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DnD 5e - Druid Subclass Breakdown

Last Updated: November 20th, 2020

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Disclaimer

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

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials or released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

Introduction

While the core of the Druid's capabilities remains functional regardless of your Druid Circle, your choice of circle adds a set of unique capabilities to complement the Druid's core class features.

Druid Subclasses - Druid Circle

Circle of DreamsXGtE

Circle of Dreams offers a few utility options and some healing, but most of the options are lackluster or highly situational.

  1. Balm of the Summer Court: A pool of healing which you can use as a bonus action. It's largely redundant with Healing Word, but at the very least this saves you a prepared spell.
  2. Hearth of Moonlight and Shadow: Situational, and there are tons of other options available that solve the same issues better. For example, Rope Trick will allow the party to climb into an extradimensional space with an invisible entrance. Still, if you don't have a wizard in the party this is nice to have while camping in dangerous places like dungeons.
  3. Hidden Paths: Excellent range, it works as a Bonus Action, and you get a decent number of uses per day. It's especially nice because Misty Step isn't available to druids.
  4. Walker in Dreams: Dream and Teleportation Circle aren't on the Druid spell list, but Scry is. The unique version of Teleportation Circle is a nice way to get yourself and your party back to a known safe point, but generally you can do that by other means like walking.

Circle of StarsTCoE

Circle of Stars is very powerful, adding a lot of both both damage output and healing, as well as a support mechanic from Cosmic Omen. Starry Form is the class's signature mechanic, serving as a sort of combat overdrive mode similar to Circle of Spore's Symbiotic Entity or the Barbarian's Rage. Outside of this form you're mostly reduced to cure druid features, but at that point you're still sitting on a full spellcasting arsenal so you're not struggling by any means.

Despite adding a mildly stressful tactical decision (do I use Starry Form now? What constellation do I use?), Circle of the Stars is very approachable and I think it's a great option for new players. It's not quite as simple as Circle of the Land since it does add some new mechanics, but it's considerably more effective so it's a great option for newer players in a party of veterans. Despite being reasonably simple to play, this is also a great subclass for veteran players, especially if you've passed over the Druid previously because they looked underhwelming compared to other spellcasters.

I don't think Circle of Stars going to be a balance problem since the druid is both difficult to play and arguably the weakest spellcasting class, but if a Circle of Stars Druid is proving to be a problem at your table there are some easy adjustments that you can make to the class to balance them. You might choose to use some or all of these changes, but I'm not totally certain that they're necessary. Try the subclass, try some of these changes, and email me to let me know how it works out for your table.

  • Starry Form: Reduce the dice for Archer/Chalice from d8 to d6 or even d4. That's a pretty minor numerical change, but sometimes that's all that you need.
  • Twinkling Constellations: Changing constellationsrequires a Bonus Action. This prevents firing the attack Archer or using Chalice+Healing Word on the same turn in which you change constellations.
  • Full of Stars: Either change it to damage from nonmagical attacks or replace it with a pool of temporary hit points.
  1. Star Map: There are at total of four benefits buried in this feature, and they're all fantastic.
    • Star Map Focus: While it's not mechanically impactful, this is a great bit of flavor. I've hoped for more unique spellcasting focuses for years and this is the first time we've gotten one (the common magic item focuses in Xanathar's barely count since they're still generic focues with added stuff). I also love the idea of a druid running around with a big heavy stone slap or a delicate collection of glass disks, especially since even a tiny amount of damage to either would jeopardize years of delicate work.
    • Guidance: The best support cantrip, and you get it for free so you can enjoy other cantrips without feeling like Guidance is a cantrip tax because it's too good to skip.
    • Guiding Bolt: Very solid at low levels both as a support option and for damage output, and radiant damage is normally a rarity for the Druid.
    • Free Guiding Bolts: Not only can you cast Guiding Bolt using your spell slots, you get to cast it for free a number of times per day equal to your Proficiency Bonus. This is done as a 1st-level spell, but 4d6 damage and Advantage on the next attack against that creature is better than any damage cantrip, even at 17th level. (Eldritch Blast+Agonizing Blast don't count.)
  2. Starry Form: Turning Wild Shape into a buff rather than a utility option was first done in Circle of Spores, and it's just as cool on Circle of Stars. Starry Form os Arguably even cooler because instead of locking into a combat mode, Starry Form has an attack mode, a healing mode, and a utility/casting mode. Much like Circle of the Moon and Circle of Spores, expect to use Starry Form in any noteworthy combat, but remember that you only get two uses per short rest so you'll still need to be functional without it sometimes.

