As with… most of the history of D&D, really, the 3.0 Druid is in some regards a huge break from the baby-steps of evolution that took place in the class from OD&D through 2e. The shift is thematic as well as mechanical, turning away from the Druid’s Celtic roots and increasing the overall Action Hero! quotient. I don’t see this as a bad thing; if they hadn’t done so, the Druid would feel out of place with the rest of 3.x.
The 3.0 Druid has a relatively brief list of class skills and four skill points per level, which means they should cover most of those bases without stretching too thin. Of all the classes in 3.0, only the Monk has fewer “dead levels” (levels with no new ability) than the Druid, making the Druid a comparatively poor choice for class-dipping – even features like Animal Companion scale by Druid caster level rather than character level.
The alignment restrictions that have bound the Druid through 2e are substantially relaxed in 3.0, expanding to any alignment that includes one neutral element. It seems obvious enough to me that an archetype that got its start as a monster should include some potential to be evil. Otherwise you’re saying that how you feel about what you do is more important than what you actually do, and radical self-deception is a way to stay “good” no matter how many innocents you butcher. I know as I write this that many readers will think that’s well and good in a world of murderhoboes, but I… am in a contradictory camp on that one. I’m fine with characters doing the wrong thing – that’s their choice and I’ll support it – but it shouldn’t get shrugged off as “doing evil things and calling them good is just how gaming works.” Anyway, this isn’t about my feelings on alignment, not that that has ever stopped me in previous articles.
A lot of the abilities that Druids had to wait for several levels to get in earlier editions show up at first or second level now, and some of the hierophant abilities show up before 10th level. This is a great move, because Druids now receive the abilities at levels when they would be useful for a good while. Dryads, nymphs, satyrs, and other fey creatures drop off the CR charts well before double-digit levels, and the leShay, while kind of rad, are CR 28 and out of reach of the overwhelming majority of 3.x campaigns. On the other hand, I disapprove of Venom Immunity, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player-accessible immunity I liked.
The big changes, though, are Wild Shape and Animal Companion. There’s none of the previous editions’ “one reptile, one bird, one mammal” business. They start by changing into any Small or Medium non-dire animal. The automatic healing from Wild Shaping is much less than the automatic healing from Shapeshifting, but it’s not why you’re using this ability in the first place. Their animal options expand dramatically in size, eventually add in dire animals, and conclude with allowing them to adopt elemental forms. The uses of Wild Shape per day start at one animal, and grow to five animals and three elemental forms. It’s a huge variety of options that could increase each time a new Monster Manual comes out – though Animal and Elemental are Types that don’t see a whole lot of expansion in Monster Manuals after the first. As an important note, dinosaurs are Beasts, not Animals, in 3.0 – regardless of how this contradicts the book’s stated criteria for what is a Beast and what is an Animal. Given 3.x’s logic and its ruthless commitment to same, extinction shouldn’t change a creature’s Type. On the other hand, dinosaurs becoming available for Wild Shaping is a big shift in tone for 3.5 and 5e.
I never really thought about it before now, but I guess Druids of sufficient level can Wild Shape into higher Hit Die versions of creatures? For example, once Huge creatures are on the table, I guess you can be a Huge tiger rather than merely a Large tiger, since a tiger of 13+ HD is Huge? Since you retain your BAB and hit points, a net loss of Hit Dice is irrelevant, but the Strength increase for a Huge tiger is obscene. On the other hand, is that really a good use of a 15th-level Druid’s time? Harder to say. Once reverse gravity is a thing you can do, I might not start Wild Shaping until my 8th-level slots are all spent.
Animal Companion is… not burdened with an overabundance of clarity in the 3.0 SRD. In this edition, you’re going to be changing animal companions quite often, maybe as often as every level. Still, having a large animal, or one of higher-than-base HD, looks very promising, since it costs you one first-level slot to get a potent additional combatant and completely dominate the action economy. It’s not like you’re short on buffs for your companion, either: normal stat buffs, barkskin, magic fang and its big brother, and animal growth. Of course, if that isn’t enough abuse of the action economy for you, giant vermin and summon nature’s ally I-IX (which you can spontaneously cast) really seal the deal and make sure your turn takes up to five times as long as anyone else in the party. In my experience, this is so unpleasant for everyone else that it almost wraps around to become funny.
The rest of the Druid spell list is pretty solid too. Probably the class’s primary drawback is that they have to prepare any healing they hope to use during the day, which narrows their options severely if the party is looking to them as the primary healer. Druids are much better off as a supplemental healer backing up a Good or Neutral Cleric. On the other hand, they get spells to affect huge areas, as compared to the Cleric’s relatively-small-AoE damaging spells. They’re very good at environmental conditions and sustained damage, and much less so at single-target or burst damage.
