UA 2023 – Player’s Handbook Playtest 6 Breakdown, Part Six
We’re getting close to the end of this packet, folks. It’s only been one (1) life-age of the Earth since I started! This time out, we’re doing rangers.
If you’re aware enough of D&D fandom to read this site – like even 1% aware of what’s up in D&D – you already know that the 5e.14 ranger is an incredibly controversial class. Slightly fewer of you know about the substantial changes offered in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Nor is this their first UA draft of the class.
- Deft Explorer cuts one of the ranger’s Expertise slots, replacing it with a nod to Natural Explorer’s terrain-linked benefits. You choose two of the eight terrain types, you can replace one on a Long Rest, and it grants it advantage on Int (Nature) checks for that terrain and Wis (Survival) checks to track there.
- This is much simpler than the extensive bullet-point list of 5e.14, and because it offers fewer absolute statements, I think there’s more hope that DMs will lean into the tension of the rolls rather than handwaving that game moment. More than anyone else, though, rangers need exploration gameplay to deliver their narrative.
- I’d really like to see Int (Nature) relevant to a terrain type come up a lot more often in published adventures, to teach DMs interesting challenges for this skill to shine.
- Spellcasting has changed in a couple of key ways: one, you can now change one prepared spell per Long Rest (this is pointlessly stingy, let them prepare spells like Druids), and they no longer get cantrips.
- It remains hard to have a good enough Wisdom score to get to a decent spell save DC for the many, many Primal spells that involve saving throws, though, so leaning into non-saving-throw spells is ideal for many builds. (This is a major problem throughout the class.)
- At least they’ve abandoned the rigid “you prepare a number of spells equal to your slots at that level” business. By about 5th level, though, we do see each class preparing the same number of spells as they have spell slots (not counting free always-prepared spells).
- Weapon Mastery lets you use the mastery properties of two weapon types, which you can change on a Long Rest. For many Rangers, two is probably enough, but the ranger I played in Tomb of Annihilation needed at least three – I had three magic weapons and switched between them situationally.
- It’s interesting that the changelog strongly suggests that you can either have cantrips or Weapon Mastery, but not both. I hope for an exception for Bladelocks.
- Favored Enemy at 2nd level no longer lets you use Hunter’s Mark without Concentration; the changelog says that was overpowered. (‘kay.) Instead, you gain a number of free uses per Long Rest equal to your Wisdom modifier.
- So 1-2, probably? Meh.
- Also the current rules for Hunter’s Mark are just awful. Freebie castings are never upcast, so that’s just 1d6 Force damage 1/turn. Barely worth your Concentration.
- At absolute minimum, this feature should make it so you can’t lose Concentration on Hunter’s Mark from damage taken, just so you can go be a melee Ranger with confidence.
- This would also be a great candidate for getting something back per Short Rest.
- Fighting Style at 2nd level, as in 5e.14, lets you choose Archery, Defense, Dueling, or Two-Weapon Fighting. There is not now and has never been a good reason not to include Great Weapon and Protection on this list, notwithstanding the fact that Protection is badly designed. (It kills me because they fixed this and then reverted it in UA.)
- You get subclass features at 3, 7, 11, and 15.
- You get Ability Score Improvements/feats at 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19.
- Extra Attack at 5th level.
- Roving at 6th level increases your speed by 10 feet while you aren’t in Heavy Armor, and grants a Climb and Swim Speed equal to your Speed. That’s so straightforward that it’s hard to even usefully rephrase it! Anyway, this comes straight out of TCOE’s alternate ranger features and is attested in the previous UA draft. Very solid exploration feature.
- Conjure Barrage at 9th level adds Conjure Barrage to your prepared spells. This spell is less awful than it was when it was a Hunter subclass feature, but the spell and the feature have nothing to do with the Ranger narrative. Melee rangers don’t shoot a cone of swords; even splitting your arrow into a million billion arrows to fire in a cone is a stretch.
- Deft Explorer Improvement at 9th level grants Expertise in a second skill, and two more terrain types for Deft Explorer. So now you have a 50% chance to have the right terrain, assuming it’s natural terrain in the first place.
- Tireless at 10th level is back to its TCOE version, where you can gain 1d8 + Wis mod Temporary Hit Points as an action, Wis mod/Long Rest, and clear one level of Exhaustion per Short Rest.
- In TCOE, it’s still 1d8 + Wis mod, but you get PB/Long Rest uses, and that’s a big help. With a Wis mod of +1 to +2 – which is, again, likely for many 10th-level Ranger builds – this is just not much to write home about.
- Nature’s Veil at 14th level lets you turn invisible (“give yourself the Invisible condition” is terribly labored wording), Wis mod/Long Rest. Unlike in TCOE, it lasts until the end of your next turn, so you can get two rounds of attacks at Advantage, plus one round of enemy attacks.
