DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Wild Shape
Last Updated: January 24th, 2018
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.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : 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 are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.
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.
There is a lot of confusion around the rules of Wild Shape and its interaction with your racial traits and class features. I strongly recommend listening to this episode of the Dragon Talk podcast, in which Jeremy Crawford spends 45 minutes discussing the minutiae of Wild Shape and its interaction with other stuff.
|Level||Circle of the Moon||Other Circle|
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.
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.
- MM: Climb speed and pack tactics.
- MM: Keen Smell and a burrow speed can be ocasionally useful.
- MM: Tiny size, flight, blindsight, and Keen Hearing make this an absolutely fantastic form for scouting. However, echolocation typically requires a lot of screeching, so you're likely to give away your presence. Unusable until level 8.
- MM: Tiny size, a decent Stealth bonus, Keen Smell, and a climb speed. Altogether a decent scout form.
- MM: Amphibious, a swim speed, and blindsight. Not good enough for combat, but a great underwater scout form. Unusable until level 4.
- VGtM: Darkvision, Illumination, Telepathy, and Telepathic shroud. Unfortunately, with no Stealth bonus it may not work as a scout form.
- MM: Great speed, but if you just want to be fast you're probably better served by something that can fly.
- MM: Fantastic fly speed, the best attack at this CR, but any Druid who can Wildshape into an Eagle can also Wildshape into a Giant Owl, which is considerably better. Unusable until level 8.
- MM: Swim speed and 30 ft. Darkvision. Crab is strictly better, so Frog is only a good choice where you need to look inconspicuous in the environment. Someone seeing a crab in a swamp would likely take notice. Unusable until level 4.
- MM: Blindsight, and you glow. Magical light is easily available, and torches are cheap, so your party shouldn't have issues with illumination. If you need to see in the dark, turn into something with better Blindsight or with Darkvision.
- MM: Passable damage and knockdown if you hit with Charge, but it's hard to use charge more than once in the same combat.
- MM: Eagle is strictly better. Unusable until level 8.
- MM: Good speed and pack tactics.
- MM: Good speed, Keen Hearing and Smell, and pack tactics.
- MM: Darkvision and a climb speed, but no stealth.
- MM: Darkvision, and fantastically stealthy underwater. If you get caught, use your ink cloud and run away! Unusable until level 4, but even at that level it remains a great underwater Scout.
- MM: Good stealth, huge Darkvision range, Keen Hearing and Sight, and a fantastic fly speed. Unusable until level 8, but even at that level it remains an absolutely fantastic flying scout form.
- MM: Swim speed and Darkvision, but the Octopus is strictly better. Unusable until level 4.
- MM: Darkvision and Keen Smell. Rats have a major in-world advantage because they're a common sight in populated areas, so it's easy to escape notice even if you're spotted by humanoids. However, this advantage doesn't apply to monsters, cats, or people who just don't like rats.
- MM: Decent fly speed and decent Perception, and you might be able to speak using Mimicry, but other flying options are better for stealth and scouting. Unusable until level 8.
- MM: Slow, a tiny bit of blindsight, and a little bit of poison. Unfortunately with no stealth or Dexterity you're very easy to spot.
- MM: Worthless.
- MM: Good stealth, Darkvision, and better climbing than anything else thanks to Spider Climb. Flight is generally a better option, but sometimes you need to hang on a ceiling.
- MM: Keen Sight and Smell, and Pack Tactics on a flying creature, but Eagle is better for combat and Owl is better for scouting.
- MM: Good Perception and Stealth, plus Keen Hearing and Smell. Unfortunately, with no special movement types it's not an effective scout form.
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.
- MM: Flight, Keen Sight, and Pack Tactics, but still can't compete with better combat forms available to Druids of the same level. Unusable until level 8.
- MM: Decent speed, and the first form which is definitely ridable by your allies.
- MM: Without the restriction on flying forms this would be fantastic. Unfortunately, by the time you can get this at level 8 you have access to considerably better options.
- MM: Blindsight, and better swim speed and better Stealth than the basic Crab, plus (obviously) better attacks. At medium size it doesn't really make sense as a Scout form because it can't fit into small spaces, so it doesn't really have an obvious role. Unusable until level 4.
- MM: No special movement, mediocre Stealth. Keen Smell, but plenty of better options have that. Oh, and Pack Tactics to back up its mediocre attack.
- MM: Darkvision and Keen Hearing and Smell, and good Stealth, but no special movement types.
- MM: Keen Hearing and Smell, and a bit with a knockdown effect. Plus, since it's a dog, you can probably go unnoticed in civilized areas.
- MM: Camel is faster, but I guess sometimes you need to carry a ton of loot.