Oh! You don’t have to go through a complicated rigmarole to get mistletoe in order to cast your spells anymore. That’s a mercy.
All of these things taken together mean that the Druid and the Cleric are the competitors for the most powerful class in 3.0. That’s not going to change one bit as we move into 3.5; if anything, it might intensify.
The revised Druid has fewer skills (because 3.5 trims some of them out) but the same number of skill points, which is handy. They gain Wild Empathy to replace the Animal Empathy skill, which means they’re keeping the function of a removed skill without spending skill points – it couldn’t be a better trade for them. Throughout the rest of their class abilities, only Wild Shape and Animal Companion see any change, though to be fair those are the breadwinner class abilities.
The changes to low-level Wild Shape are minor, as the terminology shifts from “like polymorph self” to “like the Alternate Form ability.” The key difference seems to be that they now gain Extraordinary special attacks and abilities of their new form, as they did not before; also, there’s none of this business about the new form being disorienting and forcing a Will save. (I wonder, idly, if that rule was consistently enforced in 3.0.) The really subtle change that makes a huge difference, though, is that dinosaurs are now Animals rather than Beasts. So, y’know, Tyrannosaurus Rex is open for business. Have you always wanted to Swallow your foes Whole? Really, who could blame you? Snacklings make the best enemies. Except that, of course, your new form must be one you’re familiar with, so sign up for that safari to the Lost Valley where behemoths of the distant past roam free. Here, I’ll provide the theme music.
Anyway, Wild Shape no longer hedges out dire forms until very late levels, which is good because that was never well-justified. Where Druids once gained that ability at 12th level, they now gain the ability to Wild Shape into a plant creature form. This has the advantage of being a much more common Type for new Monster Manual expansions to include, and you might have a sufficiently lenient DM that you can assert familiarity with a plant form on a successful Knowledge (Nature) check. If not, it’s still cool that you get to think of many encounters as a minor bump to your character’s options.
You also get a very slight delay in picking up new uses of elemental Wild Shaping, and add in the ability to choose Huge elemental forms. This gives you some really nice movement options; a heaping helping of feats, supernatural abilities, and spell-like abilities relevant to combat in your new form; and a variety of configurations of physical ability scores, always including at least one score of 25 or better. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Assuming I understand the restrictions on casting in Wild Shaped form correctly, you can cast spells freely as an elemental, because elementals can speak, even if they “rarely choose to do so.”
Other than elemental options, though, just plan to buy the Natural Spell feat. It’s part of the core rules of 3.5, and if the DM doesn’t houserule it into oblivion (which probably she should, because it’s a single feat to avoid one of the class’s big restrictions), you’re better off just thinking of it as paying your taxes at 6th level. If you don’t have it, you’ll be dumping a lot of daily uses of Wild Shape just for emergency healing or the like. What they probably should have done is to include some kind of spell failure chance while casting spells in animal form, or just accept radical fluidity of form as World of Warcraft and 4e do. (I’ll get to that next week.)
Animal Companion, as I mentioned, is the other big deal. Forget this business with changing out animals constantly. I mean, you can, but there’s now a good reason not to: the animal gains a boat of bonuses and abilities as you advance, from Hit Dice to Improved Evasion, and a whole lot else in between. All of those great buffing spells are still there for you, too – so keep the druid well-hidden while the rampaging animal companion takes care of business. If you toss in some summon nature’s ally spells for good measure… but seriously, lazy druid is best druid.
The 3.x Druid is one of the few classes that can be the whole adventuring party. You might consider casting awaken just to have something to talk to – it’s got to be a really serious problem for you to need anyone else. This class feels a lot less priestly overall, even with the significant overlap in spells, and a lot more like a mono-Green Magic: the Gathering deck with legs. It’s still a very compelling class from a roleplaying side, whatever jokes I might make at its expense. I think one of the best things a 3.x DM with a druid in the party could do is to read the flavor chapters of The Complete Druid’s Handbook, just to make sure the story and theme stay front-and-center over the rampant power-gaming available to the class.
If the 3.x Druid was your favorite class of all time, I want to emphasize that that’s totally cool. Having a deep well of options for absolutely every situation imaginable is fun. The only problem is that, when played with ruthless efficiency, it’s hard not to slow the game down to a crawl, even more egregiously than other 3.x classes do. I hope you enjoy the Druid with an eye toward keeping the game fun for other players, or you do all of the necessary prep-work to make it as painless as possible.
Image Credit: Paizo