Design & Development02/16/2006

The Polymorph Problem

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Andy Collins details the current situation with polymorph.

It shouldn’t come as news to any serious D&D player that the polymorph spell presents some problems for players and DMs alike. From ever-changing stat blocks to “what happens to my stuff,” nothing grinds the game to a halt like somebody casting polymorph. In fact, if there’s a family of spells that has created more rules arguments, errata, and FAQ entries than the polymorph tribe (which includes alter self, animal shapes, baleful polymorph, polymorph any object, and shapechange, along with the metamorphosis and greater metamorphosis psionic powers), we’d be surprised.

Over the past 5-1/2 years, D&D has seen three distinct versions of the polymorph spell: the version presented in the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook was superseded by a new take in Tome and Blood, which in turn was updated in the Player’s Handbook version 3.5. Each successive take on polymorph attempted to address the rules complications that arose from the spell, but they never really attacked the biggest problem with polymorph.

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.

This problem goes well beyond what can reasonably be fixed by errata. While a fourth take on the polymorph spell might create a spell that didn’t create pages of rules confusion, it won’t correct the “unbounded effect” of the spell’s core function without fundamentally changing the spell’s identity. The ideal “take the form of another creature” spell would limit the caster’s options to a very small list of choices (possibly as low as one). To replace even a reasonable fraction of the total functionality of polymorph, then, would require not one spell but more than a dozen, scattered across various levels and class lists.

The latest errata doesn’t seek to “fix” polymorph. Instead, it seeks to end polymorph’s stranglehold on other elements of the game—from class features (the druid’s wild shape) to related spells (animal shapes, baleful polymorph) to the many monsters who use powers based on the same effect (such as the succubus and yuan-ti)—by revising those elements so that they can function without referring to the problematic polymorph spell. This means that players and DMs who don’t mind their spellcasters using the polymorph spell can continue to use it as written in their home games, but the number of times they come across the spell in other aspects of the game will greatly diminish.

The same is not true in the RPGA’s Mark of Heroes campaign. As part of our continuing effort to ensure a fair and equitable play experience for all participants, the polymorph spell and several related game elements have been designed as “restricted,” meaning that they are now unavailable for use in that campaign. If you’ve found these game elements to be problematic in your home game, we recommend that you implement the same change. See this announcement for more details on that restriction.

The errata doesn’t solve all the potential rules issues that might arise, nor does it completely eliminate the “unbounded effect” that can crop up in some special abilities (such as wild shape). However, we believe that it represents a reasonable compromise between the legacy of what’s come before and the needs of the game environment moving forward. Look for new spells that reproduce the iconic shapeshifting effect of polymorph without most of the headaches in future products such as Player’s Handbook II.

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 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.

We didn’t approach a “course correction” of this magnitude lightly. The scope of this errata document is unprecedented, covering more than a dozen different supplements and including over a hundred different entries. Never before have the D&D rules experienced such a wide-ranging change through the errata process (and we hope it’ll be the last of its kind). Representatives from RPG R&D and the RPGA spent many hours discussing the issue and compiling potential errata, and the hours would’ve been even longer if we hadn’t received some timely assistance from a number of fans who answered the call for help. (kenjenks, kkarty, Tiburon Silverflame, MindWandererB, Pinkys Brain narf, and Melmoth, take a bow!)

Ultimately, though, we bear the responsibility of ensuring that our core rules and supplements provide a great play experience for everyone who picks up that d20. We believe this errata document (along with the accompanying restriction decision for the Mark of Heroes campaign) represents a step forward in doing exactly that. In the short term, even the smallest bit of errata can create confusion and discord, but we weighed this hindrance against the potential improvement of play it created at the gaming table and decided that the long-term gain was worth the short-term pain.

We encourage you to share your comments and questions about this errata on our message boards.

Good gaming!

Andy Collins
RPG Developer

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

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