Monday, July 3, 2023

3E OdditE: Urban Druid (Dragon Compendium, 2005)

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This series won't have very many class variants in it. There were just so many, and most of them change very little about their base classes. Which is perfectly fine for narrowing down the type of character you want, but it's not so much to write about unless I wanted to compile a list of them. Which I don't.

The Urban Druid is one big exception to that rule.

I only recently looked at this class for the first time precisely because of all the other variants and ACFs floating around out there. For the longest time I automatically assumed that the Urban Druid was just another one of those minor tweaks from Unearthed Arcana like the Whirling Frenzy Barbarian or the Thug Fighter- one or two modified class abilities to fit a slightly different take on things.

But when I stumbled across it while browsing dndtools, I learned that I was very wrong. The Urban Druid by James Jacobs is from Dragon #317 (later reprinted in Dragon Compendium) rather than UA, first of all. Second, instead of being a normal variant it's a complete overhaul of the Druid class that alters just about every single class feature in service of its new theme.

And it does that while still being nifty!

The Urban Druid

I'm surprised that Paizo link still works.

The Urban Druid is divorced from other druids despite sharing a fundamental principle with them. Whereas other druids value natural life, often favoring different manifestations of it like forests or oceans or what have you, urban druids see each city as not only a valid environment alongside all others, but as a single living organism unto itself. Civilization is opposed to nature, sure, but in the same way two neighboring biomes are opposed. A desert can swallow up grassland or a forest can dry up and expand over a bog, but one isn't inherently an enemy to the other.

The idealistic urban druid feels the same way about the city's place in nature. They may be opposed, but they need not be in constant conflict with one another. These manifestations of civilization deserve the same sort of guardianship as a grove of trees might receive, and that is where the urban druid comes in.

The mechanical differences are immediately apparent, starting with the equipment and skill list.

Much like a rogue, urban druids can equip rapiers, saps, crossbows, and short swords alongside druidic mainstays like the club and quarterstaff. They favor discreet weapons that don't draw attention or cause a panic in crowded city streets that may or may not have open carry laws.

They are limited to padded, leather, and studded leather armor, though notably they do not have a religious or supernatural limit on what kinds of material their weapons and armor are made from. Thus an urban druid can wear any suit of armor whose Armor Check penalty can be brought down to -0, even if the text says they should only have armor under  +4 bonus as a possibility (which is the first time I've ever seen gear proficiency gated expressly by number bonuses). Rock that mithral chain shirt, you miracle-hobo.

Urban druids gain a slew of socials skills to add to this faint whiff of rogue, like bluff, gather information, knowledge ( local), perform, and sense motive. They also lose their more nature-oriented skills like animal handling, knowledge (nature), etc. Personally I find the loss of spot and listen greatly lamentable, but the change was intended to make the urban druid more of a face character, and it accomplishes that- especially considering how important Charisma is to the urban druid.

Urban druids us Charisma as their casting stat instead of Wisdom. They get a whole new spell list that heavily features utility, crowd control, a little bit of charm and enchantment, and interacting with objects and constructs in a variety of ways. The list includes a few new spells, like Susurrus of the City, which allows you to ask questions of an empty building like it's a genius loci. That's what the big ol' brick face up at the top of the post represents.

The spell list also gets Repair Damage at every level, which was brand-new at the time of Urban Druid's original publication. Fortunately, they don't replace Cure Wounds spells. Urban Druids can also cast Repair spells spontaneously, replacing the base druid's Summon Nature's Ally ability. It's less powerful by far, but there are only so many places in a city you could pull a rhinoceros out of. Spontaneous Repair spells could be terrific if you and/or the party are Warforged, though.

The other thing thematically separating Urban Druids' magic from their more natural counterparts is where they receive their spells from. Normal druids receive their magic from nature, which bestows it upon them much the same way deities give clerics their spells. Urban Druids, meanwhile, gain their power by tapping into the spirit of a city. This living creature of streets and rooftops is a gestalt of all its citizens' hopes, fears, and dreams; a divinity of mortals' own collaborative creation that might not be conscious, but certainly isn't lacking in purpose.

I want so much more content delving into this concept. It's like an amped-up version of Shivers from Disco Elysium, or if the city of Revachol herself was a distant goddess.

From here, Urban Druid (UD from now on) class abilities can be divided into two categories; tweaks to base druid abilities, and full replacements for them. In the first camp we have City Sense, Disease ImmunityFavored CityUrban Companion, and Urban Shape.

City Sense is a flat +2 bonus to gather information and knowledge (local) checks. I've talked already in this series about how I hate class abilities that barely amount to a single newbie trap feat. It's not very exciting or useful. But it replaces the similarly uninspiring Nature Sense of the base druid, so it is what it is. Moving on.

Disease Immunity replaces Venom Immunity, because you're admittedly far more likely to contract a respiratory or waterborne disease in a populous, vaguely medieval city than you are to get bitten by a snake or huff exotic flower pollen. No notes.

Crowd Walk is the Woodland Stride of the concrete jungle (brick jungle? half-timbered jungle with a fading white plaster infill?). Except instead of not being slowed down by difficult terrain, the UD gets a +4 bonus to whatever check is involved when they're trying to pass through a space occupied by a hostile creature. It's basically the Mobility feat, except it extends to other things like making an overrun or tumble check. Better than City Sense, at least?

