01 02 03 Harbinger of Doom 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

The Ranger Class, Part Two

In my last post, I looked back to the ranger class of OD&D, 1e, and 2e. When I started that post, I had the now-comical notion that I might discuss all six editions at once. The tale, as the Professor and GRRM have been known to say, grew in the telling, and so it is doing now. Before I move on to 3.0, I want to look at development within editions: 1e's Unearthed Arcana and 2e's Complete Ranger's Handbook and Skills and Powers, which I mentioned in passing before. Ironically, on the same day that I hit Publish on my first post about rangers, WotC released their own retrospective of the Big Four and the Ranger. The bit of history on how rangers came to use two-weapon fighting surprised me.

Looking at the work of tabletop designers, the second book discussing a class, race, Clan, Kith, or whatever may be even more revealing as to the designer's thought than the first book. (Okay, this is only true if both books have the same design and development team, or you're comfortable treating the whole company as a single hivemind.) The second book within the development cycle of the edition is where you see the things that the designer came to see as errors, lacunae, things cut for space limitations, and weird new ideas that arrived too late. It's often and rightly said that design is a conversation; splatbooks are other ways the conversation might have gone, footnotes, the longer versions of Jon Stewart's interviews that are online because they won't fit into the Daily Show's 22-minute format.

Now for the other view of splatbooks: seriously, did they get that name because the writers just flung a bunch of poop at a wall to see what would stick? (They did not, but it's a fun - or painfully apt - false etymology.) From the earliest days of OD&D, Gygax was releasing new rules content for money, as with Supplement I: Greyhawk. New options for players and DMs inevitably increase the players' power relative to previously published content; sometimes the new content for the DM keeps up and sometimes it does not. (The Thief class of Supplement I is a rare exception, but only because the initial design of the class is so badly flawed.) Splatbooks can create a sense of a content treadmill, of keeping up with the Joneses Bigbys, that focuses attention on rules and undermines the central role that character and story should hold.

Unearthed Arcana (1e)

Which brings us to Unearthed Arcana, a book guilty of some of the worst excesses of power creep, as well as introducing classes that are flagrantly detrimental to party cohesion. We're not here to talk about the cavalier or the barbarian today, though. The ranger just has some expanded detail:

Taken together, what we see is clarification on the non-combat side and a power bump on the combat side; I'd like to think that Gygax was seeing that fighter-types didn't have enough to look forward to at mid-to-high levels, compared to the radically burgeoning powers of the spellcasters. It's graceless by modern design standards, but it's one of the most forgivable parts of all of UA.

Complete Ranger's Handbook (2e)

Oh god, kits. Ironically, kits are a central part of what ruined 2e (since they were often hilariously unbalanced), whereas the subclasses that make 5e as versatile and interesting as it is are unmistakable cognates of kits. In a particularly brain-straining twist, this book makes vague gestures in the direction of being backward-compatible with 1e rangers. They also apparently had to fill a whole book with just one class, so the book opens with an "As you know..." exposition that reprints the entire class writeup of the 2e Player's Handbook.

A very high-level summary of the book's optional rules:
So the Complete Ranger's Handbook clearly recognizes that it is working with one very narrow archetype, the goodly wilderness warrior, and tries to push out the boundaries of that concept much as 3.x's prestige classes will do. Adding detail to rules of the ranger class - new opportunities for DMs and players to dicker over modifiers, basically - doesn't do anyone any favors. In all, the Complete Ranger's Handbook has everything you'd expect of a splatbook from any time in the last 20+ years, for better and for worse.

Skills & Powers (2e)

Fortunately for the patience of my readers (charming creatures that you are), the section on rangers in Skills & Powers - a book that one might justly call 2.5e - is mercifully brief. For those who gave it a pass or started playing D&D long after its publication, the point of Skills & Powers was to let players customize race and class on a point-buy basis. Speaking as someone who got his start in third-party publishing by writing a similar product for 3e, I can't say too much, but let's be real: point-buy is just not a real great idea for races and classes.

The ranger point-buy option introduces just a few new things you might purchase instead of the normal class abilities of the ranger: a bonus with bows, some additional Thief skills, Sneak Attack (remember, this is the relatively difficult-to-use and less impressive 2e-era backstab), weapon specialization as a fighter, pass without trace, and speak with animals. Overall, the options don't go beyond More Fighter, More Thief, More Druid, though the More Druid options are thin on the ground. I'm surprised that better spellcasting wasn't so much as offered.

Overall, S&P doesn't add much to the conversation beyond an acknowledgement that it would be nice to support a little more variation within the ranger class, just as the CRH did. They could have done a lot more with this if they had focused on ways to double down on existing class functions - superior animal empathy, archery, or favored-enemy interactions, which in general terms summarizes much of the CRH's approach to kits.

In all, these three books do move the conversation forward in small ways, though none of them can really address fundamental design issues of the ranger class in their respective editions. UA is more like a maintenance pass of clarification and a bump in power. The whole Complete series of 2e expands class concepts, albeit in relatively tame ways save for the Greenwood Ranger. It's strange to me that the Complete series didn't share in the tone of... most or really any of the published settings that set 2e apart - sure, most of them fit into Forgotten Realms okay, but they're almost completely divergent in tone from Planescape, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Birthright, Council of Wyrms, Al-Qadim... TSR had the raw material to go completely nuts with the ranger, but hindsight is 20/20 here. It just makes me wonder about what could have been. There's a passing reference to planar rangers as a kit the DM could homebrew, and Ranger-Knights (way to bring back that title, guys!) as a kit for those who hold land within a feudal structure - again, left as an exercise for the reader.

Skills & Powers was a whole new thread in the conversation: radical customization, a trend that carries through to 3e in a quite different form. It's the first time we see that level of rules-control presented for players to use, and in that light I think Skills & Powers is the true point of departure between the "early" editions - OD&D through 2e's initial release - and everything that came after. It's 180 degrees of difference in how the players are expected to engage the game's system. 5e clearly sets out to find a happy medium between these modes - D&D Basic for those antithetical to customization, and the Player's Handbook for those who want modest customization. (Pathfinder is still there for you if radical customization makes you happy.)

Next time, I'll talk about rangers in 3.x on through 5e, though the odds are strongly against me covering every ranger-relevant splatbook in 3.x.

Labels: , ,

35 36 37 38