Friday, 13 May 2016

Being Mean About Rangers, part 3: Homebrewing

Constructing a Ranger

So having spent all this time arguing that the ranger doesn't need or deserve to be a class of its own, and indeed that insisting on it is probably deleterious to the game as a whole... what if I had to make a ranger class?

What, if anything, do I think can stand out as unique selling points for the ranger?

These must be:

  • Sufficiently generic that they don't lock the ranger down into one character concept
  • Sufficiently flexible that they are regularly relevant in most campaigns; which is to say, you will actually get to use these features during the game session
  • Sufficiently related that they seem to form a coherent whole
  • Sufficiently visible that they manifest in the narrative. Phrased much less pretentiously, I mean they should be something you actually notice happening, because unless you actually notice it in play, it doesn't feel like a real part of the story.

The key concepts I think I'm going to try and play off here are Instincts, Survivor and Hunter. The ranger is a born survivor, whose well-honed instincts help her survive in the toughest circumstances, and confront the most dangerous opponents with wits or with blade. Annoyingly, the barbarian has already co-opted some of this conceptual space, but I'll see what I can do.

Some concepts I think you could do this way include:

  • an alert two-fisted "private eye" (well, a fighty-fantasy approximation) who reads the atmosphere of the city like a book
  • a glib scout-guide who specialises in finding interesting locations or resources, and leading parties through the wilderness - any wilderness
  • a taciturn professional hunter who patiently tracks down and defeats any prey, from a wyvern to a wanted criminal
  • a wisecracking sheriff who administers single-handed justice over scattered border communities or tough city quarters
  • a hardy scholar whose keen observations alert her to danger and inform her of the best way to fight an antagonist
  • a meditative wanderer with strong intuitions and plenty of common sense, who somehow always knows where to go - and when it's time to leave
  • a warrior trained from birth to rely on reason and wits, not simply physical might
  • and yes, someone who prowls the borders of civilized lands hunting the monsters that threaten them

Importantly, features I am not ascribing to the ranger include:

  • any particular fighting style
  • philosophical outlook
  • living in the wilderness
  • liking or even respecting nature

Another point I should make here is, I'm not going to even attempt making a balanced homebrew ranger class. All I'm going to do is suggest some aspects of the ranger that I think I'd emphasise, together with some mechanics that I think would support those concepts. So stuff like "when do you get this ability" will not be addressed, as won't spell lists or the existing subclasses.


I'm going to start by being controversial (as I mean to go on) and swap things around. Rather than having a class feature set and an archetype, I think the ranger should be more like the warlock: multiple decision points.

I'm also going to make the Hunter archetype part of the core, on the grounds that making the Beastmaster functionally balanced while also being narratively convincing is way beyond the scope of these posts - indeed I'm not convinced it's physically possible. By using the hunter as the baseline, we build the ranger as someone accustomed to facing broad certain types of enemies (large brutes or weaker hordes) but allow players the flexibility to decide exactly how those skills manifest.

So we keep the fighting style, spellcasting, and the extra attack at 5th level; the ranger is a warrior class and needs it. The ranger also gains the hunter's archetype choices at those points in level progression. I'd also keep Feral Senses and Vanish because they fit the themes I'm gong for.

Now we move on to other aspects.


For the sake of clarity, the following abilities I would remove from the ranger:

  • Favoured Enemy
  • Natural Explorer
  • Primeval Awareness
  • Hide in Plain Sight
  • Land's Stride
  • Foe Slayer

Ranger spellcasting

Although I was disparaging about it, I do think the way Primeval Awareness lets you expend spell slots without being overtly magical is a good compromise, and I've tried to find other interesting options (see below).

Personally I would be inclined to make ranger spellcasting prepared, rather than known. There's a handful of spells that are obviously regularly useful (mostly attacks), and a heap of niche spells. This is virtually always going to result in all rangers learning a selection of the same subset of spells, while things like water breathing and sense beasts are simply not worth most people learning. This is exactly the sort of situation where spells prepared is appropriate.

The benefit of this is obvious: the ranger can use the combat spells if they prefer, but this preserves their ability to use the various utility spells which strengthen the "wilderness survivor" aspect of this class. When the ranger only has killing spells rather than those that contribute to travel or survival, it's much harder to credit that. However, it would be rash for players to choose those spells in preference to something they're expecting to be of regular use, and most players do want to consider their usefulness to the party rather than just flavour. Of course, my spell-burning options (below) should be of some help there too. In theory, you can use this outline to build a ranger who is supposedly non-magical, using their spell slots either for utility with plausible deniability, or burned for similarly "non-magical" benefits.

