Today I’m taking my best shot at the ranger and rogue subclasses of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. With seven in total, I may have to be a bit briefer than my usual. Or not. I’ll find out as I write, I guess!
The additional flavor text for rangers says, “A relationship with civilization informs every ranger’s personality and history.” That’s an awfully broad brush – the rejection-of-civilization idea here and in the Views of the World table fits almost none of the rangers I’ve seen people play. I’m so not a fan of the idea that rangers – more than even druids – have some superiority complex over cities.
This is particularly perplexing for the Monster Hunter, who is all about taming the demon-haunted wilderness. Those cities are the points of light that give the ranger anything to protect. I’ve criticized decades of ranger class design for making them a walking hate crime, and this is the same but different. (The fact that American politics is now wrapped up in telling the rural population that people in the cities aren’t real Americans doesn’t help my outlook here.) The Homelands and Sworn Enemies tables are not especially inspiring either, to my mind.
Oh, and if you think I don’t have strong opinions on ranger subclass design, you must be new around here. I published my own! (With help from Tribality Publishing, that is.)
Gloom Stalker Archetype
Hey, a subclass that has seen use at my table! In its UA incarnation, at least. At low levels (5th and below), it didn’t really sell itself as all that separate from a Hunter, but I think the player has had a good time. One of the interesting things about all three of the subclasses is that they expand the spellcasting options, as the Hunter and Beast Master notably didn’t. Five bonus spells known is not a joke when it comes to the ranger’s tiny number of spells known.
- The Gloom Stalker Spells are about evasiveness and control. They sell a ranger who works alone in overwhelmingly hostile environments. Trickster rangers? Interesting move.
- Dread Ambusher is a two-parter: first, a bonus to initiative checks, and second, you open combats with a blitz – boosted speed and an extra attack. This is very potent for seizing control of a fight in the opening moments, and only the fact that it’s just once per combat keeps it in bounds at all.
- Anything that hangs that heavily on the timing of the first round of combat is tricky, though. This feature relies on the DM’s goodwill more heavily than most. Calling for initiative when the enemy is out of range, or having enemies attack in waves but considering it all the same combat, takes the starch out of Dread Ambusher awful quick. (To the Gloom Stalker in my game, just trust that if something happens that screws you over in one fight, there will be other fights where it’s outstanding. Fortuna’s Wheel is always turning.)
- Umbral Sight grants or increases darkvision, and turns a monster’s darkvision from a strength to a weakness: you’re functionally invisible to darkvision, if conventional or more exotic forms of sight aren’t available. That stands to be a game-changer in a lot of situations, though it also renders you invisible to your allies, and it pushes you to stay outside the range of your party’s torchlight or light radius. This amounts to advantage on your attacks and disadvantage on incoming attacks in (potentially) a lot of situations. On the other hand, you’ll also be in a lot of situations where this feature does nothing. I’m worried about features that are dominating when they work, but trivialized by a candle. I guess it’s better to snuff a candle than curse the lightness, though.
- Iron Mind still feels out of place to me, as it expands your saving throw proficiencies. If there were a direct statement of the Gloom Stalker’s common prey that targeted Wisdom saves, this would do a better job of telling the archetype’s story.
- Stalker’s Flurry is almost Extra Attack 2, but you have to miss on one of your attacks to use it. Sure. I’m not convinced that this has anything at all to do with Gloom Stalker theme, but it’s a good, practical feature.
- Shadowy Dodge lets you exude gloom to impose disadvantage on rolls that don’t otherwise have advantage. Now we’re back on theme and I get why this is here.
This definitely brings the skirmisher side of the ranger to the fore. It grants some early heavy hitting, improved spell selection, and near-total dominance in a situation that might be common. It’s surprising how much emphasis this puts on weapon attacks. If I hadn’t been following this since its UA debut, I would have expected more manipulation of shadows, sort of in line with the Way of Shadows monk. Overall, I think this is fine, though that might change in either direction over the course of play.
Horizon Walker Archetype
Back in 3.x when the Horizon Walker debuted as a prestige class, it was about exploring ever more exotic locales – that is, adding more and more terrain masteries. The first five levels are natural terrains appearing on the Material Plane, while the last five levels are (nominally) supernatural terrains appearing outside of the Material Plane. Thematically, they’re great; mechanically, well, it kind of depends on how good your a la carte selections are. The 5e Horizon Walker subclass… isn’t that. This is the planar warrior, more suited to life in Sigil (that’s with a hard G, as in goat and .gif, because the Planescape designers were sadists). Anyway.