    Choosing which constellation to use is one of the most important tactical decisions that you can make in an encounter. If you're in close quarters and need to keep your spells going, go for Dragon. If your party is short on hit points going into the encounter, or if there's some kind of hit point attrition issue (enemy has big AOE damage, or you're fighting in a burning building), go for chalice. Otherwise, go for archer and pump out damage as fast as you can. This tactical decision goes away at level 10 when you get Twinkling Constellations, but until then this will be among the hardest and most impactful choices that you make in a fight.

    • Archer: 1d8+Wis radiant damage as a Bonus Action. It's a spell attack so the attack uses your Wisdom modifier and doesn't benefit from things like the Sharpshooter feat. This is a great offensive option, and the fact that it doesn't stop you from casting a spell on the same turn is just spectacular. This is likely your go-to option in combat because it's going to be useful in every combat on every turn at any level. The damage improves at level 10, but honestly if it didn't this would still be great.
    • Chalice: More then doubles the the total amount healed by Healing Word, and you can target a creature not targeted by your spell so you can heal two creatures at once. However, this also encourage healing in combat which you should try very hard to avoid doing. The best use case for this is to use it right before a Short Rest if you have a Wild Shape usage left over. The healing improves at level 10, but honestly if it didn't this would still be great.
    • Dragon: Druid have a lot of Concentration spells, so guaranteeing a minimum roll of 10 on those checks is really helpful. Guaranteeing a minimum roll of 10 on Intelligence and Wisdom checks allows you to use this outside of combat, which is a great utility option if you have knowledge skills like Arcana or Nature. At level 10, this adds a 20-foot fly speed.
  3. Cosmic Omen: Tactically similar to the Bard's Bardic Inspiration and Cuttings Words features. You won't be able to use this as often as a bard can use Bardic Inspiration, but 3 to 6 times per day is still extremely impactful, especially since you can use this as a Reaction. The Weal/Woe options are roughly equivalent, so when you roll to see which one you get you're essentially deciding if you get to use this as offensively (weal) or defensively (woe) that day.
  4. Twinkling Constellation: More damage from Archer, more healing from Chalice, and flight from Dragon (even at just 20 ft. speed) are both big improvements. The ability to change your constellation each turn without spending an action means that the difficult tactical decision which you normally make when you activate Starry Form totally goes away making your life much easier. Have an ally down? Switch to chalice and heal them. Need to maintain a Concentration spell? Turn on dragon, fly out of reach and do your thing. The rest of the time? Archer.
  5. Full of Stars: A bit late, and strange on a subclass that's so clearly intended to fill a back-line role, but consider that the Druid has notoriously poor AC and just d8 hit points this is a fantastic improvement to your durability.

Circle of WildfireTCoE

The first druid subclass to feature a built-in pet, and rather than a Beastmaster-style animal companion, the Druid gets spirit made of fire. Not what I was expecting, but it's pretty great. The subclass splits its focus between fire-based blasting, healing, and using the Wildfire Spirit as a combat pet. Between those three, you'll be very busy any time that combat breaks out.

Unfortunately, Circle of Wildfire depends almost exclusively on fire damage, which is a problem because fire resistance and immunity are among the most common resistances in the game. This has been a persistent issue for the Druid dating back to at least 3rd edition, and Circle of Wildfire isn't doing anything to correct it. Take the Elemental Adept feat to help your own spells (your Wildfire Spirit doesn't benefit from the feat) or you will face severe and persisten problems throughout your character's career. If immunity ever comes up, make sure that you have adequate spell options for dealing other damage types.

