Now with extra special Wild Shapes!
Anyway, just ignore that opener. Instead, let’s talk about the birds, the bees, the dire wolves, the elementals, and the masters of them all… the Druids!
Come on down to Stonehenge and get ready to learn!
On the Origins of Druidism
Personally, I find the druid one of the most fascinating Dungeons and Dragons classes, in terms of background. The Druids, historically, are one of the most mysterious groups/castes of people – but there are some things we do know.
In early Celtic societies, the Druids were the priestly order that oversaw the religious practices of the Celts. They’re probably best compared to the medieval Catholic clergy, as besides their obvious religious purpose, were also major political powers in their own right.
Despite this, there is almost no written record of the druids whatsoever through the majority of their existence. Some suspect that there were prohibitions against recording history among the druids, even though several accounts portray them as perfectly literate. Most of our knowledge comes from contemporaries such as the late Greek writer Pliny the Younger and the famous Roman Emperor-to-be Julius Caesar.
But let’s not get too distracted. In D&D, the druid class began life as a subset of the cleric focused on wielding the powers of a generalized “nature” rather than any one specific god. Over time, the ability to turn into animals was added, thus giving us the druid that we know and love today.
Much like their historical namesake, druids are notable for their mysteriousness. Very little is said of how druidic orders work in the Player’s Handbook, and the practices and methods of those groups are left largely to the imagination of the DM and players.
A Druid’s Features
Next, lets run down the basic features of the druid. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment.
|2nd||Wild Shape, Druid Circle #1||12th||ABSI|
|4th||Ability Score Increase (ABSI) , Wild Shape +||14th||Druid Circle #4|
|6th||Druid Circle #2||16th||ABSI|
|8th||ABSI, Wild Shape ++||18th||Timeless Body, Beast Spells|
|10th||Druid Circle #3||20th||Archdruid (Wild Shape +++)|
Remember what I mentioned last time about the peculiar pattern of spellcasters? You can see that here too – besides Spellcasting, Wild Shape, and their Druid Circle features… the druid has no other significant abilities.
Now we get into a discussion that we could have had in either the bard or cleric articles but didn’t because I’m lazy and it wasn’t too important. And that discussion is about… what the hell you can actually do on your turn.
Every class needs something that it can reliably do every turn in combat. For martial classes, such as the barbarian or ranger, this action is to attack something with a melee or ranged attack. For spellcasters, such as the warlock or sorcerer, this action is typically a cantrip.
Some classes mix things up. Both bards and clerics have weapons and cantrips, and so can use either. Clerics generally determine things depending on their subclass features (something I did touch on before) while with the bard it’s mostly personal preference.
What about the druid, then? Unlike the bard or cleric, they don’t have access to many good weapon choices. And while they do have a few good cantrip options (shillelelaghhaggis), they don’t match up too well with the versatility of wizard and sorcerer cantrips, or the sheer power of the warlock’s eldritch blast.
So, instead, druids get something else – the ability to shapeshift into something that does have good attack options. Wild Shape. And this leads to the great weirdness of the druid class.
The Beast Within
In many ways, Wild Shape defines the druid even more than their spellcasting. Ultimately, druids inhabit a very similar role to the cleric. Their spells are largely support-focused enhancements and control spells. But a cleric can’t turn into a bear – only druids (and werebears) can do that.
So what is Wild Shape? It’s an interesting feature – by my reckoning, it’s actually the longest class feature description in the entire game. The thing takes up almost two whole pages just explaining how it works. And this has very wide-ranging effects on the class as a whole.
Here’s how I see it. In combat, a druid has a very simple set of actions.
- First, they determine whether or not to use a spell to enhance their allies or control the battlefield. If they choose to, that’s the first turn.
- Next they decide whether or not the encounter warrants a Wild Shape. If it does, they turn into a dire wolf and spend the rest of the combat biting things.
- Meanwhile, if they don’t want to use Wild Shape then they use cantrips instead. Occasionally they might shift out of Wild Shape to heal, and then decide whether or not to burn a second Wild Shape or to stay out and cantrip.
That’s how I think the druid is supposed to work in combat. Wild Shape is an alternative, empowered combat form that the druid can take as the situation demands. It’s very versatile.
But it isn’t very spellcaster-y, is it?
Circle of Life
The druid is another case like the barbarian, at first glance. A class with only one subclass – Circle of the Moon.
I don’t think that’s quite right though. Unlike Berserker, the Circle of the Land isn’t bad, it just isn’t as good as Circle of the Moon. And the reason for this is Wild Shape.
To put it simply – Circle of the Land gives you more variability in your spellcasting, but Circle of the Moon makes you straight up better at something. I think that’s why the perception is that Moon is stronger than Land, it just offers a much more obvious and straightforward power boost.
Circle of the Land also, funnily enough, suffers from the classic “druid in a desert” problem from 2e. If you’re in a situation where your bonus spells aren’t useful, you’re kinda out of luck. Meanwhile, when is turning into a dire bear not useful? You’re a giant bear!
Anyway, let’s look more in depth at what the druid subclasses do… which is actually difficult, because things aren’t very consistent.
Circle of the Land seems much more noncombat focused. It’s two first features just make your spellcasting better, then it’s all about defensive boosts against very specific threats.
Circle of the Moon, meanwhile, seems a bit tighter, design-wise. First you get improvements to Wild Shape to make it more viable in combat. Then you get magic weapon claws, to help your damage keep up. Then you get to turn into an elemental, and finally you get alter self at-will.
You know what? I’m kinda getting why people dislike Circle of the Land a bit better now. I still think it isn’t weaker, per se, but it certainly is less interesting.
To be honest, when making new druid subclasses I would treat Circle of the Moon as the standard.
At 2nd level, you get a core feature that defines the subclass. Whether it works with Wild Shape or spells or something else is up to you.
At 6th level, you get a damage increase/bonus. A more defensive subclass might instead get a defensive boost – whatever it is, it should roughly equal Extra Attack in power.
At 10th level, you get a new expansion on your core feature. Preferably something cool, like turning into an elemental.
And at 14th level, you get a capstone. Probably an ability rather than a passive boost.
In Every End, a Beginning
Well, druid is an interesting class.
From a historical or real-life point of view, they’re one of my absolute favorites. The mysteries of the druidic tradition are one of the most fascinating sets of questions you can find in history.
In the game of D&D, however, I don’t have much experience with druids. I haven’t played one, I haven’t DM’d for one, and I don’t think I’ve even really played in a game with one.
Ultimately, I think the druid is defined by Wild Shape. While they are full-progression spellcasters, their strongest subclass is oriented solely around Wild Shape and not spells. I also think Wild Shape is the most appealing feature of the druid in that it’s the reason many people choose to play the class.
Maybe I’ll play a druid someday. For now, however, we’ll leave it at that.
Check back next time for the post I’ve been dreading to write because the class is so damn variable… the Fighter!