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Firstly, this was inspired by these recent questions:

I really like the flavour of these classes, and you should definitely check them out.

However, I personally thought that there was a lot of crossover with existing half-caster classes, specifically it reminded me of the Beastmaster ranger, and furthermore I prefer the idea of just using the existing spell slot rules rather than the introduction of mana points, so I've decided to have a go at coming up with my own Dragon Rider, but as a ranger archetype instead of a whole new class.

I've used the feedback from guildsbounty's answer on the first question linked above, as well as considering the Beastmaster ranger (which is know is considered underpowered). Below I will list each of my proposed class features for my Dragon Rider archetype, but with sections of italicised text within nested quote formatting–which is my commentary on why I made certain decisions–that is not part of the class feature description.

Dragon Rider

Dragon Rider Magic. Starting at 3rd level, you learn an additional spell when you reach certain levels in this class, as shown in the Dragon Rider Spells table. The spell counts as a ranger spell for you, but it doesn't count against the number of ranger spells you know.

Dragon Rider Spells $$ \begin{array}{c|l} \textbf{Ranger Level}& \textbf{Spell} \\ \hline \text{3rd} & \textit{absorb elements} \\ \text{5th} & \textit{dragon's breath} \\ \text{9th} & \textit{fear} \\ \text{13th} & \textit{elemental bane} \\ \text{17th} & \textit{control winds} \end{array} $$

This follows after the XGtE ranger archetypes, where you get an extra spell per spell level. I've tried to pick spells that suit the theme of dragons (such as fear, to resemble a dragon's Fearsome Presence) and elements, but not specific elements (e.g. fireball), since it wouldn't fit with, say, if you'd picked a blue dragon, which has lightning breath, not fire breath. I'm also aware that absorb elements is on the ranger spell list already, but I couldn't think of anything else that was thematic.

Draconic Affinity. At 3rd level, you can speak, read, and write Draconic. Additionally, whenever you make a Charisma check when interacting with dragons, your proficiency bonus is doubled if it applies to the check.

This is essentially just the Dragon Ancestor of the Draconic Bloodline sorcerer; arguably the second part is slightly weaker because Charisma isn't often an important ability for rangers, whereas it's the most important for sorcerers. I added it largely just to fit the theme.

Draconic Bond. At 3rd level, you gain a pseudodragon companion that accompanies you on your adventures and is trained to fight alongside you. Choose a colour for your psuedodragon, the statistics of which are as follows:

(As a shorthand, rather than describing this here, I'll just refer you to my recent question; despite the accepted answer there stating that it is more powerful than a RAW pseudodragon, I feel that adding extra HP and AC and such, as per the below, just like a Beastmaster ranger's companion, means that it's probably fine as presented in that question for the purposes of this.)

Add your proficiency bonus to the pseudodragon's AC, attack rolls, and damage rolls, as well as to any skills it is proficient in. Its hit point maximum equals four times your ranger level.

The pseudodragon obeys you commands as best as it can. It takes its turn on your initiative, though it doesn't take an action unless you command it to. On your turn, you can verbally command the pseudodragon where to move (no action required by you). You can use your bonus action to verbally command it to take the Attack, Dash, Disengage, Dodge or Help action.

Like any creature, the pseudodragon can spend Hit Dice during a short rest. If you are incapacitated or absent, the pseudodragon acts on its own, focusing on protecting you and itself. It never requires your commend to use its reaction, such as when making an opportunity attack.

When travelling through your favored terrain with only the pseudodragon, you can move stealthily at a normal pace.

If your dragon companion is ever slain, the magical bond you share allows you to return it to life. With 8 hours of work and the expenditure of 25gp worth of rare herbs and fine food, you call forth your companion's spirit and use your magic to create a new body for it. You can return your dragon companion to life in this manner even if you do not possess any part of its body.

This is the "main" feature of the archetype, which is where you get your pet dragon. It's basically the Ranger's Companion feature of the Beastmaster archetype. By using the pseudodragons from my recent question (yes, this is what that was for), it has a breath weapon and damage resistance, which foreshadows the creature "growing up" via later class features.

My decision to have it attack as a bonus action was based on this Q&A, and my experience (see accepted answer), with house-ruling this for Beastmaster rangers, so I thought I'd just make that explicit here. However, if this makes this archetype too strong, given that dragons are stronger than typical Beastmaster beasts, this can be changed to using your action, same as the RAW Beastmaster.

After TheLittlePeace raised in a comment about bonding with a new dragon (see the edit history for what I've replaced), I've decided to go with how they handled companion death in the UA Revised Ranger (p. 5); basically, you can revive "your" dragon, rather than just bonding with some new dragon, which also ensure that you keep the same colour (this seems important for the later feature, Draconic Synergy, since otherwise your damage resistance would change, and people could potentially metagame by killing off their dragon to pick a new colour and effectively swap our their damage resistance; this was not what I had intended).