You might also consider the Elemental Bane spell. It suppresses resistance to the type of damage which you select, and with so many reliable ways to deal fire damage it will be reliable boost to your damage output. However, it's on a Constitution save and those tend to be high, so it won't be as reliable as Elemental Adept.

Beyond the resistance/immunity, Circle of Wildfire is a lot of fun. With staple damage and healing options built in, you have a lot of freedom to explore other parts of the Druid's spell list. The great balance between damage and healing makes this a great subclass for small parties or for parties who don't have a big blaster caster like a sorcerer, wizard, or warlock but also need more healing than most druids can provide.

I do wish that they got Fireball, but I'm still happy with the new spells which Circle of Wildfire gets.

  1. Circle of Wildfire Spells: A nice balance between healing and damage options, the spell list adds numerous fire damage spells from the sorcerer and wizard spell lists.
    • 2nd Level: Staple options for both damage and healing.
    • 3rd Level: More staple damage options.
    • 5th Level: Both options are technically situational, but Revivify is such a crucial option that it's essentially a tax on any class which has access to it. Giving it to you without spending one of your slots to prepare it is really helpful.
    • 7th Level: Two situational defensive buffs.
    • 9th Level: You don't get fireball, but Flame Strike is almost as good.
  2. Summon Wildfire Spirit: A powerful combat summon to College of Creation's Dancing Item, the Wildfire Spirit is a flying Striker. At just 10 Strength and small size it's not strong enough to carry anything of significant weight, so its function is almost purely combative. The 30 ft. fly speed allows it to remain safely out of melee combat, which is good since it has a small pool of hit points and just 13 AC. The 1-hour duration and 2 Wild Shape uses per Short Rest will keep your spirit around for a big chunk of the day, but if you're on your second use be cautious about your spirit's hit points, and if your spirit goes down try to get a Short Rest as quickly as possible.

    The Wildfire Spirit also has a short-range teleportation option which leaves a small fire damage AOE in its wake. Even though the 15-foot teleportation range is very small, it's enough to get an ally out of a grapple and out of melee reach, as well as to get the party through many barriers like portcullises, doors, and windows which would normally block passage but you can still see past.

    The Wildfire Spirit has two crucial limitations. First, and most obvious, is fire damage. Fire resistance and immunity are common, and Elemental Adept doesn't help your Wildfire Spirit's fire damage. Second, it can only attack targets which you can see and teleport to places that you can see. If you're blind or just can't make line of sight, your spirit is mostly useless.

  3. Enhanced Bond: The bonus to damage and healing is fantastic on its own, applying not just to cantrips but also to your leveled spells. 1d8 damage/healing doesn't sound like a lot, but that's equivalent to adding a spell level for many spells like Burning Hands and Cure Wounds. Just remember that your spirit needs to be summoned, so if you're out of Wild Shape uses and your spirit is down, consider a Short Rest as soon as possible.

    The second portion of this feature allows you to originate spells from your spirit instead of from yourself. Druids are notoriously frail (medium armor, no metal, d8 hit dice), so allowing you to cast short-range spells like Burning Hands while remaining at a safe distance is a huge benefit.

  4. Cauterizing Flames: 2d10+Wisdom is a decent amount of healing or damage, especially as a Reaction. Provided that there are multiple foes in an encounter, picking off the weak ones and strategically applying this healing or dragging enemies through a spectral flame to damage them can have a significant impact. However, to make that work your party will need mechanisms to push, pull, drag, or otherwise reposition your enemies.

    Limiting this to your Reaction prevents you and your allies from running through a series of these spectral flames in one turn to rapidly heal, and limiting the whole effect to small or larger creatures prevents shenanigans like murdering a bag of rats and rolling your party through the spectral flames to produce bottomless healing. WotC really nailed the limitations on this one, so your go-to abuse cases don't apply. However, if you walk into a room full of goblins or kobolds, it starts to look like a room full of health potions.

