“You're no ranger, Jon, only a green boy with the smell of summer still on you.”
— A Game of Thrones
Guide linked on Google Docs, as well.
NOTE: This is an update of my very, very old and horribly outdated "Into the Woods We Go" guide, complete with the updated material. I gave it a new name to distinguish it. I also got tired of waiting for control of my old guide so decided to make a new thread with a snappier new name.
Table of Contents:
II. Basics of the Class
III. Ranger Archetypes
X. Builds and Combos
This guide will use the following ratings:
Red is dead. A choice that either adds nothing of value to your character or might even actively hurt it.
Purple is a substandard choice. It might be useful in corner-case situations, but overall it's not worth the investment.
Black is average. You're not hurting your character by taking this, and it might even help in some situations, but there are better choices.
Blue is a good choice. It definitely helps your character in the majority of cases.
Sky Blue is a fantastic choice. An option you should strongly consider above most others.
Gold is mandatory. It's a rare rating that denotes something that is so good that you must take it, or you can't call yourself optimized.
This guide takes from the following sources:
PHB - Player’s Handbook
MM - Monster Manual
DMG - Dungeon Master’s Guide
EEPC - Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
SCAG - Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide
VGM - Volo’s Guide to Monsters
XGTE - Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
MTOF - Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
*** Note: Material from Unearthed Arcana is always considered playtest material and will not be rated in this guide. But feel free to discuss it in the thread.
What's a Ranger?
The common motif about the Ranger in D&D is a skilled hunter, tracker and woodsman, most at home on the fringes of civilization and the first line of defense against threats from the wilds. It was loosely based on Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, originally.
The other details have varied from edition-to-edition, to the point that it's often debated as to what a Ranger is really supposed to be.
The 1e AD&D Ranger was able to cast low-level Magic-User spells (in addition to Druid spells) and use all the items that a Magic-User could. It also was especially effective at killing Giants (with HUGE damage bonuses against them), had the stealth abilities that's still associated with the class to this day, and was pretty much impossible to catch by surprise and was often effective at having the party get the jump on enemies. Its combat skills were also as solid as ever, capping out at the same number of attacks as the Fighter, but just at a couple levels later. It also had to be of Good alignment or risk losing all its abilities (a convention most closely represented now by the Oath of Ancients Paladin).
The 2e Ranger was something of a curiosity. Because right before the release of 2e, a Drow Ranger named Drizzt Do'Urden, the ultimate Mary Sue of the Realms, was renowned for his ability to dual-wield scimitars. Ignoring the fact that Drizzt dual-wielded because he was Drow (who had an enhanced ability to dual-wield in 1e), the makers of 2e decided instead to give that ability to the Ranger, thus setting the stage for the next few renditions of that class as THE dual-wielding class — an arbitrary addition to its identity. The Ranger's Giant-killing abilities were extended instead to a choice of "racial enemy" or "favored enemy," which made the 2e Ranger more effective against a certain type of foe, although not NEARLY as much so as the 1e Ranger was against Giants, being just a +4 bonus to attack (not damage) rolls. The stealth parts of the Ranger remained, as did the alignment restrictions and the Druid spells (the Mage spells were removed). The 2e Ranger was considered mostly solid in performance (it was still mostly a Fighter-plus, after all, minus weapon specialization/mastery), if not uninspired and dissonant in its design.
In 3e, the Ranger could select multiple favored enemies as they leveled for the first time, although the way those damage bonuses scaled was ineffective (you basically had to commit to a strong enemy type you most likely never faced at 1st level to max out that bonus). It also, for the first time, removed the alignment restriction, because it was determined that a character shouldn't need to be Good-aligned to be an effective tracker. Although, the 3e Ranger wasn't effective at much of anything, really. It got "free" dual-wielding, a carryover from 2e, but dual-wielding was a weak style in 3e in general, and the Ranger's free dual-wielding never got any better. Also, all classes got the ability to use Stealth to a certain degree, making the Ranger less special in that category, and its spell list left a lot to be desired. The 3e Ranger, as a result, was considered one of the weakest classes, if not THE weakest.
3.5's revision to the Ranger gave it a solid boost, with favored enemies that scaled MUCH better and removed the "pick the strongest enemy you're going to face at Lv. 1 or else" dilemma, and for the first time actually gave the Ranger an option to focus on archery instead of dual-wielding. (Amazingly, Rangers had long been associated with archery in mind, but never specifically in deed to this point.) The 3.5 Ranger also got more skill points to be more versatile out of combat and in exploration and scouting, and gave it more effective spells as well. Eventually, it got another indirect buff with the Scout class, which was like a Ranger without the Druidic-type spellcasting and an ability to be effective in combat on the run; with the Swift Hunter feat it was possible to effectively gestalt the best of the Ranger and Scout abilities when multiclassing between the two classes.
