I’ve put this off for a while, mostly because the dealing with the internet from re-working Warlock was so shitty. My plan was to address Ranger shortly thereafter, as I have played an awful lot of ranger from different stages of beta tests through release. Ranger is not in a good place. While there are certainly mechanical issues with the class, it is not the driving cause for concern. The Dungeons and Dragons has openly stated they do not know what to do with the ranger. The increasingly open conceptual play of D&D has impeded upon the what the ranger does. The ranger was originally a fighter with some additional tricks, though what those tricks might be changed over time, but now there is nothing to truly define the ranger. The current incarnation of fighter is the far superior bowman, and the ranger specific spells are lacking any sort of emphatic definition. The plain truth is the ranger is in a dire state.
You don’t have to look very far to see the disconnect. The class was published with two archetypes, and the divide was between “weapon using” and “pet” rangers. By their own admission, dual wielding was meant to be iconic for rangers, and they have long been associated with bow expertise. The archetypes are meant to be weapon agnostic, which is great, but the ranger archetypal divide is either “weapons” or “go get ’em, Fluffy.” The weapon path, Hunter, is broken down into discreet abilities based on Fighting Style, which doesn’t leave a lot of space for actual interesting design. Everything about the ranger tropes of weapon fighting is sadly distilled into broad, uninteresting strokes.
Speaking of fighting styles, the ranger receives four of the six offered to fighter, much as paladin does, but the proffered choices are a bit weird. Notably lacking is Great Weapon Fighting, and Protection is not present, despite rangers having a history of being shield-users. Rangers can use shields, but they apparently don’t like helping other people or fighting in rank and file. Aragorn is probably upset he doesn’t get to effectively wield Narsil. With so much of the history of ranger being owed to Aragon and “elven magic”, it’s a shame to see this piece of the past lost. It’s sort of funny, because archery didn’t become a thing until supplements for 1e, and dual wielding gets picked up as a ranger things in 2e. Along with this, the ranger loses more and more armor access, as Dexterity becomes the defining feature of the fighting and skills associated with the class.
As skills become more generally available and features are moved out of the classes, ranger loses a lot of what hitherto made it unique. Skill points being based on Intelligence hurt the ranger, who only received 4+Int originally in 3e, and then 6+Int in 3.5e. As a class part druid, part fighter, and part rogue, it takes a lot to really hit all of those points equally, or at least in a manner convincing enough to elicit unique class space. Funny enough, 4e did a pretty awesome job of carving out space. However, it had the same flaw as with all 4e, which was weapon or archetype dictated all of your decisions.
It’s also interesting to see the ranger split between weapons and a pet master. Druids had long been the ones with animal companions, and rangers got a less effective version due to their partial druid nature to begin with. In this area, video games have been a heavy influence. Several video games have created pet classes, and many of those have been ranger-based animal-friend archetypes. It’s no surprise to see those versions and evolutions reflected in pen and paper play. Sometimes is ends up pretty neat, the Circle of the Moon druid is an evolution of the 4e druid which was a lot like the WoW druid. Other times, it ends up being not so great, like the case of the beastmaster ranger.
The pet is stuck at 1/4 CR, and is something of a sad sack. You add your proficiency bonus to a bevy of things: the creature’s AC, attack roll, damage, saving throws, and skills. Its hit points are equal to its natural maximum, or four times your ranger level. So what do that look like when you hit 3rd? Well, the text references a hawk, available in appendix D. Let’s see what is has to offer. The hawk has 1 hp, deals 1 damage, has a base AC of 13, a +5 to hit, and perception seems to be the only skill it possesses. You get to add your proficiency bonus to all of those. Exiciting! No, wait. That’s 12 hp, 3 damage, 16 ac, +8 to hit, and +7 to perception. Alright, well that’s for the birds. The panther is a different tale. The hp clocks in at 13, AC is 12, it has perception at +4 and stealth at +6, it has two modes of attack both at +4, dealing 1d6+2 or 1d4+2, and the Pounce ability it has can be used. Ok, this is better. At 3rd level, it has the following: 13 hp, AC 15, perception +7, stealth +9, a +7 to attack, and deals either 1d6+5 or 1d4+5.