  5. Blazing Revival: Half hit points is enough to get you back up and fighting without going back down immediately, and sacrificng your wildfire spirit to make this happen is absolutely worth the cost since you can just resummon it, provided that you still have a Wild Shape use to do so. You only get to use this once per day, but hopefully that's enough, and if you're ever unsure you can always retreat and live to fight another day.

Circle of the LandPHB

If you want to emphasize the Druid's spellcasting, this is the way to do it. Circle of the Land adds almost nothing in terms of complexity to the Druid, which is great because it's already such a complex class. However, if you can't get by on just the Druid's spellcasting you're going to struggle.

  1. Bonus Cantrip: Druids get one less cantrip than other full casters, so this sets the Land Druid on par with everyone else.
  2. Natural Recovery: This provides a bit of sustainability to the Druid which was missing in previous editions. It's not quite as important to the Druid as Arcane Recovery is to the Wizard, but it's still fantastic.
  3. Circle Spells: Varies by circle.
    • Arctic: Several excellent area control spells. Unfortunately, half of the options address similar needs and require Concentration, so it's hard to use the spells in conjunction.
      • 3rd Level: Hold Person and Spike Growth are excellent crowd control/area control options. However, both require Concentration.
      • 5th Level: Sleet Storm is medicore, and given the choice between Sleet Storm and Spike Growth, I would pick Spike Growth every time. Slow is still good. And again, both require Concentration.
      • 7th Level: Ice Storm combines well with other area control effects, and Freedom of Movement allows your allies to move through your area control effects more easily. You already have Land's Stride, so Freedom of Movement doesn't help you much.
      • 9th Level: A useful divination, and a good source of damage not normally available to Druids.
    • Coast: Coast starts off very strong, but most of the spell options will only rarely see use.
      • 3rd Level: Mirror Image is among the best defensive options in the game, and Misty Step is a fantastically useful means of getting around. Neither are available to Druids normally.
      • 5th Level: Both are very situational.
      • 7th Level: Both are situational.
      • 9th Level: Scrying is very situational, but Conjure Elemental is pretty great. Summon a Fire Elemental and set fire to entire encounters.
    • Desert: A good mix of different options with different applications, and a couple of spells not normally available to Druids.
      • 3rd Level: Blur is a decent defensive option, and Silence is occasionally useful for stealth and for disabling spellcasters.
      • 5th Level: Most groups will ignore the consumption of food and water until you very suddenly can't get any. Fortunately, you can typically survive a day to prepare Create Good and Water, so having it constantly prepared isn't helpful. Protection From Energy is considerably more useful.
      • 7th Level: Both are every situational.
      • 9th Level: Both excellent area control options.
    • Forest: Nothing really spectacular.
      • 3rd Level: Barkskin is a fantastic buff, though it's not as important since Land Druids don't fight in Wild Shape. Spider Climb is situational, and seems a bit silly consider you can turn into a spider.
      • 5th Level: Call lightning is one of my favorite Druid spells. The damage per round isn't spectacular, but the ability to repeatedly shoot lightning bolts makes it an extremeley efficient use of spell slots. Plant Growth is situational.
      • 7th Level: Both options are situational, but Divination isn't normally available to Druids.
      • 9th Level: Commune with nature is a nice divination, and Tree Stride is a decent way to get around, but can't compete with real teleportation.
    • Grassland: Some excellent buffs, several of which aren't normally available to Druids, but big parts of the spell list are situational.
      • 3rd Level: Two excellent options for stealth and infiltration. The effects remain in place when you use Wild Shape, so you can turn invisible, turn into an owl, and fly around almost undetectable.
      • 5th Level: Daylight is situational, but Haste is one of the best buffs in the game if you have martial characters around to make use of it.
      • 7th Level: Both options are situational, but Divination isn't normally available to Druids.
      • 9th Level: Dream is situational, but Insect Plague is excellent area control.
    • Mountain: Solid options all the way up the list.
      • 3rd Level: Spider Climb isn't very useful since you can turn into a spider, but Spike Growth is one of my favorite area control spells.
      • 5th Level: Lightning bolt is a decent damage option, though somewhat difficult to bring to bear against crowds of enemies. Meld with Stone is very situational.
      • 7th Level: Stone Shape is insanely useful, and Stoneskin is a great buff so long as you have enough gold to pay the component cost.
      • 9th Level: Passwall is extremely useful, and Wall of Stone is great area control.
    • Swamp: Starts off very strong, but the higher-level options are bad.
      • 3rd Level: Two good options, neither of which are available to Druids.
      • 5th Level: Water walk is very situational, but Stinking Cloud is fantastic area control.
      • 7th Level: Both options are very situational.
      • 9th Level: Scrying is situational, but Insect Plague is excellent area control.
    • Underdark: Lots of fantastic options, many of which aren't available to Druids normally.
      • 3rd Level: So I heard you like spiders. Web is good area control.
      • 5th Level: So I heard you like strange gases. Stinking Cloud is good area control, and Gaseous Form is a great escape/infiltration form.
      • 7th Level: Greater Invisibility is fantastic, and Stone Shape is ridiculously useful.
      • 9th Level: Cloudkill is estremely lethal, but it's hard to hit the same target more than once. Insect Plague is excellent area control.
  4. Land's Stride: Situational.
  5. Nature's Ward: Situational, but it's a broad spectrum of passive defenses.
  6. Nature's Sanctuary: Near-immunity to two types of creatures. By now you should have 20 Wisdom, and beasts and plants both tend to have low Wisdom saves.

