D&D's Ranger Problem and How to Solve It


D&D has a problem, and it’s with the Ranger class. This isn’t a new problem. In fact, it spans decades at this point. Yet it persists.

We’re going to look briefly at the history of the Ranger class, what roles it currently is meant to occupy, and identify some problems that have driven criticism of the class not just in 5th edition D&D but throughout much of its history.

Right off the bat, I want to say this, though: I am writing this as a huge fan of the Ranger class. This is criticism born of love, and out of a desire to play characters that truly embody what I believe are the hallmarks of the Ranger class.

I’ve been enamored with Rangers – and related classes from other games (Archers, Survivalists, Hunters, etc.) – for most of my life. I want them to thrive.

The History of the Ranger Class in Dungeons & Dragons

This article on the Ranger class in D&D does a nice job of discussing its historical underpinnings.

Basically, the origin of the Ranger class was a member of Gary Gygax’s group wanting to play as Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Gygax later codified this in the rules, and it was several years before the Ranger morphed into the dexterity-based class that’s proficient with ranged weapons that we know it as today.

On wanting to play Aragorn, though, who can blame them? Tolkien was a huge influence on a lot of us.

As we’ll see, though, basing an entire class off of a single fictional character is problematic, because it’s more specific than the broad archetypes that normally typify D&D classes. To use a similar analogy, the Wizard class wasn’t an adaptation of Gandalf. Yes, Gandalf is a famous fictional wizard, and many D&D players have undoubtedly played versions of Gandalf in their campaigns, but the wizard archetype was broader than this even at its genesis in D&D.

Drizzt, Aragorn, Legolas and Muddying the Waters of Ranger Abilities

Drizzt Do’Urden is a famous fictional Ranger in the D&D universe. He’s been featured in dozens of novels and various other media like video games and comic books.

He’s also a dual blade wielding drow elf, an archetype that’s become something of a trope in the decades since, largely because of the popularity of Drizzt.

That historical deep dive above shows that Drizzt didn’t beget the dual-wielding Ranger. The class mechanics existed prior to his popularity, though Drizzt certainly solidified them in many minds.

There’s a problem here, though, because if you’ve played a Ranger in 5th edition D&D, it likely wasn’t as a melee specialist like Aragorn or Drizzt. Which belies a lack of identity for the class.

The features we associate with Aragorn are, in modern D&D parlance, as closely related to the Fighter class as Rangers. The same goes for Drizzt, whose characteristics align him as much with the Fighter class than Ranger. In more recent media, he’s also picked up other abilities that could be considered part of the Monk or Barbarian classes, but I’m ignoring those to focus on how he’s known to the majority of his fans.

I cheekily mentioned Legolas in this title for this section, and while I can’t prove his influence on the modern Ranger class, it’s clear that the class shifted away from the Ranger as Aragorn portrays it and more toward something resembling an archer who’s less consistently ideal for close-quarter combat. It’s not that they can’t do these things, but if you want to be the best at melee combat, you choose a Fighter (or Rogue, or frankly several other classes at this point).

There’s some edge-case Ranger build that’s viable in melee, I’m certain, but any that I’ve seen in the wild in 5th edition are those that are dual-classed into Fighter.

Thematic vs. Mechanical Abilities

Any abilities in D&D relate to the mechanics in some way, but I’d delineate between abilities that are specific to combat and those that provide differentiation outside of combat, often of a more thematic variety.

For Rangers, it’s going to be things like tracking and navigating in the wilderness, moving stealthily, and your nature-based abilities like being able to speak with animals, lay traps, or camouflage yourself.

The issue comes with the fact that everything I’ve just named – in addition to the class’s mechanical, encounter-based abilities – can be replicated by other classes, and usually can be done better by other classes. Stealth? Pick a Rogue. Nature attunement? Pick a Druid. So-called “skill monkey” classes like Rogue, Artificer and Bard can also reliably outpace Rangers at any skill-based check, even ones you’d imagine would be the purview of Rangers such as Survival checks.

Additionally, somewhere out there, there’s a campaign with more Survival checks than any other skill. But the tracking/wilderness abilities are often among the least used in Dungeons & Dragons.

The reason for this is twofold: most adventuring scenarios reward other abilities more frequently (Investigation, Insight, Athletics, Stealth, etc.). And some of those tracking or pathfinding abilities are made redundant or obsolete by magical abilities even by the middle levels of D&D’s leveling climb. Rangers get nature-based spells as well but few, if any, outside specialized ancillary books that aren’t redundant with spell options for other, more powerful caster classes such as Druids or Wizards.

