EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on April 3, 2017 on www.dicedelvers.com. A previous attempt at a game design blog. Second time’s the charm…
TL;DR: Ranger’s Favored Enemy is not a good class mechanic. Animal Companion is a better one. Also spellcasting should be an archetype feature, not a class feature. Finally, move Ranger away from Fighter and closer to Rogue. Download a free copy at DMs Guild: www.dmsguild.com/product/208908/Ranger-Variant
So, the Ranger is no fun. At least, that’s been the common wisdom in the Dungeons and Dragons community for as long as I can remember. Even way back in the 3.0/3.5e days, this was the general understanding. (I started playing with the release of 3.0, so I can’t personally speak to anything prior. I also basically gave 4e a pass, but that’s a discussion for another post). Unfortunately, this trend has continued into D&D’s 5th edition.
Players in the know gravitate away from it. New players who don’t know any better are often disappointed by the class. They soon realize they won’t be fighting their Favored Enemy that often or that their Animal Companion is more of a liability than an asset in combat. Put simply, players don’t chose the Ranger because it’s no fun.
But does it have to stay that way? (Obviously not, seeing as there’s still a bunch of post left).
So…What’s the Problem?
Before we try and add anything new, we need to address all the reasons why the Ranger class in it’s current form is problematic. We’ll start with the biggest offender.
Favored Enemy is Dumb
By far, the Ranger’s biggest problem is their unique mechanic. Favored Enemy is bad. Bad, bad, so sad. It’s just too situational and underwhelming, especially when compared to other class defining mechanics (Barbarian’s Rage, Monk’s Ki, Rogue’s Sneak Attack, etc). It’s a passive ability (for the most part) that activates on its own if the DM happens to throw the right type of enemy at you. Even in situations where it would be useful, most of my Ranger players tend to just forget about the mechanic anyway.
So, obviously Favored Enemy has got to go. I know, I know, there’s a lot of history (and thus baggage) around Favored Enemy and the Ranger. But the mechanic is just not that fun. Not only is it no fun for the player with the Ranger, it’s problematic for the DM as well. A good DM will take the capabilities of their PC’s into consideration when planning an adventure. You want to try and give opportunities for each Player Character to have a chance to stand in the spotlight. But trying to accommodate the Ranger’s Favored Enemy actually limits the design space of an adventure, especially if the player chooses a Favored Enemy that doesn’t offer a lot of options. So Favor Enemy needs to just get the ax.
Truncated Spell Lists are Also Dumb
Rangers also get half spellcasting and their own spell list. This is a class mechanic they share with that other problematic class, Paladins. If we ignore Rangers and Paladins, we see a clear distinction between the dedicated spellcasters and the non-spellcaster classes. Dedicated spellcasters (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard, and Warlock) each have their own spell list. The non-spellcasting classes have an archetype with supplemental magical abilities (Fighter’s Eldritch Knight, Monk’s Way of the Four Elements, and Rogue’s Arcane Trickster). Only the Barbarian is left out of the fun, which makes sense given their Rage mechanic. (That said, though, we have an idea about this. Stay tuned).
The Ranger’s spell list is a limited Druid list with a handful of unique spells that are mostly just variations of “shoot with arrow, add additional effect.” We decided to bring the Ranger more inline with the other non-spellcasters, so we removed spellcasting as a class feature, and instead created an archetype which gains access to the Druid spell list, modeled heavily on the Eldritch Knight. Now, eliminating the Ranger’s spell list does remove hunter’s mark from the Ranger’s repertoire, which is not something we completely want to abandon. You’ll read about how we reincorporated this thematic spell later in the post.
You Got Your Fighter in My Ranger!
Vanilla Rangers (again like Paladins, sensing a pattern here?) are also structured to be secondary fighters. This is accomplished by giving them Fighting Style (though with more limited options) and Extra Attack (but with fewer attacks in the end) features, as well as a d10 hit die. But Fighting Style and Extra Attack are the Fighter’s bread and butter.
The Fighter should stand alone as the ultimate, well, fighter, so we’re reclaiming Fighting Style as a Fighter exclusive, and limiting access to the Extra Attack to just the Fighter and the Barbarian (who gets a little taste). If your class is relying on watered down mechanics from another class, then just make it an archetype. This is what we did with the Paladin. We’ll have a blog post going into more depth about our reasoning regarding the Paladin in the near future, but until then you can check out our Avowed Warrior over on DMs Guild.
Ranger Conclaves are All Over the Map
Finally, there’s the fact that the Ranger archetypes feel more like separate classes altogether, instead of different takes on the same class. Almost every archetype introduced to date brings a brand new mechanic which muddies the waters of what it means to be a Ranger.
Alright, now what?
Despite all these problems, we like the Ranger and feel like it’s worth trying to improve. Unlike the Paladin, which basically has no unique mechanics, the Ranger has some cool ideas, they just need to be brought front and center. It’s also got a cool flavor that’s not just made redundant by the existence of a War Domain Cleric (Paladin, why you so suck?!?).
Animal Companion: the Mechanic We Deserve
So, now that we all agree that Favored Enemy’s got to go, the class’s signature mechanic is empty. Luckily, we don’t need to look far to find a replacement: the animal companion. This mechanic, which is relegated to an archetype, and the least powerful archetype at that, is actually the universal and fun mechanic the Ranger needs. In my experience as a DM, my players have always chosen the Beast Master archetype, because the concept of having an animal buddy join you in your adventures and fight by your side is so awesome!
Unfortunately, the vanilla Ranger’s Animal Companion is so weak that players soon realize its use is limited to basically just flair. WotC’s Revised Ranger in Unearthed Arcana attempted to remedy this problem by buffing the animal companion capabilities in the Beast Master Conclave. Admirable, but we believe it still didn’t go far enough. Instead of being an archetype mechanic, the animal companion should be front and center. So we took the buffed animal companion found in the Revised Ranger, tweaked it a bit, and gave it to all Rangers at level 2.
Hunter’s Mark Your Quarry
We also didn’t want to lose the flavor of the Ranger class as the ultimate hunter. In the vanilla Ranger, this role is exemplified by the Favored Enemy feature, and the Ranger spell hunter’s mark. As already stated, Favored Enemy is just bad, but hunter’s mark is a cool spell, both in terms of power and flavor. Since we nixed the Ranger’s spell list, we had to find another way to keep hunter’s mark. We decided to take inspiration from the Rogue’s Sneak Attack.
Enter “Mark Quarry.” Mark Quarry allows you to use a bonus action to “mark” a target as your quarry. You then do extra damage on the first hit to that target each round. Similar to Sneak Attack, the damage scales as you level. This has the effect of making the Ranger an effective Striker (to borrow some 4e terminology), able to do a lot of damage to a single target in one round. To attempt to balance this, we also reduced the d10 hit die to a d8 (which is the standard hit die, unless you’re a very squishy spellcaster or a battle hardened front line fighter).
Better Archetypes (or Disciplines)
First, we decided to call the Ranger archetypes “Disciplines” instead of “Conclaves” to better reflect the idea of Rangers as solitary, wilderness warriors. Next, we wanted the archetypes to modify and interact with the main class mechanics in cool and interesting ways like normal class archetypes, instead of just introducing totally unique mechanics. The three Discipline we settled on are: Hunter, Skirmisher, and Feral Caster.
This Discipline focuses on taking down single, large targets. The Hunter has an enhanced Mark Quarry ability and their Animal Companions can also deal extra damage to marked targets.
The Skirmisher Discipline focus on fighting the horde. Skirmishers and their Animal Companions are good at moving around the battle field, and dealing with swarms of foes.
And finally, a spellcasting Discipline in the vein of Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster. In addition to the spellcasting, Feral Casters also have unique features that allow them to share spells with their Animal Companions.
But Is It Balanced? Maybe…
In designing a new Ranger class, we really wanted to make something that was fun, thematic, and useful. We’re still playtesting it ourselves, and the initial results have been encouraging. But balance is hard, as I’m sure you know. We’re really hoping to get more feedback from other players. Please leave a comment here or on DMs Guild, so we can continue to perfect our Animal Companion-centric Ranger and make a truly excellent class! Download a free copy at DMs Guild and tell us what you think: www.dmsguild.com/product/208908/Ranger-Variant