Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCoE) is out, and it’s ace! Seriously 10/10, everyone who plays d&d should read it. I could (I should!) write a whole article about how cool the artificer is, how nicely handled the changes to races are, and the GM toolkit gives some great options. But what I really like are the little optional (although I’d say any DM who disallows them is a poo-poo head) alternative class features. Barbarians get a few extra skills, spellcasters can swap cantrips, Fighters get new fighting style options, etc. But what I’m really here for is the Ranger.
I’ve written a lot, probably too much, about the 5e Ranger, and how dissapointing it is. I’ve tried to fix it myself, and…well, I tried? But the ‘optional’ bits in TCoE are fantastic, and go a long way (all the way?) to making the Ranger cool again.
What is a Ranger?
I bloody love Rangers. It’s always been my go-to d&d class, even when I was playing Baldur’s Gate on the PC as a spotty teenager. They’re the wild person of the forest/desert/tundra/other wilderness area, a tracker and hunter, who often uses stealth and ambush to get the upper hand, but who’s tough enough to do a proper slap-fight if need be. Sometimes they have an animal companion, sometimes they cast spells, but they’re distinguished from ordinary fighters by being a bit sneakier, a bit faster, a bit more animal.
If you’re playing as a Ranger you should be the one who scouts ahead, and who comes back to the group saying “there were some orcs up ahead…they’re dead now”. You should be the fighter who takes foes down with clever tactics, rather than overwhelming force. And if you use magic, it should complement all of this: let you set magical traps, disappear into the undergrowth or speak with animals.
So let’s look at the original Ranger’s features compared to those replaced in TCoE, and why the new options improve it so much. I won’t reprint the features in full (because I can’t afford a lawyer), but I’ll give the jist.
Natural vs Deft Explorer
You choose a favoured terrain, and while in that terrain you can’t get lost, find food easily, it’s more difficult to surprise you, etc.
You get either:
– expertise in one skill
– an increased movement speed, and a climbing and swimming speed
– some temporary hitpoints a few times per day
So Natural Explorer seems like it does a lot of the heavy lifting for the ‘theme’ of the class, but the reality is bit more…awkward. In a game where exploration is important, the Ranger in their favoured terrain doesn’t do well at exploration, they negate it: “well you’re in the woods, which is Barry’s favoured terrain, so let’s just assume you make your way without getting lost, and find enough food as you go”. But then when you’re outside your favoured terrain (like say, in a Dungeon, fighting Dragons) you lose all these bonuses and become a crappy fighter.
Deft Explorer by contrast doesn’t force you choose a particular location (that’s what backstory is for), you just get some stuff you’re good at, which is useful in loads of situations, and carries some of the theme of being a roving, tough explorer person. Much better.
Favoured Enemy vs Foe
You choose creature type, and you learn a language they speak, have advantage on survival checks to track them, and checks to recall knowledge about them.
When you hit an enemy, you can mark it (profienciency bonus times per long rest), do a bit of extra damage, and keep doing this extra damage each turn from then on.
A ranger is a hunter. They should be the guy who says “I’ll take out that guy, you handle the rest”. Favoured Foe carries this idea: it’s not loads of damage, but it encourages the ranger to go after the biggest baddie they can, and keep hitting them. The fact it requires concentration (and so clashes with Hunter’s Mark and a few other spells) is annoying and unnecessary, but you know, you can’t have Rangers actually be powerful can we? Who’d play a Paladin then?
Favoured enemy turns the whole campaign into “did the DM remember to include my character’s hatred of gnolls into this adventure?”. Like favoured terrain, it’s nice when it applies, but when it doesn’t you’ve just lost a class feature.
The spellcasting for a normal Ranger is annoying and limited. They have a small number of spells known, i.e. they don’t prepare them each day like a Paladin. Which means that its really difficult to choose the sometimes-really-useful-but-not-very-often spells like detect poison, or animal messenger. Every Ranger ends up choosing Hunter’s Mark, Cure Wounds and a couple of other always-useful spells. Which is not how a Ranger should be! Surely they should be the crazy-prepared character, who is able to prep Cordon of Arrows and Spike Growth when defending a settlement, and then switch to Pass Without Trace and Darkvision when launching the counterattack the next day.
Tasha adds some extra spells to the Ranger, and allows a fighting style that grants Druid cantrips (cool idea, I want to try a Thorn Whip Ranger), and Primal Awareness (below) adds some free spells, but I actually don’t think it goes far enough. Just make the Ranger a prepared caster like a Paladin and be done with it!
Primeval vs Primal Awareness
Expend a spell slot to determine whether a certain creature type is within 1mile (6miles in your favoured terrain) of you. You don’t know the location or number.
A few free spells, that you don’t have to prepare, or even expend a spell slot for once per day.
Ok, so like I mentioned above, giving the Ranger more spells is never a bad idea. There’s probably 3 times in a campaign where Animal Messenger or Locate Animals is useful, just let the Ranger do it and feel useful for like 5 minutes. But to truly understand why the free spells are an improvement, you have to understand just how bad Primeval Awareness is as written…
You’re a Ranger, tracking a pair of Intellect Devourers that escaped from a dungeon, before they get to town and wreak havoc. You stop, concentrate for a moment (expending a spell slot that might have been useful for something else), and declare: “there’s at least one aberration within 1 mile”. Your party ask “Is that them? Which direction?”, but you just shrug, it could be a Flumph hiding up a tree 5 yards away for all you know. You know that something that shares their creature type is inside this 3 square miles around you, because you are an L337trackr. If you’re in your favoured terrain it actually gets worse, as you’ve now narrowed it down to a 6 mile radius, or 113 square miles! What use is a detector that you can use a few times per day and tells you if something is within 6 miles of you?!
The original Beastermaster Ranger was a bit odd: you had to give up your action each turn to command your beast to attack, and it didn’t scale very well, so that by level 15 when you were fighting dragons and demons, it was still just a well-trained wolf. TCoE fixes this by just creating some generic ‘beast’ templates (so that there’s no debate as to whether you’re better of choosing a wolf or boar or snake), which scale with your level, and you can command it as a bonus action. Oh, and you can resurrect it by spending a spell slot.
It’s not perfect – two-weapon fighting Rangers now have to choose between attacking with their off-hand or commanding their beast – but it’s a good improvement that doesn’t add any complexity. It’s something I’d really like to try out.
I should also mention that Hide in Plain Sight has been improved (it’s now called ‘Nature’s Veil’ but I’m sticking with the old name because it’s better). You now just turn invisible for a round as a bonus action. Job done. That wasn’t hard was it?
Welcome Back Rangers!
So yeah, I’m excited that the 5e Ranger is back where it should be: roving everywhere, slaying monsters, being cool. I can totally see a Ranger, Paladin and Fighter coexisting in the same party, filling different niches and having their own strengths without overshadowing each other.