This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy Nine on 1 September 2021.
Lennon (groaning painfully): Okay…chair…nice chair…ohh – except it’s not padded. At least it’s not a mimic.
The Mimic: One in six chance…should have listened when that machine was talking.
Ryu: What, you’re talking to yourself now?
Lennon: It’s not…you know what, I don’t even care anymore.
Ostron: What happened to you?
Lennon: I was talking to RaeRae and I asked her why she didn’t choose to be a Moon Druid because otherwise she can never turn into any useful animals.
Ryu: Oh boy. I imagine her staff of troll smiting was part of the chat after that?
Lennon: I don’t think I’ll be sitting right for a while. I don’t feel I deserved it though.
Ostron: Why’s that?
Lennon: Well, I mean I was right! The other druids all end up becoming casters, they can’t get any really powerful creature forms.
Ryu: You haven’t actually worked with many druids, have you?
Lennon: Well…no not really. She’s the only one I think. I mean, I once knew some druids named Krieger and Xsit, but they got eaten by a giant snake.
Yeah, druids can turn into a lot of things but they’re usually supposed to avoid “lunch” as an option, so they were probably not the best examples. All druids have access to many other useful wild shapes.
It’s a common misconception that unless a druid specifically opts for the Moon Druid subclass, their utility as a shapeshifter is minimal until they reach level 7 and are able to cast the Polymorph spell. Otherwise they’re limited to wild shaping into beasts whose official CR is equal to the Druid’s level divided by 8. So at level 2, which is when the wild shape ability becomes available, the druid is limited to creatures with a CR of 1/4.
The issue is that if the DM is crafting encounters meant to challenge the entire party, it is likely the enemies will at best be equal to whatever creature the Druid can turn into. It’s more likely they’ll be higher CR, so in a straight up fight the wild shape may not be any better than just fighting as the Druid, and in some cases may actually be worse.
The problem is that the idea of the druid’s wild shapes only being useful for providing a power spike in defense and ability to deal damage is a limited view.
Now obviously the low CRs provide a lot of creatures that can be useful for non-combat activities, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but just because your druid can’t form themselves into a bear at level 3 doesn’t mean they should give up on wildshaping in combat. But you have to think about tactical benefits that aren’t as obvious.
One of the main advantages to beast forms in early druid levels is it gives you access to abilities that other characters may not get until later levels. If your primary purpose in transforming is for functioning in combat, you’ll want to focus on creatures with those abilities. We’ll quickly go over a few of the options here.
We’re sticking with examples of CR 1/4 or lower because that’s the maximum wild shape level a generic druid is allowed at 4th level. By the time you get to fifth level, arguably wild shape will no longer be the best use of your time as a druid in combat because your allies will start to gain access to abilities you would have but they’ll be better at them, and also you should start leaning into the advantages granted by your druid circle. And if you’re a moon druid your options increase exponentially and we’d need an hour to go over them all. Though side note – swallowing people as a giant toad never gets old.
You might not think CR 0 has anything to offer because most of the creatures have single digit hit points and the damage and attack bonuses are laughable, but you’ll be facing similar creatures so it may not be a complete waste. But even if you’d rather tough it out as a regular humanoid, the Hyena may be worth looking at. At CR 0 it has an AC 11 and 5 hit points; with a bad roll it might be able to take two hits before poofing, but the biggest thing to consider is that it comes with pack tactics; it gets advantage on attack rolls as long as any ally is adjacent to its target. And that’s free, it doesn’t even require a bonus action. So you can be enjoying advantage attacks for as long as your companions are able to keep the enemies’ focus off of you, and the base attack does 1d6 damage, so that’s a nice boost if you manage to get a critical.