- The Horizon Walker spells are largely about planar interactions – protection from evil and good to interfere with creatures from other planes, misty step is short-range planar travel, and so on. Haste is an outlier, but a mighty practical one.
- Detect Portal senses nearby planar portals, as an action. It’s a necessary tool for this subclass theme, to be sure. Because it costs nothing, it’s less screwy than Primeval Awareness. Also it gives distance and direction and has a range limit of 1 mile, so that’s pretty great.
- Planar Warrior is a damage kicker that leans on the ranger’s action economy. I’m not sure why you choose a creature with this feature, rather than just imbuing your weapon with force. I’m also not super clear on what this damage kicker has to do with the planes.
- The bonus action puts this in tension with hunter’s mark, though the damage output does stack. If you’re managing hunter’s mark and moving it to new targets when you score kills, you’re sacrificing a few more rounds of Planar Warrior. In comparison with Colossus Slayer… I think Planar Warrior comes out to being reasonable. It also contains part of the Horizon Walker’s 11th-level damage boost (where Gloom Stalker gets Stalker’s Flurry).
- Ethereal Step is super-short-term etherealness, to let you pass through anything that doesn’t have an Ethereal presence… which is most things. It’s a great panic-button option. There’s a ton of potential for shenanigans with this, though it’s one-way travel until you finish a short rest, so there’s also a lot of potential for getting in over your head. DMs – the Horizon Walker in your party will totally break a dungeon with this at some point. It’s going to happen.
- Distant Strike is basically Nightwalker’s (edit: Nightcrawler, goddammit) whole fighting style. You teleport around the field, blinking from place to place, and if you spread your attacks around a little bit, you also get a third attack. Basically, it’s Extra Attack 2 with a movement boost, as long as there’s more than two enemies in range to attack. This feature is, to put it bluntly, insanely good. As with just about everything, it’s more generous to archer rangers than melee rangers. In probably more than half of all use cases, this beats the pants off of Whirlwind Attack or Volley.
- Spectral Defense lets you use your reaction to gain universal damage resistance against one attack (but not saving throw effects). Thematically, I don’t know why this works against scorching ray but not fireball, but balance-wise, it’s probably good that casters can still kick your teeth in with big damaging effects.
This looks to me like the bleeding edge of acceptable power level. It matches Gloom Walker’s situational dominance with… not-situational dominance. This is great at what it does (that is, raw damage output), and it does it in almost all common circumstances. Overall, Ethereal Step is not much of a defensive option compared to Iron Mind or the Hunter’s 7th-level options (which are themselves underwhelming in a lot of cases). By ranger standards, then, maybe a bit fragile before 15th level. That damage output, though…
Monster Slayer Archetype
Here I just want to say that I think this is a stupid concept for a subclass. It says on the tin that you do what literally every other character class does, because this is D&D, fer cryiin’ out loud. Also, there’s literally a subclass called Hunter already – what part of the Monster Slayer’s theme did the Hunter not cover?
- Monster Slayer spells are… surprisingly similar to the Horizon Walker spells (matching 2 of 5), and generally themed around abjuration and control. Zone of truth suggests a more inquisitorial role, targeting monsters that can disguise themselves in population centers or control minions.
- Hunter’s Sense lets you read a creature’s damage resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities, a limited number of times per day. This may be enough for you to piece together what the creature is, if it’s disguised. I love that this feature is blocked by things that block divination magic, for leaving a way for monsters to have secrets.
- Slayer’s Prey is another damage kicker, but more fire-and-forget than Planar Warrior. It eats one bonus action, not every bonus action it can get its hands on. It’s also 1d6 rather than 1d8, and doesn’t increase at 11th You can also switch targets whenever you want (and have a bonus action to spare), so there’s no use limit. Anyway, basically fine.
- Supernatural Defense lets you apply your Slayer’s Prey die to saves against your prey’s effects, and grapple checks to escape them. Considering that I spent a bunch of time (pre-OGL) doing similar stuff with a warlock’s hex die, I like this function just fine. It does imply a tunnel-vision weakness in the Monster Slayer – you’re only resistant to one creature, and that creature’s buddies can really mess you up. Great against bosses, but with issues in big brawls.
