Druids and Dice

 

Dungeons and Dragon 5th Edition's symbol for the 'Druid' Class.

     The world's largest Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TTRPG), Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), is a cultural juggernaut that Celticists should not (or, can not) ignore. Set in predominantly pseudo-medieval/late Renaissance fantasy worlds, D&D has increasingly influenced the perception of  historical authenticity and the fantasy genre. Since the publication of the 5th Edition of D&D in 2014, the game's popularity has skyrocketed, with 2020 seeing a 33% increase in sales, and the crowdfunding campaign for an animated TV series based on a Critical Role, a popular weekly live streamed D&D campaign from fans, raising $11,385,449. 

    This popularity is something that cannot be ignored, as students who sit down in Celtic Studies classes or members of the general public have likely been introduced to concepts that will be covered through D&D (or through D&D influenced pop-culture), such as Fir Bolg, bards, and especially druids. By better understanding what these common misconceptions might be and where they come from, we can understand how 'Celticness' is being created by modern media and interpreted by audiences. Though this more in-depth understanding of the source of these misconceptions, we can better educate and guide our students, fellow classmates, or gently correct family members at awkward dinners.

    Druids have a long history in D&D, first appearing as Non-Player Characters (NPCs, characters controlled by the person organizing the game rather than the players) in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement. This was the first supplemental material ever published for D&D, proving information for a game to be set in the world of Greyhawk. Here, the fundamentals of the D&D druid were created in a brief entry, describing druids as spell casters who shapeshift into animals and are accompanied by a barbarian retinue. 

    In 1976, the Eldritch Wizardry supplement brought the druid into the hands of players, allowing them to make druid characters. In this version of the game, a player could make their character into a druid if: they were a Human Cleric who had at least a 12 in their Wisdom score and a 14 in their Charisma score, described as priests of nature rather than the priests of specific deities. They were obligated to protect woodland animals and plants (especially trees), never allowed to kill animals or destroy trees. In return, all druids could identify pure bodies of water, plants, animals, and pass through overgrowth without difficulty. They knew a secret language shared by all other druids, knew how to wield a limited body of weapons (daggers, sickles, crescent swords, spears, slings, and oil), and could cast a different selection of spells compared to other Clerics, with a particular focus on animals, plants, and the weather. They would cast these spells using a sprig of mistletoe, with each druid collecting their own sprig with a golden sickle on midsummer's eve and caught in a golden bowl.

    The druids of Eldritch Wizardry would advance differently than other characters, progressing through a series of 'circles', groups of druids of equivalent power, as they leveled up. As a druid leveled up, they could access more powerful spells, and when they reached the fifth circle, could shapeshift into animals. However, to advance through these circles, a prospect needed to defeat a druid of the circle they wanted to advance to in a magical duel, usurping the status of the druid they defeated as they progressed as characters.

    In 1984 the druid was revised for a new simplified set of rules (though, not yet progressing into the game's 2nd edition) in the Companion Rules. Here, druids are an optional specialized form for Clerics who were of Neutral alignment (which, at this point in the game's history, was the mid-point between being a Good character and an Evil character) who had reached 9th level. A prospective druid would study nature, meditate for 1-4 months in a 'woodland home', and be tested by a higher level druid. As a druid, they had to remain Neutral as this was related to them being 'devoted to the balance of all things and the study of nature', and had a series of prohibitions and expectations similar to those seen in 1976. A druid could not cast spells related to Evil or Good, 'must live in a woodland home rather than a town or city', and could not wear metal armor or use metal tools. This abhorrence of metal is explained (and expanded into not being allowed to even touch metal) later in the section as being based in druids regarding things that had never been alive to be repulsive to them (though for reasons never explained rocks were acceptable). At this stage in the game, druids were given unique spells related to nature, with the addendum that their spells could not work outside of the 'Prime Material Plane', the basic world the druid came from rather than different dimensions characters might need to travel, such as the Elemental Planes. Further, spell scrolls (spells stored in written form that a character could recite to cast the spell) were available to druids, but were exceptionally rare. Notably, they lost their ability to shapeshift into animals, which had been in their initial depictions.

 

Illustration of a druid from Companion Rules (1984) 

    1989 saw the publication of D&D 2nd Edition, where druids appeared as an optional form of the Priest Class (with the standard Priest being the Cleric) in the Player's Handbook. The druid draws both of its earlier depictions together, including almost all of the characteristics seen in '76 and '84. Druids were priests of nature rather than deities, had a secret language, live in nature, were charged with protecting nature, dueled to advance through higher ranks of the druidic organization, only wore 'natural' armors, could shapeshift into (some) animals (no fish for unclear reasons), and used nature based magic through specially collected mistletoe. They also develop some new characteristics at later levels, such as an immunity to 'natural' toxins (mineral based ones or underground gas is for some reason exempt from this), a near-immunity to aging, the ability to alter their appearance at will, the ability to hibernate for set periods of time, and to travel to the Elemental Planes (which no longer hinder the druid's ability to cast spells).

