Is the Beast Master Broken? Examining D&D’s Most Misunderstood Archetype
One of Dungeons & Dragons archetypes has been the subject of more internet debates and angry Facebook posts than any other. It seems as though almost everyone who has laid eyes on the Beast Master, the second archetype for the ranger class in the fifth edition Player’s Handbook, has some sort of problem with it. Ever since the Player’s Handbook release in 2014, social media has echoed with the outcry of “The Beast Master is broken!” It’s one of the most polarizing topics of this edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and the debate needs to be settled. Is the Beast Master broken?
The answer is yes, the Beast Master is broken.
But perhaps that’s a misleading statement. The Beast Master may be broken, yet that word may not mean what you think it means. Gamers use the word “broken” as a catchall for a litany of disparate complaints, which is great for discovering that a problem exists, but terrible for actually addressing that problem. If you’re a Dungeon Master and you want to try and fix the broken Beast Master’s at your table, you need to know exactly what you’re fixing. And if you’re a player who thinks the Beast Master is broken, you’d better figure out exactly what’s wrong so you can work with your DM to make your experience more fun.
What's Wrong with the Beast Master?
In D&D, we call a part of the game broken because it’s one of three things: not fun to play (or literally unplayable), not fun to play with, or not fun to adjudicate as a Dungeon Master. Of all these complaints, it is the first that dominates this discussion; people just don’t like playing Beast Masters. These three qualities are completely subjective, of course, but they have been so pervasive (and even extending to the ranger class as a whole) that even Wizards of the Coast has taken note of them and released several new visions for the ranger and the Beast Master for public playtesting through Unearthed Arcana.
One common complaint is that the Beast Master isn’t fun to play because it isn’t as powerful in combat as other classes, or even other ranger archetypes. The reasons cited are usually that the animal companion is too weak numerically, it can’t act in combat unless the ranger spends an action to command it, and (now that Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has been released) it doesn’t get any bonus ranger spells. Since so many of Dungeons & Dragons’ rules and player options are geared towards combat, concerns of being underpowered in combat are of primary concern for most players.
So what is a player (or a player-conscious Dungeon Master) to do?
When I ran Princes of the Apocalypse around its release in 2015, one of my players decided to play an air genasi Beast Master with a hawk companion (reskinned as an osprey, but that’s neither here nor there). Even then, I had caught wind of the foul press surrounding the Beast Master, and wanted to make sure my ranger player wasn’t walking into a trap option. We talked it over and eventually decide to give her hawk companion a few buffs to make it more powerful in combat. We decided on two things: first, it could attack independently after being directed to attack a creature. Second, we opted to give it one fighter level for every four levels she had in ranger. These changes seemed perfectly reasonable.
By 20th level, this bird had probably killed more creatures than anyone else in the party, and my players had taken to calling her companion “Murder Bird.” It became a badass animal companion, but I emerged from that campaign feeling that maybe I had put my thumb on the scale a little too hard.
Dan Dillon on Fixing What's Broken and Learning What Isn't
That campaign has been over for about a year now, but I’ve been thinking about how I could have made my ranger player’s experience smoother. I decided to speak with Dan Dillon, a game designer who has created Fifth Edition-compatible adventures and player content for Kobold Press, an excellent adventure for the D&D Adventurer’s League, and has even contributed to an undisclosed project with Wizards of the Coast. He’s also a moderator of a Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Facebook group boasting over 100,000 members, and is a battle-scarred veteran of the Beast Master arguments there. He’s seen every viewpoint imaginable on this issue, he's played a Beast Master ranger from 1st to 20th level, and judging by his headshot, he's probably a Beast Master himself! He’s the perfect person to ask for insight.
One of the first things I asked Dan about was if we could separate signal from noise on this argument. What criticism of the Beast Master are valid, and what criticisms are simply off-base? The first thing he told me was he played his ranger without any house rules and was incredibly effective. He suggests that people who have had “awful experiences with the Beast Master” might need to reread the Beast Companion feature in the Player’s Handbook and be sure they aren’t missing any of the myriad little buffs the animal companion gets. Most of the perceived mechanical weaknesses of the Beast Master come from an incomplete understanding of the Fifth Edition rules.
Most of my woes in my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign, Dan assures me, came from my player selecting a CR 0 animal companion. Of course a CR 0 hawk isn’t going to fight very well, it only does a few points of damage! I didn’t need to give it fighter levels in order to give it more hit points, it gets more hit points naturally as the ranger levels up. It even gets to attack and take aiding actions without consuming the ranger’s action as the ranger gets more class features! Rather than haphazardly throwing buffs on this weak animal, it would have been simpler to just insist that my ranger player use a CR 1/4 beast instead.
But some of these mechanical woes were not without precedent. A quick reading of the Beast Master archetype shows that the Beast Companion class feature suggests taking a hawk (or a mastiff or a panther) as an animal companion! Dan says that it’s “setting [a player] up for failure…you should not take challenge rating 0 beasts. But if you do want to do that, work with your DM and ask if you can just have a falcon companion that you’ve trained,” and choose a ranger archetype like Hunter instead.
That said, this option isn’t available to people with rules-adherent DMs or those who are a part of Organized Play. That is a flaw of the Beast Master; it’s inflexible. If you want its combat ability to be on par with similar characters, you need to know what the good options are and optimize your build (yuck). This may be a fun puzzle for veteran gamers, but poses a discouraging barrier to entry for new players. Not only do you need to know how disastrously poor at fighting a CR 0 beast is compared to a CR ¼ creature, but you have to know what books to look in (including asking the DM to let you use the Monster Manual or even the monster appendix for Tomb of Annihilation), and then you need to do a bunch of calculations to improve its stats. It’s not impossible, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, either.
