Roleplaying

Unearthed Arcana Review: Swarmkeeper Ranger

An elven ranger picking mushrooms.
From the high point that was the paladin, we now look at ranger, the bottom of the proverbial class barrel. Rangers are a tour de force on how not to make a half-caster class. Their martial features, outside of the very early levels, fall far behind the alternatives, and their spell list is pathetic. Alongside these issues is the lack of a central class feature like the paladin’s smite. What makes this especially sad is that, for many new players, the fantasy of the ranger is something they want to experience. The maligned* Beast Master in particular has initially excited many new players at my table. However, when they actually start playing, they quickly discover just how weak they are compared to the other characters, a feeling many players do not enjoy. 

Given all this, I had high hopes for the Swarmkeeper, a new UA subclass recently put out by Wizards of the Coast. I was hoping Wizards would take this opportunity to really push the overall power of the ranger, especially past level 5. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. I don’t know if Wizards’ refusal to make the ranger good stems from ignorance of the class’s issues or stubborn refusal to admit they made a mistake in the original design, but either way, this subclass suffers for it. To see what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at the subclass’s features, starting at level 3.

Level 3 – Swarmkeeper Magic

You learn the mage hand cantrip if you don’t already know it. When you cast it, the hand takes the form of swarming nature spirits. You also learn an additional spell when you reach certain levels in this class, as shown in the Swarmkeeper Spells table. These spells count as ranger spells for you, but don’t count against the number of ranger spells you know.

Ranger Level Spells
3rd faerie fire
5th web
9th gaseous form
13th giant insect
17th insect plague

This feature is, to be blunt, terrible. The Mage Hand cantrip is situationally useful, and that’s probably the best part. As for the higher level spells… with the possible exception of Faerie Fire, I could easily see going an entire campaign without casting any of these. To explain why, we need to understand what spells a ranger normally casts while in combat. Most commonly, this will be Hunter’s Mark, an efficient spell that increases their damage output, with something like Swift Quiver* coming later.

The rub is that both of these go-to spells, and literally every spell on this list, require concentration. For those unaware, a character can only concentrate on one spell at a time, meaning you want the most bang for your buck when casting a concentration spell. The added spells on this list are almost always worse than concentration spells the ranger can already cast, meaning they have a very good chance of being left uncast in favor of stronger options.

Level 3 – Gathered Swarm

You magically attract a swarm of fey spirits that look like Tiny beasts of your choice. The swarm remains in your space, crawling on you or through your clothing, or flying and skittering immediately around you within your space.

As a bonus action, you can agitate the swarm for 1 minute. For the duration, some of the swarm clings to your weapons or follows your strikes when you attack: once during each of your turns when you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can deal an extra 1d6 force damage to that creature, and the swarm moves the creature up to 5 feet toward you or away from you (your choice). At 11th level, the extra damage increases to 2d6.

You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

Another bad ability, but at least this one has some cool flavor. Wizards’ decision to afflict the ranger with the “once during each of your turns” clause for many of its damage-enhancing abilities is something I find baffling. Its inclusion turns what would otherwise be a decent damage boost into a negligible one with almost no capacity to scale up at higher levels. Even compared to other rangers, this is bad. Hunter rangers get a free 1d8 of extra damage* against damaged targets without expending resources. When expanding our comparison to other classes, it gets even worse. Barbarians are raging, fighters are action surging, and paladins are happily smiting away for an additional 2d8 damage. Tying the ability to wisdom adds insult to injury, as the already MAD* ranger now gets punished even more harshly for not having a high wisdom.

Level 7 – Writhing Tide

You can condense part of your swarm into a focused mass that lifts or sweeps you along. Whenever you activate your Gathered Swarm feature, choose one of the following additional benefits:

  • Your walking speed increases by 10 feet, and you can take the Disengage action as a bonus action.
  • You gain a climb speed equal to your walking speed. You can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without making an ability check.
  • You gain a flying speed of 10 feet and can hover.

Yet another weak feature. Even if this feature granted all three bonuses at once, I would consider it middling at best. Since it makes me choose, I would almost always pick the first option, as it allows my character to be more flexible in combat. The other two options are niche traversal options that I doubt will see use in most campaigns. The flying speed of 10 feet is especially weak. The spell Flight, available at level 5 for full casters, grants 60 feet of movement for 10 minutes. Looking at these features side by side, it’s clear just how weak the ranger’s option is.

Level 11 – Scuttling Eyes

As an action, you can magically form one of the spirits of your swarm into the shape of a Tiny beast of your choice. The transformation lasts for 1 hour, at which point the spirit disappears. For the duration, the spirit has a speed of 40 feet, which it can use to walk, climb, fly, or swim. The spirit has your senses and telepathically relays what it sees and hears to you. During your turn, you can speak through the spirit, telepathically command it to move, and it can Hide using your bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) checks. The spirit has AC 18. If it takes damage, you must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw (DC equal to 10, or half the damage dealt, whichever is higher) or the spirit disappears.

As an action, you can dismiss the spirit early. If you do, you can magically teleport to an unoccupied space within 5 feet of where the spirit disappeared.

Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest. You can also use it again by expending a spell slot of 3rd level or higher.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Easily the best ability of the bunch, this is a useful scouting tool that makes good use of the subclass’s flavor. The teleportation ability in particular opens up some very interesting infiltration options for the ranger. I also like how the ranger can use spell slots to recharge the ability instead of resting. Unfortunately, the existence of the druid’s Wild Shape and the wizard’s Find Familiar means other classes have access to most of this ability at much lower levels.

