Monday, 9 May 2016

Being Mean About Rangers, part 2: Spelling Tests and Typecasting

Last time, as you may recall, I was pretty comprehensively dismissive of the 5e ranger's claims to be a class, based on what I argued to be a rag-tag collection of attributes and some shonky fluff-crunch joints. In particularly, I feel most of its non-combat abilities are overly dependent on the campaign, and the DM's preferred style, for relevance.


What about the mechanical end? Rogues and barbarians are to a non-trivial extent defined by a specific class mechanic (sneak attack and rage respectively). Of course, these are strongly tied into their fluff.

Unfortunately I feel like the ranger is, in a sense, self-sabotaging.

Its most distinctive feature, hunter's mark, actively discourages you from using other abilities. They have a sort of interesting spell list, but a lot of it's very niche. Since the ranger (for reasons I don't understand) uses spells known rather than spells prepared, and has a super-limited pool of spells known, it is deeply suboptimal to take most of these spells. Suboptimal to the point of actively hampering your party, potentially.

Moreover, a very high proportion of their spells are Concentration. You can't use any of these while using hunter's mark, and vice versa. On top of that, your combat ability and your magical capabilities are competing for the same pool of spell slots.

So when considering your options, you're left not choosing between different cool effects, but choosing whether you want your distinctive class feature to work or whether you want a cool effect. Do you want to continue dealing +1d6 damage to your chosen target every time you hit it for the rest of your screentime today, or would you like to make a single reasonably powerful special attack? Do you want to retain your high single target damage for the rest of the combat, or impose an interesting magical effect, like fog cloud or barkskin, pass without trace or spike growth? This is not a calculation that other classes generally have to make. Warlocks do to an extent, and they have exactly the same problem.

I'm not sure whether it's mechanically an issue,* but psychologically it is. I can't really think of a good parallel in another class.

* On a side note: hunter's mark works in the same way as hex, with higher level spell slots extending the duration of the spell. For warlocks, this is no problem because your spell slots scale. For a ranger, you have very few spell slots at all, and even fewer high-level spell slots. This leaves me wondering whether you are in fact expected to have hunter's mark up most of the time.

If so, not only does it sabotage the use of the interesting (and very hard to get) high-level spells; it doubles down on the discouragement factor. If you expended a 3rd-level spell slot to cast hunter's mark for 8 hours, you will lose even more by squandering that potential for a one-off attack. And since you have so few spell slots, let alone high-level spell slots, that is a very strong discouragement.

So perhaps the intention is that you don't, in fact, have hunter's mark going all the time. The differences in how rangers and warlocks manage their spells seems to imply that; rangers are more likely to run out of spell slots. Warlocks are clearly intended to use hex virtually all the time.

But if you aren't defined substantially by your hunter's mark damage, that feels like it leaves the ranger even more in search of an identity. That's the rub.

The animal companion subclass suffers from the same issue: animal companions don't get hunter's mark damage, so it's often mechanically disadvantageous to have them attack for you. But if you don't, what's the point of having them?

Restating the issue

So, to reiterate: we end up with a warrior class whose distinguishing features are:

  • mechanically doing a lot of damage, mostly to a single target, primarily via a single Concentration spell (but incorporating a couple of other Concentration spells)
  • being good at nature-related skills providing you're in one specific kind of terrain and your DM chooses to model overland travel in detail.

It's not a strong niche.

In terms of the narrative, you really can build a convincing ranger by simply applying the Outlander background to whichever class has the mechanics you want. A fighter with two-weapon fighting, trained in Stealth, and given the Outlander background can look so much like the old ranger that you can't slip a sheet of paper between them. If you want a stealther version with spike damage, use a rogue instead. If you want a tougher, hard-hitting version, use the barbarian.

Important disclaimer

I want to make it clear here that I'm not arguing the ranger is mechanically weak. The beastmaster probably is - there's a lot of strong argument that way and I've already discussed the problems with the pet mechanics, both mechically and narratively. But the hunter ranger is really pretty solid. It does higher consistent damage over time than an equally skilled archer rogue with 100% sneak attack, while having more hit points. It's all-round competent.

