Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Complete Druid's Handbook

Spelljamming space druids! Spelljamming space druids! Spelljamming space druids!

I feel like my entire review could just be this phrase, spammed 300 times. It wasn't a major theme of the book, and indeed, appeared only once (well, twice if you count the part where they described spelljamming space druids, but didn't directly call them that). However, it's something that instantly burrowed its way into my head. On my deathbed, someone is going to ask me whether I have any regrets, and I'm going to rattle out, "spelljamming . . . space . . . druids," and everyone will just politely agree to make up some more dignified last words for me.

Which isn't to say that The Complete Druid's Handbook doesn't have some fun with the concept. It introduces druids from various habitats, which is nice in that it makes an already-cool class even more versatile. But then it does a weird thing where it undermines the new druids by putting in unnecessary new restrictions. The default "forest" druid can shapeshift into any reptile, bird, or mammal, but the desert druid can only turn into desert creatures. Why the hate, guys?

Oddly misplaced geo-chauvinism aside, there's some cool stuff here. There's an underground druid with the ability to mentally control various types of slime (and if this doesn't sound that impressive, remember, an AD&D slime will fuck you up). There's an insect druid. There's a conspiracy of evil druids (although not evil™ because in AD&D, there's a difference between being an "extremist" who wants to destroy all civilization and having an evil™ alignment - druids are by definition neutral, even when they are doing things that seem to our ordinary language like good and evil). There's the Savage Druid . . .

Oh, God. We're doing this again, aren't we? Okay, so there's this racist kit. And I don't know what to tell you. All of the stuff that's really racist about it dovetails nicely with the class as a whole. Nobody's going to be that surprised when you say, "my druid character is at home in the wilderness and finds cities to be alienating and confusing." But does that make it better or worse? You're playing a character from a hunter-gatherer type society, but you chose the one character class where all the stereotypes just coincidentally happen to be true? Let's call it gross and unnecessary.

Let's see. What else? I guess it's weird that Druid is a job. It's part of a trend in AD&D, though. Classes are reified in the campaign world when they really should just represent character archetypes. Thieves aren't just dexterous clever guys, they're thieves. And druids aren't just obsessive nature-mages with shapechanging powers, they are actually practicing priests in a living religion. And at 11th level they fight each other for the privilege of advancing to 12th level. And this bit of highly specific worldbuilding is just baked right into the class.

Dungeons and Dragons can get like that sometimes. At one point, this book confidently claimed that "in most fantasy worlds, the forest druids exercise the most influence," and it's like - no D&D, no. In most fantasy worlds, druids aren't even a thing, because at some point in the past, you decided to just pluck a caste Celtic scholar-priests out of their historical context and use them as the vague inspiration for your nature-mage class, and while lots of people found that compelling, it's still only a drop in the ocean of the fantasy genre. I mean, I like druids, but pfft, come on.

I already touched on this when I mentioned the evil, civilization-destroying druids, but the only real flaw in this book is once again AD&D's alignment system. "True Neutral" is bullshit. With the exception of spelljamming space druids, who were "exiles from a world that would not accept their neutrality," most "neutral" druids spend a lot of their time things we'd think of as "good" - preserving the environment, helping communities that have fallen on hard times, working to find peaceful solutions to conflicts over natural resources. It often seems like it's only the fact that D&D has decided to label most of its wilderness-dwelling humanoids as "evil" that allows druids to claim neutrality at all. The "good" humans want to farm this land. The "evil" orcs want to hunt in this land. The "neutral" druid is an honest broker between these two groups, and is so weird for not having a preference between "good" and "evil."

But honestly, if I let a book get ruined every time the alignment system forced me to contemplate something ridiculous, I would never be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. Remember people - alignment is bad, and it makes everything worse.

UKSS Contribution: You might think it's going to be spelljamming space druids. Won't lie. That's tempting. But then I'd have to explain "spelljamming" and that's just a hassle.

No, I'll go with something a little be more . . . down to earth . . .

Hee, hee. That was a pun, but only I know it because I haven't told you what I'm thinking about yet.

Anyway, there's a section about megaliths, because druids, therefor Stonehenge, and one of the suggested uses for magical megaliths is to place them in earthquake-prone areas and enchant them to stabilize the earth. I like that. I think it's a neat fantasy detail that introduces some serious working magic.

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