- It does mean you’re likely to just cakewalk through one fight, and have no feature at all the rest of the day. This is a good – nigh perfect – candidate for changing to 1/Short Rest.
- Conjure Volley at 17th level… because Conjure Barrage at 9th came too close to making sense. The spell is always prepared for you. This one is a cylinder of spectral weapons raining from the sky.
- Feral Senses at 18th level grants Blindsight to a distance of 30 feet. Fine, no problem.
- Foe Slayer is once again the 20th-level capstone feature. Its effect is now more Wisdom-linked: when you miss an attack against a Hunter’s Mark target, you can add your Wisdom modifier to the roll, and when you hit that target with an attack roll, you add your Wisdom modifier to the damage.
- That seems like an incredibly labored way to say “you can add your Wisdom modifier to attack rolls against Hunter’s Mark targets,” since it’s not even 1/turn.
- The use of “that” in the second paragraph refers to your Hunter’s Mark target, so every part of this is stated in the most confusing way. “You can add your Wisdom modifier to attack and damage rolls against your Hunter’s Mark” Or if that’s not the same thing, if there’s some distinction there, rephrase the whole thing because I’m not getting it.
Overall, this is a confusing move for the Ranger: a much much harder Multiple Attribute Dependency and complete nonsense on the gameplay. For archer Rangers, Conjure Barrage and Conjure Volley are pretty much fine, but when the spells try to incorporate melee weapons… they become too videogame-y even for actual video games. This still shouldn’t be that hard to fix?
It’s two steps forward and two steps back, compared to the previous Ranger.
This is the only subclass that TCOE took down to studs and rebuilt. In hindsight, I’m surprised the book didn’t try to rebuild the Four Elements Total Landscaping monk too.
- Primal Companion is carried over from TCOE. This is not surprising. I’m not going into details – if you want, you can go to my TCOE coverage, linked above.
- Exceptional Training at 7th level looks a lot better: instead of the Dash, Disengage, Dodge, or Help actions eating your beast’s action, those now use its Bonus Action, and it can still make its attack. That probably means either survivability for the beast or more accuracy for you, and that’s great.
- Also, your beast can now deal Force damage instead of Bludgeoning, Piercing, or Slashing damage. The “solve for magic damage” thing continues, and keeps feeling bad.
- Bestial Fury at 11th level is Extra Attack for your beast, and lets it benefit from your Hunter’s Mark. Of course, the Bonus Action spent casting Hunter’s Mark is still a huge problem for Beast Masters – in a lot of fights, the fight is over before HM can make back the net loss of damage, compared to just having your beast attack more.
- Share Spells at 15th level is unchanged: spells you cast on yourself also target your beast if it’s within 30 feet.
Overall, the change to Exceptional Training is what matters here, compared to Tasha’s Ranger. The change to Bestial Fury matters in long fights, if you’re getting multiple fights in a single hour without losing Concentration, or if your beast is chasing a fleeing enemy.
It’s not the first subclass I’ve said this about, but even with all of its problems, this would be a better assassin than the Assassin. Even if you cut the features that don’t work for a non-spellcasting Rogue!
- Gloom Stalker Magic is unchanged, adding a bunch of trickster content-skipping spells to your prepared spells. Didn’t really need to change.
- Side note: Disguise Self accomplishes its goal in 90% of all situations better than the 9th-level Infiltration Expertise feature of the Assassin subclass.
- Dread Ambusher now spreads out its benefit beyond the first round of combat, though two of the bullet points are still first-round-only. In that opening round, you gain +10 Speed and add your Wis modifier to Initiative. Instead of making one additional weapon attack that deals +1d8 damage as part of the Attack action in the opening round (as in XGTE), you can add 1d8 Psychic damage and a save vs the Frightened condition when you hit, Wis mod times per Long Rest.
- By this point in the article, you know what I’m going to say, yeah? Wis mod times per Long Rest is probably two at best until somewhere around 12th level, so this thing that is presented as “now you can do it whenever you want!” is a nerf if you face more than two encounters in the span of a Long Rest. The Frightened condition might help, except that your saving throw DC is also likely to be bad.
- Ultimately, the problem is that Dread Ambusher needs to be the beating heart of your gameplay as a Gloom Stalker. It was only arguably good enough in XGTE, but at least you got one great round per fight. Here again, we might be looking at a good candidate for getting something back on a Short Rest.
- Umbral Sight, also at 3rd level, grants 60-ft Darkvision or increases existing Darkvision by 60 feet, rather than 30 as in XGTE; you are also Invisible to creatures that are looking at you with Darkvision.
- At least in my campaign, the Gloom Stalker ranger has really struggled to use this feature, because so many other PCs do need a light source for exploration. It’s difficult to stay 40+ feet from the nearest light source when a party is exploring a dungeon (and you don’t want to fully leave the party)!
