And, of course, the ranger starts with another purple elf. I’m just giving up at this point. Elves are purple. That’s the rule.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m curious to see what form the ranger takes. Like the bard, it’s a class that has a lot of different underpinnings and also is contractually obliged to support Drizzt. And because the backgrounds and the fighting styles make it very easy to make an outdoorsy fighter who can track, how do you make a compelling ranger class? This is one of the big question marks of 5e for me, and the answer awaits.
We open with d10 hit die, medium armor and martial weapons. That seems right, though I’d prefer if they could use heavier armor but had reason not to (also, there are historical reasons for why you want to check the ranger’s hit die). The class gets 3 skills – same as the bard, less than the rogue, more than anyone else – so we have a nod towards ranger as a skill class.
At first level, Ranger’s pick a favored enemy (as you’d expect, with the qualifier that you can pick two races of humanoids as a single enemy). You get advantage with lore and tracking related to the enemy and you also learn a language. You pick up 2 more enemies over your career.
You also get to pick a terrain and get skill bonuses within it, as well as traveling benefits. Basically, within that terrain, you get to act like you’re a ranger.
At the no poach level (2) , rangers pick up a spellcasting and a fighting style. The fighting style list they have to choose from is shorter than the core fighter list, and noticeably does not include Heavy Weapons as an option, which is kind of a thumb in the eye to everyone who imagines ranger’s as the guys with the two handed sword (or even spear). Predictably, I blame Drizzt.
As they level, they pick up an extra attack, more travel and outdoor stealth abilities (none of which, I should note, are tied to favored terrain) and improved senses. it is only at level 20 that you get any combat bonus against your favored enemy, which is a weird choice.
The ranger subclasses are “ranger archetypes”, and since they’ve used archetype before, I’m assuming it to be the word for “we couldn’t think of anything else”. There are two, hunter and beast master. They’re chosen at level 3, and grant extra benefits at levels 7, 11 and 15.
The hunter is kind of like the dumbed down version of the fighter’s battle master archetype. Instead of choosing from a lot of moves, you get a list of three, and you pick one, then repeat that on subsequent levels. The moves are fine, oriented towards fighting certain kinds of opponents, so you can theoretically buy them in accordance with what suits your particular chosen enemy, but in practice, they are (with a handful of exceptions) kind of generic. Which is fine for making your ranger more badass (super-fine in some cases) but not compelling.
The beast master is basically “DO you want an animal companion? press here.”. You get an animal companion (a CR 1/4 creature) which is enhanced by your proficiency and level. If you want it to do anything but move, you order it to act in lieu of you. The subsequent abilities generally let the beast act more often and eventually share spells. Sadly, there is no equivalent of the Druid’s ability to “magic up” claw attacks, so I worry about high levels. This could have been addressed if rangers could cast magic weapon or similar, but they cannot.
If I sound a little disappointed, that’s because I am. Up to this point, I’ve been pretty excited about all the classes, and while I may have some minor issues, they have all seemed exciting and compelling. Setting aside the Drizzt jokes for a second, the ranger just feels like a mess. You might take the class if you really want a single animal companion (but not multiple, Beast Master style), but otherwise, I’m not really seeing why to go Ranger. And that breaks my heart, because the skilled, mobile fighter is one of those ideas I always really enjoy.
Well, perhaps I should play a rogue.
We saw the rogue in the basic rules, so not a lot of surprises here. Usual arms and armor. Sneak attack. Lots of skills and skill bonuses and lots of ways to avoid damage. Notably, at 2nd level they get a persistent extra action which can be used for dash, disengage or hide, which is pretty awesome, and makes rogue’s wonderfully mobile on the battlefield. At 5th they get Uncanny Dodge, which seems kind of broad (if you can see an attacker, use your reaction to halve the attacks damage). That’s super useful, and in theory the limit on it is that you only get one reaction per turn, so you can’t use it for other things, but I’m curious to see how much of a limit that really is in practice.
The roguish archetype subclasses reinforce what exactly is meant when they say archetypes but otherwise are pretty neat (picked at level 3, ,new cool stuff at 9, 13 and 17). We saw the thief in the basic rules, and it remains delightful, with an emphasis on sneaking and stealing, with some nice old school nods like “use magic device” at level 13. It just looks fun.
In another old school nod, we have the assassin. You get porficiencies with poison and disguise kits and the assassinate ability ( advantage when going first, automatic crit on surprised targets). Subsequently you gain the ability to create false identities as, effectively, disguises you can step into, and eventually the ability to convincingly disguise yourself as another person. It ends with a death strike which is a little less deadly than it sounds (double damage when hitting a surprised target, so double-crit, which is not bad, but not sure it’s a death strike.)
The arcane trickster has some newer ideas, but is also on the table for all the old school thief/illusionist folks (and their fragile, fragile PCs). As with the Eldritch Knight, you get spellcasting, and a host of magical tricks, a lot of which revolve around making mage hand more awesome (using it to pick pockets and locks, as well as disarm traps), to effectively backstab with spells (disadvantage on saves rather than extra damage), use mage hand as a distraction in combat and, ultimately, to steal spells.
In the conversation about the Eldritch Knight, it was pointed out that an additional benefit of this subclass is that it works even if the game does not allow multiclassing. And in that case, it’s clear why you’d take a rogue archetype like this. But if there is multiclassing, I think there’s a strong argument for this than the Eldritch Knight. Yes, you could go thief 10/caster 10 and get more spells and abilities, but you would genuinely lose out on the arcane trickster abilities, which are unique, distinctive, and seem well worth the cost.
Ok, so that washed the taste of the ranger out of my mouth. Let’s wrap up there and pick up with the caster trio later.
- Which is why Rangers have gotten things like two weapon fighting and animal companions. Not because Drizzt gets them because he’s a ranger, but because Drizzt has them. ↩
- This is, to me, kind of asinine. Much like forcing the bard to pick which instruments he excels at. This is not a point of character differentiation. No one says “we need two rangers, one for the woods, one for the mountains”. No one creates a ranger and imagines her saying “Oh, sorry, I’m a coastal ranger, my extensive outdoors experience is of NO USE within this forest or upon this grassland!” Travel is not a critical enough part of things that you need this kind of differentiation (to say nothing of the fact that most overland terrain on actual RPG maps is less clear cut than these terrain types suggest.). And to add insult to injury, while you can learn new terrains, you don’t learn many – the list pretty much caps out at 3. So, Aragorn, sorry you only have grassland, forest and mountains – NO SWAMP FOR YOU. Anyway, obviously, I think this is stupid, and I’m not sure if I’m just going to allow the ranger to learn more favored terrain types (like, the 3 or 4 most dominant in his homeland), give these bonuses to everything and an extra bonus for favored terrain or just ditch the whole idea entirely with the sole qualifier that learning a new terrain requires spending a lot of time in it. ↩
- I’m harping on this a bit, because it’s lame, but I also don’t blame WOTC. The obvious solution to this is names that suggest a social elements. Martial orders, ranger cadres, thieves guilds and so on. And in any other game that would be fantastic implicit worldbuilding. In D&D, a very loud subset of the player base would take umbrage at the implied setting, and generally make such a stink on the internet that it’s not worth the hassle. ↩
- It’s interesting to wonder if the presence of the subclass basically means “don’t hold you breath for a base class”. ↩