Continuing with the theme of “doing things no one else can yet”, take a look at the Giant Crab, as well as the Crocodile and Constrictor Snake. The crab is CR 1/8 and the other two are 1/4 so you have to wait a little bit to use them but the big thing those critters have going for them is restraint. All three creatures have a basic attack that automatically grapples the target if it hits; no opposed skill check, no secondary attack, just if you hit, they’re grappled. In the crab’s case this is best used for crowd control, especially because they can grapple up to two creatures at once. The crab also has a comparatively high 15 AC, so it might take a little longer for the enemies to get rid of it. The constrictor snake is even more threatening though; in addition to using d8s for damage, it’s version of grappling also automatically restrains the target, meaning if your allies are set up nice in the initiative order or if they’re willing to hold their attacks, they can enjoy free advantage when you wrap your coils around the enemy. If you don’t have to move quite as far to get to your target, though, go for the croc. It comes with more hit points than the snake and in addition to the auto-restrained grapple it’s doing damage with d10s. And if there’s water around the croc wins hands down; in addition to breathing underwater and swimming the same speed, the crocodile has a +2 to stealth. So guards watching the drawbridge next to the moat? Yeah they’re in for a bad time. Keep in mind both the snake and the modern dinosaur are large creatures, so if everyone’s crowding around waiting for that sweet restraint to kick in they have to leave enough room for you to actually get to the enemy.
For druids who are unrepentant rogues, there’s a hidden gem in the low CR beast pool for people who want to get their assassination on. The Giant Centipede is a mere CR 1/4. It only has a 13 AC and 4 hit points, so you aren’t going to wade into combat with it and start cleaning house, but you can suddenly do a serious amount of damage. The centipede’s basic attack hits for 1d4 +2 damage, but then the target has to save against the centipede’s poison. If they fail that save, they take a whopping 3d6 poison damage. It also has the side effect that dropping them to 0 makes them poisoned and paralyzed for an hour rather than killing them, so this works even better if you’re the type that likes taking prisoners or just stuffing guards in closets rather than upsetting their next of kin. Of course, you can also just snap out of bug form and kick them in the head; they’re already at 0 and melee attacks against paralyzed creatures are automatic criticals so you won’t have to worry about inconvenient prisoners for long.
You have to wait for access to CR 1/2 creatures to find anything that’s really going to improve your utility as a front-liner, or as close as you can get to a front liner with the beast forms. We already mentioned the crocodile that can help with restraining enemies, but if you want to be the one doling out the damage rather than the best supporting fighter, you’re going to want to look at the Ape. It’s AC is only 12 but it has 19 HP by default, and for a level 2 or 3 druid that’s probably going to nearly match your total as a character and it’s good for taking a couple of hits from most of the creatures you’d end up facing. It’s still medium sized so it isn’t going to crowd out your fighters and barbarian pals, but the main thing it brings to the fight is multiattack, something none of your friends will have yet. Two attacks doing 1d6 plus modifier damage is nothing to sneeze at. Plus it can do that same attack at moderate range with its ability to throw rocks that are slightly larger than normal. It may not last very long once it has the enemies’ attention but it should make a decent splash when it arrives.
Outside of combat, the utility of cats and spiders is huge. Spiders can infiltrate buildings, tents, and caves without anyone noticing or commenting unless they’re hyper paranoid or have overly enthusiastic housekeepers, and even if they are noticed the spider can be on the ceiling, traditionally not an easy place to reach. That’s if they can be found at all, as the spiders get a +4 to stealth by default.
Cats enjoy that same stealth bonus but have the benefit that if they’re encountered by an intelligent humanoid in an urban setting it’s at least possible the immediate reaction will be to try to befriend the critter rather than swatting it. The cat also gets a bonus to perception checks that the spider doesn’t have, so if you’re looking for an unobtrusive spy in someone’s house, Cheshire may be a better option than Charlotte. [web gnome comment: Team Charlotte!]
As mentioned, the utility of wild shape does tend to fall off in later levels unless you’re a Circle of the Moon druid and wildshaping is your focus, but just because you decided to focus on something like being a stand-in cleric or setting absolutely everything on fire doesn’t mean you should discount the built-in feature of your class.
Lennon: Okay, fine, so RaeRae’s wild shaping is still useful. I get it. Although I don’t think we really need more things in this building shapeshifting willy-nilly.
Ostron: Did you bring a changeling home from Eberron again?
Lennon: Okay that happened once and I didn’t know he was working for the cabinet of faces. Believe me, I don’t want to relive walking into the workshop and seeing three of you standing there.
Ostron: HR mix-up.
Ryu: Oh, well. Anyway, if you think we can get you in there without being assaulted, we should check on the scrying pool. Something tells me RaeRae won’t be in the mood to let us slack on it this week.