DnD 5e - Ranger Spell List Breakdown
Last Updated: March 27th, 2020
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
Ranger spells are an interesting mix of buffs and utility options with a handful of direct damage spells and healing options. Most of the spells are taken from the Druid's spell list, though the Ranger gets several unique options like Hunter's Mark, and in many cases spells shared with the druid are the Ranger's worst options while spells unique to the Ranger are their best options.
The Ranger's spell selection is also limited heavily by WotC's concepts about what a ranger is and where they go on adventures. Spells will heavily favor fighting in forests (or in forest-like environments like orchards. Basically anywhere with trees and other abundant foliage)), which means that if you're fighting anywhere else your spell options are more limited. There's also distinct favoritisim toward ranged combat; ranged rangers look forward to Swift Quiver at 5th spell level, while melee rangers get Steel Wind Strike which absolutely doesn't care about how good you are at melee combat because it's a spell attack that has its own damage and ranged rangers can use it just as well. Hopefully we'll see some new options added in the future, but considering that the ranger got just 6 new spells in Xanathar's Guide to Everything I'm not optimistic.
This article is a perpetual work-in-progress. Please check back periodically as I add assessments for more spells.
This is not a comprehensive guide to every available spell, as that would be an exercise in madness. The following is a brief compilation of the most notable spells available to the class. Spells available via Magic Initiate are also excluded; for suggestions for Magic Initiate, see the "Feats" section, above.
- XGtE: You get spellcasting later and slower than anyone else, so you have very few options for protecting yourself from non-weapon damage. This will handle that issue, but it will eat your spell slots quickly so be sure to eliminate the source of the elemental damage as quickly as possible so that you don't run through your spell slots too quickly.
- PHB: Not worth one of your limited spells known. Leave this to someone who can cast ritual spells.
- PHB: Arguably easier than proficiency in Animal Handling, but it will become obsolete once beasts disappear around CR 10.
- EEPC: If your companion already has Pack Tactics, this is redundant. If it doesn't way to guarantee advantage for your companion. However, it requires Concentration so you can't use Hunter's mark at the same time.
- PHB: Rangers don't have as many spell slots as a full caster, so using your precious few slots on healing can be difficult. However, someone in the party needs to be able to heal the primary healer if they fall unconcious. But the second you can get Healing Spirit you should consider replacing this.
- PHB: Ideally someone in the party who can cast more spells than you will handle this, but somtimes you don't really have a choice.
- PHB: Almost exclusive to Rangers, Ensnaring Strike is a great way to handle single targets that are causing you problems, especially if the target is a melee monster. Note that you can use this at range, so archery builds can ensnare a target, then either wear them down or shift their attention to other foes. It's a Strength save, which means that most spellcasters and many agile enemies will have trouble with it, but big melee brutes will probably resist it. It's also an excellent counter to flying enemies because being restrained causes creatures which fly nonmagically to fall, which means that if you shoot a griffon or something it's going to take a pile of falling damage.
- PHB: An excellent way to cover your escape, but you can't see through the fog any better than anyone else, so don't expect to fight in this without some other advantage.
- PHB: An excellent resource, both in terms of healing and utility. A Druid can usually spare a prepared spell so that they can dump spells into Goodberry at the end of the day, but that may be harder for a Ranger since you get such a small number of spells known. Still, dumping your spell slots into a pile of goodberries the day before you leave on an adventure will give you a helpful pad of hit points that you can quickly use to heal after combat without resortin to a short rest.
- PHB: This shouldn't be a go-to option, but it's a nice way to handle tightly-packed groups of weak foes. Just don't rely on it too heavily, as it will eat your spell slots quickly without a big payoff.
- PHB: The Ranger's bread and butter. Hunter Rangers will spend the bulk of their time using Concentration on Hunter's Mark while they focus down single foes before switching to the next foe. The 1-hour duration means that you can get a ton of mileage out of one spell slot, but unless you're fighting at Range you'll need to constantly worry about making saves to maintain Concentration.
- PHB: Too situational.
- PHB: An extra 10 ft. of movement is always nice, and the 1-hour duration means that you can enjoy it for a long time on one spell slot. If you're playing a slow race or if you just want some extra manevuerability this is a great addition.
- XGtE: Good for setting a trap, or if you're resting somewhere dangerous with a convenient choke point like a narrow halway. Targets are restrained for at least one round, which is hopefully enough for you to fight your way out of your bedroll and grab a weapon.
- PHB: Situational, but sometimes the only witnesses are wild animals and you just need a clue from your local family of squirrels.
- XGtE: Cast it as a bonus action, and you get the benefits of Withdraw. If you attack, you get Advantage on the attack, some bonus damage, and the benefits of Dash. You only get to do it once, but if you're built to fight at range and something gets uncomfortably close to you, turn this on, step back 5 ft., shoot it to express your distaste, then run away.
- PHB: By the time you can cast this, your should have more AC than it can give you.
- PHB: The intent is that you will use this to scout an area using an animal. Maybe you cast Speak With Animals on it, then send it to explore somewhere and use Beast Sense to get a first-hand account. If you're desperate, you might also use this on an animal and carry it around to help address issues like blindness, deafness, or your own lack of darkvision. Your DM might reasonably impose Disadvantage on things like attack rolls when doing this due to the uncomfortable shift in perspective, but if you're truly desperate it mgiht be enough.
- PHB: With a 1-action casting time you might actually be able to use this in combat, but the damage is really low (compare 1d6+Dex twice to a total of 4d6) so the intent is clearly to use this to lay ambushes or to protect an area where you're resting. Unlike similar options like Alarm and Snare, this doesn't make a significant amount of noise when it goes into effect, so consider tying a bell to each piece of ammunition after you cast the spell.
- PHB: Darkvision is a significant tactical advantage, and with an 8-hour duration this is a fantastic way to get it.
- : Too expensive and too imprecise. Invest in Investigation.
- XGtE: This spell was massively weakened by errata issued in 2020. The cap of 1+mod uses means that most rangers can expect something like 3 to 4 uses of the spell, which totals just 3d6/4d6 healing when cast at 2nd level. That's still better than Cure Wounds, but it's not good enough to replace healing from a short rest when your party is in rough shape. The healing goes up by 1d6 per spell slot past 2nd, so you can double the healing by using a 3rd-level slot. Generally you don't want to use this during a fight because the healing isn't fast enough and it requires Concentration which you might be dedicating to Hunter's Mark, but it may be worth that trade so that you don't need to spend another spell known on Cure Wounds.
- PHB: Helpful, but by the time you get it hopefully you have a cleric or something that has had this for a long time.
- PHB: +10 is a massive bonus, easily enough to offset a terrible Dexterity bonus and Disadvantage from armor so your whole party can be sneaky. The 1-hour duration is great, too, but remember that it requires Concentration.
- PHB: Poison is common across the full CR range, so this is a fantastic defensive option at any level. The 1-hour duration means that you can get a lot of mileage out of a singlr spell slot even if you cast it ahead of time.
- PHB: Great both for stealth and for debilitating enemy spellcasters who can often escape danger using spells like Misty Step which only have Verbal components.
- PHB: Excellent area control for such a low-level spell, and it doesn't allow a save. THis is especially good in encounters with large numbers of melee enemies.
- PHB: Normally a fine spell, but the Ranger gets it so late that it's absolutely obsolete.
- PHB: The only selling point of this spell is the massive 60-foot cone. The 3d8 damage, coupled with your relatively poor spell save DC, means that you should expect most enemies to pass the save and take an average of ust 6.75 damage. You need to hit at minimum 4 targets just to match the damage you would deal with two regular longbow attacks with Hunter's Mark, and Hunter's Mark keeps being useful after the first round you cast it. If you use this, you need to be able to hit an impressively large number of targers, and even then it's rarely worth the spell slot.
- PHB: A Continual Flame is typically sufficient, but sometimes you need to light up larger areas like dark battlefiends or massive caverns. This also dispels magical darkness of 3rd level or lower, which is great if you're fighting enemies like drow which can produce magical darkness. Tragically, you can't cast Daylight at a higher level to dispel magical darkness of higher levels.
- EEPC: For the same spell slot you can cast Hunter's Mark with an 8-hour duration. Hunter's Mark will provide the same amount of damage, plus the spell's other benefits. The only advantage that Flame Arrows has over Hunter's Mark is that you don't need to spend a Bonus Action to change targets, but even then you're limited to such a small pool of ammunition that the 1-hour duration feels pointless. Of course, Flame Arrows costs an Action to cast (compared to a Bonus Action for Hunter's Mark), so the 1-hour duration makes a bit easier to set up before you go into combat if you still insist on wasting a spell slot on it.
- PHB: Basically a better version of Hail of Thorns, but the damage is rarely good enough to justify the spell slot so save this for when you have a big group of enemies in a small area. 5 or more seems like a good number.
