Saturday Spreadsheet

An assessment of all the different effects of the polymorph spells, from 0E to 3E (PDF here, ODS here):


My Polymorph

When I first created my OED Book of Spells product (see sidebar), the process went like this: take the 3E SRD ruleset, and chop down the open-licensed text therein to something that resembled classic D&D as much as possible. Partly this was to be as radically license-approved as possible, and partly this was to save time. As I've used the product in my games for a few years now (it works smashingly well to hand every wizard player at the table their own little concise spellbook), it may be that I need to go back and assess individual spells for how well they (in their 3E iteration) reflect the classic game that I went to play.

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.)


Spells Through The Ages – Polymorph

In my recent HelgaCon D&D games (run with my OED house rules), I had a player named Dave G., who is a very smart cookie, but with whom I generally only get to game with once a year. I have to thank him, because he did some serious advance preparation the week before, picking a wizard character, and really looking for ways to push the available powers to their breaking point. Like, for example, the polymorph spells, which have an interesting pedigree in D&D history -- in particular, they seem to have driven the 3E era designers practically stark raving mad (as you'll see below). 


Chainmail Fantasy

Polymorph: This allows the user to change himself into the semblance of anything of from his own size to something as large as even a giant. It lasts until the user changes himself back or it is countered. (Complexity 4)
As usual, we begin with a very brief piece of text. This spell only affects the caster (there is no "polymorph other" option). The specific powers gained (e.g., as a giant) are not specified, but presumably the caster then just functions fully as that type. Duration seems to be indefinite, up to the will of the caster (text lower on the page says, "In order to cast and maintain any spell, a Wizard must be both stationary and undisturbed by attack upon his person", which might need interpretation or deletion in this case).

Original D&D

Polymorph Self: A spell allowing the user to take the shape of anything he desires, but he will not thereby acquire the combat abilities of the thing he has polymorphed himself to resemble. That is, while the user may turn himself into a dragon of some type, he will not gain the ability to fight and breathe, but he will be able to fly. Duration: 6 turns + the level of the Magic-User employing it.

Polymorph Others: Unlike the spell to Polymorph Self, this spell lasts until it is dispelled. The spell gives all characteristics of the form of the creature, so a creature polymorphed into a dragon acquires all of the dragon's ability — not necessarily mentality, however. Likewise, a troll polymorphed into a snail would have innate resistance to being stepped on and crushed by a normal man. Range: 6".
With OD&D, we get both the polymorph "self" and "others" options (both are 4th-level magic-user spells). The latter spell seems to give all the powers of the creature, although it subtly implies that the mental state might take over as well (more fully developed in AD&D) -- and there is no duration specified, so we might interpret that as permanent (particularly harsh as in the classic case of a wizard or witch turning a PC into a helpless frog, snail, pig, etc.). The former spell doesn't imply any mental change, but it seems like the only benefit the caster receives is mode of movement (e.g., winged flight), and the duration is limited to 6 turns + level (which is either about 12 minutes per Chainmail, or 120 minutes per Vol-3).

AD&D 1st Ed.

Polymorph Self (Alteration)
Level: 4
Range: 0
Duration: 2 turns/level
Area of Effect: The magic-user

Explanation/Description: When this spell is cast, the magic-user is able to assume the form of any creature - from as small as a wren to as large as a hippopotomus - and its form of locomotion as well. The spell does not give the other abilities (attack, magic, etc.), nor does it run the risk of changing personality and mentality. No "system shock" check is required. Thus, a magic-user changed to an owl could fly, but his or her vision would be human; a change to a black pudding would enable movement under doors or along halls and ceilings, but not the pudding's offensive or defensive capabilities. Naturally, the strength of the new form must be sufficient to allow normal movement. The spell caster can change his or her form as often as desired, the change requiring only 5 segments. Damage to the polymorphed form is computed as if it were inflicted upon the magic-user, but when the magic-user returns to his or her own form, from 1 to 12 (d12) points of damage are restored.

Polymorph Other (Alteration)
Level: 4
Range: ½"/level
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: One creature

Explanation/Description: The polymorph other spell is a powerful magic which completely alters the form and ability, and possibly the personality and mentality, of the recipient. Of course, creatures with a lower intelligence cannot be polymorphed into something with a higher intelligence, but the reverse is possible. The creature polymorphed must make a "system shock" (cf. CONSTITUTION) roll to see if it survives the change. If it is successful, it then acquires all of the form and abilities of the creature it has been polymorphed into. There is a base 100% chance that this change will also change its personality and mentality into that of the creature whose form it now possesses. For each 1 point of intelligence of the creature polymorphed, subtract 5% from the base chance. Additionally, for every hit die of difference between the original form and the form it is changed into by the spell, the polymorphed creature must adjust the base chance percentage by +/-5% per hit die below or above its own number (or level in the case of characters). The chance for assumption of the personality and mentality of the new form must be checked daily until the change takes place. (Note that all creatures generally prefer their own form and will not willingly stand the risk of being subjected to this spell!) If a one hit die orc of 8 intelligence is polymorphed into a white dragon with 6 hit dice, for example, it is 85% (100% - [5% × 8 intelligence] + [(6 - 1) × 5%] = 85%) likely to actually become one in all respects, but in any case it will have the dragon's physical and mental capabilities; and if it does not assume the personality and mentality of a white dragon, it will know what it formerly knew as well. Another example: an 8th level fighter successfully polymorphed into a blue dragon would know combat with weapons and be able to employ them with prehensile dragon forepaws if the fighter did not take on dragon personality and mentality. However, the new form of the polymorphed creature may be stronger than it looks, i.e. a mummy changed to a puppy dog would be very tough, or a brontosaurus changed to an ant would be impossible to squash merely from being stepped on by a small creature or even a man-sized one. The magic-user must use a dispel magic spell to change the polymorphed creature back to its original form, and this too requires a "system shock" saving throw. The material component of this spell is a caterpillar cocoon.

Errata-like notes in the DMG section on spells:
Polymorph Others: As is continually pointed out, henchmen and hirelings will NOT desire to be subjected to the effects of this spell! Furthermore, level of experience is not a part of a character's form, so it is quite foolish and totally impossible to attempt to polymorph a creature into an nth level character. Likewise, profession is not form, so attempting to polymorph to a fighter, thief, etc. results in human form and nothing more. Shape changers (lycanthropes, deities, druids, vampires, certain dragons, iackalweres, dopplegangers, mimics, et. al.) will be affected for but one round, then will return to their former form.

The 1st Ed. spell in many ways looks like the OD&D spell, with just more of the details explicated. Again, polymorph self mostly just gives the movement of the creature indicated, almost nothing else (including vision). What it does add are: (1) a note about the "strength" of the creature (which is usually by implication in AD&D), (2) a small amount of healing when the caster returns to normal (which I think is one of those dumb fiddly bits that complicates stuff), and (3) the ability to change form as often as desired (that being an enormously powerful, and often overlooked, benefit)! Somewhat unusually, its duration is still in turns (not a very large amount of time, but consider that most other OD&D spells that were in turns were switched to rounds in AD&D).

The polymorph others spell, however, has gotten a lot more verbiage to delineate the scope of its power -- and also all of the errata material in the DMG. While the subject gets all abilities of the creature type, it faces a gauntlet of difficulties getting there: (1) a new call for a "system shock" roll to avoid instant death (and another one when switching back to normal), (2) a unique Intelligence-based save to avoid taking the monster-type mentality (this alone takes up about 300 words, or half of the spell text), (3) a general refusal of NPCs to be subject to the spell (in DMG notes), (4) inability of the spell to give class or level specifics, and (5) failure of the spell on naturally shapechanging subjects.

AD&D 2nd Ed.

