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Circle of the Moon Druid. The Unlikely Tank.

One thing I like about 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, as opposed to the 1st and 2nd edition D&D of my youth, is how the designers have broadened the depiction of classic classes to make them far more interesting. A paladin is longer bound to be a pompous holy warrior, clerics can be much more than bland skeleton-turning healers, and you don’t have to dress in a white frock, sickling mistletoe if you want to play a druid.

Hands up if you hate mistletoe!

The fresh, original artwork of the Player’s Handbook and its evocative class description, with intriguing background prompts, pushes you towards a character concept that feels far broader than the frail, old, Stonehenge worshipper you might have played in the late 1980s. And while this evolution is to be applauded, one thing I never expected was for the druid class to become the party’s official ‘tank’.

All the druid needed was a sexy makeover! (Art by Wizards of the Coast).

If you’ve been playing D&D for longer than half an hour, you probably know by now that tank is the phrase players use to describe the member(s) of their party who fight on the front line and soak up enemy hits, enabling more delicate rogues, rangers and wizards to contribute to the fight from a safe distance.

With their disdain of metallic armour and spells like call lightning (a great damage dealer… which gets a bit boring!), the druid was traditionally filed very much under ‘squishy, ranged damage dealer’ in early editions of the game, but that’s all changed dramatically with the introduction of Wild Shape.

…the druid was traditionally filed very much under ‘squishy, ranged damage dealer’ in early editions of the game, but that’s all changed dramatically with the introduction of Wild Shape.

In 5th edition, Circle of the Moon druids can turn into a creature with many more hit points than itself twice in between rests, and deplete all of those hit points, before changing back to its normal form unharmed.

Cool…. but mind-bogglingly imbalanced.

I’m not going to crunch the numbers too much on this, but a level two Circle of the Moon druid, who might naturally have 17 hit points, could easily access 222 extra hit points during the course of an adventuring day, by Wild Shaping six times into a dire wolf with 37 hit points (and that based on a day with just two short rests).

Just let that sink in… and then ask: what the actual fuck!?

That blows any comparable abilities out of the material plane of existence. A fighter’s (the traditional tank!) Second Wind feature, used three times at 2nd level, would get you around 21 extra hp. 😱

And that’s just the hit points.

Erm, should you really be setting fire to that tree?

If I told you I was homebrewing a class that, on top of cleric-level spellcasting abilities, could also climb walls at 2nd level, breathe underwater at 4th level, fly at 8th level, that could shrink to the size of a mouse almost at will, gain darkvision when it wanted, gain advantage on perception rolls, move at 50ft a round, etc. etc. you would think… “this guy is creating the most broken class of all time!” But these are all the added bonuses a druid can take advantage of, in addition to the obscene truckloads of temporary hit points it gains as a result of the Wild Shape ability.

Much as I love the concept, fun and flavour of Wild Shape, this is simply overpowered and unbalancing, especially in the lower levels of the game… (where, incidentally, I play most of my D&D).

One character shouldn’t be 10 times or more harder to kill than the other members of the adventuring party, especially not when you consider how many other powers it picks up by virtue of the same ability.

If like me you believe Wild Shape needs a rethink, let’s consider what we can do to change it.

Wild Shape Fix Number 1

I can’t really understand why the designers pressed the nuclear option when it came to making Circle of the Moon so much tankier than the Circle of the Land. A straight forward fix might be to create a new table that reflects the Circle of Moon’s specialisation, without going completely overboard.

LevelMax CR (C/Land)Max CR (C/Moon)Max CR (C/Moon in RAW)
2nd1/41/21
4th1/211
8th122 (from 6th level)
10th133 (from 9th)
12th144
14th254
16th265 (from 15th)
18th276
20th286

Design Notes: In my experience (so far), the real unbalancing aspect of Wild Shape for Circle of the Moon druids is the excess of hit points at lower levels that makes them virtually unkillable in comparison with their peers, so that’s what I’ve chipped away at in this revised table. While I’ve actually made the Wild Shape better at higher levels, so at 20th level you can turn into a T-Rex… (let’s face it, who doesn’t want to do that at some time in their D&D career!). Plus I’ve thrown Circle of the Land druids a bone, by letting them access CR 2 creatures from 14th level onwards. This table sits better for me, because now the druid has a steadier rate of progression, and I believe players will enjoy more turning into a dire wolf at 4th level if they were restricted to just a normal wolf at 2nd and 3rd level. (At least they will if they hadn’t already read the Player’s Handbook).