What About Pets and Animal Companions?

And then there’s the animal companion. The popular D&D live stream Critical Role is a good case study here. One of the main characters was a Ranger in the group’s first campaign, and she had an animal companion (bear) that she loved and protected.

And she did a magnificent job roleplaying this type of character!

There was just one big problem. The bear was basically useless in a functional sense. So much so that it became a recurring joke among the cast. The bear was a roleplaying boon, but mechanically it was a laughable liability.

Look, to their credit, they made lemonade out of lemons, but when it’s a running joke that a core feature of your class is worthless for mechanical purposes, you done fucked up with the balancing of the class.

Some will defend the sub-class as mechanically viable, and they’re technically not wrong. They’ll also point out that player characters are supposed to have the spotlight, not animal companions. In general, I agree, though we’ll come back to that point later.

But the larger issue is that it doesn’t match the thematic promise of the class. It doesn’t “feel” right. This, to me, is just as big a problem as any actual mathematical imbalance, because it means you’re failing players in a roleplaying sense.

Wizards of the Coast has since released a revised Ranger class in 5th edition that addresses some of these issues. But ignoring the fact that this revised edition is not going to be nearly as well-known since it’s not in the game’s primary player book, it still doesn’t live up to the promise of the sub-class for many, where they want to feel like it’s a partnership between character and companion. Given that the backlash against this subclass was one of the larger talking points of the class in 5th edition, it’s assuredly one of D&D’s biggest class-based missteps in the last 10-15 years.

A Brief Trip Over to World of Warcraft: The Hunter Class

Ironically, this issue isn’t relegated to tabletop RPGs. World of Warcraft (WoW) has lost a lot of its cultural ubiquity in the modern day, but at its height, it was a global cultural phenomenon.

I also consider it uncontroversial to suggest that WoW’s influence seeped into tabletop RPG design. I’d be shocked, for instance, if 4th edition D&D’s designers weren’t hooked on WoW at the time, and allowed a lot of its design principles to inform their D&D designs.

The roles of tank, healer and dps (damage per second) were codified and popularized in WoW, phrases like CC (crowd control) and other mechanical acronyms became popularized because of WoW, and you’ll still run into players who have never played WoW but they’ll use that terminology to describe class roles.

But back to the Ranger class. On a now-defunct (but rather popular at the time) blog for WoW where I acted as a guest contributor, I ran a whole series of articles about revamping the Hunter class (Hunter = WoW’s Ranger). These largely weren’t my own thoughts, but rather me collecting and aggregating the opinions of key influencers and communities within the larger WoW sphere.

The reason it was necessary was this: the Hunter class had an identity crisis. Sound familiar?

Were they keen archers solely devoted to killing? Cunning naturalists using traps to control the battlefield? Friends of nature whose animal companions were every bit as formidable as the player themselves? In answering “yes” to all of these, none of them could be made into the cornerstone of the class, and so they floundered as a class that was generally not specialized for anything in particular.

WoW’s focus on the mechanically-focused group raids also pushed the class toward optimization of damage abilities and sequences (i.e. rotations) to maximize this output. Any thematic flavor was sublimated for the sake of making them viable alongside the other classes in high-level raids.

Pets (animal companions) proved tricky to manage in this sense, since they needed their own sets of hit points and abilities, making the class clunkier to use in some fights. And very little that they contributed at any stage of the game couldn’t be covered by other classes. Sounds familiar again, yeah?

WoW even waffled on the source of their abilities, swapping at one point from a mana-based magic system to power Hunter abilities, to an energy-based system that suggested more of a martial class. They couldn’t even settle on that. Hunters seemingly straddled too many conceptual divides to give them a clear identity.

For clarity, I’ve been removed from WoW for several years, so maybe they’ve worked out these kinks and have found a reliable niche for Hunters. Or maybe not. But it was a known problem for years, and I see this as being related to D&D’s similar problem.

Lack of a “Moat” for Rangers in D&D

So what’s left for the Ranger class that’s both mechanically differentiated from most other classes, something that Rangers can excel that where others can’t, and that feels thematically satisfying?

Where’s the moat around the castle, from which Ranger fans can enjoy the view of the surrounding area?

I’m left without great answers, and that saddens me since, as mentioned, I adore the thematic potential of the Ranger class and have had fun playing them in numerous systems, not just D&D.

I’ve even seen various power gamer content creators walk through builds for Rogues or Fighters that can match or even outpace 5th edition Rangers in ranged physical damage. That isn’t how I relate to the game, so I’m mostly unconcerned on that front, but it still reinforces my sense that there’s nothing that’s truly unique about Rangers in 5th edition that – like animal companions – isn’t somehow a thematic drain on many players.

