Polymorph and Wildshape

Polymorph and wildshape (limited target form polymorph) have long had problems in D&D. I don’t remember what the problems were in AD&D, but I remember that in D&D 3.x there were problems with the choice of target form, how exactly to apply the polymorph, and the escalation caused by ever-increasing monster forms.

Seeing a character polymorphed into an annis hag was memorable.

Last night I realized that while the actual process of applying a polymorph effect to a character might require some work, it actually shouldn’t be that hard to define the rules for doing so.

Polymorph Options

At this point I am primarily interested in benign polymorph where the target is expected to benefit from the experience. However, I think almost the same process should work for malign polymorph (baleful polymorph in RSRD), more or less.

Replacement Model

For benign polymorph the dead simplest form of polymorph is that the target becomes the selected creature, nothing more and nothing less. If a druid were to wildshape to wolf form he would be a wolf in all ways, though still have the same goals and mental attitude, within its capabilities. When the polymorph effect ends, he returns to his normal abilities. Generally easy to adjudicate, but will often cripple the target character – or make him overpowered because the allowable target form is unusually powerful for its Hit Dice.

Replacing Talents

This should have been obvious to me earlier, when I described how I expected to model non-human characters.

In short, replace the subject’s talents with the required talents of the target form. I have not defined yet what the rules are for selecting the talents to trade, but I would think that any racial talents would be a good place to start, followed by talents that might be nonsensical for the new form (such as spellcasting if wildshaping to an animal form – though this might necessarily be so, as I’ll show later).

Examples

Alnorn Gorthak the… Ogre?

Let’s consider our friend Alnorn Gorthak from yesterday. He wants to polymorph to ogre form – convenient, since I worked out possible ogre racial talents on Tuesday. In fact, I’ve copied them below.

  • Heroic Talent: Large Size (and all baggage)
  • Heroic Talent (1 unassigned)
  • Expert Talent: Natural Armor Bonus (+2 so far, goes to +3 at 6th level if it gets upgraded to Heroic)
  • Expert Talent: Great Strength (+2 Strength, 1/day +4 Feat of Strength)
  • Expert Talent (3 unassigned, but presumably some Basic talents below can/should/would be upgraded)
  • Basic Talent: Darkvision
  • Basic Talent: Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Talent: Armor Training
  • Basic Talent: Basic Weapon Focus (Clubs)
  • Basic Talent (1 unassigned)
  • -4 Int, -4 Cha

So, the required racial talents are Large Size (Heroic), Natural Armor Bonus (Expert), Great Strength (Expert), Darkvision (Basic), and -4 to Int and -4 to Cha. The talents above in italics are not inherent to the form and can be ignored.

The fledgling (first-level) Alnorn cannot be polymorphed to an ogre because he lacks the resources needed to take on this form (consistent with earlier editions where you couldn’t polymorph to a form with more Hit Dice than you have). It’s only when he gets to fifth-level that he has the talents needed to trade out. Let’s say it’s the gish version that is to be polymorphed, just for fun.

Gish 5
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Caster Training +2
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +2 damage.
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Thread (Warrior)
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +4
  • 46 hit points
  • d8+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • IL 4, 3/2- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 2nd level
  • CL 4, 6/4/3 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune and Warrior spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

Strict interpretation of what I wrote above means he starts by losing his dwarven traits (three basic talents). However, only one is needed, and that to pay for Darkvision. I’ll admit I like the idea of a dwarf making a shorter and thicker ogre than a human would (many stories about shapechangers have them retaining elements of their normal appearance after changing shape), so for now let’s say that his basic talents are compatible with being an ogre and don’t need to change.

Note that it’s quite reasonable to say that because he’s changing shape he would lose his racial physical traits (he’s no longer a dwarf, after all) and his mental/social traits (his thinking is affected by becoming an ogre as well, and many of the skills he has learned such as fighting giants no longer apply because his body has changed so much). This can often help when polymorphing to non-human forms because it allows a character to make use of natural or instinctive abilities such as flight that would otherwise be very challenging.

He still has to trade off two Expert talents and one Heroic talent. With the Intelligence hit he will be taking he’s going to be a poor spellcaster (-4 Int takes his Int 15 – Int 14 to start, +1 for reaching the top level in Expert tier – down to Int 11). Let’s look to those talents first.

Heroic Caster Training will pay for the Large Size, and… I made a mistake yesterday. Only four of the five Expert slots were assigned. I’ve gone back and corrected it – he’s also learned Expert Thread (Warrior) because third-level spell slots aren’t really useful to him until he knows some third-level spells. Also, it means I don’t have to redo any significant math.

