Concentration rates as one of the best additions to the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight layered with spells like haste, invisibility, fly, blur, protection from energy, and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while dungeon masters struggled to create any challenge. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.
In earlier editions, the same caster behind the buffs could also immobilize foes with Evard’s black tentacles, and then smother them with cloudkill. Now, the need for concentration limits the power of spellcasters, helping to eliminate D&D’s old problem of wizards who surged in power with every level until they overshadowed other classes. (See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.)
Plus, concentration enriches the game by adding a fresh, tactical element. Combatants can end spell effects by targeting casters and breaking their concentration.
While concentration improved D&D and put wizards in their place, the innovation proved mixed for class archetypes that cross swords and spells.
For exhibit A, see the paladin. In my last game, the party’s smite-happy paladin relished the chance to lock down a monster with compelled duel. This 1st-level spell boosts the paladin’s flavor of champion and protector. But compelled duel requires concentration, so while the paladin trades blows, every hit threatens to end the duel. Paladins want to bear the brunt of attacks, and they lack proficiency with Constitution saves, so their concentration is fragile. Why would a paladin ever cast shield of faith?
Worse, the paladin’s smite spells also require concentration, so even momentary attention to a smite spell ends the compelled duel. With smites serving as a cornerstone of the paladin’s offense, the need for concentration brings some frustration. Spells like magic weapon, heroism, and bless seem perfect for paladins, but all demand concentration.
In the D&D Next playtest, the paladins smite spells skipped the concentration requirement, but spells like banishing smite and blinding smite impose ongoing effects that merit concentration. The designers added concentration to add the tactical element where foes can break concentration to end punishing effects.
The same tension between concentration and a melee archetype hinders warlock hexblades and pact of the blade warlocks who aim to use their pact blade for more than posing. Hexblades gain smite spells that require concentration, yet the class also features spells like hex that demand attention.
Surely rangers suffer the most friction between concentration and the class’s featured abilities. The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark. (This exposes another spot where fifth edition punishes melee archetypes, but I’ve written about that already.)
The D&D design team uses their Unearthed Arcana series to test player reaction to potential game additions. A collection of class feature variants reveals one feature intended to smooth the rough spots from hunter’s mark. Read my annotated description.
1st-level ranger feature (replaces Favored Enemy)¹
You can call on your bond with nature² to mark a creature as your favored enemy for a time: You know the hunter’s mark spell, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for it.³ You can use4 it a certain number of of times without expending a spell slot5 and without requiring concentration6—a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
When you gain the Spellcasting feature at 2nd level, hunter’s mark doesn’t count against the number of ranger spells you know7.
1. Instead of changing the base ranger class by adding a new feature missing from the Player’s Handbook, this variant adds an option that replaces a weak class feature. Most players would opt for Favored Foe, but rangers built from the core book keep a unique feature. The D&D design team has chosen not to make changes to the game that supplant anything in the published books. New players should never join a game and then learn that their Player’s Handbook character fails to match the latest rules.
2. The hunter’s mark spell implements a 4th-edition power called Hunter’s Quarry, a non-magical exploit that seemed to behave in some magical ways because the rules said so. Now, the replacement works like magic because it is.
3. First-level rangers can’t normally cast spells, but this feature needs the hunter’s mark spell. This line adds the one spell to a 1st-level ranger’s knowledge.
4. Oddly, the description says “use” rather than “cast”. This shows the designer thinking of this feature as an ability more than a spell. The whole feature description reads like something written by committee, but surely a final version will show more polish.
5. Because hunter’s mark implements a marquee ranger class feature, having to spend a spell slot on it feels like a tax. Here the ability goes tax free.
6. This waives the concentration requirement. Dual-wielding Drizzt admirers everywhere can cheer.
7. Hunter’s mark no longer taxes a ranger’s list of known spells either.
Favored Foe offers a good way eliminate a frustrating edge in the ranger class. I predict we’ll see it in a class options book toward the end of 2020.
Update: Unfortunately, the final version of Favored Foe in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything brings back the frustration. “When you hit a creature with an attack roll, you can call on your mystical bond with nature to mark the target as your favored enemy for 1 minute or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).”