Additional Restriction: On further thought, I would add another restriction that will really tidy up this class option for me. I would state that the total sum of the Challenge Ratings of the beasts which the druid Wild Shapes into between long rests cannot exceed the druid’s level. In other words a level 4 druid can transform into four CR 1 creatures during a day, or two CR 1 creatures and four CR 1/2 creatures, etc. etc. I like this because it is almost bound to bring more variety and imagination into play, and presents some tough choices for the PC. This ruling also tidies up the extremely problematic 20th level Circle of the Moon ability of unlimited Wild Shapes (ie. unlimited hit points!). Using my rule, the 20th level druid can still Wild Shape into near unlimited small creatures (assuming such beasts have CR 1/8 that would make 160 transformations, so more than enough!), but they can only transform into the mighty T-Rex twice a day (after which they still have some space for other transformations).

Just a couple of druids hanging out…

Wild Shape Fix Number 2

If you are nervous about changing the rules (go on try it!), or your players get the hump at ‘being nerfed’ (note: unless something is seriously damaging play, I recommend only introducing rules changes BEFORE a new campaign starts, not in the middle of one!), then there’s a way to deal with Wild Shape staring up at you from the hallowed pages of the Player’s Handbook itself.

“Starting at 2nd level, you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.” (p.66).

To save a lot of hassle arguing over what a character has seen in their long life of adventuring, before the campaign started, I would introduce a simple mechanic. When a player wishes to transform into a beast of CR 1 or over they must succeed on an Nature check to see if they happened to have seen it or not on their travels. I would set the DC as 15 for CR1, DC 20 for CR2, DC 25 for CR3 and DC 30 for CR4 and above. Obviously you can use common sense a bit to adjust them, if the creature is particularly common etc. If the druid passes the check, obviously they don’t have to make it again to transform into the same beast at a later date. If they fail the check, they have not seen the beast in question and cannot transform into said animal unless they encounter it within your adventure, or else go on a beast hunt in their down time. (For a beast hunt, let them choose the creature they wish to observe, and then set a DC for a Survival check based on them spending one week tracking it down in its natural habitat).

(I’ve just realised there is also something about this on p.24 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A list of tables of beasts by terrain type, that you can tie in with your druid’s background to make assumptions about what creatures they might have observed in the wilderness. Note: I like the idea that a druid needs to observe, not just see a beast).

Wild Shape Fix Number 3

Without wanting to get into that timeless old debate about ‘realism in fantasy’ (bangs head on desk!), my imagining of Wild Shape dictates that the druid becomes the creature it transforms into. The fact that said creature can be clawed, chopped, mauled and fireballed to death, and then transform back into a fully fit druid, without a scratch on them, is really immersion breaking for me.

One of the best homebrew rules that another DM in our group introduced onto our table, was that being reduced to 0 hit points gives you two levels of exhaustion. Suddenly dying means something again, and that silly D&D farce of lying broken and unconscious in one round followed by springing up and running full speed into the fray in the next round, having received some healing, was done away with. Now if you went down, if you did manage to get healed, you were operating at half speed with disadvantage on ability checks. Which makes sense (or at least is some small nod to realism).

I would be sorely tempted to introduce something similar for when druids are knocked out of Wild Shape. Two levels might be too harsh, but one level of exhaustion would mean there were consequences for dying in beast form, and make the whole feature feel a lot less like a temporary hit point gimmick and more like a transformation ability that the druid lives through. This would naturally limit how often the druid could take advantage of Wild Shape for combat purposes, no matter how many short rests they got in the day… and that for me would be a good thing.

Conclusion

Overall I’m glad there’s a new tank in town (sometimes it feels like D&D is turning into a game where most classes want to fight from the sidelines rather than actually engage the enemy, which feels somehow very anti-heroic to me), and Wild Shape is such a fun ability with so much creative potential – but I do feel the designers lost their sense of proportion on this one.

