The Alexandrian

A couple dayLegends & Labyrinthss ago, Baquies said he was on the fence and would like to see what the polymorph spell from Legends & Labyrinths to see if I was truly going in a direction he was interested in.

In the immortal words of the Dread Pirate Roberts: As you wish…


Sorcerer/Wizard 4
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Duration: 1 minute/level
Target: Willing creature
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

The target of the spell can take the shape of any creature (as specified by the caster at the time of the casting). During the transformation, the target’s equipment can either be left behind, worn by the new form (if physically possible), or melded into the new form (in which case it becomes nonfunctional until the polymorph ends).

The physical duplication of the creature-type is flawless to any observation of the five senses. If the spell is used to duplicate the form of a specific individual, it grants a +10 bonus to the target’s Disguise check. The spell does not, however, change any of the target’s stats except size, reach, and speed (including alternative modes of movement). (The target may look like a dragon, but they cannot breathe fire. They may bear the appearance of an ogre, but they do not possess an ogre’s strength.)

Playtest Tip – Polymorph: The polymorphic matrix can be used to disguise appropriate magical effects. For example, a sorcerer casting cone of cold while polymorphed into a white dragon could use the spell effect to make it appear as if he were using a white dragon’s breath weapon.


Let me start by saying that this is not, necessarily, a great example of what spells will look like in Legends & Labyrinths. Not because of the degree to which the spell has been simplified (that’s very representative), but because in the case of polymorph that simplification is also quietly hiding errata.

Basically, polymorph was a busted spell in 3rd Edition because the designers said, “The spell physically turns you into a creature. Ergo, any abilities based purely on the physicality of that creature should transfer over.” But that’s basically giving a 4th-level spell the ability to do anything that somebody designing a monster decides should be labeled “extraordinary” instead of “supernatural”. The fact the spell also gives you an essentially limitless buff to Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution is also obviously problematic.

In simplifying this spell, therefore, I am also simultaneously saying: “Nope. Not going to play that game. It’s a losing proposition.”

In fact, I originally considered not allowing a change in any stat except size. I eventually added reach because it was too weird having a creature with huge arms which for some reason can’t extend them. (I know that puts me on the same slippery slope, but I’m comfortable with it.) Adding the alternative movement modes was largely a “the whole point of polymorphing into a bird is that you can fly away” thing.

Collectively, this seems to give the spell some innate utility that can’t really be abused.  In terms of use at the table, this isn’t quite as simple as “boom, you’re a dragon”. But as buffs go, applying the appropriate size modifier to your attack rolls, grapple checks, and AC is pretty straight-forward.


Since we’re talking polymorph, however, let me also comment on the other half of the house rules I use for the spell in my home campaign: The polymorphic buff spell.

This is a 3rd level spell. Each time you cast it on a polymorphed creature (including yourself), you can either:

  • Grant yourself a total +10 buff to your physical ability scores. (This can be spread out across the ability scores any way you like, but the final score of any ability cannot exceed the maximum value of the creature you’ve turned into.)
  • Mimic any one natural attack or extraordinary ability possessed by the creature. (DM reserves the right  to veto anything too insane.)

I’ve boosted the duration of polymorph to 10 minutes/level, but the duration of polymorphic buff is 1 round/level. I also allow partial polymorphs. (So, for example, you can use a polymorph spell to give yourself the head of a dire bear and then use polymorph self to strengthen your teeth so that you can deliver a 2d8 + Str damage attack with it.)

And for a home campaign, this basically works. The common sense veto is essential, though, for making it work (since there’s some crazy extraordinary abilities lurking out there).

With the monster creation system of Legends & Labyrinths as a base to work from, though, I’m thinking there may be another way of handling polymorphic buff: Basically, the caster can grant any one (form-appropriate) ability with a power rank determined by their caster level. So, for example, a 5th-level caster could grant an ability that costs up to 6 power ranks (the power ranks granted to a CR 5 creature).

Or maybe it’s half the power ranks. I’m not sure. I’d have to run some math and do some playtesting.

You could probably also toss in giving any polymorphed creature a natural attack equal to the core attack damage of a creature with a CR equal to the caster level (if appropriate to the form).

Anyway, at this point I’m just musing.

Legends & Labyrinths


10 Responses to “Legends & Labyrinths – Polymorph”

  1. Hieronymous Rex says:

    Even if this is balanced, I will not accept any onstensible “shapeshifting” that does not in fact give me the physical properties of the new form, i.e. I don’t want to be lied to. If you don’t want me to be able to turn into a dragon, just say that, don’t hedge and say “sure, you can be a dragon, but without the vast majority of its abilities.”.

    If the problem is that polymorph is “the ability to do anything that somebody designing a monster decides should be labeled “extraordinary” instead of “supernatural”. “, then limit what you can turn into. Give a list of monsters that you can turn into; setting books will give variant lists for those games.

