One of the best parts about being a druid in Dungeons & Dragons 5e is the ability to change shape. This feature, known as Wild Shape, puts the entire animal kingdom at the druid’s fingertips. This can be a fun power that allows players to flex their creativity, but also somewhat overwhelming because none of those animal stats are in the Player’s Handbook. This ability can get very complex, so here is a breakdown of how it works and how to get the most out it.
Once a druid gets to second level, they can use their action to shapeshift into a beast they have seen before. The beast can only be a Challenge Rating of 1/4 or less, but that number increases as the druid levels up. Druids get to stay in beast mode for hours equal to half their druid level, but they can dismiss the form as an action or get knocked out of it by being beaten down to zero hit points, in which case they revert to normal with the hit point total they had when they changed. This means that the beast’s health effectively works as a buffer of temporary HP.
No matter what they change into, druids who transform maintain their mental stats. That means their personality and alignment, as well as their intelligence, wisdom and charisma stats all stay the same. Druids also keep whatever skill proficiencies they had, while gaining the skills possessed by their new form. A druid’s physical stat block is completely replaced by the beast’s, meaning the player should have access to a Monster Manual. Circle of the Moon druids in particular, who specialize in Wild Shape and can change into much higher CR beasts, will want to take a look into their multitude of options before they need to use them.
A prepared and informed group of adventurers is an alive group of adventurers, so the most beneficial use of Wild Shape is to gain information. That might mean scouting ahead to report what the heroes are walking into, or exploring the perimeter of the team’s next destination for insight on what to expect there. Immediately at second level, druids get some great options to do this with Cats, Rats and Spiders, all making for stealthy and innocuous low CR creatures.
At fourth level, druids can add stronger creatures to their repertoire, like Panthers for climbing or the Octopus for getting wet. The ultimate scouts, however, are unlocked at eighth level with flying creatures like Bats and Owls, allowing druids to soar high above and get the perfect bird’s eye view. Anything with special perception the druid doesn’t normally possess, such as darkvision, blindsight or keen senses, make excellent choices for intelligence gathering.
Once it’s time to throw down, druids also have some potent battle options at their disposal. While most beasts will have a hard time fighting powerful monsters, many of them provide unique abilities in battle that can be quite useful. At second level, druids can make use of the Wolf for knockdowns attacks and pack tactics or the Giant Badger for burrow speed. At fourth the Ape has great offensive power while the Crocodile is an excellent single-target crowd controller. Finally, at eighth level druids get even bigger and better control options with the Giant Octopus, Giant Toad and Dire Wolf.
Turning into any of these creatures won’t make druids into overwhelming melee combatants, but they will give the druid some extra abilities, such as grappling, swallow enemies whole or trip attacks. Most forms can’t match melee specialists like Fighters or Paladins, but the point isn’t always to deal the most damage; it’s to harass and control the enemy, forcing them to waste precious actions on standing up from prone or breaking free of a grapple.
While most of the benefits of Wild Shape are covered by exploration and combat, there will always be cases where the sheer flexibility and creativity of the power can make for spectacular moments. Wild Shape acts as a Swiss Army Knife of utility, and it is very rare for it to be totally useless. Shaping into a beast of burden like an Ox in order to carry a heavy load or pull down a wall is something druids can do at second level, as is turning into a Camel and letting the Fighter ride them into battle. Other random fun to be had includes druids Shaping into a Giant Eagle to carry the party inside a Bag of Holding, or Shaping into a Weasel and hanging out unharmed in the Barbarian’s pocket where they can still make keen perception checks.
Ideally, druid players will work with the Dungeon Master and be prepared to allow them to make rulings on corner cases. With an ability as complex as Wild Shape, weird situations are bound to come up. A DM might need to decide if a dragonborn druid still gets their breath weapon, or find a proxy if the druid wants to Shape into an animal that isn’t stated out in the Monster Manual.
It is advisable to have a talk between druid and DM before play begins and discuss what beasts the player is most interested in. Find those stat blocks and get them copied down. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything in particular has some useful tables describing the default habitats of beasts, displaying some creatures the druid might have encountered. Not only will this preparation save time in-game, but the whole table will be better able to handle the awesome flexibility of Wild Shape.
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The druid's Wild Shape is one of the most versatile and awesome abilities in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, but also one of the most complex.