So, Heroic Caster Training will pay for Large Size, and by dumping Expert Thread (Runes) and Expert Thread (Warrior) he can pay for Expert Great Strength and Expert Natural Armor Bonus. Let’s see what he looks like (mechanically).

Gish 5, Ogre form
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic: Large Size
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +2 damage.
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Great Strength
  • Expert Natural Armor Bonus
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Large Size (+8 Str, +4 Con, 10′ space, 10′ reach, etc.)
  • BAB +4, size -1, Str +5
  • 58 hit points (46, +4 bonus to Con, +4*2 increased Con modifier)
  • d10+5/x4 battleaxe (assuming he gets a bigger axe; d8+4/x4 otherwise)
  • +1 AC, +2 Natural Armor, -1 size penalty
  • Str +2, 1/day +4 Feat of Strength
  • Int -4, Cha -6 (would be -4, but he kept the dwarven physical traits as well)
  • IL 4, 3/2- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 2nd level
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

So, by becoming an ogre he’s a fair bit dumber and less charismatic, and has traded his ability to cast spells for being a bigger and badder melee monster. He hits more often (Strength bonus more than covers size penalty – something I want to work on, later) and does more damage (+10 to Strength means +5 to damage), gets hit less often by weapons (+2 Natural Armor overcomes size penalty – another thing I want to work on) but more often by touch attacks, and has more hit points from his increased Constitution.

All things considered, as long as he can stand being an ogre this is a pretty good trade for combat purposes.

It is important to remember that apart from having a couple of dwarvish talents (which could reasonably have been replaced with something more appropriate for an ogre, though the talents assigned to our generic ogre are mostly already present) this is a valid character at this level – he could have been an ogre from the start. As such, it should be safe to expect that this transformation is not unbalanced.

I think it’s important that only the required talents be provided by the polymorph effect. Polymorph should not be a means to gaining trained abilities such as spellcasting or martial disciplines, unless they are considered part of the creature’s native abilities.

This suggests that my earlier approach where dwarves cost three Basic talents may have been out of line because one of the talents was to pay for the mental/social elements of being a dwarf. Such things are probably best marked as common for the “dwarven package” – most dwarves will have them, but it’s possible that some don’t.

In any case, this is very close to a valid character, modulo the dwarven traits, so while being able to change out a few talents it should not be a net increase in power at the time. Of course the ability to change form and swap between sets of talents is valuable, so will be paid for using talents (either for spellcasting, for limited-use polymorph, or full talents for natural polymorph or wildshape – see below).

Alnorn Gorthak the… Ogre… Gish?

There are other ways Alnorn could pay for the talents gained through polymorph. I’ll skip most of the commentary and just present them.

In the first he wants to retain as much spellcasting as possible, so trades out his martial abilities.

Gish 5
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Caster Training +2
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +2 damage.
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Thread (Warrior)
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +4
  • 46 hit points
  • d8+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • IL 4, 3/2- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 2nd level
  • CL 4, 6/4/3 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune and Warrior spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

Assuming he trades out combat abilities as much as possible instead of spellcasting, he could look like the following after his transformation.

Gish 5, Ogre form
  • Heroic Caster Training +2
  • Heroic: Large Size
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +2 damage.
  • Expert Great Strength
  • Expert Natural Armor Bonus
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Large Size (+8 Str, +4 Con, 10′ space, 10′ reach, etc.)
  • BAB +2, size -1, Str +5
  • 38 hit points (18 + 2 * (6+4 mCon))
  • d10+5/x4 battleaxe (assuming he gets a bigger axe; d8+4/x4 otherwise)
  • +1 AC, +2 Natural Armor, -1 size penalty
  • Str +2, 1/day +4 Feat of Strength
  • Int -4, Cha -6 (would be -4, but he kept his dwarven traits as well)
  • CL 4, 4/3/2 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune and Warrior spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

In this case he loses all martial disciplines (but keeps his skill with an axe, if not the increased attack bonus. Despite what it says above, his current Intelligence of 11 may mean he is limited to only first-level spells, so this might not be the best build for this character. The second-level slots may still be useful, of course, so this isn’t necessarily a bad build either.

Again, unless I made a mistake this is a value character. Even with the loss of Martial Training Bonus (and thus lower BAB) and size penalty he still hits a little more often than before and certainly harder, and he still retains some of his spellcasting ability.

