This post is about the Unearthed Arcana playtest rules for the 5e D&D Ranger class. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out first! Also useful might be this article, about class customization, that tackles the idea of a ranger without spells.
To cut to the chase, the variant Ranger presented in the article doesn’t quite do what it needs to, in my mind. I think their diagnosis is pretty spot-on, but I can’t really get on board with the proposed solutions. So I made mah own. Analysis below the fold.
1 – A Question of Identity
The three elements floated in the article as “distinct” to the ranger are…really rather not. “Skirmishers” can describe rogues or fighters or monks; “Wanderers” can describe druids or barbarians or bards or monks; “Guardians” can describe barbarians or druids or clerics or…well…fighters, again… That’s not a kiss of death – just because a paladin and a cleric can both be described as “guardians” doesn’t mean they have to be the same class. But it does mean that, if we want to make these elements distinct, we need to kick those elements up to be defining elements of the class.
Both Ambuscade and Skirmisher’s Stealth occur often enough to be defining, but Spirit Companion does not. Both Ambuscade and Skirmisher’s Stealth suffer from being mechanically better for rogues (especially assassins) – they fit firmly within the sneak attack/hide wheelhouse. They aren’t unique enough. Spirit Companion also suffers from this uniqueness problem – it’s a druid spell, a totem barbarian ability, not unique enough. The hit dice of the ranger (2d6) also doesn’t actually make them very unique – most often, it just makes them a bucket of HP’s, which is odd, and during a short rest, they just have more granular control over their healing, which isn’t exactly attention-grabbing.
For an alternate “Skrimisher” ability, imagine a feature that activates every round, but that encourages movement rather than ambushes.
For an alternate “Wanderer” ability, consider altering Natural Explorer – you no longer choose a favored terrain. Instead, you simply gain the listed benefits in any natural terrain (ie, not in towns or dungeons). Rather than doubling proficiency for every Intelligence or Wisdom check you make, double it for Survival and Perception in any environment.
For an alternate “Guardian” ability, spells actually worked pretty well. A ranger who wants an animal friend can use Animal Friendship (if it’s good enough for Druid, why not Ranger?).
2 – A Question of Companions
Neither the original Beasmaster ranger nor this new ranger have satisfying animal companions. The concern of the designers is that a free-wheeling companion would be too powerful. The question then becomes: what kind of companion would be satisfying, but not overpowered? We need to give it actions to do that don’t each up the ranger’s actions (a la mounts or summoned creatures), but don’t make it too powerful.
The question becomes: what’s so powerful about having a beast companion (or any sort of player-controlled second character) in the first place?
A beast companion adds hit points, skill checks, and a substantial damage bonus. While a beast companion might be vulnerable, having them killed is fundamentally neutralizing a core appeal of the class – a beastmaster without their companion isn’t really a beastmaster. These bonuses are more notable at earlier levels, but they never go away, and thanks to a ranger adding proficiency bonus to damage and AC, their companion never becomes a “weak point.” It is always contributing something noteworthy.
So, simply letting the companion take its own turn would be much. We need it to cost the beastmaster something, to cause the creature to attack, and we still need to keep it doing something each round. Also, as unsatisfying as it is to not be able to take a horse or something as a companion, the size limitation is
One idea might be to reduce the action cost without eliminating it (using a bonus action), and then to add some non-action-based cost. One possibility that might also add some robustness to the companion: if the companion and the ranger shared hit points.
The PHB ranger, I think, was right in storing companions in a subclass – not every ranger should have an animal friend.
3 – A Question of Subclass
The last bit of analysis here focuses on what subclasses can do for the ranger. The UA ranger’s subclasses are based on animal spirits, which…doesn’t fit with existing D&D ranger lore very well. Additionally, spellcasting seems to be a thing that some folks want in their rangers, and others don’t. Beastmasters perhaps hold their own as a subclass, but Hunters are fictionally anemic, without much in-world presence.
So the three proposed subclasses of ranger would be (1) the beastmaster, who gains the above-mentioned companion, (2) the hunter, who, in addition to the PHB’s mechanics, received the variant non-spellcasting-ranger abilities, and no spells, and (3) the sylvan, who receives spellcasting and perhaps gets a favored terrain a la the Circle of the Land druid.
This may mean that spellcasting for a ranger becomes more like an Eldritch Knight or an Arcane Trickster – largely, that’s fine.
If not all rangers are spellcasters and not all rangers are beastmasters, what are all rangers? What can they do? What do they get? Well, aside from a little bit of Extra Attack sauce, each ranger gets abilities that lets them and others survive in the wild – harvesting from the spell-less ranger UA, we get a class that can heal and recharge without using spells, so that spells become something more useful to add unique flavor rather than fitting a party role. This works in our favor, as a spellcasting subclass is going to have fewer spells than a spellcasting class.
Tell me what you think in the comments here!