Rangers are usually nature-loving fellas, wielding either a bow or two swords. They are patterned after a certain copyrighted hero from a certain copyrighted fantasy book. They are warriors that are generally useful for tracking down enemies. They also are usually shitty divine magic users.
It is worth noting that one of the defining features of rangers is that they specialize in hunting down and killing members of specific races. From a pragmatic standpoint, this means they boil down to little more than racist serial killers who target by species (unless one of those species is their own, in which case they're probably some sort of bounty hunter). Being that race wars are one of the cornerstones of D&D, this is unsurprising. They are rendered irrelevant by druidzillas, because rangers just can't compete with a guy who can turn into a giant bear that shoots giant bears out of his eyes while farting lightning and mauling things with its own overpowered pet grizzly bear. Rangers can get a half-assed pet grizzly bear, but because their animal companions are only as good as a druid that has half as many levels as he does, it's half-assed. Pathfinder gave them more fighting style options, made archery actually worth a damn, an animal companion that is only 3 levels behind the druids (which can be fixed with a feat), gave them better survivability and a couple of nifty spells, but the concept remained the same with all the same flaws.
How Rangers Operate
Rangers did not exist until Gygax invented Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; ironically, the closest thing to them in Original Dungeons & Dragons was the Halfling, who was a stealthier Fighter (in contrast to the Dwarf being a tankier Fighter); there was a Forester class, but despite its name this was a way to play a human gish rather than having to play an elf.
In the 1st and 2nd editions of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, rangers were not able to sneak or fight properly in chainmail or better, or shields either. Armor was so key in melee under these versions that this led to the popular mocking party cry of "Ranger down!", heard during just about every battle. Rangers were thought to be the inspiration for the "At Death's Door" survival rule, since they would never survive a single session otherwise. They had some unique tricks, but they suffered from being essentially half-assed fighter-druid-thieves without really outshining any of their components all that well unless you were out in the wilderness or engaged in other very-specific situations.
Third edition Ranger was equally useless. Their only class features were Track as a bonus feat, some gimped spellcasting, Favored Enemy (Hating a type so much you did extra damage to them) and the basic parts of dual wielding for free, but in light armor (and one could argue that, per RAW, they don't actually have these feats and can't qualify for anything further). The chassis was OK, gaining full BAB, light and medium armor, 4+int skill points and d10 HD, but if they weren't fighting the enemy they really hated, they were literally worse than an NPC class in combat. Even then they were pretty shit since Favored Enemy granted a whole +1 bonus. At best, it was a one level dip for Rogue to gain martial weapons and be able to activate magic items that used the Ranger spell list. They technically had an animal companion, but this was a function of their spell list and not something they got till level 4. Since it was a function of a spell, anyone with a scroll of Animal Friendship and the ability to use it could technically get one.
3.5 made them a bit less useless. In exchange for medium armor and downgrading their HD to a d8, they got a good reflex save, 6+int skill points and actual class features. Favored Enemy was now twice as powerful, and the progression twice as fast (though a +2 still isn't that impressive). Animal Companion was now baked into the class progression, but still operated at half power so Druids still got a better animal companion than the ranger, and they could turn that pet into an unstoppable killing machine with buffing magic. They also swapped their bizzare pseudo-dual wielding for being able to select a combat style, either archery or dual wielding, and get some feats for that (though it was slow enough you still needed to spend other feats to do it). Late in 3.5 they got the Swift Hunter feat, which let them gain Scout progression while leveling as ranger and let them apply the scout's skirmish to otherwise immune foes. This made the two mediocre classes into a single solid one, but only if you had the system mastery and other sources to work out how to consistently be able to move and full attack in the same turn.
Pathfinder helped the sad-sacks out, but they're still only an OK class instead of a great one. The biggest changes were the ability to use medium armor without penalty and that now both their casting and animal companion progressed at level-3 instead of half level. Their fighting style improved greatly, gaining the ability to ignore prerequisites, coming more frequently and having better options. There's also some archetypes that enabled the ranger to make and use traps - which would be cool in a campaign where you had plenty of prep time to get all the traps ready, but are utterly useless the moment combat rolls around and the traps got all used up or evaded, plus none of the traps were good enough to be worth losing spellcasting over. This is brought up in particular because come the Second Edition, Paizo also opted to scrap casting from the ranger's list of things to focus on being a dual-wielder or crossbow-centric fighter who, with the right feats, became a trapmaker. Eventually they and rogue spawned the Slayer hybrid class, which was really just a Ranger that swapped out spell casting for some sneak attack and Rogue talents.
