Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Effectiveness of Druids in Dungeon Fantasy

The druid is another archetype with a varied history in role-playing games. At the apex of the concept's power, you have the D&D3e version of a shapeshifting warrior spellcaster, who can heal and harm with magic and goes into battle with a summoned bear ally, his personal bear companion, and himself shapeshifted into a bear (or at the higher levels, some kind of carnivorous dinosaur). At the lower end, AD&D2e's druid was a second rate cleric with worse access to spells, limited healing ability, no special abilities against undead or demons, annoying armor and weapon restrictions, and limited and inconsequential shapeshifting to make up for it.

The Dungeon Fantasy druid is closer to the latter than the former: something like a cleric, but generally weaker. The druid isn't all bad, and has a place in some delving bands, but it could be a more powerful template. The druid has a unique role as the only spellcaster with access to plant and animal spells, but generally those spells aren't very good. The druid can also have animal allies and shapeshift into animal forms (either through the Shapeshift spell or as an Advantage), but normal or even slightly enhanced animals aren't good combat challenges in Dungeon Fantasy, so it's debatable if those abilities are really worthwhile. Finally, the druid has excellent nature skills, and can be very helpful for delving bands that lack Scouts. However, most delving bands are going to want to have a Scout, since the Scout is a great archetype that helps solve a lot of challenges.

The Basic Chassis

Druids have similar attributes to clerics, but with more HT and less ST. They're at best secondary melee combatants, with indifferent combat skills and damage. They have a high IQ and matching Perception and Will, though they have less use for that Will than a Cleric. Nothing really stands out here: Druids are solid but not exceptional.

Skillwise, druids focus on nature skills. The Herb Lore skill allows a druid to very cheaply brew healing potions in town - trading the versatility of the wizard's Alchemy skill for a much deeper discount on some of the most important potions in the game. Naturalist and various Hidden Lore skills let a druid identify quite a few monster threats, including many that are likely to be encountered by beginning delvers. Naturalist also lets a druid eat for cheap in the wild, reducing the cost and weight of rations on long trips.

Advantages and Disadvantages

All druids have Druidic Investiture 3, which allows for a decent range of animal and plant focused spellcasting, Green Thumb 1, and 40 more points in optional druidic advantages. Druidic abilities focus mostly on animal or nature spirit Allies or the potentially useful Speak with Animal (or Speak with Plant) ability to turn local critters into scouts and informants. Their mundane advantage choices include various talents to make the druid better at dealing with plants, animals, or healing, or better attributes or spellcasting. They can also shapeshift into animal forms, but with even a decent wardog or boar costing 127 points, combat shapeshifting is very much out of budget for beginning druids. Non-combat scouting forms such as hawks, owls, or rats are much more feasible at the start of the game.

On the disadvantage size, druids are nature loving hippies, and their recommended disadvantages show that. Sense of Duty (Nature) is an obvious choice, but can be crippling with its requirement that the druid not defend the rest of the delving band from wild animal attacks until the druid herself is attacked.  One traditional limitation of druids - a vow or geas against using metal armor and weapons - is strangely absent, but is easy enough to add back in.

Animal Companions and Nature Spirits

Druids have a wide range of animal companions and spirit allies available (from DF5: Allies). Most of the actual animals use unarmed attacks and that prevent them from being truly useful allies in combat: a bear may have a 3d+1 cu bite attack, and that's enough to impress even the barbarian or the knight, but a lowly goblin with a spear can parry that attack and do heavy damage. Combat animal allies either need to have strikers (Boar) or use weapons (Gorilla, Chimp) or be diffuse (Insect Swarm). Utility allies such as the Hound, the Stallion, or the various familiars aren't expected to go into combat, and so their poor combat performance isn't an issue.

