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Druids: First Impressions

Written by Nicholas - Published on December 8, 2008

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

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Druid class preview on D&D Insider

Recently Wizards of the Coast offered a sneak peak of the new druid class to D&D Insider subscribers, slightly more recently I became a D&D Insider subscriber for an obvious reason. The preview includes the introductory section containing the proficiencies, skill lists and class features, as well as a full listing of the druid powers for levels 1-3.

Get out of my way wizard – there’s a new controller in town

We learn – rather surprisingly – that the druid is a controller class, possible so wizards of the world won’t feel so alone in their role. We also learn that druid powers are split between powers that can be used in your natural form and powers that can be used in beast forms, something that should be familiar to you WoW players out there. The powers of the spell caster form are typically ranged and area of effect abilities that do small amounts of damage along with some debilitating effect on your enemies. We see all the traditional druid abilities come into play here, grasping plant life, fog clouds, lightning storms and blasts of wind. The shape changing powers are bit more surprising. They don’t do the damage you might expect from being mauled by a bear but are also accompanied by forced movement or other debuffing effects. Also, unlike their humanoid form counterpart powers the animal abilities are obviously mostly for melee range. The intent seems clear, to allow druids to be controllers from both the front and back lines.

Mechanical problem #1: bears hit harder if they’re wise

We could discuss some mechanical problems with the druid classes as it is presented, there are a few to choose from. Firstly, there is a severe over dependence of wisdom ability score. You may recall that in the first PHB of this edition, each build of a class tells you where you should put priority in your scores to excel at that build. For druids both builds tell you put wisdom as your highest score, also unlike other builds they only give you a secondary recommendation, not a tertiary. That’s sound advice considering that every attack power in the preview is rooted in wisdom, additionally every power which has its damage modified by a score is modified by wisdom. Even in beast form, your odds of hitting something with your claws or pouncing attacks is dependent on how wise you are. The only time other ability scores are used when a power is modified by which of the two “primal aspects” you chose.

D&D Bling – Druids    

Playing a druid lets you kick ass and look good doing it. In fact druids are known for their stylish accessorizing – read D&D Bling: Druids for details

Mechanical problem #2: rage drakes and giant platypi

Secondly, you use the at-will “Wild Shape” to transform into your beast form and gain access to your beast powers. When you use the power you get to pick any beast of around your size to turn into. Pretty cool, right? You could turn into a lion, bear or anything else that fits a wide-open set of criteria. The problem is that it doesn’t make a lick of difference, it is clearly stated several times in the preview that your choice of animal form has no in game effect. You can turn into a rage drake or an overgrown platypus and it would make no difference to your combat prowess.

The role of mechanics in suggesting flavor to the class has been diminished across editions, and I have accepted that, but diminished to nothing? At least they could have done something similar to the warlock pacts, let the player choose a favored form category (ursine, lupine, feline, etc.) and provide distinct bonuses based on that. Alternatively, do it like clerics and allow the player to take a feat which grants a new power for their chosen form. Right now is just feels bland.

The pigeon-rat problem

However complaining about these things is a bit like whining that the cat had an accident on your floor while a rhino rampages through your rumpus room, it misses the larger problem. The problem is that the fine folks over at Wizards accidentally wrote two different classes and stitched them together like a monstrous pigeon-rat. The spell caster portion functions well enough, it uses natural forces to hamper foes from a distance which makes the druid a natural controller. However the shapeshifting portion suffers under the need to be a controller and from the compressed features list and power set required to make both halves mesh together. This strain is evidenced in the design of the class, in defiance of the traditional rules druids get their choice of a third at-will power. You may say that is just the effect of being a hybrid, but hybrids do multiple things decently enough. In this case druids are doing a single thing well and then doing the same thing a different way, but poorly.

What I would do with the druid class

I can understand the desire to maintain the history role of the druid, which was to be able to do everything. However the new class role system has made this a tricky position, you are left with a class that tries to do everything but be a controller in all ways and that just falls down thematically. My advice to Wizards is to make full use of their new primal power source and divide the current druid into two classes. You could have an elemental caster who is a proper controller, now free from the dead weight shapeshifting rules and have a seperate class devoted solely to animal forms. Once you have the dedicated class you can full explore the possibilities and give mechanical flavor to all the different forms. The shapeshifter portions currently strain under the burden of the controller label, I want to set them free and make them strikers who also impose some status effects, similar to rogues.

What would you change in the druid class?

