Thursday, July 11, 2019

D&D Rangers Through the Ages (Part 1): The First D&D Ranger

About a month ago, Cam Banks began a discussion on Twitter regarding his thoughts on the Ranger class and how he didn't think that the Ranger class in 5th Edition D&D captured his concept of what the class should be. Cam and I are acquaintances, and one of my favorite game designers having designed some fantastic material for the Dragonlance setting, a Marvel role playing game, and the highly underappreciated Smallville role playing game (a game I mentioned during Dungeons and Dilemmas segment of this week's episode of Geekerati), so I thought it might be interesting to present his concept and discuss the evolution of the Ranger class over the editions. This isn't going to be a Jon Peterson-esque history filled with insider information. Rather, it's going to be a simple look at each edition's version of the Ranger class with some insights from a long-time player.

I think the discussion will be interesting for new gamers who may not be familiar with some of how the Ranger evolved over time and for older gamers who take certain things about the class for granted.

Cam's basic argument is two fold, an assertion that the Ranger is a part of an archetypical tradition and that the current version has abandoned a lot of this tradition because of the popularity of one character within the tradition.

His initial statement is about what he sees as the quintessential tradition that inspired the class.

For Cam, the prototypical Ranger is a part of a tradition that includes characters from the Lord of the Rings, the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Greek/Roman Mythology, and Fairy Tales. It's a nice list and you can see a coherent archetype within it of the lone warrior fighting from the shadows to defend the weak. In the case of Aragorn, this was done during his days as a "Ranger" prior to his appearance in the Lord of the Rings when he and others wandered the lands keeping the roads and distant communities safe from various threats. Legolas accompanied Aragorn on many of these adventures. Fans of the Tarzan books can find numerous examples of him engaging in guerilla fighting against threats that included Soviet Communists in Tarzan the Invincible. And we are all familiar with the various tales of Jack the Giant Slayer who climbs the beanstalk and battles...GIANTS...something that will be seen as a big influence in a moment, but first let's look at the second part of his argument.
In the second part, Cam focuses on how the character of Drizzt Do'Urden has influenced the Ranger class in more recent editions of D&D. Cam's earlier mention of Aragorn's lack of animal companion is another example of Do'Urden's influence. Cam is arguing here that he believes an iconic character from D&D fiction, has influenced how designers implemented the class in future editions. I think Cam is on to something here. Robert Salvatore's character of Drizzt has an animal companion and he fights with dual scimitars. Prior to his introduction in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, most Rangers were using weapons that were more effective against "Large" creatures and none had animal companions. So it seems at first glance that Salvatore's iconic Ranger is now "the" iconic Ranger.

What's interesting about this development is that Salvatore has always written the character of Drizzt in a way that conformed to the rules of the edition being used at the time the individual volume was being written. Drizzt has an animal companion because he's was in possession of a Figurine of Wondrous Power and his dual wielding of scimitars was because all Drow had that ability in 1st edition D&D. If you want a great example of how Drizzt was a quintessential 1st Edition Ranger in the Icewind Dale trilogy, I recommend you check out the scene where Drizzt and Wulfgar are fighting giants. Drizzt goes completely berserk. Why? Is there some deep back story where giants killed his family? C'mon, Drizzt would be celebrating if giants killed his family. No. Rangers got bonuses to damage against giants and giant kin in 1st edition. You can also see Drizzt follow the "dual class" rules of 1st/2nd edition when he formally becomes a Ranger and leaves his past as a Fighter behind. He literally becomes worse at fighting until he "gains enough levels" to surpass his former level as a fighter. Never mind that dual class rules were supposedly only usable by humans, Drizzt follows them in the Dark Elf Trilogy. I'm actually grateful that Salvatore hews so close to the rules, even as he takes liberties, because it helps readers who become players transition more easily. They don't encounter any moments of disappointment as they try to adapt the character to the rules. The character was written with the rules in mind.

