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The Circle of the Shepherd druid has the Speech of the Woods feature (XGtE, p. 23):

You learn to speak, read, and write Sylvan. In addition, beasts can understand your speech, and you gain the ability to decipher their noises and motions.

One of the restrictions of the Wild Shape feature is:

You can't cast spells, and your ability to speak or take any action that requires hands is limited to the capabilities of your beast form.

Related question: Can a druid speak while in wild-shape?

Depending how you parse Speech of the Woods, either you can speak Sylvan and beasts can understand you when you speak Sylvan (at which point this question is moot) - or you can speak Sylvan, and separately, beasts can understand your speech, presumably in any language you choose.

So if the druid wild shapes into a wolf, they can only speak "like a wolf" (fairly limited). But they can also decipher the noises and motions of a wolf, and wolves can understand their "speech", however that is defined.

Am I trying too hard to suggest that the druid can communicate with other beasts when in beast form? Or at least other beasts of the same species?

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Yes if you are a parrot. No if you are a slug.

I'm using 'druid' here as shorthand for 'Circle of the Shepherd Druid'

Your ability to speak is

limited to the capabilities of your beast form

The 'capabilities of your beast form' are the limitations of its body, and not the limitations of its mind. We know this because when you take on the form,

you retain your [...] Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores.

source

This begs the question: Which beasts are physically capable of speech? Some beasts, such as a slug, are obviously not. Giant eagles, on the other hand, can speak giant eagle. This means that their ability to vocalise is sufficient for communicating complex ideas.

Parrots are another helpful example. A parrot is physically capable of mimicking human vocalisations, but doesn't actually speak common and wouldn't have this language listed in its stat block. Druids in parrot-form can speak common (or any other language), because their parrot-bodies are physically capable of producing the sounds required and their druid-minds are capable of constructing thoughts like 'what is the nature of beauty?'

What Constitutes Speech?

Your ruling as DM will depend on how you interpret the meaning of 'speech': either as a discrete category (this beast CAN/CANNOT vocalise speech) or as a conceptual continuum (this creature is MORE/LESS ABLE to vocalise complex patterns)

Speech as a discrete category

Speech implies abstract communication and complex thought. My cat makes little noises with different meanings, but her rudimentary voice box will not allow for 'speech' in the same way that a parrot's would. A cat-druid is incapable of 'speech', and so any dog she spoke to would be incapable of understanding her. A parrot-druid would have no such trouble. If a dog-druid were talking to a dog, I would say that 'understanding noises and motions' grants an ability to emulate them, which implies that a dog-druid could say anything to a dog that one normal dog could say to another - little dog concepts like 'GO AWAY I DO NOT LIKE YOU' or 'WOW LOOK AT THIS'.

Speech as a contiuum

Alternatively, you might thing of 'speech' as any articulation of concepts through vocalisation - ie. my cat can speak, just not very articulately. In this case, the DM would have to make a ruling on maximum-speech-complexity based on physical vocalisation limitations of the chosen form. I.e no speech for slug, basic concepts for cats/dogs, human-equivalent complexity for parrots. In contrast to the above ruling, this would mean that all animals could understand the concepts communicated, even though a slug, for instance, could not normally understand a cat.

Conclusion

  • A wildshaped druid's ability to speak is limited by the chosen form's physical capacity for complex vocalisation. One possible ruling is that a creature can or cannot speak, with nothing in between, but an alterative ruling is that vocalisation-capability moderates the maximum complexity of communicated concepts.
  • If a wildshaped druid can speak, then their speech can be understood by all beasts.
  • If a wildshaped druid cannot speak, they can still communicate with other animals as any other animal might, because they 'understand' the 'noises and motions' of animals.
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    \$\begingroup\$ When I read this answer hours ago I didn't realise you were new here, that says a lot about the quality of the answer. I have so far seen this answer and 2 good comments so welcome! \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 18, 2021 at 23:51
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They are disjoint sentences. “... beasts can understand your speech, and you gain the ability to decipher their noises and motions.” You have this ability.

You can always understand beasts. Your ability to make them understand you is limited by your current form’s speech ability. The definitions of speech all indicate that it is through sound but some further limit this to words. Your agape form can make sounds but not words, your fish form can do neither - you need to ask your DM..

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You may want to specify that the limiting factor by form is predicated on speech \$\endgroup\$ Dec 8, 2018 at 12:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Does speech imply and/or require verbal and words? Or can you grunt, caw, hiss, or do whatever spiders do (noises and motions?), and all the other beasts will be able to follow along? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 8, 2018 at 15:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that they're disjoint statements, but as OP asks, can you support your claim that "Your ability to make them understand you is limited by your current form." I assume your logic is that any communication in the way that animals normally do doesn't count as "speech"? \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 8, 2018 at 18:45
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No

I started writing this answer to prove that it was possible, but the more I wrote the more I realised I was wrong.

The key lines for me are from the feature itself:

you gain the ability to decipher their noises and motions.

And from wild shape:

You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so

The first line shows that beasts do not speak any kind of unique language, and when combined with no language in their stat blocks can be taken as correct.

That means that beasts cannot understand my speech because there is no speech to be understood.

I then looked at if the creatures you turn into could understand your own noises and motions, but that wouldn't be part of the speech of the woods feature, and there is nothing in wild shape that suggests you can communicate with the type of creature you turn into.

You would retain the ability to understand their noises and motions, and could possibly replicate certain ones, or make educated guesses, but that isn't part of any of the abilities and falls to DM discretion.

As a DM I would rule otherwise

I think the intention behind speech of the woods is that you can communicate with beasts, and since you don't normally have the body of a beast you won't be able to make their noises and motions, so it defaults to having them understand you. I believe the spirit of the ability would allow you to communicate both ways once in beast shape, but there are no rules that I can find which prove this, so it would be a DM ruling.

My hesitation comes from other druid subclasses, because I see wild shape as allowing the druid to become a wolf and run with the pack, but that won't work if you can't understand them or have them understand you. You would quickly be rejected. As such I would be tempted to rule that all druids in wild shape can communicate both ways with the type of beast (or elemental) they transform into.

This probably means that as far as wild shape is concerned speech of the woods has little effect, so I would be more inclined to give my player benefit the benefit of any doubt whenever it comes to grey areas of communication.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The first line doesn't show that beasts can't speak only that they can move and make noises. Some beasts (e.g. giant eagle) do have languages in their stat block. In any case, having a language in your stat block isn't the same as being physically able to speak, nor is the inverse true. Some creatures can understand languages, but can't speak them, and parrots can speak languages but not understand them (IRL). \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Jan 18, 2021 at 23:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lovell it didn't occur to me when I made the answer, but as you say it I completely agree (to be fair the answer changed in my own head a few times as I wrote it!). I have also upvoted your answer and unless something better comes along it will probably get the bounty. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 18, 2021 at 23:50

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