D&D PHB: Ranger and Rogue

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.[1] 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[2].

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[3] 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[4]. 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.

  1. 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.  ↩
  2. 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.  ↩
  3. 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.  ↩
  4. It’s interesting to wonder if the presence of the subclass basically means “don’t hold you breath for a base class”.  ↩

20 thoughts on “D&D PHB: Ranger and Rogue

  1. Thorin Messer

    I can think of a few replacements for “archetype” in reference to thieves, such as: specialization, job, gig, knack, career. From what I understand real-world criminal sorts seem to be specialized. You might be a second floor man, a yegg, muscle/heavy, a pickpocket, etc. All of these would be ways to say, “sure, you’re a criminal, but what are you actually good at”?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Knack would have a nice ring to it, but I guess the assassins might find it undignified. Criminal career would kind of rock, though.

  2. Tim Gray

    – Yeah, I’m starting to get the feel of “Why didn’t they just hit on a standard term for archetypes/subclasses rather than inflating the glossary?”

    – While reading your ranger notes, I had a moment when I saw through to backstage and questioned the point of it all when we have more recent systems that give you generic frameworks for being awesome with whatever skill you’re using.

    – Rogue – which has always been a strange name for a class – bit disappointed they didn’t include an Expert, the person who’s actually good at doing things that normal people do. There’s an occasional glimmer of True20 in all this, and that had skill-based Expert as one if the three classes.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Or go to the 2e roots and do a “Guilder”, which was the class from Birthright for skill oriented adventurers who didn’t want the thiefy bits of rogues.

  3. Sandra

    Maybe this is just me being aspy, but I have a hard time getting over the classes that I think are basically a kind of Fighter. I was happy that a Fighter could be rangerlike in Basic because I see it as such a hyponym of Ranger.
    I wish Ranger was a subclass of Fighter, and Paladin also some sort of subclass to someone somewhere.
    One of the things I could understand about 2e.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I’m more Ok with paladins because I can envision them a bit more clearly – like the budded off the fighter, but have grown enough to be sustainable. Rangers, though…yeah, not sure they made that leap.

      Though it’s interesting to think about in lifecycle terms. If you dropped the Paladin, you could replace him with an equivalent to the Eldritch Knight focused on the divine, and that would certainly be functional. But it would mean there’s only one choice in how to play it, which would be a shame, because the Paladin options are pretty sweet.

      And now I’m thinking about all these classes and subclasses as a growing things, and it’s like a really crazy nature film in my head.

      1. Sandra

        To me it just seems weird that a 1st level character can start as a Paladin. “Oh yeah, hi, I’m one of the twelve finest warriors that ever lived.”
        It could be something a fighter or cleric could become at like level ten or something.
        I have the same problem with Dragonborn. Dragons are supposed to be super powerful in a way that doesn’t mesh with my own view of what level one characters are.

  4. Boulder

    Lodges for rangers, maybe? I suppose that would imply some kind of organizational structure for rangers and that kind of runs contrary to the loner element. Tradition? Path? Calling?

    I agree that rangers are the most underwhelming class in the PHB. I think they need a lot of work, both to make them more interesting/fun for players and to actually pin down where they fit in the grand scheme things. To me, a ranger is all about… ranging. They travel long distances, often by themselves. They should be driven individuals with a lot of perseverance and, maybe, a little bit mad. I think the core of the ranger should be made up of things that communicate their survival and travel skills and, to a lesser extent, a kind of grizzled worldliness. Keeping that in mind, I would completely gut the class. No more spellcasting or favored enemies, both could be placed behind archetypes along with animal companions. That leaves a lot more room to flesh out Natural Explorer and the other survival oriented features in a way that is interesting and not asinine, as you put it. I’m not sure what to do with fighting styles; however, right now they feel either tacked on or vestigial. Maybe replacing them with some kind of trapping or hunting strategy option would be the way to go. Yes, I like that. Every few levels let the player select a new strategy from a list that contains everything from trapping to camouflage to animal calls. You could even put lesser versions of archetype features to allow for cross-archetyping (hunting dog companion, cantrips, etc.) Call them Ranger Tricks or something like that.

    Oh, that light armor incentive you were looking for? It could be something like ignoring disadvantage from unfavorable terrain.

  5. Envyus

    Death Strike is probably a Death Strike. The nature of that power is that you double your damage. With your assassinate power you already auto crit and the damage from your sneak attack is doubled as well. Here let me give you the example.

    Rogue just reached level 17 when they get death strike. They surprise and stab their opponent with a shortsword. A short sword deals 1d6 damage +Sneak attacks 9d6 damage + his dex mod which I will assume is 5 at this point. The damage die is doubled from the crit so that is 22d6 damage +5 which I rolled just now as 98. If they fail their saving throw the damage is doubled for a total of 196 damage. Then on the fallowing turn after the suprise round if their target is still alive they can still sneak attack for another 11d6 +5 damage.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah, I ran some numbers, and at level 20, it averages about 160 with a failed save (22d6 + 5 ~= 82), which is (perhaps not coincidentally) just above the average HP of a fighter of that level. So, I think it’s better than my first impression, but I want to see the HP of monsters at that tier before passing a final verdict.