Favored City is exactly what it sounds like. It replaces and progresses similar to the druid and ranger's Favored Terrain, granting you a bonus in up to 6 cities of at least Small Town size or larger (according to the DMG). Favored City grants the UD a sacred bonus to bluff, diplomacy, gather information, and intimidate, making them even better at facing. It also gives them a decent +2 to Will saves besides.

Much like favored terrain, favored city can be handy or functionally useless depending on where you go in your campaign. A game that takes place entirely within a major city like Sharn or, gods forbid, Neverwinter, will see favored city activated just about all the time. Games where you're only in a city in between adventures make it more of an insult. I do appreciate that the ability extends across an entire city instead of just areas or neighborhoods, as I've seen with urban class features in other games. Pathfinder 1E, I think?

Oh, and did I mention that the skill bonus from favored city is keyed off of the UD's Wisdom modifier? The ability score they just dropped as the all-important casting stat in favor of Charisma? It wouldn't be 3E without a little bit of Multiple Attribute Dependence, I suppose.

Urban Companion is a modified Animal Companion that advances at the same rate, except the list of available companions is very different. They get the standard dog, pony, and snake options at 1st level, but no wolf, camel, aquatic options, etc. Instead they can pick things like centipedes, spiders, and rats. At higher levels instead of accessing an increasingly insane list of dire animals like dinosaurs and elephants, they get an increasingly insane list of giant vermin, animated objects, and just straight-up robots like hammerers or pulverizers. They can also get an otyugh at 7th level, which opens up potential for the municipal waste disposal druid of your dreams.

Like the change to spontaneous casting, the urban companion list is another flavorful downgrade. The list isn't bad by any means, and you can probably get pretty creative with animated objects. But the base druid wins out thanks to outside support: years of Monster Manuals and other splatbooks added to the list of animal companions and animal forms they can choose from. But as a class variant limited to a single magazine article, the UD gets no such love.

Speaking of animal forms, Urban Shape is quite something. Like urban companion, the animal options provided are extremely limited. You also do not gain plant or elemental forms at higher levels. Instead, to start off you can turn into any animal or vermin from the urban companion list, or any humanoid.

Now humanoids tend not to have the most powerful abilities baked into their species, nor would you be able to use them while urban shaped if they were supernatural or spell-like in nature. But this still allows you to turn into any humanoid you're familiar with. And with a +10 to Disguise checks from this being a modification of the Alternate Form ability, you can even impersonate individual people with this ability. You basically turn into a doppelganger for a few hours a day with urban shape. The synergy between that and an urban campaign with a Charisma-focused kit (not to mention the fact that you're still a full-caster) is spectacular, and I'm curious what kind of cheese you can age with this.

At higher levels, urban shape allows the UD to turn into an ordinary object (in case you've ever wanted to do a stakeout as a fencepost) or an animated object (in case you want to end said stakeout by staking somebody). Or, hell, just become the mimic house from that one internet copy+pasta. Again, the combat power level is diminished compared to base druid, but the flavor is kept to nicely.

And, honestly, it's still 2/3rds of a CoDZilla so the power drop isn't that much to worry about.

As I mentioned, the other group of UD class abilities are entirely new, rather than being modifications of existing stuff. They are Alley Fighting, and Information Network.

Alley Fighting is weird. It would fit way better on an Urban Fighter if such a variant existed. The UD gets a +1 to attack rolls in confined spaces, and ignores cover from attacking around a corner in melee. 

That's it. The bonus doesn't even scale with level.

The ability to ignore cover might be good if you maneuver and do a lot of ambushing, which is something the UD can pull off decently well in a city. It's still such a weird ability, even more niche than the rest of the variant.

Information Network on the other hand, is the culmination of the UD as a surreptitious guardian of the city with eyes and ears everywhere. The UD gains a network of informants who cut gather information checks from a full day down to a mere half-hour. Additionally, just about every event of interest that happens in one of their chosen cities will come to their attention within a matter of hours. This is the kind of kingpin spy network that rogues would have gotten, had 3rd edition kept the convention of every class founding some kind of stronghold at ~10th level. There's so much roleplay potential here, and I love it.

The Urban Druid was a very enjoyable discovery for me. It's a fun, different take on very familiar old mechanics, and it makes the idea of playing a game set entirely in a city slightly less anxiety-inducing to me, which I assure you is high praise.

I would have liked it if it the lore of the class supported them being part of the larger culture of druids, perhaps with a nod toward the idea of living in harmony with nature, but coming from the other direction than what we usually associate druids with. Because as it stands, urban druids feel weirdly divorced from their namesakes, as well as all other nature-themed classes, to the point that maybe it would have made more sense to call them something else and then in the description say in passing that they are "like the druids of the city" or something.

I dunno. I've probably been binge-watching too many urbanism videos on YouTube again. Now I want a base druid and an urban druid working together to create a nice green city with extensive parks, sustainable energy sources, and mixed-use zoning. Throw in a plotting NIMBY cult and you've got yourself an adventure.

Quick aside: I started this post by saying I wouldn't talk a lot about alternate class features, and I'm afraid I was kind of lying.

In researching the urban druid for this post, I came across an ACL from Cityscape, which is an invaluable resource (or maybe a terrible burden of knowledge) when you're trying to trudge through the crunchiness of an urban campaign in 3.5E. This ACL is Voice of the City, available to druids, rangers, and spirit shamans. It drops Wild Empathy in favor of the ability to communicate ideas to creatures whom you don't share a language with, and honestly I wish I could trade City Sense or Alley Fighting out for it. It fits the urban druid so well, even if its speak language skill is redundant with the variant's skill list.

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