The "State of the Game" official podcast on the D&D website was a huge surprise for me and guys like me: they finally admitted having given the Ranger class nothing really unique, no true definite identity, and admitted that they want to work it out and present variants that solve this issue.
I don't want to link now the posts in which you could see that "I told you that!" - But I friggin' told you that!
Now, on to business:
The Ranger as it is today (read: as it always was)
The parenthesis is there to explain the origin of this whole issue.
We tend to associate words with what we know the word for, not with what the word could potentially represent. Due to this fundamental human weakness, every single iteration of the game has tried to refine, fix, and improve a class that was flawed *in its roots*.
The problems of the original Ranger are the following, and they apply to the Ranger as it is today:
- It's a hybrid class, let's face it. Everything "typical" of the Ranger comes from another class, except for a few things that (even worse) come from Background territory.
- It was meant to describe a specific character, we even know his name. The very word "ranger" basically comes from that character. The class evolved a bit only when it also needed to describe another specific character, and we know the name of that one too. Still: no class should describe unique characters. Unique characters should use the classes to be better described, which is totally different.
- It casts freakin' spells. And still it tries to describe a particular archetype of expertise-based warrior/specialist that, if having all the skills and derived advantages it should have, would have no need of spells, other than no time to study them, or no time for the eventual mystical connection needed to receive them.
- It's portrayed as a tree-hugger (a completely Background-territory concept) for no other reason than pure blatant cliche. To make a comparison, if such a Background-tied concept would be tied to the Fighter, we would have Fighters being described and having *features* such as "Beer-Fueled", "Obsessive weapon polisher", and "Being unable to speak without shouting". These kind of things should be completely out of a class, they just don't belong there.
- It has no fighting mechanic that makes it different from any other man swinging or firing a weapon, other than some minor things like "extra damage or extra attack" choices, which could belong to just about any other class and don't tell anything about how is the Ranger something different.
- But what about armor? Take the feat.
- But what about hit points? Take Constitution, maybe feat.
- But what about the animal companion? Animal Friendship or Familiar spell or plain-old training and Animal Handling skill.
- But what about two-weapon fighting or archery? Yeah, what about them? You have them.
If the Ranger has to be just "the class for those people who want to mix classes but don't want multiclassing", I hope you realize how pointless and shallow that is. The designers, fortunately, realized it now.
A RANGER SHOULD BE A SKIRMISHER WARRIOR: AN EXPERT IN USING TERRAIN, RECON, AND WISDOM TO GAIN ADVANTAGE IN COMBAT, USING HIGH SPEED AND MOBILITY TO COMPENSATE WEAK DEFENSES, AND WITH THE ABILITY TO ENGAGE, HARRY, AND EVENTUALLY KILL MANY FOES AT THE SAME TIME, POSSIBLY EVEN IF/ESPECIALLY WHEN THESE FOES ARE FAR APART AND/OR FAR AWAY.The statement could sound a bit too serious and modern, but it's just because it needs to stress out technical differences. Without breaking much the immersion into the world of fantasy roleplaying, or D&D in particular, we could say that the Ranger is:
- The kind of warrior that concentrates on the environment around him/her other than the foes.
- The kind of warrior that patiently scouts an area and observes enemies for hours before attacking, to maximize every advantage.
- The kind of warrior that is always moving and using momentum to dart around the battlefield, nearly dancing around the enemies, and making them die the death of the thousand cuts while pinning them in a situation or terrain from which they can't easily escape.
- The kind of warrior that would set up traps,
- The kind of warrior who works best alone.
- The kind of warrior that can guide his/her allies across difficult terrain, or save them from immediate environmental dangers.
- The kind of warrior that uses beasts as a tool for combat, sometimes forming close bonds with a beast that becomes the only reliable companion to fight in his way without spoiling the plans.
- The kind of warrior that takes on the most difficult to reach enemies, by navigating the terrain better and faster than others, and/or by harassing them with bursts of arrows.
- The kind of warrior that can have a whole bunch of people concentrated on him/her to no effect, because he/she moves better and faster, knows the terrain better and uses it better, and is sometimes difficult to spot or catch.
- Both should be experts/specialists, as opposed to pure fighting machines/generalists (aka Fighters).
- Both should care about their surrounding more than the generalists, because they depend on them both for attacking and survival.
- Both use intellectual abilities more than the typical soldier.
- Both are weaker in defense, stronger in attack, at least in general.
- Both should be able to create the situations they need to excel/survive, at least in some limited fashion, when they can't find them in their surroundings.
- A Ranger should be an expert in survival, terrain, the use of animals, possibly the making of traps or at least ambushes. A Rogue could be an expert of anything, even the Ranger stuff, but will never get the benefits that the Ranger gets from its particular expertise.
- A Ranger should be a specialist of open, possibly natural terrain, movement across it, and long ranges (hence "ranger"), whereas a Rogue should excel in close quarters, provided he can use or create a distraction and/or a hiding/escape.
- A Ranger should use a lot his/her Wisdom, whereas a Rogue should use a lot more Intelligence and Charisma.
- A Ranger should focus more on open movement as a defense, whereas a Rogue should focus more on hiding or distracting.
- A Ranger is stronger than a generalist Fighter in attacking multiple enemies, whereas a Rogue is stronger in attacking only one enemy at a time. None of them are strong in attack against a tight group, which should instead be the specialty of the Fighter, that has the defense skills to survive thick melees.
- A Ranger could create the favored situation using his/her animal, previous terrain recon, and/or with bursts of movement and maneuvers aimed at separating the enemies, making them more manageable, whereas a Rogue could create the favored situation by improvising a diversion, distracting, feinting, hiding, or dirty-fighting alongside a more imposing ally.
And that's it from my side: I hope the designers will follow these new ways at last, after I suggested them for so long. Sure, crafting mechanics that actually represent them could be harder than just describing things like this, but I have a few ideas in those regards as well.
And in fact, I will conclude with a bonus: a pitch for a truly unique Ranger mechanic.
Instead of attacking once (or more times, depending on additional attacks), and subsequently dealing damage accordingly, as a Ranger you can attack every enemy you move close enough to, or every enemy in line of sight in case of ranged weapon usage, with a single attack roll and damage roll. You just split the total damage as you wish among the enemies whose AC you hit with your roll.