Alnorn Gorthak the… Ogre… Gish? Another Way.

One option I haven’t mentioned yet is the ability to downgrade a talent as part of the polymorph. I think this might generally be more trouble than it’s worth for a temporary effect, but if it’s a common thing it might be worth doing.

In this case he will downgrade his spellcasting and drop one of his other Expert talents to pay for his transformation. Again, he starts with the talents below.

Gish 5
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Caster Training +2
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +2 damage.
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Thread (Warrior)
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +4
  • 46 hit points
  • d8+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • IL 4, 3/2- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 2nd level
  • CL 4, 6/4/3 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune and Warrior spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

He downgrades Heroic Casting Training (assuming he can’t cast second-level spells anyway) and replaces Expert Thread (Runes). This makes room for Large Size as an Heroic talent, then he trades out the Stone Dragon Discipline Talents. He can’t trade out Expert Combat Style because it is a prerequisite for the other two, and trading out Expert Thread (Warrior) would leave him without spell knowledge. This leaves him at

Gish 5
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic: Large Size
  • Expert Caster Training +2
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +2 damage.
  • Expert Thread (Warrior)
  • Expert Great Strength
  • Expert Natural Armor Bonus
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Large Size (+8 Str, +4 Con, 10′ space, 10′ reach, etc.)
  • BAB +4, -1 size, +5 Strength
  • 58 hit points
  • d8+5/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC, +2 Natural Armor, -1 size
  • Str +2, 1/day +4 Feat of Strength
  • Int -4, Cha -6 (would be -4, but he kept the dwarven physical traits as well)
  • CL 3, 4/2/1 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune and Warrior spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

Again, this is still a valid character.

Polymorph and Spellcasting

Because polymorph should always end up with valid characters, it should not interfere with spellcasting or other talents unless the form makes it impossible. For instance, a spellcaster polymorphed to animal form probably can’t speak clearly enough to cast spells.

There are a few ways around this, though. One is to have a talent specifically to allow this (much as the Natural Spell feat in the RSRD), but another is to assume Verbal components mean that the character must be capable of making verbal noises and actually does so. A character wildshaped to the form of a tiger might not be able to say words that we understand, but what it can verbalize is sufficient to still focus its magical power – verbal components are to guide mental focus than to actually cause the effect (which is why Silent Spells are possible – the character can verbalize internally well enough he doesn’t need to speak out loud).

Yet another way is to let polymorphed creatures to still speak normally. It’s just one of those things.

As for the spellcasting talents, unless they are traded out as part of the transformation they are still present and should be usable. They may be reduced (downgraded, or Threads traded away), but they can still be present.

A druid wildshaped to the form of a tiger might have to downgrade his Heroic Caster Training (he probably wants to keep his Heroic Wildshape and Heroic Improved Wildshape) to pay for… whatever Heroic talents a tiger might have, so has access to less spellcasting ability than normal. On the other hand, a more powerful druid also wildshaped to tiger form doesn’t lose his Master Caster Training because he doesn’t need to trade it for tiger form.

It appears a shapechanger may want to change to forms less powerful than he is capable of if it means he gets to keep and use higher-tier talents he would lose if he took on more powerful forms. I like this.

Wildshape Talents

Let’s start with the easiest. Druids in AD&D and D&D 3.x have the ability to take on animal form (and at higher levels, plant or elemental form). This looks like it should be fairly straightforward. Wildshape is a significant element of the character’s power (perhaps a third of the character’s highest-tier talents to truly master). You must retain your wildshape talent (though the idea of a wildshaper ‘retiring’ by adopting an alternate form and never returning appeals to me, as does a wildshape who ‘loses himself’ until someone can find him and bring him back to his original form).

Wildshape

Your Wildshape Bonus is equal to his Level Bonus plus his Wildshape Training Bonus. You can only change to beast (monster type) form. You can change a number of talents no greater than your Wildshape Bonus, and can change only talents accessible to a character of a level equal to your Wildshape bonus and no greater than your tier with this ability. That is, a character with Expert Wildshape can change to animals of normal sizes, but cannot wildshape to a large bear form. When he has Heroic Wildshape and a Wildshape bonus of +5 or more he may be able to wildshape to the form of a large bear.

Tier Benefit
Expert +1 to Wildshape Training Bonus, you can wildshape to beast forms.
Heroic +2 to Wildhsape Training Bonus.
Master +3 to Wildshape Training Bonus.
Champion +4 to Wildshape Training Bonus.
Legendary +5 to Wildshape Training Bonus.

