Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Being Mean About Rangers, part 1: Decline and Fail

So I've been thinking about the Ranger a lot, because it's one component of my multiclass character. I ran into problems at 4th level when I realised taking several more levels of ranger would not meaningfully affect the feel of my character. I'm not going to delve into that because it's as inside baseball as you can get. But I do want to talk about rangers.

Discussing things with Dan, the conclusion I came to was that the ranger is a bit of a problem.

The ranger has a core mechanic which actively discourages you from using a large proportion of its other capabilities. It has an unusual proportion of features dedicated to the "exploration pillar" in a way which makes its relevance uniquely vulnerable to the campaign and the whims of the DM. It lacks a strong and coherent archetype to explain what the class is all about. And in place of a strong defining thematic mechanic that supports a range of concepts, it has a hodgepodge of abilities that encourage playing a specific character.

...dammit. This is going to be controversial.

Hi, I'm Shimmin Beg, and I don't think the Ranger needs to be a class.

Unbelievably, this was originally a single post. I finally saw sanity and split it into three. Nevertheless, brevity has never been my redeeming vice. You may want to get a brew on before settling down with this post, is what I'm saying.

What is a ranger, anyway?

I think a lot of the problem is that there really does not seem to be a robust core concept behind the ranger. It shares this problem with the historical paladin, and the bard, but both seem to have found niches (although I have long-established Issues with Bards).

The ranger is, as far as I can tell, like those other non-core classes, simply a unique combination of features. Specifically, it's a tough lightly-armoured warrior with substantial stealth skills and some nature-themed utility who does quite a lot of damage. Some iterations feature also a powerful animal companion. More narratively, the ranger is something like "wilderness warrior".

There's three problems here.

Problem one is that these are not inherently associated features. You could be a tough heavily-armoured warrior with nature powers and rubbish damage. You could be a fragile lightly-armoured warrior with stealth skills and elemental utility (oh, that's a monk subclass).

Problem two is that it seems like just about any ranger concept can be modelled using one of the many available builds of another class. If you want a tough wilderness warrior, you can be a fighter with the Outlander background. If you want a guardian of nature, you can be a druid. If you want to be a stealthy woodsman who fights trickily, you can be a rogue with the Outlander background. Basically, "lives in the wilderness" is leaning very heavily towards just being a background.

Problem three is that because of this hodgepodgeness, different people have latched onto very different aspects of rangerdom as being "the shtick". I've spent quite a while trawling the Internet. Things which are considered by some people to be the core of being a ranger include:

  • Being really good at scouting and leading the party through the wilderness
  • Having an animal companion
  • Using an array of nature magic to survive in the wild and battle enemies
  • Definitely not using magic in any way whatsoever
  • Being a tough frontlight fighter
  • Being a lightly-armoured skirmisher
  • Being the master at battling specific kinds of enemies
  • Wielding two weapons to fell enemies rapidly
  • Dealing large amounts of damage to single targets

These are wildly disparate, not entirely compatible, and talk about very different things. Some are thematic. Some are mechanical. Some are about what you do, and some are about how you do it. And they are all quite specific.

I really can't see the same issue cropping up with most of the other classes. A wizard learns and casts spells. A fighter is an expert at straight-up fighting. A rogue uses stealth and cunning to overcome problems. The cleric is the weakest concept of the core classes, but they're imbued with holy power and I think most people can grok that.

Even the non-core classes are fairly strong. A barbarian is a ferocious warrior who relies on physical might. A monk is a mystic warrior.*

* Okay, to be honest... I can't get away from the impression that the monk is someone who fights while foreign.

I'm not knocking it; there's a strong set of narrative sources to draw on, and I'd be sad to lose the option to depict these characters with supporting mechanics. It just feels a little odd to have a character class that's so heavily tied to specific cultures, and that assumes analogues exist within the game world.

I suppose maybe the same argument applies to the cleric and paladin? Although, the cleric isn't a very close match to any Western archetype I can think of, and "person who can do miracles" seems to exist in a lot of cultures. The warrior devoted to a specific cause and granted supernatural power is more closely tied to Western tropes, although I think in its newest incarnation you could argue that it's also appropriate to a vengeful wandering ronin, for example. I don't know enough about most cultures to reach any strong conclusions.

How did this happen? To find out, Librarians and Leviathans called in Dan.