     In 2000, the druid appeared as an independent class of character, no longer an optional sub-set of another class, with the publication of the Player's Handbook for 3rd Edition (and again in 2003 with the publication of 3.5 Edition). In these editions, the druid remains much the same as before, D&D having sufficiently iterated upon itself that this druid was a refinement of previous versions. Here they remain a shapeshifting (now expanded to all animals, as well as plants and elemental beings) spell caster bound to nature rather than specific deities, remaining Neutral in some form (the alignment system had become more complex at this point), who are prohibited from wearing metal armor. They retain a secret language, have a benefit to interacting with animals and their knowledge of the natural world, move through nature without impediment (or, now, leaving tracks), are immune to all poisons (rather than only plant and animal based ones), can change their appearance, and are immune to most of the detrimental effects of aging. The only substantial addition to the druid at this stage is the addition of an 'Animal Companion' which fought along side the druid.

     4th Edition (which began in 2008) did not include the druid as an initial option for players. Instead, it was released in Players Handbook 2 (2009), and took a new direction for the druid. The druid of 3.5 Edition had grown in function and form through later supplemental materials, and was too broad in function for new design principles for 4th Edition (where a single character could fill one of four roles: characters intended to do damage, characters intended to protect others, characters intended to control the battlefield, and characters who could heal others), leaving 4th Edition with a difficult situation: what to do with the druid? They chose to fracture it into three different classes: the Warden (a partial shapeshifting warrior who defended their allies), the Shaman (a healing spell caster with an animal spirit serving as their companion and assistant), and the Druid (a control-focused character that could either be a spell caster or fight while in the shape of an animal). All of these characters retained elements of the earlier druid (drawing power from nature, not wearing metal armor), while other elements appeared only in one class (Shamans with an Animal(-ish) Companion, Wardens with quicker recovery from toxins and ill effects, Druids with shapeshifting into animals).

    Most recently, 5th Edition brought the druid back into the base form of the game in the Player's Handbook (2014) and drew together the majority of what had been divided in 4th Edition. The druid returns to much of its original form, though, distinctions are evident. They are once again a spell caster, working with a selection nature-themed spells, who draw their power from nature, who preserve the natural balance, and shape shift into animals. They are grouped into 'Circles', though, these are now an element of vague background detail and no longer a complicated organization where infighting is the only method of advancement, they do not wear metal armor (mostly), are (almost) immune to the effects of aging, have a secret language only known to druids, and can cast spells with sprigs of mistletoe. The immunity to the hazards of the natural world (such as poisons and moving through undergrowth) seen in earlier editions is available to druids who are members of the Circle of the Land (who focus on spell casting), while minor appearance altering effects and shape shifting into elemental beings is limited to members of the Circle of the Moon (who focus on shape shifting). 

 
A brief summary. 

    Everything about the druid of D&D is utterly fascinating. Originating as an attempted depiction of historical druids (drawing on a lot of dodgy sources), through repeated iterations on this original form, the druid has become its own 'thing', no longer based in history, but based on its own history. In turn, the druid of D&D has gone on to inform and shape how other pieces of pop culture imagine druids, creating this constantly churning cycle of self-references, increasingly getting more distinct and distant from its historical origin.

    For instance, some of these details are taken from Pliny the Elder. In The Natural History, druids are described as magicians (Pliny 30.4 & 16.95), with a particular emphasis on the importance of mistletoe for religious ceremonies (Pliny 16.95). Pliny's description of a special ritual necessary for the collection of mistletoe is distinctly similar to that described in Eldritch Wizardry, with a special evening and a golden sickle. This is potentially also the source of the the resistance to toxins, as Pliny says that mistletoe can be drunk as a cure for all poisons. (Pliny 16.95) A hierarchical organization that relies on violence to situate itself and not writing their teachings down are based on Caesar's observations in Commentaries on the Gallic War (Caesar 6.14). Other features appear to come from later sources, with the connection to nature and the use of 'Circles' likely drawn from the Romanticist conceptualization of druids (discussed in great depth by Ronald Hutton in Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain), the idea of a secret language seemingly based on Iolo Morganwg's Coelbren Y Beirdd (thanks to an undergraduate at Aberystwyth for pointing this out to me!), and their role as preservers of nature (and thus their Neutral alignment) potentially based on Robert Graves' wild opinions.

    The remainder, outside of transforming into animals, appear to be unique creations of D&D. The abhorrence of metal, the ability to change their appearance, avoiding the dangers of nature, and their long lives all not appearing to have any specific source beyond the game itself. Transforming into animals might be based on medieval Irish texts (though, here animal transformations are so common that associating them specifically with druids is impossible), but transforming into plants and elemental beings appear to be creations of the game. 