Hopefully using one, or even all, of the fixes that I’ve proposed might help certain gaming tables balance this ability and – if the changes are embraced, rather than cried at – I even believe these changes might actually provoke more fun and creativity, by forcing players to have more strategies and more uses for Wild Shape.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. (Note: I publish > 95% of comments, but if you’re particularly obnoxious I may choose to press delete instead!).

More Stuff

Do you, like me, ever get a strong feeling of apathy when choosing your PC’s weapons? There’s essentially no difference between a mace and a spear, or a shortsword and a scimitar, a longsword and a flail, etc. etc, despite these all being very different weapons… well check out my new 5e melee weapon properties for a touch more variety, realism and crunch in combat.

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8 Comments

  1. Pierre-Luc Marsan

    I’ve stopped a campaign partly because of the circle of the moon druid. We play with the rules in xanathar guide and even then, the guy is messing up the power balance in the team seriously. It take out the challenge part out the equation, because if i trow bigger monster at him they might kill the others players. I try to change the rules as little as possible, i use a exhaustion system for death. Each time somebody fall inconscious and start rolling for a death save, he or she gain a exhaustion level. This was getting ridiculous, like waiting for a character to fall inconscious to use healing word to raise him and let him spring.back in action with no consequence other than half movement for getting back on their feets. I’m thinking about introducing a flaw where when you transform too often you might ve locked into this form, could make an awesome backdrop for a campaign. Maybe the moon is cursed now because somebody kill the nature god or something. So when you die too often in wild shape, you might be lock in this form, thus dying from a real death. Or maybe you have to roll a wisdom save when you use wild shape to prevent the mind to transform as well, so you become the animal until the wild shape wear off. Another idea is that the mind doesnt come back completely from dying in wild shape and we start rolling on a mental trauma table.. I dont know.

    • duncan

      Hi Pierre-Luc

      I’m not surprised to hear your story, the class creates a big problem for DMs… how can you create encounters that threaten a creature with access to nearly 100 hit points a combat at 2nd level, when its peers only have around 20 hit points.

      I do think Exhaustion is quite a big penalty… three levels and you’re in trouble, while 2 levels is extremely limiting, and 1 is irritating.

      Flavour-wise I like your ideas about the moon being cursed etc., but as a player I wouldn’t enjoy many of your suggestions! I can see troubles ahead with those, esp. if you fail to communicate them ahead of time.

      If Wild Shape for Circle of the Moon is bothering you that much, and you don’t like the fixes I already proposed, I would rather remove Circle of the Moon from the table. The other Circles are still very powerful if your players want to play a druid, and Wild Shape can be used for scouting etc. but just not for combat.

      Thanks for sharing your experience… let me know how things pan out with your group!

    • Joe Avins

      In general, I think that addressing an overpowered ability by nerfing it the right amount is better than trying to fix it by adding a negative consquence. Some of your ideas have good flavor; I especually like the idea of getting stuck as the animal. But the net effect is that you still have an overpowered ability and the player rarely uses it. When s/he does it’s still overpowered, and when s/he doesn’t then s/he is just left without it. That might average out over lots of sessions when the ability is used once or twice, but this is a case where averaging out really doesn’t help.

      I like the original proposed fixes, at least on the surface. I’d need to see them play tested before comitting.

      My inclination is to nix the Circle of the Moon as written completely. Then make up a new Circle altogether, just so the moon maiden goddess or whatever isn’t left circless.

  2. Scotty

    I play a lot of moon druids and often end up championing them (and druids in general) at tables where I am a DM or a PC. My thoughts:

    –I agree with your simulationist perspective about the way in which there’s no drawback from going to zero HP in wildshape. Adding a level of exhaustion when your wildshape goes to zero would be more fun to RP and more mechnically interesting. As for the temp HP, I agree that having some way to carry the effects of taking all that damage from beast form to druid form could be interesting. You have not yet proposed something that strikes me as interesting from mechanics or roleplay standpoint.

    –I do think negotiation with the DM before and during the campaign about wildshapes known is effective. I have done this kind of negotiation and find it helpful for all parties involved.

