At its heart D&D is a game of archetypes, of gruff Dwarven Fighters, flighty human Wizards and sticky-fingered Halfling Rogues. For Rangers, these reliable old tropes tend to produce some variation on a tall, lithe woodsman clad in a grey-green traveller’s cloak and a grim expression.
Of course, there’s no reason why you have to follow these well-trodden paths if you don’t want to. One of the biggest pleasures of character creation comes from breaking apart the Tolkein-esque stereotypes that have developed over the decades, rolling up Half-Orc Bards, Gnomish Berserkers and the like.
But when it comes to spicing up a Ranger, there’s more to it than simply picking a non-traditional race or background. One of the defining points of the class is the character’s connection to the environment in which they operate and flourish. Typically this is the leafy woods and plains, with their finely honed senses allowing them to track quarry by following broken twigs and the chitter of small animals.
In many ways this is a direct consequence of most fantasy adventures – whether they be in roleplaying games, films or novels – tend to view medieval Western Europe as some sort of base state on which all stories are built. When we think of wilderness it tends to be some variation on arboreal forest or rolling green hills. Deserts, jungles and tundra don’t really get a look in, despite covering vast areas of the planet.
However, there’s no reason why a D&D character needs to be restrained in this was. Just as there’s nothing to prevent you roleplaying a Goliath Wizard, it’s possible to create a Ranger adapted for life on any part of the planet – which in a magical fantasy realm, can include some very odd environments indeed.
The Urban Jungle
Let’s save the weird and wonderful, for the moment though. One way to put a surprisingly useful spin on a ranger is to portray them as the child of an environment that most of us are intimately familiar with – the city.
With rooftops to climb and a huge array of local wildlife to get to know, there’s no reason why the mean streets can’t forge a character just as tough and self-reliant as the lone wanderers of the high forests. Arguably there’s no better place to get an education in rough-and-ready combat that doesn’t rely on cumbersome armour than the rooftops and alleyways of a bustling city. The ‘Favoured Terrain’ class feature may need a bit of tweaking (with DM approval, of course) to include urban environments as one of the options and some spells may need to have their thorns re-skinned to barbed wire, but that’s about it.
Stealth and incredible senses are the hallmarks of a by-the-book Ranger and fit neatly into the urban jungle, while a natural affinity with wildlife can be spun out as a connection with street dogs and alley cats, not to mention the crows and rooks that make their nests among the chimneys.
A Ranger that chooses to go down the route of an animal companion may make things a little tricky – having a seven-foot bear following them around would likely cause comment in even the most relaxed of cities. However, re-skinning a wolf companion as the product of a dozen generations of cross-breeding among the meanest of the strays could work very well indeed.
There’s a risk of the skill-set and background of the Urban Ranger muscling in on the territory traditionally covered by the rogue, but this can be avoided with a bit of work. For one thing the Ranger is much more of a combat-oriented role, with better defences and higher sustained damage that doesn’t rely on lining up a sneak attack. The skills will also vary considerably, with the Urban Ranger retaining the emphasis on tracking and perception that are hallmarks of their more rural cousins.
Possibly the thing that makes the Urban Ranger distinct, however, is their philosophy.
One of the enduring characteristics of a Ranger is that they fight to protect civilisation from the evil and destructive things lurking in the shadows where most folk would fear to tread. Rather than keeping farmers safe from wolves and roaming bands of Goblins, however, the Urban Ranger will likely be shielding the weak and coddled masses safe from all the unpleasant things that ferment in the shadows of a major city, whether they be Devil-worshipping cultists, drug-pushing alchemists or just the giant rats that occasionally spring up in the sewers.
I many ways, an Urban Ranger is the closest thing you’re going to get to fantasy Batman, and if that’s not cool I don’t know what is.
There’s nothing too strange about having Drow or Deep Gnome Rangers specialise in patrolling the subterranean caverns of the Underdark. The deeps are full of creatures who would be more than happy to drain the life of anything they find and keeping them away from what passes for civilisation down there is a full-time occupation for many skilled warriors. Indeed, a recent Unearthed Arcana article even set out the ‘Deep Stalker’ archetype for characters that have forged a career doing just that.
However, it’s still worth remembering that it isn’t just Rangers drawn from the races that traditionally live in the Underdark that are able to specialise at dealing with the unique threats it presents.