Improved Wildshape

The above wildshaper can only take on beast forms, and is constrained in how many abilities he can change and how high a tier talent he can change. This talent raises the Wildshape Bonus (and thus the number of talents that may be changed and possibly the highest tier talent that may be changed), and allows additional types. I chose the forms below to try to align with the order they would be accessible to druids (plant and elemental first, then humanoid, ooze, and construct – nonliving form).

Tier Benefit
Expert +1 to Wildshape Training Bonus, you can wildshape to plant forms.
Heroic +2 to Wildhsape Training Bonus, you can wildshape to elemental forms.
Master +3 to Wildshape Training Bonus, you can wildshape to humanoid forms.
Champion +4 to Wildshape Training Bonus, you can wildshape to ooze forms.
Legendary +5 to Wildshape Training Bonus, you can wildshape to construct forms.

Notes on Wildshape

Generic Shapechanging

If wildshape is to be changed to a more generic “shapechanger” talent it might be worth making more generic. ‘Wildshape’ behaves much the same as described, but the character can choose the monster type that may be shaped, and choose another monster type that can be wildshaped with each tier of Improved Wildshape.

By happy chance I ended up with six monster types when I revised monster types so this looks like it should fit.

Note that many non-animal forms have talents that are outside the tier that grants the ability to shape that kind of creature. For instance, a plant’s immunity to critical hits is probably not an Expert or Basic talent, so even the most capable (highest level, high-tier Wildshape Talent) wildshaper with only Expert Improved Wildshape would not be able to take on a plant form.

Aspects of Nature or Partial Transformation

Unearthed Arcana presented a variant rule where druids can take on ‘Aspects of Nature’. Looking them over they can’t be directly modeled using Wildshape (the benefits they grant are rather more than would be appropriate at the levels they are granted, though this may work in D&D 3.x because of the penalties involved with each). However, it may be reasonable to allow partial transformations that grant only some of the potential talents.

For example, a wolf might have the following talents (which may well be mis-assigned to the different tiers, so don’t worry if they look wrong since they’re for illustration purposes only).

  • Expert: Trip
  • Expert Racial Dexterity +4
  • Expert Racial Constitution +4
  • Basic Scent
  • Basic Racial Fast Movement (+20 feet)
  • Basic Racial Strength +2

Some of the tiers are probably wrong, but maybe not. The racial ability score modifiers are high because I’m working from the D&D “assume rolls of 10 or 11 when deconstructing monsters” guideline, where in reality I would work from the elite array and level bonuses and adjust from there. On the other hand, that -8 to Intelligence (animal intelligence) has to hurt… but it might be only -6 if using the elite array and putting the 8 score there.

Anyway, I digress.

A wildshaper who wanted only part of the benefit of wolf form might take only the pieces he needs. For instance, Aspect of Nature: Wolf’s Stamina (+4 to Constitution) might be a single-talent transformation. The character would take on some wolfish features and have greater stamina than usual. If he wanted the Scent ability he would probably grow a wolf’s snout while using the power, he’s almost certainly going to get hairier, and so on.

This is not fully defined, obviously, but it might be interesting to pursue.

Polymorph Spells

Polymorph spells should probably work much like wildshape. Unlike previous editions it may be feasible to offer lower-level polymorph spells with similar constraints to those for wildshape. For instance, each spell can change talents no higher that the tier of the spell (so a first- or second-level polymorph spell could change only Basic or Expert talents). In the RSRD alter self is only a second-level spell and allows minor modifications, which sounds fairly consistent with this. The number of talents slots that can be changed might be equal to twice the spell level.

Malign Polymorph

Almost this entire article has focused on polymorph effects intended to benefit the recipient. It should of course be possible for polymorph spells to affect characters against their will. It seems this could be easily done by a polymorph spell, if successful, forcing changes to the talents of the victim. I think the most reasonable approach is that, as with the polymorph spells above, the target gets to choose what talents to swap out. If a character lacks available talent slots the transformation fails automatically (you can’t make an army of ogres by polymorphing 0-level peasants). The only other constraint I can think of is that it should be impossible to use as an instant-kill spell. The ability to breathe locally and survive contact with the environment, assuming you’re not having trouble already, should be considered talents that cannot be stripped.

It might be sufficient, rather than using absolute terms, to have the saving throw against polymorph effects based at least in part on the number or tier of the talents being changed. If you want to force a minor change it is harder to resist than more thorough change. For instance, changing a human to a dwarf requires only a few Basic talent slots, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Changing a human to a wolf may require more (the example above shows six talents of up to Expert tier) and thus should be more difficult.