Level 15 – Storm of Minions

Your swarm can expel a seething storm of spirits that drains life from others. As an action, you create a magical sphere filled with an enraged swarm centered on a point you can see within 120 feet of you. The sphere has a 10-foot-radius and lasts for 1 minute. The sphere is difficult terrain for creatures other than you. A creature other than you that starts its turn in the sphere’s area must make a Constitution saving throw against your spell save DC. On a failed save, the creature takes 2d8 necrotic damage and is blinded until the start of its next turn. On a successful save, it takes half as much damage and isn’t blinded. At the start of your turn, if any number of Small or larger creatures took necrotic damage from the swarm, you regain 1d8 hit points. On subsequent turns, you can use a bonus action to move the sphere up to 30 feet.

When you activate this feature, you can choose any number of creatures you can see to be unaffected by it.

Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest. You can also use it again by expending a spell slot of 4th level or higher.

And we’re back to terrible features. This one in particular ticks all of my “this is bad” boxes. It costs an action to use, has a small area of effect, targets the strongest save many monsters have, and does a paltry amount of damage. The blind status and healing hit points are nice, but simply not strong enough for a level 15 ability. Any competently built ranger will do more damage simply by taking the Attack action.

As I’m sure you can tell, by this point I did not think very highly of this subclass. It continues to suffer from problems that have plagued all rangers from the beginning, and it brings little to offset those issues.The only thing in this subclass I can recommend is that now you can build a ranger, name them Nicolas Cage, and reenact the bee scene from The Wicker Man.

I really hope that Wizards swallows their pride, admits that they failed with the ranger, and releases an official rework of the class.

What I’d Change

As previously mentioned, I believe that the ranger needs a foundational rework, and any changes made to a specific subclass are just band-aids covering up the underlying problem. However, a band-aid is better than nothing at all, and there are some fairly obvious changes I would make to this subclass if I had the chance. The first adjustment I’d make is to the expanded spell list. For cantrips, I’d add Infestation. It’s not a good cantrip, but it fits the subclass’s flavor completely and offers the ranger another damage cantrip if they really need it.

For second-level spells, I would look at Blur, a concentration spell that’s worth using, or Misty Step, a powerful non-concentration spell. At third level, I’d add Tidal Wave, as it’s a decent damage spell that could easily be flavored as a wave of bugs. At fourth level, Blight is an obvious addition to supplement the ranger’s list with another good option. For fifth-level spells, I would add Contagion. It’s a cool spell that’s on theme and has a unique effect. While these spells might not be perfect fits, the point I want to drive home is that whenever you expand a class’s spell list, make sure the spells you’re adding are ones that class might actually get some use out of.

Let’s look at Gathered Swarm. The first thing I’d do is remove the “once during each of your turns” clause. It needlessly punishes the ranger, and the ability is perfectly balanced without it. Next, I would make the ability scale earlier and more often. I’d move the first increase to level 7 and add an additional increase, up to 3d6, at level 15. I’d also change the damage dealt to either necrotic, acid, or poison damage, as bugs dealing force damage doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Finally, I would make the ability refresh on short rest. For Writhing Tide, I would simply grant all three features instead of forcing the player to choose one. None of them are broken, and adding all three would be a decent boost.

Lastly, I would rework how Storm of Minions functions. Currently, the ability works like a flaming sphere, a static effect the ranger can move with a bonus action. I would instead make it function closer to Spirit Guardians, an aura that is attached to and moves with a willing target the ranger chooses. I would also increase the damage this ability deals to at least 4d8, although 5d8 would probably still be fine. Capstone abilities should feel impactful, and at level 15, this reworked ability might actually matter, unlike the one Wizards has proposed. And that’s it; here’s hoping the ranger one day gets the rework it so desperately needs.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. The Wickerman

    NOT THE BEES!

  2. Taboomantis

    If you think a Ranger is weak, then you’re playing it wrong. The hardest hitting character at my table was a Hunter Ranger using archery. Avg hit was 36. 2 attacks he was hitting in the 70s. Then the wizard cast haste on him. He would kill giants in one round. We are talking frost and fire.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      While it’s possible for a Ranger to top a party’s damage meters, there are always better classes to do the same thing. Archery is a very powerful build option for almost every martial class and some casters, Rangers are mathematically the worst at it.

      In another article of mine I propose a Bard-archer build, while I was working on that I took a look at the math behind other archer options, including the Ranger, outside of very early levels it was always the worst.

  3. James

    I’m not that I would agree a ranger is MAD at least any moreso than several other classes. They use Dex, Con and Wis. Paladins, monks, and barbarians all want 3 stats as well. So that leaves non MAD to primarily be spell casters, rogues and fighters (even then some fighter archetypes need a 3rd stat).

    Archery as a whole I feel is over powered in 5e (because the fighting style is plus 2 to hit it means sharpshooter is only -3 for plus 10 damage).

    More spells known and access to more utility spells would help. As well as making hunters mark a baked in feature of the class (it’s so good it’s basically mandatory).

    Rangers should probably get a damage boost at level 11 like paladins get to keep their damage in line at higher levels.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      It’s not that the Ranger is more MAD than some other classes, it’s that what it gets in return is so much worse. Paladins also can take a 1 level dip of warlock and leave Strength at 13, making them much less MAD.

      Archery is overpowered in 5e. Mathematically it is the best option. Rangers just are the worst out of the builds that could use archery.

      As for fixing the Ranger, I think there a couple of ways you could take it. Improving the spell list is a good idea as you’ve mentioned, however I think the class needs are core mechanic like Paladins has smite. I think a majorly buffed pet could serve in this role, or heavy specialization in dual wielding. Dual-wielding is the worst martial damage option at the moment so having a class that makes it viable would be cool.

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