Have you read the new druid class? What did you think? Have you ever had a rhino in your rumpus room?  Are you a D&D insider yet? As always I want your thoughts!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



23 Responses to “Druids: First Impressions”
  1. Thasmodious says:

    I have to say, where you see problem I see feature. I really like the 4e druid. I think the designers had a thin rope to walk with the class, considering its past incarnations, and I think they pulled it off.

    I don’t see (1) as a problem, as the druid is hardly the first time such things occur in 4e. I think it’s too literal of a reading to say “wisdom makes claws hit better”. The wisdom is the druid, which is not really a bear despite his current form, understanding the nature of the beasts he is emulating, its the wisdom to understand the nature of Bear in order to fight like a bear.

    (2) isn’t a mechanical problem at all, you just dislike the flavor. Beast form is my favorite part of the class. I really like the idea of being able to freely assume forms, or no specific form at all, but a shifting amalgam of the natural.

    I think the final blend of melee beast controller and ranged controller is very solid and an interesting design choice. Its a way of preserving the druids ‘hybrid’ nature without actually making a hybrid by role, something Mearls has said they wish to avoid.

    I also like what we are seeing in the druid and barbarian in regards to mechanical ‘room’. Both classes slightly modify some core assumptions to accomplish specific goals within the framework of the system. The barbarian has a mechanic to ‘burn’ dailies for pure damage so he can preserve a particular rage benefit and the druid breaks the basic at-will frame, but in a way that suits the classes capabilities. It shows the class system has room to stretch, which can only be a good thing, I think.

  2. Nicholas says:

    @Thasmodious: Don’t hate to say it at all, I am not some fanatic who thinks my ideas are beyond question. I would love to talk about it.

    For number one I do find it very odd about wisdom making the animal powers more likely to hit, but it is not game breaking for me. What I do see as more of a problem is that every power is based off wisdom. I know why they did it, it just seems very unbalanced to me.

    As for number two, I love flavor but I love it more when the rules give it just a little nudge. I don’t want detailed stats for every animal formation or to limit your selection, I just want a little bit of mechanical flavor like clerics get with their god of choice.

    I know they were trying to make a sort of false hybridization but I love beast form. There’s just something potent about someone turning into a grizzly bear and mauling their enemies. To me, taking that concept and making it fit a controller role is artificial and disappointing. I would much rather see the shape shifting element become its own class under a different class role and really exploring some mechanical nudges for different animal shapes.

    I just rolled out of bed and started typing this, so I apologize if it is not the most clear.

  3. Fishercatt says:

    I think the Druid class is a fine example of everything that’s wrong with 4E.

    It seems that no matter what you choose, whether it be a Druid, Fighter, Merchant, or Hobo; the Class features are equivilant to picking your weapon of choice. The entire infrastructure of character design is flawed to point where there is no reason to play anything other than whatever deals the most damage. It is far too combat-centric.

    That said, my group finds itself using a lot of the stuff from 2nd and just revamping it for fourth.

    Like anyone plays Druids, anyway. Lamer than Bards.

  4. Nicholas says:

    @Fishercatt: Druids and Bards are like my top two classes, seriously.

  5. Steve-o says:

    I’m hoping that this is still a work in progress and that it will be different by the time it goes to print. Having it out as a playtest should work out the kinks and I hope write a better character class.

    For myself, as a GM, I would allow the Druid to assume a wild form of only creatures he would have reasonably seen and known. Or, conversely, having a totem animal and that is the only one you could effectively turn into at first. Then as you progress in levels, you could choose another form to add to your list of wild forms.

    I also agree with Nicholas, my two favorite classes are the druid and bard, followed closely by wizard and cleric.

    I really need to find some one shot so I can playtest the druid and bard write ups.

  6. Brian Dirk says:

    I think the fix should be being able to choose a path within the class and change the powers’ power base.

    I.E One would be a “caster” type controller, and one would be a melee controller. The Druids would have a list of powers: some Melee, some Caster. Caster powers would Benefit from Wis and maybe Dex. Melee Powers would benefit from Str and maybe Con.

    The powers could do similar things, but not copy one another, and maybe steal some things from the other classes. (like taking the Branding feature of melee combat Cleric powers).

    As for the Rage Drake / Platypus problem: handle it with the level 11-20, and 21-30 “destiny” picks.

    Perhaps a Fan of the Druid class needs to come out with new “unoffical, but not sucky” guidelines for this shafting of the class.

  7. Dave T. Game says:

    If I understand it correctly, the reason you’re not picking a specific shape is because you’re not transforming into a particular creature per se, but a more general primal form that is already some kind of blending of different creatures. Also, since it’s only a preview, there very well could be feats and options that do what you suggest.

  8. Nicholas says:

    It says you can pick specific shapes or turn into the primal blend. I suppose it is possible those options exist, but it says specifically that your choice of animal form makes no mechanical difference.

