Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition‘s ranger has been a sore spot for the community since the game came out. Like the paladin, the ranger is a half caster, mixing martial abilities and spells to the theoretical benefit of the class. Unfortunately, the ranger has never found the paladin’s success. Where the paladin is a well-rounded frontline battler with excellent offensive and defensive options built around the unique Holy Smite feature, the ranger brings a selection of weak abilities that are better implemented by other classes.
For most of you, I doubt any of what I’ve just said is surprising. I am definitely not alone in my opinion regarding the ranger, and many fans have asked Wizards of the Coast to release an improved version of the class. To their credit, Wizards did put out a Revised Ranger Unearthed Arcana back in 2016, and the recently released Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything does include some optional variants. Though both of these attempts were marked improvements over the original class, neither were able to fix the ranger’s core problems: the lack of identity and unique features.
Today I aim to fix this with a complete overhaul of the ranger’s class and subclass features. I’ve rebuilt this class from the ground up with a powerful core ability and a focus on bringing the fantasy of the ranger to life with robust mechanics. My redesign leaves only a few elements of the class untouched, namely its proficiencies, hit dice, level two features, and spell list. Today we’ll be looking at just the core class, while the subclasses will come next week.
I wanted the ranger to remain the only martial class that relies entirely on its medium armor to avoid damage.* I also wanted to avoid reworking the class’s spell list, as unlike Wizards’ dedicated design team, I am only one rules gremlin who stole the password to his brother’s WordPress account* and do not wish to add spell redesigns to this already tall order.
I go over this new ranger level by level, examining each feature I’ve created, and explaining my thought process behind it. While certain details and numbers might change as I continue to work on the project, I want to demonstrate the design philosophies I followed during its creation. Now, without further ado, let’s look at the overhauled ranger.
Level 1 – Strider
You gain the following benefits:
- Your speed increases by 10 feet.
- Your movement is unaffected by difficult terrain and cannot be slowed by magical means.
One of the problems the official ranger suffers from is that many of its features only impact long-distance traversal. To put it bluntly, 5E’s traversal mechanics are awful. They are a barely used part of the game that is almost always handwaved, as the party needs to get where they’re going eventually for the game to happen. This means that any class features focusing on traversal are close to useless.
Original ranger’s Natural Explorer is the perfect example, granting a grab bag of bonuses to the ranger, sometimes expanded to their group, while traveling over a specific type of terrain. It turns out that doubling the amount of food you can forage or moving stealthily at normal pace while traveling alone rarely comes up. Favored Enemy is slightly stronger, granting bonuses to tracking a specific type of creature or recalling information, but it once again suffers from offering highly situational advantages and no combat boosts.
Strider is my way of preserving the flavor of the original ranger’s traversal features while giving it something useful for combat situations. While not a powerhouse, extra movement and immunity to many movement-impeding effects is always nice to have, making Strider a good addition to the class’s central feature.
Level 1 – Woodland Companion
You gain a spirit companion that accompanies you on your adventures and is able to take the form of various beasts to fight alongside you, though it is a fey instead of its normal creature type and has an alignment of your choice. Additionally, its Intelligence becomes 10 and it gains the ability to understand one language of your choice that you speak. Your ranger level determines the beasts your companion can become. Conjuring a form for your companion takes 10 minutes and level of spell slot determined by the CR of the form you wish to conjure or for free during a long rest. This is all shown in the Companion Forms table.
At 1st level, for example, conjuring your companion takes no spell slot. It can take the form of any beast that has a challenge rating of 0 that is size medium or smaller.
Level Max CR Limitations Spell Slot Level to Conjure 1st 0 Medium or Smaller – 3rd 1/8 Medium or Smaller – 5th 1 Large or Smaller 1 7th 2 Large or Smaller 2 10th 3 Huge or Smaller 3 14th 4 Huge or Smaller 4 18th 5 – 5
Your companion acts on your turn and always obeys your commands. You have full control of its movement and any actions it takes (no action required by you). You can dismiss your companion’s conjured form as an action, returning it to its home plane.
If you are incapacitated or absent, your companion acts on its own, focusing on protecting you and itself. Should you die, your companion continues to exist for 24 hours before returning to its home plane.