Draconic Growth. By 7th level, your bond with your pseudodragon accelerates its growth. It transforms into a wyrmling of the same colour, although it's statistics are as follows:

(Again, somewhat of a shorthand; basically it's the stats of a CR 3 Blue Dragon Wyrmling, but with the correct elemental for the damage resistance and breath weapon, although the damage is the same as the Blue Dragon Wyrmling, no "additional" breath weapon for metallic wyrmlings, and the correct speeds, and also the Amphibious feature (i.e. for black, green, gold, bronze wyrmlings) being absent or present depending on the colour you picked.)

The wyrmling behaves exactly as your pseudodragon did, including that you must still use your bonus action to issue commands, but you no longer add your proficiency bonus to its AC, attack rolls, damage rolls, or skill checks. Its maximum hit points are no longer based on your ranger level, but rather on the statistics given.

You have also trained this wyrmling to act as your mount, training that your bond with it has accelerated. This wyrmling counts as one size larger than you for the purposes of serving as your mount, which extends to other features checking for your mount's size, but only if you are the rider.

This is where the pseudodragon becomes a wyrmling, but with its CR fixed, and you no longer add your proficiency bonus like you did with your pseudodragon (i.e. like Beastmaster ranger's companions do). This is based on statements from guildsbounty's answer such as "At a rough ballpark based on experience, a CR 3 monster is roughly the equivalent of a 4th to 5th level character in combat." and "So, the wyrmlings usefulness has gradually been tapering off and keeping it alive has gotten hard." I'm hoping that by having this happen at level 7 instead of level 5, it should be balanced, especially by fixing the stats of the wyrmling to a set CR so that min-maxers don't all pick the CR 4 Red Dragon Wyrmling.

As for overriding the mount creature size requirements, I felt like since the archetype is called "Dragon Rider", you should be able to ride it, and I didn't want this archetype to favour Small PCs such as halflings and gnomes, so I just thought I'd let Medium PCs ride it too. Thanks also to Deeps for pointing out that other features check the mount's size, such as the Mounted Combatant feat. If this is a bit much, would reducing the wyrmling's stats down to a CR 2 companion, or even CR 1, help to make this balanced? I'm not at all attached to the Blue Dragon Wyrmling's stats and would be happy with a CR 1 or CR 2 wyrmling's stats instead.

Draconic Fury. At 11th level, your wyrmling companion can make two Bite attacks when you command it to use the Attack action. When it later gains the Multiattack action, it can use that action when you command it to use the Attack action.

This is the same as what Beastmaster rangers get at 11th level. I did also consider lifting the restriction on breath weapons, so that a Copper Dragon Wyrmling can use Slowing Breath again, for example, but then considered that this clearly favours using metallic dragons over chromatic dragons, so I decided against it.

Draconic Synergy. Also at 11th level, your bond with your dragon becomes deeper, allowing you to benefit from its affinity to its elemental. You gain resistance to the damage type that your dragon is resistance to.

This is just so that you, the ranger, get something as well, since otherwise it's just your pet that keeps getting stronger. However, if this is too strong for 11th level, this feature can be dropped entirely (this is the main reason I separated it out into its own feature).

Draconic Mastery. When you reach 15th level, your bond with your wyrmling accelerates its growth even further. It transforms into a young dragon of the same colour, although it's statistics are as follows:

(As with the wyrmling, somewhat of a shorthand; basically it's the stats of a CR 10 Young Red Dragon, but with the correct elemental for the damage resistance and breath weapon, although the damage is the same as the Young Red Dragon, no "additional" breath weapon for metallic wyrmlings, and the correct speeds, and also the Amphibious feature (i.e. for black, green, gold, bronze wyrmlings) being absent or present depending on the colour you picked; also Ice Walk if it's a Young White Dragon.)

This is where it becomes a young dragon. Again, the feedback from guildsbounty's answer saying that "based on experience, I ballpark that a CR 10 monster is at least on-par with a level 14 PC", I figured that this would be balanced at level 15, and it still consumes your bonus action for it to do anything. Also, I'm still fixing its CR so that Red and Gold aren't the optimal choices, so this CR can be lowered still if this is unbalanced but reducing the CR would balance it; I'm not at all attached to the Young Red Dragon's stats and would be happy with even a Young White Dragon's stats if that would help to balance it.

Is this ranger archetype balanced when compared to the other ranger archetypes (probably the Gloom Stalker, since I think that's considered the strongest ranger archetype; this is obviously more powerful than the Beastmaster archetype, but that's intentional)? If not, would any of the proposed changes I mention in some of the italicised text above help to balance it (i.e. it uses your action instead of your bonus action, reduce the CR of the wyrmling/young dragon, etc)?

PS: Also yes, I know that I've been overusing the word "Draconic"...