  6. Alex

    So disappointed to hear about the Ranger. It has been one of my favourite classes ever since its introduction in The Strategic Review (although that was highly overpowered!), but this example sounds like it is really missing a boat somewhere.

    I almost think that a barbarian might make a better ranger substitute in some ways, with their fast movement and toughness!

    I gather that they have a few unique spells, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those were a little underwhelming too.

    What a pity.

  7. Envyus

    Oh yeah basic d&d has been updated and it comes with 2nd pdf with monsters, magic items and encounter building advice.

  8. Pingback: 5e PHB Roundup | The Walking Mind

  9. Jeb

    I posted my thoughts about the Ranger on G+. I’m in agreement that a Ranger could be badass if in her favored terrain versus favored enemies or be kept out of the spotlight by GMs that feature neither.

    One thing I haven’t settled, though, is that getting spells at Lvl 2 makes the Ranger much more of a caster than before. Also, I’m not sure why anyone would pick a single monster type over two humanoids.

    Allowing for spear Rangers would be nice. As would an even-more-spell casting archetype.

    I still think they need a bit more, such as a feat/ability score choice around Lvl 6.

  10. Matt Jackson

    I sat down tonight to stat up one of my old Warcraft characters. While I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to play him much way back when I was always making up stories for him. The WoW class is Hunter and an animal companion is a big part of that. So I start looking at that archetype and just grow a little more disappointed as I read it. Mechanically it might be perfectly balanced in terms of damage, but it seems an awful way of envisioning one’s PC. “My faithful boar companion charges the goblin on my command and then I stand there twiddling my thumbs.” Sure, after a few levels you get to attack as well, but it never looks like it will feel like it’s “trained to fight along side you.”

  11. Josh

    I really wish they’d called the rogue archetype “métier,” or even “forte.” It’s harder for ranger. Maybe “domain,” which is a still very generic, but does convey a sense of mastery of some specialized skill set (i.e. beast handling or guerilla fighting).

    I agree with many of the ranger disappointments described here, but they seem minor. For me, they pretty much nailed the guerilla fighter concept with the Hunter archetype. The Battle Master feels much more like a combat micro-manager, and I imagine would play very differently. The Hunter is designed to maintain mobility, get in and out quickly, or snipe from afar. It seems like a fun, different way to approach combat, and entirely fitting in flavor for a ranger. Certainly the class could be improved (weapons, terrain, & enemies tweaks), but it easily fills a gap between the other options. Which is not to say it has the highest potential DPR (which hardly seems relevant in a game where a DM is responsible to design encounters for the characters in the game, not for the theoretical ones which aren’t being played) or fills the gaps relevant to some other ranger concepts.

    I do think the designers are visibly limited by trying to satisfy a lot of these different concepts, while still keeping it a coherent class. But that’s OK. There’s enough flexibility with multi-classing and feats to refine things. If you like the guerilla fighter route (I do), why not go ranger/assassin. Cunning action, expertise, sneak attack, and assassinate complement the ranger skills & flavor beautifully, and the next several levels of skills are duplicates of what the ranger would get anyway. Gives you a choice of going more heavily into caster with ranger levels above 11 or sneak attack dice with assassin over 3.

  12. Chris

    I know I’m late to this thread, but I wanted to thank you for all the work you did breaking down the mechanics of the 5e character options. As a newcomer to D&D, your blog has been exceptionally helpful!

    I totally agree that conceptually the limitations on favored terrain are bizarre and limiting. Like you forget how to track or understand wildlife the moment your “coastal” terrain becomes “swamp.” And it is odd to have to wait until 20th level to have any kind of combat bonus against your favored enemy.

    But I think spellcasting in general and in particular the Hunter’s Mark cantrip seems to be a major part of this class that isn’t dealt with here. HM appears to be kind of the ranger’s answer to the warlock’s Eldritch Blast. A bonus action cantrip that enhances your ability to fight against your chosen target seems like that would give this class a lot of its utility over other classes, especially combined with some of the other options in the Hunter archetype. Rangers would be especially useful against powerful foes, and that feels right.

    Any new thoughts on this since last year?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I’ve been intermittently running a 5e game and while I’ve been largely happy with it, we do hit occasional rough bits. Still haven’t seen a ranger in action (which makes me sad, because I’m really curious how it compares to our incredibly badass archery focused fighter) which is frustrating, but I think others are leery about it too. Friends online seem happy with them, though. Beyond that though, every class we’ve seen has proven fun in play, so I’m all in all pretty happy. There are things I want more of (like warlock patrons and sorcerer origins) and I want the license to open up so I can write some, but all in all I’ve been pretty happy.

      Biggest oddball has been the damage curve. Monsters seem to go from moderate damage to OH GOD I KILL YOU very quickly in low level play. It smooths out by level 5 or so, but it makes low level challenges harder to construct because using a signature monster introduces a fair chance of one-shotting folks.

    2. Jonathan Matthews

      Hunter’s Mark is not a Cantrip. It’s a 1st-level spell, so Rangers are limited to a few castings per long rest. And it gets cancelled if you try to use Hail of Thorns.


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