Unearthed Arcana: Druid Circles and Wild Shape Breakdown

I guess if you’re going to call any class even obliquely harvest-holiday-themed, druid is a good one. Accordingly, this week’s Unearthed Arcana offers three new druid circles and a variant Wild Shape rule. Whatever else might be said, they took more risks with new mechanics this time than last week, and so even if I wind up disliking it (spoiler: I won’t), it’s useful as suggestions for what’s “in-bounds” for third-party design. Third-party designers get read the Riot Act for venturing too far outside the borders that Smith & Wesson Mearls & Crawford lay out in official releases, you know? Anyway, let’s get to it.

Oh, and in case you’re new around here, I have done some writing about druids before. The link points to the last article in the series, with directory links to the earlier ones.

Circle of Dreams

When it comes to a fey-themed subclass for any class, it’s not a question of if but when and what form it takes. Curiously, then, the druid with fey ties is a superior healer, in addition to improving movement. All the more oddly, they are tied to both Courts. My esteemed colleague Colin informs me that this has a lot in common with Emerald Dream lore from World of Warcraft. In specific:

  • Balm of the Summer Court grants a new currency: 1d6 per druid level. Spend any number of these up to half your druid level as a bonus action; one ally you can see within 120 feet is healed for the result, and gains temporary hit points equal to the number of dice spent, and gets a speed buff for 1 minute (5 ft per die spent). You recover these on a long rest.
    • Holy geez, y’all. This is a lot of functionality! I would say that this puts the Dreams druid on par with the Life cleric for top healer in the game – worse at group healing, but who needs healing word when you’ve got this going on? It’s not a spell, so you can still use your action for whatever you like.
    • Relatively few subclasses hand out a new currency, and I’m surprised that the rest of the subclass doesn’t use this feature as a kind of backbone.
    • I get how this meets up with the Summer Court, and I can see how the Summer Court touches on Dreams (you know, in a very White Wolf, circa 1995, way), but there’s some thematic reaching going on here.
  • Hearth of Moonlight and Shadow mentions the “shadowy power of the Gloaming Court,” which… I wouldn’t have expected, but sure. Anyway, when you make a short or long-rest camp, your perceptions are heightened and your fire is hidden from those outside the camp.
    • It’s not quite ribbon-ish, and in fact I’ve been in campaigns where this would be a huge Still, it’s a real contrast to the very flashy first feature. This will come up, in a way that changes outcomes, once in a long while. About as often, it will lead to the DM having to rewind narration because the PCs suddenly point out that no, the assassins didn’t see our campfire, but thanks for letting us know we blew our Perception checks!
  • Hidden Paths lets the druid spend movement as a teleport effect (self-only) or spend an action to teleport an ally. The odd thing about this feature is each option refreshes separately on a 1d4-round timer.
    • I don’t like the timer, which sounds like a pain in the ass to remember to track. This is why we stopped having most timers be anything between “end of next turn” and “1 minute,” unless there’s a saving throw to mark the time. I’m surprised they didn’t give it a recharge die, like monsters use.
    • This is also way more free teleporting than we’ve seen to date. It’s a barely-limited number of misty step spells, and that’s just crazy. On the other hand, back in 4e they decided that short-range teleportation was the most fey thing ever, so in that regard this is unsurprising. Still, this needs toning down.
  • Purifying Light is a weird feature that lets you pair a dispel magic with any spell you cast that restores hit points. My strict reading of the text suggests that you have to expend the spell slot for the dispel magic, and it must be the same level as the slot expended for healing. That’s a tough constraint. This feature also has a usage limit greater than one per long rest, so it’s another kind of currency to track.
    • The privilege of dumping spell slots of third level and higher (since you can never cast dispel magic with a spell slot of 1st or 2nd level – we don’t have rules for what that would do, though it’s not complicated to project the math downward and come up with an answer) twice as fast or faster is a sort of dubious 14th-level feature. A free dispel magic up to three times per long rest would be fine, and may be what the text is supposed to say.

I like that there’s a competitive healer subclass, I like that they do more than just heal (even if it’s a different support function, that’s still interesting), and I like the fundamental principle going on in Purifying Light – an extra cookie for spending a spell slot on healing. Those are all great. I have questions about the overall balance, which is to be expected in the public playtest release, and overall Hidden Paths is just more teleporting than I want to see happening in a game. Cool stuff here overall.