Dan's Historical Interlude

Or, Mighty Morphing Power Rangers

Dan strides pointlessly across a bucolic English landscape, a long coat billowing in the gentle breeze. A playful sun caresses the soft, clover-ridden grass at his feet. The camera pans around to follow him along cliffside paths, past ivy-grown rectories and fields of sheep. It pauses occasionally as he leans on a fence or wall to stare out across rolling valleys or the rippling sea. None of this has anything to do with what he is saying.

I think rangers have suffered from a subtle and continual series of shifts in the way D&D defined its classes over the years and editions.

In the beginning, I think class were defined in a *holistic* and *mechanical* way. Fighters fought monsters, magic users used magic, thieves disarmed traps, clerics healed and fought the undead.

Around 2e, I think that shifted to a holistic-thematic approach. Fighters were soldiers, thieves were thieves, rangers and barbarians were wilderness roamers and berzerkers. Clerics were religious. Wizards were scholarly and magical.

This transition is best exemplified by the Thief. Under the holistic-mechanical system, the Thief was the guy who disarmed traps. Under the holistic-thematic system, the Thief was the guy who had a shady past.

In late 2e, early 3.X, the system shifted from holistic-thematic to specific-thematic. So a rogue was different from an assassin was different from a thief-acrobat was different from a master of the invisible hand.

This transition is best typified by the bard, who went from a nebulous jack-of-all-trades to "guy who literally goes into a dungeon and plays the mandolin at zombies".

In late 3.X, moving into 4e, the focus shifted to specific-mechanical. Like the classes in the older editions, late 3.X and 4e class defined what characters did, more than who they were. But now the emphasis was very specifically on what the character did in combat.

Once again, Rogues highlight this change well. Where in early editions they were defined by their wide range of utility skills, with backstab a poor substitute for a decent THAC0, in late 3.X and all of 4e, they came to be defined almost entirely by Sneak Attack. I think this is also where the identity of the ranger started to get muddled, as it went from "wilderness warrior" to "martial striker".

Inexplicably, Dan is now in a high-backed leather chair beside a fireplace. Rows upon rows of leather-bound books line the walls, and there is a bust of Sophocles on the mantel. The whole room gives off an indefinable air of being in Oxbridge. As he speaks, he takes a ram's skull from the table beside him and holds it thoughtfully on his lap; after a while, he replaces it in favour of a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, which he brandishes to emphasise his points. None of this has anything to do with the words he is speaking.

5e, with its big tent philosophy, has done a surprisingly good job of bringing these different concepts together, but I think some things fell through the cracks, rangers amongst them. I think it mostly does a good job of cherry picking the best bits of the specific-thematic and specific-mechanical approaches of the last two editions, in that most classes have a unique combat role that ties into a unique thematic purpose. Spellcasters are a bit wobbly but martial classes are mostly well articulated.

Rangers, as you say, are a bit all over the place. I'm glad they're no longer tied to archery or TWF, but I think they basically ran out of ideas. About the only shtick they really have is AoE, but I suspect that masters far more in some games than others. Actually, I think that might be the core of their issue. Basically all of their abilities are highly dependent on the campaign, and they're basically the only class that has that problem any more.

Incidentally I suspect that hunter's mark is basically a way of giving the ranger the benefits of the favoured enemy bonus, without restricting it to a particular type of enemy. I think it's also intended to be thematic, in that they're supposed to focus on a particular "quarry", but it still doesn't quite give the class the identity it needs.

We return to Shimmin Beg in the studio.

It seems to me like a rough parallel to what's happened with sorcerers, although they had different initial problems during edition transition.

The 3.X ranger's issue seems to be broadly that they had a pretty specific niche: "dual-wielding warrior who also sneaks and has an animal companion but less so than the druid". In 4e they span off into martial striker, which was about equally distinct with the other classes to be honest. In 5e, as Dan suggests, they end up to my mind as a class that's not sure what it's for.

The 3.X sorcerer's problem was that it was a purely mechanical option for players (a spontaneous-casting alternative to the wizard, with compensating disadvantages), which developed a distinct role and flavour in 4e. In 5e most of that niche is gobbled up by the wizard going spontaneous, leaving the sorcerer with a new shtick of metamagic, but to my mind they wimped out on implementing it enough to be genuinely distinctive.

In both cases, the key thing is that the class just doesn't have a strong enough distinctive flavour to it, let alone enough to support convincing subclasses.