    –I also like your revisions to the wildshape table. Your table would be more useful if there were more beast options with a higher CR. However, that change requires a far bigger change to the game. Also, I wonder if moon druids are front-loaded for the same reason warlocks are front-loaded: so much more play happens at lower levels.

    –One thing I dislike about about your proposed alteration is the additional mental paperwork required when keeping track of the number of wildshapes. Moon druids are already a headache of mental math to run. There is: knowing beast forms, keeping trick of multiple pools of HP and ACs, and adjudicating saves and skill checks to use when. I enjoy that ticky-tacky work. I know players who refuse to use moon druids based on this issue alone. If the goal is to make the moon druid more fun for everyone at the table, I have doubts that adding more resource pools to track is going to do that work. I wonder if a less demanding mechanical solution would be something like having more combat-oriented moon druid shapes consume two wild shapes. Note that this mechanic of consuming multiple wildshapes already exists for them at level 10. Adding that restriction to more wildshapes would feel reasonable to me as a person who regularly plays moon druids.

    More specific-to-my-gaming group thoughts:

    –Moon druids are great for me as a PC. I can, exactly as you say, run them as a tank with no issue. I tend to play with people who like to play squishy blasters. Being able to use magic is one of the big perks of D&D 5e for me. So when I run a PC, the moon druid is a great fit: I get to cast spells, and they get a tank. Everyone wins.

    –There are other full casters — forge clerics and storm clerics and storm clerics come to mind — who are tough enough to be front-line fighters and could effectively tank for a party.

    — Druids seem to be among the least-popular classes to play. In theory, a level 2 moon druid has substantially more HP than a tank at a similar level. In practice, so few people play druids that I wonder how often this imbalance emerges.

    –Moon druids make amazing antagonists for a party of PCs.

    • duncan

      Thanks Scotty for the experience and analysis, I agree with most of what you say, so I think no need for me to add too much.

      One point that needs addressing:

      “Adding a level of exhaustion when your wildshape goes to zero would be more fun to RP and more mechnically interesting. As for the temp HP, I agree that having some way to carry the effects of taking all that damage from beast form to druid form could be interesting. You have not yet proposed something that strikes me as interesting from mechanics or roleplay standpoint.”

      A level of exhaustion is my proposal, and I think that is enough by itself. In RAW druids already take excess damage into their druid form, and then a level of exhaustion on top means they can only be reduced all the way to zero once per day without things getting extremely annoying for them.

      This by extension limits their extra pools of HP because most PCs will want to wild shape to a new form, or out of form, before hitting zero. So they won’t be able to take advantage of all 37 hit points of dire wolf for example, likely transforming once they are reduced to 10-15 hit points, to avoid the exhaustion penalty.

      • Scotty

        Gotcha. I see your point. I thought you were suggesting something in addition to that point of exhaution.

  3. Merone

    Have you experienced wizard shenanigans ? to me after level 5 the wizard is potentialy the strongest class in the game (more than the moon druid) so yes a druid at early level is worth 2 characters. but even damage wise (archer with sharpshooter or crossbow expert) keep up with the druid

    • duncan

      Hey Merone, the damage output of the druid is not too troublesome, and that’s probably why no one really considers them overpowered… they don’t tend to outshine their fellow PCs in taking down the enemy, except possibly at levels 2-4, after which they actually tend do less damage than most characters. What blows my mind is their durability! It’s just WAY beyond the norm.

      Actually we haven’t found wizards to be too problematic, strangely. We have taken spells that break the 5e design principles by having no repeat saving throw (ie. Hypnotic Pattern and Banishment) off the table, which probably helps. And while obviously Fireball is great, it’s not that effective against big bosses for example. I’m not a big fan of Polymorph, but no one has taken an interest in using it anyhow. Which spells in particular have proved (overly) influential on your table?

      I feel like 5e does a good job of limiting high level spell slots, and in general wizards remain very squishy, so there’s a trade off for their damage dealing and versatility. For me the natural shelf life of a campaign is reaching somewhere between 5th and 15th level, and then we like to draw up new characters anyway, so maybe if I’d seen them more at mid to high level I’d revise my opinion!

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