D&D Next: Druids

The final-final update to the playtest packet offers a second paladin oath (apparently this is where they’re storing the avenger class now?), some tweaks to paladin spell DCs (not paralleled in the ranger, for whatever reason), and a huge revision to Wild Shape and the Circle of the Moon, over in the druid class. So I want to break down the druid class, both what’s changed here and the archetype as a whole, because it’s something I’ve vaguely meant to write about for a long while now.

4e was the first edition in which I ever played a druid, or had any particular interest in doing so. I’m well aware that druids are one of the most powerful classes in 3.x, but they didn’t really speak to me at that point. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for out of the class, but the druid is pretty intensive on data management, between pet management, the complications of 3.x wild shaping, and a buff-and-summons-heavy spell list. I would venture to state that no class in 3.x required system mastery quite as intensive as the druid. The general theme is “plant-and-animal cleric.”

Actually, before I move on to 4e, let me step back to 1e and 2e. 1e druids are pretty explicitly Celtic, as is clear in the level titles. At this point, they’re beginning their split away from core clerics – literally, they’re a cleric subclass – by trading weapon proficiencies, armor proficiencies, and turning undead for a boat of small abilities, a version of wild-shaping that is awkwardly limited (and needs the player to know a good bit about the Monster Manual), and one really, really underestimated spell, Animal Friendship. (This is going to come up again in 2e.) The Celtic parts of the class are also played up in their dependence on mistletoe and holly as spellcasting components. The rules for these components are kind of agonizing: the only way a druid gets the listed effectiveness (range, duration, area of effect) out of her spells is to use mistletoe that can only be harvested one night out of the year. It’s 1e, so there’s no guideline as to how many uses of greater mistletoe a druid could harvest in that time. Otherwise, the player needs to get used to taking 25-50% off of every spell’s range, duration, and area of effect, and/or the spells being easier to resist.

None of this is the really weird stuff. The druid class in the 1e PHB only goes up to 14th level, and the last three levels are brutally competitive. There can only be a limited number of each rank of druid, and advancement requires both the accumulation of XP and a duel with the current holder of that position. Now, this is really interesting if you’re thinking in terms of 1e and 2e late-game play, where players advance slowly and spend a ton of time managing lands or organizations. If there’s a long-running and active plot, though, this is a disaster. Oh, and if you lose the duel, you lose XP down to the beginning of the level below. The XP table is very generous to druids up to 12th level (insanely fast as compared to clerics), but the next few levels after that require double or more their entire accrued experience to that point. Unearthed Arcana eventually released Hierophant levels for the druid as a way to advance beyond 14th level. I seriously doubt that anyone ever played a druid to Hierophant levels, but they’re pretty cool: the ability to wander the Inner Planes with increasing freedom.

2e came along and made only one noticeable change to the class, other than a heavy rework of the spell list. The requirements around mistletoe were vastly simplified: now it is a holy symbol rather than a consumed component, and can be gathered under any full moon, not just the night of Midsummer. It’s a huge quality-of-living improvement for the druid and her allies, that’s for sure. There’s a minor clarification to the druid’s wild-shaping, as to what happens to the druid’s gear, and that’s it. At this point, the class is all over the place, but it’s a better than passing fair model for Merlin and Gandalf. (The tone of the class is particularly in line with Bernard Cornwell’s vision of Merlin, though of course that Merlin wasn’t so much about shapeshifting or True Neutral alignment.)

Digression: Seriously, now. If you’re reading this and you ever played a druid from 1st level up to 14+ in 1e or 2e, using the rules as written, I want to hear about it.

The 2e druid is still a major outlier among the classes of the PHB. It purports to be a cleric, but it is so different from the cleric that I have to wonder what their basis for that connection was. It has its own XP advancement table, more restrictions on gear, much steeper ability score requirements, allows only two races. Don’t play a half-elf druid, though! The DMG’s racial level limits cap half-elves to 9th level.

Another Digression: Did any of 2e’s settings ever explain why elves couldn’t be druids? In 3.x and 4e, the quintessential druid is an elf.

