Rangers have a number of bonuses against their Favored Enemy, which include Attack bonuses. The ranger in the game I am DMing, for example, has chosen Aberrations.

In combat, the party is attacked by some enemies. I know the type of enemy (they're all Aberrations), but the PCs don't (they have never encountered this particular type). When the Ranger rolls his dice, should I:

  1. Inform the player that it's an aberration and therefore he has bonuses?
  2. Wait for the PC to find on his own it's an Aberration?
  3. Keep it secret and add the bonuses silently behind the DM screen?
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In my games, a Ranger would be presumed to recognize the type of a creature who was their Favored Enemy, and I would inform them immediately of the creature type, and of their bonuses.

The only exception would be if there was a scenario where, due to some kind of disguise, or some kind of enchantment/transmutation magic, the aberration very clearly looked like something which was not an aberration. In that scenario, it would depend on particular scenario variables (does the Ranger know that aberrations might disguise themselves in this manner?), but otherwise would probably obey the same ruling.

My general interpretation of Favored Enemy is that it represents a Ranger's specific knowledge of how an enemy fights, and thus how to gain an edge against them. And with that experience/knowledge comes an intuition in identifying them. Conversely, if the Ranger doesn't know that the aberration is, in fact, an aberration—a scenario which, in my games, could occur in non-general situations—then they're not going to make the same assumptions they might otherwise make when dealing with aberrations, thus losing the bonuses.

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    If you ruled that the favored enemy was unrecognizable due to disguise, would the Ranger still receive bonuses against it? – Nat May 24 at 2:19
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    @Nat not until they figured it out. I interpret favored enemy as being able to know how someone fights, and thus how to gain an edge over them. – Xirema May 24 at 2:21
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    I would say each round can be a silent check on the DM to set if the ranger can recognize the creature as they fight. It can be an opposed test even, seeing how well the creature hide its true nature. – Nelson May 24 at 3:33
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    This fits my view of the favored enemy generally as a mundane (i.e. non-magical) bonus related to the ranger's obsession with that enemy type. It seems that if the ranger didn't realize that the enemy was that type, the bonuses wouldn't apply. – Fadecomic May 24 at 14:26

Choose based on how you generally provide in-game knowledge to the characters/players

Your choice has to be based on how you generally interact with your players in terms of revealing in-universe information.

  1. Are the players a tabula rasa upon chargen, who know nothing outside of the PHB unless they actively discover it in game?

  2. Do the players previous lives, professions, backgrounds, and proficiencies mean that they have significant in-universe knowledge in a few particular areas?

    How your run that sort of thing at your table will inform how you treat this, if you are trying to be consistent as a DM. While I prefer the second approach, the first approach is not uncommon.

Option 1: The DM applies a passive check (Nature/Religion/Arcana) as appropriate to the NPC/Monster at hand.

  1. Inform the player that it's an aberration and therefore he has bonuses?

    What DC would you apply usually for a character to recognize a creature that had not seen before? (Any PC). 15? 20? 10? Compare that DC to the ranger's passive score and see if he recognizes it (adding 5 to his passive score in this case)

    You have advantage on Wisdom (Survival) checks to track your favored enemies, as well as on Intelligence checks to recall information about them. (PHB; Ranger)

    Passive Checks

    ... how to determine a character’s total for passive check:

    10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. (PHB; passive checks)

    For that matter, you can assess any of your PC's being able to recognize these creatures with a passive check determined by you. If their score is high enough, you simply tell whomever recognized the creature what they see. (The Ranger, having the +5 for advantage, is most likely to succeed with a favored enemy)

Option 2: Make the Player ask you

  1. Wait for the PC to find on his own it's an Aberration?

    What this boils down to is that you (the DM) wait for a prompt from the player. If the player asks if he recognizes the aberration, you can either force an active check (which often takes an action) or you can rule on a passive check as above if the decision to engage is more pressing. Let the player choose to spend the action or not, if the active check is how you usually reveal such information.

    This approach fits if you generally use a scheme for providing in-universe information that is based on the players prompting you to reveal information.

Option 3: Keep it fair using DM discretion

  1. Keep it secret and add the bonuses silently behind the DM screen?

    If the passive checks fails, or if active checks fail, and if (because of a lack of a prompt) the knowledge is not current, this option is still fair to the player in terms of getting to use the class feature. It may not fit very well with a general at table approach that would use option 2, though I'd ask "why do rangers have this class feature if it is not going to be useful?" Your DM style is holds the answer to this. This approach is not consistent with the tabula rasa at chargen philosophy.

Notes

While I'd recommend option 1 as a default for a "we just ran into these monsters, fight's on!" type of encounters, all of the above depends upon what your normal method is for revealing in-universe information to the characters.