Polymorph Self
Range: 0

Duration: 2 turns/level
Area of Effect: The caster

When this spell is cast, the wizard is able to assume the form of any creature, save those that are noncorporeal, from as small as a wren to as large as a hippopotamus. Furthermore, the wizard gains its physical mode of locomotion and breathing as well. No system shock roll is required. The spell does not give the new form's other abilities (attack, magic, special movement, etc.), nor does it run the risk of the wizard changing personality and mentality.

When the polymorph occurs, the caster's equipment, if any, melds into the new form (in particularly challenging campaigns, the DM may allow protective devices, such as a ring of protection, to continue operating effectively). The caster retains all mental abilities, including spell use, assuming the new form allows completion of the proper verbal and somatic components and the material components are available. A caster not used to a new form might be penalized at the DM's option (for example, -2 penalty to attack rolls) until he practices sufficiently to master it.

Thus, a wizard changed into an owl could fly, but his vision would be human; a change to a black pudding would enable movement under doors or along halls and ceilings, but not the pudding's offensive (acid) or defensive capabilities. Naturally, the strength of the new form is sufficient to enable normal movement. The spellcaster can change his form as often as desired for the duration of the spell, each change requiring a round. The wizard retains his own hit points, attack rolls, and saving throws. The wizard can end the spell at any time; when voluntarily returning to his own form and ending the spell, he regains 1d12 hit points. The wizard also will return to his own form when slain or when the effect is dispelled, but no hit points are restored in these cases.

Polymorph Other
Range: 5 yds./level

Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: 1 creature

The polymorph other spell is a powerful magic that completely alters the form and ability, and possibly the personality and mentality, of the recipient. Of course, while a creature with a lower Intelligence can be polymorphed in form into something with a higher Intelligence, it will not gain that creature's mental ability. The reverse-- polymorphing a higher Intelligence creature into one of significantly lower Intelligence-- results in a creature much more intelligent than appearances would lead one to believe The polymorphed creature must succeed on a system shock (see Table 3) roll to see if it survives the change. After this, it must make a special Intelligence check to see if it retains its personality (see following).

The polymorphed creature acquires the form and physical abilities of the creature it has been polymorphed into, while retaining its own mind. Form includes natural Armor Class (that due to skin toughness, but not due to quickness, magical nature, etc.), physical movement abilities (walking, swimming, and flight with wings, but not plane shifting, blinking, teleporting, etc.), and attack routines (claw/claw/bite, swoop, rake, and constriction, but not petrification, breath weapons, energy drain, etc.). Hit points and saving throws do not change from the original form. Noncorporeal forms cannot be assumed. Natural shapeshifters (lycanthropes, dopplegangers, higher level druids, etc.) are affected for but one round, and can then resume their normal form.

If slain, the polymorphed creature reverts to its original form, though it remains dead. (Note that most creatures generally prefer their own form and will not willingly stand the risk of being subjected to this spell!) As class and level are not attributes of form, abilities derived from either cannot be gained by this spell, nor can exact ability scores be specified.

When the polymorph occurs, the creature's equipment, if any, melds into the new form (in particularly challenging campaigns, the DM may allow protective devices, such as a ring of protection, to continue operating effectively). The creature retains its mental abilities, including spell use, assuming the new form allows completion of the proper verbal and somatic components and the material components are available. Creatures not used to a new form might be penalized at the DM's option (for example, -2 to attack rolls) until they practice sufficiently to master it.

When the physical change occurs, there is a base 100% chance that the subject's personality and mentality change into that of the new form (i.e., a roll of 20 or less on 1d20). For each 1 point of Intelligence of the subject, subtract 1 from the base chance on 1d20. Additionally, for every Hit Die of difference between the original form and the form it is assuming, add or subtract 1 (depending on whether polymorphed form has more Hit Dice [or levels] or fewer Hit Dice [or levels] than original, respectively). The chance for assumption of the personality and mentality of the new form is checked daily until the change takes place.

A subject acquiring the mentality of the new form has effectively become the creature whose form was assumed and comes under the control of the DM until recovered by a wish spell or similar magic. Once this final change takes place, the creature acquires the new form's full range of magical and special abilities.

For example: If a 1 Hit Die orc of 8 Intelligence is polymorphed into a white dragon with 6 Hit Dice, it is 85% (20 - 8 Intelligence + 5 level difference [6-1] = 17 out of 20 = 85%) likely to actually become one in all respects, but in any case it has the dragon's physical and mental capabilities. If it does not assume the personality and mentality of a white dragon, it knows what it formerly knew as well.

The wizard can use a dispel magic spell to change the polymorphed creature back to its original form, and this requires a system shock roll. Those who have lost their individuality and are then converted back maintain the belief that they are actually the polymorphed creature and attempt to return to that form. Thus, the orc who comes to believe he is a white dragon, when converted back to his orc form, steadfastly maintains he is really a white dragon polymorphed into the shape of an orc. His companions will most likely consider him mad.

The material component of this spell is a caterpillar cocoon.

In large part, these spells are the same as the 1E version (which is common: the 2E text usually hews very closely to 1E; the 2E designer Dave "Zeb" Cook recently told me that TSR wanted the adventure materials to be cross-compatible, which makes a lot of sense to me). The changes that polymorph self makes are very minor: (1) it disallows changing into a noncorporeal creature, (2) it grants locomotion and breathing to the subject (a detail that can make a huge and well-considered impact, especially if used underwater), (3) it notes that equipment melds into the new creature's form (and also for polymorph others), (4) an explicit call that the user retains spell-casting abilities, and (5) an optional disorientation penalty of -2 to checks at the DM's discretion (a vague, fiddly, complicated 2E'ism of which I'm not terribly fond). Both spells here also establish the fact that a polymorphed creature returns to its natural form when slain.

The polymorph others spell incorporates the 1E DMG errata (as is customary), and is now about 750 words long. Interestingly, play seems to have discovered the need for a major new restriction to the spell, determined by whether the creature's mind is transformed or not. If the creature saves in this regard, then it only gains a limited subset of the creature type's abilities (natural AC, movement, and physical attack routines). However, the creature must continue to make its save daily; only when its mind transforms does it receive all the rest of the creature's ability portfolio (and simultaneously becoming a DM-run NPC). In other words, while a few extra abilities are granted over polymorph self, polymorph others disallows special abilities from ever being used by any player-run character (as opposed to how it worked in 1E). I find that to be an interesting and not totally inelegant ruling.

D&D Expert Set

Polymorph Self 
Range: 0' (caster only)
Duration: level of caster plus 6 turns

This spell gives the caster the physical form of any living creature with hit dice equal to or less than the caster's own. The transformation does not change the caster's hit points, "to hit" rolls, or saving throws. Special abilities or special immunities of the new form are not gained by the caster, although physical abilities are. EXAMPLE: A caster polymorphed into a frost giant would have the strength of a frost giant and the ability to hurl boulders, but would not gain immunity from cold. A caster polymorphed into a dragon could fly but would not be able to use the breath weapon or spells. Spell casters cannot use their own spells when polymorphed into a different form. The spell lasts for the given duration, or until dispelled, or until the caster is killed. This spell will not allow the caster to take the form of a specified individual.

Polymorph Others 
Range: 60'
Duration: special

This spell will change one living creature into another living creature. The new form must have no more than twice as many hit dice as the old, or the spell fails. The number of hit points the polymorphed creature had remains the same. Unlike polymorph self, the creature this spell is cast on will become the new creature, gaining all the special abilities of the new form, plus its tendencies and behavior. For example, a creature polymorphed into a black pudding will think and act like a black pudding. This spell cannot create a duplicate of a specific individual. Unwilling victims of this spell are allowed a saving throw vs. Polymorph. A successful save means that the spell has no effect. The spell lasts until dispelled, or until the creature dies.