 2e’s druids are much less overtly Celtic, since level titles are long gone and there’s a lot less emphasis on gathering mistletoe, holly, or oak leaves.

There’s a lot more emphasis on True Neutral alignment, including some of the most bizarre and unplayable alignment guidelines ever written: “A true neutral druid (hint: they were all true neutral) might join the local barony to put down a tribe of evil gnolls, only to drop out or switch sides when the gnolls were brought to the brink of destruction.” Riiiight. (Also, this contradicts the rest of the druid’s ethos writeup, but whatever.)

So about animal friendship. This first-level spell, basically unchanged from 1e to 2e, allows the druid to befriend beasts of up to 2HD per caster level, and the druid can teach them up to three tricks. Buried in the description of one spell out of the druid’s whole list, we have a massively powerful class feature that more or less gives the druid one or more additional actions in combat. It’s a lucky thing they hid this major class ability, because its use bogs the game down and makes the druid basically twice as powerful as any other character of their level.

The point is that the druid has always been a weird, all-over-the-place class. 4e puts a lot more emphasis on the skinchanging side of the druid; the influence of World of Warcraft is apparent. (I love WoW druids – this isn’t criticism!) 4e’s druids are made for action; shapeshifting is perfectly fluid and as often as desired, as long as you’re going for one of the combat forms.

The other forms are daily utility powers. 4e druids are split between spellcasting and melee combat, and I had a great time with the one that I played. They’re not clerics, though. Not even a little bit. Druids have almost no healing capability, because 4e casts them as controllers (banking on the class’s history with entangle and similar effects) rather than leaders.

Shamans (the primal-source leader class) are a pretty good data point in talking about the development of the druid class. Editions of D&D other than 4e left open a lot of possibilities in how a player might approach a class. With their huge toolkit of spellcasting options, druids of those earlier editions might easily be controllers (entangle, as mentioned, and heat metal), strikers (call lightning), leaders (just about every kind of healing functionality, though never quite as well as clerics), or defenders (wild shaping, and animal summoning/summon nature’s ally). In 4e they are controllers with a dab of striker and, if you really push it, a tiny sliver of healing and tanking. They lose the pet-class stuff, because that’s a lot more management and action-economy power than 4e grants. The shaman picks up the pet aspect as well, though there are a lot of differences between the spirit ally and the actually-real animal allies of earlier editions.

Thematically, the Celtic pagan priest is completely gone from 4e. They’re still nature-linked, obviously, but they are described as interacting with the spirits of nature and channeling the Primal Beast. They’re a lot more interested in predators and inclement weather than plants and growing things, though that’s far from absolute. My only real regret about the class, having played it from first to seventh level, is that I wanted a little more of the ecclesiastical social role carried in the Celtic priest concept, but I couldn’t bring that forward in the character’s interactions. A minor complaint, all told – and faerie fire was cooler in 4e than it has ever been before.

Okay, so that’s 34 years of D&D druid history… let’s talk about D&D Next. As with most of the classes, the D&D Next druid is a huge step back in the direction of the pre-4e druid, but retains a few notes of 4e’s changes. It’s a lot more like the cleric again, for one thing: healing, damage, and control are all on the table again in their spellcasting options, and this druid is a more potent healer than any of its predecessors. Wild Shaping takes a kind of diverging approach, as in 4e: some shapes remove almost all combat capability and emphasize movement, while others (available only to the Circle of the Moon path) are intended for front-line combat. The miscellaneous abilities of the earlier druids are also back, with some tweaking to fit D&D Next’s design scheme. The big deal, though, is the two Paths, because the paths make two completely different types of druid available.

The Circle of the Land druid is focused on spellcasting. The path grants additional spells (comparable to domain spells) and Natural Recovery (identical to Arcane Recovery), and some miscellaneous extras; regrettably, they add in immunity to poison and disease here. This druid is a lot more like 1e and 2e druids, in that the player should expect to spend most fights in the character’s normal form. The character is tolerably potent in melee combat, though that scales up to highly potent if the player figures out how to use shillelagh correctly (think of it as a one-handed reach weapon that does d8 damage at first level and scales up from there). Ranged damage spells and healing are probably the majority of the character’s actions – moonbeam is a go-to damage spell, since a single spell slot of 2nd level or higher opens up a new option for the next ten rounds, assuming you maintain concentration. If you want to heal people while also dishing out ranged damage (and having a full boat of utility spells, especially divination), the Circle of the Land druid is great.