You do get some additional attacks as you get higher level. At 5th you can take an attack on your own, and your kitty gets a little better. At 11th, your pet gets two attacks, and you get an attack. None of these take a bonus action. So at 11th, your pet could do an average of 19 damage, and you’d do an average of 17 with Two-Weapon Fighting Style, 19 if you have Dual Wielder as a feat, 9.5 with a long bow and Archery, or 19.5 if you have Sharpshooter as a feat. So you are looking at around 38 points of damage. If you are a hunter with Archery Sharpshooter, you are averaging 39 damage from just the shots, and have a further damage kicker from your 3rd level archetype pickup. Two-Weapon Fighting Style with Dual Wielder sees you doing 28.5 damage on average, but that ticks up with a damage kicker. This is less damage still than the beastmaster dual-wielder, but the hunter has easily superior ae potential through archetype features.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in the archetypes and numbers, as the problem is really one of lack of direction that is then carried through in the archetypes. Taking a step back, the ranger’s core abilities and spells all have similar theme issues. Looking at spells, rangers don’t get anything in the way of the paladin’s incredible spell themes. Paladins get auras and smites as consistent themes through their spell levels. Rangers get…well, archery spells are pretty consistent, a lot of plant and animal druid spells, some defense, and some control. The arrow spells are pretty cool, but it’s not weapon agnostic, that’s for certain. When you look at melee rangers, you get…ensnaring strike. Even the plant and animal spells aren’t ranger specific. This is one of the ways that ranger can really stand out. Auras and smites do so much heavy theme work.
Natural Explorer is another feature that should be defining, but is instead oddly frustrating. First of all, it takes an hour to acclimate yourself. Apparently rangers need their morning coffee before being able to track efficiently, move stealthily and quickly, show people how to move through a terrain you are intimately familiar with, or to not become lost. I understand you get expertise while in a chosen terrain type regardless, but come on. You also only get three out of eight terrains to expertly know. It just feels weird to me. I know it’s not exactly the age of Google or attaining a degree in Rangerology or Rangeronomy from the University of Waterdeep, but I also think it’s completely reasonable for the ranger to be versed in more than three terrains.
Primeval Awareness could also be a defining ability, it is not. It it is a pile of stinky butts. A ranger can sacrifice a precious spell slot to know if there is an aberration, celestial, dragon, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead in a one mile radius, or six miles within a terrain selected with Natural Explorer. “Uh, hey guys, there’s a fey around here. I can’t tell you where, and I can’t tell you how many. I’m so good at my job.” This power actually gets more useless if you are good in the environment. You can’t pinpoint where the creatures are. You can’t tell how many there are in the area. It costs a spell slot. Ugh. This literally might be the worst class feature in all of D&D 5e. No joke. This is what rangers get to do. Paladins have to be content with crappy ol’ Smite. Amirite? Ugh. It’s worth the second onomatopoeia.
Land’s Stride is actually really cool from a thematic point of view. You have superior movement in difficult terrain, and magical terrain has issues affecting you. That’s really cool. You are the hunter of the evil queen, traveling through the forest of thorns. It’s at 8th, so at a point when you the class definition should be ending its solidification.
Hide in Plain Sight and Vanish, well, it’s there from 3e for sure. Why isn’t it Camouflage and Hide in Plain Sight? The world may never know. At least the ranger doesn’t have to forage for a plant, then use a herbalism or poisoner’s kit to make a powder to power skill use. The hunter remaining an unseen stalker is definitely a theme. It definitely plays up the rogue/scout pillar of the ranger. Feral Senses actually plays along with this, as you combine the features and you have Arnold fighting the Predator. It also lets you ignore invisibility, unless the invisible person hides? It’s a little weird.
Foe Slayer is the damage kicker for Favored Enemy, the feature I have avoided discussing until the end. Favored Enemy used to be indicative of the rules interfacing with the setting. Then it became of game supported institutional racism! Good guy killers! I’m teasing, but only just. Favored Enemy used to be hilariously overpowered, to the point of limiting how many could be in your campaign party. Then it was just about knowing how to fight them, with an accuracy kicker, then you got scaling bonuses against a narrow band of enemies, and so on. It wouldn’t be able to run for political office with its checkered past, is what I am saying.
I actually sorta dig it’s now a Sun Tzu sorta Know Your Enemy, Art of War type deal. You have advantage on tracking and checks to recall knowledge about your chosen foe. You also speak their language, if they speak a language. It’s very tactician-oriented, which is cool, but it has no combat application. There’s not a problem with non-combat features, and they should be readily embraced. The issue here is the precedent of the feature. 4e didn’t have any Favored Enemy, but Hunter’s Quarry, which survives as hunter’s mark, sorta. However, now it’s a spell, and competes against all of your other spells. This just means it’s limited, not really filling the niche it had in 4e. In short, the feature, while I dig the tactical nature, really needs some further help.
I am not the first to analyze the issues of the ranger. Like I said, I’ve been putting it off. However, I do have some ideas about the class. I am not just talking about mechanics. To me, rangers have always been easy to categorize when they appear in media. It always comes down to the support organization. Are they a loose affiliation of border wardens? Are the a more formal organization that, say, guards a giant ice wall? Did they learn in a master and apprentice solitary guardian situation? Are they strictly trained and government run? Do they have a royal charter but act independently?
These are all types of groups where the word ranger can easily apply. There is no hanging the archetypes on weapons, and it can speak volumes about the theme being communicated. There are fundamentals each organization provides, the basic class features, but the traditions surrounding it would be quite different.