- Magic-User’s Nemesis… guys, do me a favor and call it Lady Teldra. I meant, uh, Godslayer. I meant, uh, Spellbreaker. Anyway, the name gets under my skin, because we haven’t called them “magic-users” in a couple of decades now. We stopped using it because it’s a clunker of a name. But I digress. It’s a reaction that can (if the target fails a save) counter a spell or teleport effect, limited to once per short rest. This is very good, especially if you can figure out when an enemy caster is using one of their biggest spells or trying to bail on a fight you’re about to win.
- Slayer’s Counter is defensive/offensive reaction, limited to your Slayer’s Prey target. You make an attack (so it boosts damage), and if your attack hits, you also pass the save. This is incredible against controlling spells (which are almost all no-effect-on-save), and merely good against damaging spells (but hey, you got to shoot or stab them also). You can use this any number of times, as long as you have a reaction available. It may not stop fleeing enemies, but it’s devastating in a lot of high-level situations.
Okay, this is the ranger that goes deeper on defense than damage output. It’s interesting to see what that even looks like. The answer is, of course, blue-decking, though it could be a lot more obnoxious about that than it is. Slayer’s Counter is probably the most aggravating feature here, form the DM’s point of view, and even that is in bounds for a 15th-level subclass feature. Mechanically, I like what I see here, and I’d just call this ranger the Inquisitor to negate my nitpicking of the nomenclature.
The generalizations that the opening flavor text makes about each class continues its string of applying to a minority of all rogues. In this case, it’s the emphasis on acquisitive drives – sure, that’s on point for the Thief, and probably the Arcane Trickster and Mastermind. (But not Nate Ford, so your argument is invalid.) It fits some Assassins (who are here for the contract’s payout, not the target’s treasure), and some Swashbucklers, especially the piratical ones. Inquisitives and Scouts? Uh no.
That said, I like the Guilty Pleasures table just fine. The Adversaries and Benefactors tables, though – these are solid fucking gold. These tables rip off Blades in the Dark’s character connections in the best possible way. Literally every class should have something exactly like these, as a core part of character creation. These are doing the work that Bonds were created for, and they establish setting and clarify your position in that setting. This is an A++ topic for a PDF to expand upon.
Also, this is another area where I did a bunch of design work in the misty reaches of the past. Here are my long-ago takes on the Inquisitive and the Mastermind. I’d love to be the kind of person who would be utterly unbiased by this, but I am only human. Well, humanoid. Bipedal and largely sapient, all right? It’ll have to do.
This is the one for being a detective, and for hyper-specializing in a subset of rogue skills.
- Ear for Deceit sets the d20 result (before modifiers) for Insight to a floor of 8, which is going to be enough to succeed a lot of the time. It’s not a perfect polygraph, but it’s not too shabby if ou’ve committed to it with Expertise. I wouldn’t blame you for pushing it off to the second round of Expertise slots.
- Eye for Detail functionally folds Search into Cunning Action. Good for dealing with hidden or invisible opponents, and probably some kinds of complex traps and skill-challenge-oriented fights.
- Insightful Fighting is kind of the seeing-in-slo-mo thing from the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies. You turn a successful Insight check (as a bonus, very cunning, nay, even mustelid-like, action) into permission to Sneak Attack that target for a minute as long as you don’t have disadvantage. I like this feature, but man, these features are a lot of stuff at 3rd
- (But you don’t get anything else until 9th, because that’s rogues for you.) Steady Eye is… sort of a weird choice, and doesn’t respect the (potential) natural flow of decision-making in a turn.
- You declare your action and bonus action in any order, and you can spend your move in at any point in that process… let’s say you move half your speed to get to line-of-sight of something relevant. Then you spend your bonus action to spot a hidden creature with advantage, thanks to Eye for Detail. You detect a creature 15 feet away, and have a melee weapon drawn. What happens next? Do you… run over and stab the creature? Now you’ve moved more than half your speed, but… do you retroactively lose advantage? Do we only care about “at the time you take the bonus action”? Are you locked into moving no further?
- Unerring Eye gives you a detect magic shenanigans that you can use a limited number of times per long rest. It isn’t true seeing – it’s “would now be an interesting time to have true seeing?” Funny enough, this is the kind of question that matters so much in LARPing, and only intermittently in tabletop. Anyway, even knowing there’s something hinky going on is enough to break a lot of mysteries, so be prepared for that if you’re running mysteries at 13th level and above. (Limited uses per day still leaves some tension in the matter, though! I like that.)
