How to Homebrew Druids

--by Abio

Part of a series on homebrewing subclasses - check out the rest through the index.

Ah, the druid! A rather popular class, but one that is rarely homebrewed. And for good reasons! According to our scheme, druid is one of the "difficult" classes to homebrew, with only 7 official subclasses to date (2 in the core sourcebooks, 5 in extra sources):

But fear not, we are here to help you. This guide will help you understand what you need to homebrew a good druid subclass (a "Circle", if you follow the subclass naming scheme). Let us start, as usual, by looking at the core class benefits - this will help us understand what role your circle can play in the grand scheme of the druid class as a whole.

Core Class Breakdown

Druids are full casters, which means they get to cast spells of all levels, from cantrips all the way to 9th level. What this also means is that druids get most of their class features from spells. Every spell your druid has access to is potentially a new feature, making your character able to do things others cannot. This is why full casters don't get core class features at every level: because they are de facto gaining new features every time they gain a new spell.

In addition to spells, druids get one unique feature, and little else. This is, of course, Wild Shape. This feature starts at 2nd level, and then improves at 4th, 8th, 18th, and 20th level. Effectively, you get as many Wild Shape features as you get Ability Score Increases, and you get more Wild Shape features than Druid Circle features! Also, importantly, you get access to Wild Shape at the same time as you choose your Druid Circle, that is, at level 2. The fact that these features happen at the same level has important consequences, as we shall see below.

What does this tell us about druids? Two important things:

  • Druids can only really do two cool things: casting spells, and wildshaping.
  • Your Druid Circle is a less-important part of your character: it should enhance your spellcasting or wildshaping, not provide you a whole new way of doing things.

Particularly, your Druid Circle can naturally work in-tandem with your Wild Shape, since you get the two features at the same level.

Subclass Breakdown

As we have mentioned plenty of times, your subclass features should either (a) help cover the weaknesses or drawbacks of the core class, for example abysmal action economy for barbarians; or (b) enhance something unique the core class can do, such as giving bards new ways of using inspiration. In the case of druids, this translates as follows:

  • Druids don't get good weapon or armor proficiencies. Your Circle should cover this weakness by boosting attack and/or defense.
  • Druids rely on spell slots for most of their features. Your Circle should provide some spell-like options that do not require a spell slot (incidentally, this is true for all full casters).
  • Your Spellcasting feature gives you a lot of options, and druids in particular get a throng of excellent spells which can cover many different situations. Your Circle should help you pick a clear "style" that makes you different from just any other druid.
  • Spellcasting and Wild Shape are the core features for druids. Your Circle should help improve Spellcasting or Wild Shape (sometimes both!).

If your Circle isn't doing these things, it would probably fit better in a different class (for example Wizard, Sorcerer, or Cleric).

2nd-Level Features: Who Needs Spell Slots?

Like many other subclasses, Druid Circles usually have more than one feature at 2nd level. In the case of druids, there isn't a clear difference between "major" and "minor" features, and the two (or more) features you get at 2nd level should stand approximately on equal footing. That said, there is no shame in having only one 2nd-level feature: if you end up with one that is very powerful on its own, you can also decide to drop the other feature(s) entirely.

Now, no matter how many 2nd-level features you have, your 2nd-level features should help you not to use your spell slots. The point is, focusing on spell slots is the remit of other classes (chiefly Wizard, Bard, and Cleric). If you want your druid to be unique, it has to do something different. Most Circles have 2nd-level features that do one of the following:

  • Let you cast one 1st-level spell for free by "masking" it as a feature (for example, by giving you a permanent speak with animals effect, or letting you heal as a bonus action as per the effect of healing word)
  • Let you cast spells without prepping them (this is often masked by the verbiage "you always have it prepared")
  • Let you recover spell slots
  • Let you make extra attacks

If you cannot pick one single effect, you can provide a choice of different effects by tying them to Wild Shape. In other words, if a feature includes a list, or bullet points, it should consume one use of your Wild Shape. Wild Shape is the feature that gives you options as a druid.

6th-Level Feature: Enhance Spells, or More Non-Spells

Your 6th-level feature should be something exciting! It happens just after you get access to your powerful 3rd-level spell slots at level 5, so you don't want it to feel lackluster. By this stage, you have unlocked some very powerful spells so your 6th-level feature should have something to do with your magic. Ideally, your feature should do one of the following:

  • Let you cast a 3rd-level spell without using a spell slot (again "masking" it as a feature, for example animating the dead in a way that is not the animate dead spell).
  • Let you cast a lower-level spell multiple times, again without using spell slots.
  • Give a powerful boost to spells of a certain type.

If your feature for this slot does something different, consider moving it to a different slot. One common mistake I see people doing is to use the 6th-level slot to improve the 2nd-level features (mostly because they run out of space at level 2). Don't do that! If you want to improve the 2nd-level feature, you should use the 10th-level slot!

10th-Level Feature: Reward Features, or Enhance Defense

Level 10 is a time for consolidation. It happens just before you experience a significant power increase at 11th level, so it should feel easy and relaxed. There are two ways in which you can do this:

  • Build upon your 2nd-level features. Your 10th-level feature can make them more powerful, or give you a small reward for using them. For example, if your 2nd-level feature lets you deal damage, your 10th-level feature could increase that damage, or give you a reward for killing an enemy.
  • Provide a non-combat boost, such as increased mobility or resistance to certain effects.

Again, if your 10th-level feature doesn't do any of these, consider moving it to a different level.

14th-Level Feature: Extra Defense!

As the header suggests, your 14th-level feature should make you harder to kill. Damage reduction and regeneration are easy picks here, but you can also find other ways to protect yourself (such as teleportation, summons, or illusions).

Even though level 14 is your Circle's capstone, this feature should not increase your damage output. It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but remember that druids are more tanky than other spellcasters, so in your case it makes sense that your most powerful feature will be one that helps you withstand more punishment instead of dishing out more damage yourself. If you are thinking of a feature that deals damage, you should move it down to level 6 or perhaps 10 (if it builds upon your 2nd-level features). Otherwise, drop it.

Conclusions

As you should see by now, druid subclasses play out rather differently than other full casters. Instead of focusing on spells, you focus on doing spell-like things without using spell slots; and instead of focusing on damage, you focus much more on defense and mobility. That doesn't mean you cannot do spell slot-related things, or that druids cannot have dps; but these should normally happen at 2nd level, with possible improvements at 10th level. Make sure you keep your 6th and 14th level features for things that will make your druid feel special and unique!

May your Wild Shapes last forever,

--Abio

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Druid image by Anastacia Cooper from Pixabay

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