The Circle of the Moon druid is… not that kind of druid, and much more 4e-like up to a point. Their spellcasting is still pretty good, though they lose out on Natural Recovery. In exchange, they get more combat-focused Wild Shape forms, which brings me to a discussion of how Wild Shape works now. For all flavors of druid, Wild Shape is a per-short-rest (per-encounter in the easier parlance) ability, and your Wild Shape duration is measured in hit points; once you take enough damage to lose those hit points, the Wild Shape is gone, and any excess damage carries over to the druid. While in the Wild Shape, the druid retains his normal Int, Wis, Cha, and proficiencies, and may gain additional proficiencies. The druid loses access to all gear of any kind (that is, it has no effect while melded into the druid’s new form) and loses the power of speech and spellcasting, and gains the movement, senses, physical stats (including attacks and AC) and hit points of the new form.

I’m disappointed in this setup for a number of reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t reflect how skinchanging works in fantasy I’ve ever seen. If someone has shapeshifted into a bird and takes a tiny bit of damage, the shapeshifter doesn’t plummet to his demise; nor do Wart and Merlin worry about taking an injury and drowning while they’re swimming around the moat. Obviously skinchanging can’t really be simulated, but the goal of the rules should at least point in the direction of how the concept works in fantasy. A druid in bear form shouldn’t be forced back into her normal form as the fight heats up.

Secondly, the mass of extra hit points that Circle of the Moon druids receive in their combat forms is pretty obnoxious. An extra 97 hit points (from the form of the triceratops) gives the druid a sum total of hit points much greater than any fighter or barbarian of the same level, though at a huge cost in Armor Class. Out of all the options available, the highest AC is 13, or 15 with barkskin active (which, really, the druid should be doing). If the druid is clever, she picks up the Dual Wielder feat and argues for those claws to be “wielding” a different non-shield weapon in each hand (personally, I’d accept this argument). There are some other spells that look like a really good idea as well: elemental mantle doesn’t require concentration, and all four of its options are good enough that you should want them all the time. It’s unclear what happens if you’ve cast moonbeam or call lightning before Wild Shaping; since you’re not casting a new spell or doing anything that explicitly requires speech, it’s up to a DM’s ruling whether you can keep moving the spotlight of the moonbeam or call down a lightning bolt while shapeshifted.

Thirdly, there’s the other side of the hit point thing. While Wild Shaped, the druid does not have her native hit point total. Think of those hit points as RFG‘ed, though any damage in excess of the Wild Shape’s hit points do carry over to the druid as they change back. This means that even at 20th level, as a triceratops, you have 97 hit points – and as a hawk, you have 3. No big deal, right? You can just fall back on your hit point pool when you take damage. But no! D&D Next has these hit point threshold rules ready and waiting to bite you in the ass. With 3 hit points, a 20th level druid shapeshifted into a hawk is susceptible to a first-level wizard casting sleep.

That one is a trifle absurd, so let’s try a more likely case: a 20th level druid is shapeshifted into a triceratops for a fight. This is a pretty good idea! But with only 97 hit points, the druid dies instantly when the bad guy whips out Power Word: Kill. The druid may be the only 20th-level character affected while still at full hit points. Holy Word is also a Bad Time.

