Polymorphing is a magical effect in which the subject creature assumes a new physical form while retaining its essential identity and abilities. These effects include the Alter self spell, polymorph spells (Polymorph(spell), Baleful polymorph, and Polymorph any object), the Shapechange spell, the wildshape class feature, and the alternate form special quality. Magic can cause creatures and characters to change their shapes—sometimes against their will, but usually to gain an advantage. Polymorphed creatures retain their own minds but have new physical forms.
The Basics of Alternate Form
You'll find rules for the alternate form special quality on page 305 in the Monster Manual. Here's an overview, along with some reminders and commentary:
Alternate form is magical and will not function within an antimagic field or anywhere else where magic is negated or suppressed.
Taking an alternate form is a standard action that does not provoke an attack of opportunity.
A creature using the alternate form power has a moderate aura of transmutation magic (because there's magic in the transformation into the assumed form), but alternate form is not subject to dispel magic because supernatural abilities can't be dispelled -- see page 289 in the Dungeon Master's Guide -- nor are they subject to counterspells.
Alternate form works only on the creature using the power. It cannot be used on another creature, even through the share spells ability.
A creature with the alternate form special quality can assume one or more specific alternate forms, which are specified in the creature's description. The creature cannot use alternate forms that are not specified in the description.
Unlike the polymorph spell, a creature using alternate form doesn't regain any hit points when assuming a new form.
Gains and losses.
Upon assuming a new form, the creature loses some of its own characteristics and gains certain characteristics of the assumed form instead. The creature also retains some of its own characteristics. The section that follows examines what changes and what stays the same. This examination concludes in Part Two.
Assuming an Alternate Form
An alternate form is mostly physical. A creature in an alternate form retains its essential self, but changes its outward appearance and physical attributes.
Upon changing form, the creature gains the assumed form's size. The size gained is always the size for a typical example of the assumed form's kind. A creature's typical size is listed at the top of its statistics block in the creature's description. Most creatures allow for some size variations, but those are for exceptional specimens. For example, a typical dire bear is size Large. Some dire bears are Huge (see the advancement section in the dire bear creature description), but if a creature assumes dire bear form through the alternate form class feature, it becomes Large.
It is possible for a creature description to specify a different size than the typical size for an assumed form, but an assumed form is limited to the typical size if a different size isn't specified.
A few creatures have a range of typical sizes. Examples include sharks, monstrous spiders, and tojanidas. In such cases the creature description specifies which sizes the assumed form can have. If not, alternate form allows the creature to assume any typical size. For example, a bronze dragon could assume the form of a Tiny, Small, or Medium viper because those are all typical sizes for vipers (see page 280 in the Monster Manual) and all fall within the range of sizes the dragon's alternate form power allows. Beware of additional blocks of statistics in a creature description that show the creature with a few levels added (such as the mummy lord), or creature descriptions that show alternative forms (such as lycanthropes). You can't use alternate form to assume a form with class levels or to assume another creature's alternative forms when shape shifting.
A creature retains its own type and subtypes when assuming a new form.
The creature's body might look and feel a little different, but it's still the same creature. Any vulnerabilities or immunities the creature has by virtue of its original type and subtype remain in the assumed form. For example a gold dragon retains its immunity to magic sleep and paralyzation effects (from its dragon type) even when it assumes an animal or humanoid form. It also retains its immunity to fire and vulnerability to cold (from its fire subtype) when in an assumed form.
A creature does not gain the assumed form's type or subtypes, and it does not gain any vulnerabilities or immunities from the assumed form's type and subtypes (with one exception noted in the sidebar and addressed later).
Special attacks or effects that depend on the recipient's type or subtypes affect a creature in an assumed form the same way they would affect the creature when it is in its natural form. For example, a ranger whose favored enemy is dragons meets a gold dragon that has assumed the form of a cat (a creature of the animal type). The ranger still benefits from the skill and combat bonuses her favored enemy class feature provides when she interacts with the masquerading dragon. Likewise, a ranger whose favored enemy is animals would not gain any benefits against the dragon, even when the dragon wears a cat's form.
A creature in an alternate form gains the natural weapons, natural armor, movement modes, and extraordinary special attacks of its new form.
The creature loses natural weapons, natural armor, movement modes, and any extraordinary special attacks of its original form not derived from class levels from its natural form in favor of what the new form provides (but see Part Three). All the things listed here are derived wholly (or mostly) from the creature's outward physical form -- claws, teeth, limbs, skin, and the like. These things change when the creature's body changes. For example, an adult bronze dragon has six natural weapons (bite, two claws, two wings, and a tail), all of which it can use with the full attack action. If the dragon assumes a crocodile's form, it has only two natural weapons (bite and tail) and can use one at a time, even in a full attack (see the crocodile creature description). The example dragon also gives up its crush extraordinary attack and gains the crocodile's improved grab instead. The dragon's +20 natural armor bonus becomes +4 (the crocodile's natural armor bonus). The dragon loses its flying speed (along with its wings) and its land and swim speeds as well. Instead it uses the crocodile's land speed of 20 feet and the crocodile's swim speed of 30 feet. See Part Two for more notes on speeds.