What I'm saying is that I don't think there is a genuine narrative niche for the ranger as a class in itself, nor is there a specific mechanical gap that it fills.

It is narratively weak, and it is mechanically unnecessary. That is my problem.

Housing Policy

There's one other narrative facet to the ranger that's quite weird now that I look at it: they're the only class with stringent housing restrictions.

You can be a royal wizard, a guild wizard, a gutter wizard, a tribal wizard, or a wizard dwelling alone in a tower. You can be a city guard fighter, a frontier mercenary or a tribal warrior. You can be a stylish assassin rogue, a tough street rogue, a swashbuckling pirate rogue, a cunning tribal rogue, or a wily forest rogue. You can be a druid who's the wise woman to her tribe, a druid who lives alone in the wilderness, a druid mercenary in an army, a druid who tends to a large farming community, even a city druid who watches the rats and pigeons.

But although it doesn't explicitly say so, the ranger's description and class features, particularly Favoured Terrain, make a strong push at defining the ranger by where they live. You can live in a community in those terrain types, of course, but it tends to restrict your options. Partly because guilds, nobles and royalty tend to live in cities, which aren't one of those options; partly because, even though there are mountain communities and swamp towns, the instinctive assumption is that you live there kind of like Robin Hood.

Pushing rangers to live in the wild is actually an unnecessary restriction that doesn't apply to any other class. You can, if you really want to, build an urban ranger with the Noble background, but it's not very clear how that would actually work story-wise. It also wouldn't get any mechanical benefits that actually reflect your choices.

This is another factor that narrows down the range of possible character concepts for the ranger, giving it even less breathing space.


Finally, a question. Who exactly is the ranger supposed to represent?

The blurb outlines the ranger as "warriors of the wilderness... rangers specialize in hunting the monsters that threaten the edges of civilization... a ranger's talents and abilities are honed with deadly focus on the grim task of protecting the borderlands". This, together with the description of the class, outline what I believe is the most specific of all class descriptions. The paladin, traditionally a super-specialized class, has a rather general blurb about upholding righteousness, and suggestions ranging from healing the wounded to being Batman. The monk, another very specific concept, leaves room for assassins and soldiers, and makes minimal assumptions about the kind of things you get up to.

You can say it represents Aragorn, except it's almost nothing like Aragorn.* It can be Drizzt, for the obvious reason that the two are inextricably intertwined. It could be Robin Hood, except other than being in woods sometimes, being sneaky and owning bows I don't think the two have much in common (I suspect in older editions, with territories and followers, this was easier to argue). I've seen Tarzan cited as an example and that's not completely mad - he has animal companions, easy movement through difficult terrain and decent combat skills. At the same time, I don't think it's a very useful example. And I feel like it's important to note that there really doesn't seem to be very much in common between these people other than "forests" - and I've already argued at length that "lives in the forest" is a completely terrible hook for a PC class.

You can argue this on the basis that Aragorn specialised in killing orcs, but then orcs were the monster of Middle-Earth. No Dungeons and Dragons setting posits anything like the same monomonstrous ecology. There's no difference between being really good at fighting orcs and just being really good at fighting.

Warrior of the wilderness? That could describe a lot of people (depending partly on how you interpret "wilderness"). There are entire cultures, especially in fantasyland, that live in the wilderness. Why is this not a fighter? Why does "defends the bit of nature near civilisation" need a class, when "defends the bit of civilisation near nature" doesn't? There's no Outskirts Patroller class full of people with suburb-themed skills.

Neither the fluff (last time) nor the mechanics (this time) offers me convincing case for why the ranger should remain a class.

Next and finally on Being Mean About Rangers, I counterfactually think about what, if I were obliged to invent a Ranger class, I would focus on as its key themes and shticks.


  1. Your points are so convincing that I wonder whether the authors simply failed to appreciate the inability to overlap Hunter's Mark with most of the spells – or didn't regard it as being as overpowering as you do.

