June 21, 2017

Squaring the Druid Circle

Notes from the Nails: as I'm sure you all know, today is Estival Solstice, the most druid-y day of the year. With that in mind, I'd like to talk about druids - specifically, how to write a homebrewed druid circle.

Where are all the Druids?

Those of you who have been following us for a while might have noticed that we publish more subclasses for some base classes and fewer for others. Fighters and warlocks are abundant, while clerics and druids are more rare. Perhaps some of you have been wondering why that is - is it favouritism? Do we just like fighters better than druids... all five of us?

The truth is, it's more complicated than that. Although we do love fighters and warlocks, that isn't the main reason why we've published more of them. I would argue that the druid's main problem actually stems from the narrowness of its concept.

The Fluff is Built in

Consider the fighter. A person who fights. The base fighter class has almost no fluff or theme built into it: it's just good at the mechanics of fighting, with its large hit die, extra attacks, and full set of weapon and armour proficiencies. From there, there are a million different fighting styles, historical cultures, fictional characters, and fantasy tropes you can draw upon when creating martial archetypes, to say nothing of the various ways you could weave magic onto the fighter chassis.

However, with the druid, you have almost the complete opposite: the base class is already packed with lore and roleplaying ribbons, such as the restriction on metal armour, the Druidic language, and the heavily biased spell list. The core druid circles then differentiate themselves mechanically: Land has more spells, Moon has a bigger Wildshape list. Even worse, the Circle of the Land actually covers several different settings and terrain types, meaning it's somewhat redundant to make a 'tundra druid' or a 'desert druid' (not that we won't find a way in our setting books, of course). Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: when you say the word 'druid', you are immediately invoking a whole package of ideas that come together to create a very specific image. There's very little room for subdividing that further; you can only get so specific before your subclass concept becomes too niche or uninspiring.

It is perhaps illustrative that any given town or city in a D&D world will have many cleric NPCs, each representing different gods, but only one druid NPC. How boring would it be if you encountered two druids in the same town? It'd be like having the same encounter twice! This is because the realm of what a druid can be is much more narrow than the possibilities you have with clerics. And while there are, of course, things you can do to remedy this, it remains the 'default' situation that druids are pigeonholed into their 'nature-loving Luddite' slot, while clerics are free to be duplicitous heretics, inspirational firebrands, gentle healers, gruff holy men, pure shrine maidens, or any number of other personalities.

In many ways, I feel that it would have made more sense to do away with the druid class altogether and rationalise it into the nature cleric. Now that clerics don't have to have divine patrons and druids can worship gods, there really isn't much conceptual space between the two. The cleric could even be given Polymorph as a domain spell as a sop to people who miss the Wildshape aspects of D&D druids! Alas, we are where we are.

Squaring the Circle

Now that we know that coming up with appealing concepts for druid circles is a problem, can we find a solution? Of course we can! Personally, I have a few different tricks for cracking this particular nut. One approach would be to go back to basics: ask what makes a druid different from other classes and build from there. Another option is to blend the druid base with other classes' mechanics. If all else fails, one can also reach back to older editions of the game and adapt something, but I for one much prefer to work with my own ideas.

Back to Basics
The essence of the druid's aesthetic is that they are spiritual people that draw their power from the natural world. Druids are presented as traditionalists and ecologists who generally serve neither god nor man, but fight to protect the natural world. Therefore, some of the strongest themes for druids tie in to some aspect of nature - such as how the moon druid is focussed on beast forms. The same logic can be found in our circle of the scale, vermin lord, and circle of the root and stem, as each picks on a different natural motif and blends that into the base class. Each one is, thematically at least, a variant on the moon druid.

Is there more mileage in this yet? I'd say there is. What about a slightly deranged druid that sees monstrosities as the equals of beasts? It's something we've already explored in the context of Lovecraft (unspeakable circle), but perhaps a more restrained design with simpler mechanics and a more earthly focus could work in generic settings. Equally, there may be space for a druid that concentrates exclusively on birdlike forms.