It also allows an outlet for ranger spellcasting when there's nothing to kill!

Spellcasting: You prepare the list of ranger spells that are available for you to cast, choosing from the ranger spell list. When you do so, choose a number of ranger spells equal to your Wisdom modifier + your ranger level (minimum of one spell). The spells must be of a level for which you have spell slots.

Casting the spell doesn’t remove it from your list of prepared spells.

You can change your list of prepared spells when you finish a long rest. Preparing a new list of ranger spells requires time spent in prayer and meditation: at least 1 minute per spell level for each spell on your list.

What should a ranger do?

The Ranger as Survivor

We have someone used to surviving (I think "Survivor" is a keyword here) whose instincts are really sharp. They're not a survivor in the sense of being uniquely tough,* but through excellence at detecting and responding to threats. This mirrors the way that, for example, the rogue excels at reading people, social stuff, hiding, traps etc...

*They might be tough, with a high Con; they might not. There has to be scope for multiple character concepts here. A clever ranger could rely on wits and improvisation to survive. A dextrous ranger might rely on speed and reflexes. A strong ranger might rely on hitting first and hitting hard. A wise ranger might rely on avoiding trouble in the first place.

I'd pull out some of the natural explorer stuff and just make it always-on. I know the terrain thing is thematic, but those exploration bonuses are of limited enough use already, without locking them down to terrain types that might not even appear. I just don't see any cause to restrict them so heavily, and with them make the ranger so GM-dependent. These are not OP abilities; they're basically flavour. Rangers are natural survivors with an astonishing instinct for how nature works, so they always do better at finding food and water, avoiding natural hazards and finding safe places to camp. Note that druids can do this too; they do it by their supernatural bond with nature. That's fine. Fighters and wizards can both kill people, open doors and survive dangerous things, but they take different approaches.

My takeaways from this train of thought are:

Survival Instinct: You gain advantage on skill checks to detect natural hazards, simple traps, ambushes and surprise attacks.

Born Survivor: Even when you are engaged in another activity while traveling (such as foraging, navigating, or tracking), you remain alert to danger. In addition, even while sleeping or meditating, you can make Perception rolls to sense danger as though you were awake, although you do so with disadvantage.

Here's the things I grabbed from the original Natural Explorer.

The Ranger as Wanderer

I like the Natural Explorer thing (nicked from the Horizon Walker prestige class) and Favoured Enemy, but I just don't feel like they're viable. They're too dependent on those specific things cropping up in a session. You don't get the fighter going ten levels without using Second Wind, or the Rogue going ten levels without being sneaky.

We can vague this a bit though, and reinterpret. Yes, the original idea is that the ranger is an expert in one particular type of terrain. What if we instead interpret this as the ranger being intimately familiar with natural environments and ecosystems, so that the world around her is almost like an extension of her senses? This will function much the same way, but without the same kind of restrictions. Favoured terrain is a nice idea, and makes sense from the literature, but I think if we want something like that it should be a small bonus. This means missing out on it isn't a problem; the class isn't left feeling weak.

This is where a modified version of Primeval Awareness could come in. Primeval Awareness is nice in theory, but mechanically it's pretty terrible and narratively it makes no sense whatsoever. Instead, what if the ranger is super-sensitive to natural rhythms and patterns, and detects when something throws them off, even some distance away? The way vegetation is altered even some distance from a source of pollution, or slightly too many insects fly towards a distant heap of carrion that demihuman nostrils can't detect, or shifts in the pattern of birdsong as predators pass by. She doesn't sense specific mechanical types of creature, like Primeval Awareness senses elementals; instead she senses things that disturb the environment by being out of place. And in a city, the same applies! There aren't the same ecosystems, but traffic flows differently around dangerous streets, and crowds may quieten down as a patrol passes. The ranger notices these patterns in the same way.

So the ranger is someone whose instincts are honed beyond ordinary mortal limits. Whether you see this as genuinely supernatural, or as the ranger reading near-invisible signs in the world around her, is up to you. Keyword: Instincts.

My takeaways from this train of thought are:

Survival Expertise: Choose two of the following skills: Animal Handling, Acrobatics, Athletics, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Stealth or Survival. Your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make that uses either of the chosen proficiencies. At 6th level, choose two additional skills to gain this benefit.