3.5 Ranger is a Tier 4 class, kinda doing a bit of everything but not particularly well. Pathfinder's buffs helped a lot, but weren't good enough at a single thing to reach tier 3. 3.0 ranger could fall even lower.
In 4e they get to mark their enemies, making them useful when you're fighting one tough thing and a bit crap against swarms. They can either slaughter one enemy, or irritate several, depending on what the situation calls for. Or they can completely miss with their most powerful once-per-milestone attack, and that's some fun. This edition removed the spellcasting abilities of earlier editions, since they had always been pretty shitty casters anyway and it was mostly a poor attempt to justify some of the more esoteric abilities of the class. The "spellcasting archer" archetype was eventually spun off into its own class, the Seeker.
As each class had ways to specialize their abilities, so too did the ranger with the following:
- Archer which just grants Defensive Mobility as a bonus feat so they get some extra AC vs Opportunity Attacks, which is decent.
- Beast Mastery, predictably, grants an animal companion. The issue with this is that it forces the Ranger to relying on either tandem attacking with the pet (Not always ideal for some pets) or focus on archery (Which sucks since all the pet-dependent powers rely on Strength and Prime Shot is gone, though the Horse does offer unbeatable mobility).
- Hunter emphasizes switch-hitting by granting the Quick Draw feat as well as giving a better AC vs Opportunity attacks for shooting, so have fun using hand-crossbow and sword.
- Marauder is the speedy two-weapon class with the Two-Weapon Defense feat, thus granting +1 AC/Reflex/Speed for using two weapons.
- Two Blade is the offensive two-weapon class by only granting Toughness for bonus HP.
The Essentials book Heroes of the Forgotten Lands also provides two simplified Ranger Variant Classes to use: The Hunter, which focuses exclusively on archery, and the Scout, which brings the Ranger back to it's not-quite-Druid roots with actual magic and the ability to dual-wield. These two classes, as with most Essentials classes, severely narrow down the choices available to the class, with most attack powers being mandatory.
Unfortunately, in 5e, they are generally considered the weakest class in the game for a wide number of extremely good reasons. A ranger isn't useless, but outside of a few niche roles involving tracking things, there is very little they can do that other classes can't do better. And a lot of their abilities are just wretched, with very limited utility (rangers are good at tracking... and that's about it), probably the worst first-level benefits in the game, plenty of "dead levels" with no gains to anything but proficiency bonus and spell levels, and heavy reliance on an extremely-limited selection of spells to even function on par with other martials. They share many of these problems with paladins, but paladins actually have some class abilities that scale naturally as they level and don't need to spend spell slots for some of their class features. Rangers don't, and, humiliatingly, get a cut-down, useless version of the paladin's divine sense at a higher level that eats a spell slot.
And while the decision to remove virtually all combat benefits from preferred enemy and terrain might've been intended to make them less serial killer-ish and prevent the DM from not including any of the ranger's favored enemies in the campaign, in practice it just means there's little benefit to it whatsoever short of picking up a free language if it's a talking kind of enemy. To add insult to injury, the "capstone" level 20 class ability is extremely weak, and contains a combat benefit to preferred enemy that everyone and their mother agrees should've been a part of the class at level 1. They tried to fold it all into the hunter's mark spell... but rangers are absolutely starved for spell slots just to keep up anyway, and a fighter's comparative abilities recharge every short rest. Nobody likes being compelled to burn precious resources and gish when they can so clearly remember not having to. Again, problems largely shared with paladins (the half-casters really got the shaft this edition), but paladins have a few tricks to make their lives easier that rangers don't. Plus, that hunter's mark eats a bonus action, so while they do okay with ranged weapons, good luck trying to two-weapon fight like so many "iconic" D&D rangers have in the past.
And, of course, there's the much-maligned animal companion, available as an archetype benefit, that wanders derpily around unless you burn your own actions to let it use them. Everyone, even the class's defenders, will admit this is at best unnecessarily limiting, given the way spellcasters can throw summons around, and at worst completely nonsensical. In the rules as written, a dying ranger's animal companion will stand around like a statue while its partner bleeds out! (An Ask the Sage article did later specify that a ranger's animal can still use actions when he's incapacitated, restrained, etc., but still!)
Again, they aren't useless... just completely outclassed by many other classes that can do their jobs better than they can.