Another thought I've had is to ask why druids protect and preserve nature. In the Players Handbook, it says that druids believe that "nature exists in a precarious balance," and there has long been an emphasis on harmony and neutrality in the lore. For this reason, I was surprised that there wasn't a 'four elements' druid - that is to say, a circle that draws on all four elements equally - and I have therefore been working on a 'circle of harmony' that I hope to release on the blog at some point in the future.

Opposites Attract
You may be thinking that this 'variant moon druid' thinking is limiting. I don't disagree, but the heart of creativity lies in taking a limitation and turning it on its head. Hence the circle of steel, urban druid, and circle of desolation. Each one takes an element of the classical druid (anti-technology, anti-urbanisation, and pro-ecology) and inverts it. This design-by-reversal can easily be thought of as a way to pacify players that too easily dismiss druids as being strictly tree-hugging recluses, but can equally be used to fill the druid's role in unconventional settings. Indeed, it takes some philosophical gymnastics to justify each of the above druids, but I feel like that encourages more challenging and interesting roleplaying in a class that does not often have the room for it.

Fusion Dance
As horticultural experts, druids would surely appreciate a bit of hybridisation. What mechanics, then, would fit with their aesthetic? An obvious one is an animal companion - beastmaster style -which lends itself to a shamanic sort of theme. An augur or soothsayer who reads the future in natural phenomena could be made by infusing some of the diviner's flavour, and WotC's alchemical artificer might be cross-bred with the druid to produce a dedicated herbalist. Clearly, there are plenty of unexplored possibilities here; feel free to let us know in the comments if there are any you'd like to see implemented.

Problem Solved

There you have it. Even in the course of this short essay, I've thrown up a few new ideas for druid circles, and laid out pathways that could lead to many more. I expect you'll be seeing a few more tree-huggers on the blog in future! Beyond that, I hope this has shed some light on the creative process that goes on behind the scenes at Middle Finger of Vecna, and maybe even that I have inspired some of you to try your hands at subclass design. It certainly changes the way you look at the game when you step behind the curtain - and like all creative pastimes, it's very rewarding.


  1. Have you ever considered a sort of "open mic" where we shout out ideas we would like? on the Patreon is there a vote where you can fill in your own? this would be pretty cool IMO.

    1. I believe we tried something like that on reddit? That's not my domain though, so I don't know what happened to it. Maybe the world wasn't ready for us before?

      My ask box on tumblr is always open if you've got something you want to share more privately, too.

    2. I have ideas for days and I might talked to you over Tumblr. would private messaging be to personal?

    3. Private messaging is fine; it's not exactly a 'personal' account. I thought an ask would be better for 'open mic' style, since then I can reply publicly and people could comment (not that I expect anyone *would*).

  2. Very interesting. Druids are indeed a problem in 5e, both mechanically and... flavourically? Flavourily?

    I recently put in the Daggerspell into my campaign, and used the MFoV daggerspell rogue for both druids and mages. While it was easy to just make the wizard levels Razor Wizard, the druids had to have moon circle with some "DM decided" tweaks, because of the very specific ways wild shape works.
    Yep. Druids are annoying.

    One typo in "Opposites attract": "it takes some philosophical gymnastics is required".

  3. Guys, just pointing out, Druids can use metal in 5e, the player handbook even mentions the use of sickles and scimitars in the druid section.

    1. Yes, we know. It also says they shouldn't wear metal armour/shields, and I'd add that sickles and scimitars could easily be made form stone (a macuahuitl is clearly a refluffed scimitar).

      But I feel like you're missing the point of the article. I'm talking about more general, high-level concepts, and it remains the case that the base druid has an inbuilt isolationist and anti-technology slant. My point is that without those themes, a druid is identical to a nature cleric, so they can't be gotten rid of entirely and that places an extra burden on us as homebrewers.

  4. I vaguely agree, but I also disagree. Looking at those subdivisions of Land and Wild Shape, you can still cut into each of those to fully flesh out content. Much in the same vein as what you have offered and what other 3rd party content does.

    Just because the Moon druid is a more universalist you can still branch out into shapedrifting druids focused around swarms and insects, plants, elementals, and the like.

