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D&D 5e Playtest: The (Alternate) Ranger


In this month's Unearthed Arcana, Mearls describes the community's lukewarm-at-best reaction to 5e's Ranger class and presents a very different vision of what that class name might mean. Quite a while back, I wrote about my own views on the class, and thanks to the State of the Game podcast, we've known for a little while that the Ranger was up for some kind of major variant offering. As with other first-look playtests, the article only includes levels 1-5.

If you're already well-versed in the issues with the Ranger class, skip to The Revised Ranger, below.

The Issues

Mearls talks about how the original ranger had quite a few unique abilities, but one by one, most of those have become available to other classes. This happened for the most obvious of reasons: the abilities are strictly natural skills, so anyone should be able to learn them in a simulationist universe, right? (The validity of this line of thinking is all but irrelevant now; what matters is that the 3.0 designers believed it.)

At the same time, the ranger's spells have been trending away from "low-end druid," especially in 5e. Much like the paladin, they can heal and do additional damage with their spells; unlike the paladin, they are area-effect spells centered on the target of an arrow, rather than a pile of damage to the main target. That's actually one of the problems - archery rangers can dump spells for extra damage, but it's much more situational than a paladin's smites, because you really want clustered targets. Also, as hail of thorns and swift quiver require Concentration, they're mutually exclusive with hunter's mark, the ranger's go-to damage kicker. (Not that hunter's mark would help with hail of thorns' damage, since that damage comes off a failed Dex save and not an attack roll.)
Did You Know? This week I learned that hex and hunter's mark are intended (as long as you don't lose Concentration) to carry over not just from one enemy to the next, but from one encounter to the next, as long as you're within duration. As their durations lengthen with higher-level spells, you may be able to fit a short rest, or even a long rest, inside their durations without ending them. What I had missed all this time is that you transfer the hex or mark "on a subsequent turn of yours," but not on your next turn. This kind of hurts my brain, but Jeremy Crawford confirmed it as working-as-intended.
I think the real problem is something other than thematic issues. It is true that the ranger needs more proprietary toys, but no amount of toys is enough if the ranger feels underwhelming in combat. At low levels, the ranger keeps up with other classes well enough in damage output - not with a paladin, but let's not kid ourselves, the paladin's smite damage output is completely bananas if there aren't just tons of fights in every adventuring day.

The Hunter Archetype's 3rd-level abilities all improve damage output to varying degrees. Colossus Slayer is the most reliable of them. When it works, Horde Breaker is better on damage. Giant Slayer relies on the DM to use Large creatures against you, and is really only a good idea for melee rangers. There's also the 11th-level feature, which grants either a melee or ranged multi-attack; in a lot of cases this isn't any better than the two attacks you're already making with your 5th-level Extra Attack feature.

The other "damage kicker" for the ranger class is hidden in the feats, which... I really wish they hadn't done, because it raises the specter of required system mastery. Sharpshooter lets you take a -5 to hit in exchange for a +10 to damage. This is a steep and risky trade... except that if you're playing an archer ranger, you're already sitting on a +2 attack bonus from your Fighting Style. -3/+10 is... not so much a choice. You should always do this.

In my view, the serious problem happens at 11th level. At 11th level, the fighter gets Extra Attack for the second time, primary spellcasters beef up their cantrips again, and the paladin gets a permanent +1d8 damage to all melee attacks. The rogue gets her sixth Sneak Attack damage die. These are all impressive boosts. The ranger gets... the ability to spread damage thinly in a horde, but no passive damage boost. A simple fix is available within the Hunter Archetype - just set the 3rd-level options to improve in some way at 11th level.
None of which even touches on the Beast Master. Look, I get that they didn't want the Beast Master's damage output to be head and shoulders over every other class, but this is too conservative - it doesn't even keep up with the Hunter, much less the game's other classes. It does have the advantage of, er, advantage - the pet can use the Help action for free to improve your attacks. It feels entirely too much like the pet replaces the ranger, since this literally happens whenever you want the beast to attack.

Hither came the Revised Ranger, with a concept disconnected from what has come before in D&D. If you read my History of the Classes column in Tribality, you already know that there's a long tradition of scrapping even major areas of class mechanics if they're not working, so connection to earlier editions doesn't have to be a priority.

The Revised Ranger

This is a very different ranger, and in fact is pretty unlike every other class currently in the game; its closest relative is the 4e shaman, but with a rogue's stealth-and-ambush tactics.

There's one piece of... "why is this here, please?" in the flavor text. "Rangers are champions of the natural world. They are typically good aligned, and their link to nature gives them supernatural abilities. They are the paladins of the forest." This is a throwback to 2e-and-prior, when rangers had to be Good-aligned. It seems like a really strange thing to dredge up, since their hit-and-run tactics are just as useful to the bad guys. This doesn't matter to the mechanics, so it's easy to ignore.
There's a lot going on here, and the themes are kind of interesting, but I think those first two levels need another look. The Spirit Paths are cool, though it's got nothing to do with the ranger of D&D's traditions. Like I said, that isn't a problem to me, though it looks like it's drawing substantial flak from the broader community. It definitely positions the ranger further from "civilized" traditions and closer to the Totem Warrior barbarian path.

It's also an unusually narrow conception of distinguishing factors between subclasses. What we see here adds two action options, but doesn't change the ranger's combat role or tactics much at all. Since each option is a different animal, it doesn't seem like additional Spirit Path options would expand the class's themes all that much. Maybe this is different at higher levels? I'll hope so. (To be fair, I would be disappointed in judging many of the game's subclasses by their initial ability.)

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