Let's check in on the D&D B/X line here, in this case with the D&D Expert rulebook. This provides an interesting comparison, because Dave Cook was the chief writer for both the Expert set and 2E AD&D (albeit 10 years removed; now we look at the earlier iteration). Obviously the spells are much shorter here than in AD&D. One major difference is that these versions of the spells a Hit Die limitation for the new creature form (equal in the case of "self", double in the case of "others"); and another is that polymorph others automatically changes the mental state of the victim, no exceptions (other than the initial save to avoid the spell entirely; a simplification that cuts out all of the special save rules in AD&D). Notably, the text in this polymorph self prohibits casters from using spells in the new form -- the opposite of the rule that was added to 2E.

Two "Cook-isms" that I can see here: (1) the polymorph self spell wants to expand the abilities accessed a bit to any "physical abilities" (e.g. hurling boulders; like polymorph others in 2E), and (2) the detail about slain creatures reverting to their normal form is also inserted here (as it was in 2E).

Side note -- Now I wish that I'd been comparing 2E and Expert text in this way throughout the series of "Spells Through the Ages", but only as I wrote this did I obtain a digital, text-copyable version of the B/X rules (previously I used Allston's D&D Rules Cyclopedia as a proxy for this seminal ruleset).

D&D 3rd Ed.

Polymorph Self
Level: Rgr 4, Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Personal
Target: The character
Duration: 1 hour/level (D)
Saving Throw: Fortitude negates
Spell Resistance: Yes

The caster is changed into another form of creature. The new form can range in size from Diminutive to one size larger than the caster’s normal form. Upon changing, the character regains lost hit points as if having rested for a day (though this healing does not restore temporary ability damage and provide other benefits of resting for a day; and changing back does not heal the caster further). If slain, the character reverts to his or her original form, though the creature remains dead.

The polymorphed character acquires the physical and natural abilities of the creature he or she has been polymorphed into while retaining his or her own mind. Physical abilities include natural size and Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores. Natural abilities include armor, natural weapons, and similar gross physical qualities. A body with extra limbs does not allow a character to make more attacks (or more advantageous two-weapon attacks) than normal. Natural abilities also include mundane movement capabilities, but not magical flight and other magical forms of travel. Extremely high speeds for certain creatures are the result of magical ability, so they are not granted by this spell. Other nonmagical abilities (such as low-light vision) are considered natural abilities and are retained. Any part of the body or piece of equipment that is separated from the whole reverts to its original form. The character’s new scores and faculties are average ones for the race or species into which he or she has been transformed.

The character retains his or her Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores, level and class, hit points (despite any change in the character’s Constitution score), alignment, base attack bonus, and base saves. (New Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores may affect final attack and save bonuses.) The character retains his or her own type, extraordinary abilities, spells, and spell-like abilities, but not its supernatural abilities. The character can cast spells for which he or she has components. The character needs a humanlike voice for verbal components and humanlike hands for somatic components. The caster does not gain the spell-like abilities of the new form. The character does not gain the supernatural abilities or the extraordinary abilities of the new creature.

The new form can be disorienting. Any time the polymorphed character is in a stressful or demanding situation (such as combat), the caster must succeed at a Will save (DC 19) or suffer a –2 penalty on all attack rolls, saves, skill checks, and ability checks until the situation passes. Characters who are polymorphed for a long time (years and years) grow accustomed to their new form and can overcome some of these drawbacks (DM’s discretion).

When the polymorph occurs, the character’s equipment, if any, transforms to match the new form. If the new form is a creature that does not use equipment, the equipment melds into the new form and becomes nonfunctional. Material components and focuses melded in this way cannot be used to cast spells. If the new form uses equipment, the caster’s equipment changes to match the new form and retains its properties.

The character can freely designate the new form’s minor physical qualities (such as hair color, hair texture, and skin color) within the normal ranges for a creature of that type. The new form’s significant physical qualities (such as height, weight, and gender) are also under the character's control, but must fall within the norms for the new form’s species. The character can be changed into a member of his or her own species or even into itself. (If changed into itself, it does not suffer the abovementioned penalties from the disorientation of a new form.)

The character is effectively disguised as an average member of the new form’s race. If the character uses this spell to create a disguise, the character gets a +10 bonus on the character's Disguise check. Incorporeal or gaseous forms cannot be assumed, and incorporeal or gaseous creatures are immune to being polymorphed. A natural shapeshifter can take its natural form as a standard action. The character can change form as often as desired for the duration of the spell simply by willing it so. Each change is a full-round action. The character regains hit points as if having rested for a day only from the initial transformation, however.

In 3E, the designers synchronized the effect of the two spells, making them the same as far as I can tell (and therefore I haven't copied the text of the polymorph others spell; click here if you want to check yourself). This has made polymorph self more powerful, since it gets all the "physical abilities" that were delineated in the 2E polymorph others spell: natural armor, weapons, movement, low-light vision, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and "gross physical qualities". For both spells in this system, this requires a crushing series of statistical recalculations (due to the Str/Dex/Con ability changes), and a whole lot of interpretative work (since phrases like "natural abilities" and "extremely high speeds" are not defined terms in this otherwise keyword-driven ruleset). However, it opens the door to PCs looking for the best physical combat creatures in the Monster Manual and gaining their powers.

Another important way that polymorph self has gotten stronger is that designers switched the formerly limited duration of 2 turns/level to 1 hour/level -- I have no idea what motivated the designers to this amplify the spell in that way, allowing characters to spend most or all of an adventuring day in a strengthened, combat-capable, spellcasting-permitted, polymorphed form. Another detail is that a creature size limitation is given (contrast with the HD limit in the Expert Set). No specific allowance for breathing is given (as in 2E), but we might infer this from the "gross physical qualities" language. Also: The ability to keep re-changing form has been stripped out.

Granted that the same rules are effectively used for polymorph others, that spell is changed in several critical ways -- most notably that although the spell is still permanent, there is no chance of the creature's mental state changing, and no way of ever gaining special abilities other than the limited set given above. This is an enormous change to the flavor of the spell, changing its capacity of totally taking characters out of the game by its transformative magic -- although the fiddly -2 disorientation save remains for both spells.

If I recall correctly, this 3E version of polymorph was so powerful that casters in published adventures were almost always given the spell (along with haste), including a long, alternate statistics block for their favorite polymorphed form (granted that the recalculations were so onerous). The Tome and Blood supplement (by Bruce Cordell and Skip Williams) presented "updated, official versions of the polymorph other and polymorph self spells.... [which] supersede those presented in the Player's Handbook" (3E Tome and Blood, p. 3), notably including Hit Dice and type restrictions (p. 94-95). This was then iterated further in the 3.5 Revised version of the rules (see below).

D&D 3.5 Revised

Level: Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Target: Willing living creature touched
Duration: 1 min./level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

This spell functions like alter self, except that you change the willing subject into another form of living creature. The new form may be of the same type as the subject or any of the following types: aberration, animal, dragon, fey, giant, humanoid, magical beast, monstrous humanoid, ooze, plant, or vermin. The assumed form can’t have more Hit Dice than your caster level (or the subject’s HD, whichever is lower), to a maximum of 15 HD at 15th level. You can’t cause a subject to assume a form smaller than Fine, nor can you cause a subject to assume an incorporeal or gaseous form. The subject’s creature type and subtype (if any) change to match the new form.

Upon changing, the subject regains lost hit points as if it had rested for a night (though this healing does not restore temporary ability damage and provide other benefits of resting; and changing back does not heal the subject further). If slain, the subject reverts to its original form, though it remains dead.

The subject gains the Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores of the new form but retains its own Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. It also gains all extraordinary special attacks possessed by the form but does not gain the extraordinary special qualities possessed by the new form or any supernatural or spell-like abilities.

Incorporeal or gaseous creatures are immune to being polymorphed, and a creature with the shapechanger subtype can revert to its natural form as a standard action.

Material Component: An empty cocoon. 