Natural Rhythm: You are acutely aware of the rhythm of your environment, and unconsciously sense the ripples caused by anomalies. You can use your action to focus on your surroundings and sense disturbances within 500 yards, such as: creatures that are intimidating or alien to the environment; a natural hazard of at least Colossal size, such as a toxic vent; significant numbers of dead or dying creatures; anything else the DM rules will alarm wildlife or disrupt the environment. You learn the approximate direction of these hazards. In an urban environment, the ranger may sense guard patrols, notorious individuals, infamous taverns, and other sources of public intimidation or disturbance. This list is not exhaustive.

This ability relies on sensing the reactions of other creatures, so it won't detect well-hidden dangers, disguised threats or people out of public view.

You can maintain your focus for up to one minute, or up to ten minutes if you use Concentration. Once you use this ability, you can't use it again until after a short or long rest.

When you use Natural Rhythm in your favoured terrain, you can extend its range up to 1000 yards, and you know to within 100 yards how close each of the hazards are.

The rulebook assumes that Concentration is only used for spells, but there is no obvious reason why this should be true. Lots of things require immense mental focus in real life.

The Ranger as Hunter

The long-standing favoured enemy thing is neat, and I appreciate how hunter's mark is probably an attempt to make it more flexible by making the damage part applicable to any one target enemy. I'm not convinced it needs to be a spell, particularly because of the self-sabotage I outlined above. Also, some people are not at all happy about the "magical ranger" business. But let's assume Wizards did it that way for well-tested balance reasons. Although the bit where the enemy needs to be dead before you can swap targets is, let's say, mechanically and thematically problematic.

What if we instead ruled that the ranger can achieve an equivalent effect non-magically, but requiring a Wisdom-based knowledge check, and still requiring Concentration?

This would position the ranger as someone with strong survival instincts and an ability to understand how particular types of creatures behave. She can anticipate how a certain creature will move, attack and react, guess where its vulnerable spots are, and exploit its weaknesses.

Note that the Knowledge roll is important. It uses Wisdom, which is a ranger's key mental characteristic for perceiving and understanding the wild (rather than Intelligence, which they're likely to be poor at, and which is more of an academic stat). It uses specific skills, so it means it reflects the ranger's capabilities rather than being a flat roll. A ranger will tend to be an expert in natural dangers (though it depends on their choices), but less knowledgeable about undead, fiends, abberations and magical entities. A particularly wise ranger will be more effective in general, as she's better at reading and assessing her targets. However, making something your favoured enemy will override this weakness; a ranger whose favoured enemy is Undead will always be able to fight them more effectively, even if she's ignorant of theology and ecclesiastical history.

Another useful feature here is that this doesn't significantly boost the ranger's spellcasting ability; what it does is mean that you can drop Hunter's Mark in order to cast a spell without worrying about wasted potential. It doesn't cost you anything but a bonus action to get it going again. At the same time, you have the same decisions to make about Concentration spellcasting.

I'll also want to make sure she's good at tracking and detecting enemies. I'll include a tracking ability, but a lot of this will actually come off the modified Primeval Awareness I added in the last section.

So we have someone who is an effective Hunter, rather than a warrior specifically. Her talent is not for raw battle, but for finding, tracking, analysing, and facing down a specific threat she has identified.

My takeaways from this train of thought are:

Hunter's Mark: you can spend a bonus action making a Wisdom (Knowledge skill) roll at DC 12 to focus on one enemy and attune to its movements. While you maintain Concentration, you deal an extra 1d6 damage to the target whenever you hit it with a weapon attack, and you have advantage on any Wisdom (Perception) or Wisdom (Survival) check you make to find it. You may only focus on a single target at any time.

Expert Tracker: While tracking other creatures, with a successful roll you learn their exact number, their sizes, and how long ago they passed through the area.

Advanced abilities

Okay, we've got the basics of the class. What will happen as we advance?

I've ended up dividing other abilities into path-specific ones (see below) and more general ones. They broadly represent the Hunter, Survivor and Instinct facets, although they're all a little fuzzy so I wouldn't worry too much about that.

Natural Drift: You understand how to slide into the background, absorbing and riding the rhythms of your surroundings. Whenever you make a Stealth roll, as a free action you can expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher to gain advantage on the roll, and on subsequent Stealth rolls for ten minutes per level of the slot expended.

