The Alexandrian

AD&D Player's Handbook - 1st EditionYesterday’s post about hovering at death’s door got me thinking about AD&D’s system shock rules. In the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook, these rules read:

System Shock Survival states the percentage chance the character has of surviving the following forms of magical attacks (or simple application of the magic): aging, petrification (including flesh to stone spell!), polymorph any object, polymorph others. Example: The wicked necromancer polymorphs (others) his hireling into a giant roc, with the rather foolish agreement of the changee; the hireling must make a saving throw based on his constitution score using the table above. Assuming he survives, a further saving throw would have to be made if he was again polymorphed or dispelled back to original form. The saving throw must be equal to or less than the percentage shown.

Resurrection survival shows the percentage chance the character has of being successfully raised from the dead or resurrected by a cleric. The score of the percentile dice must be equal to or less than the number shown on the table, or the character fails to be revivified and is completely and totally dead forever. Remember that a character can never be raised from the dead/resurrected a total number of times in excess of the character’s initial constitution score.

Reading through these rules again prompted a couple of thoughts.

First, wouldn’t re-introducing some sort of save-or-die effect for polymorph spells pretty much instantly solve the balance problems those spells have in 3rd Edition? This is a pretty good example of how the long, slow retreat from lethal consequences in D&D can have some really bad tack-on effects when those lethal consequences were serving as an important balancing mechanism.

Second, the degree to which order has been imposed onto the Gygaxian chaos of the early rulebooks. It’s easy to look at big examples (like getting all the numbers pointed in the same direction) and ignore the multitude of smaller adjustments made over the years: For example, 2nd Edition just quietly smoothed away the fact that you have one set of saving throws resolved using a d20-roll-under mechanic determined primarily by class (but adjusted by race and ability score) and a completely different set of saving throws resolved using percentile dice determined by ability score. And even retro-clones like OSRIC follow suit.

Nor, in my opinion, is this something that’s limited to published rulebooks. Gygax was an effusively creative fellow, but his rulebooks are dizzying affairs of the contradictory and the imparsable. I’ve talked before about the fact that the ur-game of D&D basically requires you to impose your will upon the rulebooks in order to play, and I think, when confronted with AD&D, we all tend to quietly gloss over the grosser oddities while sorting everything into a more comprehensible order. And I think that’s true even when we don’t really think about the fact that we’re doing it.

As a final thought, here’s the same set of rules in AD&D2:

System Shock states the percentage chance a character has to survive magical effects that reshape or age his body: petrification (and reversing petrification), polymorph, magical aging, etc. It can also be used to see if the character regains consciousness in particularly difficult situations. For example, an evil mage polymorphs his dim-witted hireling into a crow. The hireling, whose Constitution score is 13, has an 85 percent chance to survive the change. Assuming he survives, he must successfully roll for system shock again when he is changed back to his original form or else he will die.

This may be the perfect example of the shift from AD&D1 to AD&D2: Like most of the rules, this one is essentially unchanged. But in changing a roc into a crow one gets an immediate sense of how AD&D2 rulebooks were turned into vanilla.

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17 Responses to “Thought of the Day: The Shock of Polymorph”

  1. Mark says:

    In the case of a lethal, gritty, or realistic game I think this is a great idea.

    However, I’m trepidatious. Though I’m going to use your death’s-door table from yesterday, I don’t think I’ll be incorporating this idea at the moment. I have two reasons for this.

    My current group are not very big on anything that slows down the game. Right now they’re focused on find the baddie, kill it, and take it’s stuff. Combat is really what they’re looking for and they want it quick and varied. That being the case, these sorts of situations aren’t going to come up as much for my group. Later, when we move outside of combat I hope this will change. It likely will take a while though; I have 20+ years RP experience and the closest to that in the group is 2 years.

    My second reason is this: I’m not a fan of save-or-die effects. The idea that you die because of one bad die roll is not appealing to me. I may modify it into an extended challenge though…

    As a tangent, I dislike the revolving-door-of-death that D&D has with Ressurection. Death loses its significance when you treat it like Super Hero comics. In my group long ago I house ruled ressurection-type spells out of the book and made them essentially divine intervention (I did the same with Wish, but with a twist). It was usually unnecessary as character death was often a mutual agreement between the DM and PC. Our only use of the Ressurection spell actually turned into a full adventure which ended up with the character staying dead (the PCs instead used the god’s favour to bind a demon, the player whose character died ended up very attached to his temp-character).