Circle of the MoonPHB

Circle of the Moon allows the Druid to use Wild Shape as a combat form. Depending on the composition of your party, this may allow you to take the place of your party's Fighter-equivalent, filling space as a Defender and Striker. However, in most parties the Druid is taking the place of the Cleric-equivalent, so you may need to drop out of Wild Shape in order to cast spells from time to time.

  1. Combat Wild Shape: Moving into Wild Shape as a bonus action means that you can transform, move, and attack in the same turn. This makes it much easier to pick the right form for a combat since you don't need to guess before the fight starts. It also means that when you get knocked out of Wild Shape you can quickly get back into Wild Shape, often without taking damage to your real hit points.
  2. Circle Forms: This allows you to take some decent combat forms. See my Practical Guide to Wild Shape for a compilation of possible forms.
  3. Primal Strike: At this point you're going to run into a lot of things which resist non-magical weapons, so this is very important.
  4. Elemental Wild Shape: Fire Elemental is a flaming murder machine that you can use from now until you hit 18 and can turn into a Mammoth. It does take both of your Wild Shape uses, but if you're successful at setting everything on fire quickly, you may be able to avoid enough damage to stretch this through several fights.
  5. Thousand Forms: This is a 2nd-level spell, and the problems it solves can be solved better by Wild Shape.

Circle of the ShepherdXGtE

Circle of the Shepherd offers excellent options for the Druid to support their party and to summon more powerful creatures with Conjure Animals and Conjure Fey. If you enjoy summoning creatures and buffing your allies, this is a great option. If you want to focus on other aspects of druid spellcasting, Circle of the Land is a better choice.

  1. Speech of the Woods: A free language and constant Speak with Animals. Not always useful, but wonderful for a Druid to have.
  2. Spirit Totem: Powerful and versatile, and as a bonus action it's usable without cutting into your spellcasting.
    • Bear Spirit: If your party is on the defensive, this is a good way to get some temporary hit points onto your allies. If you have a grappler in the party or if you're facing an enemy that grapples your party, Advantage on Strength checks is fantastic. However, the temporary hit points only apply when you first create the spirit, so its effectiveness diminishes quickly in most cases.
    • Hawk Spirit: Your go-to option in most cases. As a back-line spellcaster, you can use your largely ignored Reaction to grant Advantage on an attack roll If you have a rogue in the party, that means an easy way to get Sneak Attack. For other characters it's just a nice buff that you can grant once per round.
    • Unicorn Spirit: If you're taking a short rest and haven't already expended Spirit Totem, use this before your rest to get some extra healing. The spell you cast doesn't need to be anything fancy: It just needs to be a leveled spell that restores hit points. Goodberry and Healing Spirit both work, for example. If you're desperate for healing in combat, combining Healing Spirit with options like Healing Word and Mass Healing Word can result in significant healing in a hurry.
  3. Mighty Summoner: One of the biggest problems with summoned creatures is their inability to overcome damage resistance to non-magical attacks. This solves that issue, and also makes your summoned creatures slightly more durable so that you get some more mileage from your Conjure X spells.
  4. Guardian Spirit: With this and Mighty Summoner, you can make Conjure X spells last for an exceptionally long time even while in combat.
  5. Faithful Summons: At this level CR 2 creatures aren't likely to win a fight for you, but they might keep enemies at bay long enough for your party to come to your rescue. The language is fairly clear that you can't trigger this willingly, so unfortunately you can't tell your allies to beat you unconcious to get free summons (thought they could technically decide to do so on their own so long as you weren't willingly going along with their plan).