- MM: Unusable until level 4, and by then you have better options
- MM: Camel is faster.
- MM: Flying Snake is strictly better. Attach seems tempting, but it makes you extremely vulnerable to being knocked out of Wild Shape.
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 Velociraptor if they're not. Against groups, consider Giant Owl, Wolf, or Velociraptor.
- MM: Good speed and a decent attack, but no special abilities and absolutely awful AC.
- MM: Charge is tempting due to the knockdown effect, but the DC is very low. Poor AC, poor hit points, poor damage, and Relentless only works once per rest.
- MM: Swim speed, blindsight, and Constrict. Constrict is an absolutely fantastic way to take down single targets, especially if they have trouble passing the escape DC. Unfortunately it's unusable until level 4, at which point Land Druids will be using Crocodile, and Moon Druids will be using the Giant Constrictor Snake.
- VGtM: A decent charger, but with poor AC and low hit points it won't survive moving away to make another charge.
- VGtM: A bite attack and a swim speed. You won't be able to use this form until you're fourth level, at which point the Crocodile is strictly better.
- MM: Decent speed and a very solid attack, but garbage AC.
- MM: Charge adds some nice damage behind Ram, plus a knockdown effect, and you can switch to using Hooves once you're stuck in melee for the improved damage. Unfortunately, the Elk has both low AC and low hit points.
- MM: A burrow speed, Keen Smell, and Multiattack. Unfortunately, poor AC and hit points.
- MM: A bizzarrely large number of hit points, but terrible damage output and at large size a very poor scout. Unusable until level 8, by which point everyone has better options.
- MM: The frog's Bite and Swallow abilities are considerably more lethal than the Constrictor Snake's Constrict ability, but they only work on Small or smaller creatures. Unusable until level 4, at which point you have better options.
- MM: Startlingly similar to the Axe Beak, but with a climb speed and a slower land speed.
- MM: Decent damage and Flyby, which are great on a flying form. Unusable until level 8, at which point you have better options.
- MM: Swim speed, reach, a bit of blindsight, and poison damage. Unfortunately the poison DC is very low, and it's unusable until level 4, at which point you have better options.
- MM: Fantastic stealth, and all of the climbing ability you expect from a spider. Decent poison damage, but the DC is low.
- VGtM: Poor AC, poor speed, poor damage, no special abilities.
- MM: Keen Smell and great Stealth. Pounce adds a nice knockdown effect to the Panther's claws, but it doesn't have the damage output to compete with other combat forms at the same CR.
- MM: Giant Owl is strictly better.
- MM: Decent damage attack, and obviously ridable, but everything else is bad.
- VGtM: Better damage than the Wolf and Pack Tactics, but no trip effect.
- MM: Keen Hearing and Smell, and Pack Tactics to back up the Wolf's attack. The damage isn't great, but it applies a knockdown effect on every hit. Decent AC for an animal at this CR, but not a ton of hit points.
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 straight 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.
For single enemies, use the Crocodile. For multiple enemies, use the Ape. Several excellent flying options exist at this CR, but Moon Druids have better options at CR 1, and other druids can't select forms with a fly speed.
- MM: Two melee attacks with decent damage and a decent attack bonus, and an extremely rare ranged attack from an animal. Because the Ape has human-like hands, you can likely use weapons. You probably can't use your armor while wildshaped because apes have such wildly different proportions to humanoids.
- MM: The Ape is strictly better in every way except that the Black Bear has slightly better speed.
- MM: A great single-target crowd controller. The bite does decent damage, and until the target escapes you get advantage on your attacks against it. However, you'll have problems engaging multiple targets. Unusable until level 4.
- MM: Decent damage, especially if you move beforehand, but it's very difficult to get the Charge bonus damage more than once in an encounter. The Warhorse works similarly, but does better damage, has better speed, and knocks tagets prone on a charge.
- MM: Less damage and worse AC than the Reef Shark. Unusable until level 4.
- MM: Great fly speed, and the only flying option at this CR. The damage on the wasp's sting isn't great, but the poison is very potent if your target fails the low save DC to resist it. Unfortunately it's unusable until level 8, so you'll have better options.
- MM: The best aquatic form at this CR. Land Druids will use this, but Moon Druids can use Hunter Shark at level 4 when swimming forms become available.
- MM: Excellent speed and damage, and the charge effect is a great way to help your allies, though you have no way to capitalize on your enemies being prone.
CR 1 is the max for non-Moon Druids, but by the time you reach this point, it may 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.
- MM: A decent amount of hit points, Keen Smell, a climb speed, and Multiattack with two decent attacks. Unfortunately, the Brown Bear's AC is relatively low for the CR, and it doesn't have enough hit points to compensate, so it's very difficult to maintain the form if you're drawing attacks. A lot of people like bears because the multiple attacks allow you to apply Rage damage twice, but you absolutely won't have enough rages to keep this form viable throughout a full day. If you insist on using Brown Bear (and many people do) be absolutely sure to put of Barkskin before you go into combat.
