Sep 21 2016

Whither the Ranger?

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Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas wonder WTF is this.

Once upon a time, I wondered Whither the Rogue? [1] Today I’d like to talk about the rogue’s more fighterey-wildernessey brother, the ranger. [2]

Like the rogue, the ranger has been around since before D&D was D&D (first appearing in Strategic Review, which in gaming terms is like saying it appeared in the Upanishads). My own experience with the ranger didn’t come until AD&D, in which they were a slightly-more-interesting fighter with 2d8 hp at first level for no apparent reason, got bonuses to fight all “giant class” humanoids (which, for some peculiar reason, basically meant all humanoids including kobolds), and had vague talk of an animal companion who would wander around somewhere in the general vicinity of the party and maybe kill some monsters for you by accident.

But from the beginning, rangers have had a strange place in the game. Are they Aragorn? Are they Robin Hood? Grizzly Adams? What the heck is a bear doing wandering around the Tomb of Horrors, anyway???

For rangers to work thematically, you have to have a campaign in which tromping around the wilderness is a thing. For them to work mechanically, you have to have a campaign in which whatever the ranger’s enemy-of-choice is a thing. And that opens a whole other can of worms. D&D has always had a very uncomfortable “racial enemies” thing going on, where dwarves are better at killing orcs because reasons, that kind of thing. The ranger makes that into a whole feature of a person’s profession. Originally it was simply a matter of experience: if you’re defending the frontiers of human civilization, the reasoning goes, you will fight a lot of goblins/orcs/kobolds/giants, and thus know how it’s done. Later, in an effort to deal with the “your campaign might be at sea or underground instead of the forest” problem, your choices were expanded. These days, rangers are just randomly better at killing… something. You pick.

(This is one of those rare occasions where 4E actually did something better than other editions. 4E rangers mark a target, and everyone in the fight has a chance to “cash in” on that. In other words, your “favored enemy” is whichever one you’re focusing on right now– usually the biggest and baddest thing in the room. Not that 4E rangers didn’t have other problems. Everything in 4E had problems. :P)

But this weird space that rangers inhabit in the context of D&D has made them suffer a never-ending stream of tweaks, revisions, and re-imaginings, because while everyone has a vague idea of what rangers should be like (Crocodile Dundee is totally a ranger, for instance), nailing down the specifics gets really tricky.

Do rangers have spells? Aragorn was famously a healer, but that was because Middle-earth has a divine-right monarchy thing going on. None of the other Dunedain could do that, so it hardly seems a “class feature,” and Robin Hood never so much as said “bippity boppity boo.” Crocodile Dundee can hypnotize kangaroos and has preternatural senses, does that count?

Oh, and what about fighting methods? Aragorn used a greatsword and eventually rode into battle in heavy armor. Robin was the greatest archer in England. Where did the two weapons thing come from? Legolas wielded a pair of long knives in melee, but was he a ranger, a fighter, or a rogue? Is two-weapon fighting just there to make Drizzt work?

Oh yeah, Drizzt. There’s another another can of worms. For those who don’t know (and I’m only barely aware of him myself), Drizzt is a rare (for sufficient values of rare) good drow ranger, who appeared in Forgotten Realms novels in the late ’80s and became a breakout character in the ’90s when Gothy Angst was at its height. Mechanically he was a 2E ranger who wielded two scimitars thanks to a fighter splatbook ability. Which was fine, except that with his crazy popularity, suddenly the Drizzt tail began to wag the ranger dog. In every edition since, the first thing that devs seemed to look at when making the ranger was “Does it look like Drizzt?”

Finally, we come to 5E, in which ranger wins the award for “Most Dysfunctional Right Out the Gate” from the start hands down. And really the 5E ranger is not that bad, it’s just… lackluster. And stuck in the past, in that it doesn’t model “what rangers should do,” so much as “what rangers looked like in earlier editions of D&D.” You get a smattering of fighter stuff, a smaller smattering of rogue stuff, and you’re back to trying to guess what is the right “favored terrain” and “favored enemy” for the campaign (or alternatively, forcing the DM to put whatever you’ve favored in). If you take on an animal companion, you have to use your own bonus action to make it do anything as part of the “action economy” (i.e., so that you don’t effectively get two turns per round for everyone else’s one turn). If you forego the animal companion and choose the “hunter” archetype, you essentially get to choose from a random set of combat feats.

Honestly, for almost everything that rangers are supposed to do? In 5E there’s probably a better way of doing it. Do you want to be a mobile archer, running around the field peppering your foes with arrows? Take two levels of rogue (for Cunning Action) with Survival as one of your expertise choices, and then Champion fighter with the archery style forever. Do you want to be a mystical protector of the wild? A Totem Warrior barbarian, Oath of the Ancient paladin, or any flavor of druid is probably closer to the mark. The only thing the 5E ranger can do that the other classes can’t, really, is have a pet, and they’re not real good at that.

This situation has led to WotC floating multiple fixes via its Unearthed Arcana articles, and they are better…ish, but they’re mostly patches to buff math holes rather than the serious rethink that the class really needs, and worse they still are focused on “How do we keep the companion from breaking the action economy?” and “Does it look like Drizzt?” more than “Does this look, feel, and act like a ranger should, while sticking to the ease of play and flexibility that 5E excels at?” (To which I would say the answer is “Not really.”)

So, yeah. Sorry rangers, back to the wilds for you.

-The Gneech

[1] In the time since then, Tribality has posted an in-depth series tracking the rogue’s development from proto-D&D days (Supplement I: Greyhawk, baby!) through 5E, which you can read here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

[2] You guessed it, Tribality did a series of articles about them too, and its a doozy. Vis.:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

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2 responses to “Whither the Ranger?”

  1. Hennither says:

    You offer a lot of criticism about how none of these are what a ranger should be, but you don’t actually say what a ranger should be.

    The 5e ranger is a continuation of the D&D ranger from the past 40 years. Was the original ranger ALSO not a ranger? Do you just not understand what a ranger is? If you don’t like the concept of a ranger class, that’s fine, but then why worry about fixing it? Just leave it to the people who like it.

    • The Gneech says:

      Wow, cool it with the hostility a bit. We’re talking about D&D, not stomping kittens.

      For the most part I wasn’t offering criticism so much as history and observation. I love rangers and have played several since 1980-mumble, but that doesn’t mean the class hasn’t always been kind of a mess.

      As for my opinion as to what a ranger should be, I’d probably make it a fighter archetype, with spells/animal companion/wildernessey options like the combat maneuvers of the battlemaster. If it had to be a separate class, I’d put it somewhere around the durability and fighting acumen of the cleric, with two development paths: the scout (skirmisher, concentrates mostly on combat bonuses to bring it closer to the fighter), and the beast master (animal companion, some spells).

      But there are so many bazillion “my take on the ranger” attempts out there, I don’t really feel like it’s worth tossing another on the fire. 😉

      -The Gneech