In our Curse of Strahd campaign one thing I have tried to show is Navere entering a more feral state. He has been driven to this by the dreary fucked weather patterns and day/night cycle, the malicious subversion of the natural impulses of wolves and other creatures, the widespread subversion of the natural cycle of life and death, as well as the redneck fuckhead Druids that worship the vampire Strahd because the weather changes when he's butthurt. To represent Navere's feral upbringing among wolves being closer to the surface, I've decided to begin taking levels of Barbarian and Kyle has allowed me to change from a Circle of the Land Druid to a Circle of the Moon Druid, which is more focused on wild shape and less on spells. Navere's savage feral nature is closer to the surface, but he is still intelligent and has experienced civilization and has an above average Intelligence and Wisdom. The way I represent this struggle between feral wolfiness and civilized intelligence is any time something that trips Navere's predator/prey instincts happens, I roll a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw. Navere has a pretty significant bonus on his Wisdom saving throws, but if he fails, he uses wild shape and becomes a dire wolf. Once he's in dire wolf shape, the same thing happens. If Navere's predator/prey instincts are tripped, he makes a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw. If he fails, he rages. The rage capabilities coupled with his ability to sacrifice spell slots as a bonus action to heal while in wild shape is a pretty good combo. I've also decided that when this happens, once he is in his dire wolf shape, he doesn't leave until the timer runs out on the use or he is forced out of it. In extreme situations I may decide to let him make a Wisdom saving throw to transform out of it. He can still willingly choose to transform into an animal with his wild shape ability, but I'm planning to describe the transformation differently.
In our last session (which at the time this posts happened slightly over three weeks ago) we saw a saber toothed cat and Kyle mentioned to me that I was one Druid level short of being able to wild shape into a saber toothed cat. Navere is a 5th level Druid and Circle of the Moon Druids can transform into animals with a CR equal to their level divided by three, rounded down. This got me thinking though. Wild shape is somewhat limited because your attack bonus will always be limited by the stats of the form you take. So when I have a +5 proficiency bonus, I'll still be using the dire wolf's +2 proficiency bonus on attack rolls. I got to thinking, what if Kyle just let me upgrade the dire wolf (which has a CR of 1) to a dire-er wolf with a CR of 2? Kyle OKed it, so that's what I'm about to discuss doing here.
So the rules for modifying monsters in this edition are a little goofy. Like in Pathfinder or 3.5 I could just apply a template with a CR adjustment of +1 and boom, we have a CR 2 dire wolf. In 5th Edition, you basically take five categories of abilities from a chart of suggested CRs, add the CRs of the defensive traits together and divide by two and then do the same with the offensive traits and divide by three. Then you compare the results and figure out what CR you want your critter to be.
The categories are as follows: armor class, hit points, attack bonus, damage per round, and save DC. The first three are the defensive traits and the last three are offensive traits. The CR 1 dire wolf currently sits at AC 14 (CR 4), 37 hit points (CR 1/4), +5 attack bonus (CR 4), one attack per round with an average of 10 damage per round (CR 1), and the DC for its trip special ability is 13 (CR 1/8 - 3). If we add our defensive CR totals of 4, and 0.25 together we get a net CR of 2.125 for defensive traits. If we add our offensive CR totals of 4, 1, and 0.125 together we get a net CR of 1.71 for offensive traits.
Ok. This is seriously confusing. The guidelines in the DMG that I'm looking at say to round up and down to compare the creature's offensive and defensive abilities. So we have CR 2 defensive traits and CR 2 offensive traits. Looking at all this somewhat confusing information, the dire wolf is a CR 2 creature in the first place. But they made it CR 1 in the Monster Manual. Why?