Alternate Form (Su)
A creature with this special quality has the ability to assume one or more specific alternate forms. A true seeing spell or ability reveals the creature's natural form. A creature using alternate form reverts to its natural form when killed, but separated body parts retain their shape. A creature cannot use alternate form to take the form of a creature with a template. Assuming an alternate form results in the following changes to the creature:
-- The creature retains the type and subtype of its original form. It gains the size of its new form. If the new form has the aquatic subtype, the creature gains that subtype as well.
-- The creature loses the natural weapons, natural armor, and movement modes of its original form, as well as any extraordinary special attacks of its original form not derived from class levels (such as the barbarian's rage class feature).
-- The creature gains the natural weapons, natural armor, movement modes, and extraordinary special attacks of its new form.
-- The creature retains the special qualities of its original form. It does not gain any special qualities of its new form.
-- The creature retains the spell-like abilities and supernatural attacks of its old form (except for breath weapons and gaze attacks). It does not gain the spell-like abilities or supernatural attacks of its new form.
-- The creature gains the physical ability scores (Str, Dex, Con) of its new form. It retains the mental ability scores (Int, Wis, Cha) of its original form. Apply any changed physical ability score modifiers in all appropriate areas with one exception: the creature retains the hit points of its original form despite any change to its Constitution.
-- Except as described elsewhere, the creature retains all other game statistics of its original form, including (but not necessarily limited to) HD, hit points, skill ranks, feats, base attack bonus, and base save bonuses.
-- The creature retains any spellcasting ability it had in its original form, although it must be able to speak intelligibly to cast spells with verbal components and it must have humanlike hands to cast spells with somatic components.
-- The creature is effectively camouflaged as a creature of its new form, and it gains a +10 bonus on Disguise checks if it uses this ability to create a disguise.
Changing into an alternate form transforms a creature physically. As we shall see, assuming an alternate form also leaves many of the creature's characteristics unchanged.
A creature in an alternate form retains all its special qualities.
As noted, natural weapons, natural armor, and extraordinary special attacks are mostly a function of a creature's physical form. Special qualities, however, tend to be tied more strongly to a creature's mind, to its internal physiology, or to its essential nature.
A creature in an alternate form does not gain any of the assumed form's special qualities.
A creature in an assumed form looks just like the genuine article, but the change is literally only skin deep.
A creature in an assumed form retains the spell-like abilities and supernatural attacks of its old form (except for breath weapons and gaze attacks). It does not gain the spell-like abilities or supernatural attacks of its new form.
Spell-like abilities are largely mental. Supernatural abilities arise from a creature's essential nature. Neither a creature's mind nor its true species changes along with a change in a creature's outer form.
Gaze attacks and breath weapons are special cases. A gaze attack depends on how the creature's face (or what serves as a face) is configured. Likewise, a breath weapon requires a specific configuration of lungs (or other internal organs) plus the throat, windpipe, mouth, and other breathing apparatus. For example, a cat's body just can't support a dragon's breath weapon, even when the cat is really a dragon that has assumed a cat's form.
If you read the rules strictly, the loss of gaze attacks and breath weapons applies only when a creature changes form through the alternate form power. The alter selfspell description, for example, implies that any form that has eyes can support a gaze attack and any form with a mouth can support a breath weapon.
A creature in an assumed form loses its physical ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) and gains the physical ability scores of its new form. It retains the mental ability scores (Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) of its original form.
This is another consequence that arises from the limited nature of the change. The creature's ability modifiers change along with its new ability scores (but see the next point).
A creature in an assumed form retains its hit points, base save bonuses, and base attack bonus. Its actual save modifiers and total attack bonus might change due to a change in ability scores.
Because the change in form doesn't change the creature's Wisdom score (see previous point), the creature's Will save bonus doesn't change. Changes to the creature's Constitution and Dexterity scores, however, might change its Fortitude and Reflex save bonuses. Changes to the creature's Strength score affect its melee attack bonus. Changes to the creature's Dexterity score change its ranged attack bonus.
Despite any change in its Constitution score, a change in form through the alternate form power does not change the creature's hit points. This feature of alternate form mostly serves to speed play. It also underscores the notion that the change in form doesn't alter the creature's fundamental identity.
A creature in an assumed form retains any spellcasting ability it had in its original form.
