Monday, October 18, 2010

Essentials Druid heals, brings back Animal Companion

D&D Essentials class previews

When it was revealed that the Druid build in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms would be primal leader, we guessed that the class powers and features would be significantly altered. Today we have taken a first look at this Sentinel Druid, and it doesn't let down: Wild Shape is nowhere to be seen, the power progression has been slightly streamlined, and the character concept has changed from a shape-changing hybrid of beast and caster to melee weapon user with a faithful animal companion!

The animal companion (an inevitable throwback to druids of ancient editions) is the focus of this first preview and, in an unprecedented move for a bestial sidekick in 4E, it looks like this one will just work. The first incarnation of animal companions in this edition of the game were those of the Beastmaster Rangers from Martial Power, which had unnecesarily complicated rules as well as some serious implementation flaws, which we reported here and attempted to fix. The sentinel’s, by contrast, is... well, a different beast.

Two different animals are provided here, though I don’t doubt we’ll see more in future Dragon articles. They cover two of the most iconic pet archetypes, the Wolf and the Bear. Both have defenses and attack bonuses that scale with character level, with values that are unimpressive, but equivalent to those found in monsters. Hit points are tied to those of the character, since they equal his bloodied value, much like a summoned creature’s. And the weakest link from the previous iteration, attack damage, is nothing but solid this time.

Since I spent a good amount of time looking for solutions on the issue of ranger beast damage, I find it particularly interesting how it has been addressed this time. Although the lack of enhancement bonuses remains, this time the base damage depends on the character`s own abilities: the sum of Wisdom and Constitution modifiers. Not only that, but you get a couple of extra points at paragon tier and again at epic, so that the base damage for a beast hit slightly exceeds that of a non-optimized character’s. Lacking extra damage dice on critical hits means that the druid would still come up ahead on average damage, but it’s close enough for the beast not to be a joke.

As is often the case, the bear companion is associated with the more defensive build, whereas the wolf concentrates on offense. Both have continuous auras, one for making adjacent enemies grant combat advantage, and the other for granting defensive bonuses to close allies. Apart from that, wolves have stats similar to those of skirmisher monster, whereas the bear resembles a brute. Either of them can be healed, and even resurrected, by spending the druid’s healing surges and a minor action, and short rests conveniently restore them to full hit points without surge loss.

A major point that isn’t explained in the preview is how the companion’s actions will be managed. It is to be expected that companion and druid will share a common pool of actions, so that the druid can spend a standard action to attack through the beast, or a opportunity action to make opportunity attacks triggered by enemies adjacent to the beast. But until we get to read the whole class description, this is pure speculation. What we do know, however, is that the build will feature a fixed power called Combined Attack in place of normal encounter powers. Unsurprisingly, Combined Attack lets both druid and beast attack in melee; the fact that both can choose the same target places sentinels among the hardest-hitting leaders in the game.

The existence of Combined Attack might suggest that sentinels mirror the resource system of Essentials martial classes, but it is in fact the only concession to power simplification. Sentinels will still have at-wills and daily attacks like traditional classes, though whether they will be exchangeable with those of controller druids remains to be seen. At any rate, sentinels lack Wild Shape, which shuts down more than half of the existing druid powers, and seem to focus on attacking with melee weapons - favoring traditional druid tools like scimitars and maces, with features that boost them into playability. But implement proficiency is still there, so perhaps this can result in even-more-hybrid druids, like spellcasting sentinels, or weapon wielding beast druids.

There are a few features that haven’t been revealed, such as Healing Word (which, given its name, might be exactly the same as the cleric feature) and Wilderness Knacks (likely similar ot its hunter ranger analogue, which gave skill-related abilities). At higher levels, we get something called Hear the Voice of Nature (level 7), and Restore Life at level 8, whose effect should be evident.

With almost no class powers revealed, the druid’s is easily the most cryptic Essentials class preview to date. The framework that has been shown has potential, and all the elements detailed are a good match for the druid concept, but we will have to wait for the complete power selection to give a proper evaluation.

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