This is the big one. Instead of being reserved for the worst subclass, every reworked ranger has access to its own powerful companion. I knew going into this project that this had to be the class’s main mechanic, similar to the paladin’s Holy Smite. The original Beast Master was the biggest disappointment the class gave us, and I want to see that feature receive justice.
To achieve this, I’ve made several fundamental changes. The first is that instead of an initially weak creature with stats that scale with the ranger, the reworked ranger companion gains access to new forms as the ranger levels up, similar to a druid’s Wild Shape. I like this more than Wizards’ method of creating a singular unique companion creature, as allowing players to choose from a large selection opens up more opportunities for creativity.
I’ve also made changes to the fluff surrounding the ranger’s companion. Instead of being a literal beast the ranger makes friends with, the reworked companion is a spirit that can take different forms, similar to a wizard’s familiar or a paladin’s steed. This means that players who grow attached to their companions don’t have to worry if that companion dies, as they can simply be re-summoned, and if they want a new type of companion, it’s the same friend they’ve been with since level 1.
Finally, I’ve done away with any cost associated with using the companion in combat. This is by far the most mechanically risky of the changes I’ve made. Gaining a second body with no action cost could easily become overpowered. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any other way if I want the pet to be useful. Actions, bonus actions, and even reactions are valuable resources, and forcing rangers to spend any of them to control their pet restricts player options and design space.
If I made the companion attack cost a bonus action, I wouldn’t be able to make other features cost bonus actions, as there would now be two important features vying for that bonus action. This can sometimes be good as it makes players think about what they want to spend their resources on, but it’s a very poor fit for a class’s core mechanic.*
Level 2 – Fighting Style and Spellcasting
Since I made no changes to either of these features, there isn’t much to say here. I think that fighting styles are a great way of focusing your character on a specific theme, and the ranger has always had a fine selection to choose from. As for spellcasting, while overall I think the ranger’s list is quite weak, revamping that feature is a major undertaking all its own, and I believe the class can be fixed without changing it.
Level 3 – Companion Upgrade
Starting at 3rd level, the types of forms your companion may take have been improved, as seen in the Companion Forms table. They now have access to beasts with the following restrictions:
- 1/8 CR or lower
- Medium Size or Smaller
Before we cover another massive series of changes in the new subclasses, let’s look at the first of many upgrades to Woodland Companion. I wanted to make sure that the ranger’s pet maintains its relevance at all levels without overshadowing the party. These slowly loosening restrictions paired with increasing max CR are intended to do just that. Even at these early levels there are pets that excel at different roles. For example, flying snakes make good damage dealers, and giant crabs or mountain goats serve as excellent tanks. My goal is to allow players meaningful decisions and provide space for creative beast choices to fit the current situation.
Level 3 – Ranger Archetypes
At 3rd level, you choose an archetype that you strive to emulate from the list of available archetypes. Your choice grants features at 3rd level, and again at 7th, 11th, and 15th level.
- Beast Master
- Gloom Stalker
- Horizon Walker
- Steel Dancer
Hold on to your butts,* it’s time for the next major change. Though three of these five options retain their original names, all of these subclasses deviate substantially from the mechanics of the originals. I go through each subclass in detail after we cover the base class features, so for now let’s go over the general design ideas behind each one.
We start with the Beast Master. Even though every ranger gets a pet, I wanted one subclass dedicated to making their personal attack gopher the best it can be.* To accomplish this, the subclass grants additional companion forms, focusing on monstrosity type creatures that are basically meaner beasts. The pet also receives additional passive bonuses, abilities like Pack Tactics, and even a Tenser’s Transformation-like effect.
Next, we have the first of the completely new subclasses, the Deadeye. This subclass was born from my want to fix the fact that the original ranger is one of the worst options if you want to play an archer. To address this, the Deadeye provides an array of augments to their ranged attacks at the cost of accuracy. The subclass also has defensive abilities that allow it to maintain distance from enemies trying to trap it in melee combat. With this subclass I hope to make a home for anyone trying to create Legolas in D&D.
