D&D 5e: Elf Ranger Guide
You could argue that elves were designed to be rangers in D&D 5e. Their innate proficiency in Perception calls to mind the archetypal elf ranger Legolas and his infamous “elf eyes”, their Trance feature makes them adept survivalists who require little sleep and can’t be crept up on by beasties while they do it, and nearly all of their subraces either synergize or complement the ranger class nicely. Let’s jump right into making an elf ranger with ability scores and where to put them!
How to Make an Elf Ranger
Ability Scores. You can randomly generate your stats using the “4d6 drop the lowest” method described in the PHB or you can take the standard array of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8.
Despite the name, you have no obligation to stick to ranged weapons allowing you to have a choice on whether you want to invest mostly in Strength or Dexterity. Being an elf though, you do get +2 Dexterity by default so it might be a good idea to stick to ranged (or finesse melee) weapons. Plus, you don’t get proficiency in heavy armor by default so having a little bit of Dexterity is kind of a must to keep your AC up. Your Dexterity score should be no lower than 14 no matter what kind of weaponry you choose to specialize in.
After that, your next highest should be Constitution to boost your survivability and concentration saving throws, after that you should invest in Wisdom. It might seem odd to consider this class’s spellcasting ability as such an afterthought but you have to remember that rangers are only “half-casters”: they only get up to 5th level spells and no cantrips at all. Spells are much more something that you’ll use now and again when setting up traps and other advanced tactics, not so much something you’ll be using in every single encounter. Even when you use them, most ranger spells aren’t reliant on spell attacks or saves, making the WIS score almost irrelevant in most cases.
The most ideal subraces for an elf ranger are the wood elf and sea elf – appropriately named after places you might choose for a Favored Terrain – due to their nature-themed features.
Starting with wood elves: at 10th level of ranger, you get the feature Hide in Plain Sight that allows you to make camouflage for yourself. It’s great and all but all wood elves get the Mask of the Wild feature which allows you to hide even when only lightly obscured by natural phenomena. The two stack together nicely and having the latter makes waiting for the former a lot easier. Having +1 Wisdom is pretty good too as it boosts your survival skill.
As for sea elves, you gain +1 Constitution and the ability to talk to any beast with an innate swimming speed. If you play as a Beastmaster with a “beast of the sea” (see Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything) you’ll be able to talk freely with your companion and any other swimming creature. This could be quite useful for a campaign that is set mostly under or near water, but as is common for the ranger this is quite situational. If you know what you’re getting into with the campaign, I’m sure it would be a lot of fun.
Dark Elves (Drow) also have an interesting synergy with rangers but it requires the use of a certain subclass, which is the next topic of discussion for this article.
Subclass (Ranger Archetype)
Easily the most famous “canon” elf ranger is Drizzt Do’urden, who in 5e would be a Beastmaster who uses Two-Weapon Fighting and has a panther for his Ranger Companion. However, the class has changed a lot since R.A. Salvatore conceived of the character thus I would argue that there are much better options for your character.
The most efficient and deadly combination for a modern Drizzt would be the Gloom Stalker from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Having 150 feet of darkvision would make your dark elf ranger character a force to be reckoned with in an Underdark/underground campaign. Even then, many campaigns heavily feature dungeons and other extensive indoor spaces that make taking this subrace/class combo worth it.
Other than that, the Fey Wanderer from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has a fey flavor that aligns very nicely with that of elves but doesn’t have any features that synergize strongly with the elf’s mechanical features. Even then, the Fey Wanderer makes for an excellent social character thanks to its Otherworldly Glamor feature that adds its Wisdom modifier to all Charisma ability checks, while still being able to hold its own in a fight.
How to Play an Elf Ranger
Rangers can encompass a wide variety of playstyles, similar to a fighter, but for now, we’ll assume that you’re playing as a character who relies strongly on their Dexterity in combat. This means that you will usually be on the periphery of most fights and will probably only jump into the thick of combat if you need to cast cure wounds on a dying friend or otherwise offer support. The +5ft of movement that being a wood elf gives can be quite useful for this as it allows you to dip in and out of the thick of combat just a little more easily.
If you want to really lean into the playstyle of a distant archer, make sure to do the following:
- Choose the wood elf subrace (for the reason above, plus the ability to hide easily in natural environments)
- Choose the Archery Fighting Style
- Choose the following spells, all of which help you control the battlefield and chip away at the enemies’ defenses:
- (1st level) ensnaring strike, hunter’s mark
- (2nd level) cordon of arrows, healing spirit
- (3rd level) conjure barrage, flame arrows, wind wall
- (4th level) conjure woodland beings, freedom of movement
- (5th level) conjure volley, swift quiver
- Take the Sharpshooter feat to ignore cover, shoot at long range, and, most importantly, become able to use nets without regularly having disadvantage on the attack rolls!