Baleful Polymorph
Level: Drd 5, Sor/Wiz 5
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: One creature
Duration: Permanent
Saving Throw: Fortitude negates, Will partial; see text
Spell Resistance: Yes

You change the subject into a Small or smaller animal of no more than 1 HD (such as a dog, lizard, monkey, or toad). The subject takes on all the statistics and special abilities of an average member of the new form in place of its own except as follows:

The target retains its own alignment (and personality, within the limits of the new form’s ability scores).

  • The target retains its own hit points.
  • The target is treated as having its normal Hit Dice for purpose of adjudicating effects based on HD, such as the sleep spell, though it uses the new form’s base attack bonus, base save bonuses, and all other statistics derived from Hit Dice.
  • The target also retains the ability to understand (but not to speak) the languages it understood in its original form. It can write in the languages it understands, but only the form is capable of writing in some manner (such as drawing in the dirt with a paw).

With those exceptions, the target’s normal game statistics are replaced by those of the new form. The target loses all the special abilities it has in its normal form, including its class features.

All items worn or carried by the subject fall to the ground at its feet, even if they could be worn or carried by the new form.

If the new form would prove fatal to the creature (for example, if you polymorphed a landbound target into a fish, or an airborne target into a toad), the subject gets a +4 bonus on the save.

If the subject remains in the new form for 24 consecutive hours, it must attempt a Will save. If this save fails, it loses its ability to understand language, as well as all other memories of its previous form, and its Hit Dice and hit points change to match an average creature of its new form. These abilities and statistics return to normal if the effect is later ended.

Incorporeal or gaseous creatures are immune to baleful polymorph, and a creature with the shapechanger subtype (such as a lycanthrope or a doppelganger) can revert to its natural form as a standard action (which ends the spell’s effect).

Normally I don't dig into the D&D 3.5 Revision, but I found this case so fascinating that I couldn't avoid it. After the problems with the extra-powered spells in 3E, our classic two spells have been replaced. (In fact, of the classic spell list, they're the only wizard spells in 3.5 that were overhauled to the extent that their name & level changed; link.) Now we have just the single spell polymorph at the 4th level -- the caster can use it on himself or others (touch range only), it has no possibility of changing the subject's mind, and the duration has collapsed from 1 hour/level (as for polymorph self in 3E) to a mere 1 minute/level (a lot like OD&D, if we read turns as 1 minute in Vol-1). It has the old size limit, as well as broad creature "type" restriction, and also a Hit Die restriction (as in the Expert Set). It looks like the spell is much more concise, but this is mostly because the reference in the first line to "alter self" hides the fact that most of the standard polymorph language has been removed to that other spell (itself now 650 words long; link), including racial movement, natural armor, weapons, skill bonuses, bonus feats (!), etc. 

The punishing, permanent version of the spell now appears as baleful polymorph at the 5th level. Although higher level, this spell is now massively restricted in that the target can only be changed into a 1 HD normal animal (no huge monsters or dragons any more!). The creature initially retains its own mind, but after a day it must make a save or lose its intelligence and become completely beast-like (a lot like prior versions). One altered detail is that equipment drops to the ground instead of merging into the new form, as for other spell variants.

And apparently some players started ju-jitsuing the 2E "breathing" sensibility by transforming creatures into fish (or something) which would automatically asphyxiate on land -- because this spell gives a special +4 save if the new form would be fatal in the current environment. Personally, I'd just prefer that the spell fail (or require a generally survivable form) if that were a consideration.

Later Updates

Did these radical changes fix the problems for the 3E era designers? Well... no, absolutely not. In 2006 Andy Collins (no relation to me) wrote a fascinating blog post/rant on Wizards.com, titled "The Polymorph Problem" (link via Wayback Machine). Among his observations are these:
It’s too darn good.

In general, a spell’s potency is defined by the rules text right there in its entry. Fireball deals 1d6 points of fire damage per caster level in a 20-foot-radius spread, bless gives a +1 bonus on attack rolls and on saves against charm and fear effects to all allies within a 50-foot burst, and see invisibility lets you see invisible creatures. You don’t need any other resources to know what these spells do, though a general knowledge of the game environment informs you as to when the spells might prove more or less useful.

Polymorph turns this situation on its head. Rather than its potency being defined by its rules text, its power level is defined by the entire catalog of available forms that the caster can assume. In essence, to know how powerful polymorph is, you must consult every single sourcebook that includes an aberration, animal, dragon, fey, giant, humanoid, magical beast, monstrous humanoid, ooze, plant, or vermin of 15 HD or less. Your options when using the spell are limited only by the number of books at hand (and how long the rest of the table is willing to wait for you to find the right choice).

What’s more, every new monster published makes the spell slightly more powerful. Designers and developers who create a perfectly balanced and playable monster must still remember to compare that monster to all others of similar Hit Dice to see what effect that creature has on the power level of polymorph or shapechange. Examples abound of where that comparison has failed to occur (war troll, anyone?); every one of those has made the polymorph spells more powerful.

Of course, he's right about that. Fundamentally, I had the same conclusion the other week after Dave G. pushed my game's polymorph as hard as he could (the text in my Book of Spells being based off the open-license 3E SRD). Having a power that expands arbitrarily and invisibly every time someone adds a new monster to the game is a recipe for grief. In fact, this is broadly the same as one of my main complaints about the Cleric class -- every time you invent a new cleric spell, every cleric in your campaign world gets more powerful overnight (due to their open-spell-list access).

So what the 3E designers did then (and I recommend that you read all of Andy Collins' rant at the link above; it's awesome) was to go in and errata every single power or spell in the core game and all the supplements ever published (!) to remove any reference to polymorph, effectively walling it off from the game system and making all the other mechanics refer only to new powers like alter self, wild shape, thousand faces, animal shapes, etc. Then they flat-out prohibit the polymorph spell from the officially-supported RPGA campaign, and recommend that DM's do the same in their home campaigns. The last errata update for the D&D 3.5 game is entirely about this attempt at erasing and "walling off" polymorph from the rest of the game (link via Wayback to last series of v3.5 updates). And if that wasn't enough, Wizards sets up a special email address at their domain solely for polymorph errata and grievances!
We recognize that some references to polymorph and similar abilities may still be hiding out there. As we locate them, we’ll update the errata accordingly. If you find a reference that you think we’ve overlooked, send an email to polymorph@wizards.com with a subject line of POLYMORPH ERRATA. For now, this set of errata should be enough for players and DMs to deal with any situation that arises. As always, if you’re not certain how to adjudicate a game situation, contact Wizards of the Coast Game Support for help.

And that's the last thing that was ever done for D&D 3E or 3.5 updates -- an attempt to delete polymorph from the game and all its supplements, in response to Andy Collins and other designers apparently tearing their hair out over the spell. On the one hand, I'm broadly sympathetic to the problem -- although I'm not sure why in 3E they didn't revert back to the prior "movement only" power, or in fact implement a fixed set of monsters (or at least a given core reference book) that one could turn into. For some reason those options didn't seem to be on the table in the 3E context.

So I hope that you've enjoyed this epic tale of polymorph and the many transformations that it underwent over the years (before being zapped out of existence entirely)! Now just don't go out and kiss any puffins randomly wandering around outside.


On Long-Lasting Spells

An Elegant Rule for Maximum Durations

At some point I suppose I should update & revise my OED Book of Spells product, based on gameplay lessons over the last 5 years or so (but it's pretty hard to know when to make the call on that). Among the things I'm getting to take a closer look at are the durations for various spells; the ones that elapse in one encounter are not so critical, but there are a number of spells that may last for a day, or months, or permanently -- and they tend to vary wildly between editions (particularly in 3E that my book was based off), so I'd really like to get those right. Recently, some have started to bother me in my games; but the table I recently made for "Spells Through the Ages: Duration Redux" (link) should help give a comprehensive assessment of the situation.

