For example: polymorph (which was something of a festering wound in the 3E era, with designers cycling through at least three total revamps, and concluding by wiping the spell entirely out of all official games). When I ran my D2 "Shrine of the Kuo-Toa" convention game a few weeks back, I was blessed with player Dave G. at the table, who put in a lot of advance preparation to make the most out of this and other spells. What he came up with was -- having his wizard regularly polymorph into an androsphinx (from the AD&D Monster Manual, which I have at the table and is compatible with OD&D). It's size is the same as a troll (so meeting my BOS size limit), it has a human head and voice (so I allowed spellcasting), it has lightning-fast 30" winged movement, an armor class of -2 (better than anything in OD&D by several steps), and two big attacks for 2d6 damage each. Also: The spell effectively lasts for the whole adventuring day, so his wizard was always traveling in this form (following the 1 hour/level duration, with a 9th-level wizard, in accordance with the conspicuously lengthened duration in the 3E version of the spell).
A great choice, and I allowed it under the existing rules, and we had a lot of fun and excitement with it. (Actually, he died in the very first encounter by virtue of scouting alone over the river and getting ambushed by the insane high-level Kuo-Toa there -- but on reincarnation I let him come back permanently in the same sphinx-form so as to honor the choice and extend the experiment.) In retrospect, however, it's really more "wahoo" than I want in my game campaign. A caster unleashing his savage internal monster for one desperate fight has some poetry to it; wandering around all day with the party fitting a sphinx into their marching order is a little goofy by my standards.
Afterwards, we discussed how I might change the spell in the future, and I thought about it all night. Obviously, the real problem was that I hadn't looked closely enough at the 3E language to head off the problems in the first place (again, thanks to Dave for bringing "many eyes" to the issue). Also, I wasn't thrilled by how vague the 3E "natural abilities" language was, in that it required some major, highly variable adjudications at game time. Here's my take on what I'll do with the spells next time (explanations follow):
Polymorph Self: (Range: Personal, Duration: 12 turns) The caster changes into another creature, as selected from the list in Vol-2, up to 6 HD. The caster gains the creature's appearance, armor, movement, attacks (by HD), and appropriate Strength; other statistics stay the same, and no special abilities are gained (including magical flight by undead). If slain, the caster reverts to his or her original form.
Polymorph Other: (Range: 12 inches, Duration: 1 year) The target of this spell changes into another creature, as selected from the list in Vol-2, up to 6 HD. The changed target must make a second save vs. spells; if failed, then he or she becomes the creature type in all respects, including mental state. Otherwise: The target gains the creature's appearance, armor, movement, attacks (by HD), and appropriate Strength; other statistics stay the same, and no special abilities are gained (including magical flight by undead). If slain, the target reverts to his or her original form.
Keep in mind that the prime directive in Book of Spells is maximal brevity, such that players and DM's can glance briefly at a spell during the play (or better yet, just remember it) and keep the pace of the game moving along. Several of my decisions are going to turn on that guiding principle (polymorph self in my book is about 5 lines long, polymorph other 7 lines long). Also: While I basically came up with my solution independently, on a night when I didn't have any other resource books available, I now realize that several parts of this match up with other editions of D&D by other designers.
First of all: Like Andy Collins said (link), the spell really needs to not be open-ended and improving by accident every time someone publishes a new monster. A fixed list of available monsters would be best, even though no one ever did that in any official version; that way we can step through the finite list and decide whether we're happy with the powers granted from each possible selection. (A common ruling you'll hear is "turn into anything you've seen" -- possibly inspired by similar language applied to phantasmal force in the 1E DMG (p. 45) -- but that certainly doesn't work in a tournament setting where we didn't play the character through lower levels. Nor would I want to require maintaining a "things seen" list in campaign play just for this or any other spell.) Fortunately, I'm playing mostly by the OD&D LBB's, which aren't being modified anymore, and Vol-2 starts with a 2-page summary list of all the monsters -- so I can just use that as my permitted list.
In addition, I am sympathetic to giving "gross physical abilities" like movement, armor, and attacks (like Dave Cook started doing in the bifurcated 2E polymorph other). In fact, it's incredibly convenient, because those are precisely the traits listed in the OD&D Vol-2 summary table. So if we restrict our benefits to just those traits, players can scan the two-page table and see pretty much everything available for their polymorph casting.