Rangers have a good balance of features that relate to dealing damage and supporting friends. Throwing nets, casting snare and entangle and thorn growth, are all supporting moves. You use them when your party is dealing with being outnumbered or outmatched. Conversely, using Favored Foe or the Hunter subclass can make you a force to be reckoned with when it comes to wearing down dangerous foes.
Nothing the ranger can do is quite as dramatic or impressive as, say… a rogue’s Sneak Attack or a fighter’s Action Surge, but they’re dependable enough especially with the new optional features included in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Favored Foe is one of these optional features and replaces the much-maligned Favored Enemy. The latter can be found in the Player’s Handbook and used to be the defining feature of the ranger. Favored Foe allows you to focus on one enemy at a time in each encounter while Favored Enemy makes you a little more deadly against a certain type of foe. These might sound about as good as each other, but Favored Foe is going to come in handy in nearly 100% of fights while Favored Enemy will only be useful when your chosen enemy creature type is present.
All of the above is fairly applicable if you choose to use the Revised Ranger that sadly never saw the light of day, with perhaps a greater emphasis on using things like Primeval Awareness and the like to do reconnaissance. I don’t know what would happen if you used the optional features from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything with the Revised Ranger but I’m sure with a little tweaking you could it to work. Or it might just fall apart, I’m not sure!
How to Roleplay as an Elf Ranger
Like I said in the introduction, elves and rangers just go together effortlessly. Fantasy IPs cast elves as rangers most of the time because of how deeply the archetype of the keen-eyed elven ranger is ingrained in fantasy pop culture. Because of this, you have an extremely wide range of pop-cultural inspirations to pick from when making your character and their personality.
This means that you can either go all-in on the stereotype or try to break the mold, but whatever you choose remember: it’s up to you to make your character unique! Even if you play the most cliche elf ranger possible you can still make the character unique and interesting if you develop them during the campaign and make them fit in with the DM’s world. Make sure to talk to and bounce off the other PCs, learn all you can about your PC’s place in the game world, and consider authentically what your character would do in any given situation. Remember, every Legolas has his Gimli, or Aragorn. Allow your relationships to define your character.
Something to consider is whether or not you’re going to use the Favored Enemy or Favored Foe feature. The former has a big role-playing hook built-in as it emphasizes a specific enemy that your ranger has chosen to hunt. The standard elf ranger would probably choose orcs and goblins as their first Favored Enemy but that sort of plot point is probably going to be considered a little old-fashioned and cringy in modern groups.
Personally, I prefer the flavor of just having all humanoids as your favored enemy that the Revised Ranger offers, but I digress… Whatever Favored Enemy you choose, there’s a big opportunity to devise the how and why of how you came to be so determined to hunt a specific quarry. If you want to play out the whole “dark elves vs all other elves” conflict, choosing elves as one of your Favored Enemies would be pretty spicy. And it would make perfect sense since you are an elf yourself! You know where you’d need to be hit to make it hurt the most, you know how an elf’s skeletal and muscular systems can be broken by well-placed strikes, you know how an elf thinks because it’s how you think.
Other than that, Favored Enemy makes the most sense when you tie your choice into an existential struggle your character is going through. Since Tolkien popularised elves as slender, pretty people with pointy ears, there’s been a recurring theme of decline in media about elves. This is because Tolkien liked the idea of civilizations being shadows of their former selves, but the idea really stuck with elves post-Lord of the Rings.
This is most likely the reason that the elves of the Forgotten Realms (D&D 5e’s standard-setting) are said to be shades of their more ancient eladrin cousins. Tying your Favored Enemy to the reason behind your people’s decline could make for a powerful motivation for your character as you’re literally fighting an existential threat to your people. With this plot point, you can go as serious as “a curse of undeath is sweeping my people’s lands and I must break the curse before it spreads across the world” or as silly as “These gosh darn oozes won’t stop getting on the gosh darn furniture, someone’s gotta do something about it!” Chat with your group about how serious the campaign is and how angsty it would make sense to go with your character. And remember: even angsty characters can crack a smile and even joke characters can be three-dimensional!
If you go for Favored Foe instead, then it makes more sense to play your character as more of an all-around survivalist. Rangers are a lot like fighters but with a supernatural edge to their abilities so make sure to play that up. Describe how your ranger’s strikes land with almost inhuman accuracy, how their senses seem supernaturally attuned to their surroundings, how their survival techniques are more to do with mimicking animals than any sophisticated methodology.
The flip side is that your elf ranger is probably going to be very much “of the elven world” in comparison to most of the members of the party. They’ll look at you and see something quite alien, even if you consider yourself to be distant to your elvish kin. You’re one of nature’s folk and, unlike most other characters, you haven’t quite disconnected from nature yet – maybe you’re still tightly bound to it or you’re trying to re-establish the connection your people lost long ago. Whatever you are, you’re the bridge between the world of cities, streets, and dungeons and the more ancient world of elves, nature, and life itself.
Will you guide your companions to safe passage through the other world or will you draw them deeper within?
That is up to you.