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The Ranger Class, Part One

So I have this ongoing difference of opinion with Kainenchen over the ranger class, as a shorthand for the whole system of having more than four classes. Does D&D need more classes than cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard? Can all other important class concepts be represented by some multi-class combination of the Big - nay, even Fantastic, this is fantasy after all - Four? (Also it does not take a physicker of fire-works to get that Mr. Fantastic is a wizard, the Human Torch is a rogue, the Invisible Woman is the cleric - well, a City of Heroes bubble-defender anyway - and the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing is a fighter. But I digress, and note that there's a lot of room for amusing debate over those class assignments.) Why do rangers get druid spells? To tackle the troubling topic of the tree-hugging trooper, I have written you this lovely blog post.

First, Some History

Now, the ranger class first put in an appearance in an article in The Strategic Review, slightly before the dawn of recorded time. (Yes, people were writing about D&D before they wrote about world history - priorities, folks.) Thank God for the internet: it's still available. I could go into all of the bizarro problems with Joe Fischer's article, but to be fair to him, tabletop game design had been invented about twelve months earlier and no one knew what the fuck they were doing yet. So let's approach this with a liiittle more empathy, and just look for the things that are going to inspire later iterations of the class.

Okay, spellcasting starts at 8th level. Sure, why not. Oh, wait, not just clerical spellcasting; rangers alternate levels of clerical and magic-user spellcasting until, at 13th level, they cast spells as a third-level cleric and third-level magic-user. The article is brief enough (as they all were in The Strategic Review) that there's no room for flavor text explaining why in heaven's name the ranger should dabble in divine and arcane spells, but I guess it's a broad-band way to cover every trick that Aragorn could possibly be interpreted as using? And in D&D, elves use magic-user spells...? It's a stretch, for sure.

The fact that Ranger-Lords (that's 9th level, for those of you unfamiliar with OD&D/1e level titles) can use items of clairvoyance, clairaudience, ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation is pretty open to interpretation. Is it because they have first-level magic-user spells? Maybe. A tangential reference to Aragorn and the palantiri? I honestly don't know if that's a stretch of logic or not.

This earliest ranger introduces the damage kicker against creatures of a certain type - in this case, the "Giant" type, which for reasons surpassing my understanding is the category term for all land-dwelling monstrous humanoids, I guess? All it says is "Kobolds - Giants," but in 1e, Gygax will clarify that to spell out a list of all the monsters that apply, and it is indeed just about every land-dwelling biped that isn't a human, dwarf, elf, or halfling. At the highest levels, this damage kicker is more egregious than that found in 3.5e, while monster hit points are much, much lower, so this really is a defining advantage, and applies to enough targets that it is immensely useful and probably completely unfair, unlike the later iterations of this ability.

Okay, let's get on through some of the other features:

But wait! There are also punitive restrictions, important to mention here because they're going to survive nearly-unaltered all the way into 2e.
Just to finish things off - and this has really gone on long enough! - the ranger's level title at 2nd level suggests that Aragorn was not the high-level badass that one might have been led to believe.


Now that we've got a baseline of the original ranger class, let's see what happens in the first Dungeons & Dragons to bear the name Advanced. I know that a lot of people have warm and impregnable places in their hearts for this edition, but that's because they were kids at the time (well, many of them were) and we were still in the first five years of tabletop game design as a concept.

Right off the bat, though, we see that rangers have faintly less punitive ability score requirements, and no longer get that +33% XP bonus - they now get bonus experience for high ability scores just like everyone else. We also still have:
Given the overall chaos of class design in 1e, rangers make as much sense as anything else does. (Someday we will have a serious talk about the weirdness of the 1e assassin.) Though paladins are the class that is famous for being difficult to qualify for (screw you, 17 Charisma), it's still quite difficult to qualify for the ranger class.

This is the last ranger that looks to Aragorn as its primary source. During the decade of 1e's publication, another ranger came onto the scene that, for better or worse (hint: I'll be arguing for the latter), permanently changed how D&D handled rangers. That ranger received superior two-weapon fighting by virtue of a racial ability rather than as a function of class, but when they were writing 2e, they apparently decided there would be such an outcry among the fans that they gave rangers preferential two-weapon fighting rules while wearing studded leather or lighter armor. It is a defining moment in the class's evolution, because you'll notice I haven't said anything up to this point about the armor rangers can wear in OD&D or 1e. That's because they follow the rules for fighters - to use the terminology of later editions, they're proficient in all armor, all weapons, and shields. OD&D and 1e rangers also don't have any particular connection to archery, even if ranger is the obvious class choice for Aragorn's elf archer buddy.

But, well, 1e was all about restrictions on race-class combinations, Legolas couldn't possibly be a ranger in OD&D (because elf is a class), nor in 1e (because only humans and half-elves can be rangers).
I would love to know what the thinking was there, beyond "elves are better than humans, so we have to give humans access to the better classes." This logic was spelled out explicitly in the 2e DMG to justify banning elf paladins, at least. Ending race/class restrictions is right behind dumping THAC0 as the best change made between 2e and 3.0.
So that ranger whose appellation I am assiduously avoiding? Yeah, he didn't qualify for the class either, until 1989 and Second Edition.


There is a massive shift in tone for the 2e ranger, perhaps one of the greatest tonal shifts in the whole edition. Support for Aragorn is all but absent - you can wear any kind of armor and wield a bastard sword if that's your thing, but you're missing out on your class's defining abilities. Rangers have actual stealth skills in 2e just as thieves do, rather than a fixed "surprise chance" as 2e's elves and halflings still do, and it scales with level, finally maxing out at 15th level. These key abilities require studded leather or lighter armor, of course, as do the aforementioned superior two-weapon-fighting rules.

Rangers finally shed their magic-user spellcasting, and have rather narrower clerical spellcasting options - only the Spheres of Animal and Plant. They remain a pet class, but their only healing spell is goodberry. Other features include:

The 2e ranger, then, is much more of a wilderness warrior and much less of a warrior who dabbles in various mystic traditions. The Complete Ranger's Handbook goes much further afield with the class's concept, and Skills and Powers opens the floor to egregious character optimization. You'll have to imagine me clutching at my pearls in dismay upon seeing that one could build a ranger that didn't cast any spells at all.

In my next post, I'll tackle rangers in 3.x through 5e, when WotC ditches some parts of TSR's ranger design and clings mercilessly to other parts of it. I'll also talk more generally about what I see as the ranger's conceptual role in the broader scheme of 5e.

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