They regained their spellcasting knack in this edition, although an Unearthed Arcana on the WoTC includes a non-caster Ranger variant/Ranger class option as part of its example on custom-brewing new class stuff for 5e. This version of the Ranger instead gets the ability to cook up herbal healing poultices, resistance to poison (and ability to use a poultice to cure poisoning in a friend), a non-magical ability to persuade local critters to fight for them temporarily, and automatically getting a superiority dice under the right circumstances. Non-spellcasting rangers with animal companions get the ability to halve damage enemies deal to their pets instead of the ability to share spells. It's... well, it's nice, but not having hunter's mark hurts like a sonofabitch, and those poultices that replace half your spells taking a minute to work is just uncalled for.
A recent Unearthed Arcana based around the ranger addressed player feedback that the ranger felt a bit weak, with many unsatisfying elements. In particular, it mentions that companions in general are a bitch and a half to manage: too strong, and the player effectively gets two characters to play at the same time and, at worst, an unmanageable long-term advantage, but too weak and who gives a shit about that critter you have to burn actions to get moving and attacking? (Potential parallels to long-term, well-known, and well-documented issues regarding casters and summoning spell abuse were, naturally ignored with an almost religious fervor.)
The result was probably considerably more powerful, but a lot less popular, with lame-brained attempts to reflavor the ranger into a kind of nature paladin, while actively poo-poohing the fixes everyone asks for (more low-level combat benefits, either more spells or less-heavy reliance on them, combat attachments to preferred enemy, etc.). It was a decent class, perhaps, but a terrible ranger. Overwhelmingly negative response caused them to halfheartedly mutter some guff about maybe putting the animal companion in further down-level, before skipping past it.
Common wisdom (heh!) is that, whatever their success with the rest of the edition, the 5e designers are hopelessly lost when it comes to the ranger, unhealthily fixated on correcting things that aren't broken while ignoring very basic issues that should require very little effort to resolve. Gentlemen, start your homebrews.
Amusingly, even post-rework, they don't make great two-weapon fighters, since they rarely have the bonus action free to hit a bad guy with when they need to activate their class features or spells, a problem they share with the rogue. And this is even though one of their restricted list of Fighting Styles is two-weapon fighting.
Perhaps as an apology for the weak initial class, the first set of new archetypes post-rework (helpfully explaining that both get Extra Attack if using the reworked ranger) are both quite potent. The Horizon Walker is a ranger that battles extraplanar threats to protect the material world, and to that end gains a pile of new spells, free damage-reduction bypass and bonus damage as a bonus action, and the ability to sense portals at level 3. From there, they can become etherial for a turn as a bonus action at level 7, teleport around while attacking at level 11, and get what amounts to Uncanny Dodge with cooler flavor text at level 15, for an archetype that's about on-par with the others.
The other one, the Primeval Guardian, is clearly intended to be the "tanky" ranger, and the adaptation of the Warden class. It can assume a tree-like form as a bonus action, causing it to increase in size and gain reach and a regenerating supply of temporary hitpoints as a bonus action, staying in it until K.O.'d or he ends it as another bonus action, then gains the ability to also increase its HP total by twice its ranger level once per short rest while doing it at 7th level, turn the area within 30 ft of it into difficult terrain for its enemies, and finally giving the whole party regeneration up to half their HP total equal to half its ranger level while in tree form, effectively telling both the Champion, who gets less regeneration at a higher level that only affects himself, and the Banneret, that can only give out that kind of healing to a set number of people during a short rest, to eat shit. The one downside is that being in treeform sets his speed to 5 ft., and even this can be worked around with spells or timing. It also gets a pile of spells and an extra d6 piercing damage from magical thorns on one attack per turn at 3rd level, also no action required.
Fix It, 5e!
Never let it be said that WotC doesn't know how to listen for the call of potential money. In September 2016, a whole new "Ranger, Revised" Unearthed Arcana was released. It's a complete revamp from the ground up, basing itself extensively off of a poll about the Ranger's "essential traits" concocted by WotC and with a large prelude explaining that, yes, this may potentially lead to a "Ranger Mk 2" getting a formal release, and no, that won't invalidate the original Ranger if you still want to keep playing it. (what's wrong with you?)
So, what's the different about the Revised Ranger? Well...
Natural Explorer is even more awesome than before, no longer limited to a specific terrain type and incorporating many higher-level benefits, like ignoring difficult terrain, right out of the box, along with all the sweet, sweet flavor it always had.
