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.)


  1. Consider,
    Maximal hitdice of assumed or new form may not exceed that of half the spell casters level; i.e., a 10th level mage could become a 5HD tiger, but caster would have to be at least 12th level to allow the form of a 6HD troll.
    This eliminates the need to set a size limit.

    regardless of new form, attack bonus (not damage) of the polymorphed individual is unchanged. This caveat prevents the caster from turning low level allies into killing machines.
    i.e., a first level fighter polymorphed into an androsphinx would retain his original attack bonus of +1, but would retain the attack damage of 2d6 x2 as well as AC -2.

  2. oops, should end
    but would ASSUME the attack damage of 2d6 x2
    as well as AC -2.

  3. I agree with Clovis, above, that HD could be tied to caster HD for an elegant result.

    Here's a suggested change: change "creature" to "mortal creature" or, perhaps a bit awkwardly, "planar native creature." This should allow you to bump up the HD cap and eliminate the undead-specific text while still avoiding any shenanigans from characters changing into undead, elementals, invisible stalkers, etc.

    I see no problem whatsoever with PCs turning into flies for a little scouting. They're the proverbial perfect spies, yes, but are so helpless and such weak flyers that I don't see any potential for abuse - few magic-users should want to spend more than the minimum necessary time in a form where even the smallest birds, lizards, amphibians, spiders, etc. are mortal threats.

  4. Looks pretty good.

    “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?”

    I think I would base it more on the question of whether you think all polymorphed creatures should eventually take on the mental characteristics of the form. If yes I would do the monthly save.

  5. Here's why I wouldn't bother including the caster's level as a HD restriction, at least in regards to polymorph self: published examples including that mechanic (Expert D&D, 3.5 Revision) allow for the caster's entire level (not halved). And since the caster must be at least 7th level to get this spell in the first place, then it's effectively no different (or actually more permissive) that a fixed limit of around 6 HD.

    However, I'm coming around to a HD limit for polymorph other, or at least a HD-based penalty to save as in AD&D. Also, I think I'm going to delete the "revert back when dead" Cookism at the end, shortening the spell (e.g. the dwarf Otr gets killed and skinned by Loki who carries around his otter-pelt form thereafter; link).

  6. Another try:

    Polymorph Other: (Range: 12 inches, Duration: 1 year) The target changes into another creature, as selected from the list in Vol-2, up to their own HD (maximum 8 HD; cannot be undead, elemental, or extraplanar). The subject gains the creature's appearance, armor, movement, and attacks (by HD). Other statistics stay the same, including mental state, and no special abilities are granted.

    Polymorph Self: (Range: Personal, Duration: 12 turns) The caster changes into another creature, as selected from the list in Vol-2 (maximum 8 HD; cannot be undead, elemental, or extraplanar). The caster gains the creature's appearance and movement, but no other abilities. The caster of this spell can change form as often as desired for the duration. Other spells cannot be cast while polymorphed.

    1. Explanation: For polymorph self, I'm going back to basics (any 0-1-2E) and allowing just movement, but multiple changes over the duration (thus: transformation chase is possible).

      For polymorph other, it's "more complete" in giving combat abilities, but still no special abilities; mental state changes are off the table, making it very short. Thinking mythologically, a small number of stories give dragon breath (Fafnir), but far more important is the fact that there are practically no examples of victims losing their minds. I did put in a subject HD limit so it takes a more powerful character to turn into a powerful monster. That's where I am right now.

    2. Other than the ability to change form repeatedly, it looks like polymorph other is better in all respects. Can the caster cast that on himself?

    3. I guess that's always a question in any edition of D&D. I'd say yes, but then they're stuck in that form unless someone else is around who can succeed with a dispel magic.

  7. I like the restriction of“(maximum 8 HD; cannot be undead, elemental, or extraplanar).

    I would suggest altering polymorph self by adding "The caster gains the creature's appearance, armor, movement, attacks (by HD), and appropriate Strength;"

    The wizard should benefit from the spell more than your revised version allows. Adding your original version of abilities gained allows for the same benefits to both versions of polymorph.

    1. Hmmm, my thinking (in line with 0-1-2E) was that some characteristic tradeoff was in order in exchange for the more fluid and repeated transformations. But maybe I should re-assess that.

  8. I hesitate to bring this up, but it seems to me there are 3 main effects we are trying to model. There is the “he turned me into a newt”. The spell that turns an opponent into some kind of harmless animal. There is the spell that grants movement powers of the new form and little else. This spell is useful for getting around and the transformation chase, seems like it should grant some of the perception too, part of the chase would be turning into blood hounds etc. The third effect is turning into a creature to gain combat and other abilities. Perhaps it would be easier to straighten out, if it was split into 3 spells (perhaps more if you need self-versus others versions). The 3rd effect seems to be causing most of the problems, you could push off all the difficult bits to that spell. It’s also a little weird that the mage can’t gain those abilities for himself (although this might be infringing on the druids turf too much). The potential loss of personality could be put with the spells you think it goes with.

    1. Basically I agree, and that is what makes dialing in these spells tremendously difficult (wedging a bunch of issues into 2 spells, something sticks out). Or: The rather vast number of literary examples for shapechanging means you can't synch with all of them.

      Another thing that I've run into is that there's a fair number of legendary examples of turning someone into a dragon or similar giant serpent, but this is considered a horrible punishment (separated from family & lover, etc.). Thematically that's in line with "newt", so you can see how it's included as permitted in OD&D -- but of course D&D dragons have fantastic combat powers that PCs are happy to use (even if not featured in those mythic stories). So you also have that collision between theme (negative) and game-effect of the beast in question (positive). And that's why in my most recent version I went with stripping out special abilities from either spell (e.g., destructive breath).

  9. I always thought the turned into a newt/frog did not belong with the greater powers of some of the other things you could become with polymorph other, and why it is considered so bad that NPCs/PCs would never want to be turned into a dragon for example; but you have found it exactly.
    With a lot of the original material, if you don’t understand why they included some creature or spell or effect, you just need to keep reading until you read the same books Gary and Dave did.

    1. ^ I was totally just thinking this today, while reading some Clark Ashton Smith for the first time. The literature is such a key assumption baked into the game. They could practically have listed it as a requirement alongside Chainmail and Outdoor Survival.

    2. Which is to say, I'm behind on my reading and wish I'd pursued it more clearly a few decades ago.

    3. They could practically have listed it as a requirement alongside Chainmail and Outdoor Survival."

      They could have lowered the word count that way, Hold Person 3rd level as per Conan - "People of the Black Circle", Ch. 9, of course some of these have multiple sources.

      I would love to start on Appendix N, but work and a 4 year old get in the way. I have been reading that new Conan collection that came out a few years ago, for 4 years. They put out the stories in the order he released them with the original editing.

    4. What really happens is, I get my appendix N type fix in smaller chucks out here on the inter webs.

    5. I keep having this idea of a "D&D Tropes" site or wiki that gives specific literary references to D&D spells, monsters, and magic items.

    6. "I keep having this idea of a "D&D Tropes" site or wiki that gives specific literary references to D&D spells, monsters, and magic items."

      That is a really good idea! I'm kind of surprised it does not exist already.

    7. Me too -- I've searched more than once, assuming I must be missing something.