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    \$\begingroup\$ A bit tangential to the whole question but if you don't like absorb elements for the first level spell, why not chromatic orb? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Dec 18 '19 at 11:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sdjz I did consider that one, but it's quite a strong choice (based on the 50gp component cost), and I don't think rangers typically have strong offensive spell like that; also (from memory) it deals damage types outside the standard 5 "dragon elements" (although I may be mixing that up with chaos bolt). \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ looks up description Ok, so it's just thunder damage in addition to the "dragon elements" (though annoyingly, I've just noticed that absorb elements reacts to thunder damage, but not poison damage! Same for elemental bane), but still, 3d8 damage seems a bit much for a 1st level ranger spell (which is a shame, because after noticing the damage types of each spell, I'd be more inclined to pick chromatic orb now since it includes poison). I'm half tempted to add a clause to say (about absorb elements and elemental bane) that it doesn't include thunder but does include poison for you. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 12:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheLittlePeace I've actually gone ahead and updated my description; the UA Revised Ranger way of doing things bring back "your" dragon, which also keeps the colour the same. Otherwise, metagamers might try to game this mechanic by killing off their old dragon to get a new one with a "better" damage resistance (as per Draconic Synergy at level 11) for the next part of the adventure, etc. Wouldn't have considered that before now, so thanks for your comment! \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 14:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Deeps Ah, I see. The feat does talk about your mount's size, rather than yours. Ok, I think I will add your suggestion after all, since again, I don't want to favour small PCs over medium PCs. Thanks for your feedback! \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 16:00
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Compared to Gloomstalker (already one of the strongest Ranger Archetypes), this is a bit more powerful

Let's do a straight ability comparison. Since we want to give the Gloomstalker something to do with their bonus action, I'm assuming two weapon fighting with shortswords.

Ranger Spells At level 3 and 5, the Dragon Rider gets strong combat spells while the Gloomstalker gets situationally useful spells. Fear is the same on both lists. Greater Invisibility slightly outpaces elemental bane. At 17, Gloomstalker gets another very situational spell while Dragonrider gets a moderate battlefield control choice. Overall, advantage with Dragonrider.

Umbral Sight is stronger than Draconic affinity. Advantage Gloomstalker.

Dread Ambusher adds 11 damage to the first round of combat, no additional damage beyond that. The Pseudodragon companion adds d4+4 (4.5) for about 3 rounds of combat, more or less depending on whether the opponent thinks it's a worthy target. Increased AC and HP will keep it alive somewhat longer than the standard familiar. Slight advantage to Dragonrider.

At 7, Gloomstalker gets proficiency to Wisdom saves. Solid, but won't be useful in every fight. In the meantime, your dragon companion is now averaging 14 damage each round (better, if he can catch more than one opponent in the breath attack). Dragonrider comes out way ahead.

At 11, Gloomstalker gets retroactive advantage on one attack per round. Turning a miss into a hit is worth 8-9 damage at this level. Slightly more on the first turn when Dread Ambusher applies. Dragonrider's companion gets an additional bite per round, so 11 more damage per round for any round they're not breathing, which is already strong enough. You also get resistance to the dragon's element, which is a handy perk. Edge Dragonrider.

At 15, Gloomstalker gets the equivalent of an at-will Shield spell at the cost of their reaction. Great for defense, especially as a melee fighter. Dragon improves again. Now averaging 54 damage per round for the bonus action, the dragon alone is outpacing any damage output the gloomstalker could hope for, even on his Ambush round (3 attacks, with the bonus at +1d8 comes to about 40).

Cutting out Draconic Fury would go a long way towards balancing things. Requiring the ranger's full action to have the dragon companion attack would also (possibly) make it a tactical choice, rather than your 100% best use of bonus action every turn after level 7.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That sentence of your last paragraph is a good point. Of course a Dragon Rider ranger (as written) would use their bonus action to have their dragon companion attack and would never consider using it for anything else beyond 7th level. I think changing the bonus action to an action is mandatory. I mean, such a houserule works for Beastmaster because it's already a weak archetype, but mine is a strong archetype, so I agree that using the dragon should be a tactical choice and not something you can do alongside your regular attacks. Thanks for your feedback. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 16:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Whoops, I meant to say, "That last sentence of your last paragraph..." \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Incidentally, I'm reluctant to getting rid of Draconic Fury, since it mirrors what Beastmaster rangers get, but if the main problem with it is how it increases the dragon's damage output, would reducing the CR of the dragons themselves (e.g. down to a CR 2 Wyrmling for level 7-14, and down to, say, a CR 8 Young Dragon for levels 15+) help to reduce the damage output in a different way? This would be in addition to changing the bonus action into an action (as per RAW Beastmaster), which I'm going to change anyway (not change my question, but I mean my "final version" that I'll go forward with)? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 18 '19 at 16:16

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