Druidic Servitors are also available. The basic servitor chassis provides a decent but not amazing ally, modified by the choice of divine elements. The base Nature element is required for druidic servitors and isn't that impressive, but Doubled Nature provides Speak with Plants and Speak with Animals, so a druid can get a decent henchmen and a pair of useful advantages on the cheap less expensive. None of the first level nature elements are particularly interesting for most delvers, but the Life element provides Faith Healing, which coupled with cheap healing potions means the Druid can provide healing support for the delving band. Servitors can use weapons and armor, so while they may be more expensive to equip, any Servitor can also be an acceptable second-line combat in a way that an Anaconda animal companion really can't.

Druid Skills or Druid!

Druid! isn't a particularly amazing Wildcard skill, but converting 24 points of skills at the IQ-2 to the IQ range into a single Wildcard at IQ level is a no-brainer if the GM allows it. If nothing else, it improves the druid's effective skills in every nature related Hidden Lore and all types of Survival. It's a great to have a druid to know what berries/cacti/kelp to eat, whether you're in the 100 Acre Woods, the Deserts of Desolation, or fighting sauhagin at the bottom of the Marinas Trench.


Druids have spells, but they're nothing to write home about. In a clear case of niche protection, only druids can learn spells from the Animal or Plant colleges - but who else would want to? Animal spells tend to be weak but expensive: controlling a bear or a horse can cost 10 FP, plus 5 FP per minute to maintain. Shapeshifting is versatile, but expensive, and requires a different VH spell for each animal form. Plant spells have limited utility outside overgrown forests and jungles, and almost no combat utility: no one fears Rain of Nuts.

There is one nifty trick for healing out of the Plant college: a druid who knows Plant Form Other and Heal Plant can turn his allies into saplings and then heal them all at once with a single area casting of Heal Plant. This isn't useful for combat healing (minimal casting time: 90 seconds), but when the minotaur berserker is at -4xHP and the cleric needs 4 days to heal him, Heal Plant gets him back on his feet.

Druids and Race

None of the standard races bring anything useful to the table for druids. Elves get Magery 0, but druids don't need it; Fauns have Animal Empathy but a lot of other baggage for 20 points. One decent choice is Pixie: since a druid isn't much of a melee combatant anyway, the low ST is less of a problem, and if you intend to fight by throwing lightning bolts and sending a swarm of bees against your foes, then increased DX and Dodge are definite improvements.

As a house rule, Chandley on the forums came up with a Treant racial template that is tailor-made for druids, if a bit unorthodox. For 0 points, the ability to get Druidic Investiture 12, some natural DR and Injury Tolerance, and a bonus to IQ is probably worth being a hidebound nature-loving tree, especially if you were already planning to be a nature-loving hippie.

Equipping Druids

Druids are much like clerics in that they have a fair bit of stuff to carry and not a lot of ST to carry it with. Any band with a druid in it should be well-stocked with healing potions, and it's in everyone interests to buy potions from the druid at 75% of list price (with the druid pocketing 25% of the base cost as profit).

Since the typical druid isn't strong enough to wield a full-sized axe, a cheap sword or hatchet is a better choice. The usual trade-offs exist: a good thrusting broadsword is $600, the same as a Fine Balanced hatchet, so do you want the utility of thrusting damage or a slightly better chance to hit? Or on the low end, a cheap shortsword is $160 but a decent hatchet is $40, and they both do about the same damage. Highly expensive items, like a Balanced Fine broadsword, make good power items and high powered druids need a lot of power to cast and maintain the better shapeshifting spells.

A druid with a Servitor or animal companion should also consider spending money to equip the ally: a Hound with barding will last longer in combat than a Hound without.

Druids in Play

Druids are most useful on nature oriented adventures where their animal and plant related abilities can be used to the max, especially in delving bands that don't have Barbarians or Scouts. Similarly, they can be great healers for bands without Clerics.

The biggest problem with being the animal specialist is that most animals just aren't a threat to most delving bands. Even the big, bad, ST65 King of the Apes is in bad shape when the band's Knight hits him 3-4 times. Creatures like dire wolves and giant rats need to outnumber the delvers 5 or more to be anything more than a nuisance. And it's hard to deny charges of "not pulling your own weight" if your biggest specialty is dealing with nuisances.

