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Thursday, September 10, 2015

The alternative D&D Ranger from Unearthed Arcana: A New Hope!


Even if I didn't have a very positive initial reaction to what I saw in the new Ranger alternative brought to the community by Mike Mearls, I want to call this initiative a New Hope.

First of all, because I wrote so many times about the issue, and I'm finally seeing some movement at least in the direction of a class that finally has more identity, originality and uniqueness.

Second, because I think the effort needs encouragement and positive feedback to actually improve and become a great piece of the game.

I will not discuss here of what could happen if it ever becomes official, nor any other "it's the end of the world as we know it" things. I just want to compare this new Ranger with the expectations I have, and the expectations I see around. And I'm going to do it in detail, following the order of the document that was released with the (draft) class.

First of all, the feedback and the motivation

What I see written in the first part by Mearls seems to coincide with my thoughts. The Ranger having begun as just a mix of classes, the signature features becoming available to every other class (thus stopping being signature), the Favored Enemy thing being too little to become a new signature feature, and the problem of the animal companion ending up being too little or too much.

I would stress again, based on this, what I always say: until we stop trying to "do the ranger" and start trying to understand what it is to "BE a ranger", there is no hope for this archetype: it's gonna end as a sub-archetype of something else, and unfortunately lots of people are fine with it. But from my extensive experience, the people that are fine with it have never questioned themselves about what the Ranger should be and could be. And this is the question that matters.

Because we all already understood that the "Ranger as we always knew it" is just doable with other classes, but that doesn't mean the Ranger should be just that. It just means it shouldn't be what it always was. And anyone who opposes this is just not interested enough in the outcome, (because don't forget that for some people, warriors are just an accessory for spell-casters) and as such, logically, these people are not the best to consult for this matter.

So to wrap it up: the Ranger must be re-thought from the ground-up.

The concepts behind the new Ranger

Skirmishers

Well, this should find everyone in agreement, at least everyone who cares. We have a front-line warrior (Fighter), we have a tricky lurker (Rogue), we have an armored bulwark of defense (Paladin), but we don't have a true Skirmisher. The Rogue comes close, and that's why, as I discussed previously, to find the new Ranger we must actually start from the Rogue and try to evidence all the possible differences.

I would say that this new variant does this a bit, but here come my first negative feedbacks: while having more time to act than the Rogue is a fine variant, it feels too automatic. It doesn't seem to represent the patience and hunting techniques of a Ranger. He just does his Ambuscade all the time, and I think it's a bit of a lost opportunity to build something more thematic and strategy-bound.

Also, the focus on stealth seems to be cool at first, but then you realize that it really steps on Rogue's toes. It's cool that the Ranger can actually choose who doesn't see him, and it could lead to interesting tactics, but again: it seems more like a trick a Rogue would do. More Lurker than Skirmisher. A Skirmisher should focus on movement, not on stealth (although stealth could be an advantage as well).

In addition, it seems like the feature is there to be used defensively more than aggressively: apart from Advantage itself, there is not much that the Ranger's attacks gain from this, and it's probably because otherwise it would be just a Sneak Attack.

The fact that this Ranger is so good in defense is one of the surprises that really turned the tables upside down, even for a non-traditionalist as myself. I'm not completely opposed to it, but what I'd like to see is some dependence on skills, or at least well thought tactics. Just getting this and that whenever you want is not a Ranger's style. I'm ok with the "power level", but I would spread it more, by making these advantages more situational, while giving other more reliable little things, such as reactive movements and attacks, which I will detail later with all my suggestions.

All in all, about being a Skirmisher, I think the intentions are good, but it should be made in a more thematically-accurate way. Probably they automatically get these kind of things in Difficult Terrain and/or Favored Terrain, but to be like this in the open, they need to scout the area first.