As in the Expert Rules (by Cook), or the 3.5 Revision (initiated by Cordell & Williams in 3E Tome and Blood), if we do give combat abilities, then a Hit Dice limit seems like a good idea. I've picked a fixed cap of 6 HD, which may seem quite low, but remember that in OD&D this will still allow you to turn into a Dragon, etc. I strongly considered making the cap at 8 HD to allow turning into a giant (as referenced in Chainmail) or a hippopotamus (as in AD&D), but then this would start covering some more advanced creatures that would necessitate other restrictions on their abilities (like the invisible stalker's natural appearance, or an air elemental's gaseous nature, or the djinn's magical flight movement). In the interest of "maximal brevity", I felt it was better to set a slightly lower HD cap and just slice all these exceptional cases right out of the spell. (You'll notice that I do allow undead, but specially bar the presumably unnatural flight of wraiths or spectres; I could have prohibited undead forms entirely, but then the text wouldn't be any shorter, so I decided to err in the more permissive direction here.)
I'll also praise Cook for generally keeping the full panoply of creature abilities away from characters, at least until such time as they likewise lose their mind and have the monster's personality take them over. As mentioned before, that seems pretty elegant, so I lifted the idea here after reading the Expert Rules version.
On duration: See my other recent blog entry "On Long-Lasting Spells" in general (link). The 4th-level polymorph others spell is right on the borderline, where I'd prefer to avoid spells being truly permanent.In accordance with the model I put together there, like other 4th-level spells, I'll be capping the maximum duration for polymorph others at 1 year. In fact, that perfectly matches a number of shapechanging tales from Celtic mythology! (In contrast, polymorph self is set to 12 turns, much like the OD&D version; much reduced from the crazy 3E boost).
Though much of Welsh mythology has been lost, shapeshifting magic features several times in what remains. Pwyll was transformed by Arawn into Arawn's own shape, and Arawn transformed himself into Pwyll's, so that they could trade places for a year and a day...
Gilfaethwy committed rape with help from his brother Gwydion. Both were transformed [as punishment] into animals, for one year each. Gwydion was transformed into a stag, sow and wolf, and Gilfaethwy into a hind, boar and she-wolf. Each year, they had a child. Math turned the three young animals into boys. [Wikipedia; link]
While I was at Wikipedia and researching myths, legends, and fables of shapeshifting (above), I tallied up all the different creature forms mentioned in the article there -- to see if there were any obvious patterns or prohibitions that I wanted to model here. Results: 77 mammals, 25 birds, 6 monsters (dragon-types), 6 reptiles (snake, lizard, crocodile), 4 fish, 3 amphibians, 3 insects (fly, spider, butterfly), and 6 others (eel, crab, lindworm, vampire, tree, cloud). Note that generic animals & insects are included right at the end of the Vol-2 list. I'm quite tempted to prohibit changing into insects (granted how rare that is in the literature), and to likewise implement a size minimum (as seen in most editions, e.g., "wren" size in AD&D) -- but in the interest of maximal brevity I'm going to try swinging without such a restriction. If Athena's mother could turn into a fly (and be swallowed by Zeus; link), then I guess maybe my PCs should be able to do the same trick. Maybe that's a mistake on my part?
To conclude, let's take an opportunity to look at our fixed list from Vol-2 (maximum 6HD), check some of the top-level polymorph options, and see if we're happy with them occurring in our game:
- Troll -- Strong, with 2 attacks in OED. Acceptable.
- Hydra -- Up to 6 attacks. This may actually be the most questionable option; I considered prohibiting multiple attacks. But pursuing max brevity, and I don't think that pulling this trick for one combat (in melee with AC 5 and normal wizard hit points) is game-breaking. (See also: origin of Scylla.)
- Dragon -- Top-level AC 2, flying movement, and pretty good claw/bite attacks in my game. I'm okay with this, it's a common mythological form (see Fafnir and others), it's cited many times in classic D&D polymorph (OD&D, AD&D, etc.), and there are other monsters available which better any one of these individual abilities.
- Pegaus or Roc -- Very fast 48" flying movement. In my recent games this would have been more of a problem, since the hours-long duration would allow a lone PC to scout out 48 hexes on the Outdoor Survival map in a single day (see OD&D Vol-3, p. 16). But reducing the duration to about the old OD&D level makes this not as huge a problem.
- Ochre Jelly -- Move through small cracks. Clever, but not really game-breaking, and it's explicitly one of the things offered in the classic spells (with black pudding as the example; which in my version has too many HD).
- Small Animals & Insects -- Disguising oneself as a mundane animal or bird is by far the most common legend for shapeshifting, and my players have used it a lot for scouting purposes outdoors. The one sketchy thing is if there's some kind of cheat for arbitrarily small insects (like a fly). At the moment I'm allowing it.
So that's what I think I'll be running with in the future for polymorph spells in my games. Like or dislike? Should I require continuing monthly mental saves for polymorph other so the PC party doesn't change themselves all into dragons on an extended basis? Any options from the OD&D Vol-2 list that I'm overlooking as broken or problematic? (Thanks to Dave G. for inspiring the last two or three weeks of posts.)