  2. Confanity says:

    The big question this raises for me is, doesn’t a system shock check make Polymorph Other, used offensively, into a potential death magic? It adds a certain dash of flavor, yes, but if you intend for a witch to transform someone into a frog and instead it kills them, it can kind of take away the flavor that I associate with Polymorph Other. A witch who does crazy or terrible things to people is a lot more interesting me than a witch who just sort of zaps them dead. And that’s leaving aside the power progression issue.

  3. Mike Brendan says:

    I don’t save-or-die effects — they’re something that the player, and thus the character fears. As a result they don’t charge blindly into situations that may force such. Like anything else, though, if it’s not used in moderation it’ll frustrate the players.

    I’ve been trying to think up a house rule for adding system shock to the Polymorph spell — Coming off the top of my head it’d be a Fortitude save DC 15 + 2 or 4 per change in size. Thus changing a halfling into a hydra is a DC 21 or 27. If I want to be lenient with this rule, I’d say failing the save by less than 5 means the character is disabled for 2d4 rounds due to the pain of the transformation.

    Regarding raising characters from the dead, I tweaked things slightly. It’s no longer a level loss, but characters have a limited number of times they can be brought back. Basically it’s half the character’s original Con score +1. If I can work a Resurrection Survival mechanic into that, I will.

  4. nobodez says:

    I actually like this idea, but it would have to be integrated into the setting, and would probably require a re-working of some of the other rules. For instance, if polymorphs have a chance of system shock, what about buffing spells like the d20 Bull’s Strength? (I don’t know about earlier editions, though I’m sure that one’s been around for a while)

    Of course, if I was doing it in a d20 system game, I’d base it off of the in-built save mechanic (10+spell level+ability modifier), though perhaps with some sort of modifier for the severity of the change. An alter self would have a -2 modifier to the DC (since it’s humanoid only), polymorph would be flat, but a polymorph other into, say, a rock (as opposed to the aforementioned roc) would have a +2 modifier to the DC. Perhaps a flat -2 for same type, +0 for different living type, +2 for a non-living polymorph (or +0, +2, +5 for a deadlier game).

    As for the resurrection limits, I’d limit it to only to the Raise Dead, Resurrection, True Ressurection (including ones like Revivify, Clone, and Revenance also counting) line, and have the Reincarnate (including Last Breath) line reset the limit. This is assuming you’re using Spell Compendium (if not, only Clone would add to the Raise Dead line).

    Another option is to perhaps increase the penalty with each resurrection beyond the first (which should be either left alone or have it’s penalties removed entirely), adding either more level loss/negative levels or ability drain (both physical and mental stats).

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    I’m not sure I’d go back to system shock rules, either. Those interested in reducing the use of raise dead magic might want to check out my optional rules for death and dying. I’ve also written about save-or-die effects in the past.

    Going for straight up Con damage might still provide sufficient counter-balance (like any other death effect under my house rules).

    I’m fairly certain that my preferred method for balancing the polymorph spells is to more firmly divide “I look like monster X” (which provides the flavor of the spell) from “I get the ability scores and many of the abilities of monster X” (which is where the balance issues come from).

    For a simple example, I’d say: “If you want to be as strong as the dragon you look like, then you’re going to need to accomplish that through spells like bull’s strength.”

    But that gets complicated and I’ve never found the time to do the kind of broad work necessary to systematize it in a way that makes sense.

  6. Andrew says:

    Physical shock results in death. But with something like a polymorph, I think it would be far more likely that the shock would be mental. Driving someone insane by thrusting their minds into a new form, traumatically changing their sensory experience, would both limit causal use and avoid outright murder.

  7. Mark says:

    Justin, thanks for the link to your old articles. I only started following the blog a week ago, and I haven’t gotten through all the old stuff.

    I like your death and dying houserules. Also, you movement to ability damage on all save-or-die effects is a great spin.

  8. Wyvern says:

    “But that gets complicated and I’ve never found the time to do the kind of broad work necessary to systematize it in a way that makes sense.”

    Really? If anything, it seems like it would greatly simplify the polymorph spells. Off the top of my head, here are some ideas for handling it that way:

    – Your size changes to that of the new form, and your Strength changes correspondingly, according to the size increase table on p. 12 of MM3.0. (Thus, if you polymorph into the shape of a dragon, you’ll gain *some* Strength, but it probably won’t be as high as that of a true dragon.)
    – You gain the natural weapons and natural armor bonus of the new form, but none of its special attacks or special qualities.
    – You gain the movement rates of the new form, but you don’t gain the corresponding skill bonuses (to Climb or Swim).

    I might make an exception for druids, allowing them to gain the extraordinary special attacks, special senses and racial skill bonuses of animal forms when they wild-shape.


  9. Joseph says:

    “I might make an exception for druids, allowing them to gain the extraordinary special attacks, special senses and racial skill bonuses of animal forms when they wild-shape.”

    I always thought the solution for Druids was to make it a single animal that they could wildshape into. That way you only need one set of statistics for polymorphed druid and the flexibility of the ability would be greatly blunted. It’d even be a bit more flavorful as every druid would be a little bit different based on their individual animal totem.

  10. Wyvern says:

    That would take a lot of the fun out of playing a druid, though.

  11. Joseph says:

    It’s a tradeoff. Druids can still be fun even with a single alternate form (think werewolf).

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    @Wyvern: Ideally I would want to give you polymorphic spells which also granted you “totem abilities”. So you might have one spell that changes your shape to that of a dragon, but then you need a different spell to actually give you the breath weapon.

    To “fully transform” into a powerful creature might require the casting of several spells. Or maybe the polymorph spell gets a number of “polymorphic charges” that you can spend on various forms.

    To really do this properly (i.e., in a balanced way) you’d need to rebuild the system on a chassis where monster abilities could actually be rated in terms of their usefulness to PCs.

    With that being said, it can be pretty easy to handle a lot of this sort of thing on-the-fly if you’re willing to improv and roll with the punches. A fireball spell might be sufficient to fake dragon’s breath, for example.

    Another random thought: Rather than just limiting them to a single form, you might have something like a Polymorph skill. Sort of like a language skill, each skill point you spend would give you another form you’ve “specialized” in sufficiently to transform into it. (Alternatively, each form might be a different skill and the more points you invest into it the more of its abilities you can unlock.) This would mechanically encourage players to have their stat blocks for their forms prepared, so at polymorph also doesn’t become a “let’s have the session drag to a halt while we figure this out” mechanic.

    I dunno. Just spitballing ideas here.

  13. Andrew says:

    Another possibility would be to move from hit dice of spells to hit dice of effects. So, to copy a 6 HD dragon breath attack, lose 6 levels of spellcasting.

  14. cr0m says:

    It’d be interesting to see a side-by-side comparison of similar rules between AD&D and 2nd Ed AD&D. I wonder if there was a conscious attempt to reign in the more gonzo parts of D&D, or if it was just an unconscious creep due to the preferences of the authors.

    For my own part, when I started playing AD&D, what I liked about it was how wild and crazy it was (I was also 8). By the time I started DMing “serious” campaigns, I wanted less gonzo, more subtle magic.

    Now that I’m all grown up, I want everything wild again! Because my life is anything but.

  15. cr0m says:

    I left out some words in my previous post. I was referring to changing the Roc to a lowly crow.

  16. John K says:

    “To really do this properly (i.e., in a balanced way) you’d need to rebuild the system on a chassis where monster abilities could actually be rated in terms of their usefulness to PCs.”

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. What if you redesigned all the monsters to be level 1, and had them gain levels and abilities just like PCs? I’m thinking specifically of the CR 1 dragon from The Sunless Citadel. I personally wouldn’t have a problem if a level 1 druid (to depart from the traditional rules) could turn into that little wyrmling.

    If all the monsters had level ranges from 1-20, it would be stupid simple to balance abilities–if the monster has it at your level, then you have it.

  17. Nostri says:

    Druid forms I handle the same way vampiric form changes are handled in Vampire the Masquerade. When they gain the ability to change into two different forms- a fight and a flight form. For druids I let them gain both a fight and flight forms when they gain Wild Shape then every time they gain an additional use of wild shape they can choose an additional form.

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