Improving Druids

Part of the reason that druids are so weak is that shapeshifting is so expensive for what it gets: 180 points to turn into a hound that is a weaker combatant than a 180 point henchmen is not exactly a bargain. Similarly, the Shapeshifting spell is enormously draining: spending 10 FP to turn into a bear is probably not as decisive as the wizard spending 9 FP on a big Grease or Glue spell. Fixing the cost of the Shapeshifting advantage is too much to get into here, but the costs of the Shapeshifting spell should probably be scaled with the character's CP total, much like allies are. If Shapeshifting cost 1 FP per 1/5th of your point total that the new form cost (which matches the 1 FP per 20 points suggested in the spell for the original 100 point characters in GURPS Fantasy 1e), then cheap animal forms like Boar or Anaconda would only cost 3 FP and the bigger animal forms would only cost 4 FP.

On a similar vein, upgrading the power of the animal forms really helps. Turning into a bear is a so-so spell, but turning into a allosauraus is reasonably impressive. I let the druid in one of my campaigns combine his animal forms with elemental forms: a Bear with Body of Stone is a DR8, Homogeneous terror on the battlefield for 7 FP casting cost for a 250 point druid.

Scaling and empowering the Shapeshifting spell like this powers up druids. Does it bring them to the dreaded level of the D&D Druidzilla? I don't think it does: a Stone Bear is a reasonably impressive combatant, but a basic Knight has nearly as much DR, a lot more skill, and better weapons. The druid still spends a lot of FP to turn into that Stone Bear, and between the IQ penalty, the muteness, and the clumsy hands, the druid isn't going to be casting any spells while in beast form.


  1. In a clear case of niche protection, only druids can learn spells from the Animal or Plant colleges - but who else would want to??

    Animal and plant control spells and beast-riding spells for scouting having come up a bunch of times in my games, as a suggestion for the wizard to learn and use. But he can't, because he's not a druid.

    Elves get Magery 0, but druids don't need it - Yeah, but it is a gateway to all other non-cleric spells. They won't be great at them, but they can learn them, and they can spot magic items as well. It's handy when the wizard is down, or not there, or there is this one spell you'd like. Elves can buy up Magery, too, which makes you a wizard even without the lens (DF11 says this explicitly). This makes for a good route to a multiple-path caster, which I'm sure you'll say is point inefficient but it's potentially quite useful.

    Also, I know you think thr/impaling is a sin against DF, but a spear is a good choice for a druid. It gives you reach 2 and a handy weapon for throwing, too. That makes you a better back-ranker behind someone in front of you (like an animal ally).

    1. Heh. I had a bad experience as a wizard/cleric, so I couldn't really recommend it. But it might work better for other people.

      I'd probably recommend Staff + Innate Attack (Lightning Bolt) over Spear + Spear Throwing, but a spear isn't an awful weapon for casters. Spear (with the Staff spell) + Shocking Touch is actually a pretty decent combo. It's not great, but a fine balanced spear isn't too expensive and isn't any worse than a staff against unliving foes.

      It occurs to me there needs to be a new perk or advantage that lets you cast Melee spells on your allies. That'd be another nice advantage for druids.

    2. That would be a powerful perk, because you could essentially charge up your allies for extra damage all the time. Druids would benefit, but so would wizards, and martial artists. Even 1 perk per spell would be pretty generous. I'd certainly want to apply it as a spell on to the caster, and inflict the penalties for keeping a melee spell "on" on the subject, too.

      As for the spear, I wasn't thinking of spells at all. I was thinking of 2-hex reach and poking at enemies. If you and your beast Ally both take Teamwork, they can even benefit from your feints and vice-versa, making for a dangerous combo, potentially. Even without, it makes the druid and his ally a dangerous foe to engage. At least that's how it worked when we had a guy with a beast companion in my previous game.

  2. There's a druid, Lakota, at http://rpol.net/gameinfo.php?action=viewdescription&gi=53179&ci=122972&date= that has been praised. Partly he's a summoner using animal allies, knows Body of Wind, and Create Animal at 20 (free) and Body of Wind. A double ST flying diffuse animal hurling people around is apparently effective.