Interestingly, polymorph (and only that one spell) accounts for this, by making shapeshifters immune. I presume that being shapeshifted is one sufficient way to qualify as a shapeshifter…

Lastly, it drives me a little bit crazy to see a class that doesn’t need anything. Look, the Vow of Poverty in the Book of Exalted Deeds and the Oathsworn class in Arcana Evolved are experiments in characters that have no use for treasure. The Circle of the Moon druid is not the absolute case that the VoP and Oathsworn are, so the druid can gather all kinds of stuff to improve combat ability in humanoid form. (Here I’m ignoring stuff to improve non-combat ability: such magic items are rare in the average D&D campaign. Also, the druid’s favored non-combat functions, travel and perception, are enhanced rather than diminished by wild shaping.) My point here is that D&D needs players to want things. Yes, you want players to care about goals other than treasure – the plot of the game, their social and political goals, and so on. Seriously, I know. You also want material rewards. D&D can still be D&D without any loot at all, though I feel kind of bad for the fighters, rogues, and wizards of such a campaign. Especially the rogues, who lose their class abilities without their weekly filthy-lucre bath. Won’t someone think of the rogues?

The eventual solutions (there are several) are obvious enough. Someone, either WotC or a third-party publisher, will release a group of magic items that do retain their benefits while the druid is shapeshifted. Possibly there will also be a feat. This is the exceptions-based design solution, and it’s pretty much inevitable. It also creates a whole class of items that only druids really care to use, a kind of narrowness in magic item design that the playtest has mostly avoided (the robe of the archmagi and the ring of wizardry are two class-locked exceptions).

The second clear solution irritates the crap out of me, thinking as a DM, because it’s such a blatant attempt to avoid the class’s restrictions. Create magic items like necklaces or collars that other party members place upon the druid, post-shapeshift. This equip/unequip routine would be thoroughly tiresome.

The third clear solution is the one I could be okay with, because at least it’s inventive, even if it is still a blatant workaround. At least two editions of D&D, and probably more, have included battle-standards and other items that are placed on the field and thereafter radiate their benefit to the party out to a particular radius. Obviously, such items would be great for Circle of the Moon druids.

Okay, I’ve been tearing into the druid design for awhile. Time for me to talk about what would make me happy. The existing Background system solves my central desire: by taking the Priest background, the druid fits the role of spiritual leader – Cornwell’s Merlin, a wizard-of-religious-status, a lawgiver. (This points to why it’s good to separate classes from backgrounds as much as possible. If you wanted to play some other kind of druid, the class itself shouldn’t get in your way.)

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I get all worked up about immunities. Turn immunities into resistances and let’s move on.

Fixing the hit point problem in Wild Shape is super easy. Each shape carries from 0 to (2 x current druid level) hit points. These are temporary hit points, and are lost first. Losing all of these temporary hit points does not end your Wild Shape. Edge up the ACs of the combat-friendly forms by 1-2 points. Introduce a more interesting variety of attacks to the Wild Shape forms – just because you’re Wild Shaped, that doesn’t mean your round-by-round options should get boring, and your mental acuity might mean that you can come up with ways to use your animal form that the animal itself wouldn’t think to use. (You understand the Doorknob Principle, for starters.)

The magic item thing is tougher, because it’s a more open question as to whether it should be “fixed.” The good side of the existing design is its utter simplicity: your stat block changes to match this creature, end of story. There’s nothing to calculate. In this case, though, having nothing to calculate means having nothing to improve, and I expect that high-level Circle of the Moon druids will be disappointed with their relative combat effectiveness. (I could be wrong. I was wrong about the current ranger, because I didn’t take their spellcasting into account sufficiently.) I think, though, that no matter how much the designers want to make D&D Next not depend on magic items, it’s just not going to be plausible to feel combat-effective in beast form at high level, unless there are stat stick weapons and armors that pass on their magical benefits (if not their mundane natures) while the druid is Wild Shaped.

I suspect that druid multiclassing will get weird at the high end as well – I could be wrong, but it seems to me that getting to 6th level as a druid and taking the rest of your levels as a rogue would go some distance toward making tiger form more potent. Maybe Druid 8 to get that second per-encounter Wild Shape. Think of it as a rogue who picks up 42 free hit points twice an encounter. Or, for hilarious brain-breaking potential: monk. (Some of these ideas rely on very shaky rules ground, I am aware.)

Alternately: finish embracing the druid as a setting’s midpoint between the cleric and the wizard. I get that this idea won’t appeal to most, but it sounds pretty awesome to me.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *