To strengthen, protect, and revitalize
This continuing series highlights, in most pedantic form, the class of characters known as the druid through its many incarnations of the worlds most famously famous game of the recent past, Dungeons and Dragons. The previous article discussed my first character, the druid Schmuckley, who vowed to choke every dungeon he came across with specialized potted plants and entangle. He was an old-school hero.
Years passed. The Second Edition came and went, then Third Edition rose over the horizon and a new dawn of gaming was born. The table top was cleared for dungeons and dragons for the first time in ten or more years. With the new campaign came the druid Bill and his war dog Ted.
Let me pause one moment to state that the picture of the druid featured in the classic 3E Players Handbook, and heading this article above, captured for me the epitome of a druid. the antlers, the wolf companion, the scimitar, and the earthy tones of the piece combine to make this my all-time favorite art piece of the third edition era. But then, i am a druidophile, so my opinion is colored (green.)
Played by a long-time dnd’er, and the brother of a friend with whom I had never played before (except for a single uncomfortable episode of Shadowrun in the extremely late eighties, but I digress) Mike had a druid with an 18 strength and a 15 wisdom – in a game where you rolled and placed the attributes to suit. That seemed wrong to me on a deep level, to make a minimally wise yet brute strength character whose main attribute was wisdom, but each to his own. I had never experienced optimization before, and only knew of the idea in the exaggerated “monty haul” or “munchkinism” forms. A conscientious player would never do those things: try to get an unfair advantage in a game of imagination, but an experienced and intelligent player would, I discovered, be fine with exploiting, twisting and bending the rules away from their intent in order to gain a “fair” advantage. Such a case was Bill and Ted.
What really annoyed me about the pair was the power of that dog. being relatively cheap (i.e affordable to starting characters), the war dog was 2 hit dice and did great damage, possibly even a trip attack if i remember correctly, making the dog more than twice as powerful as any character in the party. The dog continued to steal the show, to the point that I worried I might take on a vindictive desire to slaughter the misused pup, and lose my arbitrary edge. The dog had so many hit points, and such great abilities that it had avoided or shrugged off most of the things that could/did kill the first level party. (Looking back, I could have resolved the whole issue before it began by having the dog start as a pup. Heh, if only…)
The player left before going much past third level and so i never really resolved the Bill and Ted issue. Bill was the most un-druid-like character imaginable. He rarely cast spells, except a few buffs, nor did he heal much, and waded into melee like a drunken brawler, with his overpowered hound at his side. Nonetheless, the only real issue I had with the character was that a war dog severely tipped the power-balance of a low level party, and with the delicate tweaking of encounter parity necessary in the third edition system, it was constantly an issue. Either the dog gave an unfair advantage and the encounters became cake walks, or the presence of the dog meant that the encounters were even more deadly to those poor characters not of the canine persuasion.
As a dm renowned for poor dungeon mastering skills, the author freely and smilingly admits that the problems with the encounter balancing was totally his fault. Nonetheless, a spotlight-stealing non-player animal companion twice as powerful as any player character is a system fault. Shoulda strangled that dog at birth.
Two things remain to be written about Bill and Ted about their ability to survive. On his first encounter, the druid went up aganst a trio of ghouls, was attacked multiple times, killed a couple, and was finally paralyzed with a single hit point left. (I can’t remember what the dog was doing then, probably feasting on the horde of skeleton’s bones that were attacking.) Later on, while rescuing an innocent victim in enemy territory, he was knocked unconscious behind enemy lines, left to die so that the victim could be saved, and bled out for hours, slowly losing hit points before stabilizing at -9 when -10 would have meant death. It was an intense series of dice rolls that everyone was sure the druid would lose, but incredibly, amazingly, he made the final roll and his character survived. The table cheered. I was so non-plussed by the survival that I ruled he gained consciousness through the loving licks of his canine companion and crawled back home at -9 hit points. There was an episode of Band of Brothers where that happened.
That was Bill and Ted. Unrelated drama caused the player to leave the game. Let’s pause in this dungeons and dragons tale for a moment, to talk about another druid – the night elf druid from World of Warcraft, the nuclear bomb of computer role playing games. Who among us has played WoW and not experimented with a night elf druid? As I thought. Like all the character classes in the game, the druid was a conscious attempt to create an iconic druid, heavily steeped in the lore of D&D and the years of fantasy role playing games, tabletop and computer both, that led to the WoW druid. It had everything – a focus on animal transformation from low levels, restoration abilities, scimitars, plant based magic, trees.
One thing constantly shockeing me inWoW was the druid’s in-your-face combat style: leaping amongst enemies in bear form to soak up damage and tear up faces, streaking across the battlefield in panther form; these are not the actions of Schmuckley Shillelagh the first edition druid, who was more likely to avoid direct conflict through his magic and natural lore, than to bite faces. That is the nature of combat-focused ultra-violent computer games, and it turns the multi-faceted tabletop social game into a tedious grind of combat after combat.
Rant time: I lost one of my best friends to World of Warcraft. We learned dnd together at recess in sixth grade, but when I tried to get the band back together decades later, begging him to return to the game, reminding him of a teenage promise we all made together, he told me that World of Warcraft had killed his imagination and that was the way he wanted it. Very heartbreaking, with an added knife twist that we reconnected online after being out of contact for years, and I introduced him to Wow. He had been playing Final Fantasy Online up to that point. He played the thief Malek in one of our long ago games, and he played Malek the human rogue in WoW. The thing is, in D&D Malek spent most of his time climbing walls searching for traps, and picking locks and pockets. Backstabbing was uncommon (and it usually involved climbing up the wall and dropping from above with dual short swords flashing.) These are things you can’t even do in Wow. It just floors me, but enough about WoW and computer games.
Later on, around level five or six, a different player created Ozymandias, the halfling druid-knight, who wielded a long spear and rode strapped to an armored ward dog. OMG the war dogs! This dog was called Bull, named after the player’s pit bull. The first encounter started out well. they were crossing through a mire and came upon a wandering pack of hunting bonesnappers. the druid cast entangle in a wide radius that caught many of the charging bonesnappers, but a few managed to veer out of the way of the entanglement. Aklways impetuous, when his turn rolled around, he charged a free bonesnapper like Don Quixote against a windmill. I don’t even remember if he hit, but the heavy foliage and treacherous footing in the mire meant that he ended his turn in range of the formidable jaws of the bonesnapper, who commenced to swallow the halfling whole. The dog however was still attached to Oz by the straps of the saddle, which for same reason the player was very insistant upon. it was a pretty gruesome sight, and the druid survived,but not without wounds both visible and not. He never rode that dog again and in fact went through a pretty extensive re-write of his character, losing many of the riding based feats.
Oz went on to become an animal conjuring nightmare. He could call hippogryphs by the flock and often did, and his first few rounds of combat would see half a dozen animals released upon whatever challenge he might face. Dogs and wolves tripped, hawks and other flying beats struck and disrupted while poisonous snakes and other reptiles attacked from concealment. The longer a battle lasted, the more of the animal kingdom would show up, as if Noah’s ark was unloading just off the map, two by two down the plank. I was starting to miss Ted. One over-powered war dog was manageable, but lions, scorpions, and dire raccoons were sometime overwhelming, not in power as much as dice rolling and paperwork involved in keeping track of the zoo. The bureaucracy was over-powering.
When the optimal choice is not the most fun choice, or leads to a sub-optimal outcome, that is a problem with the game which we grappled with for some time. In the case of the over-powered druid of third edition Dungeons and Dragons, there were only two methods of controlling the steam-rolling: an agreement with the player to tone it down, or to find ways to up the danger to deal with the imbalance. When multiple characters are on the cutting edge of power, it can lead to an inevitable ramping up of a campaign. The monsters and NPCs have to be more powerful to keep the challenge alive, which leads to ever greater treasures. This in turn leads to ever more complications, look-ups, dice rolling, interrupting, and other bureaucratic means of slowing the game and draining it of any residual fun. In our case it happened around 11th level, and we switched to the shiny new fourth edition of the game. Along came Felipe.
Felipe was a cross dressing shifter druid with an affinity for the insect world that only came out through extensive play. S/he started out typical enough: a misunderstood wolfy man searching for love and also for guts to chew on. From an early level, Felipe had the disconcerting ability to explode into a horde of a thousand tiny boar-headed bumblebees.
It went on from there to ever greater and more disgusting creepy crawliniess, culminating in the druids ability to transform into a heap of maggots. I mean, really.
She was never better than when she was switching between her natural feral shifter form and her animal form, biting and chewing through her enemies, acting like a tank, soaking up damage and dishing it in equal measure. There was not much archtypically druidic in this character concept, which became so confused that her mere sex was the least of her worries, her entire species was in doubt. She had a few notable spells, starting with a great ranged attack spell called Flameseed, and later an even better spell Firehawk. She switched forms so often, practically every turn she was shifting between her normal form which itself was shifter, or her animal form, or the many powers and spells that let her shift into the aforementioned vermin or any number of other beats.
The class should have been called shapeshifter. There were a couple really cool druidic powers. Faerie Fire became a powerful spell that lit up an enemy and dazed them when it exploded, very cool. Felipe never died in battle and rose to fifteenth level. she was the only character in the party who was there from the first encounter at level one, through to the end. Felipe had a few healing spells, and minor regeneration which helped her survivabilty, and her resilience was incredible.
The way the druid class has changed over the decades of playing and evolving editions has led to a shape-shifting melee brawling monstrosity very far from the original concept of a priest of nature weighing the good and evil of all things against the natural balance of law and chaos. Gone are the ability to improve crops, inluence the weather, and become one with the trees, and in its place, first morphed into an animal handler, then shifted into zookeeper, and finally a shapeshifting mess of a class that was ultimately shapeless.
The druid was first introduced to the role playing world in the first edition of advanced dungeons and dragons, and I think its description in the Players Handbook has a crisp clarity of concept that become muddied and exaggerated in later editions. From the class description in the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook:
Druids… are the only absolute neutrals viewing good and evil, law and chaos, as balancing forces of nature which are necessary for the continuation of all things. As priests of nature… the spells usable by druids are more attuned to nature and the outdoors than are the spells of other clerics or magic-users… druids serve to strengthen, protect, and revitalize.
Druids can be visualized as medieval cousins of what the ancient Celtic sect of Druids would have become had it survived the Roman conquest. They hold trees (particularly oak and ash), the sun, and the moon as deities. Mistletoe is the holy symbol of druids, and it gives power to their spells. They have an obligation to protect trees and wild plants, crops, and to a lesser extent, their human followers and animals.
Gary Gygax created the ultimate, ideal concept of the druid character class: romanized celtic-inspired priests of nature who serve to strengthen, protect, and revitalize plants, crops, followers and animals in order to maintain the balance of good and evil, law and chaos.