Monkey See, Monkey Shift: Edition-Agnostic Options for Shapechanging and Summoning

Wizards are often referred to as the Swiss Army knives of spellcasters, having access to a wide variety of high damage and utility spells useful for any occasion. But do they really? Wizards (or Magic-Users, if you prefer) are still limited by the spells they have in their spellbooks, or have discovered during their adventures. Even in the earliest editions of D&D, specialist wizards such as the illusionist provided players with interesting ways to use magic that didn’t involve the Holy Trinity (mage armor/sleep, magic missile, shield). In later editions, specialist wizards became the main focus of the class, creating a range of arcane casters from fireball-throwing evokers to contemplative diviners.

As a writer, I’ve always believed that limitations inspire imagination. When it comes to spells like summon monster, polymorph, and shapeshift, and class features like the druid’s wild shape, the open ended nature of these abilities make them increasingly uninteresting and reduce what could be one of the most fascinating powers to generic catch-alls.

In this article I will present simple ideas for both shapechanging and summoning that can inspire the imagination of your players while drastically reducing the “paralysis through analysis”, blandness syndrome, and Min-Maxing issues that often occurs with these abilities.

Shapeshifting

The history of the druid’s wild shape class feature is interesting and varied (see Brandes Stoddard’s History of the Druid for a fascinating look at the evolution of this iconic class). In two of the most popular editions (3rd and 5th), the druid is free to choose any animal/beast to wild shape into, with certain limitations on size, Challenge Rating, movement modes, etc. Though the text says “any animal/beast the druid has seen before”, I’ve found this limitation to be far too general and one that is too-often hand-waved away. What DM wants to argue against “what do you mean I haven’t seen a bat before? And a giant bat is just a bigger version, so that’s legal even if I haven’t technically seen it, right?”

Shifting into a dinosaur should take more than a casual glance at the triceratops munching grass on a hillside, just as learning a new spell requires time, money, and energy.

The houserule below parallels the way that wizard’s learn spells, keeping druids within a general theme without taking away the inherent flexibility of the wild shape feature.

Due to space limitations, the houserules below are designed for Pathfinder and 5th edition, but versions can be adapted to any edition by using the following guidelines:

  1. PCs gain a limited number of forms when they first gain the feature/spell: typically a number of forms equal to their class level for a class feature like wild shape, or their spellcasting ability score modifier (1-5) for spells.
  2. PCs gain 1 new form per character level per spell/feature afterward from their theme (see #3).
  3. The forms PCs gain from acquiring a spell or class feature, as well as the bonus forms they gain at each level, should be from a themed list, such as a specific terrain or elemental plane of existance.
  4. Bonus forms acquired through roleplaying are not required to be native to their theme and can be anything they’ve run into or that the DM has allowed them to study over time.

5th edition Wild Shape

When you gain this feature at 2nd level, choose a terrain type from the Circle of Land druid’s options. Choose this terrain whether or not you choose Circle of Land as your archetype. You may choose 2 beasts from the list of beasts associated with that terrain type (per your DM, or the Monsters by Terrain Type tables in the DMG). You may wild shape into those creatures with no limitations. You may add 1 new beast from your terrain type to the list of beasts you may shift into each time you gain a level.

Circle of the Moon: If you choose the Circle of the Moon archetype, you may choose 1 additional beast when you gain this class feature at 2nd level. In addition, at 10th level when you gain the ability to take the form of an elemental, you may choose one elemental form in addition to the beast form you normally gain from a new level.

You may add beasts (or elementals) to your list of choices as you encounter them during your games. You must spend a number of hours equal to 8 x the beast’s Challenge Rating studying the beast you wish to add to your list. These forms are not required to be native to your chosen terrain. Typically this requires the casting of animal friendship and speak with animals, spending time practicing the beast’s form, and understanding how the creature interacts with the world. After the required time, you may add the creature to your list of available forms. The first time you use a new form in combat or other stressful situation (such as scouting an enemy base), you make all attacks, Strength checks, Strength saves, Dexterity checks, and Dexterity saves at disadvantage as you become accustomed to the new body. Your DM determines if a situation is considered stressful.

[NOTE: I also allow access to certain monstrous creatures as well as beasts. This allows some variety, especially at higher CRs that have few beasts to choose from, as well as makes more sense: does the average citizen of a D&D world really think a bear and an owlbear are different categories of beast?]

