Druids get right down to business in D&D 5e, gaining Wild Shape as an ability by level 2. Wild Shape is a really awesome ability in this edition with a ton of utility both in combat and in general exploration. Here are a few of the obvious perks:
- Turn into any beast with of a certain CR or lower. Extremely versatile ability that is useful for blending in, getting into small spaces (think wild shaping into a mouse), and bringing force to bear in combat, among other applications.
- Unlock ability to gain a fly speed or swim speed at higher levels.
- Whole new set of hit points while in wild shape. You switch to use the hit points of whatever you transform into. If you take more damage than you have, you transform back at your previous hit points, minus any excess damage you took. So essentially the Druid can take a lot more damage than many of the other classes, which is a little crazy and borderline overpowered.
- Can wild shape 2 times between short rests! Considering that you can stay in wild shape form for one or more hours, this is pretty generous.
The Circle of the Moon sub-class really exemplifies this feature, gaining a number of abilities that makes their wild shaping stronger, more useful, and quite capable in combat. As they level, they can transform into higher level beasts, heal themselves by expending spell slots as a bonus action, treat their natural weapons as magical, and even transform into Elementals. They also can cast alter self at-will, but that’s kind of its own thing.
As combat is a bit easier to analyze than all the crazy stuff you can do with wild shape outside of combat, I thought it could be fun to take a look at some of the obvious choices for wild shaping throughout the levels. I’m focusing on the Circle of the Moon’s options since they are the obvious choice if you want to really take advantage of this feature:
- Levels 2-5: Brown Bear. WOW, Brown Bear is really awesome everyone. Two attacks at +5 to hit with an average of 19 damage if you hit with both is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, at level 2 you’ll likely be out-damaging all the typical martial classes, such as Barbarian,Fighter, Rogue, Paladin, and Ranger. Sure, you’ll be an easy target with 11AC, but with 36 Hit Points it will take a while for enemies to wear you down, and when they do, it’s not the end of the world as you could wild shape back into the action immediately or go back to being a normal druid with spells.
- Levels 6-8: Polar Bear. The polar bear is a slightly better version of the Brown Bear, which is kind of a shame because after 4 levels it’s not THAT much better, where as by this level the martial classes have picked up a second attack. +7 to hit. 21 damage on average if you hit with both attacks. 12AC and 42 Hit Points. A case could be made for the Allosaurus instead, which has slightly higher AC and Hit Points and the potential to do more damage with pounce, but the use of that ability is pretty situational, which is why I favor the Polar Bear.
- Level 9: Giant Scorpion. This one is kind of wacky. It gets three attacks, which is awesome, but its base damage is pretty lousy (6, 6, and 7 on average). However, its sting has a nasty poison, which does a whopping 22 poison damage on average if your target fails their save (only a DC 12), but they still take half damage on a success so that ups the damage considerably. All the attacks are at +4 to hit, however, which makes this unattractive for high AC monsters. The Scorpion can also grapple with its claws, so that’s certainly situationally useful for locking folks down. Its 15AC and 52 Hit Points round out the Giant Scorpion as a solid pick during that awkward level before you pick up Elementals at 10.
- Levels 10-14: Any Elemental. It takes both uses of wild shape to turn into an Elemental, but they are pretty bad-ass so it’s forgivable. Being able to choose between 4 types of Elementals is very useful, as you can tailor your choice to counter whatever threat you are up against (using a fire elemental versus creatures weak to fire, for example). If you’re in a bind, the Earth Elemental is a solid choice for most situations. It has two attacks that each do 14 damage on average with a +8 to hit so that’s decent if not stellar melee damage. It also has a 17 AC, 126 Hit Points, resistance to typical non-magical damage, and a host of condition immunities, making it an absolute beast to take down. Throw on burrowing, dark vision, and tremor-sense, and you’ve got a pretty solid choice for standing at the front of the battlefield with the Barbarian, Fighter, and Paladin.
- Levels 15-17: Giant Crocodile. While the Elementals are a lot more survivable and still a good choice at these levels, it’s worth considering the Giant Crocodile because of its higher damage output. With +8 to hit and an average damage of 35 with both attacks, it is a pretty formidable choice. Furthermore, its Bite grapples the target, and its tail attack has a chance to knock prone. Swim speed and hold breath are certainly nice as well. However, with an AC of 14, 85 Hit Points, and no resistances or immunities, it’s noticeably weaker compared to the Elemental, though that needs to be balanced with the fact it only uses one of your wild shapes, so really you’re comparing the survivability of two crocodiles versus the elemental (I still think the elemental pulls out ahead in this area, especially against enemies who can cause nasty conditions). Triceratops is also a strong choice at these levels, with the potential for a lot of damage, but trampling charge is going to be tough to set up after the first round of combat in most situations.
- Levels 18-20: This may change when the Monster Manual comes out, but right now the Mammoth is probably your best bet for a CR6 Beast in combat, assuming you don’t want to just stick with Elemental. It has Trampling Charge, which typically allows for at least one solid opening move, where you can hit a target with a Gore, have a chance of knocking them down (DC 18), and follow up with a Stomp. Both attacks have a +10 to hit. If you get both off, you’re looking at an average damage of 54. If you can’t pull off Trampling Charge, you’re relegated to a mediocre 29 damage a round, which isn’t stellar.
Honestly, level 2 and 10 are the sweet spots for the wild shaping Druid in combat. During their other levels, they are either relying on same wild shapes they got at these levels or seeing only modest improvements to what they can do. That’s not to say the Druid isn’t perfectly fine at other levels. After all, they have 9 spell levels to fall back on, and Wild Shape will always be useful, if only because it offers a continual source of delicious hit points, abilities, and useful movement abilities.