Aura of Protection, and Aura of Courage. Not that I want to see more immunities floating around, believe me! It’s just that the game does present a nature-focused warrior type with shockingly good attacks and defenses, and it’s the Oath of the Ancients paladin.
What do the ranger subclasses bring to the table, though?
At each of four levels, the Hunter gets to choose one ability from a list of two or three. 3rd and 11th level increase offensive ability, while 7th and 15th level grant defenses.
- Colossus Slayer, Giant Killer, and Horde Breaker all showed up at one point or other in the playtests as subclasses unto themselves, but here they’re all about whether you’re more striker (Colossus Slayer), retributive striker (Giant Killer, pretty much has to be melee), or controller (Horde Breaker).
- Colossus Slayer is a passive damage boost that doesn’t work against uninjured enemies, and would absolutely be my go-to for any Hunter, as it requires almost no management to use. If this ability scaled to +2d8 at 11th level and +3d8 at 17th level, it would be a one-stop-shopping fix for the ranger’s damage output issues – to say nothing of invalidating the other two options at this level.
- Giant Killer costs the ranger’s reaction and only works when an enemy attacks you. As a result, it’s not really getting the job done if you take more than one attack during your off-turn, or take no attacks – that is, it gives away too much control by encouraging your opponents to do too many different things that you don’t like. Multiattack Defense improves one of those situations for you; if the ranger had a way to force enemies to attack her, we’d be getting somewhere. Getting to hit a target more than once per round does get some help from hunter’s mark, but this ability is triggered by risking losing Concentration.
- Horde Breaker is good if your enemies do you the favor of clustering, but here again the ranger depends on the enemy to make a bad decision in order to use her abilities. This kind of ability worked better in 4e, where forced movement was so much more available. This ability doesn’t get any help from hunter’s mark, but hail of thorns and better AoE shots mean that when things are working for you, they’re working quite well.
- Escape the Horde, Multiattack Defense, and Steel Will are all nice for being passive abilities.
- Escape the Horde is good for melee skirmishers and archers, but Disengaging as a bonus action is better in the most common situation – just to highlight how outstanding Cunning Action is.
- Multiattack Defense is another way to convert probable hits into misses, but it only comes up if the enemy attacks you more than once in a round; this is quite common at 7th level and above. Depending on the options your allies give the enemy, it either makes you a great defender (if the enemy has no other targets), or a striker they really can’t afford to focus fire on (if they do have other targets).
- Steel Will is not for any particular tactical situation – it just makes you more resistant to the frightened condition. If you have a 10th-level paladin in your party, this is a great non-ability.
- Volley and Multiattack are nominally ways to improve the ranger’s damage output at 11th They have the problem of making the ranger choose either ranged or melee combat, when one of the class’s strengths should be switching comfortably between the two. Compare this to the paladin and fighter, whose damage-boosting features aren’t conditional (since basically nothing is resistant to radiant damage). It also means you get no damage boost against single targets or spread-out enemies. I maintain that this ability should have read Extra Attack (2), or improved upon the 3rd-level subclass feature directly.
- Evasion, Stand against the Tide, and Uncanny Dodge are all very rogue-friendly features – two of them are core rogue features, and another is just thematically trickster-y. There’s a thematic disconnect for Strength rangers, as a result.
- Evasion and Uncanny Dodge are both great for reducing damage, and it’s hard to know which is better. Personally, I like Uncanny Dodge for working on any one source of damage per round, even if it does take your reaction. (I love active defenses.)
- Stand against the Tide is a potentially very good indirect damage boost, all the better if you use Escape the Horde or Multiattack Defense to make the enemy miss more often. It’s a shame that it competes with Giant Killer for your reaction.
The Hunter subclass, then, is all about changing how you fight. It doesn’t refer to hunting beasts with stealth at all – instead, it’s about whether you hunt single behemoths (dragons, giants) or creatures that appear in vast numbers (humanoids). Both of these situations come up often enough that you’ll get to use your subclass features regularly. I wish there were a little more theme to go with these mechanics – the subclass doesn’t have a narrative throughline. (I like having a lot of fairly meaningful choice-points, though.) On the other hand, if you’re looking for Skirmisher and Guardian elements, they’re loud and proud in the Hunter.
The Beast Master does what it says on the tin, sort of, by mastering the hell out of one beast. They preserved the action economy of 4e Beast Masters, but without encounter or daily powers to let both ranger and beast act in concert more often.
- Ranger’s Companion is your meet-cute with your furry, scaly, or feathery friend. You’re choosing a creature of CR ¼ or lower, and improving their stats from there. The improvement is real, but possibly not all that impressive. 80 hit points at 20th level does not sound like a lot of survivability to me.
- Action economy: spend your action to make your companion do anything more than move when you move. When you gain the Extra Attack feature, you attack once when you command it to attack.
- Exceptional Training is the big improvement to the pet’s action economy. Dash, Disengage, Dodge, or Help now cost your bonus action rather than your action. This points to a solid archer, great-weapon, or weapon-and-shield ranger getting advantage on her first attack each round. It also closes the door on two-weapon fighting.
- Alternately, have your companion Shove with its attack – or get a wolf companion and hope for a free knockdown with its bite. Use your bonus action for two-weapon fighting, and get one main-hand attack from the way your Extra Attack feature now works. (This approach, which gets no benefit from Exceptional Training, is pretty much just better, if only because it grants advantage on all attacks you make in the round.
