Take a druid in dragonhide armor. It's not that expensive, especially compared with mithril or adamantine. One could argue that given its existence in the game, why even bother restricting druids to nonmetalic armor? That is, why impose a restriction on druids that is so easily overcome? But let us play the core rules as written -- "RAW," I hear the kiddies say these days -- and go with it. Now let me try to one-up my min-maxed dwarven defender with my dragonhide-clad druid.
So you've got your dragonhide full plate and your wooden tower shield, oh druid tank. So what? What gives you a better armor class than the fighter/cleric/dwarven defender? Well, we'll stick with a dwarf druid. And we'll still be taking those dwarven defender levels eventually. But before that, let's go wild.
As a wildshaping druid, your gear merges with your assumed form and renders it nonfunctional. You can take off some of your gear, say an amulet or a couple ioun stones, and put them back on after you shift shape (or someone can help you put them on, you handless animal). But there's not much of an angle in getting special armor -- barding -- tailored to fit your favorite form. Sure, you could use an animated shield, but you still suffer the penalty of only being able to apply a small dex bonus to your AC. If you're going to specialize in dire wolf form wearing barding and using an animated shield, I submit that you might as well stick with the traditional dwarf-shaped fighter/cleric/dwarven defender.
On the other hand, say you're a dwarf-form druid in full dragonhide plate. What happens to that dex cap when you wildshape to animal form? Your armor goes away, along with its associated armor bonus, enhancement bonus, weight, armor check penalty, and even arcane spell failure chance, not that that matters unless you have some mage levels too. Per the rules, "any gear worn or carried by the druid melds into the new form and becomes nonfunctional." That means the bonuses as well as the penalties go away.
But what if the armor has the Wild property? Per the rules, "The wearer of a suit of armor or a shield with this ability preserves his armor bonus (and any enhancement bonus) while in a wild shape." So you get to keep your armor bonus and your enhancement bonus. Note that you do NOT get to keep anything else. No bonus to hide checks if it is shadow armor. No damage reduction for armor of invulnerability. And most of all, no dexterity cap, no armor check penalty, no spell failure! That means you get your full armor bonus, enhancement bonus, and dexterity bonus to AC.
Now the beauty of the trick comes clear. Take your dwarf druid, advance him eight levels in druid, add a level of fighter (favored class for dwarves), and then jump into dwarven defender. Put him in Wild Full Plate Dragonhide and a Wild Tower Shield as soon as you can afford it. (Before you can aford it, you might want an animated large wood shield, which also imposes no dex cap). At eighth level, you get three changes a day at eight hours each, so you never have to assume dwarf shape again. So if you are not a dwarf, what are you? That is, what's the optimal animal form to use? Look for the shape that has the highest combined dex plus natural armor bonuses.
At levels five, six, and seven, you are limited to medium and small forms. Take a good look at the riding dog -- +4 nat AC, +2 dex gives a total +6 and a trip attack. Among the dire types, a dire weasel also gives a +6 total bonus, although that drops considerably if you attach and suck blood. In water, an octopus gives +7. But best of all is the medium size dinosaur, Deinonychus, with a combined +7. If your DM gives you the old "You've never even seen a dinosaur, and the book says you have to be familiar with the form" argument, then be happy as a riding dog until you get to seventh level druid, then use Summon Nature's Ally IV to summon a Deinonychus a couple times a day. Pretty soon you'll be familiar with that dinosaur, at least! :-)
At level eight -- when you can assume the shape of Large animals -- armor class wise, the clear optimal choice is the Dire Bat. Your new fluttering form has a stunning AC20 (–1 size, +6 Dex, +5 natural). Remember that you are still a person, not an animal, so, alas, you cannot cast Reduce Animal on yourself. But if you have a mage friend, buy him a wand of Reduce Person to use on you. Then your base Dire Bat AC goes to 22 ... and with Cat's Grace that you cast on yourself, 24! Now add in your wild armor bonuses and enhancement bonuses, and the Ring of Protection you wear on the Hand of Glory you have around your neck, and the odd +1 AC ioun stone, and that barkskin you cast on yourself ... Well, let's do the math, once again sampling at levels 5, 10, and 15.
Level five (9,000 gp): Dwarf Druid5 in Riding Dog form with 14 Dex and +4 nat AC. Feats: Dodge, Combat Expertise. Spells: Barkskin, Cat's Grace. Gear: +1 AC Ioun Stone. Armor Class: 21 (22 dodging).
Level ten (49,000 gp): Dwarf Druid8/Fighter1/DD1 in Dire Bat form with -1 size, 22 Dex and +5 nat AC. Feats: Dodge, Combat Expertise, Natural Spell, Endurance, Toughness. Spells: Barkskin, Cat's Grace. Gear: +1 wild dragonhide full plate, +1 wild tower shield, +1 ring protection, Hand of Glory, +1 AC Ioun Stone. Armor Class: 41 (46 dodging with defensive stance).
Level fifteen (200,000 gp): Dwarf Druid8/Fighter1/DD6 in Dire Bat form with -1 size, 22 Dex and +5 nat AC. Feats: Dodge, Combat Expertise, Natural Spell, Endurance, Toughness, etc. Spells: Barkskin, Cat's Grace. Gear: +4 wild dragonhide full plate, +4 wild tower shield, +5 ring protection, Hand of Glory, +1 AC Ioun Stone. Armor Class: 53 (58 dodging with defensive stance).
Add in +5 for combat expertise and +3 for fighting defensively (buying tumble cross class), and we're looking at AC66 at 15th level. Not too shabby.
But before we leave our wildshaping animal-form tank, here are a couple other points to ponder.
- You use the dexterity and strength of the animal shape you assume. So if you are using a point-based method of creating stats, put low numbers into strength and dexterity. (Constitution is still important because your hit points do not change when you change shape, even though your constitution does.) If you are rolling, put your low rolls into str and dex.
- Of course you will want the Natural Spell feat so that you can cast spells in wildshape.
- If one of your party members, or maybe your cohort, has maxed out Ride ranks and the Mounted Combat feat, you might offer to serve as mount, since Mounted Combat lets your rider use a Ride check in place of your AC once a round, if you are hit. But your rider's Ride check will have to be pretty tricked out for it to top your AC.
- I suggest the Hand of Glory with Ring of Protection idea because I personally would not let any animal (except monkeys and apes, I suppose) wear rings. But check with your DM -- YMMV.
- If you intend to stay in animal form for long periods of time (and you should), it might be tempting to grab a couple levels of mage. Even a few well-chosen arcane spells can be so useful when wildshaped. Ghost Touch, Whispering Wind, and Tongues for communication; Mage Hand so you can dress yourself and manipulate objects, Prestidigitation for grooming and flea control, Reduce Person for better AC. Yeah, yeah, I know, 20% xp penalty for uneven multiclass advancement. I'm not saying this is a good idea ... just that it has its plusses. A familiar gives you a one-character army of three, including your animal companion. Share that True Strike with all three for a great surprise attack ... and share those cures when all three of you are damaged!
This is part of an extended series on Survivability in Dungeons and Dragons.