Circle of SporesGGtR / TCoE

Circle of Spores is strong, and brings a lot of really powerful offensive options to the druid, in addition to a splash of undead. The circle features use your Reaction and Bonus Action almost exclusively, which means that you're left to use your Action for normal druid things like casting spells. Symbiotic Entity, the only circle feature which uses an Action, provides a massive pile of temporary hit points, allowing even the most frail druids to take several hits before dipping into their normal hit points.

It's interesting to note that the Circle of Spores is capable of thriving in melee without turning into an animal. This is generally how people play the subclass, though doing so is complicated and takes a solid build to do successfully. For detailed guidance, see my Circle of Spores Druid Handbook.

  1. Circle Spells: Almost everything on the spell is useful frequently, and you get a handful of options which aren't on the Druid's spell list.
    • Cantrip: You get Chill Touch for free at 2nd level. It's buried in the text of Circle Spells rather than in the Circle Spells table alongside everything else, so it's easy to miss.
    • 3: A fantastic debuff and a very situational utility option.
    • 5: The logic behind why Circle of Spores druids can raise undead is a huge stretch, but Animate Dead is great regardless. Having four human skeletons is useful at any level because they're expendable and easy to use as bait without feeling sad about killing an innocent person. Gaseous Form is great too for a variety of sneaking and exploratory purposes.
    • 7: A decent single-target damage spell that works really well on plants, and a mediocre, unreliable debuff.
    • 9: Two excellent offensive options.
  2. Circle of Spores: When you first get this, a free 1d4 damage is a really nice boost to your damage output. The damage scales very slowly, so it won't be especially threatening at high levels, but consider how infrequently most druids get to do something with their Reaction this is a fantastic improvement to your action economy. Find allies who make numerous attacks (fighters, etc.) to stun-lock enemies for extended periods of time. The range is short, unfortunately, so make sure you have a tanky ally between you and whatever is trying to kill you.
  3. Symbiotic Entity: Someone finally wrote a way for druids to thrive in melee without turning into an animal! Cast Shillelagh on a club or a quarterstaff, grab your shield, and go clubbing. The 10 minute duration may be enough to get you through several fights if you move quickly, and even if you're not walking around swinging a weapon, 4 temporary hit points per class level is a massive pile of hit points.
  4. Fungal Infestation: You're limited to small or medium beasts and humanoids, which means your best hope is for a wolf or something to die right next to you. It's cool that you can activate this as a Reaction, but 1 to 5 CR 1/4 zombies aren't going to do a whole lot. Best case scenario: whatever you're fighting spends a few of its attacks on the zombie instead of you and your allies.
  5. Spreading Spores: This creates an additional area in which enemies can take the damage from your Halo of Spores. You activate this as a Bonus Action, but after that creatures take the damage without you spending your Reaction. You lose the ability to use Halo of Spores as a Reaction, unfortunately, and the ability curiously doesn't exclude you from the damage, so be careful not top drop it on yourself. Cast something like Entangle to keep enemies from moving away quickly, then throw your spores on top of them.
  6. Fungal Body: A nice list of condition immunitites. You can still take poison damage, which seems odd, but I'm never going to complain about condition immunities.