- Eye for Weakness gooses your Sneak Attack damage, using Insightful Fighting as a hook. If you can spare a bonus action early in your attack against any one creature, your sustained damage can catch up to the Assassin’s opening burst damage (though, uh, Death Strike is no joke and it might need to be a long fight).
Overall, the Inquisitive turns contested skill use into combat viability in a way we mostly don’t see outside of grapple builds and subclasses. I can’t quite make up my mind that I love what goes on here, but I am enough of a fan of the characters it’s trying to model that it would be hard-pressed not to go for it, if I were playing a rogue with decent Int and Wis. (Oh, right, that’s the other thing – the Inquisitive is multiple-attribute-dependent as hell, because it’s so skill-dependent. So that’s why most versions of Holmes tank Cha so hard…)
I love me some masterminds, though they are super hard to play in a game if the other players aren’t explicitly invested in you doing that. The Leverage RPG and Blades in the Dark go deep on mechanics for that leading/supporting rogue role. So how ‘bout 5e? (Yes, I know that the Mastermind was first released in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, but I didn’t write a breakdown of that book, so here we are.)
- Master of Intrigue is here to make sure you can play chess or poker, so that the showrunners can run scenes showing either your strategic brilliance or your ability to bluff your ass off. The disguise kit and forgery kit are practical necessities. Accent and dialect mimicry is an awesome detail and I really like that it’s a thing.
- Master of Tactics essentially folds Help into Cunning Action (not technically – it just makes it part of your bonus action economy) and stretches out the range at which you can Help. Tossing out advantage on attacks and checks is obviously great, but since your teammates will want this all the time, it’s taxing your action economy for doing other Cunning Action stuff. On the gripping hand, Nate is often not the center of the action in exactly this way. I’d also potentially argue for Mastermind as a mechanical representation of Alec Hardison, since he’s The Guy In the Chair.
- Insightful Manipulator is the social variant of the Battle Master’s Know Your Enemy feature. I am a huge fan, and not just because I wrote exactly that for Seelie elves in an EN5IDER release (that will get folded into my eventual book on fey). DMs, you should always try to take this feature up on its offer of an additional piece of information about the NPC, because it’s a free opportunity for exposition.
- Misdirection is a bit like the Drunken Master’s Redirect Attack (in Tipsy Sway), except that it negates the initial attack roll against you (instead of being triggered by a miss) and requires cover from a creature. It’s really for when you have a knife to someone’s throat. Sure, it also means you can hide behind allies and redirect attacks onto the party tank, but what you really want is to hold hostages effectively with knife or flintlock pistol. I like this feature a lot for the situation it’s communicating, though I’d like to see a hostage-taking feature or subsystem to help it along – “while you have a creature grappled” is much too good of a hook, for example.
- This should be a strong combat feature for avoiding one attack per round. It’s going to be better in a lot of cases than Uncanny Dodge, when you can set it up. I’m still not clear on how this interacts with features that ignore cover. (Not that standard NPCs have those – but I hope I’m not blowing your mind with “you could give feats to NPCs to juice them up.”)
- Soul of Deceit is how you beat polygraph or mind-reading magic to be the best lie-smith in the world. It doesn’t confer immunity to skill-based discernment, which makes me super happy. Sure, magic should matter, but it would break the whole dynamic if an Inquisitive’s Wisdom (Insight) were ineffective against the Mastermind’s Charisma (Deception). This is a pretty solid feature overall, if a bit low-key for 17th
I like the features available here for antihero or lovable-scumbag styling. It goes lighter on the leader/support function than I’d like to see. You’ve got Master of Tactics and… everything else is fairly selfish in style. Information-gathering through Insightful Manipulator is good, though the information is not the most broadly applicable, and Soul of Deceit is great for being the guy who takes the fall and goes to magic interrogation for awhile (another key theme of BitD’s Spider playbook). All told, I think I’d like to see a second feature at either 9th or 13th that is a bit less situational and more leader-like.
This is the ranger that is not a ranger. If you want a non-spellcasting ranger, this is (probably) the best offer you’re gonna get from WotC. Also, it’s a good way to fit a rogue into a campaign centered on a tribal or rural society.
- Skirmisher lets you skitter away from enemies when they end their turn next to you, which means you’re taking that enemy’s attacks but maybe not getting pinned down and swarmed. It’s great if you’re playing an archer without the Crossbow Expert feat, since it hugely improves your chance to be clear of melee threat at the start of your turn (saving you a bonus action to Disengage).
