There is a school of thought amongst the message boarders and internetters of the world that the Druid is one of the very elite base classes in the world of D&D. They turn into animals! They cast spells! They have an animal companion! They resist the lure of fey! These things are all true, yet in the end I find that the character really lacks in power when it comes down to it. I still like the druid a lot and there is a ton of fun stuff one can do with it, but this myth about it’s absurd power levels needs to stop. The druid does a lot of things, but none of them all that well. (Ironically, the bard is much maligned for those same reasons.) Sure, a 20th level druid with all sorts of neat tricks is an impressive character indeed, but in the games I play in that druid had to be a 1st level druid initially and in the lower levels they really struggle. At it’s best the druid should be sending their companion into the fray to do some damage, while they hang in the back and support the party. Of course, at higher levels they are quite capable in combat, but even then survivability remains an issue.
It’s vitals are pretty good; medium Base Attack, D8 hit die, 4 skill points (with an okay skill list), and two good saves. Add full casting to that and you’ve got the start of a really good character. An animal companion too? What could be wrong with this? Well, for starters the druid does not have the Armor Class or the Hit Points to stand on the front line with the fighting types. At low levels they can mix it up for short periods and come out okay, but they don’t have the staying power for a prolonged fight. The equipment is probably looking something like Hide Armor and a Scimitar, and chances are that Strength and Dexterity are not going to be too great (most druids pump up INT, WIS, and CHA in anticipation of Wild Shape). This forces them into a support role in combat for the lower levels. Cure spells are nice (though the progression of them is slower than the clerics and they can’t be cast spontaneously), Entangle certainly has it’s uses, Heat Metal is handy, etc…The point is there is not a Glitterdust or Hold Person in the bunch. The summonings are totally outclassed by the wizards Summons, and many of their spells are environment dependent. A druid in the city is at a large disadvantage (the converse, the wilderness druid, is at an advantage certainly). The animal companion is pretty good at low levels. A wolf can certainly hold it’s own in a fight and makes an excellent flanking companion for the party’s rogue, a riding dog is good as well. Birds are best left as familiars. It’s also useful for spells that the druid casts on himself can also affect the companion, but they end if they are more than 5 feet apart from one another, essentially tethering the two to one another. Not so useful. So what is our low level druid doing in combat each round?
At 5th level the druid receives it’s signature ability; Wild Shape. Now they can turn into mighty creatures and rip their foes apart! Sort of. At 7th level they are still limited to medium and small creatures of 7HD or less. The list (in the Monster Manual) isn’t pretty. A crocodile is probably the best option with it’s 15AC and +6 melee attack doing 1d12+6 (with Improved Grab, which is real good). In comparison the party barbarian of the same level is probably attacking at +12 melee and doing way more damage if they throw in some power attack, and getting a second attack on top of it. The animal companion is actually going to be a much better fighter than the druid at this point, but they are all going to suffer from low AC. How long is the Brown Bear going to last with a 15 AC? Barkskin can help the druid last longer, but that ape is screwed. Of course, Wild Shape has a ton of non combat uses as well. Flying, swimming, and climbing all have a lot of applications but some of the animals best abilities (scent, low light vision, blindsense) it is denied. Plus the druid is now also denied the ability to talk to his fellow party members, which a DM should play up for all it’s worth. Natural Spell is a required feat, essentially denying the druid the feat for 6th level. The spells are getting better, but still a step behind the cleric and two steps behind the wizard. Though Giant Vermin is super cool and very awesome. Dispel Magic is pretty much a staple of any spellcasters arsenal, though druids get it at 4th level compared to 3rd for Wizards and Clerics.
Things get noticeably better at 8th level when Wild Shape can take on the form of large animals, but the problem is surviving that long.
Druids also seem to be one of those classes that greatly benefit from the inclusion of non core material, specifically extra Monster Manuals that greatly expand the Wild Shape arsenal of the druid. And for a class that is all about the natural world they are also very dependent on magic items (especially AC boosters). So in games where magic items are readily available (to the point that one can assume they will obtain them as they progress in levels) building a druid is considerably easier.
All in all I like druids a lot. I think the chaotic eco-terrorist druid is a lot of fun (a great villain also), as is the lawful forest warden type. They have a bunch of different options available to them and wilderness campaigns obviously suit them very well. I just don’t think they are one of the more powerful characters in the game.