Back to recognizable names, we have the Gloom Stalker. The spooky ranger, as I like to call them, was originally an eclectic group of features that never felt like a cohesive whole to me. My version focuses on stealth abilities and an expanded companion list that includes some of the darker monstrosities. This combination of frontline martial character and rogue-like abilities are intended to produce a more focused and powerful subclass than the original.
Looking to the Horizon Walker, we have a subclass that originally had powerhouse features like the ability to sense portals.* Given its rather…unique ability suite, I decided to throw almost all of it out. However, I did like the flavor of a planes-walking ranger and incorporated it into an expanded pet list that includes a selection of elemental, dragon, and fey creatures while also using planar trickery to soak up hits and deal extra damage.
Finally, we have the Steel Dancer. I admit that this subclass has been something I’ve wanted to make for a long time. Dual wielding has always been a weak mechanic in 5E, and there is almost no mechanical reason to choose two-weapon fighting over two-handed weapons or archery. With famous rangers like Drizzt running around with their dual scimitars, I felt the ranger was the perfect fit for a two-weapon subclass. This subclass works to address the weaknesses of dual-wielding, offering more attacks, a sharpshooter-like ability, and circumventing the extra magic item dual wielders need to do what everyone else is doing.
Let’s leave the subclasses here for now, but worry not, we go over them in more detail soon enough.
Level 5 – Companion Upgrade and Extra Attack
Starting at 5th level, the types of forms your companion may take have been improved, as seen in the Companion Forms table. They now have access to beasts with the following restrictions:
- 1 CR or lower
- Large Size or Smaller
The second companion upgrade allows for pets large enough to serve as mounts for medium-sized characters. For subclasses with expanded pet lists, their ability might have already allowed them to circumvent these restrictions, but for those that can’t, this is a big change. As there isn’t much more to say about this feature, I’m skipping further Companion Upgrade features at levels 7, 10, 14, and 18. Just be aware that the ranger’s Woodland Companion is getting progressively stronger as we continue on.
Level 6 – Mystic Companion
Starting at 6th level, your companion’s attacks count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.
In addition, your companion gains a +1 bonus to their attack and damage rolls. This bonus increases to +2 at 11th level and +3 at 17th level.
This feature is designed to make sure companions stay relevant as monsters get more powerful. Levels 5 and 6 are about the time creatures start gaining resistance to non-magical mundane* damage. If a companion didn’t deal magic damage, those enemies could essentially ignore them. As for the bonus to hit and damage rolls, those are addressing a different part of the relevant issue. Many pet options, even high CR ones, have very low bonuses to hit. Without some sort of passive buff, rangers would be stuck with a companion that spends much of its time ineffectively flailing at the AC20 monster.
The scaling is there to make sure this ability continues to fulfill its purpose even at higher levels. This type of scaling design is one I’m very fond of, and something I find lacking in much of Wizards’ official output. Abilities that start off as impactful quickly become irrelevant as their effects fail to increase in power alongside the player. An additional 1d8 of damage per round is a great feature at level 3, but by level 15 it barely registers, as enemies have health measuring in the hundreds.
Level 6 – Terrain Mastery
Starting at 6th level you gain swim and climb speeds equal to your walking speed.
While it doesn’t look too flashy, an innate climbing speed allows for some very creative terrain usage. It’s a lot harder for the skeleton horde to reach you when you’re hanging from the ceiling raining arrows down upon them. As for swimming, when it does come up, you’ll be very happy to have it.
Level 8 – Wild Bond
At 8th level, your bond with nature allows you to take on certain bestial aspects.
As a bonus action, you may gain one of the following benefits for its duration or until you use this feature again.
You can use this bonus action a number of times equal to your Wisdom Modifier (a minimum of once), unless you expend a spell slot of 2nd level or higher to use it again. You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
A feature I’m especially proud of, Wild Bond is a powerful workaday ability that exemplifies the ranger’s thematic combination of person and beast. Every ability on this list is based on common features in many beasts’ stat blocks. I had originally imagined this ability as a subclass feature of Beast Master, but decided to make it a general class feature, as I wanted even the Deadeye and Steel Dancer subclasses to have a connection with their companions.
You gain advantage on perception checks for 1 hour.
This simple Bond is very useful for exploration and other noncombat situations. Since it’s intended for slower periods of play, I gave it a duration long enough to grant its benefits for multiple encounters.