The offhand mention of concentration confused me, but a ruling on another feature sharing the wording clears up the intent. The trickery domain cleric’s Invoke Duplicity feature also works “until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).” Lead rules designer Jeremey Crawford explained that this wording means that you must concentrate on the feature to maintain it, just like a spell.
The new Favored Foe skips the need to spend a bonus action, but otherwise it weakens the version tested in Unearthed Arcana in every way. In addition to requiring concentration, the new feature does less damage, only damages once per turn, just lasts a minute, and can’t be moved. Why do the D&D designers hate rangers?
I find that bonus actions are a bigger limitation on rangers than concentration. The ranger spell list doesn’t have very many good concentration spells, especially for combat, so it’s not that common that a ranger wants to use Hunter’s Mark while concentrating on something else. And since most rangers are archers, losing concentration doesn’t come up that often either.
The bigger issue is that Hunter’s Mark takes a bonus action to move around. At higher levels, it’s very rare that a single enemy will survive an entire round of combat, so the ranger needs to move Hunter’s Mark nearly every round to keep up its use. Combine that with rounds spent casting or recasting the spell, and the ranger isn’t left with very many opportunities to use other bonus action abilities. This hurts Drizzt-clones by prevent two-weapon fighting, and hurts several of the subclasses (e.g. Horizon Walker) which have bonus action features that you want to use every round. Hence, those subclasses are just much less appealing since their features always need to compete with a nearly at-will +1d6 damage on every hit.
One of my least favorite parts of 3E was the necessity of certain feats like Weapon Finesse/Focus/Specialization or Wildshape spell casting. If these abilities are so central to a class, why not make them features?
Minimizing class feature taxes should have been a more clearly established design goal of 5E. One can see hints of it in the addition of the finesse weapon trait. But Warlocks tend to need Agonizing Blast, Rangers need(ed) to take Hunter’s Mark, and i’m sure there are others. Not giving clerics Thaumaturgy as a class feature or prestigitation to Sorcerers also bothers me. The latter aren’t necessary for the class to function, but they’re fun spells that rarely cause imbalance problems.
What is less clear is cases where the class has a plethora of viable options, such as a wizard choosing between Firebolt and Ray of Frost, or a Druid choosing between Frostbite and Shillelagh. These are meaningful choices that will set the character apart from others in their class without impacting their relative power level too badly. Sure, some choices might look less optimal, but the gap is much smaller than the aforementioned warlock’s player who didn’t know to take Agonizing Blast.
If i’m going to try to make a summary out of the above, players are better served when the designers give them meaningful options for their character choices. 5E definitely made big strides on this front compared to prior editions, but it still has a few too many instances of “wait, you didn’t know to take X class feature?”
After starting to write my comment on how I think this is the next best thing since slice bread for rangers, I slowly realized that this is actually awful.
Lets be real, Hunters mark should have been a basic class Ranger feature from the start, not a spell with concentration. The problem is, it wasn’t. The entirety of Ranger subclasses and spells is now based off the assumption that Base Ranger has no bonus action abilities till much later in the game (lvl 14 Vanish). Since the bonus action was free, many defining subclass abilities (Planar Warrior, Slayer’s Prey) and major spells (Ensnaring Strike, Healing Spirit, Zephyr Strike and Hunter’s Mark) were made bonus action uses. They are balanced around that fact.
By giving them Hunters Mark free, for all Rangers (yes its technically a replacement, so you dont have to take it, but Favored Enemy is bad even when you can actually use it) you are unbalancing the class, and not in the overpowered too strong way. Early game Monster Slayer becomes pointless, the point of the slayers prey feature is a free, slightly worse hunters mark, with no concentration. This just outright outdoes that. Similar with Horizon Walker, but it effects more the midgame when you have multiple attacks and can still only Planar Warrior once. A basic class feature shouldn’t define a class so much it obsoletes Subclasses before you even get them. Its an unfortunate side effect of adding basic class features in post, but I think its downsides outweigh its convenience level. Because all this is is a QOL change for Ranger, and its debatable if its even that.
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