Dan’s recommended animal companions are flying snakes for flight without sacrificing much damage, wolves for pack tactics and their keen senses, giant poisonous snakes for swimming and truly incredible damage and accuracy, and pteranodons if you’re playing in Tomb of Annihilation. If you’re playing a halfling or a gnome, you can use this flying dinosaur as a mount. That’s incredible!
If you want a second opinion, the gentlemen at Nerdarchy have a video on their 5 favorite Beast Master companions.
Also note, according to admins the D&D Adventurer’s League, where character builds are limited to the Player’s Handbook plus one other book, monster stat blocks do not count as your +1. So, if you really want to optimize your Beast Master, you can use the beasts in Volo’s Guide to Monsters or Tomb of Annihilation while still using another book.
Taking all that into consideration, the Beast Master is in a strong place mechanically. Dan says one underappreciated aspect of the Beast Master is that its animal companion simply adds another body to the players’ side, allowing rogues in the party to Sneak Attack more often, other players to get advantage more often (through the Help action and possibly Pack Tactics), and by allowing the ranger seriously improved battlefield control, as the animal companion can attack enemies on the other side of cover the ranger can’t shoot behind, get on top of elevated terrain if it can fly, and even serve as a mount if your ranger is Small and the companion is Medium.
But don’t think for a moment that the Beast Master is perfect. While it's possible that the incredible outcry over this archetype is all due to people not reading the Player’s Handbook closely enough or the archetype requiring too much system mastery, it's more likely that there are some problems with the archetype that a close reading of the rules can't solve. One of Dan’s chief concerns is that, unlike the trio of new ranger subclasses presented in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Beast Master (and the Hunter) lack bonus spells to supplement their “very tiny number of spells known [as compared to paladins who prepare spells like a cleric].”
Maybe in a future article on D&D Beyond, Dan could show us the bonus spell lists for Beast Masters and Hunters that he's house ruled to improve their power level in games he runs.
I never directly asked Dan if the Beast Master was “broken” or not. That’s not what I wanted to learn from him, because I knew from the word go that the Beast Master was broken, I just needed to learn how it was... and how it wasn't. As it turns out, the Beast Master is not broken mechanically; it’s broken in a subtler, more insidious way. A way that’s harder to fix than changing a few calculations and printing errata.
In fact, the Beast Master is quite mechanically sound, if played in a certain way. The rub is that most players have no idea what this specific way of having fun as a Beast Master is! The Beast Master is one of the most complex and choice-dependent archetypes in the entire Player’s Handbook, but the book provides no help on how to navigate its many incredibly important choices. Spellcasters like wizards and clerics face a similar problem, but there’s a significant difference: most of the spells a spellcaster picks aren’t central to their identity. If you’ve ever seen Critical Role, try to imagine Vex’ahlia without her bear Trinket. If Pike, the party cleric, didn’t like a spell she chose, she could switch it out the next morning with no trouble; specific spells aren't part of her identity, but Trinket is essential to Vex’s character.
This highlights another problem of the Beast Master that, while it doesn’t strictly make the archetype weaker in combat, does make it less fun to play: animal companion death. For most Beast Masters, their animal companion is like another character in terms of emotional weight, but the game rules don’t treat it that way. While most player characters in D&D are expected to be resurrected if they die (after a certain point), all the Player’s Handbook has to say if an animal companion dies is: “If the beast dies, you can obtain another one by spending 8 hours magically bonding with another beast that isn’t hostile to you, either the same type of beast or a different one.” It expects you to do the equivalent of rolling up a new character named Bob II after your first character, Bob, was killed by a wandering monster.
For players that invest emotionally in the lives of their animal companions, like Laura Bailey and her ranger Vex’ahlia, this just isn’t fun. If you’re playing at home and not in the Adventurer’s League where strict adherence to the rules is necessary, consider this house rule that Dan and I hashed out about in our conversion: “As a Beast Master, you can spend 8 hours performing a ritual of resurrection that returns your dead animal companion to life if it died of means other than old age.”
Even if you don’t use this house rule, the animal companion should at least be able to roll death saves. The Player’s Handbook says “special nonplayer characters” are supposed to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points, just like player characters. You’re just being a jerk if you don’t consider animal companions special NPCs.
If the Beast Master’s problem is one of system mastery and misplaced emotional expectations, what is the best way to “fix” this “broken” archetype in play? If you’re a player, you’re practically there already just because you’ve read this article. Choose a powerful animal companion when you first choose this archetype, and make sure you’re communicating well with your Dungeon Master about little rules interactions like whether or not animal companions get death saving throws.
If you’re a Dungeon Master looking to make life easier for a player who wants to be a Beast Master, then start by talking with your player about what kind of beast they want to choose. If it’s something small like a hawk, a squirrel, or some other inconsequential CR 0 creature, consider letting that player play as a Hunter ranger instead with a minor noncombatant companion instead.
The Beast Master may be broken, but clear communication and a little ingenuity can fix it. Happy hunting!
James Haeck is a D&D fan, frequent paladin player, and a lover of roleplaying and tactical combat in equal measure. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his two animal companions, Mei and Marzipan, and writes as a freelancer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurer's League, Kobold Press, and EN Publishing. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.