For starters, one of my great pet peeves are low-level spells with permanent duration. I totally grind my teeth at the prospect of minor wizards wandering through the campaign world and trollishly wizard lock-ing, continual light-ing, continual darkness-globing, and magic mouth-ing every site they wander through, for all eternity (for spite!). So one of the rules I implemented for Book of Spells is that no spell under 5th level can be permanent (those being the ones gained around name-level for wizards, spells that really need to be long-lasting to serve their vision in the game). And I've never regretted that.

Now, I think at this point I might be able to develop an even more general guiding principle for long-lasting spells in my game. Let's look at a list of classic D&D spells that have unusually long-lasting durations, and compare across durations:
  • Charm Person (1st level) – We start with an epic outlier. Duration is "Special" (recurring save schedule based on Intelligence: maybe daily, weekly, or monthly) in Editions 0-1-2-BX. Greatly reduced to 1 hour/level in 3E.
  • Continual Light (2nd) – Permanent in all editions.
  • Magic Mouth (2nd) – Permanent until discharged in all editions.
  • Strength (2nd) – 8 hours in 0E (Sup-I). 1 hour/level in 1-2-3. Not in BX.
  • Wizard Lock (2nd) – Permanent in all editions.
  • Infravision (3rd) – 1 day in 0E-BX. 2+level hours in 1-2. 1 hour/level in 3E.
  • Suggestion (3rd) – 1 week in 0E (Sup-I). Approximately 1 hour/level in each of 1-2-3. Not in BX.
  • Water Breathing (3rd) – Highly variable: 12 turns in 0E. 3 turns/level in 1E. 1 hour/level+4 in 2E. 2 hours/level in 3E. 1 day in BX.
  • Charm Monster (4th) –  "Special", similar to charm person (but with weekly chances to break based on Hit Dice) in 0-1-2. In BX, identical by reference to charm person. In 3E, reduced to 1 day/level.
  • Hallucinatory Terrain (4th) – Permanent until touched in Chainmail-0-1-BX. 1 hour/level in 2E. 2 hours/level in 3E.
  • Plant Growth (4th) – Permanent in all editions. Note 3E has an optional usage for "enrichment" lasting 1 year.
  • Polymorph Other (4th) – Permanent in all editions.
  • Polymorph Self (4th) – Not a long-term spell until 3E. 6 turns+level in 0E-BX. 2 turns/level in 1-2. Increased to 1 hour/level in 3E. 
  • Passwall (5th) – Another non-long term spell until 3E. 3 turns in 0E-BX. 6 turns+level in 1-2. Increased to 1 hour/level in 3E.
  • Control Weather (6th) – Not specified in 0E. Concentration in BX. 4d6 hours in 1-2E. 4d12 hours in 3E.
Among the things you see above are the rather absurd – to my mind – number of spells at the 1st-2nd levels that are permanent or indefinite in duration (charm person, continual light, magic mouth, wizard lock). Another thing is that almost all of the long-lasting spells at 4th level are permanent (excepting only polymorph self), which to my mind is borderline at best. Also note that I omitted the various 5th-6th spells that are basically permanent across most editions (animate dead, feeblemind, magic jar, transmute rock to mud, wall of iron, wall of stone, geas, invisible stalker), with which I don't have much problem.

But once you clear out those troublesome cases from the list above, a pattern starts to emerge, which I might interpolate and express along these lines for maximum possible duration:

  • 1st level – 1 day.
  • 2nd level – 1 week.
  • 3rd level – 1 month.
  • 4th level – 1 year.
  • 5th-6th level – Permanent.

Now, if I iron out the spells in my game according to these guidelines, here are the changes I would make. First, that 1st-level outlier with the unique recurring save schedule, charm person, gets reduced to 1 day (about what 3E did). This seems pretty reasonable to me, as the spell commonly seems overpowered (in fact, if I do some solo play, this is usually how my PC gets taken out of the game – regardless of level); you can still get a long-term charm with the higher-level spell (below). At 2nd-level, those too-soon-permanent spells continual light, magic mouth, and wizard lock become 1 week (just as I did in Book of Spells previously); strength remains 1 day since it's so useful (approximately the same as any prior edition).

At 3rd level, I'll keep infravision and water breathing at 1 day because they're so potent (like in BX), but I think I'll actually expand suggestion to a 1 month duration because that always seems under-used, and I thereby get to exemplify each step of my general rule above. 4th level is where you get the borderline cases (traditionally permanent but not at the 5th level where I want them) – I think that capping charm monster, hallucinatory terrain, plant growth, and polymorph other at a 1 year duration has a very fairy-tale feel to it (compare: the dryad charm power in 1E has a year for its unit; and plant growth in 3E has the 1 year usage built in, too); polymorph self, of course, can be very powerful and should remain at the early-edition duration of just a number of turns. For simplicity, I'll probably make the dominating control weather at the 6th level last 1 day (as I did previously).

I think that general guideline works out very well. I'm very comfortable with the solutions that gives me to the lower-level 1st-2nd level spells, and even pretty jazzed at the flavor of the 4th level spells lasting for 1 year.

But let me conclude by asking a possibly deep question: What about those other 5th-6th level spells that I've left as Permanent – does Permanent really mean Permanent? Extrapolating our model of max-possible durations here would seem to imply that even those spells should wear off after some number of decades or centuries. Perhaps the DM should secretly interpret those spells as having limited durations as well, merely beyond the ken of a man's lifetime, such that no man or woman has ever noticed their ending? What prospects does that hold for your campaign game if there are long-lasting feebleminds, magic jars, walls of iron and stone, invisible stalkers, and armies of animated dead out there in the world whose time is ticking towards an end?


Spells Through The Ages – Durations Redux

Last week, I looked at the evolution of spell names and ranges across most of the different editions of D&D (links one, two). Previously I made a study of durations (link), but when I recently went back to use that table, I found that it didn't help me very much (the way it was set up before, I couldn't record any durations like Special-Instantaneous-Permanent, etc., nothing in B/X or the 3E line, etc.). So here's a second/third attempt at a more comprehensive table (PDF version here):


N/S = Not Specified.
U. = Until (e.g., "until dispelled", "until broken", etc. in OD&D)
Instant = Instantaneous.
Permanent * = Permanent until discharged
- = Spell does not exist in this edition (or instant or special in S&S).


While most Chainmail spells are totally silent on durations (“N/S” above), there's a text note following the list that says, "In order to cast and maintain any spell, a Wizard must be both stationary and undisturbed by attack upon his person" (p. 32), so we may possibly interpret any or all of those as effectively duration “Concentration”.

OD&D doesn't have a standard “Duration” stat block, so one must parse out details from the text when available. Thus, you'll see a lot of variation in OD&D the descriptors above, such as "until dispelled" (usually equivalent to "Permanent" later on), "until broken" (as by special rules for charm or invisibility spells), "until contact", etc. The few “N/S” entries above are in many cases the same as “Instantaneous”, although a few of those spells are presumably very long-lasting (wall of ice, magic jar, control weather). 

At the very start of the OD&D list, a few spells are listed with durations of simply “Short” (detect magic, read magic, read languages); but Sup-I amends detect magic to “2 turns” (and probably this should have been added to read languages and read magic, likewise?), which I've entered above. The charm spells are given no durations in Vol-1, but these are amended in Sup-I to give a special save schedule based on Intelligence. Also in Sup-I, the new monster summoning spells are uniquely worded as “6 melee turns” – above I simply entered “6 turns”, but this might reasonably be interpreted as “6 rounds” (although no other spells in OD&D are ever given durations in rounds).

I've also added a column for S&S, that is, Gygax's Swords & Spells miniature combat rules for use with late-era OD&D; this work includes a comprehensive "Spell Chart" on p. 12-15 with a listing for Range, Area, and Duration for almost every spell in D&D -- sometimes with updates or fill-ins to spells that previously had no specifications for those elements (thanks to Zenopus Archives for reminding me of that). One thing to look for here is that Gygax uses a dash ("-") for both instantaneous spells (fireball, lightning bolt, teleport, etc.) and specially long-lasting spells (charm person, charm monster), and I've also been using a dash for spells missing from a given edition (for S&S: read magic, read languages, telekinesis, legend lore). Gygax specified "until dispelled" both for spells limited in the text by concentration and those that were literally unending (e.g. makes wall of fire and wall of ice look identical when they weren't in OD&D Vol-1). Also note: the newly-minted duration for sleep (4-16 turns), reductions to clairaudience/clairvoyance, and some minor changes (or typos?) to ventriloquism, detect evil, and ESP, that were ignored in later editions (including Holmes Basic, B/X, etc.).