Shticks and Consistency

My position is that rangers don't really have a core shtick, they're just a unique combination of combat/stealth/magic which different people latched onto different aspects of as core. So some people think pets are key, some people think TWF is where it's at, some people think the natural explorer stuff is essential.

This is partly because of the hodgepodgeness, but also partly because people have formed their concept of the ranger at different points in its history. The (holistic-thematic) early ranger was a tough wilderness warrior who could track and also hide. The (specific) 3e ranger became a mystic wilderness warrior with an animal companion. The (specific-mechanical) 4e ranger was a martial striker whose wilderness flavour was mostly optional. 5e is left trying to reconcile these into some kind of coherent whole - and I don't think it succeeds.

The problem is, the original core classes are so broad that they can honestly cover most concepts fairly well. A nature-loving warrior can be a fighter, a stealthy warrior can be a rogue, anyone can do TWF nowadays. This frankly doesn't leave much space for a unique ranger niche except exploration and pets.

It seems like for a lot of early edition players the pets thing doesn't appeal much either - I've seen a lot of griping about how it used to be followers, and pets are a 3.X antic. They've had to depower pets because they could get broken, so that can't be the core feature and it becomes a subclass.

Wizards of the Coast have compensated somewhat by upping magic, although some people don't like that either. Some people feel very strongly that rangers should use sheer skill to achieve amazing feats and that they really don't like the idea of magic getting involved. Some people feel that in the magic-filled world of D&D, it's not a big deal that some effects and abilities are technically supernatural. Some people think rangers should be explicitly magical because it makes sense that they have those abilities to survive the supernatural threats of the wild.

Wielding two weapons at once used to be a distinctive ranger-only feature. It's now available to anyone. Rangers can take a specific fighting style, but so can fighters. A feat allows anyone to wield two full-sized weapons. This is simply no longer a ranger shtick.

Tracking was once a ranger shtick. Like magic item use, trapfinding and lockpicking, a more lenient approach has crept in over the years. These are no longer locked-down class features, but skills that anyone can choose to invest in. A druid is almost certainly a better tracker than a ranger; a cleric or monk can easily be an expert tracker too.

The hanging ranger: the perils of dependency

Okay, so rangers are thematically-challenged and struggling to find a shtick. But there's another substantial problem, which is dependency. The ranger is dependent on context and on DMing decisions for its relevance, leaving them vulnerable to the campaign in a way that doesn't seem to be true of any other class in modern D&D.

This is, unfortunately, particularly pronounced with the two key 'flavour' parts of the class: wilderness living and favoured enemies.

The "wilderness" business

So a ranger is a wilderness warrior, at home in the wilds. This is one of the better-established parts of the class, although sadly not a unique one (it's battling the druid and the barbarian for this niche, not to mention all Outlanders).

They've tried to emphasise this in a way that singles it out from the druid, who is even more of a wilderness person. I welcome that, but unfortunately it's ended up as being a strong fluff whose mechanics are extremely niche.

First off, it's mostly restricted to the exploration pillar, which isn't a major feature of some games. Strangely, this includes my current plane-hopping campaign. We travel a lot, but much of the time we're just passing through and destinations, encounters or discussions are the focus. We have yet to forage, seek shelter, or encounter any serious natural hazards. This means the ranger's wilderness survival expertise has not cropped up, which in a very real sense means that it does not exist.

In case anyone disputes this, try this thought experiment.

You have a Good party consisting of a rogue, a fighter, a wizard and a cleric. They find themselves in a vast antimagic zone, populated entirely by friendly pacifists who wear no clothing, have no possessions, and gather the food they need each day from safe and abundant forests.

Will the characters feel anything like their character sheets suggest, absent any opportunity to use their abilities?

More generally, rangers rely very heavily on the DM's decisions at the campaign level, and the story level. That's because these abilities are also tied down to specific elements of the game. A mountain ranger in a mountain campaign can just about always draw on their abilities if they happen to be doing any of those activities. A mountain ranger who ends up mostly in the forests can never use them.

I've found quite often we're not on any terrain that resembles any of the listed options. Drifting wreck of a spelljammer vessel? Wastes of Acheron? Airless interplanar void? These are a lot more visible in a Planescape campaign of course, but what about that major focus of many campaigns: city?