The deep tunnels of Dwarven mines come perilously close to those of the Underdark and offer rich targets for raiding monsters and marauders. Clans may well train specialised groups of Rangers to venture beyond the lands they know to hunt down threats in the darkness before they come too close.
The traditional longbow would probably be too unwieldy to use in the cramped passageways and crevices, but heavy crossbows are a well-known Dwarvish weapon and can fill a similar role. If you’re looking for a more close-up warrior, the ‘Tunnel Fighter’ fighting style from the Unearthed Arcana article linked earlier is tailor-made for these kinds of subterranean Rangers.
Though they tend not to seek out the depths unless they have to, surface-dwelling Elves still have much to fear from their subterranean Drow cousins. Elven settlements unlucky enough to have an entrance to the Underdark within striking distance may see regular midnight raids from the devoted followers of Lolth, on the hunt for sacrifices and captives.
A determined young Ranger could devote themselves to avenging their fallen family or even venture into the darkness in a forlorn bid to rescue any survivors dragged down into the depths. This gives the perfect opportunity for eventually picking the Underdark when presented with the chance to have multiple favoured terrains further down the line.
Playing a Ranger accustomed to the tunnels of the Underdark means more than simply seeing really well in the dark, however. More than any other terrain, the Underdark will almost inevitably influence a character’s personality. In the depths solitude, silence and intense self-reliance are king. Most wanderers in the darkness will operate on the assumption that everything they encounter will be hostile and prepare to get their defence in first. Those that don’t tend not to last very long.
The PHB allows you to choose between a reasonably extensive list of favoured terrain, which between them cover almost everything a party may reasonably encounter. However, it’s not hard to see that some of the options on hand might just crop up a little more often than others.
As discussed earlier, grasslands, forests and mountains crop up in adventures all the time, and deserts and coastlands are going to be reasonably common sights if the group travels widely enough. The Underdark is certainly a niche pick, but between Wizards’ Out of the Abyss campaign and the ongoing love D&D players seem to hold for Drow, it’s also a reasonably safe one.
Swamps crop up occasionally to host mist-wreathed hag dens and assorted other spooky creatures, but it’s hard to see your party squelching their way through the mud once every few sessions just so the Ranger can point out the various breeds of toad swimming about their feet.
And finally we have the Arctic, a terrain that it’s hard to imagine the average party encountering for much time at all.
After all, it’s relatively east to justify the group wandering off into that nearby swampland or into the desert for a few sessions, but travelling to the furthest extremities of the planet might just be stretching it a bit.
Obviously, this shouldn’t stop you from rolling up a Ranger that specialises in snowy terrain any more you should feel obliged to trade in one of your Rogue’s personalised daggers for a rapier because it had the best damage die. If it’s a cool part of the backstory and personality then there’s absolutely no reason to change it out. And in any case I could be wrong – maybe your party will spend its time battling through the glacier-topping ice palaces of Frost Giants and the frozen lairs of great white wyrms.
But even if this isn’t so, it’s worth remembering that with a bit of leeway from the DM, there’s a way to apply your skills for, say a quarter of the time. Depending on how far away you live from the equator.
These days it’s hard to imagine how dangerous the winter was for out forebears. All those winter festivals we celebrate are a slight reminder of the lengths we used to go to in order to celebrate the impending return of the sun and inject a bit of happiness into months spent indoors.
It would take a tough, resourceful and knowledgeable soul to venture out during the winter months and come back alive – someone that fitted neatly into the boots of a Ranger, in fact.
Even beyond the very real threats of starvation and wolves, our own ancestors dreamed up all manner of unknown evils that came out in the dark times of the year, whether they be ghosts witches or just malevolent spirits. In the world of D&D, however, all these fears can be absolutely real and in dire need of someone to combat them.
This Winter Warrior archetype probably applies best to Human and Halfling Rangers, though it would also fit in nicely with the unappreciated outsider mentality fostered by some Tieflings. It’s not hard to imagine them spending cold months keeping isolated settlements safe from threats that the locals can’t even imagine, only to be ignored or dismissed when the sun begins to shine again and the threat recedes into the deep woods or high mountains.
Maybe that’s why the Ranger has turned to a life of more conventional adventuring and started to seek out the company of those experienced enough to appreciate her skill. But when the cold winds start blowing you just know they’ll be itching to get back out there, spilling red blood on white snow.