Note on this point that the Moldvay/Cook  B/X rules are the first to actually list spell durations as "Concentration" or use the word "Permanent". (Even Holmes Basic uses the description "infinite" in any of these cases; see continual light, invisibility, magic mouth, phantasmal forces, and wizard lock).

As we look at later editions, here's a very rough correlation of duration categories:
  • OD&D 2-3 turns → AD&D 1 round/level → 3E 1 round/level.
  • OD&D 6 turns → AD&D 2 rounds/level → 3E 1 minute/level.
  • OD&D 12 turns → AD&D 5 rounds/level → 3E 10 minutes/level.

In D&D 3E, many formerly “Permanent” spells were made “Instantaneous” (so as to make them non-dispellable under those rules; e.g., plant growth, animate dead, wall of iron, wall of stone, move earth, reincarnation, stone to flesh). Spells with duration by Concentration are formally listed as "Concentration, up to 1 minute/level (D)" (e.g., detect magic, where (D) indicates dispellable at will by the caster). The distinctive conjure elemental and invisible stalker spells are removed, but those monsters can still be instantiated by the revised summon monster spells (very short duration, 1 round/level). Wall of fire uniquely has a duration of "Concentration + 1 round/level".

Importantly, as noted last time, while all of the spells in OD&D Vol-1 are listed in units of "turns" (nowhere is the word "rounds" ever used), this is probably an artifact of "turns" in Chainmail (and Vol-1?) that were 1 minute each, prior to the Vol-3 redefinition of turns as 10 minutes long. Granted that almost all of these spells were then changed to round-based duration in AD&D (again, 1 minute long), I take that as a strong indication that the original intent for all of these spells was to have fairly limited, encounter-based durations (a principle from which the B/X line, for example, diverged). Secondarily, note again that while most spells in OD&D have fixed turn durations, AD&D altered almost all of them to be some function of caster level, a complication that I personally frown upon.

Anything else that you can spot here of interest?


Spells Through The Ages – Ranges

Starting our "Spells Through the Ages" marathon: Today, a longitudinal study of the core D&D spell ranges, and how they were first birthed, changed, and evolved over time. Below you'll see a table for these core spells across Chainmail Fantasy, Original D&D (LBBs & Sup-I), Basic/Expert D&D Rules (Cook & Moldvay), AD&D 1st Edition, AD&D 2nd Edition, and D&D 3rd Edition (PDF version: link).


N/S = Not Specified.
Close = 25 ft + 5 ft/2 levels (3E only)
Medium = 100 ft + 10 ft/level (3E only)
Long = 400 ft + 40 ft/level (3E only)
- = Spell does not exist in this edition.


One of the things you'll see above is that most spells in Chainmail, and many in OD&D, didn't think to specify any range in the first place ("N/S", not specified). At that point in the books, the presence of "standard spell stat blocks" hadn't been invented yet, so it was pretty haphazard about which spells had those aspects defined (although in OD&D you can see a pattern beginning to emerge, with range & duration more often listed at the end of a spell... and more so the deeper into the book you get). The entries in the table above that say "Personal" for these editions are interpretations by myself based on the narrative spell text.

I'd also say that it's frequently the case that right near the beginning of the OD&D spell list, you tend to see a few novelties before Gygax settled down into a more rational series of design decisions. Like: Detect magic, the very first spell in OD&D, just says "It has a limited range and short duration" (this was updated in Sup-I to [Range 6". Duration: 2 turns.], although read languages and read magic were similarly vague, and not so errata'd). Hold portal, the second spell, has a duration of 2d6 turns, which makes it the only spell whose magical duration is a raw dice-roll (transmute rock to mud lasts 3-18 days, but that's due to natural evaporation, not ending the magic; although I should leave that for a later blog). Charm person, the first spell in the Sup-I list of modifications, gets its unique and complicated table for recurring saves based on Intelligence. None of those oddball mechanics get used again in other spells.

OD&D has only two spells whose range is a variable based on level: detect invisible (1"/level) and locate object (6"+1"/level). You'd say the exact same thing about the B/X line, except that while detect invisible is in Moldvay's list of 2nd-level basic magic-user spells, it's actually missing from the text descriptions (and so no range is visible).

Obviously, Chainmail and OD&D show their wargaming roots by listing ranges in tabletop inches. Cook & Moldvay (and Holmes if you look there) convert almost all of these inches to multiples of 10 feet (as asserted for dungeon exploring, first in OD&D Vol-3). Gygax's AD&D 1E keeps the inches but converts most of those fixed ranges to more variable ranges based on level (something which I don't appreciate, as it needlessly complicates things) -- and then Cook in AD&D 2E makes a different choice thereafter, generally converting all the 1E inches to multiples of 10 yards for 2E (as asserted for wilderness adventures, again first mentioned in OD&D Vol-3). Then 3E goes in yet another direction, back to feet for its units, but generally (although not always) establishing fixed categories of Close, Medium, or Long range -- again variable by level (see the Key above).

A very rough correlation between the editions would be:
  • OD&D 6" → 1E ½"/level → 2E 5 yards/level → 3E Close.
  • OD&D 12" → 1E 1"/level → 2E 10 yards/level → 3E Medium.
  • OD&D 24" → 1E 2"/level → 2E 20 yards/level → 3E Long.
Note that 1E AD&D generates the same values as OD&D if we assume a basis of a Wizard 12th level (one step over name level), as Gygax commonly does in examples within the text of various spells.

Some of the terms that we're accustomed to now weren't invented until fairly deep in the edition cycle. For example, the phrase "Touch" range doesn't appear until AD&D 1E in the list above; the only real equivalent in OD&D, remove curse, is listed as "Range: Adjacent to the object" to be de-cursed. In B/X, equivalent spells are usually listed as just range "0" (zero). And on the same line of thought, note that quite a few spells in OD&D which only refer to use by the caster (which could be N/S in OD&D, "0" in BX-1-2E, or "Personal" in 3E) were transitioned in 1E to being castable on another touched subject, greatly increasing their utility and flexibility (reasonable, because while Chainmail-type wizards were all monstrously robust figures on the battlefield, the new low-level D&D magic-users could be paper-frail and would want to avoid contact with the enemy). The spells altered in this way would include: protection from evil, levitate, fly, protection from evil 10' radius, teleport, etc.

A little funky thing with the low-level door-locking spells: note that in OD&D Gygax did not specify any range for hold portal (1st level) or wizard lock (2nd). But in 1E, he gave hold portal the "long" range category of 2"/level, while the supposedly more powerful wizard lock that refers back to it only gets "touch" range (and this tradition stuck in later editions). Meanwhile, the anti-lock spell knock at the same level had a consistent range of 6" throughout 0-1-2E.

On the subject of D&D 3E range classes (Close, Medium, Long, et. al.): there are just a very few places in the list above where 3E breaks out of keyword-style for these categories. For example: the 1st-2nd level detections, detect magic, detect evil, and detect thoughts (formerly ESP), each having a rule-breaking fixed range of 60' (not dependent on level). Which interestingly seems to be a throwback to original D&D -- two of these spells have ranges of "0" or "1/2 inch/level" in 1E-2E, whereas if you look back at OD&D they indeed started out at 6". The only other 3E rule-breakers like that in our population are at 6th level (anti-magic shell at a fixed 10 ft, repulsion at 10 ft/level, and control weather at 2 miles).

