It's not uncommon to hear comments on the internet about how the Druid is underpowered. These comments seemed to peak in intensity shortly after the release of Divine Power, when the Invoker got it's boost. Now that Primal Power is out the three controller classes are on even footing, but it's still very obvious that the Druid is "different."
For a long time even I didn't quite get the class. This is significant because I'd been playing a Druid since the levels 1-3 preview went up, way before the PHB2 was even released. Ever since then, I've been a little obsessed with the class. I think it was mostly due to unfulfilled expectations from the 3.5 edition Druid. Which, don't get me wrong, was a great (and many would argue overpowered) class--if you played above 5th level. Which I only did once, in a one-shot, and all of my other Druid experience was low level. So what was so great about 5th level? The answer is simple: this is when you first got Wild Shape 1/day. So along comes the 4th edition Druid with its at will Wild Shape! I didn't care that Wild Shape was overpowered in 3.5, I just liked the idea of turning into an animal. Now I get to do that whenever I want! So again, I love the 4E incarnation of the class. But I still didn't fully understand how to best play one until Primal Power came out.
The common strategy to optimally play controllers is to focus primarily on status effects at the expense of damage. I did this for months, and was always jealous every time I looked over the Wizard class. The Wizard just controls so much better, and has more feat and item support that caters to this. So yes, I'll admit it: the Druid is an inferior controller than the Wizard and Invoker. But it was not until I tinkered around with a Swarm Druid build that I noticed something else that the Druid has going for it--something that the Wizard and Invoker are lacking. The Swarm Druid makes a superb secondary defender. This inspired me to give my Predator Druid some Claw Gloves (I'd recently purchased Adventurer's Vault 2) and retrain a feat out for Ferocious Tiger Form. I calculated normal at-will DPR (damage per round), then did the same assuming a charge, then assuming combat advantage (CA), and then assuming charging an enemy with combat advantage. Druids can charge very easily, and usually have no problem getting CA either. My calculations revealed that my Druid was well into striker territory with DPR! In striking style, Predator Druids get to play with fun tactics that a Barbarian (charging) or a Rogue (CA) would use. No longer would I underestimate damage (it also helped that Fire Hawk and Swarming Locusts, the two new at-will powers in Primal Power, are both very damaging without sacrificing control)! Thus Druids, like Warlocks (another class commonly called "weak"), sacrifice some power in their primary role to boost the effectiveness of their secondary role.
Controllers in General
At this point I'd like to call attention to the common belief that controllers are the most "expendable" role. This opinion generally annoys me since controllers are my personal favorite role (I like the tactical potential), but I must admit that my bias does cloud my judgement a little. Controllers are great fun to play, but if I'm in an adventuring party I'd usually rather have a leader, defender, or striker on my side. The biggest weakness that controllers exhibit is variation in the tactical potential of encounters. Some encounters present a wide range of tactical opportunities, and sometimes those opportunities will influence the difficulty of the encounter in very major ways. Essentially, when such an opportunity to severely hamper the enemy forces presents itself, and the controller is able to take advantage of it, he or she is hitting the "I win" button. Turning a very difficult encounter into a cakewalk, at its most potent. This is where controllers really shine, and when everyone is grateful to have them along.
Let's get back to reality, though. This isn't the case for most encounters (partially because a controller is limited in how often they can use Daily powers), where your influence on the battle's difficulty is more modest. And then of course there's encounters where few, if any, tactical opportunities exist and the controller is unable to make much of an impact on the battle. This is when people start to grumble about the controller being expendable. Unfortunately, the ratio of tactic-rich to tactic-poor encounters will depend on the DM. New or uninventive DMs are likely to design simple encounters that may not allow the controllers to shine. Note that the controller is the only role that suffers from this bias; a striker's damage output will always bring down the enemies faster, a defender's punishment/ability to soak up damage will always keep the squishier party members safe, and a leader will always be able to patch up/enhance their allies when they inevitably need it. A controller that isn't at least moderately proficient in one of these secondary roles will find themselves contributing less during some encounters.
Versatility and the Druid
Enter the Druid. Compared to a Wizard or Invoker their "I win" buttons may not be quite as potent or easy to use, or they may not have as many of them, but they'll never find themselves unable to contribute, as they always have their strong investment in a secondary role* to fall back on. In fact, "fall back on" is probably the wrong phrase to use because it underplays their ability to fill their secondary role. More accurately, they can fill in as needed, and do so competently enough that they don't feel useless.
Granted, some may argue against my assertion, invoking the "jack of all trades, master of none" argument. This isn't completely without merit, since a Druid will never be the most optimal controller, striker, or defender. However, classes don't exist in a vacuum. On paper, an optimized Barbarian with a bloodclaw weapon is clearly superior to a Predator Druid that's optimized for damage. However, the ability to also contribute significant control with little to no effort is a valuable asset that cannot be easily quantified. Also note that a Druid isn't trying to be a jack of all trades like the infamously underpowered 3rd edition Bard; rather, they focus on just 2 roles, making respectable controllers that are modestly good at either striking or defending.
In addition to being effective at 2 roles, Druids also gain versatility from their ability to fight at range and melee, and to easily switch between the two. This is thanks to that wonderful ability that keeps me loyal to the class, Wild Shape. This also makes Druids unique in that they're the only controller class that is designed to control in melee. So what exactly are the advantages to being in melee for a controller?
- Melee provides the ability to flank. Flanking causes the enemy to grant CA, which is technically a debuff (so you're doing your job by virtue of position alone). More importantly, CA improves the odds that you'll hit with your powers, and often the effect of a power is more important than the damage (think of it this way: any class can do damage, but only controllers can inflict a large number of status effects).
- Access to charging, which grants you a +1 bonus (or more if you want to spend feats on it) to-hit. See above for why this is important. Also, charging into a flank gives you even more bang for your buck. Charging is also essentially free movement, though this is a wash since non-melee controllers attack at a distance. As a Druid, the main reason that charging is attractive to you is because you can use Savage Rend and Grasping Claws while charging. So you can still exert control, while benefitting from any other bonuses that charging confers (usually extra damage).
- Less friendly fire. Just compare Predator's Flurry to the Wizard's Color Spray. Sure, Color Spray has the potential to hit more enemies, but it can also hit your friends. Essentially, with powers like Predator's Flurry the Druid's available targets are dependent on movement, whereas the Wizard's are dependent on the geometry of the blast.
- The ability to make Opportunity Attacks (OA's). These are decent attacks that also have control components (Savage Rend and Grasping Claws). For the Swarm Druid minoring in defender, the ability to slow via an OA greatly increases stickiness (which, in turn, increases effectiveness in the defender role). Note that post Primal Power, Druids can even make OA's at range using Fire Hawk.
- Pinning a ranged enemy against a wall, sarcophagus, or any other form of blocking terrain effectively locks them down. If they shift, they're still adjacent to you. If they make a ranged attack while adjacent to you, they get smacked by you. Alternatively, you can run up to a prone or dazed ranged enemy to similar effect.
In part 2, I will discuss the 3 different Druid builds and their secondary roles.
*Note that this is almost always true for Predator or Swarm Druids, but as I will discuss in part 2, Guardian Druids lack a strong proficiency in their secondary role, making them mechanically inferior.