Seriously, what’s the deal with polymorph? I was never a big fan of the recent changes, where what used to be aimless internet backlash against a little powergaming potential has exploded into a mess of botched errata and finally an attempt to assassinate the entire spell series and sweep the bodies under the carpet.
For those of you who have joined the game recently, let me explain that polymorph has never quite been able to sit still. Originally the spell came in three forms: a short-duration polymorph self, a permanent polymorph other for turning opponents into frogs (in practice, used to turn opponents into frogs) and the higher level polymorph any object. The first two were revised in arcane caster splatbook Tome and Blood, later changed and errata’d as core, and when the rushed 3.5 revision came and reorganised it into buff spell polymorph and the higher-level offensive baleful polymorph, the whole thing was hurriedly rewritten from scratch.
That last part really gets me because in the software industry it’s said to be one of the things you should never do – you introduce new problems, you reintroduce old problems that had already been fixed, and you risk breaking backwards-compatibility that people had been relying on. For example, if you’re a shameless, pedantic rules lawyer it’s arguable that polymorph allows creature templates, and an unlimited number of them, at that. Worse still is that for by some inscrutable reasoning an FAQ entry agreed with this suggestion, citing as its example the second-level spell disguise spell alter self allowing the form of a half-dragon orc – +12 Strength, amongst other bonuses. Why cast bull’s strength for +4 when alter self can give you ogre’s strength?
I don’t like this latest one-spell-per-form fix at all. It’s fine, but it takes away a lot of the versatility of the spell and destroys the flexibility we’ve been afforded since long before third edition. For the same reason I don’t like Frank and friends’ polymorph fixes in which the spell simply grants various monsterlike features (flight, improved speed, higher Strength); it’s far too mechanical and in the end doesn’t let you say, “today, I’m going to turn into a bugbear for a bit”. Even the well-balanced official baleful polymorph limits you to turning opponents into small animals – in doing so it has prohibited all manner of interesting forms, such as kobolds and other small humanoids.
So what’s a good solution? Honestly, I went through the available forms and polymorph’s not that bad. You do, however, need to use some common sense and careful balance. Require the player characters to have encountered a monster before assuming the form of one. Disallow players from assuming templated forms – if you do make exceptions, count the level adjustment against the hit dice and require that they’ve seen a monster of that type with that template. Feel free to prohibit or limit especially powerful monsters or monster abilities, but don’t be any stricter than needs be for game balance.