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I am making a Circle of the Moon druid, and when I flipped through the monster manual to see what I could transform into I was struck by how much cooler Aberrations and Monstrosities are than Beasts. I'm trying to convince my DM to allow me to wildshape into those forms; my fluff is that I'm native to the Far Realms, where there aren't a lot of elk but gibbering mouthers are common wildlife.

My question is: are there specific mechanical balance/game-play reasons why Druids are restricted to beasts, and would allowing a Druid to change into aberrations/monstrosities increase her power unfairly (given that she is still bound by CR restriction)?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The edit makes this a different question than before (changing it from "Is this unbalanced" to "What would make it balanced"), so that should be a new, separate question. Generally, we like to avoid updates to a question that invalidate existing answers. I've reverted the changes for now, but you can access the text in the edit history (also available by clicking "edited [time] ago") if you want to cut-and-paste it into a new question. \$\endgroup\$ May 28 '15 at 16:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, I'll post that as a new question. I wasn't certain about the correct protocol for that, thanks for setting me straight :) \$\endgroup\$
    – NBDGY
    May 28 '15 at 16:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ No problem! The site does have a bit of a learning curve with corner cases like this, where you want to ask a follow-up question. (In the new question you can refer readers to this one for context by including the URL of this page.) \$\endgroup\$ May 28 '15 at 16:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ The URL of the new question is rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/62637/… \$\endgroup\$
    – NBDGY
    May 28 '15 at 16:38
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Any answer (and thus any successful argument on your part) is dependent upon the ecology of the world as your DM envisions it. Per PHB page 65, a Druid is all about the ecology of the world, its balance, and against that which is unnatural, which includes aberrations.

The General Differences

Some of what makes any aberration or monstrosity "cooler" (your words) is the unnatural (be it demonic, alien, magical, etc) innate ability inherent in the creature. I'll offer two examples:

  1. Monstrosity (Cockatrice, MM p. 42, CR 1/2) has the ability to turn things into stone. That is a powerful special effect. No beast has one similar at that level. (See conditions: Petrify, restrained, PHB 291). Compare to a CR 1/2 Ape (MM page 317). He can make two fist attacks, but he can't turn you to stone.

  2. Aberration (Gibbering Mouther, CR 2, MM p. 157) has the gibbering effect much like the Confusion spell, a fourth level spell. (PHB: p. 224) A Cave Bear is a beast of CR 2 with a non-trivial damage output (1d8 + 2d6 + 10) but no magical effect. A Giant Constrictor Snake does 2d8 +4 and may restrain a creature (lock it down), which is hard on a single creature. Confusion (a 4th level spell effect) at will is far more powerful and can have an impact on multiple creatures.

    The examples are not exhaustive. Another example1 would be a monster that is invulnerable when it does not attack - this would be annoying on a monster, but on a PC it could significantly unbalance a campaign. (1 @NeilSlater pointed this out in a note).

    An argument against this proposal is that beasts don't have special abilities as powerful as aberrations or monstrosities at similar CR levels.

    Another argument against Aberrations is the specific enmity Druids have against such unnatural creatures.

    An argument for this proposal is that some beasts do have magical abilities. See Flying Snake for example. (MM p. 322) Flying snake: real snakes don't fly; fly is a third level spell.

RAW

Monster Manual on Aberrations, Beasts and Monstrosities

Aberrations have innate magical abilities drawn from the creature's alien mind rather than the mystical forces of the world. (p. 6)

Monstrosities: Not truly natural, and almost never benign. (p. 7)

Beasts: Natural part of the fantasy ecology. Some have agical powers. (p. 7)

Druids (PHB)

Revere nature above all, and get their powers from nature itself, or a nature deity. (p. 64)

This is mostly arguments against. Natural is what a Monstrosity or Aberration is not.

But ... your DM may wish to pursue this with you

What does your DM consider to be natural, and a part of the ecology of the world? There are many Beasts in the Monster Manual that take our primary world animals and make them something 'magical' or 'fantastic' or 'unnatural' (pick the term you want to you use), even though they are well placed in your DM's secondary world. If there is a place in his world where Gibbering Mouthers are as common as elk are in ours, you have a stronger case than if there isn't.

If you want to sell the case for going beyond Beasts, I suggest that for the mechanical approach you compare the innate abilities of a similarly CR rated Monstrosities with various Beast's and see how the power stacks up.

Based on my brief review, the Monstrosity or Aberration tends to have a more powerful effects per CR. Perhaps, for Monstrosities, agree to a CR divided by two or CR divided by four, or a CR one to two steps down CR table2 as compared to Beast of similar CR that your Druid can transform into. (2Tables on page 112, Basic rules). Aberrations would be a harder sell in any case, even with a power reduction.