    And Land only really offers up an expanded spell list as far as its devotion to different terrains is. Turning it into a traveler, a dreamland-focused druid, something focused around sites of power or menhirs, druids focused on the natural cycle of death and decay, etc.

    The druid has a niche, but "nature magic user with some shapeshifting" still gives you all of nature at your disposal, you still have an immense amount of room to work with.

  5. I would love the idea of a magical creature druid. one like the shifter of 3.0. lets you wildshape into anything. Master of Many Forms is what i think it was called in 3.5. i like the idea of being able to run around as Nothic or something.

  6. Consider a druid who can use wildshape per day to instead let spells be cast at higher spell slots.

    Or A druid who can wildshape into smaller animals easier than a normal druid. like circle of the moon but weaker in a way.
    It can wildshape into a hawk at lower levels.

    Or a druid that gets sneak attack and has a vermin or snake theme with poisons.

    A plague doctor or witch doctor druid.

    A turtle druid who can use wildshape to make itself tankier instead of actually wildshaping.

    A parasitic druid who wants to make a hivemind.

    A Bee Druid who wants to spread bee's influence.

    A Gunslinger druid who shoots seeds from its wildshapes.

    A druid that lets you wildshape into people instead of animals and functions off Charisma instead.

    A Ranger like druid who gets better martial abilities outside of wildshape.

    a Wildmagic druid that gets the wildmagic table when it wildshapes or something.

    These are just a few idea i threw togeather. just now.

    1. I'm sure there are some things we can use in here. GUY MADE OF BEES!

      Hopefully we'll get to a point where there are as many druids on the blog as there are warlocks and fighters. That's part of why I wrote this (as well as it being the solstice).

    2. Was this in response to my comment earlier about the obvious bias?

      Also, yes BEEFORGED, make it happen, Nails!

    3. Not specifically; it's something I've been saying privately for months. And like, I believe we're also a little short on clerics and rangers, but yesterday wasn't Christmas or Aragorn's birthday or anything, so I decided not to write about them.

    4. Ah its good to know I'm not sowing discord or causing any grief with my frequent commenting. I enjoy the work the Vecnian's do and find myself refreshing almost every 20 hours at least.

    5. Bees! All I know is that there's a guy made of bees in Kingdom of Loathing, which must be a reference to something else.

    6. https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Beeforged A really good story and yes it has to be a reference to this I believe.

    7. Also feeling the bees. I had a druid NPC at one point that wild shaped into a swarm of bees (one of these rare swarms that can feel both aggressive and benevolent). I thought of her as a "Circle of the Sun Druid" -- but never followed through on brewing full mechanics for that circle.

      In keeping with a Circle of the Sun that inverts the Circle of the Moon -- what about a Circle of the Seasons (as a time counterpart to the Circle of the Land) -- and like land druids can emphasize a particular terrain, season druids could emphasize a particular season... spring druids with abilities relating to flowery plants... pollen allergy attacks... et cetera.

      I'm relatively new to this (incredible) resource -- and already very grateful. Is there a standard way to offer suggestions/requests?

    8. If you leave an email, I can't promise that I'll respond, but I can guarantee that I can at least read everything that makes its way to my inbox.

      If you want to get more really good content and get another place to reach out to us, there's always the Patreon.

  7. "In many ways, I feel that it would have made more sense to do away with the druid class altogether and rationalise it into the nature cleric. Now that clerics don't have to have divine patrons and druids can worship gods, there really isn't much conceptual space between the two."

    That's the real problem. The entire Druid class is only as big as one Cleric SUB-class. Give the Nature Cleric a few Druid-y domain spells, maybe let them use their Channel Divinity to Wildshape, and you've got a Druid.

    Wizards gain their spells through study and effort. Sorcerers get their spells through a quirk in fate or lineage. Clerics get their spells from a higher power. Druids get their spells... also from a higher power.

    Really, I think they were a little scared to go full hog into the nice class/sub-class system they invented for 5e. You could make really great Rangers with a few Fighter and Rogue sub-classes. And I'm eyeballing you, Paladins, you Fighter sub-class.