I have tended to hate most druid concepts and yet have a Druid in my game.
The truth is, most of my problem with Druids came out of a narrow slice of players that favored them in previous editions. First, they were players that picked it for optimization purposes (and I tend to dislike optimization as a principle around which ones makes a character), freedom from behavioral obligation (which I’m sympathetic to only to a point, playing a character that is purely unpredictable and, thus, runs the high potential of being merely morally arbitrary is frustrating to me), and as an end run around some very “human” story and drama (given that they could acknowledge never having to care about much of anything happening). Those that weren’t doing THAT wanted to be Captain Planet. Hate druids. Always have.
So, naturally, in my current game a player I trust who is open to letting me edit the world around his PC frequently, wanted to play one and I agreed–because it’s a new addition and I might as well try and make it work.
So, here are what druids in my games are like–the party have met 3 and has one in it.
1. Druids are created
In my game, being a druid means something catastrophic had to happen to you. You were something before (background) and then the whole world spoke through you and changed you. I want people to imagine maybe Jack Hawksmoor from “THe Authority” where he’s abducted in instants all throughout his childhood in harrowing, dangerous, brutal ways and slowly turned into the protector of cities (which are living things, we just don’t know it). Or consider Neo in the Matrix (just the first one), he didn’t ask for it and goes through hellacious trials and is simply charged with BEING the one. The world (destiny) needed someone for a purpose, this is why Druids exist.
The Druid in my game was a soldier. A scout. Drinking with his mates, spending long times out in the mud planning the way for the Army to come through in weeks time. Boring. He often carried a book and a flask and just spent long stretches in the wet and cold and dry and green, and pretty much thought he’d do that job and earn his coin until he was old and retired. But, the world needed someone–called out–and touched him. And he was lost in the wilderness for a long, long, LONG time as the world cut him off from not just civilization and people, but eventually cut him off from any hope of ever returning (think a slow form of psychological torture and isolation). Eventually, after near starvation and hallucination and struggling to survive and fighting things off and eventually communing and being changed, he was given visions of his role in preventing the end of the world. A loose name. A place. A rough (very rough) time when it will happen. The world needed one more cog in the great machine of self-preservation. That is his role.
One doesn’t study to become a druid, that makes it seem like its a choice and something picked up or laid down, in my game you are (willfully or not) conscripted into service of the needs of the ever-turning world and universe. This is the first step, for me, in make them–as a class–feel different from the rest.
My recommendation: spend real-time building the story of their creation or rebirth as a Druid with them. The soldier that’s lost in the wilderness after a campaign; the criminal on his way to a penal colony but ends up shipwrecked in a Castaway scene for years; the acolyte that starts reading, hidden in every book he finds, messages secretly placed there over the eons by others… all for him, telling him why he was born.
2. Druids have purpose
A Druid is called up and created for a specific task or goal and the world takes absolutely no concern for it after or beyond that. The task or goal must be larger than the scope of a mortal or material or temporal concern. In many ways, the Druid is like an antibody for the organism that is the world, except that there are only a handful at a time in existence and they must pursue the right high priorities.
So, does a Druid hate the undead? Yes. But a Druid that spends its time smiting zombies in a graveyard is focusing on the symptoms and not the cause. It would be perfectly acceptable to not bother with the trivial undead in pursuit of killing the bastard demi-god of the God of the Dead that will come into being in the months ahead. They care about the big fish. They can take out the small ones, but Druids aren’t created to waste their time or effort or lives on busting up the small evils.
In my game, as an example, our Druid was “created” to stop the end of the world–I wrote down how it would end and why on a piece of paper, sealed it in an envelope, and have it on my book shelf. He knows it will happen, the world does not lie. He is alive to stop it. He knows it involved going to the far West, seeing a nobleman there and finding the information that will start his own efforts to stopping it. The journey there required a party to travel with, he was level 8 or so by the time he got there. He learned his big clue and is off on a whole closing adventure with the party to the far East. Learning bits and bits along the way. Why doesn’t he stop to destroy towns or save trees? He’s got a bigger role to play and not enough time to waste on those small “goods”.
