There's been a lot of kafuffle recently about the nerf/fix (delete as appropriate) to the druid bear form in World of Warcraft, amongst the complaints is the fact that many people have been collecting bear tanking items over other potentially good items, and that these are now redundant if these people can't tank Heroic and end-game instances. This got me thinking about the problem of druid itemisation, and how it seems to affect the feral druid far more than, say, a Balance/Restoration druid. The obvious difference is that Balance and Restoration have a shared common interest when it comes to itemisation: they both need high Int, with spelldamage for one and healing for the other, which, although not necessarily optimal for end-game builds, can be found together on a lot of items. For a pure healer straight +healing will be better, but for a hybrid DPS caster and healer, items with +spelldamage and +healing are abundant and pretty useful.
Now if we consider itemisation for the feral druid, several problems arise as things currently stand. Firstly, we can consider the two forms, cat and bear, to be the two areas which the feral druid switches between, cat for DPS and bear for tanking; contrast and compare with moonkin for DPS and caster form for healing. We could probably pick the shared stat for bear and cat form as Stamina, seeing as it's a useful stat for both melee forms, but after that things rapidly separate; bear form requires high armour, and one of the main reasons we see feral druids with multiple sets of gear is that the items that are best for bear form really don't give anywhere near optimal performance in cat form and vice versa. Rings with armour stats are invaluable to bear form, but pretty much useless to cat form, for example.
Ok, so feral druids have to collect multiple sets of gear, 'So what?' I hear you cry, many classes have to do the same; warriors for example, with tanking and DPS sets. A fair point, until you consider the role of the feral druid (which is not, as many forum posts would have you believe, to respec to pure Restoration and get to the back and heal). The role of the feral druid is versatility, the ability to DPS well enough not to be a burden and then switch to an off-tank role if the situation requires it. The problem here is two-fold. In instances this versatility is often only required if something has gone wrong, the majority of encounters are simple 'tank and spank' routines, and the feral druid can be a tanker or a spanker. Generally the spanker role is given to a feral druid, and if an unexpected patrol arrives the feral druid switches from spanker to tanker and helps to keep things under control. However, instances are fairly easy affairs, you learn the mobs, you work out just how many world buffs and consumables you need to beat it, and you organise things in a military fashion. Job done. Rarely is there an encounter where you do not know what to expect from each time you do it to the next. This is where having a multi-role class would come in to its own.
Except the feral druid wouldn't come in to her own, and thus the second problem arises. With itemisation as it stands, the feral druid needs two sets of gear to make her effective in each role, and you can't switch gear in the middle of combat. Does anyone see a problem here? Yes, you at the back with the black blazer. Indeed! The multi-role use of a feral druid comes in to its own when switching roles in combat, when the unexpected were to happen mid-combat, the druid could switch roles to compensate. Except her gear won't change with her.
And this, it seems, is the problem with defining a feral druid's role in the game. They're prevented from DPSing as well as a pure DPS class, or tanking as well as a pure tank class, because they can do both roles to a lesser extent. Fair enough. The problem being that, during combat, they can only really perform one role or the other due to itemisation, and not as well as a pure class. So they become a sort of lame version of two classes, with no advantage over taking the pure class required for the encounter. If you know you're going to get adds when you take on Geoffzilla the boss, then take an extra warrior in that raid slot. Need to DPS down Geoffrah the Everliving quickly? Take a rogue or mage.
So, are there any solutions to this problem? Of course there are, but they're probably non-trivial to implement, otherwise they'd be in the game already. Firstly, encounters could do with having the random element added to them. Instead of Geoffzilla and Geoffrah, what if you had Geoffzilrah, who sometimes would bring lots of adds with him, and other times he'd need to be DPSd down quickly instead, and you had no way of telling until you got there. A multi-role fighter might be more useful in a raid slot, in that case. It shouldn't be too hard to conceive of encounters where someone who could switch from DPS to tank and back would be a boon, even if not essential. And then there's the itemisation: it seems unfair to have gear that's solely designed for druids, but we have class gear already, so it's not too far a leap to make druid class gear slightly different again. In this case you'd want something like +cat, +bear stats, much like the +spelldamage, +healing of caster items, where the item confers the appropriate useful bonus in each form, +cat adds to AP, +bear adds to armour or stamina, for example.
It's not an easy problem to solve, and that's probably why there seems to exist such controversy around the druid and their 'defining role' in the World of Warcraft. The class has the potential to be an exciting combination of roles, helping to fill gaps and tackle unexpected encounters by changing the dynamic of a group at any time, even mid-combat. I don't think druids want to be the centre of the raiding world, I think many would be happy to be the filler in the cracks of strategy, quietly helping where they're needed to bolster the overall effectiveness and survivability of a raid or group. Perhaps in the end, though, their role is to cause controversy and keep the Blizzard Community Managers busy with moderating the class forum, in which case druids should probably expect another nerf soon, because they're far too good at that role...
Melmoth plays a Feral druid, a Holy paladin and an Enhancement shaman, and probably suffers from multiple personality disorder from playing so many non-hybrid hybrids.
No he doesn't.