Guidance – Rules 101: Using Polymorph Spells

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about polymorph spells.

One of the most commonly misinterpreted rules in the game involve a very small subset of spells known as the polymorph subschool. Polymorph spells are a subschool of transmutation and involve the transformation of one creature or object into another creature or object. Generally speaking, polymorph spells account for some of the most enjoyable spells in the game. But seeing as they account for nearly a page and a half of text in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, today we’re going to sit down and actually TALK about what happens when you use a polymorph spell against an opponent.

Tip #1 — The Spell Does What It Says

Back in 3.5, the various polymorph effects were a LOT more powerful then they currently are in Pathfinder for a number of reasons. When making the jump from Paizo to 3.5, the designers took out many references to various aspects of polymorph spells that were inherent in 3.5, and today many people STILL incorrectly think that these spells do more then they actually do. Here’s the golden rule of polymorph spells: SOMETHING ONLY CHANGES IF THE SPELL SPECIFICALLY CHANGES IT.

One of the most common mistakes that I see with polymorph magic is that GMs and players think that a polymorphed creature’s type changes. It doesn’t. A human who transforms into a bear does not lose the humanoid type and the humanoid subtype in exchange for the animal subtype. The spell doesn’t say your type changes, so it doesn’t. Easy peasy. Same with your base attack bonus changing (it doesn’t), your saving throws changing (they don’t) or anything else under the sun. A polymorph spell only gives you what it says it gives you.

This is significantly mostly for the creature types with a LOT of special type-based powers, such as the undead. Under 3.5, a sorcerer could polymorph himself into an undead creature and gain an undead’s ability to use its Charisma for its Fortitude saves instead of its Constitution. Because THAT’S fair.

Note: Almost no polymorph effects ever remind you that using them gives you a +10 racial bonus on Disguise checks to appear as a creature of whatever type that you changed into, but they do. Its listed in Chapter 9 (the Magic chapter, not the Spell chapter) of the Core Rulebook, under spell schools. As are all of the rules I’ll be citing today.

So remember, if a spell specifically says “Change you X to Y,” then it does! If not, it doesn’t.

Tip #2 — Your Gear Melds Into Your Body

When you cast a polymorph spell, all of your gear melds into your form unless you cast a polymorph spell that allows you to keep a generally humanoid shape, such as alter self, monstrous physique, or giant form. (Essentially, humanoids, monstrous humanoids, and undead.) If you have an item that requires activation in order to use, tough luck, its melded into you. Items that provide constant benefits that AREN’T armor or shield benefits still apply, however. For instance, your ring of protection +1 keeps kicking. Also, all items include your weapons, and no, a +1 club that’s melded into your body doesn’t give your natural attacks a +1 enhancement bonus. (Unless you have a specific magical club, which is a completely different story entirely.)

Tip #3 — Change Your Size, Everything Else Stays The Same

When you transform into another creature using a polymorph spell, none of your ability scores change beyond what the spell grants you. The only vital statistic that changes is your size, which will adjust your attack bonus, CMB, AC, and CMD. Typically speaking, getting bigger increases your CMB and CMD and decreases your attack bonus and AC while getting smaller increases your attack bonus and AC and decreases your CMB and CMD. The fact that your stats don’t change and your attack bonus actually goes down is an AWESOME reason for you, Mr. Wizard, to NEVER consider polymorph spells as an effective combat strategy. Its not (for you, at least).

Tip #4 — Your Abilities Can’t Exceed That Of Your Form

Many abilities, such as darkvision, have numeric-based increases. Some players think that they always take the best of such abilities that’s offered by their polymorph spell, but that isn’t how polymorph spells work. You effectively take the worst version of the ability between the maximum allowed by your spell and the ability that your desired form actually possesses. For instance, let’s say that I’m a druid with the ability to gain a 120 foot swim speed from using wild shape (a polymorph effect) and I turn into a walrus, which has a swim speed of 40 feet. My super awesome spell doesn’t transform me into a super walrus with a swim speed that’s three times that of the animal that I’m transforming into, I use the worse of the two swim speeds, the walrus’s 40 foot swim speed.

Tip #5 — Your Ability DCs Are Locked

If you transform into a creature that gives you a special ability that allows a saving throw DC, that saving throw DC is calculated as if it were a spell of the polymorph effect’s level. For instance, beast shape I is a 3rd level spell, so any special abilities that you gain from transforming into a creature using beast shape I (such as a snake’s poison) is calculating using 13 + your class’s ability score modifier. This is a departure from the abilities themselves, which usually note that they function off of Charisma or Constitution, and is mostly a buff for you, the polymorpher. Enjoy it, polymorpher!

Regardless, this is the primary advantage of gaining higher-level polymorph spells. Better spells equals higher DCs for your forms. And as for the druid? Her saves are based off of whatever spell that her wild shape “functions as.” Easy.

And those are my five tips for Polymorph Spells. What did you think? Did I answer all of your glaring questions, or was there something I missed? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you back next week for another installment in Guidance! Which, as you may remember, will now be featured only on Mondays and Fridays so I can focus on editing and formatting the Private Sanctuary Podcast. In my place, we’ll be publishing the aforementioned podcast twice per week and then on the other Wednesdays, Anthony Li will be publishing his blog, Behind the Screens. It’ll take some adjustment, but I wouldn’t have given up my Wednesday slot if it wasn’t the only way to get everything done. On the plus side, I’m on the revamped podcast TWICE PER MONTH instead of occasionally. Hooray!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune shapeshifter, and YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS CLASS IS BECAUSE I HAVEN’T FINISHED DESIGNIG IT YET! [spoilers]

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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  1. Changing size also adjusts your stats if you are normally something other than small or medium. Also, you can use polymorph spells on your familiar. Turning your tiny companion into a dragon can be very useful.

  2. Great post—I appreciate the concise review and list. One thing I’d like you to expand on is “attacking in your new form.” New forms could have any number of primary or secondary natural attacks, and various limbs may or may not be able to wield a weapon. On top of that, you might start out with iterative attacks, plus feats or other abilities that grant or modify attacks.

    Can you provide example attack stats for a rather-complicated change, like a character with at least one iterative attack, plus a feat or ability that affects attacks (sneak?) or the # of them (TWF?), changed into something with multiple natural attacks, like a girallon or octopus?

    Also, here’s a tip I’d like to add for players and gms alike:
    After learning from the tips above, prepare in advance if at all possible if you think an instance of polymorphing will come up at your table. Just like summoning, polymorphing can cause headaches or become tiresome if it’s “sprung” without having the stats and rules ready to go, especially when people’s expectations may not match. Knowing the rules and having your stats ready will make changing into an elemental all the more fun.

    • Alex Augunas Reply to Alex

      I’ve added some of your questions to my “List of To-Dos” for a future blog article. Your questions are a lot more complicated than what I should answer in the comments section of an existing article, and frankly, most of your questions really want to know, “How does attacking with natural attacks work?”

      Which in and of itself is an excellent question, since the rules are spread out all over the place.

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