The trailer for the new D&D movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves dropped this week. The trailer features a clip where the druid wild shapes into an owlbear!
“But wait,” rules lawyers insist, “a druid can’t turn into an owlbear!”
Technically, they’re right. By the book, druids turn into beasts. And the owlbear is a monstrosity. But it hasn’t always been that way.
What Monster Type Are Owlbears?
Owlbears are one of D&D’s original monsters, going back to a grab bag of plastic toys that Gary Gygax used as miniatures. But, monsters didn’t have types back then. When creatures were first assigned types in 3rd Edition (3e), owlbears were magical beasts. In 4th edition (4e), D&D combined two monster types and made owlbears into fey beasts.
5th Edition (5e) doesn’t have multiple creature types (yet), so when the 5e Monster Manual was printed, they needed to trim down the multitype. Perhaps owing to their more monstrous descriptions in the pre-type era, owlbears shed both their old types and became pure monstrosities.
Could Owlbears Be Beasts?
The owlbear’s monstrosity designation is not set in stone. D&D has recently been experimenting with multiple creature types for character races. While the Centaurs and Minotaurs Unearthed Arcana (May 2018) was the first to feature this tech, the Hybrid Nature feature did not make the final cut for either race.
That wasn’t the end, but it was a while before it surfaced again. Multitype races appeared again in the Gothic Lineages Unearthed Arcana (January 2021). The Dhampir, Hexblood, and Reborn “races” appeared in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, but all were trimmed down to a single type:
While a second type hasn’t been added for owlbear, (a) it’s something that has been done in past editions, and (b) it’s on this edition’s radar as a possibility. Don’t be surprised if you see multitype creatures appear in D&D’s 2024 update of 5th Edition.
The next owlbear printing may be a monstrous beast. Or perhaps a fey beast, as they were represented in 4e. Or maybe even a monstrous fey beast, combining all the historical treatments.
What’s the Risk?
Be confident in breaking the rules without thinking you’ll break the game.
Most DMs are happy to “rule of cool” around the beast restriction and allow their druids to wild shape into an owlbear. If you’re on the fence, perhaps the owlbear’s historical treatment as a beast is enough to sell you.
But, some DMs still want to see the numbers. They understand that rules generally have reasons and don’t want to do something that might break their game.
In the case of the druid, this is generally good advice. You don’t want to expand the range of creatures too far beyond beasts (and the occasional elemental), since beasts tend to punch below their weight class compared to creatures of other types.
Owlbears vs. Beasts
The question is whether this specific case is within reasonable bounds. Let’s compare the owlbear to other CR3 beasts and see how they stack up! We’ll use Basic Rules monsters so we can compare contemporaneous design, without the concern of power creep.
As you can see by this comparison, there’s nothing statistically outrageous about the owlbear.
Defensively, owlbears are outclassed by all the CR3 beasts. The owlbear’s 13 Armor Class (AC) only exceeds the killer whale, who sports 50% more Hit Points (HP) to compensate. The owlbear’s HP beats the giant scorpion by 7, but it cedes 2 AC to the giant scorpion. The ankylosaurus also clocks in at 15 AC, plus it has higher HP.
Offensively, the owlbear holds its own with CR 3 beasts. The owlbear gets two attacks in a class of beasts that ranges from one to three attacks. The owlbear’s attack bonus is best in class (matching the ankylosaurus) and its total damage is also competitive (falling behind only the giant scorpion). However, it doesn’t get any fun attack riders like auto-grapple or prone, and it doesn’t have reach like the ankylosaurus.
The owlbear gets darkvision, which can give them the upper hand in the dark. But, it’s not as broadly effective as the giant scorpion’s blindsight 60′ and the killer whale’s blindsight 120′ (echolocation). Keen Senses also help the owlbear avoid an ambush; they’re not unprecedented for CR 3 beasts.
Among all these creatures, the whale is the most likely to experience some benefit from the environment it’s fighting in. Its swim speed allows it to avoid attacking with disadvantage underwater.
The owlbear is on the smaller range as a large creature, which can provide benefits and drawbacks depending on the situation. Larger creatures can control more space, but they also present a larger surface area for attacks.
Thematically and statistically, owlbears are perfect candidates for wild shape. You can safely allow this change without worrying about your game balance.
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