Class is back in session. This week, we go on the hunt for a class that strikes a balance between skirmishing, survivability, and stealth. That’s right, it’s time to look at the ranger class’s Hunter archetype.
Story of the Hunter
“Silence your hounds,” the ranger snarled. She didn’t even deign to glance over her shoulder at the perplexed houndmaster behind her.
“Beggin’ your pardon, milady, but Stella and Claire ain’t even makin’ any noise at all,” the houndmaster said, a look of confusion upon his face. Indeed, his two muscular pit bulls were standing quietly at his side. Their posture was alert, but their jaws were slack and their tongues lolling out happily.
“You lack the ears of our prey,” the ranger replied. Her voice was quiet beyond a whisper. It was the merest hiss of a noise, and the perplexed houndmaster had to step closer and strain his ears to make her out. “Such a beast can hear a cockroach scuttling across the forest floor half a league away. Those mutts’ panting is like the wingbeats of a dragon to it.” She paused for a moment and sniffed the air, then turned and stared directly at the houndmaster, her golden eyes gleaming at him, cat-like, in a way that set his teeth on edge. “Stay here,” she hissed. “Guard our camp. Make not a sound.”
She then turned away, without awaiting a reply. She muttered an imperceptible incantation, nocked an arrow in her longbow, and leapt into the trees. Even as she tore through the canopy, she seemed to melt away into the shadows of the leaves, which made not even the faintest sound as they rustled. The instant she passed out of sight, there was no trace that she had ever been there.
The Hunter archetype doesn’t have a lot of roleplaying hooks built into its concept in the same way that a paladin’s Sacred Oaths or a warlock’s Otherworldly Patron does, but it’s still easy create a hunter with a cohesive thematic vision. If you feel like the roleplaying suggestions provided by paladin and warlock subclasses are more like constraints than guidelines, then you may appreciate the relative narrative freedom that the Hunter archetype offers.
What can a Hunter be in D&D? The answer is up to you. The idea of a big game hunter-turned-adventurer is a fairly obvious route. Many ranger players like to flavor their character as a bounty hunter, tracking down people rather than monsters. Others like to aim at greatness by being a dragon-hunter or giant-hunter, all takes on the broader niche of monster hunter—though that niche is more specifically addressed by the Monster Slayer ranger archetype in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
The Hunter ranger archetype is adept at dealing massive damage in quick bursts, and can specialize in either fighting hordes of small enemies, or in focusing on single large targets. Legolas, as portrayed in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy, can be represented by a wood elf ranger with the Hunter archetype. (Aragorn, though he is called a “ranger” throughout the books and the films, is really more of a fighter, when you get right down to it.) Hunter truly is the most iconic manifestation of the ranger class, and any fictional ranger from Robin Hood to Tarzan could be classified as a Hunter.
Rangers who emulate the Hunter archetype are master skirmishers and survivalists, and are known for passing through the wilderness with the silence of a panther stalking its prey. The ranger gains four subclass features starting at 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 15th level. You can read all of the Hunter features for free in the D&D Basic Rules. In summary, your subclass features allow you to:
- Choose from three different ways of gaining additional damage or attacks against solitary foes, giant foes, or numerous foes.
- Choose from three different defensive options, such as making it harder for opportunity attacks to hit, or making it harder for creatures to hit you with consecutive attacks.
- Chose one of two different superior offensive options, such as making a volley of shots against any number of creatures within a 10-foot radius, or performing a melee spin attack.
- Choose from three different superior defensive options, such as evading effects like fire breath and lightning bolts, or halving the damage of an incoming melee attack.
Benefits of the Hunter Archetype
Hunters are damage-dealing powerhouses, and can easier fight from afar with bow and arrow, or from close quarters with a weapon in each hand. Your subclass features are immensely useful to you, providing both additional offense and defense in combat. While they don’t provide you with any non-combat tools, the ranger class is so stuffed full of neat, situational bonuses to your exploratory abilities that you’ll never feel like you’re low on non-combat options.