Nevertheless, the creature must be able to speak intelligibly while in its assumed form to cast spells with verbal components and it must have humanlike hands to cast spells with somatic components.
A creature in an assumed form is effectively camouflaged as a creature of the assumed form's kind. It gains a +10 bonus on Disguise checks it makes to appear as a creature of the assumed form's kind.
This aspect of changing form causes some confusion. If the alternate form power makes the creature look like some other kind of creature, why is a Disguise check needed at all? Usually, it isn't.
To the casual observer, the transmuted creature looks just like a genuine example of the creature whose form it has assumed. If someone is paying close attention to the creature, the viewer can attempt a Spot check to note something odd about transmuted creature's appearance, as noted in the description of the Disguise skill. Use the +10 modifier on the Disguise check rather than the modifiers shown on the first table in the skill description. The Disguise check the masquerading creature makes reflects how accurately it has reproduced the assumed form. If the creature uses alternate form to pose as a particular individual, anyone studying the creature might get a Spot bonus as noted in the Disguise skill description.
When a creature assumes a new form through the alternate form special quality, it gains all the miscellaneous physical qualities that a typical specimen of the assumed form would have.
These include all the things (such as natural armor and weapons) discussed in Part One and Part Two, and also basic things such as the number of and kinds of limbs and appendages the creature has, its height and weight, skin color, hair color, and the like.
When assuming a new form, the creature can freely designate any physical attributes that normally vary between individuals of the assumed form's kind. In most cases, this means the creature can set the assumed form's hair or skin color, eye color, height and weight, and similar, minor, details. The chosen attributes must fall within the normal ranges for a creature of that kind (these will be noted in the creature's description). As a rule of thumb, the assumed form's weight or dimensions can vary up or down by 10% unless a greater variation is allowed among typical specimens. The chosen weight and dimensions, however, cannot change the assumed form's size category.
Since alternate form doesn't change your type and subtype, it's simplest to rule that you retain any of your racial traits that aren't otherwise barred by the alternate form effect. That means that you'd keep any racial skill bonuses, racial bonus feats, and the like, but you wouldn't gain those of the new form. Even though your body appears similar to that of a normal creature of the new form, you don't have its lifetime of experience in the body, and therefore don't necessarily share its natural aptitudes.
When a creature changes form, any equipment it has either remains worn or held by the new form (if that form is capable of wearing or holding the item), or melds into the new form and becomes nonfunctional. The DM must decide if the new form can handle the equipment. This is best decided on a case by case basis
In this case, "humanoid" refers to a creature that walks upright on two legs, and has two arms, a head, and a torso. A humanoid might have a few extra limbs, such as an extra pair of arms, a pair of wings or a tail (or perhaps wings and a tail). The suggestions presented here are intended as general guidelines only. For example, most outsiders have generally humanoid bodies, but not all of them do. Likewise, some animals have bodies that fit the humanoid plan.
As a rule of thumb, a change from a form that has a humanoid shape to another form that also has a humanoid shape leaves all equipment in place and functioning. The creature's equipment changes to match the assumed form. It becomes the appropriate size for the assumed form and it fits the assumed form at least as well as it fit the original form. The being can change minor details in its equipment, such as color, surface texture, and decoration.
When a subject changes from a form with a humanoid shape to a form with a nonhumanoid shape (or vice versa) any equipment that can't be worn by the new form falls off at the subject's feet. (The druid's wildshape ability provides an exception: all equipment is subsumed into the new form and becomes nonfunctional while the druid remains in the assumed form.) Items the subject could conceivably wear in an assumed form remain functional. For example, most items worn on the body, such as armor, cloaks, boots, and most other items of clothing made for a humanoid body won't fit on a nonhumanoid body. Some items can fit on just about any kind of body. For example, a ring fits nearly any form that has digits of some kind (the limit of two rings applies no matter how many hands or similar appendages a creature has). Likewise, a necklace fits on just about any form that has a neck.
When a creature assumes an alternate form, it retains any class levels it has. As noted in Part One, the creature retains its hit points, alignment, base attack bonus, and base save bonuses while in an assumed form. It also retains all its skill ranks and feats, although changes to its ability scores might make some feats temporarily unusable. For example, a creature cannot use the Dodge feat if its Dexterity score falls below 13.
In spite of what was said in Part One about extraordinary special attacks, a creature in an assumed form retains all special attacks and qualities derived from class levels. These things are primarily a function of the mind (the creature acquired them through experience and training), and the creature can keep right on using them when in an assumed form.
Alternate Form and Stacking
Rules of the Game has examined stacking magical effects before. That series, however, dealt mostly with the rules regarding combining bonuses from magical effects. Changing forms tends to be a little less straightforward.