Wanderers

Here lots of people have started freaking out, and I was among them I must say. A warrior that has both skill and extreme durability is a bit... Extreme. It's nice to see durability as a new core idea, but that's also kind of over-done. The Ranger, as I wrote in the linked previous post, should be a warrior that uses expertise, patience, and superior mobility to survive. That kind of implies that he doesn't have the durability of a Fighter or Paladin or Barbarian.
I think it might still fly as an idea if the extreme stealth gets toned down, but in general, I would prefer to see a more active self-defense, and other means of achieving it (again, more detail below), rather than just making the Ranger a big guy. We can also go the way of the big guy, but then some other things should go away. I think it could be a good subclass, though.

About the rest, I love Natural Explorer, it's the one feature that makes the current Ranger still tempting to play, so of course I'm fine with it. Actually, I would build a lot more on it.

Guardians

Here I must give a bit of negative feedback again, in particular about the flavor: a warrior that protects the wild is a cliche that should stay in Background territory. We are doing a class, not a background. It's ok to give "guardian capabilities" to the Ranger, it fits, but I would definitely avoid mentioning that he "protects the wild"; especially in a game like D&D, where the wild is actually one of the most dangerous and abundant regions. Paladins of the forest? We already have them, they are Paladins... Of the forest. Leave this mystical stuff to the mystical character that the Paladin is, and make the Ranger the practical, cynical, expert character that he/she should be: no tree-hugging, but lots of tree-hiding, tree-jumping, tree-traps, tree-spring-attacks, and whatever: the Ranger definitely uses nature as an ally, but that doesn't mean all kind of nature magic that is already part of Druid and the nature-related Oath for Paladins.

I know that I might sound more radical than Mearls here, but I think it's really for the best, because if we keep the tree-hugging, we keep the mystical stuff, and we keep not finding a unique identity, borrowing from Druid, Paladin and so on.

Now, talking about the animal spirit... Guess what part I don't like of "animal spirit" when it comes to the Ranger. Exactly: "spirit". I would LOVE Mearls to bring us a 4e-like Shaman, with all kind of stuff related to animal spirits, but the Ranger should really be about the relationship with animals. Maybe, maaaybe at 20th level he could have a powerful spirit animal, but I would avoid even that.

I think the mechanics here are solid, they would just need to refer to real animals. I think the big dangerous beast once a day, taking turns etc is great, and then they could have a more pocket-size animal, like a familiar but trained for combat and support, giving exactly the benefits that the spirit would give. True, it's more of an aesthetic change, but at least it makes for a solid identity with roots into the practical knowledge of nature, the true bond between man and beast.

Stop ranting and give us some ideas, L.A.!

Here are my ideas:
  • About Skirmish: make it more of a skirmish. More movement, less stealth, more attacks.
  • About Ambuscade: make it so that it works in difficult terrain or Favored Terrain, while in others it should require long setup.
  • Also use scouting as a signature: by spending time in an area, the Ranger can set it up, prepare traps maybe (subclass: Trapper), but especially set up some cover to be used defensively or even aggressively.
  • Connected to this, let the combat style of the Ranger involve the use of terrain. In a previously scouted terrain, the Ranger not only does Ambuscades, but can have small reaction-using attacks and movements that lure the enemy into Disadvantage, make them slam into each other while chasing you, make them hit branches or trip on rocks. The Ranger should have a limited ability to even manipulate the terrain (with enough time), so that it gives these opportunities later on. The key is that the Ranger should scout ahead and prepare the battlefield to his advantage,
  • If we want a more survivable Ranger, we need the "Herbal Poultices" back: they were great, they stay true to the roots of the Ranger, and they represent the superior foraging abilities.
  • Make the animal companion, the big one, follow the Ranger only from afar. It must be a conflicted relationship: it can come in moments of great danger, and/or once a day when the Ranger "convinces it", and it can't be just called on the spot: it's another of those things for which the Ranger should need a long preparation, maybe even a Short Rest spent only for that.
    Complement this big animal with a smaller, much more faithful one, that harries enemies, does some damage, distracts, trips, whatever: like a familiar but much more combat-focused. It can also dies, but then the Ranger could get a new one as well, although of course not without some work.
That's it for now, will post more ideas if I have them, maybe even my version of the class!

Thanks to Mearls for doing this and going against the mainstream of the D&D community (if it really is a main stream), and at the same time doing so as feedback follow-up.

Good skirmishing, everybody!