Where the Hunter’s subclass features really shine is in their versatility. With two or three separate options to choose from in each subclass feature, the Hunter archetype allows you to customize your character in any way you want—as long as it sticks to the ranger’s class fantasy of fighting with a longbow or with two light melee weapons in hand.
Drawbacks of the Hunter Archetype
Most of the Hunter’s flaws are endemic to the ranger class as a whole, so feel free to take this iconic archetype without fear. Perhaps one of the most grating flaws, one that you’ll encounter regularly throughout play, is how many ranger spells demand concentration. Hunter’s mark, a spell you will probably be using to deal damage in almost every single combat you enter, is the most egregious offender. Since hunter’s mark is so iconic a spell, it rarely feels like a choice to cast a different spell so much as it feels like a sacrifice.
Nevertheless, Hunters do suffer a small number of flaws unique to their subclass. The customizability provided by the Hunter archetype’s four subclass features is a great way to create a unique Hunter, but once you’ve chosen a path, you’re locked into it. If you choose the Giant Slayer option at 3rd level, but find later on that you’re rarely fighting large enemies, you’ll have to ask your Dungeon Master if you can swap it out. By strict rules as written, that’s not in the cards, meaning that if you play in Adventurers League or in any game where the DM is a strict rules literalist, you’re stuck with a crummy feature.
I recommend any DM in this situation to be generous to your players and allow a way to retrain subclass features, much like you can retrain your ranger spells known whenever you gain a level. Or, perhaps you want it to require undergoing a quest to find a tutor. Either way, simply disallowing feature retraining is needlessly antagonistic, and I urge you to let your Hunter players retrain their features within reason.
If you’re building a Hunter archetype ranger from 1st level, be aware that you won’t gain your subclass until 3rd level. When creating your character, you should choose a race that gives you a bonus to Dexterity, Constitution, or Wisdom—ideally at least two of the three. You can play a ranger that focuses on Strength instead of Dexterity, and uses large melee weapons instead of dual-wielding light weapons or shooting a bow, but it’s definitely nontraditional. For this reason, playing a wood elf or a stout halfling are your best bets; both give a large bonus to Dexterity and a small bonus to Constitution or Wisdom, and give some useful traits, as well.
Humans, hill dwarves, and forest gnomes are also useful and interesting choices of race for rangers.
As usual, your character’s background is up to you. Some rangers were born in civilization and felt the call of the wild from an early age, while others have lived in the wilderness their entire lives. As such, Outlander or Hermit would be a fairly standard starting background for a ranger, while choosing soldier, acolyte, or sailor could be an interesting way to “play against type.”
Select EQUIPMENT when creating a character. Choose scale mail if you’re playing an unusual ranger with low Dexterity; otherwise, choose leather armor. Also, unless you have a specific reason to want a simple melee weapon, choosing two shortswords is a good route to go. If you want to emulate Drizzt Do’Urden and play with two scimitars, try to convince your DM to allow you start with two scimitars instead of shortswords. An explorer’s pack is great for rangers in the wilderness, and you have no choice but to accept a longbow.
At 1st level, figure out which you enjoy more: fighting in melee with a shortsword in each hand, or fighting from afar with your longbow. Once you know your preference…
Your first major build decision comes at 2nd level, when you have the option to choose your Fighting Style. Rangers have several options, but the best two options for you are either Archery or Two-Weapon Fighting. Archery gives you a serious accuracy bonus when fighting with ranged weapons (not just bows!) and Two-Weapon Fighting grants you a small damage bonus while dual wielding. Archery is probably the better style in a vacuum, but your character concept should supersede what is mechanically “optimal.”
Defense is a perfectly reasonable fighting style if you have mediocre defenses, but generally speaking, investing in offense is better for rangers. Only consider the Dueling fighting style if you’re playing an unusual Strength-focused ranger with a one-handed melee weapon and a shield.