5th edition Polymorph

When you first acquire this spell, you must select a terrain from the Circle of Land druid options. You may choose a number of beasts equal to your spellcasting ability score bonus from the list of beasts associated with that terrain type (per your DM, or the Monsters by Terrain Type tables in the DMG). You may polymorph the target of this spell into those creatures with no disadvantage imposed on them during combat or skill checks, though the form is still limited by the target’s Challenge Rating per the spell’s description. You may add 1 new beast from your terrain type to your list of available beasts each time you gain a level.

True Polymorph: Your list of beasts is also available when you acquire the true polymorph spell. In addition, you gain access to an additional number of other creatures (not limited to beasts) equal to your spell casting ability score bonus.

You may add beasts (or other creatures if you have access to true polymorph) to your list of choices as you encounter them during your games.These forms are not required to be native to your chosen terrain. You must spend a number of hours equal 8 times the beast’s Challenge Rating studying the beast you wish to add to your list. Typically this requires the casting of animal friendship and speak with animals, spending time practicing the beast’s form, and understanding how the creature interacts with the world. After the required time, you may add the creature to your list of available forms. The first time you use a new form in combat or other stressful encounter (such as scouting an enemy base), you make all attacks, Strength checks, Strength saves, Dexterity checks, and Dexterity saves at disadvantage as you become accustomed to the new body. Your DM determines if a situation is considered stressful. If you do not have access to the animal friendship and speak with animals spells or their equivalents, you make the associate attacks and checks at disadvantage for two stressful encounters.

5th edition Downtime Activity

Natural Study

During downtime, you may study a new form to polymorph or wild shape into. You must have access to the creature whose form you wish to learn. Studying a new form takes 10 days, at the end of which you have full control over your new form. You may add the creature’s form to your list of available forms and do not take disadvantage on attacks or checks during initial stressful encounters. You may only study one new form per 10 days.


Pathfinder Wild Shape

When you gain this feature at 4th level, choose a terrain type from the list of favored terrains available to the ranger. You may choose 4 animals from the list of animals associated with that terrain type (per your DM, or the various Monsters by Terrain Type lists available online). You may wild shape into those creatures with no limitations. You may add 1 new animal form indigenous to your terrain type to the list of animals you may shift into each time you gain a level.

At 6th level, you may choose a single Small elemental in addition to the animal form you receive for a new level. You may choose to gain an elemental form in place of an animal form at each level after 6th. At 8th level, you may choose one Small or Medium plant creature in addition to the animal or elemental form you receive for a new level. You may choose to gain a plant creature form in place of an animal for at each level after 8th.

You may add animal, plant, and elemental forms to your list of available forms as you encounter them during your games. These forms are not required to be native to your chosen terrain. You must spend a number of hours equal to 8 x the creature’s Challenge Rating studying the creature you wish to add to your list. Typically this requires the casting of spells such as charm animal and speak with animals, spending time practicing the creature’s form, and understanding how the creature interacts with the world. After the required time, you may add the creature to your list of available forms. The first time you use a new form in combat or other stressful situation (such as scouting an enemy base), you make all attacks, Strength-based ability and skill checks, Dexterity-based ability and skill checks, and Reflex saves with a -4 circumstance penalty as you become accustomed to the new body. Your DM determines if a situation is considered stressful.

Pathfinder “Form of…” Spells

When you first acquire polymorphbeast shape, plant shape, elemental body, vermin shape, form of the dragon, or similar spells, you may choose a number of creatures of a type designated by the spell equal to your spell casting ability score modifier. You may change into those creatures with no limitations. You gain the form of 1 additional creature of the appropriate type per spell per level there after. For example, if you have beast shape II, plant shape I, and form of the dragon I, you gain one additional animal, plant, and dragon shape at your next level. If you also have polymorph, you gain one additional animal or elemental form of your choosing.

Greater Polymorph: Any forms you have learned from either the wild shape class feature or the various “form of…” spells may be used for the greater polymorph spell. In addition, you gain a number of new animal, magical beasts, elemental, plant, or dragon forms equal to your spell casting ability score modifier when you gain access to this spell, and may add 1 more form for each level you gain afterward.

Humanoid Form spells: Spells that allow the caster to change into a humanoid form, such as alter self and the druid feature a thousands faces work as described in the spell.

You may add to your list of available forms as you encounter them during your games. You must spend a number of hours equal to 8 x the creature’s Challenge Rating studying the creature you wish to add to your list. Typically this requires the casting of spells such as charm animal and speak with animals, spending time practicing the creature’s form, and understanding how the creature interacts with the world. After the required time, you may add the creature to your list of available forms. The first time you use a new form in combat or other stressful situation (such as scouting an enemy base), you make all attacks, Strength-based ability and skill checks, Dexterity-based ability and skill checks, and Reflex saves with a -4 circumstance penalty as you become accustomed to the new body. Your DM determines if a situation is considered stressful.