- To put that a different way: your companion does not improve your apparent damage, just your accuracy. A lot of fans have been disappointed here, but in a way it’s like the 4e Avenger, who got no damage kicker, but received a mechanic like 5e’s advantage to make damage output more reliable.
- Bestial Fury gives your companion an Extra Attack. It’s the expected 11th-level damage boost, and kind of highlights the issues with relying on Multiattack or Volley to boost the Hunter’s damage.
- Share Spells is one of those classic companion benefits from 3.x, improving the ranger’s spellcasting efficiency.
The Beast Master is also about changing how you fight, by making you do less of it. They don’t especially Skirmish or Guard in a direct way, but the companion is pretty good at both. Your job is to send your pet into danger and jump in when it’s convenient. I’d like to see an expanded companion list, scaling creatures like drakes (dragonkind, not waterfowl), lions, and other things down to CR ¼. I’m great with not having 3.x’s number-crunching system for unlocking greater companions as the ranger levels – I’ve never been sold on “trading up” when the narrative really wants the player and character to care strongly about the companion. Even so, I think the mechanical solution here is treasure rarity ratings on higher-CR creatures that you can bond with as companions. There won’t be too many magic items to improve the ranger’s companion, so upgrades as part of a quest reward would be cool. The whole class has plenty of space to get buffed up before it’s overpowered.
The ranger spell list involves one spell for melee weapon attacks, four for ranged weapon attacks, one to grant more ranged attacks, one to boost damage on a single target (hunter’s mark, the standard by which all other ranger spells are judged), three for healing, and so on through other defensive and utility effects. The short version is that you can’t cover all or even most of the bases with just eleven spells known. As an alert reader pointed out to me, several of these spells are lifted not from previous rangers, but from 4e’s Seeker class.
The core problems of the Player’s Handbook ranger include its poorer damage output – without spells, their damage pretty nearly flatlines at 5th level, because Volley and Multiattack depend so heavily on positioning. Bestial Fury is solid, but you’ve got to really know what you’re doing to get acceptable results from the Beast Master in the first place. (I never recommend cruising the class guides for best builds and tactics, but I’ll make an exception for the Beast Master.) Damage output issues are fairly easy to fix, in the ways I’ve described above.
Another problem is that the mechanics of Favored Enemy and Favored Terrain don’t connect with the fiction well at all. Favored Enemy has lost the last of its teeth, which is fine because 1989 (ahem, 1e) was the last time it was a good fit with theme. With Favored Terrain, I don’t recall a time when any ranger-like character in fiction said, “Sorry, guys, I’m totally out of my depth now that we’ve changed terrain types.”
Let’s move on. We have a whole alternate ranger class to cover, as well as a playtest ranger archetype, the Deep Stalker.
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, and everyone instantly noticed that the Revised Ranger has no spell slots to power it. Whatever, it’s a playtest, slips happen.
- 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. They can still be disrupted if you lose Concentration.
- 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 drew substantial flak from the broader community upon release. 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.)
The Deep Stalker
(Keep in mind that this is for the Player’s Handbook ranger, not the Revised Ranger. There’s a lot of ranger playtesting going on.)
This archetype is nominally about superior play in the Underdark, but the Underdark is more of a unifying theme than a requirement for function – very good move there.
- Underdark Scout is a feature with a lot going on. It does three different things, all of them handy: +10 Speed on the first round of an encounter, a free extra attack if you make an attack on the opening round of an encounter, and a Hide attempt as a bonus action at the end of each turn after the first (rendering Vanish mostly obsolete, unless I misread).
- This is immensely dominating Skirmisher power. Giving you something else to do with your bonus action is a mixed blessing – the ranger has plenty of options competing for each bonus action. It also reads to me like a sidelong effort to fix what was wrong with the Revised Ranger’s Skirmisher’s Stealth.
- Deep Stalker Magic addresses the limitation on Spells Known by granting five more. They’re all pretty good, but greater invisibility is huge.
- Giving Hunters and Beast Masters their own five bonus spells would be fine by me.
- Iron Mind is here because the, er, Under is dark and full of terrors. It would make more sense to me if it were Intelligence saves, to protect rangers from mind flayers, but whatever.
- Stalker’s Flurry turns a missed attack into a mere feint – once per round when you miss, you make a free attack.
- Oh look, 11th level – this is a way to boost reliability rather than potential damage. It looks like they’re designing inventive ways to grant something less powerful than Extra Attack (2).
- Stalker’s Dodge is an odd little conditional defensive feature, spending your reaction to impose disadvantage on an attack if it doesn’t have advantage. It’s not particularly impressive as a 15th-level feature, but the archetype has enough else going on that this didn’t need to be great also.
I don’t want to suggest that this Deep Stalker is meant for any particular ranger. Certainly not their #1 headlining Forgotten Realms character. The Skirmisher, Wanderer, and Guardian are all present here, though Guardian maybe least of the three. It’s not a bad effort within the context of the Player’s Handbook ranger to address the class’s issues.
The 5e ranger misses the mark both mechanically and thematically. WotC has met that fan response vigorously, but with care and deliberation that they’ve shown throughout 5e’s playtest and since release. No few fans have made good efforts to address the class’s issues as well. The class does have an identity again, though it’s still an uneasy balance between function and theme, more so than in most of 5e.