Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Druids: First Thoughts

Now we move onto a subclass that I've been dreading having to work with. Hell, my first few notes on the subject (when I started thinking about this post) are from October 5th. I've been procrastinating for a while, but now that I've gone down the road of adapting subclasses to Holmes, it's a challenge I need to get on to, dread or not.

[dreading as much as the monk? Probably more, actually...but the monk is close behind in the "what-am-I-going-to-do-with-THIS-thing" category"]

Over the years, I can remember at least a couple-three times when a buddy would approach me with a desire to play a druid. To which I have always replied:

"Why? Are you [insert derogatory, non-PC adjective here]?"

[this, by the way, is the kind of flippant, dick banter that nearly everyone hates and that most guys still do, at least with our (usually male) friends. I've really been trying to cure myself of this stupid habit the last few years]

Fact is, some people dig the whole druid concept (for a myriad of reasons), but I always looked at the class through the most superficial of lenses: a weak-ass cleric-wannabe in leather armor who can grow trees and turn into a bird, and whose major abilities seem fuckall worthless in a subterranean environment (the basic setting for a game with the word "Dungeons" in the title). It was buddy, gaming acquaintance, and all-around smart guy Heron who pointed out to me that druids that there's an awful lot of natural "life" in a subterranean environment: lichens and molds and bats and rats and insects and lizards and fish and...well, you get the picture. The underground is teeming with natural life waiting for a guardian to communicate and ally with...it doesn't all have to be forests and fairies.

Besides which we also associate druids with megalithic stone structures (even when such association isn't necessarily warranted...although it's clear druids used sites like Stone Henge, the sites weren't built by druids; sorry Spinal Tap). Stone, carved stone...like the stuff used to line your average cyclopean dungeon. One might figure the druid to be as nice a compliment to a group of spelunking treasure seekers as a dwarf, given the nature priest's skill set.

And yet, we really don't know WHAT a druid is or was. I mean, a "druid" is not an an archetype that is found across cultures in the same way as, say, a fighter, or a wizard, or a thief is. A druid was a specific class of individual found within the ancient Celtic society...one that was stamped out by the Romans as they conquered Gaul and Britain. Here's about all we know (or think we know) from mostly Roman accounts:

  • They were learned and well-respected within their own society.
  • They were in charge of religious activities and justice (acting as judges) and may have had medical training, too.
  • They were exempt from military service and could act as intermediaries between armies (and even stop a battle). 
  • They may have been trained in secret (like a mystery cult) in forests and/or caves.
  • They were astronomers and practiced divination.
  • They believed in reincarnation and the immortality of the human soul.
  • In Ireland (perhaps elsewhere), "druids" were a bit synonymous with "magicians," and were belived to have magic powers (usually curse-type spells).

And that's it...everything else is unreliable, speculated, or derived from fiction, or (in the case of fantasy gaming), derived from the earliest editions of D&D.

Druids first appears as a monster in Supplement I (Greyhawk) for OD&D, with the following description:
DRUIDS: These men are priests of a neutral-type religion, and as such they differ in armor class and hit dice, as well as in movement capability, and are combination clerics/magic-users. Magic-use ranges from 5th through 7th level, while clericism ranges from 7th through 9th level. Druids may change shape three times per day, once each to reptile, bird, and animal respectively, from size as spall as a raven to as large as a small bear. They will generally (70%) be accompanied by numbers of barbaric followers (fighters), with a few higher-level leaders (2-5 fighters of 2nd-5th levels) and a body of normal men (20-50).
This here may be as close to accurate as any edition of D&D ever gets to the druid, at least in the "adapting-a-historic-culture-to-a-fantasy-wargame" sense of the word "accurate." This is a group that a Roman army might have encountered during a conquest of (fantasy) Gaul, combining the (legendary) rumors of magic power with the (historic) role of the druid as religious and cultural leaders. Everything that comes later is derived from this.

