No, stop, don't leave! Hear me out. On its own, the ranger has a couple tools to make it compete with the main Tier 3s on its own. I am of the personal opinion that the ranger itself, with all options in play, can be considered a fairly good Tier 3, comparable to the bard in its jacking of all trades.
- (a) Ranger. Naturally. Exactly how many levels you take in this class, and the order, depends on a couple things. You're likely
wanting at least 10 levels though by the end of the day.
- (b) Mystic Ranger. This ACF from Dragon #336 ups your spellcasting progression by a huge amount, in exchange for delaying
your other class features by a few levels. This is one of the pillars
of the class that make you useful.
- (c) Solitary Hunting. This ACF from Dragon #347 trades away your animal companion (which isn't super useful anyway) and grants you
your Favored Enemy bonuses on attack rolls in addition to damage
rolls. This is huge, because your Favored Enemy bonuses are
decently-sized, and you're already a full BAB class.
- (d) Enemy Spirit Pouches. These 2,100gp items from the Magic Item Compendium either give you a new favored enemy (keyed to their
type) or up your current Favored Enemy bonus by +2. Wearing one of
your own type hurts, so don't do that. Do get as many of these as you
can, though, and swap them out as needed before fights. If you can
use the item combining rules to duct tape multiples together, do that
These three things together mean you've got near-full spellcasting off of a fairly decent list, full BAB, 6 + Int mod skill points, and a class feature that natively boosts your attack and damage rolls.
And speaking of that class feature, let's talk about Favored Enemy.
The default scaling is mostly just "alright," in my opinion. You don't get a whole lot of favored enemies, even if the enemy spirit pouch helps on that front. There's a couple major options that can help make Favored Enemy better:
- The Extra Favored Enemy feat, from Ghostwalk (and updated here) gives you a single extra favored enemy, with a +2 bonus. It's decent, but not great.
- The Favored Power Attack feat, from Complete Warrior, gives you a 2x return on Power Attack against favored enemies. If you're using a two-handed weapon, it's 3x, but that's not super relevant here since you want to two-weapon fight. You still want this if you can afford it, though.
- The Foe Hunter feat, from the Player's Guide to Faerun, is a regional feat that allows gives you an extra favored enemy (even if you aren't a ranger) based on your region. You may not be able to take this, if you're not in Faerun or are in the wrong region in Faerun. If you can, though, the choices for this feat are Demons, Dragons (a whole type, pretty great), Humanoids (Goblin), Humanoids (Orc), and Yuan-ti. You should take this feat if you expect one those enemies to show up and can afford it.
- The Arcane Hunter ACF from Complete Mage allows you to choose Arcane Spellcasters as your first favored enemy. This is quite useful in the right campaign.
- The Urban Ranger ACF from Dragon #310 allows you to choose an organization to face instead of a creature type. It swaps around some class skills (that don't overlap with Mystic Ranger, mind) and spells as well, so it may end up incompatible with Mystic Ranger. Talk to your DM about this one; it's written in a way that requires DM intervention anyway, rather than being a codified ACF. Note that this is not the Rival Organization ACF from Cityscape. That one is awful and replaces Favored Enemy entirely.
There are three more things to recommend that I think deserve their own sections:
The ranger has a plethora of combat styles to choose from, but in your case, there are two important ones to decide between:
- (a) Two-Weapon Fighting: the one from the Player's Handbook. Two-Weapon Fighting, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, Greater Two-Weapon Fighting. This is, ironically, the one you take if you're not building like a normal TWFer. If you don't expect to have the Dexterity score to meet the prerequisites normally, go for this.
- (b) Strong Arm Style, Dragon #326: Power Attack, Improved Sunder, Great Cleave. We only care about the first one. You really want Favored Power Attack. If you don't expect to ever have Str 13+, then this is a good choice of combat styles.
Sword of the Arcane Order
This feat, from Champions of Valor, is a fairly popular one for rangers. However, I do not consider it quite a must-have choice, because of a couple issues it has:
- It's setting-specific (Faerun), requires you to worship Mystra. Unlike the regional feat listed above, there's no rule anywhere that provides a way around that. I think a reasonable DM would probably waive the prerequisite out of setting, but that's not something that can be assumed.
- It requires ranger level 4th, but can't be taken then. Level 6 is a level with heavy competition for feats as a ranger.