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    My primary interest is in keeping the interesting uses of polymorph easily accessible while making it, at the very least, more difficult to leverage the game-breaking ones. Nor am I saying that it should be impossible to perfectly mimic a dragon — it’s just going to take more than a single 4th level spell to achieve the effect.

    There are many examples in both myth and literature where assuming the shape of something doesn’t necessarily grant you all of its characteristics: You can become large without becoming strong. You can mimic Wolverine’s claws, but they won’t be adamantium.

    It’s also pretty comparable to the original ’74 and ’77 versions of polymorph.

  3. heromedel says:

    I like the simplicity of the spell and I agree that 4th level spells should not be able to turn you into a functioning dragon as that is only 2 character levels after fireball.

  4. Rubberduck says:

    But one still receives AC and attack bonuses from size? Because the first thing my min-maxing little brain then thinks is “Fine size category”. +8 AC/Attack seems like a mighty fine thing as long as you can avoid being grappled.

  5. Zeta Kai says:

    @ Hieronymous Rex: That version of the spell is a fool’s quest. The CR “system” isn’t terribly balanced, so compiling a list of approved monsters would take a long time, would be full of compromises, & would make for a very, very long spell entry. DMs would almost universally feel compelled to edit the list to their tastes, & many players would feel compelled to convince their DM to allow off-list monsters, based on specious arguments of similar CR. In the end, everyone loses: the designer, the DM, & the player.

    The polymorph spell, by RAW, is commonly agreed to be brokenly-powerful, & is thusly banned at many tables. That’s because of its open-ended utility, its potential for abuse, its reliance on entirely unrelated mechanics to adjudicate, & the time it takes to implement, which puts it in the equally-broken company of disjunction & gate spells (both 9th level, for the record). This version allows for players to gain some of that power, without nearly as many headaches. It is a very different approach from Rich Burlew’s Polymorph fix, but I think that it is by-&-large simpler & more elegant. In my latest campaign setting, I & the rest of our design team unanimously concluded that polymorph should be banned.

  6. Joseph says:

    Hieronymous Rex — I think that the only way to do what you want is to make the spell creature specific. In other words, there is a single spell that turns you into a troll. There is another one (of higher level) to become a dragon. Late 3.5 E was experimenting with this approach in Player;s Handbook 2, IIRC.

    But a 4th level spell that does that much is, otherwise, simply too powerful. Worse, the power of the spell scales with the number of creatures available (and means all new creatures have to be vetted with respect to the spell).

    For a spell that does this out of the box, there is still the ninth level spell (Shapechange). At the same level as Gate and Wish, I would be more comfortable with it.

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    @Zeta Kai: The CR system is also balanced (insofar as it can be) for something completely different. Abilities that will challenge a 5th-level character are not necessarily going to be good abilities for a 5th-level character to have.

    @Joseph: I like the creature-specific idea. I think what I’d look at is keeping a stripping down 1E/L&L-style version of polymorph, and then have variety of shapechange spells that are all creature specific.

    @Rubberduck: IME, it’s not actually that attractive. In melee, you’re provoking AoOs (since your natural reach is 0 ft. — which effectively gives everybody the advantage of reach on you). Better for ranged attacks, but those are generally underpowered anyway so the boost isn’t devastating. Also, your equipment doesn’t resize in this version of the spell. And if you do equip yourself, your base weapon damage is going to be heavily reduced.

    Don’t get my wrong: Properly and creatively employed, this version of polymorph is still going to give you some nice buffs. But it doesn’t seem to be so busted that it’s automatically the hammer for solving every problem.

  8. Kristian says:

    Ah, polymorph. No spell has more versions and errata than this one. The 3rd and 3.5 edition Version was a monster, only reigned in somewhat with the “alternate form” rules. And there are still mayor Issues in the RAW (example: you do not gain special qaulities of the new form. Hold Breath is a special ability. When I transform into a Whale I do not get this special ability. On the other hand you get the ability to breathe water when transforming into a shark as this is an unamend ability)

    Anyway, I do not like tha assumption of no ability changes. If I have Str. 6 and transform into a cloud giant I will not be able to even carry my weapon because it is to heavy. Or I have Str. 18 and transform into a mouse and will most likely kill a commoner with one bite.

    @Joseph: Pathfinder RPG has speccific polymorphs spells that allow you to change into specific creature types and give you specific ability changes. Works good.

  9. strange7 says:

    @Hieronymous Rex: Think of it as a spell that turns you into a living plaster mockup of a dragon, then successive castings of Polymorphic Buff fill in the interior with stuff that’s actually dangerous instead of just looking good.

    @Kristian: a Huge creature with strength 6 can still lift considerably more than a Medium or Small creature with strength 6. Maybe you could pass as an extremely sickly and frail cloud giant.

  10. Pteryx says:

    I would add “senses” to that, so you get low-light vision from becoming a cat or scent from becoming a dog or blindsight from turning into an ooze. I’m iffy about not getting *any* stat changes, but I can see why you fear going down that path. — Pteryx

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