- VGtM: An excellent charger, the Deinonychus can outdo the Dire Wolf's damage on a multiattack, but can only trip if it moves around, and you really want to charge in and out to try to knock your targets prone with Pounce and get the bonus action bite. Personally I think the Dire Wolf is a better option since you don't need to risk opportunity attacks to trip things, but the Deinonychus is still a potentially good option and if you can make it work their Deinonychus's damage output will be better.
- MM: Good hit points and good AC for an animal. Keen Hearing and Smell, and good Perception and Stealth for whatever reason. The Dire Wolf's bite does decent damage, and has a knockdown effect with a decent DC to resist, and with Pack Tactics you should be able to hit reliably. Altogether, a very solid combat form.
- MM: Spectacular fly speed, Keen Sight, and multiattack with two decent attacks. Unfortunately, the Giant Vulture does considerably more damage and has Pack Tactics to back up its attacks.
- MM: Low AC, but a decent pile of hit points. The Giant Hyena's bite does decent damage, and with Rampage you can chew through groups of weak enemies very quickly, especially at low levels.
- MM: Underwater this is the only form available at this CR, but it's a great option for combat, and it's even decent at stealth. Not usable until level 4.
- MM: The Giant Spider's best trick is its Web attack. The attack bonus is decent, and the target doesn't get a save to resist its effect. The target can then either waste an action trying to escape, make attacks at disadvantage to cut its way out, or attempt to fight while restrained. In any of those cases, you win. This is especially true against single enemies where the action economy tips heavily in the party's favor.
- MM: A bigger version of the Giant Frog, the toad adds poison damage to its bite, and increases the size of creature which you can swallow to medium. Swallowing an enemy is still a great way to eliminate important single targets. Not usable until level 4.
- MM: Better than the Giant Eagle in every aspect except speed. Thanks to Pack Tactics, the Giant Vulture can reliably hit withs its Multiattack and deal impressive damage. For non-moon druids, this is the best flying form. For Circle of the Moon druids, this is the best flying form at 8th level, but becomes obsolete ate 9th level.
- MM: Pounce is easily outdone by the Dire Wolf's bite, and the Dire Wolf does more damage. The Lion has two attacks, but without Multiattack that doesn't do anything. Dire Wolf is strictly better.
- MM: Nearly identical to the Lion, but with Darkvision and a tiny bit more damage. Dire Wolf is still better.
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 until level 9, at which point the Quetzalcoatlus will easily outdo the Giant Vulture. Sabre-Toothed Tiger is your go-to damage form, and Giant Constrictor Snake is your single-target striker form. Underwater the Giant Octopus is still solid.
- MM: Giant Elk works in much the same way, and does considerably more damage.
- VGtM: Slightly better damage output than the Giant Elk, but much less durable.
- MM: The Dire Wolf is arguably better since it can trip every time it attacks, and it has comparable defenses and damage.
- MM: A linear improvement on the Constrictor Snake, the Giant Constrictor Snake is fantastic at restraining and eliminating single targets.
- MM: The Giant Elk's Charge ability is nice, but its Hooves attack is totally unusable. It only works on prone creatures, and you can't use it in the same turn that you use Charge. Without Hooves, the Giant Elk is just a larger, more durable, Aurochs. If you have an ally who's good at Shoving and doesn't mind spending one of their attacks to help you out, Hooves is a ridiculous pile of damage.
- MM: Most of a fight is spent attacking something with less than full hit points, so you get to spend most of the fight with guranteed advantage. The Hunter Shark is the only aquatic form at this level, but it's still not significantly better than the Giant Octopus since the octopus can so easily Restrain enemies.
- MM: The Hunter Shark's Blood Frenzy ability gives it a huge advantage over the Plesiosaurus.
- MM: Multiattack with decent damage, but other forms at this CR do better damage and have special abilities.
- MM: More damage and a better Charge DC than the Giant Elk, but the elk's hooves make the Giant Elk much better in a drawn-out fight.
- VGtM: Excellent speed, decent AC, flyby, and Dive Attack make the Quetzalcoatlus a perfect flying Striker form.
- MM: Comparable damage to the Giant Elk, but there are trade-offs. While its claws do 1 point more damage than the Giant Elk's gore, the Giant Elk's AC is 2 points higher and it has considerably better move speed. If you use hit-and-run tactics to keep Charge/Pounce in play, the Elk's superior movement speed is crucial for positioning, and its higher AC is better for opportunity attacks when you move away. The Sabre-toothed Tiger's Pounce combo will do a few points more damage than Charge on the initial attack combo, but if the foe remains prone the Giant Elk is clearly the better option.