Your second major decision comes at 2nd level, too! You first gain the ability to cast spells at this level, drawing from their own unique spell list. While your spell selection is more limited and you gain access to more powerful spells more slowly than “full caster” classes, you balance it out with your robust combat arsenal. Take this time before you gain your subclass at 3rd level to feel out what your role in the party is. That way, when you do gain your subclass, you’ll know what spells your party needs you to have access to on a regular basis.
When you reach 2nd level, you learn two 1st-level spells from the ranger spell list. Unlike some other spellcasting classes, once a ranger learns a spell, they know that spell forever. You can "trade out" one known spell for another spell on your spell list when you gain a level, but that's it. From here on out, you learn one new ranger spell at 3rd level, and at every odd-numbered level thereafter. You also gain access to a new spell level at 5th level, and every four levels thereafter. This is where retraining spells becomes important; if you know low-level spells that just aren’t useful to you anymore, you can swap them out for higher-level spells one-by-one to adapt to rising challenges.
As an offense-focused subclass, you’ll want to start by picking two spells labeled OFFENSE at 1st level. From there, you can be the judge of what spells you need to best support yourself and your party. Picking up a few spells labeled DEFENSE or SUPPORT over time couldn’t hurt, but you’ll want to make sure that your offense is always top-notch. As mentioned above, a large number of ranger spells require concentration, and you can’t have more than one concentration spell active at a time, so be careful.
Note that this list only includes some spells from the Player's Handbook, so if you want to choose more unusual spells, or have other sources like Xanathar's Guide to Everything, you'll have to do a little self-directed research. This list is just here to get you started if this is your first time playing an Hunter archetype ranger.
- Alarm (DEFENSE)
- Cure wounds (SUPPORT)
- Ensnaring strike (OFFENSE/DEFENSE)
- Hail of thorns (OFFENSE)
- Hunter’s mark (OFFENSE)
- Speak with animals (SOCIAL)
Rangers don’t gain a huge number of feats like fighters do, and since you will want to make both your Dexterity and Wisdom as high as possible, you may not have the chance to take many feats. If you don’t mind leaving your Wisdom on the low end, or just want to shore up some of your weak points, taking a feat or two at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, or 19th level can be a huge boon.
Crossbow Expert is amazing if you wield a heavy crossbow instead of a longbow. It makes your ranger seem a bit less elegant and a bit more brutish, but with this feat, the perks are worth it. Even if you aren’t using a crossbow, not having disadvantage on ranged attacks while in melee combat is pretty slick.
Defensive Duelist lets you use your reaction to try to parry an incoming attack. This can be very useful for dual-wielding rangers, even if you can only use it once per round.
Dual Wielder is a good choice if you’re, well, dual wielding. It ups both your offense and your defense, so what’s not to love?
Mobile is a stellar feat choice for dual-wielding rangers, allowing you to whiz about the battlefield with impunity.
Ritual Caster helps augment your limited spell slots and spells known, making this an unusual, versatile, and surprisingly handy feat to have.
Sharpshooter is all but necessary for archery rangers. Your damage will skyrocket with this feat in hand, especially since you gained an accuracy boost from your Archery fighting style.
War Caster can help you conserve your precious spell slots when faced with saves to maintain concentration, but it’s mostly useful for melee fighters, since archery-focused rangers tend to not bear the full brunt of combat.
As a post-script, ranger is a great class to multiclass out of, especially if you sense that your campaign will go into the mid-level range, but not into high levels. Rangers get their 5th-level spells at level 17, and those spells rock, but their 20th level capstone ability is only so-so. If you don’t care much about ranger magic but want to be a mighty, fighty, sneaky assassin, ranger multiclasses well with rogue. Multiclassing into fighter also gives you some rock-solid combat traits. Likewise, multiclassing into druid gives your spells an additional kick in much the same way that fighter levels can improve your combat abilities.
If you want more advice for building a ranger, check out Ranger 101. Have you ever played a Hunter archetype ranger? What advice would you give to players that want to play this subclass?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.