If the DM happens to design a campaign based heavily on the terrain you chose, which also involves significant amounts of overland travel, the ranger can shine.* If they run a campaign mostly in your chosen terrain but it's relatively static, or there's no long-distance travel between your encounters, those features won't be relevant and the ranger gets no bonus screentime. If they run a campaign focused on a completely different terrain, the ranger is a fish out of water.**

* It's a reasonably nice boost, although if there's a druid or Outlander in the party, it's quite possible they will overshadow the ranger.

** Any DM worth their salt would mention this beforehand, or if it's mostly improvised, would let the ranger player respect and retcon their ranger appropriately. But still.

Much more likely is that the campaign will bob about between a variety of terrain types, including urban sections and extraplanar or weird ones, so some of the ranger's most flavoursome special abilities will only be applicable about 10% of the time, and there's still a question mark over overland travel.

This is a distinctly odd decision. There are certainly other class abilities which depend on content: a rogue can't pick locks or remove traps unless the game features some, and a cleric can't turn undead that aren't there. However, these are quite detailed content issues. A rogue might find locks and traps in any setting, and undead are pretty ubiquitous. Whether they feature in a specific session is an open question, but a whole campaign without any would be very unusual - at least if that character is in play. An undead-free campaign sounds like a setting design issue that a DM should be pitching to the players. In contrast, it's quite easy for a whole campaign to go by without a desert or the Underdark coming into play, and this doesn't even have to be deliberate. The same goes for overland travel; it's a playstyle decision.

Dan suggested that a ranger would be a lot stronger in a more player-driven game. A game where you can decide "We're going to go into the mountains to hunt dragons" is one in which the Mountains-and-Dragons ranger has a whole lot more to do than one where you just bod about doing whatever the DM decides will be cool next. I do agree; but unless the group wants to run an all-mountains-all-the-time campaign, there are still going to be large segments where the ranger is locked out of a substantial portion of her abilities.

Favoured Terrain has bonus weirdness, because it means that the explorer character is only useful if they're exploring terrain that they are already familiar with. This just weakens the archetype further. A ranger is a terrible explorer, because they are so comfortable in their old familiar territory that they actually get game-mechanical bonuses for staying there. They have no bonuses for actual exploration.

More dependency

Hide in Plain Sight allows you to blend seamlessly into the background. But it's incredibly context-dependent. It is useful specifically in situations where you need to hide very well and have ten minutes to prepare and have access to natural materials for disguise and don't need to move and aren't bothered whether the rest of your party is visible or not and nobody in the party can just cast pass without trace or invisibility on you.

So, when you're on watch, maybe? Maybe you have advance warning that a group of enemies whose language you speak will move to a particular location and then stop there to talk about their secret plans before moving on? Or you just want to birdwatch? Or are you supposed to be perving at the hot cleric bathing in crystal streams?

Land's Stride allows you to move through nonmagical difficult terrain at normal speed, including plants that might normally hamper or harm you. You also have advantage on saving throws against plants that are magically created or manipulated to impede movement. The second feature is incredibly niche; it's a bonus against, I think, five two specific spells: entangle, spike growth, plant growth, wall of thorns (the other two don't have saving throws). You could argue for ensnaring strike although I don't think you'll get away with it. So that's clearly super useful. The first has some genuine tactical use in both combat and exploration.

I feel I must emphasise again, though, that the "plants" business feels like an arbitrary restriction. Our ranger may be an arctic warrior, a beach-dweller, a desert hunter. Why are we focused on plants when our ranger's experience might be with slippery ice, soft snow or sand, razor rocks, sucking mud or other such hazards? An urban ranger might have never forged a path through forests in her life. What about shoving through thick crowds? And why insist on single-terrain restrictions at all? At least the "difficult terrain" feature is neutral.

Primeval Awareness

So, Primeval Awareness. This is part of the wise, in-touch-with-nature, huntery part of the class. It lets you sense creatures of certain types within a mile.

Primal Awareness seems mostly worthless. There are remarkably few situations where it's important to know that creatures of one of six very broad types are within one mile of you, but to know no further information whatsoever.

It would be useful if it indicated their number, because maybe you're wondering about a sudden surge of fey activity or trying to triangulate a planar breach. It would be useful if it indicated their direction, because finding stuff is a pretty common goal. It doesn't.

It doesn't do is what I'd expect a ranger to do, which is track and hunt creatures. The paladin's similar Divine Sense ability has a much smaller range, but does let them sniff out undead and fiends in a very thematic way. A ranger has no way to detect the presence of their mortal enemies; only to realise that there's a fey somewhere within a mile.

