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Controllers in D&D 4e: The Druid

It took me a long time to warm up to the controller classes in D&D’s 4th edition. Maybe it was that the first Player’s Handbook contained only one controller – the Wizard – and he just didn’t seem as cool as the other classes. Maybe it was that, in the early days of zipping through the 4e rules, I didn’t immediately grasp the tactical benefits of altering the terrain or imposing automatic-damage zones on minions. Or maybe it was that many of the Wizard’s powers just seemed wussy when compared to, say, the Ranger’s or the Cleric’s. Translation: C’mon, Gandalf, deal more damage!

Eventually, armed with a better understanding of the 4e rules, I started to reappraise the role of controllers, largely because of the Druid. “But Ken,” you bluster, “the Druid is the worst of all the controller classes at actually, well, controlling anything.” Good point. But the Druid’s classification as controller is precisely what provoked the reexamination. After all, what does it mean to be a controller in D&D 4e?

For instance, the defender classes are the “meat shields,” soaking up damage, protecting allies, and grouping opponents. The leader classes provide buffs and healing to allies and, by their very nature, encourage characters (and players) to work together and gain advantages in combat. The striker classes can do a shitload of damage to a single foe. The controller … well, controls. (Uh oh, I’ve veered dangerously into dialogue from the infamous “Spock’s Brain” episode. Must back out slowly…) The controller creates lingering effects around the battlefield, some personal (e.g., the target is compelled to move in one direction) and some area effects (e.g., zones that inflict damage or impede the movement of multiple opponents). Overall, though, many gamers seem to feel that the controller classes aren't attractive; slowing an enemy or creating a fiery zone isn't as appealing as cleaving a bloody path through your foes, Conan-style.

The Druid is an atypical controller. A lot of his evocations don't alter the terrain or impose conditions, and many of his "debuffs" come as a result of melee attacks against a single target, via the cool wild shape class feature and the number of powers that have a Beast Form keyword. Yes, the Druid isn't afraid to get up close and furry in combat. In fact, a quick scan of the Druid’s evocations in Player’s Handbook 2 suggest that – with the right choices – he can be as much a striker as he is a controller. (Yeah, I’m talking Predator build here; the Guardian build just doesn't have enough of a leader “feel” in PHB2, no matter what the text says or how much I initially wanted to make a Guardian druid when I first explored the class.) However, he’s not a great striker, as his damage usually falls short of, say, the Barbarian’s. So does this mean that the 4e Druid is the equivalent of the 3rd edition bard – a jack of all trades, but master of none?

Fortunately, no. The Druid is perhaps the most versatile of all the 4e classes to date and can - in the right player's hands - potentially fill the gaps in any party’s lineup. With the appropriate selection of evocations and feats, he can be a solid controller and an adequate striker, leader, or defender as needed. The class got a welcome boost with the new evocations in this year's Primal Power, especially with the swarm and summoning powers, which provide the Druid with plenty of opportunities to impose penalties at range or to strike multiple targets. Another plus: A lot of Druid evocations go against Reflex, which is usually an easier target than AC or Fortitude.

Leaving in-depth discussion of optimization to people with a keener sense of tactics than me (and who have tackled that topic well on Wizards' D&D 4e Controllers forum and elsewhere), I'll call out a few of the Druid's cooler powers:

  • Call of the Beast (At-Will 1): A weird power that does no damage and compels enemies to attack an ally! Yet if that ally is a defender class, then you're executing the lay-up to set up the defender for the slam dunk. It's also a good way of neutralizing skirmishers, who usually seek to get behind your party's front line and attack your squishier allies. This was one of the more hotly debated powers after PHB2's release because the Rule As Written (targets each creature in burst) conflicted with the Rule As Intended (targets enemies only), but it recently was officially errata'd as affecting enemies only.
  • Grasping Tide (At-Will 1): A cherished Druid power found only in the D&D Miniatures set, this is a good Area of Effect (AoE) attack that does damage and can knock creatures prone. With a range of 10 and an area burst 1, that means it can even knock a flying opponent out of the sky. Yes, yes, the flavor text says "a vortex of water," but going by the rules, you can take out a flying foe.
  • Swarming Locusts (At-Will 1): Introduced in Primal Power, it's what Pounce should have been. If you have a Predator build and if Pounce's Combat Advantage lasted longer, I can see sticking with Pounce to avoid hitting allies, but as it is, Swarming Locusts is a must-have. (The new Class Acts: Druid article in Dragon introduces a feat to enhance Pounce. It's a good article, but as a player, I'd have a tough time justifying a feat choice that slightly enhanced one power.)
  • Call Forth the Spirit Pack (Encounter 1): Another power to help you and your party's defender become BFFs. Spectral wolves deal damage to one or two target, with bonus damage if they're already marked.
  • Ferocious Transformation (Utility 2): Utility powers are a hoot. This one can turn a disadvantage (being struck when not in beast form) into an advantage (immediately beast-ing out, shifting, and getting Combat Advantage against the attacker).
  • Flowing Swarm (Encounter 3) a.k.a. "The Cronenberg Maneuver": As a cloud of insects/spiders/rats, you scatter over all creatures in the AoE, doing damage and reforming a few squares away. And if you've chosen the Swarm build, you can do even more damage. Muahahahaha!
  • Latch On (Encounter 7): A higher-level version of the Grasping Claws at-will evocation, this is your "Beat Up the Ranged Attacker" power. Grab him in your beast form, sustain the hold as a minor action, and chomp, chomp, chomp.
  • Primal Wolf (Encounter 9): If my RPGA longtooth shifter druid ever makes it to 9th level, I'll have a tough decision. With Entangle, Feral Mauling, Sunbeam, and now Summon Crocodile, the 9th-level encounter powers are a treasure trove of goodness. But if I had a totem pointed at my head, I'd choose Primal Wolf. After dealing damage, "you knock the target prone, and it can't stand up (save ends)." Let me repeat: He needs to make a save to stand up! I love that. And for the rest of the encounter, you can knock other opponents prone with a successful hit in beast form, regardless of the power you use.

Hopefully in the weeks to come, I'll post some thoughts on the other controller classes, too. I direct you also to The Chamber of Mazarbul blog, which has put up a lot of insightful thoughts about controllers lately.