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.
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’.
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.
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.
|Max CR (C/Land)
|Max CR (C/Moon)
|Max CR (C/Moon in RAW)
|2 (from 6th level)
|3 (from 9th)
|5 (from 15th)
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).
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.
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!).
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