It also doesn't work very well narratively. Whether I imagine it as a mildly-supernatural tracking talent, super-senses, or a mystical awareness of powerful entities, any of those would seem to naturally give you an idea of location and even of type. I cannot imagine any way that you'd be able to tell unnerringly that there is one or more creatures of these types within a mile, but have no idea whatsoever of how many or in which direction.

Also, the ranger's senses start a-tingling if a petal (Tiny, largely harmless fey) is napping under a leaf a mile away through the thick forest. They start tingling in exactly the same way if six thousand balors are crouching just out of sight ready to spring. On the other hand, the ranger (amazing hunter, wilderness survival expert, intuitive sense for their surroundings, supernatural bond with the forest they live in) has no particular ability to sense that a vast and dangerous orcwort or nighttwist is growing within their forest.

Plus, it places an awkward burden on the DM, who may have to suddenly model a 6-mile radius of the surrounding area and its denizens to decide whether any of these creatures would be present. And in many cases, the information will be irrelevant. Fey? Sure, it's a wood. Elementals? Sure, it's a magicy area. Fiends? Sure, it's a city containing wizards with familiars. In fact, logically speaking, this spell will always flag up if your party contains a familiar.

Summing up

So to summarise, a worryingly large slice of ranger abilities are highly dependent on the campaign, and they're basically the only class that has that problem any more.

This used to be much more of an issue. Rogues couldn't use sneak attack on plants, oozes, undead, constructs and some other creatures in earlier editions, so it was quite easy for them to end up feeling useless for a large chunk of an adventure, but when you had to break into a large complex or run riot in a city they were very effective. Paladins and clerics were very powerful against undead and fiends, but could feel lacking in other situations.

Wizards of the Coast dealt with most of these swinginess issues by changing the way those classes worked. Their powers work equally well against most enemies, and utility abilities have relatively broad use. The ranger, however, has been left dependent on particular types of activity in particular types of terrain, and these are simply not necessarily going to come up.

It's not that these abilities are really powerful and you're missing out a lot - they aren't. This is absolutely not equivalent to, for example, constantly facing magic-immune enemies for the wizard. But having these facets functionally irrelevant most of the time is much like not having them at all, and it just generally means the ranger's relevance is hugely dependent on the GM throwing in content for them. It's like the old thing where you include locks and traps so the thief has something to do. Key word here being "old". I don't think any other 5e class has a similar issue, except for one paladin subtype with bonuses against fiends and undead.

And there, things having got quite verbose enough for one night, I will leave it. Next time on Being Mean About Rangers, I consider whether there's a case for the preservation of the class based on mechanical niche or on a strong underlying archetype. You can probably guess the answer but you might find my rantings diverting anyway.

1 comment:

  1. The classic Ranger of AD&D, I think, is a lightly depowered fighter with compensating skills that come in later on. (But yeah, he's not one of the Core Four. All right, sort of five, but nobody ever took the Monk seriously in my games.)

    He gets d8s for hit points, though he starts with two of them (making him the toughest starting character class) and gets extra dice rather than adds for a level after the fighter.

    He gets bonus damage against "giant class" creatures, which includes a bunch of low-powered enemies.

    He is more likely to surprise and less likely to be surprised.

    He can track, especially outdoors.

    At higher levels:

    He gets limited druid and magic-user spells.

    He can freely use clairvoyance/etc. magic items.

    On the downside:

    Must be Good.

    Can't hire followers until high level.

    Can't have more than three rangers in a party. (Which is not a bad thing for the individual ranger.)

    Can own only what he can carry or load on his mount.

    Multiple attacks per round come in a bit later than for the fighter/paladin.

    The literary inspiration is obvious, sometimes excessively so. But what we get in game-mechanical terms is a tough fighter who is specialised against particular enemies and is good at ambushes. Note, nothing here about light armour or animal companions (except in terms of the limited druidic spellcasting), and certainly no dual-weapon fighting; and the only real wilderness bonus is to tracking. But he's the only character who can do tracking at all, and I think the only character with a surprise bonus.

    I think the problem you may be having is that you're trying to recreate the coherent feel of widely-separated classes on a platform that's drifted too far towards making the skill system more important then the class.

    I suspect "giant-class" foes are the traps and undead of the original ranger class. Who ever heard of a campaign without orcs and hobgoblins?