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Old Screeds

The Fighting Druid -- using Wildshape [3 Jan 05]

There's another option for the fighting druid to consider, beyond using manufactured weapons in melee or as missiles. This option, arguably the most "natural," and certainly the most druidic, is to fight in animal form with the wildshape ability.

Although wildshaping has been an integral part of the druid since the first edition, the 3.5 version of the Dungeons and Dragons rules added several new features that boost the capability of the wildshaper. But let's start with the basics and work up to those.

First, the spell descriptions for Alter Self and Polymorph are your new best friends, because wildshape is based on them. You'll also want to read this four part series by Skip Williams on the topic of changing shape (here are links to parts One, Two, Three, and Four).

Let's recap: In wildshape, you gain the animal form's movement; natural armor; natural weapon damage (you keep your BAB); special attacks; Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution; and racial skill bonuses and bonus feats (although I'm not sure how you tell a bonus feat from a regular feat for an animal. Do animals even have any racial bonus feats?). According to Skip Williams, you keep your original racial vision and racial special qualities. You do NOT gain the animal form's special qualities (like scent). You do retain your Wisdom, Intelligence, Charisma; base attack bonus and base saves; class abilities; and supernatural and spell-like abilities (like a gnome's spell-like abilities).

With that in mind, what race makes the best wildshaper? Halflings and humans gain decent abilites (who would say no thanks to a bonus feat or +1 on all saves?), but you are stuck with basic, unenhanced vision. Elves and dwarves gain good saving throw bonuses -- here the choice is often a personal preference of darkvision or low light vision. You might enjoy using elf weapons for the first four levels of your career; or you might be willing to pay for Darkvision with a -2 Chr. Gnomes offer little unless your DM allows you to use spell-like abilities in wildshape, and even then, how useful are a couple cantrips? Half-elves and half-orcs either gain too little (compared to elves) or cost too much (compared to dwarves), so I do not recommend them. In the end, though, choice of race matters little, since you'll be in animal form as much as you can.

In Wildshape, you use the assumed form's Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, so when you create your character, don't put any high scores in those abilities. Your goal as a fighting Wildshaper is to be in animal form as often as possible, and your natural Str, Dex, and Con will not matter. Instead, max out your Wisdom, for spellcasting, and your Intelligence, for skill ranks. Charisma is useful for Wild Empathy and Handle Animal, but less so for Diplomacy, since you won't be doing too much talking in animal form.

Think about skills you can use as an animal. Concentration, Listen, Spot, Survival, and Swim are the top picks here. Handle Animal and Spellcraft are also good choices if your Int is high.

Feats are where this character really starts to shine. As soon as you hit sixth level, Natural Spell lets you cast spells while wildshaped! That feat alone, new to the 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons rules, changes everything -- since you don't have to be in your humanoid shape to cast spells, there is practically no reason to ever be out of animal form.

If your DM allows it, there are several "monster" feats that are perfect for the wildshaped druid. Multiattack is a prime example, and so is Improved Natural Armor. (Although, naturally, those feats would only apply when the druid is in an animal form that meets the prerequisites for them.)

Other good feat options include Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus (if your DM allows you to apply it to natural attacks), Endurance and Diehard, Track, and Lightning Reflexes. And if you can convince your DM to allow it, a homebrew feat that boosts your wildshape ability, such as this Improved Wildshape feat, is worth its weight in gold!

But of all the choices open to the fighting wildshaper, the most fundamental is choice of shape! What is the best possible animal form to assume when entering combat?

At 5th, 6th, and 7th level, you are limited to medium and small animal shapes. Although that narrows the viable options, there are still several tempting choicess, albeit with drawbacks. The dire weasel's Con drain is sweet, but the weasel's low Con score, low AC while draining, and likelihood of drawing attacks while draining all make it too risky. Also too risky are any animals with rage -- you never want to be forced to attack until you are dead! Of the medium forms left over, the snake, bear, croc, and lizard options just don't offer enough. My favorites are the cheetah (for speed and trip) and the leopard (pounce and rake).

At 8th level, the limiting factor is hit dice, not size. The dire ape, the dire wolf, the deinonychus, and the dire boar are all fine, but they don't quite match the rhino, the dire lion, or the brown bear. The rhino is probably best when you have room to maneuver and charge a lot; otherwise the brown bear and dire lion are about equal. Those should do you fine through level 11.

At level 12, you can take the shape of the dire bear, and with those stats, it's a great option! However, at level 12 you gain plant shapes to choose from as well, which mixes things up, since the shambling mound is also a potent choice. The mound has the better AC; the bear, better ability scores.

At level 15, you gain huge shapes, with access to the powerful elephant; at level 16, large elementals, triceratops, and dire tiger; at level 18, tyrannosaurus; and at level 20, huge elementals. You might choose to save your elemental shape uses for small places, though -- smaller elemental forms are usually your best bet in close quarters.

But no matter what form you have, the wildshaper must choose magic items that can be used in nonhuman form. When you can afford it, "Wild" armor is the best way to boost armor class (and most animals' ACs need the boost). The Druid's Vestment is designed for you -- get one! Ioun stones are also perfect items in animal shape. The next challenge is to convince your DM that you can wear items such as headbands, hats, goggles, amulets, periapts, belts, and bracers. Of course, helmets, brooches, robes, cloaks, gloves, rings, and boots are all pretty much off limits. And anything you can use, your animal companion can probably use, too!

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