Game: The Quintessential Druid
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 17th, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 5
Average Score: 5.00
I was looking forward to the Quintessential Druid. I was certain that the book would help address some of the problems I see in having druid characters active in the game. Of primary concern is how to get a druid out and adventuring when she should be looking after her grove. I set about reading the book with a “why would they?” test in mind. If the Quintessential Druid could answer the “why would they?” for adventuring druids, druids getting involved with the trouble of men or isolating themselves out in the wilderness then I would be happy. I had higher hopes still; Mongoose’s track record for remembering that the wilderness is more than woodlands is good. The company has a number of specialised nautical supplements in their product line and these books remember to mention druids.
The Quintessential Druid isn’t a bad book but I found rather disappointing. The book doesn’t take the route of presenting the druids as the spiritual leaders of simple wilderness folks (pagans, in fact) or even as the mystical protectors of nature. Instead the supplement seems to first cast druids as expert hunters who harvest body parts from exotic animals for their own use or profit, then as an intricate political organisation, then as a group of mages who receive their magic through the arcane manipulation of a bunch of shady mortals in the Otherworld, then as people with some affiliation to the fey and back again Otherworldly magic. The Quintessential Druid starts off well enough but then nosedives. Fortunately good ideas, despite the mix of some more silly ideas, manage to pull the book back to the level. From then on in it flickers around on either side of the average mark. You want an example of another silly idea? Druids can wildshape into undead. Remember the “why would they?” test and that this isn’t a review for the Quintessential Necromancer.
Thank god, the Green Man, the big oak tree or whatever for the Collector Series stalwart of Character Concepts. The character concepts in the Quintessential Druid are some of the best I’ve seen. They cover the wide spread of possible druid types as created by D&Ds diablerie of the basic archetype. You have those druids who grew up in the wilds and know nothing else. You have those druids who came from the city. One of the concepts even reprints the Oakheart quarterstaff fighting style so you don’t need to go buy the Quintessential Fighter to use it. You have the wandering (and thus adventuring) druid concept here and it comes with a note or two on why the druid might be roaming around. You have concepts for druids who work alone and who work as part of a wider circle. It looked good.
At a glance the prestige classes are equally good. The Archdruid is there if you want to go with the idea of orders, covens or circles of druids. The Beast Whisper does as you would expect (which is always a good thing in my book) and represents those druids with extra empathy towards animals. The Dreamer is a druid who takes her powers from another world. This otherworld concept makes sense and it should appease some historical estimates on actual druid culture. Mongoose’s Encyclopaedia Divine: Shamans already does an excellent job with this sort of concept and there wasn’t any reason why it couldn’t have been expanded into the bigger Collector series. The name “Dreamer” ties in just as nicely to their Dreaming: the Reverie and this is noted later in the book and expanded on. The prestige classes continue to include a few of the more classic D&D views of the Druid; as the avenging or protecting force of nature but then it also includes the Noble Druid. The Noble Druid prestige class covers those race occasions when the Druid is responsible both for nature and animals but for people as well. The Tree Dancers are those druids responsible for shaping and drawing magic from trees. The Vitiate Maidens (which do include some men) are those druids with a prestigious and intimidating mastery over venom and venomous animals. There are plenty of new special abilities for all of these prestige classes, enough to make the prestige classes feel different. The catch is that out of this long list there isn’t a single 10 level prestige class among them. Pretty much every single one of the listed prestige classes has relatively easy to meet requirements. They therefore can’t seriously count as the sort of prestige class needed to round out your final few levels as you progress towards the magic 20. If the 10 level prestige classes are supposed to be those that represent life-time commitment and study then they should have been ideal for the druid.
More serious shakes start to appear in the Tricks of the Trade chapter. The introductory section on Druid Lifestyles concludes with rules on how the druids can make money by having virtually no living costs out in the wild and then killing more prey than they need and selling it for profit in the local market. This fails the “why would they?” test. There’s a short note on tracking druids with trackless step, thankfully you can’t just get some ranger to do it. To track a druid with trackless step you need to slip partly into the otherworld, have the track feat and then do well enough on the wilderness lore roll. I just about buy that – it’s easy enough to go without if you don’t want to use the otherworld. It’s the Bounty of Nature and Spoils of the Hunt sections that manage to present the druids as expert hunters of exotic animals and as experts in ghoulish process of working out which body parts might be good for magical items. I see where these two sections wanted to go and the idea does have merit; it’s just not done particularly well.
There was enough in the Wild Clothing section to reassure me that the book might get back on track. It doesn’t start wonderfully, suggesting that it’s impossible to extract metal without harming the environment and it’s this reason why druids don’t wear metal armour. Cobblers. You can shift gold out of riverbeds without damaging nature any more than killing a horse and tanning its hide would. I know you don’t make armour out of gold. Who cares? It’s just a game rule. Why do Rangers get spells? Who cares? Just don’t start an attempt of explanation unless it’s going to be a good one. The rest of the Wild Clothing section makes up for any drama caused by the opening assertion. Here you’ll find a description of how a druid will strive to prove himself worthy too a spirit animal before killing (and in this case – wearing) its flesh equivalent. A druid who wants to hunt a stag would have to appease and prove his worth to the stag spirit. This is a ritual. This is just what I wanted in my Quintessential Druid book. Unfortunately, it’s a rare glimpse of perfection. If you want to take the Wild Clothing rules through to a high fantasy conclusion then by finishing the required rituals and stitching together a suitable set of animals hides the Wild Clothing can grant an extra use of Wild Shape.
Ogham – the Language of the Druids, is another section in the Tricks of the Trade chapter that showed promise. Ogham is the name given to the strange spirals carved into standing stones in Celtic Britain. Or it could be. But while the academics debate it seems to make for an excellent choice as the secret druid language in our fantasy roleplay.
There are a few pages of Druid Feats. Many fall into the thrice-cursed category of “Improved-Advanced-Extended-Enhanced” but they all pass the “why would they?” test. Let’s call that a score draw.
I think the Tools of the Trade chapter and its list of warm clothes and interesting armour will be of great assistance to Rangers. When I finished the book for the first time I came back to re-read the rules for Attuned Foci. According to this section druids believe there is magic in all living creatures. The foci are a way to get at that. This becomes a short list of magic items – but they thankfully don’t mention the otherworld or Archanix once.
Herbal Recipes make sense. Druids use herbs. I get that. I struggled a bit with the idea of Potion Gardens though. I think the need to balance game mechanics corrupted what might have been a good idea. Rather than locking herself a way in a tower with vials of bubbling liquid in order to brew a potion a druid can grow a garden. I started to pull faces when it was suggested that the garden needs constant attention from the druid or become wild, overgrown and pretty much useless. What’s this? Dratted nature is getting in the way of the druid’s garden? A good dose of week killer and a stout fence will keep the rabbits away. Hmm. We start to loose the concept of “balance and oneness with nature” when the druid has to fight to keep the garden growing in the way she wants and not the way nature wants. We need rules to keep the druid busy though, otherwise they could skip around the realm away on adventures and leave these sources of magical potions to grow themselves and that wouldn’t be fair.
I do like the Scroll Flower idea. If you fancy being able to provide game mechanics wherein a druid can hold up a handful of seeds or rare plant in order to produce a spell effect then this is how you can do it. Flowers simply take time to grow, scrolls take time to write, it seems fair. If you leave the flower then it might mature or might be eaten by Bambi. You take the risk.
My initial view of Spell-Like Investitures as a process by which druids can give animals spell-like abilities based on their own spell list was wrong. I had in mind druids granting the pregnant she-wolf the power of Barkskin or something similar so she would be more likely to survive any encounter with poachers in the woods. But no, this isn’t the reason given for the development of the technique (although, to be fair, it could still be used in this way). The official reason given for the introduction of Spell-Like Investitures is so that druids don’t have to carry scrolls and potions in the wilderness. Read on to the Surviving the Process section, look at the chances of the animal coming out unscathed and wheel in the now infamous “why would they?” test and the concept is no longer looking so rosy. It seems that it’s easier for druids to draw power from things living than it is to return it. The Living Items rule seems to be an extension of this – except it’s now possible to try and breed a whole race of wolves with the Barkskin power passing on through their bloodline. The druid could make the wolf sterile… but why would they?
In the Life of the Druid chapter we’re given the full complexities of the druid organisation. Forget the idea of finding a quite spot and attuning yourself to the environment or acting as the village Wisdom. We’re thrown fully into the world of organised Circles of druids, with elders and aspirants. There’s even a set of traditions that includes “The Tradition of Trails” where druids fight each other to prove their worth to the Archdruids and expand their skills. This must be some hang-up from some awful 2nd Edition book I don’t have. I didn’t like the idea of druids advancing in status by beating others into a bloody pulp in Neverwinter Nights and I don’t like it here. Archdruids are identified with the aid of magically changing grand signet rings. Mage Guilds would wish they had it so good.
I just can’t stomach the Archanix. That’s the name given to the mysterious group of mortals that sit somewhere deep inside the Otherworld and spin power into druid spells. Druids don’t get their power from nature; they get it from these guys. Kill off the Archanix and druids around the Planes are royally screwed. In the bad way. I think this was an attempt to explain why druids have a spell list at all – given that there isn’t a specific deity granting a select few spells. Elsewhere in the book there’s a table of DC values for druids trying to weave a whole range of different spells. I do like the idea that druids have a set of spells that they find particularly easy to cast and this is why druids cast similar spells but that given enough time a powerful and wise druid could put something else together. It’s just not worth the blight that in the Archanix.
I can nearly put up with the idea of an age-old Grand Druid who bimbles around the planes – but not the three mysterious Fate figures who follow him. Between the Fates and the Archanix all of druid-kind might be unknowing suckers to some sly demon or trickster god!
There’s half a page on the Equinox and Solstice. There’s a small paragraph for Samhain.
I think the Otherworld is a good idea. It just needs to be used right. There’s a chapter detailing the planar rules of the Otherworld and I think it’ll keep the high-fantasy and planar travelling D&D’ers happy. Spirit Guides are another good idea; they’re something that could have been made more of in the Shaman book and I was hoping the Quintessential Druid would pick up the slack. It doesn’t really. It picks up the slack and then doesn’t do anything with it. Spirit Guides just appear and don’t seem to do much. I’m not even sure if they can see what’s going on in the Otherworld. Here was a great chance to associate the Druid’s animal companion (why they have one at all) with the source of druid magic – and it’s not taken. There is a small section that links things together if you do own Mongoose’s Fey Magic. In a good book that sort of section is a welcome extra.
There are quite a few new spells in the Druid Magic chapter. It’s also here you’ll find the table of difficulties for druids trying to cast magic outside their default remit.
The Paths of the Shapeshifter has some good stuff in it and some poor stuff too. Breaking up the Wild Shape into a tree with specific powers and requirements works well for me. The druid can learn Animal Wild Shape (Basic) at level 5, and then Beast Wild Shape (Basic) at level 8 if he has Animal Wild Shape. There are other basic shapes; vermin or plant for example. There are also advanced powers; like a swarm form, dire form, colossal, large, diminutive, etc, forms too. Dragon Wild Shape doesn’t make sense to me. Why dragons? Why not gnolls, unicorns or gibbering mouthers? I certainly don’t get the undead wild form. The druid’s changing more than his shape there, he’s changing his very pattern, suddenly healing magic harms him and he’s willing become an aberration to everything he stands for. Surely this fails the “why would they?” test. The rules for prolonged, partial and even combination transformations do much better with me.
There are rules for creating sacred groves. Its all to do with anchoring down a nexus of power to a specific point. You can use a heavy rock or a tall tree as an anchor. It’s the presence of this anchored nexus that creates the grove and gives the area that something special. It can transform the tree into something greater than an ordinary tree. This means that it’s not the presence of a scared and powerful oak tree that causes a grove, it’s the grove that causes the tree. Perhaps this is why there are no “groves” in the sea, the desert, swamps, steppes, artic or mountains – there’s nothing to anchor the nexus to! I think there should be ocean druids and ocean groves though. The Quintessential Druid goes on to look at the special powers the grove might have, the people who look after the grove and the powers that they might have. It’s all good and well but the book’s nearly finished and my primary hope that I’d have some more believable reasons why druids go adventuring or why non-druid characters could be involved in protecting the grove hasn’t really been answered. There’s Circle Magic instead. This is a set of rules that tries to cover those extra special magical abilities druids can hope to call on for special occasions. There’s nearly as many spells for this than are added to the druid’s spell list in the Druid Magic chapter.
I read the designer’s notes first. They gave me hope. I just don’t think the author has been as successful as he had hoped but the right ideas did seem to be there. The class still seems to be a confused woodland spell-slinger. Rather than being divine spell users they seem to be arcane casters now, using the formula of the Archanix. Doesn’t “Archanix” sound arcane? The Quintessential Druid is a disappointment but it’s not a failure. There are useful bits in it and there are some nice ideas. Perhaps the spread of ideas will ensure that there’s a little for everyone. Perhaps I had my hopes set too high. If someone offers to swap your their copy of Masters of the Wild for your copy of the Quintessential Druid then punch the s.o.b. in the face and keep the Quintessential Druid – it’s so much better than that.