That is, it should be very difficult to use polymorph spells as a save or die effect against most characters. As shown above, if someone forcibly polymorphs Alnorn to ogre form it’s entirely possible he ends up more dangerous in some ways. He’s less intelligent, so no matter what he’s going to be less of a spellcaster than he was before, but if he gets close he’s going to take a chunk out of someone.

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6 Comments

  1. hadsil

    My first impression is that this will be complicated. When you create monsters for a monster manual, you’ll have to determine the essential talents needed for a polymorph. For a given character, you have to decide which talents get traded. If the player can choose as opposed to specifically named ones (i.e. first the dwarf went full warrior dropping spellcasting but then kept spellcasting and dropped warrior stuff) then the decision is made at the time of polymorphing, wasting game minutes as the player figures out what to do.

    At best, the player does “homework” figuring out the various possibilities at home before the game and bringing a catalogue with him and pick a “template” to use each time he polymorphs. This becomes more tedious when the player has choices of different creatures to change into.

    Perhaps just let the character become the creature outright. The player’s character acts as if it was the monster itself as presented in the Echelon Monster Manual. The characters retains his sense of self, of course, but for game mechanics purposes, he’s the monster. Since the monsters will be divided up among tiers, a character can only polymorph into a monster of the same tier or below. (Druid needs to spend the wildshaping talent for it. Wizard needs the proper casting talent level.) With the monsters divided into tiers, a character polymorphing will inherently only have monstrous abilities appropriate for the tier.

  2. That is a valid approach, certainly. I mentioned it as the ‘replacement model’ up at the top.

    You’re suggesting this might be too complicated, and I can understand that. I found that it was mildly time consuming to do this while writing, but there were a couple specific reasons this was so. I’ve been really short on sleep this week, I’m familiar with the framework but not necessarily with the particular abilities (I didn’t have any detail on them until about the time I posted the articles so I’m constantly looking things up), and I did several versions at once so had to keep track of all of them.

    I suspect that planned polymorph will be prepared ahead of time. I think, however, that actually applying the changes doesn’t have to take all that long with a bit of practice and if you don’t worry too much about trying to optimize the results. Most of the individual substitutions I did didn’t take any real time, most of it was just making sure I didn’t do part of the wrong one because I was juggling so many in turn while fatigued.

    The replacement model is simple, but I expect it will often involve some serious loss of power unless the subject creature and target creature type are the same level. It’d work for quick adjudication, though.

    In short, you’re right that this might be impractical. I’m confident that it would work, though, and probably better than the RSRD version.

  3. As for building the monster manual, yeah it might be a bit of a hassle identifying which pieces are required and which aren’t, but I don’t think it should be too arduous since I have to do that anyway, then fill in the edges.

    The malign polymorph, I overlooked that the penalties have to be accounted for — a big hit to intelligence, say (if the character got turned into an animal) should be hard to do, and might count as a big ‘negative talent’.

    In retrospect, I’m thinking maybe mental abilities shouldn’t be modified at all (Alnorn wouldn’t have to be dumb if he’s turned into an ogre). It makes malign polymorph too close to Save or Die, I think.

  4. Elementals are third because druids get animal, then plant, then elemental. They don’t get humanoid exactly, but do get ‘A Thousand Faces’ and I figure transforming to another humanoid shape would be easier than ooze or construct, and ooze easier than construct.

    It’s pretty arbitrary. There’s the option of having shapechange be ‘one form’ for the Wildshape talent, then each tier of Improved Wildshape lets you pick and add another creature type.

  5. hadsil

    “The replacement model is simple, but I expect it will often involve some serious loss of power unless the subject creature and target creature type are the same level. It’d work for quick adjudication, though.”

    I don’t see this as an issue. The player made the conscious choice to do this. Whatever the creature he turns into, he wants what that creature offers. If a 15th level Echelon druid really, really wants to wildshape into a wolf, you could allow for a 15th level wolf. D&D offers short statistics for advancement of creatures with more HD. Echelon could easily do the same thing. You can also rule that while polymorphed you use the higher BAB, saving throws, and hit points between the character and the creature to maintain some tier power. Spellcasting you already addressed, either the creature has to allow it, such an polymorphing into an elf or harpy but not an elephant or purple worm, or you allow for “Natural Spell” inherent to the polymorphing. You may want to consider Natural Spell as a type of metamagic.

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