 

Circle of the Shepherd

Drawing a meaningful thematic distinction between this subclass and the bog-standard druid is really hard, and the paragraph of flavor text here doesn’t quite get there. All druids protect nature, including animals. These druids… protect animals as the core of their practice. That doesn’t quite come out as something exciting and adventure-friendly in itself, so let’s see what happens in the mechanics.

  • Spirit Bond grants you a totem animal power, a lot like Totem Warrior barbarians. If they renamed Hawk to Eagle, you’d even have the same list, with obvious storytelling benefits. These function a good bit like WoW shaman totems – a fixed area, 1-minute duration, radiating effects to allies. This ability refreshes on a short rest. (Since nothing refreshes on short but not long rests, I can safely say “refreshes on short rest” and you’ll understand that I mean “and also long.” Right? Right.) On the plus side, you learn all three and choose which one to call at the time of use.
    • The Bear totem tosses out a decent number of temporary hit points, scaling shallowly with level, as its initial effect. It also radiates advantage on Strength checks and saves in its area. Solid, useful, on-point.
    • The Hawk totem dips back into one of the alternate rangers – the odd-man-out non-spellcaster that got dropped like a hot rock from development – and hands out advantage on ranged attacks on targets in the effect area. Since your enemies have more control over where they stand than you do, relatively speaking, and the majority of party members will want to close and engage rather than make ranged attack rolls, this is the clear loser of the three. Also, for a class that is all about animals, this does absolutely nothing to help your conjured beasts, unlike the other two options.
    • The Wolf totem buffs perception checks against creatures in the spirit’s area, and whenever the druid heals anything, all allies in the area get splashed with healing equal to the druid’s level. So you spend a 1st-level slot on cure wounds, and imagining for a minute that you’re fifth level, you heal one target for 1d8 + your Wisdom modifier, and heal 5 to every ally in the aura. Your 1st-level slot becomes a total throughput of 1d8 + let’s say 4 + 15-30. Uh, no. This desperately needs to scale by the slot expended in some way, rather than just druid level. Disciple of Life and Blessed Healer need to be the models here.
  • Beast Speech is an always-on speak with animals. Fine, no problem. It would be weird not to have this.
  • Mighty Summoner is, you know, Undead Thralls from the Necromancer (in theme if not precise function), and allows your beasts to strike as magic. I sort of get why it has to be this way, but for the Shepherd to conjure the sheep (well, beasts of all species) rather than actually having a pet seems odd. (But you wouldn’t call a druid with one sheep a shepherd, you’d call him something culturally insensitive to England’s northerly neighbors.) Anyway, this is fine, but it means that this feature, and your expected playstyle, are mainly about one third-level spell. When you don’t have a spare 3rd-level slot, or you lose Concentration, that’s kinda the ballgame.
  • Guardian Spirit grants a free death ward when you wake up in the morning, and it lasts all day. As a cool thing to get, it’s fine. Might even save your life a time or two. It has pretty much nothing to do with the rest of the subclass’s theme, though.
  • Faithful Summons makes a bunch of angry animals come around to bust some kneecaps whenever someone does you wrong. Okay, it actually casts conjure animals as a 9th-level spell and sets the duration to 1 hour (no Concentration) and makes them attack your foes while you’re out (as opposed to just defending themselves when you can’t or don’t give an order). That’s pretty cool and all, but anything that can knock a 14th-level druid’s teeth in can probably make rugs out of four CR 2 beasts, even if they do have some extra hit points. As has been pointed out elsewhere, in combination with Guardian Spirit, this means that Faithful Summons triggers the second time you would get taken out in a day. I’m guessing this doesn’t come up much in most games.

The theme and mechanics of the Circle of the Shepherd don’t really come together, to me. The animal-protecting theme doesn’t carve out an interesting enough space in a fantasy world, the mechanics have a fairly loose connection to that theme, and I’m not really sold on the playstyle or how much this subclass expects you to get beaten down.

 

Circle of Twilight

Now we’re talking. No matter what kind of druid you’re playing (other than blight druids, because why should Death clerics have all the fun), you can get behind destroying some undead. This is the subclass for people who drop their amateur status and decide to go pro in that field. Don’t worry, they’re cool against other kinds of opponents too.