Sorry for the brief digression there, but I think it was an important side conversation. Cam's point isn't that Salvatore adheres to the rules, rather that the rules have come to reflect Salvatore's vision. Now Rangers are viewed as having animal companions and dual wielding BECAUSE that's what Drizzt does. The class has transitioned from an archetype based on many characters, an archetype that then influenced Salvatore's writing of the character Drizzt, to a class influenced by a particular expression unique to D&D. This has actually happened with a lot of D&D. The rules were originally created to emulate the stories Gygax and Arneson read as kids, many of which are referenced in the famous Appendix N. Now D&D rules are more geared at emulating the stories told in D&D novels, which are their own brand of fantasy fiction. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as D&D novels cover a wide variety of milieu, but it can be constraining if there is too much Forgotten Realms and not enough Eberron, Dragonlance, Mystara, Dark Sun, Birthright, Greyhawk, and Appendix N in the mix. Is D&D a roleplaying game of the fantasy genre, or is it a roleplaying game of the D&D fantasy genre? That's a question for another time, but one worth considering.


Okay, so I've argued that Salvatore's initial Ranger was influenced by the older Ranger class and that subsequent Ranger classes are based on Salvatore's Ranger as it developed through stories, but where's the evidence? After all, Nazir was pretty badass in the Robin of Sherwood series. Maybe Drizzt didn't shape things to come. The only way to know is to see the development of the class, which is the entire reason for this series of posts in the first place. So let's take a look at the initial Ranger class.

The Ranger first appeared in The Strategic Review vol. 1 no. 2 newsletter published by TSR in 1975. Wizards of the Coast hasn't reprinted all the early newsletters yet, so unless you own the Dragon Magazine Archive like me, you're stuck with less legal means of finding the information.
<![endif]-->The Ranger was created by Joe Fischer, who was a player in Gary Gygax's D&D game group and was initially designed as a "sub-class" of Fighting Men. Remember in Original D&D, there were Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. Thieves were created by California gamer Gary Switzer, the late owner of the excellent Aero Games (which is still open).  The formal introduction of Thieves to D&D came in the Greyhawk Supplement, which also introduced the concept of "sub-class" with the / Paladin the first sub class of Fighting Men.

Fischer introduces the Ranger in the following way:
Rangers are a sub-class of Fighting Men, similar in many ways to the new sub-class Paladins, for they must always remain Lawful or lose all the benefits they gained (except, of course, experience as a fighter).

Note that Fischer's Ranger is a specifically heroic class, with a required alignment of "Lawful," and that the character loses abilities if it acts out of alignment. While the alignment rules of modern D&D are flexible guidelines, the rules in earlier editions of D&D were very inspired by Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, and Henry Kuttner. In this fictional tradition, the forces of law and chaos have physical manifestations and are real things not just ethical constructs. One might argue that Tolkien's Ring Cycle fits with Morgoth and Sauron representing Chaos, but that would be an interpretation. Moorcock, Anderson, and Kuttner expressly state that Chaos is a living and tangible thing. D&D's early rules reflected a similar mythopoetic setting.

So other than being champions of "Law," what kinds of people where Rangers?

Like Fighting Men they had Strength as their "Prime Requisite," but they also required Intelligence and Wisdom scores of at least 12 and a Constitution of at least 15. These are pretty strict requirements as one only has a 9.26% of rolling a 15 or higher on a given statistic (assuming 3d6 in order as was the old school way). Players would want a high Strength, so the requirements mean that only about 1% of rolled up characters would qualify. This was one of the ways that older D&D balanced classes for play. The abilities of a class might be "unbalanced" or OP compared to other classes, but the rarity of rolling them up was designed as a counterpoint. Of course, Rangers are really cool, so the fact that I just "happened" to roll a 15, 16, 16, and 18 is totally believable. What's key here is that in earlier editions, you don't choose to be a Ranger so much as being a Ranger is something that chooses you.