Summoning/Conjure Spells

Spells such as conjure woodland beings and summon monster III allow the caster access to a nearly unlimited range of allies at all times. Limiting access to the number and variety of creatures the caster can summon keeps the caster focused and requires them to think of interesting ways to deal with the situations presented to them during the adventure.

In addition to the guidelines provided below, I also require any player with a summon spell to tell me how their PC developed a relationship with the creature(s) they summon. This has led to some fascinating roleplaying and turned summoned creatures into fully-developed NPCs instead of throw-away meat-shields.

From “Jumper”, the wolf who always appeared on the tallest object within range, to “The Rock” stone elemental whose fighting style included “The Summoner’s Elbow” and “The Timberline”, asking your PCs to take a few minutes to focus on the who and why of summoning can be worth every second.

5th edition Conjure spells

When you first gain access to any of the various conjure spells, such as woodland beings, animals, fey, and minor elementals, you must choose 1 creature type for the four associated Challenge Ratings (1/4, 1/2, 1, & 2). You may summon those creatures when using the associated spell. For spells that summon a single creature of a specific CR or less, such as conjure celestial, conjure elemental, or conjure fey, you may choose a number of creatures of the appropriate type equal to your spell casting ability modifier when you first gain access to the spell.

You may add 1 additional creature to each spell’s available creature list each time you gain a level.

As with shapeshifting spells, you may add additional creature types to your list of available creatures through study. You must spend a number of hours equal to 8 x the creature’s Challenge Rating studying the creature you wish to add to your list. Typically this requires the casting of spells such as animal friendship, speak with animals, or tongues, or knowing the language of the creature to be summoned, such as the Primordial language of elementals. Contact with these creatures can be initiated through direct contact in the wild, such as with the druid’s wild shape feature, or can be indirect, such as at a University library. If through study instead of direct contact, you have learned of a specific creature, summoned it, and must spend time either convincing it to become allies, or intimidating it into serving you.

The first time you summon a creature for combat or other stressful situation (such as scouting an enemy hideout), you must make an Animal Handling check, Deception check, Persuasion check, or Intimidate check opposed by the creatures Charisma check. The results determine how willing the creature is to follow through with your request. Your DM determines if a situation is considered stressful.

The creatures you summon will have personalities and quirks of their own. Though you have the level of control over your summoned creatures as described in the associated spells, your DM may tweak a specific creature’s actions or reactions to make the story more interesting. Think of these creatures more as NPCs than mindless automatons.


Pathfinder Summon spells

When you first gain access to any of the various summon spells, such as woodland creatures or summon monster, you may choose 2 creature types listed under the spell’s list of creatures. You may summon those creatures normally. You may choose 1 additional creature type from each spell’s creature list each time you gain a level. For example, a 1st level wizard gains the summon monster I spell and chooses dire rat and poisonous frog as creatures she can summon. At 2nd level, she adds fire beetles to her list. At 3rd level, she adds viper (snake) to her list, and gains the summon monster II spell, gaining the ability to summon giant frogs and giant spiders.

As with shapeshifting spells, you may add additional creature types to your list of available creatures through study. You must spend a number of hours equal to 8 x the creature’s Challenge Rating studying the creature you wish to add to your list. Typically this requires the casting of spells such as charm animal, speak with animals, or tongues, or knowing the language of the creature to be summoned, such as the Aquan language of water elementals. Contact with these creatures can be initiated through direct contact in the wild, such as with the druid’s wild shape feature, or can be indirect, such as at a University library. If through study instead of direct contact, you have learned of a specific creature, summoned it, and must spend time either convincing it to become allies, or intimidating it into serving you.

The first time you summon a creature for combat or other stressful situation (such as scouting an enemy hideout), you must make an Animal Handling check, Bluff check, Diplomacy check, or Intimidate check. The results determine how willing the creature is to follow through with your request. Your DM determines if a situation is considered stressful.

The creatures you summon will have personalities and quirks of their own. Though you have the level of control over your summoned creatures as described in the associated spells, your DM may tweak a specific creature’s actions or reactions to make the story more interesting. Think of these creatures more as NPCs than mindless automatons.


Image by one of my favorite artists, the late Susan Seddon-Boulet.

 

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richhoward

Rich Howard's obsession with gaming started 35 years ago when his older brother finally let him invade his AD&D game. Since his first sleep spell, Rich has wandered the world of roleplaying, board and computer games as fascinated with their potential to teach and inspire as to entertain.