The good news is, druids are a hell of a lot better in 4th Edition than they were in 3rd edition. The bad news is…honestly, there’s no bad news. Druids are pretty sweet.
Playing (or rather, trying to play) a druid in 3rd edition was often an exercise in frustration. For every time you pulled off a sweet spell while out in the wilderness or scored a hit while in your wild shape, there were ten times where you spent an entire combat twiddling your thumbs because your spells were ineffective inside a dungeon or you didn’t have a high enough to-hit bonus to actually hit any monsters’ AC. In some ways, this was a symptom of the larger problems with D20, but any way you look at it, druids sucked.
And now I will never talk about 3rd edition druids again, because 4E druids are really cool. They draw power from the new Primal power source, and their primary role in a party is Controller. A lot of their powers (called Evocations) are ranged burst attacks that deal fairly low damage amounts, but have secondary effects that help the druid shape the battlefield to his advantage. A good example is the 15th level Daily power “Call Lightning Storm,” which is a burst 1 attack that deals 2d6 + Wisdom modifier damage and creates a zone of wind and lightning. This zone slows everything in it and deals 5 damage per turn if sustained.
The control powers are good, but the defining characteristic of a druid is her wild shape ability. Wild shape is a lot easier to use than it used to be. Remember how everyone used to groan when the druid picked a new wild shape, because the DM would have to look up the stats for whatever new creature she was emulating? No more. Now, the basic wild shape is an at-will power that only takes a minor action. It doesn’t give the druid any inherent advantages (no basic stats change when you change shape), but it gives the druid access to druid powers with the Beast Form keyword.
The Beast Form powers are mixed in with the control stuff pretty evenly. They are all melee attacks that generate a decent amount of damage. Interestingly, many of them allow the druid to target up to two enemies in melee range, and a few of them even have a burst 1 effect. This opens up the possibility of the druid firing off a wicked control power (which can’t be cast while in beast form, but can be maintained), setting up the bad guys for a strike the next turn. That’s when the druid wild shapes, charges in and unleashes something like “Savage Frenzy.”
For the most part, the specific animal used for wild shape is sort of vaguely defined – you transform into a medium-sized animal that has claws. You can call it whatever you want, and it won’t have any effect on the stats. However, a bunch of powers that become available at higher levels open up new, more versatile forms. For example, the level 6 utility power “Black Harbinger” allows the druid to turn into a raven. There are also wolverine, insect plague, bear and tiger forms, each of which have special abilities that last throughout an encounter.
The one drawback to playing up both aspects of a druid’s powers is that beast form doesn’t grant the AC bonus it used to, so the druid may be able to wade in and deal some nasty shots, but she’ll still be pretty vulnerable. “Primal Bear” ameliorates this somewhat by adding a +2 AC and Fortitude bonus, but doesn’t come into play until 19th level. Some careful character building to maximize the benefits of light armor will increase a druid’s durability.
There’s one more thing about druids that is just truly awesome: the 27th level encounter power “Explosive Wind.” For pure comedy purposes, it might be the greatest power that Wizards has created thus far.