Players of D&D know that each class has a certain number of hit points they gain each level. This was one of the ways that the early ranger was set apart from other Fighting Men. Most Fighting Men started with one hit dice (either 1d6 or 1d8 depending on which version of the combat rules you were using), the Ranger started with two. Right away, they are tougher but that doesn't tell us anything about their origin. The "level names" however do. Early editions of D&D had descriptive names for each level of character, that way a player could say "I'm a Ranger Scout" instead of "I'm a 3rd Level Ranger." I actually like the old system. It lessens the sense of "gaming" and increases the narrative element of play. The first few levels of Ranger are: Runner, STRIDER, Scout, Guide, Pathfinder...

Did you see the STRIDER? So yeah, it's totally Aragorn. Cam's on the money here. Additionally, as the character hits "name level," they are able to cast spells. Is case, starting at 8th level a Ranger gets access to one 1st Level Cleric spell. At 9th Level, they are able to cast 1st Level Magic-User spells. Eventually being able to cast spells of up to the 3rd Level in each class at 13th Level.
For the record, at 13th Level a Ranger knows Three 1st Level, Two 2nd Level, and 1 Third Level spell from each of the Cleric and Magic User Spell Lists. That's pretty OP, but they require A LOT of experience to get there.

In order to "pay" for these benefits, as if the restrictions on scores weren't enough (they weren't because "rollling"), Rangers had several restrictions. All of which fit within Cam's description of his prototypical Ranger. Here's an incomplete list:

  • They may own only that which they can cary with them, and excess treasure or goods must be donated to a charitable cause.
Let's just say that if you're using encumbrance rules, which players weren't but DMs were, this is a pretty big restriction.

  • They may not hire any men-at-arms or other servants or aides of any kind whatsoever.
A strict DM would have this apply to the whole party. Let's just say that a lot of player groups had expendable henchmen and that Rangers couldn't have them.

  • Only two of the class may operate together.
Legolas and Aragorn are okay. Ranger Squad Six isn't. Not that you could have honestly rolled those stats in the first place

So much for the restrictions, all of which fit the loner type Cam describes though I'm wondering where Tarzan put all his spells. Clearly Tarzan's spells are things like Comprehend Languages...yep, that's it. Rangers also had additional bonuses, beyond the additional hit points and spell casting

They didn't receive Prime Requisite experience bonuses, instead they gained "4 experience points for every 3 earned" at low levels. Holy cow! That's a 33% experience bonus! Unheard of. Why bother listing the high experience requirements, when they get a 33% bonus? Thankfully, they lose this at the same time they gain spells.

They also had the ability to track creatures outdoors and in dungeons and were dificult to surprise.

Here's the big one, one that partially explains why Drizzt goes berserk in the Icewind Dale trilogy.

  • All Rangers gain a special advantage when fighting against monster of the Giant Class (Kobolds -- Giants). For each level they have gained they add +1 to their damage die against these creatures, so a 1st Level Ranger adds +1, a 2nd Level +2, and so on.
Good Grief! Sorry Mr. Kobold. You may only be 3 feet tall and have 1 to 3 hit points, but our Runner gets +2 damage against you for being a "Giant" and he REALLY hates Giants.

They can't acquire henchmen, but at 9th level they gain "Followers" that can include Werebears, Stone Giants, and Gold Dragons. How's that for an animal companion? The Werebear I get. Beorn in The Hobbit is a Werebear and Bard is clearly a Ranger, but the Gold Dragon?

What you see here is a class that is influenced by the fiction of Tolkien (Aragorn has some small access to magic) and Tarzan (he has a large group of loyal henchmen and we'll say that a Jad-bal-ja the lion is kind of like a Werebear), and Jack. Did you see how much they hate Giants? That's totally Jack. There's no guarantee of an animal companion, but it's a possibility. It's also one determined at random and not chosen.

The class very much fits within the scope of Cam's description, but you can still see hints of the modern Ranger. It also makes interesting reading for the Drizzt series, though his character is based on the AD&D Ranger and you'll have to wait for the next post to see how the class changes. Notice that there are no armor restrictions, no dual wielding, just hatred of Giants which eventually became "favored enemy."

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