Ankylosaurus serves as a Defender, while Giant Scorpion is great for holding stuff in place and murdering it.
- MM: Solid damage, reach, and a knockdown effect make the Ankylosaurus a great Defender.
- MM: This thing is a monster. With multiattack you get two attempts to grapple a target, plus your sting. The sting does fantastic poison damage, even if the target passes their save. Even the scorpion's AC is decent, and with blindsight you can easily handle invisible or obscured enemies.
- MM: Fantastic blindsight and decent damage, but not as useful in combat as the Giant Octopus.
CR 4 is very disappointing. Stegosaurus is the best new option, but its raw damage output probably can't compete with the Giant Scorpion's ability to hold foes in place and wear them down.
- MM: Worse AC than the Giant Scorpion, comparable damage, and only a few more hit points. Trampling Charge is decent, especially since you can get a free attack, but the DC is lower than the knockdown effect on the Dire Wolf's bite, so even that doesn't make the Elephant good.
- VGtM: Better damage and AC than the Elephant, but no special abilities.
Giant Crocodile is your best bet most of the time, but Giant Shark is pretty great underwater. Against multiple foes, consider the Brontosaurus for its amazing damage output and reach.
- VGtM: The Brontosaurus deals an astounding 5d8+5 damage with a trip effect, or can forgo the trip effect for another d8 of damage. It doesn't do anything special beyond the trip effect, but with 20 foot reach it can be a serious threat in an encounter with a lot of enemies moving around provoking opportunity attacks.
- MM: The Giant Crocodile replaces the Giant Constrictor Snake as your single-target elimination option. The crocodile's tail also provides a nice option for knocking enemies prone.
- MM: Great damage, blindsight, and a huge pile of hit points. No fun tricks, but a solid aquatic option.
- MM: An Elephant with better numbers. it's still not fantastic, but it's better.
Look at all of these options.
- MM: Very similar to a Giant Elk with more hit points. The DC on Trampling Charge is excellent, so you should be able to use it reliably, even if you only manage to do it once per fight.
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.
- : The Air Elemental's biggest draw is its ability to fly. The damage is on par with other elementals, and Whirlwind is fun but not terribly powerful.
- : The Earth Elemental's big draws are tremorsense and a burrow speed. Amuzing, but it can't outshine other elementals in most situations.
- : Want to murder everything? Fire elemental. You can spend your movement walking through enemies to ignite everything in the room, then Dash to ignite whatever you didn't have enough movement to walk over or Slam something that's already on fire. If your enemies don't douse the fire, they take damage and you win. If they spend an Action to douse the fire, you used your movement to cost them an action, and you win. There's not save to avoid the ability or anything. This is a mountain of flaming bullshit. Drop it on your foes. Oh, and if they attack you in melee they take fire damage.
- : Not quite as murdery as the Fire Elemental, but the ability to grapple and drown two creatures at the same time while still attacking makes the Water elemental a serious threat.
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.
|AC by Source|
|Giant Constrictor Snake||2||12||13||12+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.
How feats affect you while using Wild Shape can be a bit difficult to interpret. When you use Wild Shape, "you retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so." So long as you comply with the other mechanics of Wild Shape (no casting spells, etc.) that's really broad. A feat fits into "other source" so it works in Wild Shape, again assuming it complies with the other rules of Wild Shape.
Some feats have clear effects: Tough increases your own hit points, but Wild Shape specifically says "When you transform, you assume the beast’s hit points and Hit Dice." Polearm master still works, but unless you Wild Shape into something with hands you're not getting much use out of it.
Other feats are less clear. The Dragonborn racial feat Dragon Hide gives you an ability score increase (overriden by Wild Shape; that part is clear), but it's not totally clear how the rest of the feat works. The text of the second bullet specifically mentions toughening your scales, so maybe it works for scaled creatures like fish, lizards, and dinosaurs, but not for animals without scales like birds and mammals. The third bullet allows you to grow claws from your fingers, but most animals don't have fingers. Do apes and other primates get claws? It's not clear.
In my opinion, anything which is part of your character's body like claws, natural armor, or damage resistances doesn't work while in Wild Shape. Anything your character knows, like proficiency in something, specific training granted by a feat like Mobile or Actor, or something inherent to your character's personality, culture, or anything else non-physical like the Lucky feat or the halfling Lucky trait should still apply in Wild Shape. But, as in any case where there is a question, your Dungeon Master makes the final decision. Be sure to talk to your DM before making any decisions about your build.
In a few cases we've gotten answers on whether or not feats operate in Wild Shape: