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Level Up (A5E) Druid Playtest - My Nitty Gritty Review


In this thread, I am going to do a nitty gritty review of the new Druid Playtest packet. We are going to get detailed and nuanced, so buckle in!

For ease of reference, I'm going to use a quick rating system.

A - Perfect, solid, I love it.
B - A bit more niche than I would like, but probably in the right campaign it will be fine.
C - Needs some work, its on the weak side.
O - Overpowered, just too strong, needs a tone down.

Further, I do want to dig in to Flavor at bit as well, as that is an important part of the analysis, so I will also include a Flavor rating for certain abilities. If I don’t mention anything, I assume a base “good” rating, aka I think it’s perfectly fine and serviceable flavor.

F+ I love this flavor, I immediately thought of playing a character with X.
F- Something is lacking here, this idea is not jiving with me.

Overall Balance (B – Moon, O – Land, A - Overall): So how does this Druid compare to the core Druid?

Detailed Breakdown
To answer that, we need to look at the two “core styles” of druid play:
  • The combat wildshaper. This is typical a moon druid who uses wildshapes for primary combat ability, with spellcasting often as a secondary role.
  • The druid spellcaster. Typically playing the druid as a spellcaster first, who uses wild shape for its secondary abilities (like senses, web, etc). Wildshape is generally more for scouting or flavor purposes than the core part of the classes’ “strength”.
Just noting, I recognize I am oversimplifying things. Every player has their own style with their druid, and a simple binary list is not going to capture all of that. But I feel comfortable that saying these two represent a lot of the druid’s “core competencies” .

So lets start with the spellcasting focused druid (circle of the land type). Ultimately, there is nothing but gravy for them in Levelup. The wildshape rules in Levelup provide a lot of punch for non-moon druids. You get access to higher CR forms and can access fly forms earlier. The longer duration tends to help for scouting uses. The combination of temp hp and healing spellcasting while in wildshape allows you to stay in your “scout form” even if you get roughed up a bit.

So even before I look at any of the other aspects of levelup, I already think Druid spellcasters would instantly want to play a levelup Druid over the regular one. But then of course there is more, the knacks, the class abilities, and then there is the 9th level embraced serenity. I do not factor in 9th level abilities strongly in my assessments, as that is when games often start to wrap up….but I note it because it shows that the spellcasting druid continues to gather steam compared to vanilla.

So overall, if I had two land druids at my table, one from vanilla and one from levelup, I would feel bad for the vanilla druid. Levelup is simply the superior druid, which makes it an O.

With the combat wildshape druid, it’s a different story. The removal of the forms HP pool as a “hp buffer” is a significant loss, and the small amount of temp HP do not make up for it. The AC bonus helps with certain forms, but doesn’t tend to help the generally considered best forms. For example, a dire wolf already has a great AC. There are forms where the AC boost does grant a couple of points, but you are losing lots of hp buffer in the trade off. And also noting that the number of combat form options now are significantly limited compared to before, which limits the range of flexible forms you have when dealing with different threats.

Then there is the frequency of wildshape. If you allow any number of short rests in your typical combat day, the vanilla druid is going to get more uses of wildshape in general. This is not as big a deal for your scout type who just needs a use to look for things here and there, but for the druid that is using the form constantly as a meat shield it makes a big difference.

The spellcasting in form is nice, while the spells are limited there are a few buff spells (like absorb elements or barkskin) that are nice to be able to do while in shape.

Probably the biggest buff to the moon druid style is the flight forms at 5th. While flight forms aren’t often the strongest combat forms this is a marked increase in flexibility and certainly a boon for a combat druid.

So overall, there are some things to like in levelup for a combat druid, but I think you give up more than you gain. So a B for me here.

Overall Conclusion: If you asked a “spellcasting first, wildshape second” druid if they wanted to move into levelup, they would do it in a heartbeat. And if you asked a “wildshape first, spellcasting second” the same question….they would probably pass most of the time.

So how do I think they would do at the same table? At this point I will note my bias. I have had a fair amount of druids in my games, both moon and land. In general my group has found the land druids “fine” but the moon druids being the overall stronger of the two (and many of my games start around 4th level, so this ignores some of the balance concern about moon druids at the lower levels).

So would that in mind, I think a land + levelup druid would compare well to a moon + vanilla druid, and neither would dominate the game, so that’s an A balance from that standup. If you were a DM that wanted to go “pure levelup”, I do think your game is losing an archetype in the battle wildshape druid, and of course whether you care about that is up to the DM.

Wildshape (F+): I already covered this a lot in my overall balance section, as its balance greatly matters on what type of druid you want to play. I’ve listed the main differences between the two in the chart below.

I feel that the levelup druid is going for the flavor that wildshape is an auxiliary tool, meant to provide senses for scouting, or mobility to get around various adventuring obstacles. It is not a combat club designed to “throw meat” at your enemy to make them go away.

So in that respect I think this wildshape faithfully executes that flavor, providing fewer but longer times in wildshape, able to do more things in wildshape (spells, language understanding), with access to slightly higher CR forms and much earlier fly access.

You could make the argument that “permanent” fly at 5th level is too strong. 5e made a very conscious effort to reduce fly, especially the ability to fly for long distances over periods of time. Otherwise I don’t think increasing the base CR adds any balance issues, its still lower than what a moon druid can do currently.

I will admit that I chuckled at the notion that a “bear” could suddenly polymorph into a T Rex, that is a funny way to use the new rules.

I do think the number of forms restricted may be a bit much. This is one of those things where the reality beats the theory. Yes in theory a druid could suddenly ask for any form and would have to look it up and could maintain dozes of forms. But I have found in my experience that druids quickly find a few forms they like, and they stick with them. I feel that this restriction is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, and adds mechanics that just aren’t necessary.

Wildshape Comparison
Uses2 / short restProficiency Modifier / long rest
Duration½ Druid LevelDruid Level
Wildshape Forms KnownUnlimitedLimited
CR of Forms¼ at 2, ½ at 4, 1 at 8½ at 2, 1 at 4, 2 at 8*
Fly/Swim FormsSwim at 4th, Fly at 8thSwim and Fly at 5th
HPWildshape HP
(at 0, lose form and return to normal HP)
Normal + 1d4 x CR
(at 0, lose form and fall unconscious)
SpellcastingNone in Wild ShapeSelf, Touch spells that don’t deal damage or negative conditions.##
Legendary/Lair Actions***Can’t use in Wild ShapeCan use
AC ImprovementNoneAC =12 + ¼ druid level, unless form has better AC
EquipmentMerge, drop on ground, or remain wornMerge only
LanguageBeast’s LanguageYour languages**
*The document text and table are inconsistent here. The text says ¼ at 2nd, while the chart shows 1/2.

**It is unclear whether the inclusion of language in the wild shape description is more for flavor, for clarity (aka you understand people around you), or if it is an intentional benefit of the levelup Druid (you can speak in your normal languages while in wild shape).

*** I don't actually know if this ever comes up, but since the vanilla Druid makes a specific note about it and levelup does not, I noted it for completeness.

##While the document does not specifically say how spell casting components work in wildshape, a designer has clarified that there are notes in future documents to explain this. Therefore for now the assumption is that a druid would be able to cast spells with components while in wild shape.

Untamed Demeanor

Way with Animals (A, F+): Tying in druidic language with beast speech is genius, such a small thing that just works so damn well. This ability is very simple and yet codifies a very common archetype for druids in a perfect way.

First Hand Naturalist (A, F-): This is a solid ability, my only beef with it is that I don’t like how a druid has to wait 2 levels before they “suddenly” can use wisdom on their nature checks. I wish that was wrapped in a knack instead of a 3rd level ability (similar to your eldritch survivor knack).

Leyline Awareness (B, F+): This is a solidly flavorful ability, but it doesn’t have the same meat that the other ones does. This requires a specific kind of game and a good dm to make work.

Druidic Lore

Druidic Secrets (B, F+): Love the flavor of this one, and subtle spellcasting can be really cool and fun mechanic. I wouldn’t mind this be made to once per short rest, I think it’s a little too restricted at 1 per day.

Toxin Intuition (A): I would like to see “flora and fauna” replaced with more 5e terminology just to keep things consistent, but the saving throws against all poisons is definitely useful.

Waste Not (B, F-): I don’t like the “big game hunter” flavor that this can evoke, and the gold value could either be extremely good or worthless depending on the campaign. The best idea I saw was allowing this to be used for druid spell components (even expensive ones). That’s very in flavor with the idea of “nature magic”.

Ferocity or Serenity

I’ll just note that neither of these abilities had that much “flavor” to me, that just seem like mechanical buffs to me. This contrasts from all of the levelup categories I’ve seen so far that I felt had a good amount of flavor to go with the crunch.

Embraced Ferocity (B): This ability doesn’t really bring back the combat wildshape to the druid imo. Its nice for sure, but levelup druids don’t have enough combat wildshape in the base that a lot of druids will use this.

Embraced Serenity (A or O): Now THIS is a nice ability! Advantage on concentration checks is already great (which also helps against spells you cast during wildshape), and then ability to trade WS for spells gives a lot of flexibility. I do agree with other concerns that the 2 wild shape trade for an extra 6th level spell may be a bit too good, 6+ level spells are generally 1 per day period as a core balancing act at higher levels.

Exploration Knacks

So I have a lot of B’s listed in this group because of their specific terrain requirements, which depending on the Dm and campaign may come up a lot over a little. However, there is something to be said that by 5th level you could pick up 3 of them, and suddenly always have a bonus in a good portion of wilderness you may go through. That becomes interesting, so there’s a case to be made that 3 B’s could combine into a solid overall A, just depends on your game.

Aerial Surveyor (B): So the first thing to note is that most flying wildshape’s already get advantage on perception checks, so this doesn’t have as wide a utility as you might think. Now there are going to be those mountain campaigns where this could be really useful, but otherwise it probably won’t come up all that much.

Aquatic Delver (B): Similar in score to other swim type knacks. Nothing wrong with it in a more water centric game, won’t be as useful for a standard game but it has a solid place.

Cavern Skulker (C): If this was advantage on perception checks underground than it would be a B, but since its only hearing, that is really limited.

Desert Dweller (B): If you have a desert campaign, this could be solid, but most of the time not much.

Eldritch Survivor (A): This lets you use wisdom for creature knowledge Arcana checks (which in my experience are often the most common checks), and you get an expertise die. That is a solid benefit that is useful in the majority of campaign types.

Herbal Apothecary (A): While its stats out fluffy, being able to make potions of healing at half the price is no joke.

Marshland Guide (B): Again very land specific, so depends on the game.

Master Forager (C): 5e’s survival rules are very forgiving. A druid with a decent wisdom and the survival skill should have no problems foraging even in harsher conditions, they don’t need a knack for it.

Mountain Climber (A): Climbing is a common skill in many dnd games, this is a solid bonus.

Tundra Explorer (B): Similar to the others, just a very specific benefit.

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