  • Harvest’s Scythe is another new-currency feature, but instead of being free healing d6s, it’s a pool of damage-boosting d10s. Necrotic damage is an odd choice for the undead-killers, because without looking it up I assume that some percentage of the undead are necrotic resistant. This is incredible for big AoEs, since the dice apply to all targets. When you juice a spell in this way and kill a hostile creature (no bag of rats, plzkthx), you heal yourself or one ally within 30 feet for 2 per die spent, or 5 per die if a creature you killed was undead. Any way you slice it, though, this feature is boss as hell.
    • The first time you toss off a sunbeam for 6d8 radiant + 6d10 or more necrotic and a big pack of undead have to suck up disadvantage on that save, that will be a real happy time for you.
  • Speech Beyond the Grave is a free speak with dead once per short rest. Fits in strongly with the theme of later features.
  • Watcher at the Threshold grants resistance to radiant and necrotic damage, and you grant advantage on death saves to allies. Nice strong connection to Speech Beyond the Grave theme, handy mechanics, what’s not to like?
  • Paths of the Dead is not just for Aragorn and Vlad Taltos anymore. It lets you cast etherealness once per short rest. I’m a touch confused on whether you need to spend a spell slot to do so, but I assume not. This is cool, but I admit that the name set me up to hope for too much. No reasonable complaint, though.

I would play the Circle of Twilight in a heartbeat. I can’t think of any other way to put that. This subclass has its act together in theme and mechanics. I have a vague concern that Harvest’s Scythe might be too good, but I’d have to see it in use to know. It’s potentially a lot of healing, but you’ve got to pay attention to how likely you are to finish the target off. I would allow this in my campaign immediately.

 

Wild Shape Forms

Finally, we have a variant Wild Shape rule, intended to make the huge variety of options more manageable and provide a clearer path to learning new forms. The text calls out that dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, and so on are “more exotic” shapes, and learning those shapes can be a worthy quest goal or reward. That sounds like a cool campaign thing to me, as long as the player doesn’t come into the game with the view that the DM owes it to them to make all shapes accessible in short order.

You start with three beast shapes known, picked from either the Tropical or Temperate lists based on your homeland. Several are marked for the Circle of the Moon only. Each time you gain a druid level, you add one creature from your 2nd-level list. I guess you never get to pick from the 4th-level and 8th-level lists for free, and always have to Observe or Interact with those. Well, druids needed mechanics-side stuff to want, so that’s good with me.

Observing a creature means spending an hour within 150 feet of the target creature, and making an Intelligence (Nature) check against what’s probably not too hard of a DC, but your bonus probably isn’t amazing either. You can even play a bookish druid and get a bonus – advantage on the roll if you’ve read a scholarly work on the creature. If you’ve ever read a (translation of a) medieval bestiary talking about real or fantastical creatures, this is hilarious and you may agree that it’s unlikely to help.

Interaction is the high-risk mode, unless someone else has already put the creature in a petting zoo for you. Okay, I have to admit, I love the idea of a druid seeing an awesome new creature in a noble’s menagerie, interacting with it while the rest of the PCs distract the noble, and starting the petting-zoo jailbreak by adopting that form. Anyway, this is a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check against the same DC, which is probably easier for most druids, but you have to get close enough to risk being lunch. But, spoiler!, you’re a druid, you’ve probably got a spell for this. At first level. It’s called animal friendship.

These rules are a hefty nerf to the druid, but it’s also fair to look at them as a clarification of intent. Overall I like them, but then I don’t have a current druid PC getting my options slashed by this change. I wonder what percentage of druid characters really use the full breadth of their options?

I’m happy to see the druid get UA attention, since (like the barbarian and bard) it is so thin on options in the Player’s Handbook. The core of the class is incredibly stripped down – it’s a spell list and spell slots attached to some fairly minor shapeshifting at all but the highest levels. This means that almost everything with thematic weight has to come from the subclasses, much like the warlock and its two axes of subclass choice (and all that Invocation customization), or the wizard. I’m nonplussed by the Circle of the Shepherd, but Dreams and Twilight are solid expansions on Land and Moon.

 

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Brandes

Brandes Stoddard enjoys games of many kinds: video, tabletop, board, card, and live-action games. He runs Dust to Dust, a fantasy LARP in Georgia, and works in freelance game design and writing. He blogs about games at http://harbinger-of-doom.blogspot.com.