Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
This week we’re looking at the Circle of Thorns Druid. This subclass arose partially out of research into older Western European religions and folklore for our “A Crown of Cold Iron” campaign. I wanted something that captured a bit more of the subtle and numinous vibe of Celtic magic, steering a bit further out from either flashy high magic fantasy or generic nature appreciation. The class features are all named for important plants in Celtic plant lore. Mechanically, I also wanted to take another crack at a Melee centric tank Druid.
The Thorn Druid is centered around its level 2 abilities, “Bramble and Thicket” and “Oak, Ash and Thorn.” B&T gives a short range damage reaction to punish enemies that attack you. OA&T is the wildshape burning ability and adds temporary hit points, bonus melee damage and a restraining effect to the reaction. Together, this traps enemies in melee with a bulky retributive Druid.
The later features help amplify this. The level 6 ability Hazel and Alder improves Thorn Whip (which also benefits from OA&T’s melee attack damage bonus) encouraging Thorn Druids to keep pulling enemies into closer range where their reaction can activate. Elder and Yew allows the Druid to turn their Bramble and Thicket into an AOE, damaging and restraining foes and providing cover and concealment for allies. The capstone, Moon and Mistletoe, further amplifies the themes, giving a bump to AC and Guardian of Nature on a short rest. The Great Tree form really underlines the mechanics, adding advantage to Thorn Whip and causing difficult terrain, making a Thorn Druid a true lock down tank.
The spell list really leans into both the flavor and mechanics of the class, a wilier, more subtle Druid who controls the battlefield rather than lighting it on fire. The 5th level spell Teleportation Circle is an unusual choice but adds some unique utility and an excellent excuse for some secret Druid outposts scattered across your world.
Themes and Reskinning
The Thorn Druid is definitely meant to lean into a particular kind of dark, secretive view of magic. Hidden esoteric orders, reclusive circles of druids wrapped in mystery. But while there is a lot of tone, the specifics are intentionally vague. Thorn Druids could easily be secretive guardians of the world or maleficent plotters out to conquer it. Thorn Druids could be rooted in Fey or Elemental magic or you could even go for a Lovecraftian spin and tie their magic to Aberrations and otherworldly powers. Thorns and vines could be replaced with horrifying tentacles, iron chains or clawing, grasping limbs. You could be a part of the natural world or a rebellion against it.
The Teleportation Circle spell is also a great excuse to build out a Druidic Order. Don't just have your Druid popping in and out of Wizard towers, add some secret groves and druidic enclaves, complete with colorful NPC's. These groves can add a lot of flavor as well. Are they beautiful sun-dappled glades? Stone circles in the darkest depths of the wood? Frigid, gloomy graveyards?
If your DM is flexible (and if they’re allowing a homebrew subclass they probably are) you can also radically alter the flavor by changing the primary damage type. While magical piercing damage is suitable for thorns you could underline a Fiendish or Undead vibe with necrotic damage or you could even give it a Waterbending visual by swapping the damage for cold or bludgeoning. You could even alter the damage of Thorn Whip itself or brew up your own cantrip with a different damage type (don’t forget the synergy of the pulling effect though!).
I hope you enjoy the Circle of Thorns! Let us know how you used it at your table! Is there anything you would balance or tweak?
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.