The rules on combining magical effects on pages 171 and 172 in the Player's Handbook contain the key to handling an alternate form's interactions with other magic.
Alternate form doesn't provide any bonuses or penalties to combine with other magical effects -- it works changes that alter the user's physical attributes. Any magic that provides a numerical bonus or penalty affects a creature in an alternate form normally. For example, a bull's strength spell works on a creature no matter what form it's in. If a creature receives a bonus, such as an enhancement bonus to an ability score, before changing form it retains that bonus when it changes form. Just apply the bonus to whatever basic attribute the new form provides. For example, if the creature changes into a troll, it gains a Strength score of 23. If it also has a +4 enhancement bonus to Strength from a bull's strength, it effectively has a Strength score of 27 while it remains in troll form and while the bull's strength spell lasts.
Effects that work some sort of physical change on the recipient fall under the rules for effects that render each other irrelevant. For example, spells such as fins to feet and girallon's blessing from the Spell Compendium both transform the recipient physically (the former turns a creature's swimming fins or tail into motive legs useful on land, the latter spell causes the recipient to literally grow an extra set of arms). Since a creature gains the assumed form's body layout and limbs upon changing, the change in form makes either spell irrelevant. For example, if a creature using either spell assumes the form of a horse through alternate form, it becomes a typical horse, with four legs and four feet with hooves. If the creature later reverts to its original form, either spell still applies to the creature, provided the spell's duration hasn't run out.
It's worth noting, however, that the order in which these effects are applied is significant. If the recipient of a girallon's blessing spell has assumed the form of a horse, it grows two arms that end in claws (because a horse has no arms, see the spell's description). If the creature later reverts to its original form, it loses the extra arms (they belong with the horse's altered body).
An Alternate Form Example
One common character ability affected by the new rule for polymorphing is the druid's wild shape ability, which now works like the alternate form special quality instead of the polymorph spell. Let's take a look at Mirye, a 6th-level druid who often changes into the form of a leopard, viper, or eagle.
I'd like to call your attention to the differences between Mirye's statistics as an eagle and the statistics for Nydia, her eagle animal companion. When Mirye assumes eagle form, her statistics are based on a typical eagle, not on an eagle that has improved through becoming an animal companion.
Also consider what happens to Mirye's equipment. The things she carries meld into her assumed forms (all animals) and become nonfunctional. Her ring of protection arguably fits on her talons when she becomes an eagle and it might also a fit on the leopard's stubby toes. The errata file for the Player's Handbook, however, specifically states that a druid's equipment melds into the assumed form when she wild shapes. Any new items worn in the assumed form fall off and land at the druid's feet when she takes her normal form.
The errata also says that a druid regains lost hit points as if she had rested for a night each time she uses wild shape. (An important change to remember.)
- Wild Shape (Su): At 5th level, a druid gains the ability to turn herself into any Small or Medium animal and back again once per day. Her options for new forms include all creatures with the animal type (see the Monster Manual). This ability functions like the alternate form special ability (see the Monster Manual), except as noted here. The effect lasts for 1 hour per druid level, or until she changes back. Changing form (to animal or back) is a standard action and doesn't provoke an attack of opportunity. The form chosen must be that of an animal the druid is familiar with. For example, a druid who has never been outside a temperate forest could not become a polar bear. Each time you use wild shape, you regain lost hit points as if you had rested for a night.
Any gear worn or carried by the druid melds into the new form and becomes nonfunctional. When the druid reverts to her true form, any objects previously melded into the new form reappear in the same location on her body that they previously occupied and are once again functional. Any new items worn in the assumed form fall off and land at the druid's feet.
A druid loses her ability to speak while in animal form because she is limited to the sounds that a normal, untrained animal can make, but she can communicate normally with other animals of the same general grouping as her new form. (The normal sound a wild parrot makes is a squawk, so changing to this form does not permit speech.)
Changing your body and brain is an inherently risky business. Every [interval]* a character spends in a form with a type other than his own, he must make a Will save, with a DC equal to normal DC of a spell of this level, +1 for each [interval] they’ve spent in the form, +1 for each of these saves they’ve failed. As they start failing these saves, they begin forgetting their own identity. Each failed save causes the caster to lose 1d4 random spell slots or prepared spells. If the caster fails 5 saves, he becomes permanently convinced that he is a creature of the type they've shapeshifted into. They discard all memories of their past life (including feats, prepared spell slots, spells known, and more) that don't "fit" with their new form, and begin acting in a manner appropriate to the new creature, even if the spell ends. This condition can be cured by any spell capable of curing insanity. A caster who’s failed at least one of these saves must make an additional save to dismiss the spell. It's especially difficult to maintain your mental balance in the heat of battle. Even if a spell's duration is more than one minute/level, when in combat, the subject must make a save every two rounds.
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