My recommendation is to give a broad purpose to your Druid player. Something sufficiently metaphorical or vague or so large as to require a lot of effort and levels. Killing a god. Stopping a cataclysm. Committing genocide on a particular sort of monstrosity or aberration. But, big can also be indirect… kill a king and all his progeny in some foreign land. Kill some random peasant somewhere. Bring a plague to a whole continent. Big.
3. Druids can come from any strata of society
I think it’s far too easy and weak to make them all “Radagast” types. Like Druids are only hippies or shamans or whatnot. I think one should force a real dichotomy where possible. Druids can be urban. Absolutely. And even Urbane, as it goes. No different that someone pressed into service for the KGB to infiltrate America to steal specific secrets can, at heart, truly be a capitalist and not-particularly sympathetic to the Soviet cause except in “ends” even if they don’t like “the means” or culture driving it.
In my game (the refrain is tiresome, I know, but I just want to give a real example), our Druid ex-soldier (who truly drank the Druidic Kool-aid) managed to find this noble… this guy who is supposed to be the key to him stopping something terrible. And its a rich noble, maybe 16 years old, a fop and a fool. That classic impetuous and frivolous lout type. The party spent an hour (out of game) talking to this NPC trying to figure out HOW he knows anything (he doesn’t) while lounging in his private study. They see druidic symbols in the art and paintings and furniture all over the room–cleverly hidden. They press him, but he doesn’t even “get” that that’s a symbol.
It took a few long hours (in-game time) and getting the NPC drunk to realize he knew nothing about anything. Some rich dolt. But, they found out he only recently became a Count… his father having died six months before. The Druid figures to use the runes and symbol as a ritual and just read them out and do his weird stuff to it… and the foppish young count clutches his midsection and in a grueling, horrific scene, he gives birth through his abdomen (Alien style) to a tall, balding man of stern visage (covered in viscera) wearing blood-soaked linen shirt and plain pants. His own father. Who was Count here, but was a Druid. He became one after the world spoke to him following the death of his wife (in childbirth). He was to stay here, research some dark thing (plot), and wait for a man to come one day on a quest to tell him what he needed to know (our Druid). He grew old, feared he wouldn’t live long enough to deliver his message, and used his own son in a brutal ritual to outlive his own death. He was Noble, and still is (now).
My recommendation is to force Druids to consider that they don’t have to and aren’t expected to simply live in the woods. They are expected to live as they must, or be what they must, or change to fit the need. Introduce them to Druids that buck stereotypes, while preserving the deeper meaning.
4. Druids are nothing remotely like bound by normal behavior
In our above example, from my game, my NPC druid was the first “real druid” our Druid met. And it changed his views on what he was and what might be needed of him. In parting, for his gratitude, he asked the NPC Druid noble guy what he wanted for his help–of course, the NPC Druid said that he needed nothing, it was… well, just what was required. But, for use of his manor and some material support, he did need something for a different “purpose” he now had. He needed a live, living, human baby barely a day old. No questions. And my Druid player, starting to understand the scope of his world, agreed quietly, away from the party. Maybe the guy wants it to raise as his own son, maybe he wants it to buy another rebirth… or worse. No questions asked. That’s the place a druid must live.
What is needed is needed. This prevents them from being the wacky or random figures so often have frustrated me–from a story standpoint–in the past with others. Our Druids are not random. Not uncaring. They simply do what must be done. It’s about saving the forest, not a tree. About saving a world, not a people. About baiting the trap to end the life of a god, not fighting its lowly followers. About changing destiny itself. Or solving it. Whatever it takes. It’s a hard job. A severe life. One that should and must give them nightmares and make them question themselves.
My recommendation is to open up lots of opportunities and solid ones for the Druid to be the one in the party that has to make the tough choices. Inspiration granting can help do this. When the Druid chooses the party over the party member (for what’s good and needed at a given time)… inspiration. When they divine with nature about a course of action, unambiguously put them in hard moral choice situations with a clear preference for the harder choice and give them inspiration for doing it. I think the world is incapable of understanding the small concerns of normal moral need or expectation. In a brutal way (controversially, as an example), upon being confronted with a poisoning or a sting that is necrotizing someone’s hand in the party that cannot be removed or seems to not be fixable… the Druid should be the first one to reach for an axe and not ask permission to stop the infection by chopping it off. There’s time for chance solutions later, some things are more important NOW.