Druids in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2e are one of the weakest class options out there. They have severe alignment restrictions and very limited spell selection. In fact, most druids become functionally useless when underground, inside, or in a desert. Never fear, though – this was a known issue. And so we have… The Complete Druid’s Handbook! Which proceeds to fix absolutely none of these problems!
Join me to look at the earliest attempts at non-treehugging druids, a too-in-depth background on the weird global druid conspiracy, and more!
Yeah, I don’t think this artist has ever actually seen a fox before.
Welcome back to the Late Review series, which has been (ironically enough) a little late in coming out. But we’re back at it now, with even more to wonder at! And, once again – I actually have all of the books I review here. Like… physically. In my house. Or in boxes somewhere in my house, it varies.
This time around, we’ll be looking at The Complete Druid’s Handbook from AD&D 2e. Lest it be thought that it isn’t a good book – it is, and I quite enjoyed reading it. As far as usability goes, though… well, that’s a bit more iffy.
But first let’s look at what’s actually in the book.
The Complete Druid’s Handbook was published by TSR in 1994 (only 27 years ago this time, not so late after all, huh?). Furthermore, unless I’ve gotten my facts completely off, this was well past the point where people began joking about how useless druids were. At least the people I knew made that joke.
Before we begin, a few reminders about AD&D 2e druids. They were limited to True Neutral in alignment and were technically a priest (cleric) subclass. They also had limited leveling thanks to experience caps – there could only ever be a certain number of druids of each level above 11th. This meant if you wanted to level up, you either had to challenge a current occupant for their place, or fill a vacancy left by the druid’s death.
Now, I’ve gone over how weird this is before. And this book does not make things any less weird. But before we get to the really weird stuff, let’s start with the mechanics – the druidic branches and kits.
Twigs and Fox Cubs
The book’s main contribution to the gameplay of 2e comes in the form of additional customizations for the druid class. There are two different levels of customization – the druidic branches and the druidic kits.
Shown above – three non-forest druids who will literally never be relevant in this book after this point.
Branches reflect the home environment of the druid. The forest branch (ha) of the Order is the basic druid as detailed in the Player’s Handbook. They get a bunch of tree stuff, and immunity to charms from woodland fey.
The other branches then each reflect a different climate. And yet they are all pretty much the same. Each one gives you a save bonus to a relevant damage type, access to the languages of natural creatures of the area, the ability to ignore severe weather of the region (if applicable), and the ability to pass without trace in that climate. Oh, and you can identify animals and clean water too.
Needless to say, this is strange. Your druid’s homeland should be a huge influence on their style and knowledge, and yet it basically boils down to the same type of stuff that any outdoorsy type from the area would know.
Many branches also seem to be more negative than positive. Arctic druids get to detect thin ice, but suffer penalties in any non-freezing weather. Gray druids get to control fungi and oozes, but can’t affect surface animals with spells and have a penalty to light-based effects. Forest druids (the originals) get great immunities to fey charms, but have a truly disgusting restriction on their holy symbols.
And then there’s the desert druid, who gets bonuses to detecting mirages as well as other illusions, but only while those illusions are physically inside a desert. Useful, probably.
Kits are a bit more impactful. These reflect your attitude and philosophy when it comes to druidic teachings. Notable examples include…
- The Beastfriend, who gets to be friends with animals. Not that they do anything for you, but hey – you can be friends. Also I’m pretty sure their portrait (see top of post) is the weirdest illustration I’ve seen so far. Who the hell wears fingerless gloves in a forest? Not to mention her failed Princess Leia hairbuns and the vaguely racist “Halloween costume Native American” aesthetic she has.
- I’ll note – this kit is useless because the animals you “befriend” can’t be sent into suicidal situations. And literally every encounter a higher-level druid (or hierophant) gets into could be considered suicide for a CR 0 fox.
- The Guardian, which is basically an NPC kit. And also states that they go years without seeing humans, despite getting in-person invites to massive druid festivals at least four times a year. All they get are minor benefits while in their extremely geographically limited protectorate, and the threat of major depression if the place gets torched.
- The Hivemaster, which is basically the swarm ranger without most of its coolest aspects. Still the coolest option here though.
