Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Complete Ranger's Handbook

A question I find myself grappling with as I read these old books is "Did AD&D know it was weird?"

I don't want to use my blog as a platform to score points in long-dead internet flame wars (oh, who am I kidding), but I distinctly remember conversations with people who adamantly insisted that new versions of Dungeons and Dragons should stick to "standard" fantasy. Meaning, presumably, the fantasy established in old AD&D books.

And, okay, those people have a point of view. When we're talking 15 years after the fact (well, 26 now), maybe there's a type of fantasy that you grew up with, and you take it for granted that it's "normal."

But I wonder. At the time, when the books were first being written, did they know they were being weird?

There's the Greenwood Ranger, who has such a profound religious devotion to nature that they become a human-plant hybrid, capable of photosynthesis and of growing a third arm from their chest which they could use to attack with blinding speed. They must have known that was weird.

But then there's the section where the book gives you advice on what to do with an unwanted animal follower. To be clear, I'm not talking about game-modification advice, where players who like the ranger class, but don't care for the animal companion feature can remove it and replace it with something else. By "unwanted animal follower," I mean literally an animal that starts following the character around and is so obnoxious that the player wants it gone.

Because the ranger doesn't have any control over their animal companion class feature, either in-character or out-of-character. In fact, at the beginning of the relationship, the ranger might not realize that's what's going on. An animal starts following them, and it's ambiguous. Is this animal a follower, i.e. a long-term friend and ally, or is it just a "follower," i.e. a creature that's shadowing the ranger's movements for inscrutable animal reasons of its own? You're meant to roleplay this uncertainty. It's not a mystical process. Sometimes an animal will keep showing up and then gradually, without fanfare, it's part of the ranger's posse.

And sometimes, that animal "with negligible trainability may prove to be more annoying than helpful" or smell so bad it makes the party uncomfortable or just be expensive and difficult to keep fed. So, helpfully, the book provides you with options ranging from "abandoning it in the wilderness" to "securing it a place in a zoo." Whichever way you go, it counts against your 2d6 lifetime limit of followers, though.

What the hell was going on at TSR during the 90s? This book is overall pretty firmly on the "rpg characters are the players' fictional avatars" side of the game vs story divide, but it somehow did not pick up on the idea that an animal companion is more of a fashion accessory than a fully independent entity in its own right. Imagine, playing AD&D back in '93, picking the Mountain Man kit, and all you want is a grizzly bear as your best friend, but instead you keep rolling under 20% on a d100, so you get a succession of humans, dwarves, and gnomes just following you around as you tromp through the wilderness, never quite as robustly manly as you imagined yourself to be when you chose your class.

Honestly, though, Rangers themselves don't make a lot of sense. Why are they even a class? I think D&D may have invented them. Historically, you've got characters like Grizzly Adams who live a kind of idealized wilderness lifestyle. But then Robin Hood is kind of implied to be a ranger with the Forest Runner kit, and he's just a warrior who happened to live in the woods. And there's the original ranger himself, Aragorn, who's an all-around competent guy that we only see for the year or so that he spends traveling through the wilderness.

There's something there, to be sure. "Wilderness expert," is an appealing archetype. But they get two weapon fighting because Aragorn fought with two weapons that one time? And they cast clerical spells because AD&D 1e did not have a skill system and so magic was the only way to represent their facility with plants and animals. But now rangers are religious folks who don't just live in the wilderness, but worship it. And then you throw in a bunch of early 90s scientific ecology into their worldview, so they're doing things like maintaining the balance between predator and prey in the face of over-hunting and pollution.

There are games where some version of the Ranger would make sense. But in AD&D 2e, where you've got the "Fighter" class, that is meant to cover everything from martial artists to swashbuckling fencers to armored knights to wilderness scouts who are not explicitly good-aligned and mystically connected to the forces of nature? It's too specific, too much of a niche.

They had to have known they were creating something weird. But if so, the book doesn't give any indication. It's played completely straight. Of course rangers are a thing that exists. We know their complete demographics too (half male and half female, which was nice for 1993, even if 2019 demands a non-binary ranger squad, like yesterday). It makes perfect sense that they cast divine magic, we even included a section about what it's like when one apprentices with a cleric.

Anyway, this is a top-tier PHB Rules Supplement. Not as philosophically fraught as Paladins, nor as reluctantly subversive as Bards while still having the second half of the series' high standard of quality. There's not even any racism worth mentioning (a couple of mentions of "primitive societies," but that seems positively benign in context). It may well be the best one yet (even if my heart yearns for the camp hinted at in The Complete Bard's Handbook).

UKSS Contribution: It was just a brief thing, but it's stuck in my head. At the end of the Kit chapter, they suggest additional kits you might want to homebrew, and one of the options they list is "Crypt Ranger." They only spare two sentences to the concept, but the mind reels at what they imply.

Their favored terrain is graveyards and tombs? Like how the default "forest" ranger knows everything about the forest and can discern meaning in disturbances to the underbrush and the movement of animals, but, you know, for graves? How . . .? Why? What?!

And then they get non-evil undead as followers. Um. Non-evil? Am I following? Non-evil undead? That's a thing now? And they're following these guys around?

What is this guy's life? And how do we get it into a book?

Something to think about, at least.


  1. Okay, crypt ranger is pretty cool.


    1. Yeah. I think they were just tossing out whatever came to mind and hoping some of it sounded cool. Extra-planar ranger, Militant Ecologist, and Lycanthrope Ranger were some of the other suggestions.