Getting back on topic with D&D classes, only ones outside the original four. Druid is still a very old class, dating back to 1st Edition AD&D, but they spent most of their life as a subtype of clerics. I’m particularly fond of them, so I’m jumping ahead of bards and cavaliers and everything else.
So far, I’ve tried to balance the perspective between Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, being the systems I know the most, but this one will be focusing more on the changes made to druid in the Pathfinder rules set since I’m currently running it.
Gygax had druids—inspired from the pagan, British Isles/Stonehenge druids—back in oD&D, but they didn’t become a playable class until the late ’70s. The idea was that True Neutral clerics made up a sub-set called druids, who worshiped nature as a perfect balance. They were restricted from using metal armor and weaponry, except those with specific symbolic meaning (e.g. the crescent-moon shape of the sickle and scimitar), but could cast more spells and cast faster than Clerics, and had a slightly more aggressive spell-list.
Besides the alignment restrictions, they had other moral/societal rules, but spoke their own cool language and got little animal buddies and in Unearthed Arcana could summon elementals. 2nd AD&D continued with the whole “TN sub-class of nature clerics” thing, but made their casting abilities more or less equal to a cleric’s.
3rd edition gave major tweaks to druids; first off, they were their own class, not a type of cleric. They still had alignment and weapon/armor restrictions, but they got a sizable set of benefits. Druids received an animal companion, and the ability to spontaneously cast summon nature’s ally spells; their shapeshifting abilities were expanded in 3.5, allowing them to change into elementals and a variety of animals and sizes.
Pathfinder tweaked much of how druids operate. Their base details are the same, though slightly nerfed. Wildshape is acquired earlier, but instead of gaining the stats for an animal, it merely gives a set number of bonuses and a limited number of the animal’s special qualities (such as darkvision or grab). Meanwhile, in 4th, they became Controllers, the divine to match the arcane wizard Controllers. They gain more at-will attack powers, and retain many of their traditional abilities (such as Wildshape).
Like most of the more “advanced” classes which exist outside the core four, Druids have a number of important attributes. Wisdom determines their spellcasting. Dexterity and Constitution are vital for keeping the Druid alive, and Strength is highly useful for any melee-centric Druid. Intelligence isn’t that useful, but since it impacts skill points, it’s not a dump-stat; it may seem counter-productive to dump Charisma, since it impacts calming animals, but Wild Empathy is usually powerful enough to take a minor Charisma hit.
Role within the party
Jumping into the Controller category for 4th is an odd choice, but druids have had Controller aspects for ages. Their spell selection is much more control-dominated than a cleric, with spells like entangle, spike growth, and spike stones. (Marginal though they are, they are still very handy spells.) Druids in Pathfinder and 3.5 are incredibly diverse. They can become powerful warriors with their wildshape, or use it to fill the scout or skirmisher roles, which are also augmented by woodland stride and trackless step. They have a larger number of versatile offensive spells than clerics (heat/chill metal, call lightning, flame strike, wood warp, produce flame) while retaining many capable buff spells (barkskin, air walk); they can spot-cast summoning, and have numerous spells that buff their animal companion and summoned creatures. Oh, and they’re also passable healers, better than a bard but far inferior to a cleric.
So, while the druid can very easily become a controller, they are spread all over the party roles. They can be controllers, healers, scouts, and make solid second-line skirmishers or warriors, and even alternate between these roles based on their build.
All of them. Druid was the 3.5 power class for a reason, and they’re still very capable in Pathfinder. They get an animal companion, roughly another frontline fighter, can summon more animals, and can turn into one at 4th level. They have limitless capabilities related to plants, animals, and nature through their abilities and spells. They have a solid spell-list, shorter and weaker than either a cleric or wizard’s, but overlapping both where it needs to. They have two good saves, Fort and Wis, a great selection of skills, and average attack and progression.
Oh, and as divine casters, they can wear armor (shitty non-metal armor it may be) and cast spells. Spells which the druid didn’t have to buy and learn, either.
Alignment restrictions are annoying; weapon and armor restrictions are downright painful. Wearing metal armor means the druid loses her abilities and spellcasting for the day, which is a serious hindrance. This leaves them with a low-grade AC; when in wildshape, the AC is that of the animal, which would be “piss-poor.” Plus, druids are stuck holding either crappy weapons (clubs, staves) or expensive ones (scimitars, sickles). Oh, and their ranged weapon is a sling; yay. Druids also have bad Reflex saves, and their wildshape is severely limited at first, and doesn’t have half the punch it used to due to becoming the new beast shape spells.
Their spell list is very capable, but is focused largely towards buffing animals, not people, and doing an amazing amount of inane shit with plants (talking to them, driving them away, etc.). It lacks the consistent versatility of other casters: neither as much healing as a cleric’s or as much damage as a wizard’s.
Druids were the most powerful class in 3.5, being able to do everything at once; instead of having to buff oneself to perform this like a cleric or wizard did, the druid just had to wildshape. Pathfinder has nerfed their wildshape power-ability. And yet, they’re still one of the more powerful classes. Wildshape and casting can put the druid above the fighter in utilitarian value, and gives them more of an offensive edge than a rogue, though they have nothing to compare to a good sneak attack. Most of all, for any wilderness-based game, their list of abilities allows them to overcome a number of hindrances—poison, difficult terrain—that can bog down other characters.
A druid isn’t able to heal or buff as well as a cleric, or damage and de-buff as well as a wizard. However, their spell list does encompass the best aspects of priests and mages, capable of healing (even though it isn’t that good at it), capable of buffing (the same bull’s strength, cat’s grace, etc. as everyone else), has versatile offensive spells, and can control the battlefield. Just because druids don’t excel at any of these the way other casters can doesn’t negate the fact that they can do any of them all at once.
So, druids got a necessary nerf that still leaves them with the capabilities to outshine the rogue and fighter in combat, while their spellcasting remains a few steps behind the other casters. Either one would make it a great class; having all of these benefits and advantages makes it downright powerful.