Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Fiercely independent wanderers, hunters of monsters, wardens of the borders between civilization and the wilderness, rangers in Dungeons & Dragons 5e are one of the character classes with the deepest connection to the natural world.
As a ranger grows in experience and prowess, their attunement to nature grows as well, manifesting itself as a natural talent for magic rooted in communicating with the animals and plants that they meet.
This is called a ranger’s Primal Awareness.
In this article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at Primal Awareness, the 3rd-level optional feature for the ranger class, how it works, how to get the most out of its spells, and how it compares to the ranger’s original ability: Primeval Awareness.
What Is Primal Awareness in D&D 5e?
Primal Awareness is an optional 3rd-level ranger feature, which replaces the Primeval Awareness feature for the class.
It was first introduced as part of the revised ranger unearthed arcana, but it has since been made into an official, legal, optional rule as part of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
These optional rules are still only included in a campaign at the dungeon master’s discretion, but there’s little reason why a DM wouldn’t allow you to play a ranger who uses Primal Awareness instead of Primeval Awareness.
Primal Awareness expresses the ranger’s connection to the plants and animals of the natural world.
A ranger with this ability learns to focus their awareness through the interconnections of nature. As a result, they learn additional spells upon reaching certain levels in the ranger class.
Primal Awareness spells don’t count against the number of ranger spells a character knows.
A ranger can cast each of these spells once without expending a spell slot. Once cast in this way, a ranger can’t cast these spells again before finishing a long rest.
Because these spells also count as ranger spells, you can also cast them using your ranger spell slots if you have them available.
Is Primal Awareness a Good Ability?
Before we get into whether you should pick Primal Awareness over Primeval Awareness, let’s look at this ability by itself.
Primal Awareness gives a ranger access to five extra known spells over the course of their journey from 3rd to 17th level and effectively a free spell slot to cast each one once per long rest.
While the five Primal Awareness spells — Speak With Animals, Beast Sense, Speak With Plants, Locate Creature, and Commune With Nature — might not initially seem especially exciting or powerful, I don’t think that’s the point of their inclusion here. Let’s take a closer look.
All five spells have roughly the same function and fall with a similar thematic category: using the ranger’s connection to nature to gather information about their surroundings.
They’re slightly niche utility spells that lean more heavily on theme, narrative, exploration, and non-combat options than other “more powerful” ranger spells.
I honestly believe this is a great addition to the class.
Essentially, rangers memorize spells each day like bards and sorcerers, as opposed to classes that can swap out their spells each time they rest.
This isn’t a problem for other classes that prepare spells this way as they usually gain access to a larger pool of spells known.
However, the ranger not only gets a rather shallow pool of spells to memorize, but their spell list is — with the exception of signature spells like Zephyr Strike and Hunter’s Mark — pretty much just a pared down version of the druid list.
This is all well and good, but it means that when a ranger player levels up, they have to choose a single additional spell every two levels.
This means that most rangers are going to focus on grabbing combat magic, options that disable enemies, and other high-impact spells like Pass Without Trace, Hunter’s Mark, and Spike Growth.
I can’t imagine that something as situational as Speak With Plants would ever make its way to the top of a ranger’s (very short) shortlist for new spell choices, but that spell (along with the other four that you get as part of Primal Awareness) is such a good fit for the ranger that I really like the fact Primal Awareness has found a way to get them into a ranger’s loadout without costing the class a “more useful” spell while simultaneously replicating and improving upon the ability’s generic predecessor, Primeval Awareness.
Primal Awareness vs. Primeval Awareness
Primeval Awareness is the generic ranger 3rd-level ability that was released as part of the class in the Player’s Handbook.
Beginning at 3rd level, rangers can use an action and expend one ranger spell slot to focus their awareness on the surrounding area.
For the duration (which lasts for 1 minute per level of the spell slot that was expended), Primeval Awareness allows a ranger to sense whether the following types of creatures are present within 1 mile (or within up to 6 miles if the ranger is in their favored terrain): aberrations, celestials, dragons, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead.
This feature doesn’t reveal the creatures’ location or number.
Given how few spells slots the ranger has to play with, not to mention how vague the information they gather as a result of using Primeval Awareness is, this ability has been one of the foundations of criticisms against the original Player’s Handbook ranger as the weakest D&D class.
It not only gives the class less to do with its spells — by forcing it to use its limited spell slots on a different ability entirely — but the fact Primeval Awareness doesn’t indicate direction means that the ranger’s favored terrain actually makes this ability worse as it provides even less information about the exact possible location of aberrations, celestials, dragons, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead within range.
It’s an all around mess.
Primal Awareness, by contrast, increases the ranger’s very limited supply of spell slots and spells known, which objectively makes the character more powerful.
Also, the five spells that Primal Awareness gives the ranger can each be used as a way of gathering information about the surrounding area, which means that they can all, more or less, perform the same function as Primeval Awareness but usually with greater accuracy.
Primal Awareness Spells
Let’s take a look at the five spells granted to a ranger by the Primal Awareness feature.
Speak With Animals (3rd)
This spell grants the caster the ability to verbally understand and communicate with beasts for 10 minutes.
The knowledge and awareness of many beasts is limited by their intelligence, but at minimum, beasts can give you information about nearby locations and monsters, including whatever they can perceive or have perceived within the past day.
You might be able to persuade a beast to perform a small favor for you at the GM’s discretion.
Find the right bird or squirrel, and this is already as effective a way of gathering information about the surrounding area as Primeval Awareness, and you can even bribe woodland animals to perform small tasks for you, from delivering messages to spying on enemy movements.
A great low-level spell that opens up a whole toolbox of possible options and ways to engage with the wilderness.
Beast Sense (5th)
You touch a willing beast. For the duration of the spell, you can use your action to see through the beast’s eyes and hear what it hears, and you continue to do so until you use your action to return to your normal senses.
While perceiving through the beast’s senses, you gain the benefits of any special senses possessed by that creature, though you are blinded and deafened to your own surroundings.
This is probably the least useful of all the Primal Awareness spells as you either need to have a pet that’s willing (and smart enough) to explore and scout for you or burn an additional spell on something like Animal Friendship or Speak With Animals.
I don’t think it’s powerful enough to warrant a 2nd-level spell slot. Still, use Beast Sense on a bird with good eyesight that can fly high above the terrain, and you’ve effectively got an hour of top-notch scouting.
Speak With Plants (9th)
This spell allows the caster to imbue all plants within 30 feet with limited sentience and animation. Affected plants gain the ability to communicate with the caster and follow simple commands.
They can understand and answer questions about recent events in their immediate surroundings — such as the nature of creatures that passed by, the weather, and other circumstances a plant might perceive.
The caster can also transform difficult terrain caused by nearby plants into ordinary terrain that lasts for the duration, or turn ordinary terrain where plants are present into difficult terrain that lasts for the duration, causing vines and branches to hinder pursuers, for example.
The caster can also (at the GM’s discretion) have the plants perform other tasks on their behalf. The plants cannot uproot themselves and walk around, but they can move their branches and stalks about to manipulate their surroundings.
Lastly, this spell can cause the plants created by the entangle spell to release a restrained creature.
This is such an unbelievably underrated spell that not only provides similar exploration and information gathering opportunities as Speak With Animals, but it gives rangers amazing control over their surrounding area.
Use this to rapidly create cover to hide behind or expose hiding enemies. Use it to hinder pursuers or catch up to a fleeing enemy and generally make the wilderness feel like your own personal domain.
Locate Creature (13th)
The caster describes or names a creature that is familiar to them, sensing the direction of the creature as long as it is within 1,000 feet. If the creature is moving, the caster also learns the direction of its movement.
The spell can either locate a specific creature or the nearest creature of a particular type (an orc, a dragon, etc.), so long as you have seen such a creature up close–within 30 feet–at least once before.
If the target creature is currently in a different form, such as being under the effects of a polymorph spell, the spell doesn’t work.
This spell also can’t locate a creature if running water at least 10 feet wide blocks a direct path between you and the creature.
Other than the running-water limitation, this is a fantastic spell for hunting down specific enemy types in the wilderness or even unique individuals in large cities.
Commune With Nature (17th)
This spell allows the caster to momentarily gain a flood of insight into the surrounding area.
In the outdoors, the spell gives the caster knowledge of the land within 3 miles. In caves and other natural underground settings, the radius is limited to 300 feet.
The spell doesn’t function where nature has been replaced by construction, such as in dungeons and towns.
When this spell is cast, the caster instantly gains knowledge of up to three facts of their choice about any of the following subjects as they relate to the area:
- terrain and bodies of water
- prevalent plants, minerals, animals, or peoples
- powerful celestials, fey, fiends, elementals, or undead
- influence from other planes of existence
For example, a caster could determine the location of powerful undead in the area, the location of major sources of safe drinking water, and the location of any nearby towns.
This spell functions more or less exactly as the original Primeval Awareness should have worked. It’s a great way to attune your ranger to the surrounding area and gain vital information about a new adventuring location.
I’m a little sad that rangers (famously a class that gets access to useful spells far, far too late for them to remain relevant compared to the abilities of other spellcasters) only get this spell at 17th level when their allies are probably going to have all sorts of other ways to extract information about the nearby area, but it’s still a great thematic and mechanical option to cap off this ability.
That’s all you need to know about Primal Awareness, folks.
It’s a nice, thematic addition to the ranger class, reduces the opportunity cost of picking up a few niche utility spells on a class that doesn’t have slots to spare, and is a huge improvement over its predecessor.
Until next time, happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.