Rangers were a mistake

Rangers were first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in AD&D 1st edition. They’ve been in the four editions that followed, got a major overhaul in 3.5e and there is a revised ranger for 5th edition. They are a long established core element of D&D, just like dwarves, wizards, and beholders. You can’t really imagine a new edition of D&D without them.

But rangers should never have been introduced in the first place. Rangers were a mistake.

Rangers have always been a somewhat popular class, but I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that they are happy with the abilities of the class. Many classes had disappointing versions in one edition or another, but rangers have been bad every time. (Though I hear it’s good at combat in 4th edition.) Rangers always being bad has a simple reason. The whole concept it bad. What role are rangers supposed to fill in a party?

Rangers as a class came into existence for a single reason. Someone wanted to play Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. In D&D terms, Aragorn is a fighter, except that… Well  nothing except! He lives in the wilderness and is friends with elves? Fighters can do that. He has special herbalism skills? Well, that’s actually a race ability of Numenorians, not a class ability. From what I remember, the book doesn’t mention him doing any sneaky stuff. But of you want a fighter who also sneaks, that’s a multiclass fighter/thief. That’s been an option since first edition.

So Aragorn brings nothing to the table in regards to making a class. Already at that point, the idea of rangers as a class should have been discarded. But it wasn’t, and so generations of game designers tried coming up with things that can make rangers different from fighters. And that’s the problem. Generations of game designers have been trying to find something for rangers to do that doesn’t already fit other classes. So they’ve been throwing everything wilderness themed they could think of at it to see what sticks. Animals as henchmen. Following tracks. Maybe some druid spells. Attack bonus against certain monsters. Well, Drizzt was fighting with two swords… Now you’re no longer eve  trying.

The ranger is a bundle of abilities that a warrior living in the wilderness might have, but there is no underlying concept for what what role the class is to fulfill in a party. It’s a bunch of abilities that are all weak in their own right, to not step on the toes of fighters, rogues, and druids who all have their respective niches, but which don’t synergize together to create something more useful than the sum of their parts.

The ranger is a class in search for a justification for its own existence for 43 years. And there isn’t any.

8 thoughts on “Rangers were a mistake”

  1. 4e rangers are VERY different from 4e fighters, although very little of that has to do with their relationship with the natural world. 4e fighters are heavy infantry, whereas 4e rangers are either light infantry melee skirmishers or archers.

    They are only weakly nature-y by default, although it is possible to focus on that aspect. They are usually pretty sneaky, and pretty good at detecting sneaking opponents, which is consistent with their surprise advantage in 1e (that is, BTW, how they incorporated sneakiness and perception into the 1e ranger). Fighters have to work pretty hard to be decent at any of those things, and are highly unlikely to be good at all of them.

    1. The beastmaster ranger introduced in Martial Power opened them up into one of the game’s few “pet classes” although the mechanics of it were a bit clunky and they were still playing a high mobility multiple-attack focused striker role. 13th Age (which is D&D 4.5 in all but name, the same way Pathfinder was 3.75) did a much better job with their animal companion rules, and in general I’d say the 13A ranger is the best balanced, most customizable version of the class ever written.

      Earlier and later editions have also supported them reasonably well if you wanted to play them as animal trainer specialists, which defines them more for me than Aragorn ever did.

  2. Mit dir einverstanden, und was du feststellst ist die Konsequenz des D&D Spielsystems, wo es nur um Kampf oder Magie geht. Wenn ich mein selbstgemachtes Rollenspiel benutzen könnte, dann hätte ich “Waldleute” (fr: forestiers), die dazu geeignet wären, Reisen auf langen Strecken erheblich zu erleichtern (dies ist im Zusammenhang mit deinem letzten Post über “Reisen”). Ohne Waldleute müssen reisende Abenteurer allerlei Begegnungen überstehn, und können sich sogar verfahren. Mit Waldleute wäre solch ein Risiko viel kleiner; ich würde die “Reiseszenen” von “The One Ring” dann verwenden.

  3. Ranger fails for the same reason as every class that focuses on horsemanship: any unique abilities it may have, are only useful in the situations the party is least likely to focus on. Joe Manola of the Wicked City seems to have a clue on how to make it work for a change, with his traveller class, but it’s mostly due to the uniqueness of his setting and I don’t know if he even realized he did a ranger.

    Also, it’s funny how OSRers act like early D&D was the Scripture. And how they act like theologians trying to wrap their heads around contradictions in the Scripture when Gygax or whoever did something that doesn’t fit the narrative. I mean, clearly the ranger was a throw-it-in that only stuck because something in the basic premise appealed to people, not because it was well thought-out or even needed.

    1. Well, there’s the AD&D traditionalists and the B/X modders. The traditionalists inspired the modders to take another look at old D&D as a source of great mechanics that are actually better than the d20 system, but I think the two parted ways into very different directions shortly after.

  4. FWIW, rangers were introduced as a class for OD&D in “Rangers!” by Joe Fischer in _The Strategic Review_ #2 (Summer 1975 issue).

    While I agree with you that a lot of folks model off of Aragon, there’s a nice take on Aragon as a Ranger-Paladin 7 by Lewis Pulsipher in White Dwarf #38, so not everyone interprets him as a straight ranger class (Gandalf was a Cleric 8 in the same article). Similiarly, there are more “USA army ranger” fiction models to work from too (the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flannagan, for example).

    I did enjoy different takes on the ranger during the 3.x era, so that you could play a desert ranger, a sea-going ranger, an arctic ranger, an urban ranger, etc., all with different niche skills. I imagine someone created a dungeon ranger somewhere along the way too, to fit into the “party role” aspect of class design, but I can’t think of any offhand.

    Allan.

  5. As a 1E player/DM I totally disagree with the premise of the post. If I have the stats, I’ll typically play a ranger (or a paladin) rather than a straight fighter. Its role in the party is similar to that of a fighter, but having one reduces chance of surprise (which is HUGE in 1E; surprise is deadly!), and of getting lost in the wilderness, plus he is specialist in killing a whole class of very common foes. The ranger damage bonus scales with level. At 1st level, +1 damage vs. kobolds, goblins, and orcs is great. At 10th level +10 damage vs. giants is great.
    I agree that the 2E ranger is bad, but that’s because it’s more of a Drizz’t-like than an Aragorn-like.

  6. Interesting points—I had been thinking something very similar recently.
    As stated in another comment, rangers had their start in OD&D, where much like paladins they were a fighter subclass restricted behind rather steep ability score requirements. In a certain sense, the fact that the “class” was intended to be essentially a bonus set of features bolted on a standard fighter justifies its existence better than any thematic or mechanical niche.
    I’m convinced that OD&D got it right by having the three (later four, with the addition of the thief) basic classes serve as the standard for all players, with more particular classes like paladins and druids as occasional bonuses for when you rolled really good stats. It’s too bad that way of framing classes was lost in later editions.

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