Looking at the rules for encounter building, a CR 1 creature is supposed to be a medium challenge for a group of 4 to 5 first level PCs. Looking at the dire wolf's low AC (14), and hit points (37), it's probably not going to survive more than a few rounds against a group of 1st level PCs. The average damage of the dire wolf (10) and its +5 attack bonus are definitely going to make it a threat, and it could conceivably drop a low hit point character like a Wizard. We also have to consider the fact that dire wolves are pack animals, so you're not really going to encounter them alone, so they're not really ideal for low level encounters. So yeah, a single dire wolf could do some damage to a 1st level party, but one probably won't TPK them and lone dire wolves are not an ideal monster to pit against 1st level characters. During testing they probably justified making them CR 1 by saying that dire wolves are pack animals and if we keep them at CR 1 DMs can use more of them against higher level characters that have more survivability.
Or they just winged it and came up with these monster creation guidelines way after the fact.
Looking at other large size CR 2 animals, they seem to have a slightly higher Strength and more hit points than our large size CR 1 dire wolf. So let's experiment with that for our CR 2 dire-er wolf. The easiest way I can think of to tweak the dire wolf's stats to achieve slight increases to damage and hit points is fairly obvious. We tweak its Strength and its Constitution. It currently has a Strength of 17 and a Constitution of 15. With just a +1 to both of those ability scores we create minor tweaks to its current stats that make it more comparable to creatures like the saber toothed cat.
With the +1 to the dire wolf's Strength (making it 18) we end up with an attack bonus of +6, an average damage of 11, and we increase the DC for its trip attack to 14. With the +1 to Constitution we make its hit points 42 (it has 5 hit dice). This is comparable to the giant (dire) boar, the giant (dire) hyena, and rhinoceros. These are all large size, CR 2 animals. I think I could make a case for giving it a sixth hit die as well, but I'm not sure. The giant boar has 5, the giant hyena and rhino have 6, and the saber toothed cat has 7. So I dunno.
Kyle suggested making the dire wolf huge or creating a variant of the winter wolf (a CR 3 monstrosity with 70ish hit points) that has a howl that dealt thunder damage. Huge size is kind of ridiculous. It makes Navere's wild shape ability completely impractical for adventuring. It also jumps the dire wolf's hit points from 37 (5d10+10) to 42 (5d12+10). Which does make its hit points more in line with the previously mentioned CR 2 large size creatures. I'll admit it, I really like the idea of a giant wolf with a thunder damage howl, but it is totally not in keeping with everything Navere is about. Monstrosities are just that. They are unnatural. Wild shape can't transform into them as far as I know. Plus, it doesn't fit with Navere. Navere was raised by wolves, a thunder howl wolf isn't natural and doesn't make sense for his background. It's definitely a cool thing I would totally be for in another situation, but it doesn't fit Navere. Navere's whole reason for going semi-feral is because of the unnatural shit going on in Barovia. He wouldn't go feral because of this bullshit and then embrace an unnatural wolf form.
One special note about wild shape, you can't cast spells in a wild shape form (at least not until a higher Druid level that I am probably not going to achieve in this campaign), but you can concentrate on spells while in a wild shape form. So one of the cool things Navere can do is cast call lightning and transform into a dire wolf and then emit a deep as fuck howl to "call" down lightning from a storm of his creation onto the heads of his foes. That just sounds like a cool thing to describe. I'm also very excited by the idea of Navere casting haste on himself and then wild shaping. That's going to be a fun time.
The only problem with these ideas is that if he does fail his Wisdom saving throw and rages, he can no longer concentrate on or cast spells. So that's not ideal, but oh well. I still have plenty of options to do cool things.
After all this talking and going over monster creation and wild shape rules and whatnot, my real wish is that you could replace the creature you transform into's proficiency bonus with your own. Period. End of sentence. That would make low CR forms more useful for magical wild shaping, but the rules as written say that you use the creature's attacks as listed and only replace its proficiency bonus on skills (and I think saving throws) if yours is higher. So it kind of clearly states that you use the critter's proficiency bonus for attacks made in that form. I can definitely see the logic for not allowing attacks to use the character's proficiency bonus. You're transforming into a dire wolf and attacking like a dire wolf and Druids, not having giant ass jaws, would not really be terribly proficient in attacking things with giant ass jaws and dragging creatures to the ground with them. I get it, but the special entitled snowflake inside of me wishes things could be different.
Alas, I have become the thing I hate. So begin the End Times.