Edit: In the comments below, Zenopus Archives makes the excellent point that you can possibly treat Gygax's Swords & Spells fantasy miniature rules as mid-way between OD&D and the Basic sets (esp. Holmes). It contains a pretty complete "Spell Chart" (p. 12-15) listing Range, Area Effect, and Turn Duration for most of the spells in the game -- filling in many of the OD&D N/S entries, and introducing several common terms for the first time ("touch" range, "personal" area effect... but not "permanent", for which it still uses the wordy "until dispelled"). Holmes uses those updated ranges. Interesting tidbit: the Control Weather spell (which I'm currently wrestling with in my game) has a unique range and area listing of "table" (i.e., the game table itself; druidic predict weather and weather summoning similarly have an effect of "game area"). Thanks to Z.A.!

So, at this time I've edited the table above to include a column for the late-OD&D ranges from Swords & Spells (again, thanks to Zenopus Archives for pointing out how useful that is). Probably the weirdest thing I notice in those rules is the large number of spells which list "Range: touch, Area Effect: personal" (which in later editions would be considered contradictory ranges). This area effect entry of "personal" gets used both in cases where the original spell text indicated it's only usable on the caster him or herself (polymorph self, contact higher plane, shape change, etc.), as well as cases where the spell is only effective when cast on others (strength, suggestion, geas, reincarnation, etc.). Therefore it's unfortunately unclear if there's a deliberate change in S&S to some spells that were originally caster-only but later permitted on other subjects (fly, levitate, teleport, etc.). Note also the oddball listing necessary for the Sup-I extension spells (the entries are literally "matches extended spell....").

Are there any other patterns you can see in the list above that seem interesting?


Spells Through The Ages – Names Redux

For a number of weeks henceforth, I'm planning to go on a jog of new "Spells Through the Ages" posts. Are you ready? (See sidebar to search for prior posts in the series.) Let's start here: Previously I compiled a listing of all the changes to spell names in the core D&D wizard list over the years (treating the OD&D Vol-1 and Sup-I spells as the core; link). At the time, though, I didn't include the spell listings in the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert (B/X) rules sets. Actually, I hadn't procured digital copies of those rules until just a few weeks ago; now I'll have a much easier time including them in our historical assessments. Here's the new list (highlighting indicates a name change; click to full-size; or see PDF version, link). More to come later.


HelgaCon VII - Outdoor Spoliation 2

Two years ago at HelgaCon, as the last game of the weekend, I ran a game I call "Outdoor Spoliation" which is basically a wilderness sandbox treasure-hunt, using the old Outdoor Survival game map as demanded by the Original D&D rulebook, and hewing as closely to the wilderness rules in Vol-3 as I can (link). It was kind of a hit -- I got great feedback afterward, and somehow the huge table full of players in the sunny porch on Sunday morning/afternoon, adventuring boldly into the wilderness, seemed to hit just the right note of denouement for our mini-convention. So I decided to run it again this year, and maybe next year as well.

For this game, we had 9 players, and they chose from the same list of pregenerated characters of around the 8th level as last time (link). The goal here is to secure 100,000 sp (gp in the book game) in the time available, which the party approached but did not succeed at last time -- I promise there is in fact that much treasure in places, somewhere. Given the option, they decided to make an alliance with the Lawful Lord of Castle #8 at the northern edge of the map and start from there. In addition to personal mounts, the party elected to take 4 draft horses carrying 20 days of food and water -- a good idea, and still allowing the group to move easily.

On my end I'd done a few things in advance: One is that I'd actually typed up my notes in an easier-to-read format (last time I was just working from three pages of handwritten notes on lined paper), including a simple system for laying out random cave systems with some d6 rolls (any of the ponds shown on the Outdoor Survival map). Also, I'd filled in looted places from last time with other monsters, but very little treasure, so they probably didn't want to explore the same section of the map. Finally, I made a note to myself about Halig Redsaber's intelligent sword, and how best in OD&D to track the possible personality struggle between the two (which gets highlighted as the bearer gets more injured), something I mostly overlooked last time.