- The Lost Druid, or “I played a Guardian thinking it would be fun, then begged the party to burn my grove down because I got so bored.” They do get necromancy spells, which is interesting, but they also can no longer heal things. Meh.
- The Pacifist, for those who want to annoy the hell out of their partymates. Also note that it’s totally fine for you to help your party kill things. You can cast entangle on a creature right in front of the hasted rogue and you are totally absolved of guilt when the rogue inevitably Sneak Attacks the poor son of a bitch six feet into the ground.
- And the Outlaw, or “multi-class into rogue, idiot.” This one’s weird because it’s just being an outlaw. Do you lose your kit benefits if you get acquitted? Do you have to commit a crime whenever you arrive in a new town just to keep your benefits? Trick question! You don’t get any benefits.
Sorry man, if I don’t do something criminal every once in a while I don’t get to keep these sweet roleplay hinderances.
While most of the kits are mediocre at best, there are two exceptions – the Shapeshifter and the Totem Druid.
The Shapeshifter gets to start shapeshifting at 1st level rather than 7th, which is a huge benefit. What animals they can become is limited by level, but still. You also get to shapeshift twice as much as normal druids. But it comes with the most severe drawback yet – every use of shapeshifting past the third requires a save. If you fail, you’re stuck as that animal until you can attempt to shift back tomorrow. And if you fail to change back three times in a row, you’re stuck as that animal forever (barring overpowered stuff like wish).
Then there’s the Totem Druid. It also gets shapeshifting at 1st level. You also choose a “totem animal” which you can shapeshift into multiple times per day without expending your normal uses of shapeshifting. Your only drawback is fewer non-weapon proficiencies, which is the very definition of “not a big deal.” I also did the math – the Shapeshifter gets 6 uses per day. The Totem Warrior matches that number at 6th level and surpasses it by 9th level. Plus there’s no restriction on what you choose as your totem animal, except your terrified DM’s efforts to keep their campaign viable (“for the last time, you can’t have a t-rex as your totem animal”).
So… yeah. Two kits basically wash out all the rest, and even between those two there’s still an objectively “better” option. I wonder how the play rate for Totem Druids was after this book came out.
Next we have the real meat of the book – the backstory and narrative of the Druidic Order. Something so complicated that I could never see including it in a campaign.
Society of the Freedruids
So to summarize around fifteen pages of content… all druids are members of a global organization called the Druidic Order. This Order is broken into different Circles in the various major geographical areas and/or climates. Within each Circle there can be only nine 12th level druids, three 13th level druids, and one 14th level druid.
Past that, there can be only one 15th level druid in the entire world. This is the Grand Druid, who presides over the various Circles. And then, beyond even that druid, are the hierophant druids. That’s right, hit 16th level as a druid and you literally become a new class. The hierophant druid has its own experience table and progression separate from that of the druid.
Within the Druidic Order, the various Circles represent their environment’s needs locally and abroad. Politicking is common, and many Circles distrust one another. However, druids are very independent and thus can differ in their beliefs even within a Circle – the Druidic Order accepts all points of view.
Each circle holds Moots four times a year (on the solstices and equinoxes) in which all druids of the Circle meet to socialize and discuss important topics. These gatherings last for three or four days, and while some druids don’t attend (if they have business elsewhere), the idea is that most druids do.
An objectively evil-looking druid war criminal who is still, I assure you, True Neutral.
Then there’s the Shadow Circle. They’re the bad guy druids (who are still True Neutral somehow), and they exist as a secret society within the hidden global druid conspiracy. That’s right, our illuminati group has a second, smaller illuminati group inside of it.
We’ll come back to this, but the Shadow Circle doesn’t really make sense. They’re still True Neutral, but are repeatedly stated to be noticeably more aggressive than other druids. They’re willing to work with evil monsters and murder people to get their way. Real paragons of balance here.
Oh, and the other druids of the Order will relentlessly challenge and seek to depose or murder known Shadow Circle druids. Y’know, out of the Order’s tendency to “tolerate a wide range of philosophies.”
Druidic Orders of Magnitude
So… let me just say – the Druidic Order as presented in this book is really, really cool. I love the backstory, I love the intrigue, and I think it’s a phenomenal inspiration for druid-related stories.
But it’s also way too much to fit into a normal campaign. In my late review of the rogue handbook I gushed over the book’s thieves’ guild rules in a similar fashion. The difference is that those rules were simple to use and, more importantly, optional. These Druidic Order rules are a required class feature for the druid class.
Sure, there’s a lot of neat stuff in here. Details on how challenges between druids play out, or the ways in which the Shadow Circle pits the various normal Circles against one another. There’s a lot of cool info about druidic festivities at the various moots, and discussions of how more powerful druids interact with new initiates.
And I would use absolutely none of it. This is all for one character’s class, I might add. Either we force the entire rest of the party to sit around the bar while their druid goes out for moonlit nights of revelry and pageantry, or we relegate all that cool roleplay to “off screen” time in between sessions so as to not bore the other players.
Then there are the contradictions. Druids are a free-willed, down-to-earth sort… and yet they engage in near-constant factional politics and all unwaveringly obey and listen to one person. They’re also solitary loners who nevertheless have gigantic parties four times a year where they chum it up with all of the other solitary loners.
And then there’s the Shadow Circle. The book literally flips from saying “all druids… may freely follow their own interpretation of druidic beliefs” to saying “a known Shadow Circle druid faces… lower level druids constantly challenging [them]… seeking to depose – and possibly destroy – offenders.” Would that we were all so tolerant, right? Everyone would be dead within a week.
In all, the Druidic Order is a neat piece of worldbuilding. The different suggestions for where the order came from (including, and I kid you not, literal spacefaring/Spelljamming aliens) are phenomenal. And if you’re doing a druidic based campaign, these details are a goldmine!
But if you’re doing literally anything else, you might as well skip the whole chapter.
The Worst Alignment
After detailing the Druidic Order, the book continues with roleplay inspirations for most of the rest of the book. Unfortunately, all of these hinge rather severely on a very weak link – the alignment of True Neutral.
I have a lot of problems with True Neutral, but I won’t go into them here. I’m planning a longer post about the alignment system for later, and that’s when I’ll go off on this alignment.
Suffice it to say that the book spends five pages trying to rationalize the asinine concept of True Neutral. The relevant problem for this review is how the book portrays druids in context of this impossible alignment.
If druids are True Neutral and dedicated to The Balance(TM)… shouldn’t they sometimes support the side of Evil? The handbook tries to sidestep this question by saying “DMs should set their campaigns at times when evil has grown alarmingly in strength.” But that doesn’t cut it for me.
The basic question here is: have druids committed war crimes? Or supported war criminals and genocidal maniacs? Logically speaking, the answer here has to be yes, but the book just sort of glosses this over.
And there are other problems too. Why would druids ever support the forces of Evil when evil beings are overwhelmingly anti-nature? How is the Shadow Circle still True Neutral when they regularly murder people for minor infractions? Does a druid who begins to feel too Good suddenly lose their powers? (Answer – yes.)
How to Keep Party Mates and Not Infuriate DMs
The rest of the roleplay material in this book is devoted primarily to defining how much of a killjoy hippe a druid is allowed to be. It establishes that they’re fine with killing animals for food and with cutting (non-sacred) forests for lumber. It states they’re only against things like animal cruelty or the exploitation of nature for profit. Hunting for food is fine, hunting for fashionable fur is not; farming for wheat is essential, farming for tobacco is greedy.
It really ends up making druids sound more anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist than anything else. Which I’m fine with, to be honest. It works.
It then goes on to offer different methodologies a druid could use to defuse tension or solve a problem. Unfortunately these are of limited use since the only example offered is strictly applicable to forest druids. Remember those other types? You know, the huge variety of non-forest druids that are never mentioned after their first appearance?
Oh neat, a druid with a polar bear! I can’t wait for literally nothing else in the book to function properly in the arctic!
The Mythical All-Druid Campaign
Remember when I said the Druidic Order was too complex to use in anything except a campaign entirely based around druids? Well… here’s the answer! Kinda.
Firstly, druids can’t cover nearly as many niches as thieves, so the “all druids” party is going to be a lot more hampered than the all thief party was. The book itself also points out the problem with having various druids of different branches – since each one is designed to function primarily in one climate, any druids of different branches will struggle.
It suggests copious amounts of world travel to counter this, but I’m not convinced. After all, that just means everyone gets one chunk of being awesome and then spends all the other portions of the campaign feeling mediocre. Not a good set-up.
The campaign leads are fairly all over the place. The first essentially boils down to an endless string of “no, he started it!” as a campaign, which doesn’t sound fun at all. Humans are cutting down the trees to sell for money. Dwarves buy the lumber to fuel their forges. Elves buy the weapons made by the dwarves to fight invading monsters. The monsters are invading because of a green dragon that took over their homes. The dragon is aggressive because it has indigestion… etc.
Others are unusual intrigue-based campaigns focusing on the Shadow Circle. Maybe the shadow druids are wreaking havoc with a magical weapon of war (while still being True Neutral of course, don’t worry about the genocide). Or maybe there’s a traitor you need to protect – because a campaign-long escort quest is what everyone wants.
And then there’s the Evil Woods. The hidden gem of these ideas.
As the treant grasped him, he suddenly regretted buying that shiny new “Vegan and Loving It” pin last week.
It has everything. An absolute killer of a campaign. And it doesn’t even rely on existing plots to get it done! There’s no need for a lich or vampire to fuel this – it’s all natural.
The ideas in this one are phenomenal. A haunted forest full of flesh-eating treants and cannibalistic elves – hell yes. I get that blights are a thing, but they crave blood and blood is, fundamentally, a liquid. To have flesh craving plants is much more disturbing in my mind.
And then it crowns this buffet of inspiration with a final masterpiece – evil unicorns with poison-tipped horns. Perfection. Pity it takes up maybe half a page at most. Inside a book that can mostly be skipped except in extremely specific circumstances.
Every End is a New Beginning
All in all, I don’t think The Complete Druid’s Handbook is very useful today. Modern D&D has done the druid concept so much better than 2e ever did that looking to the past for inspiration is a futile effort.
There’s more to this book than just what we’ve gone over, of course. There are new spells, but most seem to either be useless (whisperwind, a clone of alarm that can be mistaken for a normal light breeze) or strangely malicious (thornwrack, which makes thorns burst out from the skin so painfully it paralyzes you). Special mention goes to unwilling wood, which permanently turns people into trees. Pretty crazy.
Pictured: Druidic war crimes circa 1943 (uncolorized).
It also has some pretty comprehensive rules for druidic bases – sacred groves – as well as alchemical brewing. Both are ultimately full of very situational benefits. It goes over cursed groves a bit more, but annoyingly completely ignores all non-woodlands groves so that’s of only limited value.
The new items are unremarkable – only one is worth mentioning and that’s more due to my own past actions than anything else. While my mocking of Pathfinder is primarily comedic (it’s an alright system, just not one I like), one of my most frequent jabs has been “I love having to determine the phase of the moon to figure out how much damage I deal.” And then along comes the lunar sickle, an item which literally has its combat bonus based on the phase of the moon. So that one’s on me.
It isn’t a bad book, The Complete Druid’s Handbook. If you want to do a campaign where the Druidic Order is a major plot point, it’s probably the single best book you could read to help you do that. Apart from that, though, it just isn’t much use in today’s D&D. Luckily, 5e druids are significantly better supported than their 2e predecessors, so we don’t need as much propping up to make them fun and playable.
That being said, it was still well-written, and ultimately a fun read.
You can find The Complete Druid’s Handbook on DM’s Guild if you’re interested – click here* to check it out!
Personally, I found mine at a “local” (read: one hour drive away) book shop along with several other treasures. If we’re lucky, I might even actually get to write on the fever dream that was Spelljammer soon. That’s sure to be a riot.
*Disclaimer: I use affiliate links on reviews like this, which allow me to get paid a small commission if someone buys something after using my link. But don’t worry, I only recommend books I actually own (even if its a physical copy and not the digital one). Click here to see my affiliate link policy!