Mystic Awareness: You can use Natural Rhythm a number of times equal to your Wisdom bonus between rests. If you choose to expend a spell slot in the process, you learn the location and approximate nature of each significant threat. You can maintain your awareness for ten minutes per level of the spell slot expended without using Concentration.

Towards the top of the class I'd suggest something like this, ditching the Foe Slayer ability as both too niche and something players complain about feeling weak:

Hunter's Heart: Creatures subject to your hunter's mark ability provoke opportunity attacks from you even if they take the Disengage action before leaving your reach. Whenever you take damage from your marked target, you can use your reaction to gain resistance to its attacks until the start of your next turn (including the triggering attack).

When you make a successful attack against your marked target, you can use your reaction to impose one of the following effects on that target:

  • It must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.
  • It must make a Strength saving throw. If it fails, you can push it up to 15 feet away from you.
  • It can’t take reactions until the end of your next turn.


So, subclasses! Since the base ranger is, in my model, the Hunter archetype, what's left?

I decided to split things between two broadish ranger types. The first is the more traditional D&D ranger: a hunter specialised in dealing with, particularly by fighting, certain types of enemies. This provides a way to retain the old "favoured enemy" idea but without making it a core part of the class. For the second, I opted for a ranger more interested in, well, ranging. This subclass is good at existing in and travelling through certain terrain types.

I tried to ensure that both subclasses have not only their core (quite niche) flavour bonuses, but also broader mechanical bonuses. Hunter's Eye is arguably better than Land's Stride (though at the cost of a spell), but Consummate Survivor has much wider applicability than Fight or Flight, so I think they're relatively even.

Foe Hunter

The foe hunter is an expert in dealing with certain creatures, whether by force of arms or by peaceful negotiation.

Favoured Enemy: As the rulebook.

I actually don't think there's any need for the Favoured Enemy mechanic, but it's a big historical part of the class so probably needs retaining for that reason. So I'm making it a path option.

At higher levels they gain the following abilities.

Hunter's Eye: When you miss with a weapon attack against a target subject to your Hunter's Mark ability, you can expend a spell slot as a free action to reroll the attack. You gain a bonus on the reroll equal to the level of the spell expended.

Fight or Flight: Your unconscious mind takes over in the face of sudden danger, briefly pushing you beyond your normal limits. Whenever you are surprised, you have advantage on saving throws or skill checks, and other creatures have disadvantage on attack rolls against you.

I tried to make this and Survival Instinct distinct from the barbarian's Feral Instinct and Danger Sense abilities. The barbarian is about reacting suddenly and athletically to danger or to combat. The ranger is about sensing and surviving hazards. As such, the ranger gets no offensive boosts, only defensive ones. Also, the barbarian's have a feel of sudden violent movement, whereas I like to think Survival Instinct, and this to a smaller extent, are more compatible with calm and measured realisation. the ranger holding up a hand as they realise there's quicksand ahead, that sort of thing.

Horizon Walker

The horizon walker is a roamer, utterly at home in their chosen territory, and skilled at moving swiftly and easily through any environment.

Favoured Terrain: You are particularly familiar with one type of environment and adept at surviving and travelling there. Choose one of the following terrain types: arctic, coast, desert, forest, grassland, mountain, swamp, underground, water/coast, or urban. Your Dungeon Master may help design alternative terrains to suit their campaign.

You gain one language or tool proficiency appropriate to your favoured terrain. You gain advantage on Constitution checks to resist Exhaustion caused by conditions or hazards common in your favoured terrain.

When you make an Intelligence or Wisdom check related to your favoured terrain, your proficiency bonus is doubled. While in this terrain, you cannot become lost except by magical means, and your group is not slowed by difficult terrain when travelling for more than 1 hour at a time. When foraging in your favoured terrain, you find twice as much food as you normally would. At 6th level, and again at 14th level, choose an additional favoured terrain.

Basically, I'm retaining the Natural Explorer ability, but pulling out some of its specific benefits and making them more widely applicable. Also renaming it because the original has very little to do with exploration.

At higher levels they gain the following abilities:

Tireless Stride: Starting at 6th level, moving through nonmagical difficult terrain costs you no extra movement.

You can also pass through nonmagical obstacles appropriate to your favoured terrains (such as plants, icicles, boulders or crowds) without being slowed by them, and without taking damage from them. In addition, you have advantage on saving throws against such obstacles that are magically created or manipulated to impede movement, such those created by the entangle spell.

You have advantage on Constitution checks to avoid exhaustion caused by forced marching.

This is just a small tweak to reflect the fact that "walks through plants" doesn't always make sense. For a lot of wilderness rangers, this will be fine. For an arctic or urban druid, it makes no sense.

Consummate Survivor: Whenever you use a skill in which you have Survival Expertise, you can treat any roll of 9 or lower as a 10.

Finishing up

Okay, I know I said I wasn't trying to create a functional balanced class, and that remains true. But purely for reference, here is a summary of the sort of thing I would be aiming to try and do with the ranger, if I had to. Which I don't think is necessary.

Reasoning behind things:

  • I am concerned that Hunter's Eye might create some mechanical issues due to level-dipping by non-caster classes who have no other use for concentration. It could presumably do with more work to avoid that, or just being a spell again... however, I'm honestly not trying to create a usable class here, just thematic ideas. I put it in 2nd level as a slight buffer against dipping.
  • I tried to make sure that mechanically-powerful abilities don't line up with proficiency boosts or ability score boosts.
  • I was going to include spellcasting notes, but then I couldn't be bothered.
Level Proficiency Abilities
1 +2 Born Survivor, Survival Expertise, Expert Tracker
2 +2 Fighting style, Spellcasting, Survival Instinct, Hunter's Mark
3 +2 Hunter's Prey, Natural Rhythm, Archetype feature (FE/FT)
4 +2 Ability Score Improvement
5 +3 Extra attack
6 +3 Archetype feature (FE/FT)
7 +3 Defensive Tactics
8 +3 Ability Score Improvement
9 +4 Mystic Awareness
10 +4 Natural Drift, Archetype Feature (HE/TS)
11 +4 Multiattack
12 +4 Ability Score Improvement
13 +5 Vanish
14 +5 Archetype feature (FE/FT)
15 +5 Superior Hunter's Defence
16 +5 Ability Score Improvement
17 +6 Archetype Feature (CS/FF)
18 +6 Feral Senses
19 +6 Ability Score Improvement
20 +6 Hunter's Heart


Okay, I've got a rough approximation of a class; what can I do with it? Well, I had a handy list up above...

  1. an alert two-fisted "private eye" (well, a fighty-fantasy approximation) who reads the atmosphere of the city like a book
  2. a glib scout-guide who specialises in finding interesting locations or resources, and leading parties through the wilderness - any wilderness
  3. a taciturn professional hunter who patiently tracks down and defeats any prey, from a wyvern to a wanted criminal
  4. a wisecracking sheriff who administers single-handed justice over scattered border communities or tough city quarters
  5. a hardy scholar whose keen observations alert her to danger and inform her of the best way to fight an antagonist
  6. a meditative wanderer with strong intuitions and plenty of common sense, who somehow always knows where to go - and when it's time to leave
  7. a warrior trained from birth to rely on reason and wits, not simply physical might
  8. and yes, someone who prowls the borders of civilized lands hunting the monsters that threaten them

Let's see now...

  1. Ranger with the Urchin background, expertise in Investigation and Insight. Horizon Walker archetype with Urban terrain. Probably takes Defence or Duelling style, and Horde Breaker option for dealing with urban gangs.
  2. Ranger with the Outlander, Performer or even Charlatan background, expertise in Survival and Nature. Horizon Walker archetype with a location-appropriate terrain. Combat options could be anything.
  3. Ranger with the Folk Hero, Outlander or Noble background. Foe Hunter archetype, and probably Colossus Slayer if they focus on one target. Other options vary. Expertise in Perception and Stealth, Athletics or Acrobatics.
  4. Ranger with the Folk Hero, Soldier, Outlander or even Acolyte background. High Charisma, trained in social skills. Could be either archetype, depending whether the focus is more on wrongdoers or on protecting their home turf, but I'd expect Foe Hunter. Expertise in Insight and Perception.
  5. Ranger with the Scholar or Acolyte background, and a focus on mental abilities. Again, could be either archetype depending on whether they study creatures or ecosystems.
  6. Ranger with the Hermit or Acolyte background, with a focus on Wisdom and the Horizon Walker archetype. Expertise in Nature, Survival, Perception or Animal Handling.
  7. Ranger with the Soldier or Noble background, Foe Hunter and expertise in Acrobatics, Athletics or Stealth.
  8. Ranger with the Hermit or Outlander background (if not something more unusual), a physical focus, and Foe Hunter archetype. Expertise in Stealth, Acrobatics, Athletics or Perception.

I dunno, that seems like it works to me?

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