What’s the Deal With Polymorph?

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.

Finally, an honourable mention goes to Rich Burlew’s polymorph variant, which might suit you better than mine.


Comments (10)

MadMaxJr (January 21st, 2007)

This spell has caused issues in D&D since I picked up in 2nd Ed. Personally I believe in controlling it as you suggest. You can only polymorph into things you know.

Marco Al (February 17th, 2007)

The FAQ entry about polymorph allowing templates was clearly in error, and retracted, as are you ;) Alter self prohibits taking the form of a templated creature and that prohibition holds for polymorph. The spell as written is broken, but not that broken.

Your suggestion is basically “just make a list of prohibited creatures on the fly as you go”. It works alright, it’s not terribly elegant though.

A menu based approach which allows you to take any shape of body and just tack on abilities might be very mechanical, but not versatile or flexible? You get more options, not less. Instead of saying you become a bugbear for the day you can say you are becoming a bugbear who can burrow and has a bite attack.

Sure it’s overly mechanical and damages suspense of disbelief in being so, but this is D&D … the whole game is overly mechanical. Arbitrary (from an in game perspective) limits on what you can turn into damages verisimilitude, so I’d say roleplaying wise it’s a wash.

Marco Al (February 17th, 2007)

Oops … I’d meant for that url to be under the text “A menu based approach”.

Madmax.Jr, just limiting the spells to shapes you are familiar with does not balance the spell … unless as a DM you want to limit yourself to only using creatures which are balanced for polymorph, which in effect means throwing away part of your monster manual(s). Creating a list of prohibited creatures on top of familiarity is a necessity.

Jonathan Drain (February 17th, 2007)

If you can alter your form purely as a pick-and-choose buff spell, then it’s not the same spell as one which lets you assume forms of real monsters. It’s a valid spell, but it’s not what we’ve known to date as polymorph.

My personal preference is to state that polymorph is an imperfect spell, and thus while it lets you assume any of the forms it allows, it doesn’t grant you every possible ability; thus for example regeneration might be commuted to fast healing or revoked entirely.

Marco Al (February 17th, 2007)

What have we known to date though in 3e? AFAICS the iconic 3e use of polymorph is turning into a roper and owning everything not immune to strength damage. I’ve personally always pretended the spell didn’t exist at all because of such shenanigans.

You seem to want to retain the complete range of flexibility of polymorph as far as buffing is concerned … and at the same time make it balanced. That might work as long as you are hand waving, but D&D isn’t freeform. Eventually you have to put numbers to the idea, and it will all come tumbling down.

You have to severely restrict what the spell can give you to make it balanced, far more aggressively than Rich did. Getting your caster level to all your physical ability scores, your natural armor and fast healing on top of a dozen natural attacks and pounce is not balanced (there is no creature which unites all these, but there could be and the spell shouldn’t break down just because it exists).

If I wanted to make things simple I’d simply say limit scores to your own +4, 1 natural weapon attack, movement modes and no ex/sp/su abilities at all. If you want to allow more than that you are going to need some kind of point system (like the menu based system linked above, but limited to what the creature already has). You can’t get away from making it overly mechanical if you want to retain all the versatility …

Jonathan Drain (February 18th, 2007)

As a DM I’m comfortable allowing my players polymorph in the knowledge that I can ad-hoc cap it.

Of course, an overall cap would probably be the best way to handle it. I see no problem in saying “this spell can turn you into an ogre, but since it’s a limited spell you’re not as strong as a real ogre”.

Matt (April 20th, 2007)

Polymorph does not allow exp/sp/su abilities. Or am I correct.

Jonathan Drain (April 20th, 2007)

Matt: It allows mundane and Ex, but not Sp or Su. However, some players have construed this to allow spells, since spellcasting is neither Sp nor Su. (It is this blogger’s opinion that any DM who lets his players do this is an idiot.)

Dan (January 5th, 2008)

You cannot polymorph into a creature with a template, or a creature who’s HD is above yours (15 max). You gain no scent/ extraordinary abilities, low light vision, etc. It’s not that good.

Quicksilver (August 24th, 2009)

Correction there, you only get Ex “Attacks” and not abilities. The spell is too darn confusing, but i use it as a player. Its also a suicide spell later on in levels. If you shift into something at 15th level to “tank” an enemy, you Are going to lose enough hitpoints to eventually cause the Con shift back to normal form kill you outright. This’ll happen while your in a shape that doesn’t speak languages too :). Its always a risk when used, its heavily restricted in a balanced way (Ex Attacks only, not abilities), it does just so happen to take up a spell slot of 4th level i believe (same as stoneskin, scry, greater invis, reincarnate, dismissal, flame strike, death ward and phantasmal killer), and its a magical spell.

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