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.


  1. Trailblazer, a lesser known offshoot of 3.5E (but, I think, better than Pathfinder), actually approached this. Polymorph is essentially turned into an 'a la carte' menu, where you get a number of features of your new form based on size and caster level (smaller form, more features).

    It takes the system's size modifiers,where it modifies stats, damage, and attacks, normalizes everything into a table, and there you have it.

    So an 11th level caster can choose a Huge form (anything of the right type) and get 3 features, which come in 3 broad categories - a physical ability/AC bonus (+2), an movement mode, or special features which are limited mostly to physical attack actions (pounce, rend, trip, constrict, etc).

    So polymorphing into a huge dragon could get that caster Fly (poor) and Rend (2d6), 2d6/2d6 claw/claw *or* 3d6 bite, -2 to-hit, -2 AC, +5 natural armor, +16 STR, -4 DEX, +8 CON.

    And that's it.

    It removes the *form* of the polymorph from the *math* of the polymorph, which I think is sometimes the best thing that could be done with 3E.

    It treats Summon Monster in the same way - a menu of capabilities and features based on the level of the spell.

    1. Wow, interesting, thanks for telling me that. I have to say that personally that pushes into the "pure abstraction" ("skinning") direction that is actually antithetical to my philosophy towards the game, so I wouldn't want to play that way.

    2. Indeed it does; sort of like a variable 3E 'template' the edition was so fond of.

      And, yea, it loses a bit of the game's soul in the process. :) But, compared with just nuking it entirely it was at least a novel approach.

  2. Re. the Chainmail version: I found the mention of "semblance" interesting. That's the "outward appearance or seeming", so I would say they do not function fully as a creature of that type.

  3. I think I like the expert set best. Although I would retain the chance to have the recipients personality change, rather than make it automatic. I would not let wizards turn themselves or others into creatures they had not actually encountered before. You could even make it a requirement the wizard has killed an example of the creature, or if that is too dark, maybe they just need a piece of one, even if just hair. I could see sneaking around a dragon’s lair looking for scales.

    1. I agree that if I picked one here, the B/X rules would top my list -- and that's usually the case, Moldvay/Cook seem to have done the best job of interpreting & editing spell descriptions (as well as monsters, dungeons, treasures, magic items, etc.)

      One thing I'm not aligned with is the "change into stuff you've seen" restriction theory. This puts a burden on the players to keep a list of encounters just for this one mechanic. And it's unworkable in a tournament situation where the high-level PC has no real past history. So I'm more fond of a fixed list or reference for all to use.

    2. I can certainly understand that. My initial reaction to players flipping through all the different books looking for just right thing to polymorph into, was why would you allow that, how would they even know a war troll even exists, or what powers they have?

  4. Or – perhaps if you have seen a version of the creature you get the most superficial aspects, movement size, shape etc. Does a sufficiently detailed grimorie work? If you have a piece you get more abilities if you have dealt the death blow you get more etc.

  5. The Chainmail version of "polymorph" was only added to the game after D&D came out. It does not appear in the 1st or 2nd editions of Chainmail. So technically, the D&D version was first.

    1. Great, Jon, thanks for that information!

  6. This is an excellent examination of the history of a problematic spell. The core notion of the 'rant' linked to is the crux of the problem. I really like Michael's notion, above, that you need a piece of the creature in question, though it then becomes something for the DM to consider every time he's stocking something. If you put a War Troll in there, the pc's are darn well going to grab a bunch of war troll goodness for future use. It does neatly solve the immaterial/extraplanar creature aspect without needing another rule--there are no remnants for the PCs to gather up.

  7. Oh, is it pathfinder that makes every transformation its own spell, or did I dream that?

    1. I believe that's D&D 4E that does that. Pathfinder still has the 3.5-type spells:

      PF SRD: polymorph
      PF SRD: baleful polymorph

  8. I feel like the 3rd edition change in duration was related to the Druid wildshape ability, but I could be remembering wrong.
    In any even for my games I limit it to Animals of Large size or smaller. This way it retains the "She turned me into a newt" but generally does not get to out of hand. I considered a higher level version for the fantastic stuff, but thankfully it has never been an issue.

    1. Good guess on the duration issue, although I can't confirm it. 1E/2E druid class description doesn't give any duration; 2E calls it "shape change" and the shape change spell also has a duration of only 1 turn/level.

  9. Not a D&D player so feel free to take this comment with a grain of salt. :)

    My solution would be to make the spell Polymorph (species). In that it would only allow to transform into a single species and you'd have to learn a new one for any new species. Thus you could have a Polymorph (Toad) and Polymorph (Dragon), etc. That would remove the "any new creature increases the power of the spell" issue at least. It would just mean that there are new versions of the spell out there to be quested for.

    You could even loosen that somewhat and say that the spell caster can learn a new species with each level he obtains (or maybe every other level) after learning the spell. But they must specify the new species when the level is gained and cannot change it. Thus they get a small, finite list of species that they can polymorph into. This give some variety available at higher levels but still doesn't leave the entire bestiary open at any given casting.

    I like Michael's idea of it being species that the spell caster has seen/studied but also agree with Delta that it adds an overhead. Simply declaring a finite list somewhat removes that burden. You could still impose it by limiting the list for characters in a campaign to creatures they have fought or explicitly studied. In tournament play, you just declare a list for the spell caster and assume prior knowledge.

    Anyway, just my $0.02. It was a great analysis and fun to read.

    1. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that the species-specific-spell approach is what 4E D&D did. Part of my thinking is (a) what a big change to D&D that is, (b) the proliferation of spells that might cause, and (c) the myths of magicians engaged in a "transformation chase", competing in how imaginative their forms are. Admittedly it should be considered, and I do prefer going in a more-concrete direction than more-abstract (i.e., as opposed to a list of abilities unrelated to specific creatures).