    Remembering my AD&D(1) days, the boring thing about fighters was that they had only one choice once the fight started: hit it. That's something that's largely been fixed since, with feats and so on, but it sounds as if it's crept back in here with a single best choice in almost all situations.

    In a narrative sense, getting away from any rules implementations, the (non-royal) ranger is the guy who (1) keeps the party alive outside the built environment: don't sniff that flower, step around that patch of clear ground, rub this herb on the wasp stings. (2) knows about monsters that live in that environment. (3) tracks stuff. Those aren't combat abilities as much as abilities that help you set up the combat on terms advantageous to you. And that's a weakness in *D&D as a whole, because the rules support and most players are used to the idea of the main adventuring activity being a set-piece combat with a scenario-defined starting point, where you stand up and keep slugging until one side falls over… so every single character needs to be able to do something useful in such a combat. (This is also a huge problem when players come over to GURPS, where your hit points don't go up and a single gunshot or sword blow can take a normal person out of the fight – to the point that common advice is to run a few trial combats with expendable characters to rub in that you need to fight smart and sneaky, not just strong.)

    As for the housing policy thing, I think the designers need to make a decision: do you have a separate class for each new nifty idea, or do you have a small number of core classes with lots of customisation? In other words, why do both the Outlander Fighter and the Ranger exist in the same mechanics?

    1. I think in some ways the ranger falls into the same category as the rogue, and there are similar issues.

      They both have a lot of potential out-of-combat utility. The ranger can scout, forage, lead through wilderness, spot natural hazards, track enemies and advise on monster tactics (although I do feel the favoured enemy thing is partly a weakness in that regard). The rogue can unlock doors, climb through windows, sneak through enemy territory, find and disable traps, investigate security and guard routines, locate targets, and retrieve items.

      Both classes are vulnerable because they're dependent on the rest of the party (and of course, the GM) giving them space to do their thing. These come about differently, though.

      A rogue can't necessarily exploit their skills because the rest of the party is too clumsy to join a black ops mission, or doesn't want to sit around waiting for hours or days while the rogue handles it alone. Or it's mathematically better to use a suboptimal strategy where all characters can contribute (kick the door down) than an optimal strategy that leaves one character isolated if something goes wrong. Luckily, many of these skills also have some more immediate utility or even combat use.

      The ranger can't necessarily exploit their skills because the rules elide a lot of things they'd be good at (staying healthy and comfortable) and because the opportunity doesn't arise. Either the party doesn't want to do significant amounts of wilderness travel, or the GM doesn't want to regularly model those journeys in detail, or the focus is on combat-type encounters rather than the day-to-day. The scouting and tracking part of their role has the same issues as the rogue does. On the whole, the ranger's skillset is less adaptable. And of course, there's the focus on Favoured X in this edition which exacerbates the problem.

      It reminds me a bit of an earlier conversation about balance in our Deathwatch party. Which, interestingly, is a game where using utility skills to set up fights in your favour is absolutely crucial.

    2. Following up a bit:
      The ranger has an assortment of tools for dealing with the problems of living and travelling in the wilderness, ranging from scouting skills to foraging to rapid long-distance travel and of course, an assortment of spells. This roughly matches the way the rogue has tools for dealing with urban and dungeoneering obstacles and stealth situations, or the wizard has tools for dealing with magical situations.

      Unfortunately, the game itself is rather inclined to elide these issues. More importantly, DMs tend to do so; they might model the odd journey in detail, but there's a tendency to handwave things, especially after the first couple of trips. Perhaps there's an assumption that once you've successfully pulled off a couple of long trips, it's not interesting to model them.

      The problem is, when you have a ranger around, deciding to narrate an overland journey is roughly equivalent to saying "well, you've got a rogue, so you find your way through the traps and locks and secret doors to the inner chambers, where you hear the rattling of bones around the corner..." or "well, you've got a wizard, so you quickly deal with the cryptic puzzles and wards that seal this pyramid". It robs them of the opportunity to do their thing, leaving them not much to do except combat.

      You could make the argument that "breaking into a dungeon" isn't inherently more interesting than "travelling across the wilderness", but that seems to be a common assumption.