Favored Enemy now grants a +2 damage bonus at level 1 (scaling to +4 damage bonus and advantage on saving throws vs. their attacks at level 6) plus a free language of your choice, with instructions to try to keep it thematic. But you only get to pick twice, once from the "common" enemy types at 1st level, once from a list of "big game" (Aberrations, Celestials, Constructs, Dragons, Elementals, Fiends or Giants).
Extra Attack is gone, but it's a component of every archetype but the Beast Conclave.
Primeval Awareness has gone from a useless joke of a class feature to an extremely powerful one, allowing the Ranger to sense any of his favored enemies and a great deal of information about them within a five-mile radius by spending a minute meditating - no spell-slot required!
Instead of Land's Stride, which is now baked right into Natural Explorer, you gain Fleet of Foot at eighth level, which lets you Dash as a bonus action.
Hide in Plain Sight works about the same, but no longer requires a full minute to set up.
Foe Slayer is still the capstone, and now works on anyone, rather than just Favored Enemies. Still not great, but better.
The Hunter Conclave is literally identical to the Hunter path, with the only difference being that it gets Extra Attack to make up for the base class not getting it.
The Stalker Conclave is about the same as the Deep Stalker, though with a few tweaks. Its 3rd level ability allows it to evade darkvision while hiding rather than giving it the bonus hide action early when it got off an ambush, the mechanics of its own bonus darkvision got heavily tweaked, it gains an extra attack like the Hunter, the language on its Flurry got shifted around a bit, and it can Dodge after seeing whether or not a hit would connect. Otherwise, it is largely exactly the same.
Finally, the reason for like 75% of this whole rework, the Beast Conclave, which is extensively modified from its base version in a number of different ways. For starters, your animal companion is now set (your choice of ape, black bear, boar, giant badger, giant weasel, mule, panther or wolf) rather than being chosen from "any creature with CR 1/4" like in the corebook. It can be restored to life if slain by a ritual that costs 25GP of materials and which takes 8 hours. Although a companion beast loses its Multiattack ablity (something justified in a sidebar as being to avoid making it outshine the party's fighter or barbarian), it finally can strike under its own initiative; you can command what it does, but if you can't directly command it, then it'll work things out for itself. It uses your proficiency bonus, is proficient in two skills of your choice gains in hit dice when you gain levels, and increases its own ability scores when you gain a level-based Ability Score Increase. It also adds its proficiency to a number of non-standard things, like AC and damage.
At 5th level, your Coordinated Attack feature means that your companion can use its reaction to make an attack if it sees you use the Attack action during that turn. Likewise, the 7th level feature, Beast's Defense (companion has advantage on all saving throws) doesn't work unless it can see you. No such weakness applies to its 11th and 15th level features; Storm of Claws and Fangs lets it use its Attack action to dish out a melee strike against every creature within 5 feet of it, whilst Superior Beast's Defense lets it spend its reaction to halve damage from an attack it takes.
UPDATE Unfortunately in a tweet on July 2018 and later videos on Youtube, Jeremy Crawford announced that the Ranger would not be getting a revision, not even an official printing of this UA class. He even suggested that if you didn't like it you should just play a different class.
UPDATE UPDATE Larian Stuidos-the studio behind Divinity Original Sin I & II-are getting to work on adapting 5e for Baldur's Gate 3. They, like any sane designers, noticed that the ranger was more than a little weak sauce, and have gotten the green light from wizards to try beefing it up some. It sounds like initially they are looking at keeping the base class the same and making/boosting sub classes that are much more powerful, and that these changes will be usable on tabletops as well.
|Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Classes|
|Player's Handbook 1:||Cleric - Fighter - Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Warlock - Warlord - Wizard|
|Player's Handbook 2:||Avenger - Barbarian - Bard - Druid - Invoker - Shaman - Sorcerer - Warden|
|Player's Handbook 3:||Ardent - Battlemind - Monk - Psion - Runepriest - Seeker|
|Heroes of X:|| Blackguard - Binder - Cavalier - Elementalist - Hexblade - Hunter|
Mage - Knight - Protector - Scout - Sentinel - Skald - Slayer - Sha'ir - Thief
Vampire - Warpriest - Witch
|Settings Book:||Artificer - Bladesinger - Swordmage|
|Others:||Paragon Path - Epic Destiny|
|Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Classes|
| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Warlock - Wizard
|Artificer - Mystic|
|The Classes of Pathfinder|
|Core Classes:|| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
| Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
| Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
| Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|