  9. Nivenus says:

    I can’t see any reason why WOTC can’t do something like they did with clerics, paladins, rangers, or warlocks, all of which have mechanical flavoring. Clerics and paladins have channel divinity powers, rangers (with Martial Power) have a selected but still vague set of animal companions, and warlocks have their pacts.

    I figure what they should do with druid shapeshifting is, as others have said, allow a set of vage and indistinct categories that still allow for some flavor room: cat, reptilian, bear, etc, etc. There’d be a few minor effects but otherwise it would retain the “can change into anything” vibe without a lack of flavor.

    Similarly, I can’t see why they can’t have a few beast powers based off of Strength or Dexterity, though I do think Wisdom should remain the primary ability for druids overall.

  10. Elda King says:

    I really don’t agree with the mechanical “problems”.

    There are several classes that have a main attribute for all builds, and just secondary ones. The fighter allways relys on Strength, thought he may use others. In fact, the warlord only uses Str for all attacks also, but depends heavily on other attributes. The Wizard is a class that almost has only one attribute – the secondary ones are very secondary, as they just influence one or two powers (the implement mastery and possibly an at-will). But it does make more sense this way…
    The druid while in beast shape uses Wisdom because of a simple reason: he isn’t a real beast. He is a human in beast form, and his wisdom is what determines how well he can take that shape (and perhaps keep that shape), and how well he can “control” it. How is it, you were a byped with opposing thumbs for your whole life and now you have four paws. And you still try to mantain a human conscience in the body of a feral, mindless beast? You do need Wisdom… Strength shouldn’t be your main concern, while in beast shape you have plenty of it.

    About the “free form”, I liked it the best about the class. You don’t need to go to MM and learn the stats for many different shapes, as they all are the same. In the lower levels, you don’t have to worry that you can’t shapeshift to cool animals (Designer 1: “Bears are cool, but too strong. Let’s keep it for level 5, yes?” Designer 2: Well, we have Dire Wolfs for level 6, Dire Boars for level 4, Wolfs for level 3, Boars for level 2… now what do we have for level 1?” Designer 1: “Well, I don’t know. Dire Rabbits or Dire Mice?”). It also gives the druid much more flexibility… You may become a dog to pass unnoticed throught a city, or a more ferocious animal to fight.

    I also liked the “hybrid” nature of the druid. I expected it to be a full-shapeshifter as you said, but was happy to discover it retained it’s caster side. To me, shapeshift is just another “spell” of the druid – the most important one, but still just the same. And now, you have it early and with less restrictions, with the possibility of having completely different powers when you shapeshift and perhaps “bestial feats” that you can use to make your shape unique. I only think that it’s odd the shapeshift doesn’t giving you any specific benefit… perhaps you need a feat, or perhaps the bestial powers grow more powerfull in higher levels.

  11. Francis B says:

    To be honest, I’m not thrilled with the druid. I don’t think I’ll use it. Instead I’m going to rip the class in half and reform it as builds for the nature caster from the Advanced Player’s Handbook by Ari Marmell. Or, perhaps if I have time I’ll take the shapeshifter aspect and completely retool it into some sort of new striker class. Either way, I don’t believe druids will be making it into my 4th edition campaign without some serious work on my part.

  12. Adalore says:

    Well, I haven’t played a real game of 4e yet, but I am planning to.

    My most commonly played classes form past systems…

    e2 – Only fighters… I need to bug my DM about flavor.

    3.5 – On games and etc, Ranger, Fighter, Druid.

    NWN – Broken game breaker weapon master with keen duel kukri. 70+ damage per hit.

    I can see plenty of homeruleing for Druids, especially for wildshape.
    If any one is going to do a non-offical homebrew for druid lovers, but me through my website parasite. :D

  13. Bartoneus says:

    Nicholas: In your section about what you would do with the Druid class, what I hear and interpret as a better idea is to just make the Druid into an entirely wildshape class. I don’t see much of a reason to split the class into two separate Druid classes, one that is pretty much exactly like a Wizard just with more nature in it. Following you suggestion, I’d rather see it as a very wild-shape focused class. That said, I actually disagree and am happy that they’re trying to make it a hybrid class instead of taking what I’ll call the easy way out and just split them into two more lame classes.

    I’m very happy to see that Str. isn’t used in wildshape, it doesn’t make ANY sense to me why a weak little druid would shape change into a weak little bear. I could see them mixing in a bit more intelligence, but I think Wisdom is a good fit how it is.

