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DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Wild Shape

Disclaimer

I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

Introduction

Wild shape is an exciting and versatile Druid ability which a lot of people want to use, but which is easy to use badly. Understanding Wild Shape mostly boils down to understanding what form to take; which forms work, which forms work in specific situations, and which forms just never work.

Remember that you can only Wild Shape twice per short rest, and the DMG's expectation of a normal adventuring day is 6-8 encounters per day with 2 short rests (See DMG Page 84: "The Adventuring Day"), so a single use of Wild Shape needs to be able to last at least an entire fight on average. You can heal yourself as a bonus action by burning spell slots, which helps, but it's very expensive compared to what you can get from casting a spell with that slot.

Maximum Wild Shape CR by Circle and Level
Level Circle of the Moon Other Circle
1 - -
2 1 1/4
3 1 1/4
4 1 1/2
5 1 1/2
6 2 1/2
7 2 1/2
8 2 1
9 3 1
10 3 1
11 3 1
12 4 1
13 4 1
14 4 1
15 5 1
16 5 1
17 5 1
18 6 1
19 6 1
20 6 1

Animal Forms by CR

Note: Remember that Druids (including Moon Druids) can't take forms with a swim speed until level 4, and can't take forms with a fly speed until level 8, so many forms which are fantastic for their CR will be rated poorly because by the time you get them they need to compete with considerably more powerful forms.

CR 0

At CR 0 you're not looking for a combat form. CR 0 includes creatures which aren't dangerous, or are only dangerous in great numbers (I.E. anything with Pack Tactics). Instead, look here for forms you want to use for scouting and infiltration.

Flight is typically your best bet for scouting, which makes the Owl the best option. Underwater, the Octopus is your best bet. If you need to climb instead of fly for some reason, Spider is a good choice. If you need to get around unnoticed in a city, Cat or Rat are both good options in case you're spotted.

CR 1/8

This CR is a difficult middle-ground, mostly populated by larger version of CR 0 options. CR 0 has better scouting options because smaller creatures can more easily access small areas, and all Druids have access to higher CRs to get better combat forms.

Flying Snake is really the only useful option here because it can do so much with a single form.

CR 1/4

Everyone but Moon Druids will start with this CR as their best option from levels 2 and 3. Circle of the Moon Druids will skip this CR entirely because they have access to considerably better options.

Against single enemies, go for Giant Frog if they're small or smaller, or Constrictor Snake if they're not. Against groups, consider Giant Owl or Wolf.

CR 1/2

Everyone but Moon Druids will use this CR from levels 4 through 7, while Circle of the Moon Druids will skip this CR and go stright to CR 1. By level 4 you also have access to forms with swim speeds, so Land Druids can use great options like the Crocodile and Reef Shark.

For single enemies, use the Crocodile. For multiple enemies, use the Ape or the Giant Wasp. If you need to fly, you might consider sticking with the Giant Owl due to its Flyby ability.

CR 1

CR 1 is the max for non-Moon Druids, but by the time you reach this point, it will be hard to use these as combat forms. Enemies will have higher ACs than you can hit reliably without advantage, and will hit you too easily and do too much damage to make Wild Shape an option that you can rely on constantly. Fortunately, Land Druids get this CR at level 8 when flying forms open up, so the Giant Vulture is the perfect answer to these problems.

Moon Druids start at this CR, so remember that swimming and flying forms won't be immediately available, but you will hit level 4 before you get access to CR 2.

Against single enemies, the Giant Toad can quickly remove anything of medium size or smaller. For other fights, the Giant Vulture does great damage, and the Dire Wolf has a nice knockdown effect. The Giant Spider's web is a fun utility, especially against big enemies with low AC. Underwater, the Giant Octopus is your only option, but it's also pretty good.

CR 2

CR 2 is where Wild Shape forms start to really improve in damage output, which lines up with martial characters like Fighters getting Extra Attack.

Flying forms don't open up until level 8, but you'll still be on CR 2 at that point, so if you need to fly, Giant Vulture is still your best bet. Giant Elk is your go-to damage form, and Giant Constrictor Snake is your single-target striker form. Underwater the Giant Octopus is still solid.

CR 3

Ankylosaurus serves as a Defender, while Giant Scorpion is great for holding stuff in place and murdering it.

CR 4

CR 4 is very disappointing.

CR 5

Giant Crocodile is your best bet most of the time, but Giant Shark is pretty great underwater.

CR 6

Look at all of these options.

Elemental Forms

Moon Druids get the ability to Wild Shape into elementals. All of the Elementals in the Monster Manual are CR 5, making them the highest-CR options available to Druid until level 18. However, this option consumes both of your Wild Shapes uses, which can make it a risky choice if you're not planning to rest soon.

Unarmored Defense and Wild Shape

A level of Barbarian or Monk to pick up Unarmored Defense goes a long way for Moon Druids because it applies while Wild Shaped, according to Mike Mearls. However, remember that you use the Unarmored Defense calculation in place of your animal form's default calculation, so your form's "natural armor" won't stack (again according to Sage Advice).

Personally I like the Monk's Unarmored Defense better for a single-level dip because it works on your 20 Wisdom (a consistent +5 to AC) instead of whatever Constitution score your Wild Shape form has, which will range anywhere from 10 to 20, but typically hangs around 15-16. If you plan a single level dip, go for Monk. If you're willing to go for 2-3 levels, there's a lot to be said for Barbarian.

Example forms with Unarmored Defense
AC by Source
Form CR Base Brb Mnk
Owl 0 11 11 11+wis
Flying Snake 1/8 14 14 14+wis
Constrictor Snake 1/4 12 13 12+wis
Giant Frog 1/2 11 11 11+wis
Ape 1/2 12 14 12+wis
Giant Wasp 1/2 12 12 12+wis
Reef Shark 1/2 12 12 11+wis
Dire Wolf 1 14 14 12+wis
Giant Octopus 1 11 12 11+wis
Giant Vulture 1 10 12 10+wis
Giant Constrictor Snake 2 12 13 12+wis
Giant Elk 2 14 15 13+wis
Ankylosaurus 3 13 14 11+wis
Giant Scorpion 3 15 13 11+wis
Elephant 4 12 12 9+wis
Giant Crocodile 5 14 12 9+wis
Giant Shark 5 13 15 10+wis
Mammoth 6 13 14 9+wis

As you can see, the Monk's version of Unarmored Defense will exceed the Barbarian's in almost every case with as little as 16 Wisdom. With 20, it matches or exceeds every AC on the table. However, Barkskin sets your AC to a minimum of 16, which will exceed the AC of almost every form on the table, even with 20 Wisdom.