Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Thoughts on: Druid Preview @ Wizards

The druid preview is a few weeks old now, but following on from my Thoughts On: Sorcerer Preview @ Wizards article, I thought I'd go back for another look.

Much like the sorcerer, the druid was an integral part of an earlier 3.5 campaign I played in, this time a long-running but now sadly defunct Forgotten Realms affair that came to a sickly halt last year after a near-TPK in the Temple of Elemental Evil. And like the sorcerer, the druid was a major force to be reckoned with in that game. Dire wolves, hippogriffs, unicorns, archons, all dropped unceremoniously on their heads while Dire Bear animal companions tore holes in entirely new and unexpected places... such was the fate of our hapless foes. Coupled with an armoury of what would now be considered a mix of Leader and Controller magic, the druid was an absolute tank of a class that regularly seemed to be able to handle encounters pretty much on its own. In fact, the general consensus around the table was that, although we felt the class was great, it had been over-cooked; the creatures on its summoning tables were too good, its spell list was too comprehensive, and it should not have been able to cast spells while wild shaping (really, was there any RAW druid out there who didn't take the Natural Spell feat?). Major kudos to my good friend Leon who repeated showed us exactly what a 3.5 druid was capable of.

Previous comments from the 4E designers hinted that they were taking the druid back to its shape-shifting roots, which I must admit I liked the sound of, but until now I've been a little uncertain how the class would fare on the levelled playing field of the new game, especially with respect to animal companions which have remained a bit of a mystery. The original classification of the druid as a potential hybrid role was also dispensed with in no uncertain terms a while back, and I couldn't have agreed more with that decision. Creating roles is pointless if you then proceed to dilute them with hybrids, which are notoriously difficult to balance in any medium.

As it turns out, there is a certain blurring of lines in the class as it stands today as well, and it seems like the druid has been a bit of a problem for the developers. How did it turn out?

Well we have a new power source for a start, Primal, where the natural world imbues its champions with ancient energy, and a new Controller as well. Although Controller is a role that desperately needs filling out after the Striker overload of the last few months, a bestial, wild-shaping, leather-and-hide-wearing druid never struck me as the type of character to manipulate things from the side-lines. I quite fancied the druid as a Primal Defender myself, but we'll with-hold judgement on that for now. Shape-shifting is in, big-style, but summoning and animal companions... well, they're simply gone. It seems the innocent dire badgers of the world have finally had enough of being launched unceremoniously into battle for some hippie dressed in bark that they've never met before.

Two thematic builds are presented, based on the Primal Aspect chosen at character creation. The Primal Guardian jams Con right to the forefront and pushes the druid towards a "secondary" Leader role, while the Primal Predator gives the druid added nimbleness (+1 speed, very nice) and pushes it towards the Striker role. This is the first indication that the druid is trying to be a hybrid without breaking the Role framework outright, and well, I can't say I like the idea all that much. Very few 1st-3rd level powers synnergise with the choice of Aspect (just four in fact), and Wild Shape, aside from the suggestion that your Aspect might determine the flavour of beasts you become, doesn't change at all.

In fact, nowhere is the 4th Edition paradigm more obvious than in Wild Shape. No rifling through the Monster Manual for you, young man; in the new game it is nothing more than an activation key for powers which have the new Beast Form keyword. This makes shape-shifting an almost entirely thematic feature; you can choose any form which you think fits your character (and your size), but other than that, the powers which you get access to are generic enough (claw, rend, etc.) that they can apply to any beast you might care to mention. The druid becomes extremely streamlined and easy to play by doing this, and roleplay-wise, Wild Shape is more of a blank canvas than it was before, but I can't help but miss the idea of a druid choosing just the right form, with just the right abilities, at just the right moment. In many ways this mirrors the reduction that 4E brought to the wizard, but for some strange reason, while I was entirely behind that change, to me the essential flavour of the druid seems harder-hit by a similar approach. Undoubtedly this is because I've always had a much greater affinity for the druid class than the wizard. From a DM's perspective, certainly, the druid is going to be much less of a headache from now on, but I can think of many players, including the aforementioned Leon, who are probably going to feel that the class has been overly-diminished in its migration to the new game.

The powers, in and of themselves, are excellent. Beast Form powers consist of a selection of relatively low-damage, very Controller-oriented melee strikes which put their victims in highly precarious positions, and the odd Psychic attack as well, which is... interesting. Utility powers would seem poised to take great advantage of Wild Shape, but as yet there's only one that actually does: Fleet Pursuit, giving the druid a Dex-based speed bonus. I hope to see more along these lines at higher levels.

In boring-old humanoid form, the Controller-side of the druid is writ large. Call of the Beast, for example, is essentially a ranged Mark, denying the victim combat advantage for an entire turn (superb for an At-Will, I can see this causing my guys a lot of trouble when I DM against a druid) and penalising him if he doesn't attack the nearest foe. Otherwise, the usual menu of slides, slows, pen-them-ins, and force-them-to-moves are all present and correct. Mastery of elements also seems to be a theme with a selection of fire, cold, and lightning-based attacks. There doesn't seem to be a power here that doesn't give the option of asserting some control over the battlefield, so if you're hankering for another Controller, you can't really go wrong.

To sum-up I'd say that the druid is difficult to get a handle on without actually seeing it in play. Ideally you'd want a player who fully embraced Wild Shape and used it to its fullest extent, and I do like the way that Beast Form powers really conjure up the image of a cold, super-intelligent, almost velociraptor-like predator... well except for the Psychic attacks which frankly seem a little out of place. What worries me though is that the druid's mish-mash of abilities seems pulled from several other, much purer and more focused classes, and that the druid's identity is a bit lost because of it. There's definitely a nagging feeling that they never really managed to take the hybrid out of the druid.

I can't help but feel that a feral avenger, who spent most of his time in beast form doing terrible and bloody damage to the flesh of his enemies, would have been a better direction to take with the class. In many ways, the recently-previewed Warden, a Primal Defender who I'll review later-on, is much more emblematic of the vestigial furies which I see driving the Primal power source... which is is a shame, because it's the druid, surely, that exemplifies Primal power in D&D, not these new interlopers (however good they may be, and the warden is very, very good).

As always, I'll update the blog with some revised thoughts once I get my grubby hands on the full class in the PHB2.

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