You can breathe underwater for 1 hour.
Another exploration Bond, this benefit is narrower in scope than Keen Senses, but one that you’ll be glad to have when it is relevant.
One of your hands and any one-handed weapon it is holding merge, taking the shape of a tentacle or claw for 1 minute. The weapon gains the following benefits:
- Range increases by 5 feet.
- A target hit by this weapon is grappled.
- While grappling a target, this weapon cannot attack another target.
The first combat Bond we’re covering, Grasping Limb is an ode to all the beasts that love to scoop up unsuspecting characters before dragging them off to parts unknown. I wanted Wild Bond to work for a variety of combat styles, and improving the often ignored grapple mechanics seemed like a good place to start. Increasing weapon range is also useful, as it can allow one-handed weapons like the quarter staff to perform the dreaded Sentinel + Polearm Master combo at a range of 10 feet while still allowing the ranger to use a shield.
Your choice of antlers or horns grow from your head. If you move at least 20 feet straight toward a target, your next melee attack against that target deals an extra 2d6 weapon damage. If the target is a creature at most 1 size larger than you, you may take the shove action as part of that attack. This benefit lasts for 1 minute.
For the up-close-and-personal rangers, we have Trampling Charge. This Bond originally forced the target to make a strength save against the ranger’s spellcasting modifier. However, I eventually changed it to trigger the shove special attack. Like Grasping Limb, I’m happy I get to highlight the often unused shove, and I think it fits the fluff a lot better that a beefy ranger with 20 strength is better at knocking their enemies over than the 8 strength ranger in the back with their bow is.
Both of your hands and a ranged weapon they are holding merge, taking the form of spines or quills emerging from your arms. In addition to the weapon’s normal damage, any target hit by this weapon must make a constitution saving throw against your spell save DC, suffering 2d6 poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. This benefit lasts for 1 minute.
For our bow-inclined rangers we have the final Bond, Poison Spines. When I first envisioned Wild Bond, Poison Spines wasn’t a part of the ability. However, I realized that a feature that did almost nothing for one of the main ranger damage styles is a badly designed feature. This Bond also let me pay homage to very common poison feature beasts have, so it was a win-win.
Level 9 – Camouflage
Beginning at 9th level, you gain the following benefits:
- You can try to hide when you are lightly obscured from the creature from which you are hiding.
- When you are hidden from a creature and miss it with a weapon attack, making the attack doesn’t reveal your position.
- Dim light doesn’t impose disadvantage on your Wisdom (Perception) checks relying on sight.
Those of you with an eye for detail might notice that this feature shares almost exactly the same text as the world-class Skulker feat. Normally I would call copy and pasting a feat as a class feature lazy design, but I think this is an exception.* Skulker is one of those feats that is never taken because its effect is simply too weak. However, I think its power level is perfectly suited to a class feature, and I won’t let its existence as a bad feat stop me. I have made one change from the feat, expanding the second bullet to include all attacks, not just ranged ones.
Past this ability, my rework gains a number of subclass features and improvements to their Woodland Companion. I’m covering subclass features after those of the main class, and as I mentioned earlier, I am not touching on any more companion upgrades to avoid repetition. This means the next feature we’re looking at is the level 20 capstone.
Level 20 – Call of the Wild
At 20th level you have attracted a second fey spirit to your side, allowing you to have 2 Woodland Companions simultaneously. Any class or subclass features that reference your companion affect both companions.
A simple feature, but certainly strong enough for a capstone. Level 20 is interesting from a design perspective, as it’s rarely reached by characters and when it is, it’s usually for no more than a few sessions. This should allow for some pretty wild* abilities, but most of 5E’s capstone abilities are quite weak, exceptions like the Moon druid’s infinity mammoth notwithstanding. I think this ability is strong enough to be a suitably tempting reward for players without unbalancing any campaign that hopes to stay at level 20 for any length of time.
That brings us to the end of my ranger’s main class features and part one of this two-parter. Next time, we go over the various subclasses I created and my thoughts behind each feature. You can find a copy of the new ranger formatted to match the official Wizards’ style here.
Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.
The Penguin Cat