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It seems that both the community and Wizards of the Coast are largely in agreement that the PHB Ranger class is underpowered compared to the other classes.

What exactly makes it underpowered compared to other classes?

More specifically, how does the 2019 UA class feature variant Ranger improve on the PHB Ranger's weaknesses?

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The main issues with the Ranger are due to the weakness of the first two class features, Favored Enemy and Natural Explorer. Here's the rules text (from page 91 of the Player's Handbook and the Basic Rules):

Favored Enemy

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

Choose a type of favored enemy: aberrations, beasts, celestials, constructs, dragons, elementals, fey, fiends, giants, monstrosities, oozes, plants, or undead. Alternatively, you can select two races of humanoid (such as gnolls and orcs) as favored enemies.

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

When you gain this feature, you also learn one language of your choice that is spoken by your favored enemies, if they speak one at all.

You choose one additional favored enemy, as well as an associated language, at 6th and 14th level. As you gain levels, your choices should reflect the types of monsters you have encountered on your adventures.


Natural Explorer

You are particularly familiar with one type of natural environment and are adept at traveling and surviving in such regions. Choose one type of favored terrain: arctic, coast, desert, forest, grassland, mountain, swamp, or the Underdark. When you make an Intelligence or Wisdom check related to your favored terrain, your proficiency bonus is doubled if you are using a skill that you’re proficient in.

While traveling for an hour or more in your favored terrain, you gain the following benefits:

  • Difficult terrain doesn’t slow your group’s travel.
  • Your group can’t become lost except by magical means.
  • Even when you are engaged in another activity while traveling (such as foraging, navigating, or tracking), you remain alert to danger.
  • If you are traveling alone, you can move stealthily at a normal pace.
  • When you forage, you find twice as much food as you normally would.
  • While tracking other creatures, you also learn their exact number, their sizes, and how long ago they passed through the area.

You choose additional favored terrain types at 6th and 10th level.

The first issue with those two features is that neither one does anything in combat. That's a little bit problematic when combat is one of the three pillars of adventure, and probably the most universal one. Some campaigns will not have too much social stuff, others skip over most details of exploration. But hardly any D&D game will skip combat. Every other class gets features at first level that function at some level for combat. Sure, it might be possible for a Ranger's abilities to give their party an in-combat advantage by setting them up to ambush their foes or something, but that relies upon a lot of player cleverness or DM assistance, and doesn't flow automatically from the abilities themselves.

The second issue is that the utility of Favored Enemy and Natural Explorer outside of combat is highly polarized. When they're not useful (perhaps because they're not in their favored terrain nor confronted by their favored enemy), they do nothing at all. This is very common if the Ranger's player and the DM haven't coordinated at the start of the campaign. But even when they are useful there can be problems. If they are useful at all, they're very useful. Maybe too useful, to the extent that they remove all of the challenge of one part of the game.

Because of this, a group facing those challenges who has an appropriately specialized Ranger may just end up skipping over them, especially after the first few times the Ranger helps them breeze through the challenge. "Oh, the Ranger can effortlessly guide us through the 'deadly' forest because that's his favored terrain, so lets not waste our time counting rations and making survival checks and just jump ahead to when we reach the dungeon in a couple days." Or the DM might think: "Hmm, what monsters should have kidnapped the blacksmith's daughter? Orcs are the Ranger's favored enemy, which would make tracking them trivially easy, so I'll go with goblins." A Ranger may thus never get a chance to shine at their specialty because they're just too good at it.

There are some further issues with the Ranger subclasses in the PHB, that are mostly improved upon in other more recent subclasses. One major problem is that the Beastmaster's animal companion is too squishy to survive long in combat against tougher monsters and losing it, even temporarily, them makes the subclass weaker and breaks its theme (it's hard to be a Beastmaster when you don't have a beast to be master of).

Unsurprisingly, these are among the features that the Class Feature Variants document from Unearthed Arcana offers alternatives to. It offers replacements for both of the PHB Ranger's starting features, and also some buffs for the Beastmaster. There are also more options to improve Ranger spellcasting, including giving more options for spell selection, and offering an alternative third level class feature that lets a ranger know and cast certain utility spells without using spell slots or their limited spell selections.

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WOTC acknowledged in the preface of Unearthed Arcana: Revised Ranger that the Ranger Archetype beast master has been unpopular to play as it is underpowered.

Many players want to play rangers, but few were happy with the class, which held its place at the bottom of class power rankings by a significant margin. The class’s individual features also filled the top-tenlist of lowest-rated individual character features. UA Revised Ranger

They first attempted to rectify the issue with specific changes to the animal companion in the Revised Ranger archetype Beast Conclave allowing the companion to attack on its own among other changes.

The companion may take its own initiative and turn controlled by the player. The companion also gains the following features in addition to its own attack: at level 5, it may attack as a reaction to your attack; at level 11, it may attack multiple enemies during its attack on its own turn.

Coordinated Attack Beginning at 5th level, you and your animal companion form a more potent fighting team. When you use the Attack action on your turn, if your companion can see you, it can use its reaction to make a melee attack.

Storm of Claws and Fangs At 11th level, your companion can use its action to make a melee attack against each creature of its choice within 5 feet of it, with a separate attack roll for each target. Keep in mind that the base Revised Ranger class does not get an extra attack at level 5.

With the later release of a new unearthed arcana, UA Class Variants revised ranger, it improves again on the original PHB ranger archetype. The appearance of these new options inform us of what may have been undesirable in the original Ranger.

In the newest Ranger, hunters mark is a class feature rather than requiring a spell slot. Additional spells are provided as class features as well (to replace Primeval Awareness); Speak with Animals, Detect Magic, Beast Sense etc.

Favored Foe 1st-level ranger feature (replaces Favored Enemy) You can call on your bond with nature to mark a creature as your favored enemy for a time: you know the hunter’s mark spell, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for it. You can use it a certain number of times without expending a spell slot...

This indicates that the original PHB Ranger was underpowered in spell casting compared to other classes. Ranger as a half caster with limited spell slots was hampered, utility spells like Speak with Animals were not being selected in favour of more powerful spells like Hunters Mark.

New beasts were added, "Beast of the Earth" and "Beast of the Air" which are significant improvements over many individual beasts of challenge 1/4 or lower. These new options allow a Ranger to use one stat block to represent any number of beast appearances, providing more versatility for the player.

You may command the beast to attack as a bonus action, rather than only as a command during the rangers attack action.

Ready Companion. As a bonus action, you can command the beast to make its maul attack or to Hide.

They are also more robust, the Ranger may revive a beast of the air/earth at the end of combat if they perish, whereas with other beasts the Ranger will have to spend 8 hours magically bonding to a new animal.

Primal Rebirth. If the beast has died within the last hour, you can use your action to touch it and expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher. The beast returns to life after 1 minute with all its hit points restored.

In all the revisions some things have remained the same with the Ranger class, the progression tables have remained unchanged indicating that this aspect was not in contention, as well the extra attack and fighting style features were unchanged.

It appears dissatisfaction in the class was related to the survivability of the beast companion, its hampered attack options, the number of available spells per day and specific class features; favoured enemy, primeval awareness and natural explorer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ranger badly needs better/more competitive options (sub-classes, etc) overall. The "Gloom Stalker" is currently the most competitive Ranger option. Druid got spore circle, clerics (who weren't hurting) got order in GGR. Lets hope for more monk/ranger options soon \$\endgroup\$ – Jeffrey Witty Feb 24 at 6:44
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Why? Can be summed up as: "One decent build option, in most players opinions".

MAIN POINT: In PHB the "Hunter" was the only mechanically competitive build option, and it paled at its desired focus(es) behind: Fighters specializing in ranged combat, Clerics & Druids in spell casting/healing.

They didnt have a place where they where "king of the hill" (unless it was HIGHLY SITUATIONAL, like "hoard breaker"), note this is my, and many others players, opinion only.

Q: "More specifically, how does the 2019 UA class feature variant Ranger improve on the PHB Ranger's weaknesses?"

imho, A: It received, various edits/improvements that ,in some players opinons, un-crippled some ranger build types, "Beast-master" level 5 & 11 ability unlocks "improvements" has often been mentioned to this effect.

To be clearer:

Beast Master's beast was "limited" by the rules for mounts in combat (for small BM's riding their buddy) and/or by the text describing their "action economy" in PHB (see below). When acting along side you it was considered trained but "non-intelligent", the point here is that it truly limited the "action economy" of you & your beast companion in combat (as it mostly would "use" your action, AND only giant badger/cave badger & Velociraptor have "multi attack" out of your OPTIONS, with Velociraptor, Giant Poisonous Snake, and/or Flying Snake BIS), example: PHB pg 93

The beast obeys your 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 beast where to move (no action required by you). You can use your action to verbally command it to take the Attack, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, or Help action. Once you have the Extra Attack feature, you can make one weapon attack yourself when you command the beast to take the Attack action.

This was a "defining" feature of BM, and these limits hindered it to the point of "crippling" it

The "Hunter" was less limited (imho), but still somewhat sub-par in its "focus" (either single target DPR or dealing with many "clustered" targets for DPR across many foes)

Compared to other class options:

The Ranger BM was largely "dwarfed" (lol) by Moon Circle druid with much better "beast" like attacks options & more access to spell casting ability.

The Hunter on the other hand was "dwarfed" by a Fighter focusing on archery: with their greater number of attacks per round & more feats, over their level gains (and their lack of need for high wisdom). the Fighter could easily outpace the hunter, replacing many of their class features with feats (like sharpshooter and/or crossbow expert)

I hope that helps detail my answer more.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you add some depth to this answer? It doesn't really give much information apart from "players seem to think so", which is basically a restatement of the question. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 24 at 7:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kviiri better now? \$\endgroup\$ – Jeffrey Witty Feb 24 at 8:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not really, I'm still seeing mainly assertions but no analysis. Why was Hunter the only mechanically competitive build option? Why was it worse than Fighters in ranged combat? How did the 2019 UA improve the ranger? Etc... as an unrelated note, I would advise to cut back on the excessive use of formatting in the post. When everything is emphasized, nothing is. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 24 at 9:41

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