Do these look like adventurers?
Not that there's all that much that comes later. There is the druid subclass (of cleric) that is presented in Supplement III (Eldritch Wizardry), followed by the subclass as presented in the PHB (nearly the exact same, save that it goes to 14th level instead of 13th and ups the hit die type), followed by the 2E version (a subclass of priest) that is...well, nearly the same as the 1E version. Mentzer's BECMI includes the druid as a proto-prestige class of cleric (where 9th level clerics of neutral alignment suddenly take off their metal armor and start living in the woods with a different spell set), and 3E is, well, almost exactly the same as the 1E version (though with skills and scaling in the D20 mode), save that it introduces the idea of an animal companion to the druid...a pet/bodyguard that would grow in power as the druid did (in the true D20 method of constant scaling).

4E was the first edition to really go "outside the box" that was first codified in Eldritch Wizardry (even AD&D had animal followers for druids, similar to 3E's "companions"). I wrote about that here, and while I think it's a fairly ridiculous (i.e. "stupid") concept, it's level of inaccuracy isn't probably all that worse than the "traditional" druid class.

[actually, scratch that: I just went back and reread the druid presented in the 4E PHB2 and it is the most grossly stupid thing I've ever seen. There is absolutely ZERO correlation between that class and the historic druid...it might as well be called "the Mowgli" or "Feral Child." Really, what were they thinking? If this post wasn't already long, I'd print the passage for open ridicule]

For me, though, the main issue isn't one of accuracy or historicity or even gameplay (in the "how does this class's attributes work in play" sense). No, the main issue is how the concept of a druid fits within the implied setting of D&D. How is having a culturally appropriated role like a Celtic druid any different from, say, an African witchdoctor, or a Japanese samurai, or a Sioux shaman? Isn't it just a different form of cleric? Do we need such a subclass? Especially in a game that purports to be "setting free" (at least with regard to proper noun religions and nations and cultures)?

Don't misunderstand me...there's a part of me that LIKES the inclusion of a "back-to-nature priest" class as an opposite number to the "organized temple religious crusader" cleric. I like having that dichotomy AND I think it does set up nice rivalries for any setting one cares to craft for the game. You see this trope in fantasy fiction all the time: the old, natural (read "pagan") religion that has been suppressed/usurped by the new, warlike religion. Usually features also the neolithic or early Iron Age culture getting conquered by the steel-clad troops of an invading army (see the history of Westeros in Game of Thrones for an easy example...there are plenty of others).

But consider this: in such a campaign setting (which, BTW, has been done to death and is thus kind of boring), wouldn't the post-apocalyptic landscape set-up to make priests of the "old antiquated religion" (i.e. druids) to be the bad guys left behind in these ancient cave complexes (dungeons)? NOT platemail-wearing "evil high priests" (clerics) but dudes with hide armor and feathers and shillelaghs? I mean, that would make sense, right?

[as much sense as anything in this damn game makes]

If there is some sort of "cosmic war" between Lawful and Chaotic forces ("good gods" versus "evil gods") with clerics being the agents on both sides, where the hell are these "druids" supposed to fit? What place does such a neutral party play in such a war? Especially considering their magic is also supposed to come from "divine" sources (as a subclass of cleric). Now you have to start sacking yourself cosmological questions in order to even include the subclass...which is a pain in the ass for what is (ostensibly) a "generic fantasy" game.

Irritating...with a capital "I."

And sure...it doesn't have to matter to play the game; you can just throw whatever kitchen sink stuff you want into your campaign to make it "fun." For me, I want a slightly higher level of quality control. Which is why I bother to care about this shit.

SO...as I prepare to write-up my own version of the druid subclass for Holmes ('cause I set out to do this thing and I want to see the exercise through), I find myself not even knowing where to start. I'm pretty sure it won't look anything like the "feral boy" class of 4E. I'm pretty sure that it will need a whole new spell list, just as I did with the illusionist (no comments, people? I suppose folks aren't familiar enough with the illusionist class as it exists to see the coolness...). And that's about all I know.