- Survivalist gives you proficiency and Expertise in Nature and Survival. That’s a great ranger-like skill buff.
- Superior Mobility is a speed buff that also covers your climbing and swimming speeds, if any. Since Skirmisher depends on your walking speed, it boosts that too.
- Ambush Master is a lift (or a close lift, I’m not looking it up right now) from at least one of the alt-ranger UA drafts. You’re likely to go first, and your whole team gets some beatdown help on your first-round target. It’s a long time to wait for your first offensive feature, but this can make a big difference in cracking a tough fight in the first round.
- Sudden Strike is probably the most incredible sustained damage boost I’ve ever seen a rogue subclass get. You have to spread the damage to two targets, but you’re looking at Sneak Attacking two targets per round. It’s still taking several rounds to catch up to the terrifying potential of Death Strike, but it doesn’t rely on surprise, it’s another chance to land Sneak Attack in a round that your first attack misses, and there’s no saving throw. I mean, you’re waiting for 17th level and the rest of the Scout is relatively lower power, but this is huge.
Ultimately the Scout is a slow build, but it’s a worthy non-spellcasting ranger. I might wish for something in the vein of Favored Terrain to help cover the ranger niche, but it’s not the biggest deal. If you’re especially good at perfect positioning on a tactical grid, those early levels look a good bit better. I like this pretty well, and in the right campaign frame, I’d play it.
This is a front-line melee rogue – one of the only roguish archetypes to explicitly care about melee, in fact. This is a concept I always wanted to play in 4e; there were some rapier-friendly powers that looked like a lot of fun to me. A friend of mine – hi, Jeremiah! – played a variation on it in our 4e Eberron game, and he had a good time with it. Also, there was this game, you probably heard of it… 7th Sea? Yeah, you could wrap up most of that whole game in this subclass.
- Fancy Footwork is opportunity-attack denial, folded into your melee attacks. It’s got a lot of the same overall effect as the Scout’s Skirmisher, but loading it into a different part of the round changes things up. Since you don’t have a subclass-specific bonus action use until 13th level, this can situationally free you up for off-hand attacks (super on theme) or a Dash or Hide. If your Dash takes place at the end of a rope, God bless you for leaning into theme. Since your off-hand attack can target a different creature, you can avoid OAs from two enemies trying to pin you down. Regrettably, this feature is just the third part of the Mobile feat.
- Rakish Audacity boosts initiative and lets you Sneak Attack if you’re isolated from everyone but your target. Basically, this is about positioning yourself in combat for showboating, which is exactly what this feature says on the tin. I disliked this the first time I saw it, but I’ve warmed to it. Pair this with Sentinel to maximize your chances to both lock down opponents and land Sneak Attacks on your reaction.
- Panache is both a combat feature and a social interaction option. The combat side costs your action – ideal for an extended standoff – and is a taunt leading to a duel. Your friends have to respect the duel, but in the right circumstance it can be a huge inducement to set up Rakish Audacity. (Or get your ass handed to you.) The social interaction part is a charm effect, which means you’re either tying them up if it does become a fight, or gaining some insurance for the rest of that interaction. Panache is a great feature for at least a decent variety of situations.
- Elegant Maneuver supports your feats of derring-do with advantage. Moving around a ship or royal banquet or whatever probably needs some skill checks, after all.
- Master Duelist is, in essence, a backswing when you whiff with an attack. This doesn’t look a lot like a 17th-level feature to me, but it does mean that once per short rest, when all your other Sneak Attack options are failing you, you can murder someone on the follow-through. It’s… fine? But underwhelming when held up to the other 17th-level rogue features.
The main thing I want that I’m not getting is explicit support for bucklers or cloaks as off-hand defensive tools. Is that super-specific and not supported elsewhere in 5e? Sure, so what? It’s in the name of the archetype. You’re strong in both melee and social scenes, but you’re not getting the +3d6 or double Sneak Attack that we see in XGTE’s other archetypes.
Whatever else I might say about the ranger and roguish archetypes in this article, their gameplay loops in combat are clear and I admire that. Gloom Stalker is probably the weakest on that point, since you can’t control some of the things that make it special, while Swashbuckler and Inquisitive are probably the strongest. (Horizon Walker is the most potent, but optimal play takes a lot of careful judgment calls.
Next time around, I’m going to do my damnedest to finish the subclasses of XGTE.