How Beast Master Rangers Could Have a Major Impact on the Game
We're just a couple of days out from an Unearthed Arcana release. Normally, I would be scrabbling to get a review (or three) done at this point to review a bunch of new subclass features and comment on whether or not they're likely to impact on how we might play a specific class moving forward in our favourite tabletop RPG if they make it to print relatively unchanged.
However, this particular UA caught me somewhat amidships, and judging by the content I've seen so far I'm not the only one. We've just come off the back of a string of UA subclass releases, which looked as if they were going to complete a cycle of additions to all of the basic classes. As of right now, we're still missing Fighter, Rogue and Wizard from the Unearthed Arcana 2020 release. There's nothing to say Wizards of the Coast were definitely planning to release thirteen new subclasses, and we did just get Echo Knight, Chronurgist and Graviturgist in Explorer's Guide to Wildemount. Still, the fact we're staring down a bunch of brand new spells and some magical tattoos is a little bit of a curve ball, even if it's one that isn't particularly unpleasant.
I'll be taking a look at the spells and tattoos at some stage in their own article, but there is something that sprang to mind while I read this Unearthed Arcana release that I feel is worthy of an article. (Yes, a 12 page UA with so many individual things to talk about is also going to take a while to review, but this is now the second time this has cropped up!) That 'something' is a recent shift of attention onto player companions, and why I believe it's happening.
“Rangers are Bad”
There's a prevailing opinion that the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the best one we've seen, and this is backed up by numbers – D&D is verging on mainstream, and has been made ridiculously popular by streams such as Critical Role, with the spotlight widening of late to include Disney films about it, and Marvel cast members (Disney will be buying D&D next, you watch), film stars and talk show hosts who play it. Newer players to the game who have ridden in on this wave of popularity will find amusing stereotypes bandied about by existing players. Fighters are for basics. Rogues are edge lords. Bards are sexually hyperactive. And Rangers are shit.
The fact that Laura Bailey's character, Vex'ahlia, in Critical Role season 1 was able to hold her own in fights seems to have gone under the radar in that regard, or have been discredited due to the fact that she took some levels in Rogue to benefit from the Sneak Attack feature. Instead, it's much easier to focus on the fact that she also chose what is regarded as the worst subclass for Ranger, the Beast Master. Her companion was often left on the sidelines – but this was because she was extremely protective of him and terrified of him dying in combat, seeming to almost see him with the same eyes as she would see a real life pet.
It probably didn't help that Sam Riegel took that ball and ran with it pretty hard, effectively launching a “Kill Trinket” campaign of jokes to poke fun at her. But it did highlight one thing – Beast Master Ranger can be a difficult thing to get to grips with, and when your fragile pet is just geared up to deal less damage than the rest of the party... that feels bad.
Part of the problem here is expectation. What should a companion be able to do, especially with a subclass that relies on having it as its central feature?
As a quick summary rather than an in-depth review, here's what you can expect from a Beast Master's companion:
- A CR 1/4 Beast
- Must be healed (and resurrected if necessary) in the same way as you would expect for a standard party member
- Attacks only once per turn up to level 11 and twice thereafter
- Your proficiency bonus applies to its attack rolls, skill proficiencies and save proficiencies (as well as what you can work out to be its own). You also add your proficiency bonus to its AC
- It's maximum HP is either what you see in its stat block or four times your ranger level (so the cap is 80HP)
The issues here are that if you compare a Ranger companion to a Paladin, or to a Wizard casting Fireball, or to a Rogue using Sneak Attack, its damage is miserable. Also, 80HP at Level 20 might not stand up to a Dragon's Breath Weapon attack, or much abuse from pretty much anything.
But why is that an issue?
Let's take a look at this through the eyes of the new players we just mentioned. There are plenty of games out there where you can have a pet, and plenty of books exist where lead characters have one (Drizzt Do'Urden, for example). There are definitely instances out there of characters being able to sit behind a ferocious animal that can tank bosses or deal heinous amounts of damage. The general feeling is that Beast Mastery just doesn't deliver, especially when coupled with the Ranger shell, which prioritizes the Exploration pillar of the game more than the combat side of things with quite a number of its features.
That said – having, say, a wolf companion at level 20 does give you an AC19 beastie with 80HP, 2 attacks at +10 to hit which deal 2d4+8 damage each. There is also a very slim chance either of those attacks could knock your enemy prone, depending on what it is, and you would get to make one weapon attack yourself too, so it's not strictly awful...