'Attested' 'druidisms' v. D&D 5th Edition. 

    While some of D&D's druid is partly comprised of historic (or, 'historic') elements of druids, they are increasingly becoming something unique unto themselves. While they have some 'historic-ish' elements, they are missing many of the functions and roles of druids attested in historic (or, medieval literary) materials. D&D's druids are not deeply involved in political systems, but instead actively distance themselves from society, unlike what is seen in Classical works and depiction in medieval Irish literature. They are not philosophers as the Classical world insisted, relying on their Wisdom score, rather than the Intelligence score for their memory or Charisma for oration. They are not teachers or educators as the Classical world and medieval Ireland both reference, they do not preform or observe animal or human sacrifices as the Classical texts state, and have no hand in the odd 'war magic' of Bretha Nemed Toísech. D&D 5th Edition does include the Classical world's often repeated Pythagorean Doctrine of Reincarnation as a spell available to druids, but, is not a key part of the class. Similarly, the Classical world and medieval Ireland's association of druids with prophecies or soothsaying are included, but, only tangentially with druids being capable of accessing some divination magic, with the recently added Circle of the Stars druid having a small specialization in divination.

    Further, the druid of D&D is increasingly including self-referential details that have long since lost their purpose. Druids retain their abhorrence of metal armor into the modern game, with the player base accepting it as a 'druid thing'. But, the original idea that druids dislike metal because they dislike things that have never been alive has been lost, with only a vague reference to it being a taboo surviving into the current edition. This has led to players questioning the details, with Chris Perkins, one of DnD's developers having to answer questions about it from a confused playerbase. (here, and here) Elsewhere, druids' ability to use scimitars has resulted in a great deal of confusion from playerss, and evidently from the game's designers as well, who appear to have lost track of why it was included in the first place. Referenced first in Eldritch Wizardry, druids can wield 'crescent shaped swords', which later developers modernizing this list changed into 'scimitars'. It seems as though it initially meant a forward sweeping blade, like sickle, with a 'crescent shaped sword' just being 'a sickle but bigger' for one of the game's original developers, Gary Gygax. (here) This detail was lost through the iterations and it transformed into a scimitar, found in the official artwork for druids in 3.5 Edition, despite the occasional confusion from the player base who notice this small detail.

 

Druids with scimitars, a persistent confusion.

    The modern druids of D&D 5th Edition are shape shifting spell casters who draw power from nature and divide isolate from broader society. Drastically different from the historic reality the game was originally attempting to model with the druid when it first appeared in the 1970s, D&D's druid is rapidly growing into a wholly distinct entity without any connection to its original form. Yet, it is the druid in the minds of the broader world, D&D having such a cultural inertia to it that it has successfully distorted broader cultural perceptions of druids so that D&D's druidisms have become the standard for pop-culture. Isolationist hibernating shape shifting magicians are the druids of the Warcraft franchise, the Iron Druid novels use the 'Agelessness', the depiction of the Druids in the TTRPG Scion are lifted from D&D, and the Diablo video game franchise focuses on shapeshifting for its druids, just to name a small handful.

    As Celticists, this likely appears as a mild curiosity, an interesting example of how the public understands the history we study. But, nonetheless, it is important to keep an eye on, to understand how the public perceives our area of study. Not just to have an edge while teaching, writing grant applications, or to understand where odd opinions at dinner parties are coming from, but because these can be misused. 

    In recent years, D&D has rightly faced important criticism for many issues that linger in the game, rooted in its development in the 1970s and the horrific opinions of some of the early developers. As someone who grew up playing D&D (and still do to hold back the emotional entropy that is writing a PhD thesis) and as a historian, these game's misuse of history, particularly for abhorrent ends, is deeply concerning. The game's use of 'Race' has faced important criticism by people such as James Mendez Hodes, who discussed intensely problematic the racial coding behind D&D's Orcs (part 1 and part 2). The use of 'Classes' has also been discussed in how it often plays off stereotypes, such as James Mendez Hodes' discussion of the orientalist history and continued depiction of 'Monk' Class in D&D (here), as well as Paul B. Sturtevant's discussion of the racism inherent to the 'Barbarian' Class (here) and the concerning choice to depict the 'Paladin' Class as (initially, though no longer the case) unequivocally good based on its historical origin. (page 58

    The druid has played a role in the racist history of D&D, being used like the 'Barbarian' Class to distinguish cultures as 'uncivilized'. Though there is not the time to discuss it here, we as Celticists should be aware of such misuses of our history. You never know when such malignant ideas might slip into a classroom and need to be corrected, and, who else but us is responsible to help guide the world away from such harmful uses (or, in this case, the lack of use) of our knowledge?

Emmet Taylor (They/Them), @Emm3tTaylor

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