    When it comes to the so called Pigeon-Rat problem, I’d suggest roleplaying the type of animal you turn into as a simple solution. :P I can also see a ton of feats coming out in the future to super customize wildshaping.

  14. Martin Hazel says:

    As a DM I can see the possibilities for the class, when the final version is complete and the first source book comes out to support it then we will see what my better half makes of it :D if it can be munchkinned to hell we will find out from her :D

  15. Bryce says:

    What’s a controller? Is this some WoW terminology or am I just not cool.

  16. Jeff Sepeta says:

    I played a level 2 4e druid in my last adventure on Friday. It was a lot of fun. At first my teammates couldn’t stop laughing that I had decided to shape-change into a badger, but dangit, that’s the only plastic pre-painted mini I had that would fit the animal type. At first I wasn’t sure about having to shift squares as I turned into my animal shape, but in battle it certainly helped a lot.

    Then, after we had finally defeated our enemies and went back to town to deliver the item we had snagged from them, we were ambushed. I expended an action point, turned into a rat, and got the heck out of dodge. Oh, way better to be one rat of millions in the city than a badger. That would have made me easier to find, and also prevent me from sneaking away through a hole in the wall. Thankfully, my teammates were not bugged much by my “run away to fight another day” attitude. At level 2, you have to pick your battles wisely. Oh wait, that requires a high WIS score :-)

    I *do* agree, WotC should do some more work on refining the Druid class to better fit the Elemental Caster + Beast form archetype. At present it’s a bit schizoid.

  17. av says:

    “At level 2, you have to pick your battles wisely.”

    not in 4e ^_^

    i think the elemental caster idea is stupid. i remember in 2nd edition, druids were listed as a religion class…. (it was grouped with the cleric). and they had this wierd thing where there was a druid hierarchy, and at lvls 12, 16, and 20, you had to defeat a higher-ranking druid to lvl… now, THAT’s flavorfull. :)

    “That said, I actually disagree and am happy that they’re trying to make it a hybrid class instead of taking what I’ll call the easy way out and just split them into two more lame classes.”

    I agree. the wizard is a super-controller. the only controller that they could create that would be better than the wizard would be a wizard that deals more damage. (if you don’t believe me, play a paragon lvl eladrin wizard with the spiral tower paragon path and be prepared to kick major ass). I just wish they’d make it more of a nature-devoted class than a controller. like the bard, it used to be, (at least in 2nd ed), more of a RP class, and now that’s gone. bummer

  18. Nicholas says:

    @Av: You’re bringing back fond memories. I remember 2nd ed had such a rich set of rules all about the structure of the druid circle. I should implement that stuff in 4th ed, maybe have them fight for rank in the druid order whenever they reach a new tier.

  19. Redhobbit says:

    At least they could have done something similar to the warlock pacts, let the player choose a favored form category (ursine, lupine, feline, etc.) and provide distinct bonuses based on that.

    From what I recall from the reviews and excerpts of Martial Power didn’t they already do this with the Ranger’s animal companion? Couldn’t they just apply the same concept here? It wouldn’t necessarily have to be as specific as animal types either. Categories as broad as ‘skimisher’ or ‘mauler’ could work just fine.

  20. Sian says:

    I can understand the desire to maintain the history role of the druid, which was to be able to do everything.

    Why? They took that advantage away from the cleric for the sake of game roles.

  21. Nicholas says:

    @Sian: I’m not sure what that means.

    I’ve played a cleric in 2nd, 3.5 and I’m playing one in 4th right now. My cleric can stand up in melee, has some ranged holy attacks, and buff and heal his allies. He can do everything my 3.5 cleric could do and is actually more potent than my 2nd ed. cleric.

  22. Jeff Sepeta says:

    After more thought, I think that the Druid class should have 2 builds: Animal-shapechanger and Nature-controller. This would better define the druid rather than having it be a half-and-half.

    Also, the creature types available should vary by level. That is to say, a level 1 Druid could be a bear cub, but a level 19 Druid could be a Dire Bear. And damage should increase according to level, but not necessarily according to animal type — the way they’ve done it makes a bit more balanced. Although if I were an NPC or monster, I’d be pissed if a 25th level Druid/pigeon were kicking my ass.

    A lot of the classes in 4e have been streamlined/stripped of character. Maybe they’re trying to break some of the stereotypes/archetypes of previous editions, but for me that makes the game more bland. Having to accomplish certain goals as you level up was a challenging part of AD&D1 and 2, so why drop those requirements?

  23. Janna says:

    @ Bryce: Yeah, ‘Controller’ is an MMO term. Controllers basically run crowd control by taking out multiple enemies at once. Think area-effect blasty spells to “thin out their numbers”.

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