Deconstructing the Ranger: Part 2

Read Part 1 HERE.

So, the spell-less and…spirit ranger? I don’t exactly know what to call it. They never gave it an official name. But since its primary feature seems to be its companion spirit, I feel like calling it the spirit ranger is appropriate. Real quick, before I get started:

Spell-Less Ranger: LINK

Spirit Ranger: LINK

Going back over these documents, I realized that they’re designed for very different reasons, and therefore have very different goals inherent to their design. The spell-less ranger was designed without taking into account the fan outcry against the Beast Master. It’s more a practice in replacing class abilities and the basics of class design than actually creating an alternate, flavorful ranger. On the literal opposite end of the spectrum is the Spirit Ranger. Its ENTIRE goal was to create a ranger that is wholly different from the existing version. Its flavor is different, its class features are different, and its entire concept is derived from a different place.

Honestly, it’s interesting just to imagine what was going through the designers’ heads when they came up with this feature or that. What was the inspiration for the spirit companion? Where did they derive the poultice? Did they think about the implications of Ambuscade? I haven’t thought this way about a class for a while, and it’s nice to get my analytical and creative juices flowing.

Anyway, onto the rangers.

The Spell-Less Ranger

     Unearthed Arcana 3 – Creating New Class Options

The spell-less ranger is an interesting beast. At first glance, with the word “Strider” implanted in your head from the first paragraph, this feels like an attempt to emulate a more classic, Lord of the Rings-y ranger. Upon closer inspection, however, it feels a lot more like a hodgepodge mix of class features that are intended to cover up the fact that it doesn’t have spells any more.

And let’s talk about what the ranger is actually giving up for these features, shall we? Everyone will always answer Hunter’s Mark first (as I have), but there’s so much more to what the ranger’s spell list can accomplish. Yes, they derive a LOT of their combat prowess from their spells (Hunter’s Mark, Ensnaring Strike, Hail of Thorns, Conjure Volley, Conjure Barrage, Lightning Arrow, Swift Quiver, Protection from Poison, Barkskin, etc.), but they also gain a lot of their…ranger-y-ness from their spells, as well. Alarm, Animal Friendship, Longstrider, Animal Messenger, Beast Sense, Pass Without Trace, Tree Stride. These are all pretty close-to-classic ranger spells that really sell what the class is about. So, this class variant has some pretty big shoes to fill. Because, as noted, the first thing the variant tells you is that it wants to be more like Strider. And these things feel pretty Strider-y to me.

Also, Stider? Really? Why wouldn’t you say Aragorn?

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“Miraz in the Mist” by Justin Sweet

Combat Superiority. You know why Combat Superiority is cool on the Battle Master? Because it betrays a class narrative of a character who has had professional training. These aren’t just combat maneuvers that anyone can do. They’ve been drilled into this character’s mind through years of professional training. Battle Masters are martial artists, focusing on quick, precise movements to perform exact techniques rather than broad, powerful swings.

You know what the ranger’s narrative progression DOESN’T have? That’s right. Professional training. And there’s nothing other than Combat Superiority in this variant’s progression to suggest that it’s coming from a professional, military background. We can talk all day about how it helps fill the gap that taking away those combat spells leaves. And yeah, the damage kicker and special techniques that the maneuvers grant do help to cover that up. It just feels like a sloppy injection of a class ability because they couldn’t think of anything else to use.

And one final problem? And, admittedly, this one’s all me. By giving the ranger Combat Superiority as a base class ability, and not relegating it to an archetype, it suggests that the Battlemaster is taking an ability from the RANGER, and not the other way around. I know that’s not actually the case, but I just keep thinking of what it would look like if the Ranger were printed this way in the Players Handbook, and it’s kind of ass-backwards.

Poultices. I railed against the Ranger’s poultices back when I wrote up my own Poultice Rules on the other blog. And as I look back at it again…I still have problems. See, I don’t mind the design of the poultices. Mechanically, they serve their purpose perfectly. They extend the adventuring day, they take time to create, and they can’t be used mid-combat (taking 1 minute to apply). However, this is supposed to be early in the ranger’s progression, when it’s relatively magic-less, and 1 minute to heal xd6 hit points with a poultice? It just bugs me. If there was some kind of mystical component to the ranger at this point—some suggestion that they’re infusing it with the magic that nature provides, or that they whisper spells into the herbs, then it’d be fine. But they don’t. All they say is “herbal poultices,” which means that they’re non-magical. 1 minute is too fast for something non-magical.

Other than that minor rant, they’re fine.

Natural Antivenom. I’ve got no problem with this ability. It should maybe come a bit earlier, as resistance to poison damage isn’t exactly something that’s going to come up a whole lot during high level play, but it’s intended to cover up a blank slot in the ranger’s progression, so it’s forgivable due to the spell-less ranger’s design goal.

Call Natural Allies. Really? Conjure Animals? You took a look at the ranger’s spell list and thought that conjure animals was the one that needed to fit here? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like the ability. It’s neat that the ranger can use his natural attunement to nature to call animal friends to come help. Except…wait. What natural attunement to nature? The preamble to this class variant suggests that there’s a modification to Primeval Awareness to make it compatible with the spell-less ranger, but that feature never appears in the text. Other than that…maybe you could argue Natural Explorer? Maybe? Except with this variant’s class abilities, that kind of suggests the ranger’s own natural skill, rather than some deeper connection to mother earth. Which means that this feature…kind of comes out of nowhere. I don’t know. I might have chosen something like a permanent barkskin effect on your person, if I was going for spell emulation. But that’s just me.

Again, this is another feature that is fine in terms of mechanics, but just kind of comes out of nowhere. It has no cohesion to the rest of the class. However, it would have fit perfectly in the spirit ranger.

Relentless. I actually like Relentless as a class feature more than I like the actual Combat Superiority class feature. It fits with the ranger, I feel, much more than it fits with the Battle Master. A ranger is going to be someone who never gives up, always having a trick up his sleeve.

Beastly Coordination. This ability’s pretty sick. No problems here. Thumbs up. Good replacement.

The Spirit Ranger

     Unearthed Arcana 8 – Ranger

I actually like this version of the ranger, and wouldn’t mind seeing it fully fleshed out as more Unearthed Arcana arrives. If my definitive ranger gains any kind of traction, I might even do a “spirit ranger” archetype at some point in the future.

This class is really an interesting beast. The one thing I will say about this class as opposed to the spell-less variant, it definitely knows what it wants to be. This is a mystical warrior—more of a battle-druid than what we’re used to seeing in the ranger class. I honestly see this class fitting in perfectly within elven societies and other wildlands-focused communities. It’s obviously inspired by a lot of native American folklore, like the idea of spirit walkers. It’s also pretty ambitious, skirting some traditional mechanics and shaking up what’s possible with a character class.

I also think that a lot of spirit rangers probably wear black and smoke cigarettes. But that’s just the impression that I get.

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Hit Dice. 2d6 Hit dice!? BLASPHEMY!

Except, it’s totally not, and it’s really an elegant solution to kind of a hidden problem in the ranger. Remember, last time, when I talked about how the ranger’s supposed to be a survivalist? I mentioned Mad Max, and how his ability to survive in the wasteland, with everything against him, is a perfect metaphor for how a ranger gets along in the world? The problem is that the ranger doesn’t actually show any of this survivability in its original form. Outside of a couple spells (Cure Wounds, Goodberry, Protection from Poison, Lesser Restoration), the ranger in the core rulebook is not a survivor. It doesn’t gain any bonuses to AC, no self-healing, no damage resistances. Nothing. By giving the ranger 2d6 hit dice per level, you bake the ranger’s survivability into its core being. Sure, they may not be able to heal themselves instantly like a fighter or a paladin, or even a monk, but when they rest and treat their wounds, they’re better at it. It means that they can add twice as much constitution bonus to their short rest healing as any other class, AND they keep up with barbarians when it comes to hit points. Yes, technically they will gain an average of .5 more hit points per level than a barbarian, but I think it’s a fair compromise considering how COOL and elegant this feature is.

Proficiencies. I like the missing medium armor. I was never a fan of heavily armored rangers. Also, automatic herbalism kit is neat.

Saving Throws. I think Brandes Stoddard made a very good point re: the fact that it gains two primary saving throws. Pick one: Dexterity or Wisdom (personally, I’d pick Wisdom with this version of the ranger) and have another non-primary save tied to the ranger’s subclass (Strength for guardian, Intelligence for Seeker, and Charisma for Stalker).

Skills. Whatever.

Ambuscade. Holy CRAP! Again, I’m going to be referencing Brandes’s Post, because he has a lot of good points to say about this ability. Primarily: what Fighter in their right mind ISN’T going to take a level of ranger to gain a free attack action at the beginning of every combat!? Seriously. Did they even think about the implications of this feature? And placing it at first level? Holy bananas, was this poorly-thought out!

However, I really, REALLY like Ambuscade. No matter what some people might say about the name, it’s totally an awesome ability. See, back in the olden times of yore, the ranger didn’t gain any ability to sneak. Instead it got benefits when surprising foes. They were weird and fiddly and dumb. However, the IDEA behind them, that the ranger is the one who strikes first, is an awesome concept. This is a simpler, more elegant, modernized version of that concept, and it’s pretty genius. Most people, I would imagine, would have instead just given the ranger a sneak-attack damage bonus during a surprise round. This is infinitely cooler. I immediately think of gunslingers at high noon. Why does Erik the Ranger always win? Ambuscade. That’s why. If it was reduced in power, a bit. Knock it down to a single attack, rather than the attack action (seriously, a level 12 fighter can get 9 attacks in the first round of combat with this feature), then you’ve still got something powerful, but it doesn’t totally break the game.

Natural Explorer. See what I had to say Last Time.

Fighting Style. See what I had to say Last Time.

Skirmisher’s Stealth. And here’s the other feature that someone’s going to dip to get. What’s worse than a rogue who dips one level into spirit ranger in order to gain a free sneak attack at the beginning of every combat? A rogue who dips two levels into spirit ranger to get a sneak attack every round EVER. Seriously. A rogue can get a sneak attack against a foe in just about every round of combat with this feature. Hide behind wall, step out from behind wall, make sneak attack against unsuspecting foe, and hide back behind wall. Sure, a tactical DM with a few brain cells to rub together can counter it, but then it just turns into a game of escalation, and I don’t like competing with my players.

Primeval Awareness. …as far as I can see, this version of the ranger doesn’t get spells. I’m sure it was intended to get spells, but they’re not listed as a class feature, and they’re not on the table. Therefore, either this feature is useless, or they forgot to include spells in the spirit ranger’s document. This also brings up the greater question of whether or not this version of the ranger gets spells, and what spells may or may not be included. If it does, and it’s the normal ranger spell list, then this class is pretty freakin’ wicked, man. Slap Hunter’s mark onto everything else this class does, and you start turning into the buzz-saw ranger from 4e.

Spirit Path

This is the self-proclaimed key mechanic of the spirit ranger. And…I like it. I wouldn’t use it for a more traditional ranger build, but it works well for what this variant is supposed to be. Again, as I noted above, this version of the ranger knows EXACTLY what it wants out of life. Every class feature in this version furthers the idea that the spirit ranger is a mystical soldier. A warrior of nature. As noted in its own document, it’s the paladin of the forest. And this fits that to a T. Summoning a beast and calling upon your guardian spirit to give you power is very cool, and is a perfect narrative fit for this class’s direction.

I’m not going to comment in any kind of detail on the paths’ summoned spirit animals. They’re fine. They do what they’re supposed to do. I like them just fine. They probably shouldn’t be tied to concentration, though.

