Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: Two Years of Worries on The Spell-less Ranger
AN: This post was originally intended as a response to an open interview with a member of the D&D design team. Its unexpected length resulted in my decision to publish it instead as the first post in my Tabletop Games Blog.
So here I am. I'm 22, a recent university graduate of Champlain College with a Game Art and Animation degree, and someone who takes pride in possessing a solid base of wilderness survival skills. I have nearly ten years' experience playing D&D. The woods and the outdoors were a big part of my childhood, as was the Lord of the Rings trilogy (films and books), so the ranger as a fantasy archetype is something that is near and dear to my heart. I've been following its development as closely as I can, from its first appearance in the D&DNext playtest up through to its most recent incarnations and interpretations in the Unearthed Arcana column. In short, 5th Edition and the Ranger archetype are two things that I love and about which I strive to stay informed. And it is for these reasons that I am worried.
I've thought (and posted) a lot about the ranger across various forums and websites, and about its struggles with its identity and meeting player expectations. So many people have so many different ideas for what it is, and I understand that it is very hard for the D&D design team to meet all of those ideas. I could talk at length about how the Spell-less Ranger section in the Unearthed Arcana column was something I was excited to see, even though its features fell far short of fan expectations (such as how the 15th-level feature was... casting a spell). I could write a book about how relegating the spell-less ranger archetype to a fighter subclass was a significant disappointment, as it severely hampered all the other ranger features that weren't spellcasting in the process, and removed the ability to use the ranger subclasses with a spell-less ranger (no animal companions!) I could say that relegation of the spell-less ranger to a single subclass, and the subsequent lack of mechanical and narrative flexibility, drastically reduces the ability of players to create the characters they enjoy as they have imagined them, and requires that DMs also be competent game designers and create significant amounts of homebrew in order to allow the spell-less ranger to a play a broader, more varied role in their world - as it in fact does do in many works of fantasy fiction.
But I've also read a lot of interviews with Mike Mearls, Lead Designer for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and I was struck by his comments on the Samurai and Knight fighter archetypes. He mentioned how he wanted newer players to be able to come in and easily tell what a class or subclass did, to be able to instantly understand that identity.
So I will simply relate a personal anecdote that I think summarises these issues regarding the identity and implementation of spells as an assumed part of the ranger class identity.
I formed and ran the Adventurer's League group for Champlain College in Spring 2016, and have run it since then up to my graduation (I've also introduced younger players from local schools to the game while working in an afterschool program for the YMCA). Over the last year, the Champlain College AL grew to nearly twenty players (all around the ages of 18 to 29) of varying experience levels, and we primarily played Storm King's Thunder. I know for a fact that we had at least four ranger characters going at the same time (including mine), using the material as written in the 5th Edition Player's Handbook, and I played one of them.
Not including myself, I can recall exactly two moments when a player had their ranger characters cast a spell.
One was near the beginning of Storm King's Thunder. One player was not doing too well in a fight, so I mentioned that they could cast the spell Hunter's Mark. They looked at me, confused, then went "Oh, right, rangers use spells in D&D." We then spent a good five minutes while they looked up the ranger spells - for the first time - and figured out how to use Hunter's Mark.
The second time was in a higher-level adventure later in the semester, and I mentioned that the ranger could use Pass Without Trace. There was again that moment of confusion, and I explained how Pass Without Trace worked. They used it perhaps a couple more times that semester, if at all.
To summarise, out of three ranger characters (I am not including mine here, as I used spells simply because I do also enjoy the power fantasy of D&D and didn't want to sacrifice power), not one of them ever thought to use spells without being prompted by me, someone who is known within the group for paying attention to balance and in-game performance (as part of my admittedly-amateur D&D design work).
My fellow students are not stupid, nor were they particularly new to D&D as a game at the time. My university is well-known for its game production and computer-focused courses - these students fit the term "nerd" to a T and wear it as a badge of honor. They know fantasy literature, and have grown up with the Lord of the Rings on film and in book. Most of them watch Game of Thrones.