You may find a way to make it fit if the DM waives the RP element of what Druids are in the general context of D&D as applied to the specific ecology of the DM's world. You could argue that a Winter Wolf is a highly evolved wolf species that was influenced by the Weave (or magic as a native feature of a magical world) and could fit as Beast versus Monstrosity in terms of category (mechanics). This would still require balancing of special abilities.

For purposes of this discussion, I'll treat the table in the PHB as capping CR at 1 (Druid Level 8) for Wild Shape. This avoids the need to compare your Druid's related at will power (cantrip frostbite, 1d6 dmg to one target (Elemental Evil supplement, p. 18; also XGtE)) with cold breath (dmg 4d8 15' cone, recharge on 5-6). How would you scale down a spell which is between 3rd or 4th level in power to fit your Druid's at will power, and fit within the limits on spell casting in Wild Shape? Cold Breath is between Snilloc's Snowball Storm(2)(dmg 3d6, 5' sphere)and Cone of Cold(5)(dmg 8d8, 60' cone). As @Miniman points out in his answer, you can see how fast these at will abilities can get overpowered.

The Balance Problem

We'll look at Worg and Death Dog (Monstrosities) (Canine examples because I love my dogs. :) )

  • CR 1/2 Worg (1 melee attack, 2d6 +3)

    1. Two added languages (Goblin and Worg) which could make for some interesting interaction and infiltration scenarios.
    2. Advantage for rolls based on your wisdom on smell and hearing Perception checks.
    3. "Knock prone" ability in combat (con save DC 12 or target falls prone).
  • Compare that to CR 1/2:

    1. Ape: two fist attacks, each at 1d6 +3. Passive perception will be overwritten by your WIS and Proficiency.

    2. Black Bear has two attacks, bite and claw, 1d6 +2 and 2d4 +2 respectively. Advantage on smell Perception checks. (WIS).

    Worg might be sellable, but it has more advantages than other CR 1/2 beasts. Does the DM require a level minimum above 4 (5? 6? 8?) to Wild Shape into one? Would he apply CR/2, and make you wait for 8th level to try that form? Another point: maybe you have to encounter and defeat a Worg, not just have seen one, to take on the shape.

    Caution: the Cockatrice example returns for CR 1/2 finds a creature who inflicts on a non-saving target a Hold Person with no need to maintain concentration. That's more than a 2d level spell effect, more like 3rd or 4th. A free spell applied how many times in a given combat and not on the list of prepared spells? Big power boost. At level 4 Druid, you don't have any 3rd level spells.

  • CR 1 Death Dog:

    1. Two bite attacks per round (1d6 +2 each).
    2. Advantage on all Perception checks.
    3. Advantage on saves versus: charm, blinded, deafened, stunned, frightened, knocked unconscious.

    The bite contains the balance breaker. If not saved against (CON DC 12) it creates the poisoned condition (Basic rules, p. 172) and causes a disease.

    If the target is a creature, it must succeed on a DC 12 Constitution saving throw against disease or become poisoned until the disease is cured. Every 24 hours that elapse, the creature must repeat the saving throw, reducing its hit point maximum by 5 (1d10) on a failure. This reduction lasts until the disease is cured. The creature dies if the disease reduces its hit point maximum to 0. (Basic Rules, p. 123)

    Poisoned

    • A poisoned creature has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.

    A successful melee hit creates a spell-like effect which (if there is no save) drains max hit points (1d10) from the target. This is twice per round, one per attack. The impact of this increases with the number of opponents. During a single encounter, the disease may not be that big of a deal, but during the battle the poisoned condition imposes a significant problem: disadvantage.

    Death Dog is a tougher sell than Worg. (At Druid level 8, you have 4 cantrips, 3 3rd level spells and 2 4th level spells).

    Could the overboost for Death Dog be balanced? Maybe. Maybe each time your bite triggers that save requirement, your DM has you burn a spell slot (second level?) That might get closer to the balance. (Hey, wait, I thought Druids were all about the balance! :-) ) A problem is that this extra work gets the game (and the other players) away from how spells usually work in D&D 5th edition.

  • Brown Bear. CR 1.

    1. Two attacks. 1d8 + 4 and 2d6 +4, bite and claw.
    2. Smell Perception check boost (Wis).
    3. No imposed condition, no free spell/spell effects. No long term effects.

    These two don't compare as well as my cherry-picked examples at CR 1/2.