But it's Market Day, so I've got to sign off. I'll be reflecting on the druid throughout the day (and maybe longer). Any input/opinions/thoughts people want to throw my way are welcome. This one's going to need all the help I can get.

[maybe I should do the monk first...]


  1. Replies
    1. @ Luke:

      Yeah, that was kind of my first thought, too. But for me the witch is already the equivalent of a shaman (or witch-doctor or medicine man or other "primitive-practitioner-of-earth-magic"). I think something new, and probably setting-specific, is needed.

  2. I don't like Druids as the "Curley Greenleaf, elven friend-of-the-flowers" type. I think of them more as crazy-eyed Ted Kaczynski types with twigs in their hair, who aren't especially friendly and probably won't let you come on their land.

    1. Heron! So glad to have you chime in, you old Goat! I think of you (and your canned light beer) every time I write one of these druid posts!

      Could Kaczynski's hoody double as a druid robe? Probably. But I do think I'm looking for something a little less extreme than an "eco" terrorist (on the other hand, I don't know how else one could categorize the "avenging druid" trope...see 2E's Return to White Plume Mountain as an example).

      You know, I think I might have actually made an NPC druid called "Greenleaf" at some point (yes, I'm familiar with the Gygaxian character). I definitely had one called "Galadriel."
      ; )

  3. As someone who identifies as a (reformed/neopagan) Druid, who has known many Druids, and has read extensively on Druidic history and what we know of Celtic/IE philosophy and theology ...

    There's no need for a separate Druid class if you have the witch/witch-doctor/shaman in place already. Druids occupy the same thematic niche -- a wild "wise man" who treats with gods and spirits alike, but whose power comes as much from within as from without. Shapeshifting is a big part of their kit, even historically (vide Amergin's Song), and historically they could arguably only be male (sources vary), but other than that there's not much that sets them apart from the other "natural/hedge magicians."

    Thus I'd say that if someone in your games wants to play a druid-type character, point them at the witch. Maybe tone down the witch's German fairy-tale elements in favor of more "druidic" flavor and go from there.

    1. @ Jack:

      [hmm...I thought I'd already replied to your comment]

      Thank you for the input. While I agree with your assessment (and for that matter, Catholic priests, too, are probably a lot closer to such archetypes than "armored crusaders"), for the purpose of a fantasy game, I want to make the character a divergence of the cleric class, rather than of the magic-user class (which is what the witch is). See my more recent (yesterday) post discussing clerics in Holmes.

      That being said, I did make the shape changing thing one of their spells (as just one more of the druid's "magical powers") rather than some inherent ability. I agree it should be there, based on the legends. I just wanted to do it in a different fashion.

  4. 13th Age sort of tries to focus the sometimes sprawling and vague D&D druid. You get a series of character options: animal companion, elemental spells, shapeshifting, terrain spells, fighting, and healing. These are all things a druid in other versions of D&D have been able to do, but 13th Age first of all allows only three choices from the menu, so no one druid can master all abilities.

    A druid player has the further option of spending two of their ability choices on one ability to make it a bit better, so you could have a druid with one level -- they're not levels in the D&D sense but it'll do for now -- in shapeshifting and two levels in healing.

    I haven't used this system yet as it was introduced in a supplement that didn't come out until after we started playing 13th Age but I do like how it seems to allow lots of options that can all be recognised as a druid, albeit a D&D-type druid.

    1. Mmm...I've heard folks refer to 13th Age as "the good parts version" of 4th Edition D&D, and what you're describing sounds like one of the 4E leftovers. 4E's take was just about the worst looking version of the druid I've seen across all gaming spectrums (including World of Warcraft's interpretation of the class), so I'd be surprised in 13th Age didn't at least improve it somewhat...but for something "Holmseian," I'm not really looking for multiple character builds.
      ; )

    2. I didn't think so, but I thought it would be useful data nonetheless!

    3. @ Kelvin:

      It IS useful (and interesting) and I do appreciate it.
      : )