- It makes you MAD between combat stats, Wisdom, and Intelligence.
- Most importantly, it does not give you a spellbook. You have to either acquire one and pay money for each and every spell you want to be able to prepare, or have a friendly wizard on hand and make Spellcraft checks to decipher their book just to use it.
The feat is very good, but is not a must-have at least until later levels. The ranger spell list on a Mystic Ranger chassis can carry you well enough as it is.
Being a Good Guy and Exalted Feats
There are two things that warrant this being its own section. The first is the Nemesis feat, from the Book of Exalted Deeds. This amazing feat gives you the best sensory ability in the game: the ability to unconditionally pinpoint any creature of the chosen Favored Enemy within 60 feet. Walls and other barriers explicitly do not block this sense, and it means you're never going to be snuck up on by one of your Favored Enemy selections. You also deal +1d6 damage on any attack against the favored enemy you choose, but that's less important.
You can take this feat multiple times, and should take it multiple times if you can afford too. It's just that good.
Secondly, there's a prestige class in the Book of Exalted Deeds called the stalker of kharash. This PrC has some truly horrendous entry requirements: Alertness, Favored of the Companions (a conditional 1/day +1 on a roll), and Track. It also requires you to be Neutral Good. Thankfully, you have one of those three terrible feats already from being a ranger, and in the right campaign, the other two feats are well worth the abilities you get.
The stalker of kharash gets three relevant things: a 10/10 ranger spellcasting progression and the following two class features:
- Scent of Evil: At 1st level, a stalker of kharash can detect evil creatures entirely by the scent of their alignment, somehow. This is fairly useful for general detection purposes, but arguably has a hidden benefit that makes a later class feature the stalker of kharash gets redundant: the class feature says it "combines the scent ability with a detect evil spell," and the scent ability allows you to track creatures by scent. If your DM agrees with this interpretation, you can hunt down evildoers entirely by the smell of their misdeeds, making you incredibly difficult to run away from.
- Favored Enemy (Evil): At 2nd level, a stalker of kharash gets a special favored enemy: all evil creatures. This is only a +1 bonus, but is noted to stack with any other favored enemies you have, and it's still the Favored Enemy ability, so Solitary Hunting buffs it too. Once you go back to taking ranger levels, you should use your +2 to a current Favored Enemy bonus each time you get a new one to buff this, because it's likely to be the most commonly-applied modifier.
This feat and a dip into this PrC let you be a better ally of justice and scourge of evil than the paladin ever was, and even if you don't want the class, if you're a good guy, Nemesis is a must-have.
A dip into either Spirit Lion Totem Barbarian (pounce) or Cloistered Cleric (Knowledge Devotion, Travel Devotion) is a very good choice. As a TWFer, you'll be full attacking in an ideal situation, and if you're full attacking, you need the ability to engage in combat.
Otherwise, you want to go at least 8 levels into Mystic Ranger. You get your first combat style feat at 3rd level, and your second at 8th level. Your third combat style feat is mostly irrelevant whichever combat style you pick, but if you keep going, it arrives at level 12. Your first Favored Enemy is at 2nd and your second is at 8th.
This means that if you're dipping stalker of kharash for Favored Enemy (Evil), you want to enter and exit before hitting Mystic Ranger 8.
Otherwise, you should build as normal. I think that a Strength build with the Two-Weapon Fighting combat style is the ideal way to go, here. You can get Power Attack and Favored Power Attack as soon as possible, and maybe at some point pick up wraithstrike as a spell (Sword of the Arcane Order) or in a wand (UMD or cleric dip with the Magic domain). Otherwise, your feats will likely be general stuff that you need as a martial, or Nemesis. You can never have enough Nemesis. Your items will likely be generic martial items, enemy spirit pouches, and gloves of the balanced hand (Magic Item Compendium), which give you Improved Two-Weapon Fighting.
My overall recommendation is a Strength-based Barbarian 1/Ranger x, or if you're going the not!Paladin route, Barbarian 1/Ranger 4/Stalker of Kharash 2/Ranger more (possibly leaving and going to a divine casting prestige class, or just not continuing ranger after you cap out your spell levels at Ranger 8/Stalker of Kharash 2). Initiator dips after capping out your spells can also be quite good.
*However, Ranger 20 and just taking Travel Devotion (or finding some other way to move) is a perfectly valid, and fairly strong way to play.