The Second Travels

  • The party headed straight towards the northern mountains, aiming for the pass that would lead them through to the center of the board. In the cave system at the foot of the mountains, the found a group of about a dozen large bear-like creatures milling about a fire. Besyrwan Birchson, an elven fighter/wizard of Neutral alignment, blasted them with a fireball, which greatly infuriated the half that survived. The "bears" ran at the party and attacked with great vicious claws, and turned out to be immune to any non-magical weapons. It took some very hard fighting, but the party managed to finish them off. Jugs of healing were passed around and the group recovered a bag with four 1,000 sp jewels.
  • In the heights of the mountains, a second cave system was explored; in one deep cavern with numerous pillars and stalagmites, the party was actually surprised in an ambush by a dozen ogres, throwing huge spears and then attacking with clubs. Surrounded on all sides, the group was immediately in melee and at a disadvantage for using area-effect spells. The wizard Olezka cast charm monster on one of the ogres, and kept him as a personal bodyguard for the rest of the adventures (naming him Olaf). Again some hard one-on-one fighting, but the PCs managed to turn the tide and defeat the monstrous ogres. A small amount of treasure was retrieved: 100 gp (i.e., 1,000 sp value in OD&D).
  • One thing I should mention here is that the party was intent on interrogating Olaf (the charmed Ogre) on the location of any large caches of treasure -- but none of them actually spoke the language of ogres. The other wizard, Deneuro of the Spectral Sands, did know Orcish, and so to be generous I ruled that Olaf knew a very small smattering of the orc language. On the point of treasure, mentally I assumed that Olaf didn't really know anything, and so I started spouting some random gibberish while looking at the map, like, "blar blar blar mighty blar blar blar treasure blar blar blar woods", etc. Which the party took as a positive indication that there was great treasure at the castle in the central woods at area #5 (see map above), and this became their goal for the rest of the game.
  • Moving further through the mountain pass, the group turned a narrow corner and confronted a wandering monster encounter: a column of 240 goblins under arms! There was a moment of thought given to parley, and then again a fireball was launched, and then battle en masse was joined. Probably one of the cleverest bits is that Deneuro cast phantasmal force to make a matching column of armed knights appear to be coming around the corner behind the party (of some unknown length out of sight?), causing the goblins to hesitate and be at a penalty for morale checks I was making. Onund, the dwarven fighter, unhesitatingly charged the goblins and lay down enormous mayhem with his great cleave ability -- I think rolling about 14 kills each round before he would miss. Yuri the Bull, already of great strength and here magically empowered to a Strength of 24, climbed into the bluffs and started rolling down huge boulders each round, also flattening a score of goblins each time. Ruric, the elven wizard/thief, took to the air with a fly spell to find the goblin leader and befuddle him with a magical suggestion. Halig (damaged from prior encounters) was actually forced into melee by his intelligent and egotistical sword when he was trying to do something else. Slings and arrows and swords rained down from both sides. 30 goblins were struck by a confusion spell, disrupting the cramped formation and attacking their fellows. According to my notes, more than 100 goblins were actually slain in the pass before the column broke and fled in the other direction.
  • The group reached the cave at the end of the mountain pass system, and it being near the end of the day, bedded down a short ways of for rest. Fortunately they posted two guards overnight, because the pair of giant weasels lairing in the cave found them and attacked while most were sleeping. Blood was drained but the guard PCs were successful in defeating them. Also: I think it was Matt M. who had the bright idea of opening up the Monster Manual and noting that giant weasel pelts are worth a significant amount of money. I awarded the group 10,000 sp for this observation, in line with those rules, and actually the greatest value so far.
  • Two days later, the group was traveling over the plains towards the castle at area #2 on the map, occasionally scouting from the air (by fly or polymorph). Noting a fairly sizable walled community, the party was approached by a small group of armored knights flying a pennant, who hailed them. The Superhero who was chief of the fortress, Gremian, was at their head, and responded to the party's request for food, trade, and information with a challenge to a joust! My players shouted an excited huzzah! (Or actually, there were mostly groans, considering that last time the PC hero thrown on the first pass). Yuri the Bull took up the challenge (his player, Briana M., was not with the group last time, so I gave her a quick rundown of the Chainmail jousting rules; link). On the first pass, Gremian broke his lance, giving up a point to Yuri! And on the second pass, again -- Yuri was ahead by two points. And on the third pass -- Yuri ducked low, directly into Gremian's lance, hitting him square in the helmet, clear off his horse, and taking damage from the blow. The joust was over with Gremian the victor. To pay off the wager of horse & magical armor, the group turned over the giant weasel pelts (10,000 sp), and were denied information on the wilderness around, but were at least allowed to buy supplies to continue their journey. Said Paul S.: "The next time someone challenges us to a joust, I say we just kill them all."
  • The adventurers crossed to river at the ford and plunged into the woods. Another wandering encounter: ambush by seven more of the magical bear creatures, tearing into the PCs angrily from behind a grove of trees (somehow related to the first encounter above?). Several characters were actual thrown down momentarily and rended with multiple claw-attacks, but at least they had the foresight to pass around magical weapons so that all could effectively fight back (in particular, the 9th-level halfling thief Rat Larsson had given Yuri his spare magic dagger +1) . Again, after a surprisingly long and hard fight they prevailed.
  • Nearing the end of our session time, the group found the clearing of the castle at #5 and scouted it by means of polymorphing into falcon: a square curtain wall, with a star-shaped central keep and a single huge tower, guards in black armor on the walls, and red-colored pennons waving at all corners. (Side note: I'm using the old Judges' Guild Castle Book I for random castles, which clearly is meant to dovetail and expand on the rules in OD&D Vol-3 very nicely. I got a digital copy from DriveThruRPG -- thanks to P_Armstrong for cluing me into it by comments here from the last time I did this; sadly, no longer available there as of 2020.) The party made a plan to assault the castle from two sides at once, in a desperate gamble for the treasure they needed to win the game. Besyrwan used a potion of plant control to raise several ent-like trees and send them to batter through the north wall; meanwhile Onund and Yuri were dimension doored into the southern gatehouse to raise the portcullis, at which point the rest of the party all invisibly charged through the gate.
  • As it turned out, the castle was the stronghold of Zumar the Ruby Sorcerer, who appeared from a balcony atop the tower with his 7th-level apprentice and began raining down fell magics at the party as they appreared in combat. First, Zumar cast a wall of fire outside the north castle wall which mostly burned up the attacking trees there (double damage to fire-vulnerable creatures). His apprentice cast fear which the party mostly saved against. As hand-to-hand fighting broke out in the gatehouse, courtyard, and inside the keep, a great windstorm collected overhead -- a huge air elemental conjured by Zumar to attack the party. The PCs responded elegantly with a fireball that killed the apprentice and ruined Zumar's concentration; next he had to spend a dispel to avoid the elemental attacking him.
  • Rat Larsson, the halfling thief, received a haste spell and quite nearly ran up the side of the tower to attack the sorcerer; stepping over the lip of the balcony, he rolled to attack -- a natural "1"; the save to avoid the fumble was failed; and going to the fumble chart he rolled a 35% for the result "trip and fall". So in this unfortunate case he fell back the whole 80' height of the tower, bouncing of various ledges and precipices, and he took 8d6 damage and he died.
  • While the fighter-types stormed the keep by foot and started fighting floor-by-floor up the stairs, other PCs tried to follow Rat by climbing (Halig Redsaber) or flying (Ruric the Fox). In this case they got to the balcony and struck -- only to find that among the exotic carvings of the balcony and tower walls were actually 5 gargoyles who came to life and intercepted their blows! Halig was rent in may ways, his sword now fully in control and thrusting him onward. Deneuro cleverly took the opportunity to polymorph into a gargoyle himself and confuse the enemies. Onund and Yuri managed to finally burst into the upper tower chamber behind Zumar, who turned and blasted them with a wand of cold, greatly injuring them. Onund got tripped up in the billowing curtain at the edge of the balcony, but Yuri the Bull grabbed onto the evil sorcerer and struck true, jamming the magic dagger into his throat. Zumar babbled and clutched at Yuri's unyielding, giant-strong arm and finally sank to the floor, defeated.
  • Did I have a specific treasure outlined for Zumar's castle, to which the ogre Olaf's confused mutterings had inexorably led the party? Well, no, not whatsoever. But the note was to roll Treasure Type "A", the standard for men, in this case -- one of the best treasure types, and one that could in fact win the whole game for the party if the rolls went right. So we divied up the various cases to different players around the table and had them roll. Some silver and small-valued gems, but no gold and no jewelry, so unfortunately the party did not meet their end-goal. But perhaps next time!


  • This game is such a challenge and such a joy to play at high level, with lots players, and a big unpredictable sandbox for the players to despoil. My players are great and I hope they enjoyed it half as much as I did.
  • One thing I maybe slightly glitched up at the end is allowing the PCs to scout out the castle in the woods by hiding behind trees, and preparing their assault, from just a few moves away. Defensibly, that doesn't make much sense -- a castle would clear a lot more territory around to protect itself in that way. On the one hand, this castle #5 is the only habitation on the Outdoor Survival map in the woods, but I have to be a little more strict on cases like that in the future. If I'd just honored the Castle Book I map as shown on the page (one small grove fairly far off), it would have been more reasonable. (Also, I need to fix a scale on those maps -- none is listed -- likely 10 yards per hex?)
  • I should probably at least stat out the wizard castle owners in advance. I was trying to do that on the fly with Zumar and his apprentice, which was a bit hairy as I was trying to generate abilities, magic items, and memorized spells simultaneously with running the 80 soldiers on the walls and gatehouse, and processing player actions around the table. I worked it out okay, but that's one that it would be smart to do some prep for beforehand.
  • There's also a bunch of stuff in my turn-sequence house rules that I actually plum forgot about all weekend long, for starters: Not running a 1st round of combat as no-movement and missiles only. Partly this is there to recall the old Chainmail/OD&D sequence that has a missile phase before melee (among the seven total interleaved phases), which works okay for two players in a wargame, but not something I want to touch with a whole party of players in the RPG. I didn't miss it all weekend, and neither did any of my players, so maybe this suggests that I should snip it out of my rules?
  • Also: I was rolling for initiative after a surprise round, which my house rules (in accordance with OD&D, Vol-3, top p. 10; so actually not a house rule at all) say I shouldn't do. Since the PCs were mostly getting surprised in this adventure, I felt generous about at least giving them a chance to not get hit twice in a row. Perhaps I should cut this restriction as well -- or if I'd honored the rule above (missiles only, no moving into melee on the surprise round), then that itself would take care of the severity.
  • Also: When characters were reincarnated (maybe just Ezniak in the D2 game), I forgot to deduct the level loss that's in my spell description (descended from the 3E SRD material). Now again, that oversight probably made things go smoother at the table (no explanation or recalculations), so arguably I could take that 3E-ism out entirely. Maybe. But I still think for campaign play there needs to be some ultimate threat that PCs don't get recycled from the afterworld indefinitely and without any fear. So perhaps more thought or massaging of the reincarnate rules is appropriate. 
  • Also: On the OD&D equipment list, exactly what good is  garlic, belladonna, and wolvesbane? My players were trying to use them in different games all weekend. Here against the "bears" I was giving a hit and then save vs. poison; I recently learned that a J. Eric Holmes rule that got cut from his published book was to mostly do the same and cause the lycanthrope to flee if successful (link). But maybe that's too powerful for an herb that everyone can afford. (?)
  • As always, a mind-blowingly intense HelgaCon! I just feel really special and lucky to be where I am in the world coming back from it. If we could do this multiple times a year I'd be there in a heartbeat. Until next year!