There are a variety of approaches to this, so a "one size fits all answer" is not be suitable here

  1. . If you feel that all monsters, on the first encounter, are by default unknown until knowledge is established "in-game" by a mechanic, then option three won't fit your table's style and option 2 will be what you tend to do.
  2. I'd still recommend using more passive checks, however, as they are an intended game mechanic.

  3. What kind of encounter is this?

    If your PCs see these creatures, but no "roll for initiative" has happened yet, there is time for any of them to first apply a skill check to see if they can figure out what the creatures are. The Ranger's advantage will them succeed more often for favored enemies, and the application of other bonuses will be obvious. (Your question becomes moot in that case).

I'd propose a three tiered approach to determining how to make this work:

1. Has the character encountered this particular creature pre-game?

This is where detailed back stories are great. How did they develop this favored enemy?

  • If through study, would this creature have been described in enough detail for the character to recognize them?

    Diedre's mother was a dragon hunter. Her grandmother was a dragon hunter. Her great grandmother was a dragon hunter. She was honestly sick of it. So when, at 16, she found an abandoned warlock's hut with a small library on Mind Flayers, Beholders and their subordinates, she decided THIS would be her quarry. No more lizard bothering.

  • If through direct experience, did they experience this particular kind?

    When Sindar was just six years old, his uncle accidentally opened a portal from the abyss into his study. His family spent the next month beating them back, and when the portal was finally closed again, his uncle (or his body) was nowhere to be found.

If the creature isn't explicitly identified in the back story, you could make a judgement on how rare the creature is and how much exposure the character had, or you could move on to:

2. Does a passive check reveal their identity?

Give the creature an identifying DC based on how rare they are, and then apply a passive check (10 + character's relevant modifier) with advantage (+5) because of Favored Enemy. Typically a History check, though you could use your discretion to determine what would be most appropriate in a specific situation.

Sindar, above, might get a perception check to see if he recognizes the visual from the encounter in his childhood, for instance.

If they fail the passive check, could they get a last shot at recognising the creature? Well...

3. Does the player ask for an active check?

If after your description the player goes "Oooh, black and slimy, are they? Do I recognise them because of *checks character sheet* Favored Enemy?" You could choose to give them a last shot. Have the character roll an active check, just like the passive one before, except instead of adding 5 for advantage, roll twice and take the higher result.

What if they just don't recognize them? Can I still give them the bonuses?

If after that they still don't know what it is, the choice of whether to secretly grant them their bonuses depends on how you interpret how Favored Enemy gives them these bonuses.

  • If it's the fact that a greater interest has, over time, granted greater insight into their strengths, weaknesses and tactics (which is how I'd interpret it) it doesn't really make sense to grant these benefits unknowingly. Though you may prompt the player to make an active check part-way through a battle based on the idea that they may recognize them by their strengths and/or tactics...

  • If it's some mystical affinity they have developed through their attunedness to quarry they prefer to hunt, then they may have those bonuses anyway, and respond intuitively to their enemy's strengths and weaknesses.

  • Have you applied this approach as a DM/experienced it as a player? What's your experience with it? – V2Blast May 28 at 2:36
  • I must admit I built this answer from my own internal reasoning and bookish research. I've never played nor DMd for a ranger. The source of my reasoning is taking what I can find of the rules regarding the matter, and rationalizing that against situations that aren't explicitly covered. – Isaac Reefman May 28 at 3:11

I would say that they should be told they are interacting with their favored enemy unless the enemy is disguised in any way. (In which case they should get a hidden bonus to see through the disguise, maybe with passive perception or you can roll for them)

Favored Enemy Beginning at 1st level, you have significant experience studying, tracking, hunting, and even talking to a certain type of enemy.

In my opinion, it doesn't make sense to force the player to figure it out because they don't have all the information their character does. Their character has spent presumably months or years studying their favored enemies while the player most likely just picked it a few weeks ago.

Even if they haven't encountered that specific enemy type before if its a favored enemy it should share enough characteristics that the character should recognize it (even if the player doesn't) otherwise they wouldn't get a bonus in the first place.

As the DM you can rule how you want but I would make sure the players know ahead of time that they have to figure out that information for themselves. This would give them time to study to try to gain some of the information their character would know. Could be interesting but you should be upfront about it, and you would also have to make sure you provide enough description of each enemy that they can figure it out.

My experience as a player is my DM would let us know what type of enemy we were facing if it was common enough, like a goblin. He might just describe it if its a bit more uncommon(or a homebrew), but if it was a favored enemy of a ranger he would let them know as long as he remembered. I think this works best for our playstyle. Most of my group aren't extremely experienced players and we're not the best at role playing yet.

As I said it could be interesting to have the player figure it out but I would think it should be reserved for more experienced players and they should know ahead of time.

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