Also in fairness, 5th edition D&D was somewhat explicit in having more overlap between mechanics and expertise than some past editions. They didn’t want players to have to feel like they “needed” a particular mix of classes to be successful.

Largely speaking, they were successful in this! No class feels necessary in a particular setting, allowing a lot of personal freedom in character creation. But most classes still have plenty to hang their hat on, so to speak. This moat feels smaller to me for Rangers, and I’m not alone in this assessment.

Possible Solutions for the Ranger Class

The solution that may be the best is also going to be the least useful for some. It’s a variation on “Don’t Worry About It.”

Everything I talked about above is true, but is only going to affect you personally if you’re not having fun with the class. One of my best experiences in 5th edition was with a Ranger. Granted, it was as much due to the group dynamics and roleplaying elements between us as the class itself, but I didn’t feel let down mechanically (though I avoided Beastmaster).

And heck, D&D is pretty clearly not concerned with absolutely perfect balance anyway. If you’re going to be annoyed at suboptimal classes or subclasses, you’re possibly in the wrong game.

So stepping back to keep one’s perspective and just enjoying yourself is going to be sound advice in any situation.

That said, I do think there’s a thematic spark that’s missing from Rangers in their current incarnation in D&D. So what would it look like with that spark added back in? Let’s look at some ways it could happen.

#1 – Make Animal Companions a Bigger Deal

This might simply be an idea for a specific subclass, but I think Wizards misunderstands just how much players want their animal companions to be a part of the action and narrative.

To that end, what if there were a subclass where the Ranger channeled their energies and abilities into supporting their animal companion?

I’ve actually experimented with this in my homebrew efforts. If I ever finalize it, I’ll post it for purchase/download and will mention it on this blog.

The concept is that the animal does a lot of heavy mechanical lifting, and the Ranger is bonded with them to such an extent that it’s a fusion of abilities and strengths. Shared health pool, increased attack strength, perhaps some sort of simplistic telepathic bond to relay commands and view through their eyes, and so on.

This would involve depowering the Ranger themselves to an extent, or else the subclass could be too powerful. But how cool would it be to control both a raging, powerful animal companion that has similar power to a PC, and also support them via healing, misdirection and crowd control of the battlefield while you command their actions?

#2 – More Thematic Spells

One of the smartest things Wizards of the Coast did in 5th edition was release new spells with their book, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. These spells are often class-specific and many of these are extremely thematic, even if they’re slightly less powerful than the base spells they’re obviously meant to replace.

So do more of this. Like, a lot more. I can’t understate how cool some of those spells in Xanathar’s truly are from a thematic standpoint, and no class could be aided by this more than Rangers.

#3 – Remove Spells, Move to Martialist and/or Naturalist

Quick, name a spell Aragorn cast in Lord of the Rings. Or what spells does Drizzt routinely cast in his appearances?

You see my point, I assume. If Rangers are the rugged naturalists whose specialties involve weapon mastery, survivalist abilities, tracking and hiding, and related abilities, what are we doing with spells at all?

Thematically speaking, Ranger spells can be useful here and there but it’s never going to be a hallmark of the class. So to keep them balanced, why not get rid of them entirely and lean hard in the other direction?

This could be done in 100 different ways. Give them more terrain-based bonuses, in and out of combat. Allow for higher-level tracking features that only they possess. Give them bonuses to detecting, disarming or setting traps since they have an innate sense for it. Give other players group bonuses when a Ranger prepares a battlefield for something like an ambush. Allow them herbalist-style abilities that allow for minor healing abilities when they use plants in specific ways. Adopt minor totem-like abilities related to the animals that surround them.

That’s off the top of my head. Not entirely, of course. I did some research for this article, after all. But I don’t design these things for my day job like actual RPG designers. The veteran designers at D&D could do a lot better (I hope).

The Ranger Class in Dungeons & Dragons – Conclusions

To a certain extent, this will be a non-issue for some players. To avoid the frustrations I feel when I try the Beastmaster Ranger, I’ve gravitated toward other subclasses that scratch the itch for me without the thematic drawbacks. And it’s been fine.

But I still feel like there’s more untapped potential with the Ranger class than with others I’ve played in 5th edition. The class won’t go away any time soon, and it’s led to this article and many related conversations with others who feel the same.

Regardless of whether my ideas are adopted or others are, I do hope Wizards of the Coast takes a long, hard look at the Ranger class in the coming years to make them feel more unique and more aligned with the type of experience promised by the class.

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