And the fact is that none of them ever thought of the ranger as a spellcaster. It was not a part of the class identity to any of them, to the point where they forgot a key feature of the class.
I want to make it very clear that I have nothing against spellcasting as an option for rangers of all subclasses. Many people enjoy it and love it as part of the class, and it would be wrong for me to say that their ideas of fun are "incorrect" or "bad". But this is a class named after one of the biggest fantasy archetypes out there, and it heavily utilises a feature that many newer and/or current-generation players - players who are familiar with fantasy literature and nerd culture in general - either don't expect or straight-up ignore. And f I had a nickel for every time I've had a new player say something to the effect of "Why do rangers cast spells?" or one of my more experienced D&D friends say "I've never understood why the ranger has spells", I'd be a rich man. This trend is not just within the 20-person AL group, but down at my local store at university and my hometown. This anecdotal evidence may be just that: purely anecdotal; but the more I inquire and ask around about what people imagine when they think of rangers in fantasy fiction, the less and less likely this seems.
In short, when you have a class called "the ranger", that name comes with certain expectations in terms of narrative and mechanical implementation thereof. And if that class relies heavily on a mechanic that more and more players are finding odd and out-of-place, then I can only say (and I hope in earnest that I don't come across as out-of-line or arrogant when I do say) that an insistence that spellcasting is a defining element to the ranger's identity may well not be taking the full range of opinions or possibilities into account. And, of course, it also speaks to how well the identity and narrative of "casting a spell" are integrated into the mechanics thereof - reflavoring spellcasting as not-spellcasting raises feelings of narrative dissonance at best, and actively breaks certain spell mechanics at worst.
Again, I think it is fine that Spellcasting should be an option for the ranger. Many people love it, and it would be hypocritical for me to suggest denying players something that they consider important to the ranger. It has long since been a standard part of D&D. But the other side must be taken into account, as well, and I feel that the current direction of the implementation of the spell-less ranger (as we have seen publicly, at least), is disheartening from a play and a design point of view. These attempts to fit the spell-less ranger into a subclass not only end up watering down or removing all the other features that contribute to the ranger's unique identity (for instance, playing Aragorn without the primeval awareness feature means he can't find orcs by pressing his ears to the bare rock and opening his senses to the natural world!) but also simply don't allow for nearly as many kinds of characters to be realised due to the lack of access to subclasses like the beast master, deep stalker, etc.
In short, in a game billed to be about imagination, players will have to make far more compromises than perhaps are necessary, in order to bring what they imagine to life, often to the point of being unable to play what they imagined in the first place.
Though I have done my utmost to remain on top of D&D 5th Edition design trends and reasoning, and strive to achieve professional quality in my own work, I am not a fully professional designer, and not part of the D&D team. I don't have access to Wizards of the Coasts' internal guidelines and mechanical documentation, and there could easily be something about the mechanics that the D&D team knows and I don't which renders all of my previous thoughts moot. While I have done a lot of work and playtesting of my own to create a solution to the spell-less ranger problem (and have always tried to follow the methods and intentions of the D&D team while doing so), I'm not the D&D team, and I won't pretend I can offer an immediate solution.
What I can do is offer feedback, with as much quality and quantity as I can, in order to make the ranger something that pleases as many players and empowers as many imaginations as possible. In an interview with Polygon prior to the release of Volo's Guide to Monsters, Mike Mearls said that "we live in a post-Game of Thrones world,"(1) that we are seeing a new wave of variety in regards to the fantasy stories that are being created, and I couldn't agree more. As a fan of the ranger, I am hopeful to see said variety in future iterations of the class; that in place of the singular, assumed identity of spellcasting, we can see tools and mechanics that empower all players, their imaginations, and their fun - spellcasting or otherwise.
Mr. Mearls, if you are reading this, I can only say thank you, that I hope this post is helpful, and that I hope to see you at GDC next year!
- George Sutherland Howard