4e kind of took the idea of the Scout as a non-magical warrior of the wilds and ran with it for its Ranger class. Or, rather, tried to. The 4e Ranger was, for the first time, purely a Martial class, with no spellcasting. And boy, was it effective. It was by far the strongest Striker class in that edition, with the real possibility of killing Elites with a single nova if optimized properly. Unfortunately, it was also really boring flavor-wise. The "warrior of the wilds" flavor just wasn't really there; the 4e Ranger's claim to fame was to be the archer or dual-wielder who just did damage and lots of it. Again, effective without a doubt, but also really boring. Stealth was also not a much-exercised option in 4e, further reducing the 4e Ranger to basically the big-damage combat unit. The Essentials subclasses, Hunter and Scout, came along later to add some modicum of its magical origins back into the Ranger concept, although the spellcasting of old wasn't there; the magic was represented more by the stances reflecting animal names.
Now with the coming of 5e, the Ranger gets another makeover. For the first time since 1e, dual-wielding is not an assumed aspect of the class; and for that matter neither is archery. Both of those are still options, to be sure, but are no more a part of the Ranger class' identity than the Fighter's. The features give it an emphasis on use of skills in their preferred environments, some abilities to stealth and scout that other classes don't get, and while favored enemies make their return, the impact of those are lessened. Spells also make a return to the Ranger's arsenal, better than ever. The overall results, as you'll see, are mixed.
Rangers are back to being a half-caster in 5e. Which actually isn't nearly as bad as that was in earlier editions. They top out at the same number of spell slots at Lv. 1-4, and only one less at Lv. 5, as the full casters do. Furthermore, as the effectiveness of spells is determined by proficiency bonuses that increases for all classes equally, a spell cast by a Ranger is just as effective as that same spell cast by a Druid or Wizard. In addition, Rangers also have a much stronger class spell list overall than in the past, and as you'll discover, that is a major saving grace of the class.
Rangers now learn spells instead of prepare them from a list as they used to; they are now more like the Sorcerer and Bard in that respect than the Cleric and Paladin, and they only learn a few of them. So spells must be chosen with care.
Rangers have always been multiple-attribute dependent (MAD), and that hasn't changed in 5e. Although MAD isn't quite as debilitating this time around as it was in the past, it still means that Rangers are limited on the feats they can take, and must pick those wisely.
The class features for the Ranger are, to put it mildly, a mixed bag of highly situational talents. Many of their abilities seem to be geared toward solo play rather than party play, or at least a role in which they're scouting well ahead of the party all on their own. And if you're coming over from 4e, the Ranger is no longer the ticking nova bomb of this edition; indeed, the Ranger’s ability to nova for a massive damage turn is rather lacking compared to the Fighter or Paladin.
Strengths and weaknesses
- Solid array of skills, as far as that goes. Their three skills from class are more than most classes aside from the Bard and the Rogue.
- Solid spell list, which goes well with a combat- and exploration-focused class. Although they have to learn them, instead of prepare them, Rangers are supported just fine in this department. In fact, spells are where much of the power in this class lies, including strong offensive and defensive buffs, conjurations, and area of effect damage spells.
- Very diverse subclasses, especially after XGTE. One of them could fit your playstyle somehow.
- Weak nova damage. Rangers’ sustained damage-per-round figures are solid enough, or can be, and they may have some situational boosts to their damage in one round or another, but they’ll never wreck a boss in a single turn like a Fighter or Paladin can.
- While their spells are solid, they learn them instead of prepare them, making them less versatile than, say, the Paladin in that department. Moreover, Rangers learn the fewest spells in the game.
- Many of their class features, including their signature favored enemies and terrains and their stealthy features, are quite poorly designed. They’re highly situational at best and tend not to mesh well with a party setting, especially a combat-heavy setting where opportunities to advance scout are at a minimum. And some of them are just plain underwhelming for the levels you get them at.
- When Rangers are NOT in their favored terrains or dealing with their favored enemies, their skill effectiveness and exploration ability are sharply lessened.
- Highly reliant on their choice of subclass as to whether they’ll be an effective character, since the core class’ features are weak for the most part.
- One particular subclass, the Beast Master, has serious issues and is quite underpowered as a whole.