    So much for a rough illustration of the balance problem. It is a chore for your DM and you. If you both want to put in the work, you may arrive at something usable. This might be a step beyond how far the DM is willing to go to homebrew.

Is this a challenge to the Druid Class trope? Yes. Were I the DM, I'd say "No" due to how I see Druids in the scheme of things, but I'm not your DM. Each DM has his/her own world, so you may have some room to brew.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The CR reduction is a good idea, and might be a good compromise. However, there may still be some too useful at-will abilities accessible even with that constraint. If you could suggest how the player and DM might find and deal with such problem abilities then this could be a nice answer that gives the OP some of what they want without risking their game. \$\endgroup\$ May 27 '15 at 8:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't suggest you do a full survey of available powers, that seems too much work. I think it is worth adding that the switch from a monster power to a PC power makes different things more or less powerful. For example a monster that is invulnerable when it does not attack is annoying, but on a PC it could destroy a campaign. \$\endgroup\$ May 27 '15 at 12:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Old answer, but the death dog's bite doesn't reduce HP by 5 until at least 24 hours pass. In most situations that will have little effect in combat. (poisoned, however, is huge) \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Jan 31 '19 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk, good point, I'll revise. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 31 '19 at 17:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ In your first section, Awakened Tree is a plant, not a beast. You may also want to consider the Crag Cat from SKT... its bonkers for a beast. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Jan 31 '19 at 18:35
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Yes, this would be unbalanced.

Firstly, consider what Wild Shape gives you. It is a single ability that gives:

  • Unlimited flight
  • Unlimited water breathing and swimming
  • A huge pool of temporary hit points
  • Multiattack before the Fighter even has their Extra Attack ability
  • The ability to have good physical stats without investing in them
  • The ability to have good attacks without investing in them
  • An incredible amount of roleplaying potential

So it's already a really strong ability. Honestly, it's probably unbalanced already. Adding more forms to the list only makes it worse, especially when they're forms that have special abilities of their own.

For example, consider the Doppelganger, a CR 3 monstrosity. This form gives you at-will shapeshifting into humanoids, at-will mind reading, multiattack, and surprise attack. All in one form. This is a scary amount of utility for you to have, especially with low resource investment and unlimited duration.

But it gets even worse, because creatures meant as enemies have abilities PCs aren't meant to get until much later in the game. Or in some cases, are never meant to be able to do as easily.

For example, consider the Phase Spider. It's another CR 3 monstrosity, but this one has Ethereal Jaunt. (You can jump between the Material Plane and the Ethereal Plane at will.) Now, Etherealness is a level 7 spell. You're not meant to get it until your character is level 13, and even then you can only cast it twice a day. Getting it at level 9 and being able to use it at will is quite definitely unbalanced no matter how you look at it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In addition to this, in 3.5e D&D it was possible to Wild Shape into Aberrations with a few tricks, but since you did not get all of their abilities it was more balanced. 5e throws this concept out of the window, making it an everything-or-nothing scenario, which works in favor of the Druid but against the balance of the game. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 '15 at 23:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasJacobs Well, it's much more balanced as far as Wild Shape is concerned, because the allowed forms are restricted to reasonably balanced ones. Once Shapechange comes online at level 17, your point becomes frighteningly right as balance goes completely out the window. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    May 26 '15 at 23:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Superbest I've removed the bit about spellcasting until I can check it. It's not really worth discussing Wild Shape without CotM - most players choose CotM, and with good reason. As for complaints about Wild Shape rather than the proposed change, the first paragraph is about why Wild Shape is strong. The rest of the answer explains how the proposed change would make it even stronger, as well as how the proposed change breaks fundamental notions of balance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    May 27 '15 at 3:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Miniman: Even as modest a non-beast as the CR 1/4 Blink Dog (Fey) has a major power boost compared to Druid level, in support of your points on imbalance. \$\endgroup\$ May 28 '15 at 13:28
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Old question, but I wanted to add here

If you're anything like me, it's not necessarily the abilities of the Beasts that are less "cool", but moreso the fact that here you have this base PHB class that lets you shift into other creatures, and in the fantastical world of D&D - your choices are things like a goat or a spider.

So, for some people I think this could largely be solved by simple reskinning. I don't see why you shouldn't be able to use the stats of a Giant Boar and call yourself an Ankheg for example.

From there - with effort from both the player and DM - you can 'modularly' swap out abilities of creatures while keeping balance for the most part.

This is all with the caveat that you're okay with ignoring the as-written lore of Druids. As @KorvinStarmast mentioned, colloquially Druids are based around 'Naturalism'.

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