One thing that's worth bearing in mind is that quite a few of the guides that you'll read that damn the Beast Master don't tend to focus much on social interaction or exploration. Exploration, in particular, seems to take a back seat. Mostly, you'll be encouraged to think about how to maximise your primary abilities, and then suggestions will be made on what to focus on to make yourself potent in combat first, and at other things second.
Why? Because you are more likely to die in combat than you are outside of it for one. Yes, it's possible to end up with your head on the chopping block if you fail to persuade the Monarch that you didn't take their crown jewels, and it's also possible to not see a ravine and fall 200 feet to your death. Facing off against a slavering Tarrasque, though, is much more likely to see you meeting a sudden and squishy end. Seen through that lens, some of the choices of CR 1/4 beasts that you could have as your companion are just flat out abysmal. A Raven that can only even use Help if you waste your full action on it at early levels? A Wizard can do better with a Find Familiar spell, and his Raven comes back whenever he re-casts. However, when you consider that a Beast Master's Raven gets to add its master's proficiency bonus to its Mimic ability, the game begins to change slightly – and yes, you might just have a Bard with the ability to fill that slot, this is just one example.
It's worth considering also that there is a fair amount of value to this subclass if you choose to play a race that is small rather than medium. Suddenly, your augmented Wolf isn't just a pet, it's a mount, and your mobility has just increased by quite a lot.
If you look at the Beast Master Ranger through this filter, it's easier to start seeing that it was maybe intended to be something a little different than a flat out combat class, and it's had that expectation imprinted on it. Maybe your companion is supposed to act a little like a familiar, going scouting for you, or granting you non-combat perks to begin with until it finds its feet. Then, at level 20, it will happily wreck the face of a rank and file peon, even if it needs to go hide if a super big-bad makes an appearance.
But then that also begs the question, why shouldn't you be able to have a companion that can hold its own in combat, or that can be easily brought back if it dies?
Unearthed Arcana Companions
The answer to the above question is, you should be able to have those things. Not only that, but you should be able to have other cool-looking companions aside from being restricted to just beasts.
The first potential fix for the situation came with the Class Feature Variants release, which gave Rangers the chance to befriend a “primal beast”. With that, they gained the ability to choose a form for it other than the ones presented at CR 1/4, an option for a Beast of the Air or a Beast of the Land, the chance to resurrect it with a level 1 spell slot if the worst happened, and hit points into triple figures. Exciting stuff! All of that was rounded off with a chunky damage boost.
With that much of a boost, Beast Master Ranger looked like it had a shot at getting much better. Having a tougher pet and the chance to choose its form from a greater list of options was just the shot in the arm that the unpopular subclass needed - until this week's Unearthed Arcana, which blew the options wide open.
With the new creature feature spells, you get to summon your very own buddy with a choice of type depending on the class you rolled. Each one of them uses a 3rd, 4th or 5th level spell slot, depending on the type of creature that gets summoned. Some of them come with the chance to choose a subtype of creature (for example if Aberration is your cup of tea, you could have a Beholderkin, a Star Spawn or a Slaadi). The damage they can deal and that they can take varies depending on the level of spell slot that you used to rope them into the fight, and they are available to many more classes than just the Ranger (in fact of all the spellcasting classes, only the Artificer wasn't invited to this particular party).
The only kick in the pants (sting in the tail might have been more appropriate for a creature article in hindsight) is that Rangers are not full casters, so the highest level of spell slot they can use is 5. This puts their magically conjured beast somewhere just under 60 hit points, even at level 20 – although it does mean that the spell can be re-cast to bring the companion back to life if it dies or if your concentration gets broken, which is easier than starting all over again with the taming process.
Of course, if you really want to compensate for the PHB rules, and you're playing in an environment where Unearthed Arcana is allowed, you can always just use the Class Feature Variants and the new spells from the latest article to have a Beast Master with 2 companions...
Tin Foil Hat
We can't really avoid touching on what many people have been talking about with each new UA release lately, which is... what exactly is in the pipeline? There's been speculation about 5.5e, and given that this isn't exactly a small addition to the game, that line of thought could be supported here. However, so could a Player's Handbook 2 or the thing I feel is most likely – a new book in the same vein as Xanathar's Guide to Everything. When that was released, it added a big breath of fresh air to the game not just with its healthy dose of sublcasses, but also with new spells and a chunk of variant rules of its own.
But the thing to keep an eye out for is whether the general unpopularity of the Beast Master sparks these major changes to the companion system, and alters the way every spell casting class can be played moving forward. Will these new ways to summon companions make it into the official rule set? Only time will tell.