The Guardian. The guardian is…okay. Pretty good, even, but it’s not exactly exciting. Gaining 2d6 temporary hit points, especially since those hit points don’t necessarily have a duration, is pretty cool. And granting them as a bonus action is a good idea. Whiners and crybabies will talk about character abuse, and how a PC could use this to give themselves buckets of HP during days off, but I don’t see that happening in practice. This ability isn’t like Ambuscade or Skirmisher’s Stealth, where the temptation for the other classes is almost too much to resist. Guardian’s shroud is intended to be a quick buff in the middle of combat, like a Second Wind you can grant to your allies. If you’re really worried, then just add in that the temporary hit points go away after a short or long rest.

Seeker. Seekers are the most ranger-y of the three paths, I feel, with the flavor text describing their knowledge of the wilderness’ secrets. They’ve also got the coolest of the three path features. Seeker’s Eye gives you and all your allies advantage on attack rolls against a single creature for a turn. Essentially, it’s a death sentence for any non-boss. And probably for a lot of bosses, too. If that theoretical rogue wanted to go full-multiclass and take that third level of ranger for this feature, they could really clean house with this ability. However, the fact that it’s locked three levels into the class does discourage such dippage.

Stalker. This is the hunter of the three. I probably would have gone with the name “predator” or something, in order to really give it that ranger flair, but to each their own. I like the idea that stalkers are leaders. The fact that they get a dire wolf as their spirit companion furthers this idea of stalker rangers being “pack leaders” of sorts. Stalker’s Fangs is a pretty basic damage kicker. The fact that you can give it to an ally, however, is pretty cool, and definitely plays with the idea of them leading the pack. I’m definitely most excited to see how the stalker develops, should the D&D team decide to continue development of the spirit ranger.

Concluding Thoughts

Wow. I sure ranted a lot about the spell-less ranger, didn’t I? And I had a lot of nice things to say about the spirit ranger. Funny thing is, I actually felt the opposite way about them before I started research for this article. The things I liked about the spell-less ranger originally, when it first came out, are the things I dislike about it now. And the opposite can be said for the spirit ranger. The things I hated are now the things I like. And the reason for both of these flips is the same. The spell-less ranger lacks narrative cohesion. Originally, I really liked the individual abilities on their own: combat superiority, the beast summoning ability, etc. But now I see them for what they are, weirdly injected features stuck on a chassis for purely mechanical benefit. On their own, the abilities function well, but when you put them together without saying the word “ranger,” then the only giveaway is the poultice idea. And even then, that’s only if you know what a poultice is.

When it comes to the spirit ranger (or revised ranger, as I now realize they called it in the document), what I initially didn’t like about it was the spirit companion. I now realize that it fits perfectly into the concept of this particular variant of the ranger. Conjuring forth a spirit animal from the ether, using its power to enhance your own strength (or the strength of your allies), and focusing on ambush and stealth tactics? It all fits together to paint a picture of a mystic that lives on the fringes of society. When a horde of angry nightkin move their territory to include an innocent forest town, this is the woman who lives on the outskirts that they turn to. Some believe that she’s a werewolf. Others think she steals children in the night and eats their hearts. But everyone knows that when the weird and wild come knocking at their door, it’s the ranger they turn to. Because the ranger is immersed in that world.

The real question, of course, is “how do we use this?” Like the core ranger, what do we take from these documents to help us build a better ranger? Well, I think what the first article taught us is that the ranger needs a strong core concept. We need to have a picture in our mind when we’re building the class. The core class doesn’t really deliver that. It feels like an attempt to get back to the class’s roots by way of 3rd edition, while migrating a lot of what made the 3/3.5 ranger special into its spell selection. I don’t think either of these options really deliver that, either. Don’t get me wrong. I really like what they’ve done with the spirit/revised ranger. But when I place the definitive “ranger” in my mind, it’s just not what I picture.

I think here, in this article, we learned about narrative cohesion. Not only do we have to have that core concept of a ranger deep in our thoughts, but the abilities we give said ranger need to reflect that core while also flowing together. We need to establish concepts early that we can fully develop later in the class’s progression, and we need to ensure that there are no stray barbs sticking out of the class, interrupting its flow.

Next time, we’ll discuss how to actually build our new ranger. What will the core concept be? How will we develop it over time? And what rules can we break along the way to keep it interesting?

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