- We never really talk about how the accidental hilarity that would come out of this feature within a highly Darkvision-using party, but for some ideas, let me recommend Kragar of the House of the Dragon Jhereg.
- Iron Mind at 7th level is unchanged from XGTE: it grants proficiency in Wisdom saves, or your choice of Int or Cha if you already have proficiency in Wisdom saves. Solid defensive feature, you’ll never be sorry to have it, but (as a passive) it isn’t at all flashy. The Gloom Stalker in my game must have this, he’s 8th level, but it has no way to come up and get mentioned.
- Stalker’s Flurry at 11th level now interacts with Dread Ambusher, instead of being an extra attack that you only get to make when you miss. Now you get one of two extra things but only when you use the Frighten effect of Dread Ambusher. So, you know, 2-3 times a day. You can make an extra attack against a creature within 5 feet of the original target and within the weapon’s range (so, sometimes helpful, but it’s going to further constrain when you even bother using Dread Ambusher). Or you can use Mass Fear: you can attempt to Frighten each creature within 10 feet of the target.
- Good gracious, this feature is awful. It’s much weaker than the XGTE version. “Each creature” is a drawback. You’ve got to do careful setup work to get either of the bullet points to be beneficial, and the Frightened condition is still only until the start of your next turn.
- Shadowy Dodge at 15th level still lets you impose Disadvantage on an incoming attack as a Reaction (this is only okay, see my whole thing about the Protection Fighting Style linked above), but on the plus side, you now teleport up to 30 feet away, to a space you can see.
- Hey, a feature that’s good for you, easy to use, and you can use as much as you want! And you only had to wait until 15th level to get it.
Did Gloom Stalkers kick your dog or something? The subclass went from stylish but kinda limited to the first round of combat to… only useful a few times a day and very hard to use well. This is a subclass that somehow lost sight of the realities of ability scores and likely game situations.
Oh hey, the one I’ve played! The last draft was not at all good.
- Hunter’s Prey has reverted to its 5e.14 version, except for two changes: Giant Killer is now called Retaliator, and it now works against all sizes of enemy, not just Large or greater. Colossus Slayer remains good – +1d8 damage that’s easy to come by – and Horde Breaker is a conditional Extra Attack. Retaliator is a Reaction that you’ll be able to use a lot, especially as a melee Ranger, so that’s very competitive with Colossus Slayer.
- Hunter’s Lore comes from the previous Ranger draft, and has now dropped down from 6th to 3rd level. It’s an information-gathering feature that depends on Hunter’s Mark, and tells you its damage and condition immunities, resistances, and vulnerabilities, if any. I like this feature fine, but then I’m generally a fan of information-gathering features that aren’t likely to spoil the mystery.
- Okay, sure, I guess this could spoil the Secret Vampire mystery, if you go around casting HM on every possible suspect and waiting until someone has an unusual slate of resistances and/or vulnerabilities. Pretty corner-case.
- Defensive Tactics at 7th level always had the problem that the features were… not at all equal, and none of them were amazing. (I personally liked Multiattack Defense, but in all the time my ranger had it, that AC kicker turned a hit to a miss maybe twice.) Instead, you can now choose Evasion (incredible), Uncanny Dodge (also great), or Hunter’s Leap (a Reaction move of half your Speed that doesn’t provoke OAs, great for archers and useful for melee).
- In short, these are all solid choices now. No complaints.
- Superior Hunter’s Prey at 11th level gives you another option from the Hunter’s Prey feature. Choosing two of those three options means you now definitely have at least one feature that is a situational Extra Attack, which is what you want in a Ranger 11th-level feature (to parallel Fighters getting Extra Attack 2). Every possible combo works pretty well.
- Superior Hunter’s Defense at 15th level gives you another option from the very good Defensive Tactics menu. Don’t mind if I do! Though combining both Hunter’s Leap and Uncanny Dodge is only okay, since they both take your Reaction (and you may also need your Reaction for Retaliator).
I really like a la carte subclasses anyway, so I liked Hunter even in 2014. The worst I can say of this one (which is also true of 2014) is that it leans very hard on your Reaction economy, without a uses-per-Long-Rest limit, so choose carefully if you’re the sort of player who would be frustrated by wanting to do both things too much of the time.
Two subclasses are in good shape, but the core of the class and the Gloom Stalker are not ready for prime time. They’re entirely fixable – that is, they’re not a million miles away from good function. No class has gone through as many UA drafts since 2014 as the Ranger, and getting to a clear vision of the class that still works with all existing subclasses has been a major challenge.
This is all without digging into the issue of Ranger-only (well, now Primal) spells and their design issues. I’ve talked a little about changes to Hunter’s Mark, Conjure Barrage, and Conjure Volley, but I’ll dig into that more deeply next time, as I try to cover both the whole of the Rogue class and the rest of the document after that.