- PHB: Excellent area control hampered only by the fact that it requires plants to be in the area.
- PHB: An absolutely crucial defensive option, but hopefully by this level your party has some full spellcasters who can provide it.
- PHB: Situational. If you need information, Speak With Animals can often get you the same information since there are typically animals wherever there are plants. If you want difficult terrain, Plant Growth is better and works in the same scenarios. If you encounter plant creatures, Speak With Plants is basically your only option, but I've never seen a ranger with enough charisma to make that matter.
- PHB: Too situational. Usually you use this to keep ranged enemies from shooting you with ranged weapons, but since you don't have enough spellcasting to rely on as your primary offensive option you're probably only hurting yourself unless you're totally incapable of using a ranged weapon.
- PHB: Normally a fine spell, but the Ranger gets it so late that it's absolutely obsolete.
- PHB: Nice, but situational.
- PHB: Not a good spell, your save DC will be relatively poor, and you need your bonus action for other things.
- : Perhaps the only option available to rangers where Strength is tempting. Guardian of Nature makes you really strong for 1 minute. The Primal Beast option makes you very good on offense, but advantage on Strength-based attacks idnicates that it's intended for Strength-based builds which are generally terrible for the Ranger. The Great Tree option offers Advantage on Dexterity attacks rolls (probably the part that you care about the most), but it also offers Advantage on Constitution saving throws so you're less likely to lose Concentration, and difficult terrain in an area so enemies will have trouble getting into and out of melee with you.
- PHB: A decent buff, but at this level magic attacks are common.
- PHB: This would be much better if you could cast rituals.
- PHB: This makes the Hunter Ranger's Volley ability somewhat redundant, but that doesn't make this a good option. It has all the same problems as Conjure Barrage. Your save DC will be relatively low unless you went all-in on Wisdom after getting 20 Dexterity, so most rangers can expect enemies to pass the save frequently.
- XGtE: If this were a melee weapon attack instead of a melee spell attack it would be great, but your spell attacks are probably a bit behind your weapon attacks so you're more likely to miss unless you have something else adding to your attacks like Guardian of Nature or Bless.
- PHB: Hugely improves your action economy, but since it requires Concentration you can't combine it with Hunter's Mark or Guardian of Nature, and it requires a ranged weapon with ammunition so Strength-based rangers don't have a goood way to use this. It also makes Crossbow Expert somewhat redundant, and depending on a few variables (magic weapons, possibly other buffs, etc.) you may do more damage with Hunter's Mark than and Crossbow Expert than you would with one extra shot from a ranged weapon without the extra d6 of damage.
Consider a high-level ranger with Crossbow Expert, a nonmagical hand crossbow, and 20 Dexterity. 4 attacks will deal a total of 4d6+20 (avg. 36), while three attacks with Hunter's Mark running will deadly 6d6+15 (avg. 36). There is some nuance to the math because the extra attack means another chance to score a critical hit, but the difference isn't big enough to make Swift Quiver worth being a 5th-level spell when you can cast Hunter's Mark as a 1st-level spell. Magic weapons, feats, or class features which add additional damage will make the math favor Swift Quiver more heavily, but I'm not sure how much you would need to justify the difference in spell level between Hunter's Mark and Swift Quiver.
Now consider that same ranger with a longbow and without Crossbow Expert. For that ranger, two extra attacks doubles their number of attacks for the turn, taking their damage output from 2d8+2d6+10 with Hunter's Mark (avg. 26) to 4d8+20 (avg. 38), a nearly 50% increase in damage output. We're again ignoring the possibility of critical hits, fighting style, magic items, etc. but any of those things tip the math further in favor of Swift Quiver. Even if you're built for melee, Swift Quiver is a great way to switch to ranged combat and deal a bunch of damage.
- PHB: Situational. In combat the intent is that you'll use this to outmaneuver enemies by moving between trees, but that requires an abundance of available trees to support that. As much as DnD tends to love forests, they're a tiny portion of the overall landscape of adventuring so you can't guarantee that this will every be useful in most campaigns.
- XGtE: Exciting, but the usefulness of the spell depends on the abundance of plant life in the area. It would be better if you could replace parts of the spell to suit the environment, but if you're in a desert or a frozen tundra, you may get nothing. As a fix, let structurally similar plant life replace the plants specified in the spell description: Let seaward work as vines, let large cacti or giant mushrooms work as trees, etc..