Polymorph and Summoning

Right, let’s get some movement on the new slimmer HD&D. As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the elements of the old HD&D that is going to survive whole-cloth into the Pathfinder game is the spell system. We’ve talked about the mechanics of this system at length, and soon you’ll see a document that draws all this together. Today, I wanted to show you what changes I have in mind for certain “problem spells” – namely Polymorph and Summoning spells.

What’s the Problem?

There has been some effort in various editions of D&D and in Pathfinder to reduce the power and the utility of both Polymorph and Summoning spells. The general consensus of game designers and message-board jockeys is that these spells are simply too good. They are also problematic to adjudicate, unnecessarily complex and they bog down play at the table – often slowing it to the a crawl.

Personally, I don’t agree with many of those statements – and I certainly don’t like the alternatives put forward by the third edition PHB2, the Pathfinder game or 4e. In my view the rules for polymorph and summoning were fairly strong as they were presented in 3.5, so I am not going to make any radical changes on this front.

However, these are spells that can slow down play. There is some merit in the assumption that they are “too good”, and in the case of Summoning spells they don’t make a great deal of narrative sense (at least not to me). So here are the changes that we’re going to see in the new magic system. These aren’t radical changes, but you will see these spells becoming less powerful in certain areas and a little more powerful in others.

Summoning Spells

Let’s start with Summoning Spells – and by Summoning spells I mean spells of the Summoning subschool; mostly this means the series of Summon Monster and Summon Nature’s Ally  spells. Fourth edition completely nixed summoning, through an obsession with party balance. They didn’t see why having a character who could summon allies should mean the player gaining more actions than his fellows. I don’t really care about that. If a wizard summons a dire bear and let’s it loose on his enemies, it seems fair enough to me that the wizard should be able to get on with something else in the meantime.

Rather than explaining the changes, it seems easier just to show you the transcript of a new-style summoning spell. We’ll plump for something in the middle of the progression, so here’s Summon Monster V.

Summon Monster V

Conjuration (Summoning) [Varies]
Level: Arcane 5, Divine (All) 5, Song 5
Casting Time: Varies
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: One or more summoned creatures, no two of which can be more than 30 ft. apart
Duration: Varies
Saving Throw: None

The magic unleashed by this spell reaches out into the extraplanar realms beyond Iourn and snatches a creature native to those realms. The summoned creature is always of the Elemental, Magical Beast or Outsider type. Specific individuals cannot be conjured with a Summoning spell, instead an average member of the race appears. The summoned creature can be set upon your enemies, or it could be used to perform other tasks.

Summon Monster V grants spellcasters a magical template that they can use to summon any extraplanar creature up to Challenge Rating 10. The caster can summon one such creature of CR 9-10, 1d3 creatures of CR 7-8, or 1d4+1 creatures of a lower challenge rating. If summoning multiple creatures, then every creature must of the same race or type. For example, this spell could be used to summon mulitple fire elementals but it couldn’t be used to summon a mixture of earth and fire elementals.

When a spellcaster first learns or develops this spell, he gains the ability to summon one type of extraplanar creature, and one type only. The GM may allow the player to choose the creature or may, in certain circumstances, choose for the player.

At any point after gaining this spell, the caster may attempt to add additional creatures to his summoning repetoire. Simply seeing these creatures or knowing of their existence is not enough; the caster must research each additional creature using the same rules as an acquired spellcaster researching new spells. Once a creature has been researched it is added to the list of potential creatures that can be summoned by this spell. There is no limit to the number of different creatures that can be available through a Summon Monster spell, as long as the CR of each creature doesn’t exceed the maximum a character can summon.

As a spellcaster advances, he builds a repetoire of extraplanar creatures he is able to summon. Depending on the CR of such creatures they may be summonable with Summon Monster V or other Summon Monster spells, as long as the character knows those spells. For example, if the character learned how to summon a Vrock using Summon Monster V, then he would know how to summon 1d3 Vrocks when casting Summon Monster VI without having to spend time and money researching the methodology.

The duration of this spell is directly proportional to the casting time. With a casting time of 1 standard action, the spell lasts for 1 round per caster level. With a casting time of 1 minute, the spell lasts for 1 minute per caster level. The duration of the spell cannot be extended more than this without the application of metamagic.

The summoned creature appears as soon as you finish casting the spell, and at any point where you designate within the range of the spell. It then acts immediately on your turn. The summoned creature attacks your opponents to the best of its ability. If you can communicate with the creature, you can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions. However, it is not a puppet. Obviously suicidal orders, or orders that are completely antithetical to its nature will cause the summoning spell to end.

If the summoned creature is reduced to zero hit points, it immediately disappears. However, it is not actually dead and will reform at the place from which it was snatched approximately one day later. Intelligent summoned monsters remember the events of their summoning, although in the vastness of the cosmos it is unlikely that the spellcaster and the summoned creature will ever cross paths again.

A summoned monster is temporarily dislocated from the Astral Plane when it is summoned. It cannot summon or otherwise conjure another creature, nor can it use any teleportation or planar travel abilities. Creatures cannot be summoned into an environment that cannot support them, or inside other creatures.

A single spellcaster can have no more than one spell of the Summoning subschool active at any one time. If a second such spell is cast, the creature(s) summoned by the first spell are immediately dismissed.

You may not summon creatures that have greater than normal racial hit dice, or class levels. You may summon creatures that have a Template, but these variants must be researched like any other unique creature. Just because can summon a fiendish worg, you don’t necessarily know how to summon a regular worg. Adding a template cannot take the CR of the monster over the limit imposed by the spell.

Some casters may have ethical dilemmas in summoning certain types of creatures. Clerics who know this spell will find their choice of summonable creature limited by their deity – details of the extraplanar creatures available to clerics can be found in the section on Religions. When you use a summoning spell to summon an air, chaotic, earth, evil, fire, good, lawful, or water creature, it is a spell of that type.

Dissecting the new Summoning spells

Okay, it’s a pretty wordy spell description but that’s generally my nature. Hopefully, you will see some of the differences between this and the printed versions of the spell. I’ll break down the changes one at a time, and try to explain why I made them.

Casting Time and Duration: A variable casting time, let’s you hang onto your summoned creature for up to a minute per level rather than six seconds per level. During gameplay I know there are times when you want to keep that summoned beastie around for a little bit longer. I think this is fine, and might add to roleplaying opportunities. However, because of the extended casting time you’re unlikely to be able to summon one in the middle of combat for the longer duration.

Multiple Summoning Spells: No caster can have two spells from the Summoning sphere active at the same time. This brings the ability in line with Pathfinder’s Summoner class – a class that is so good I can’t resist using it in game at the earliest opportunity. I wanted to avoid summoners being able to keep casting summoning spells and creating a small army: especially as I am now allowing for longer durations of the spell. I think this is a fair restriction, and doesn’t stop players using Calling spells or magical items to increase their number of conjured allies. Plus, the creatures you can summon are more powerful now: so I think this balances.

Challenge Rating: In traditional third edition the power level of the creatures you can summon is very low. The CR of the summoned creature is roughly the same as the spell level. Summon Monster VIII summons CR 8 creatures. Of course you have to be level 15 to cast Summon Monster VIII so the summoned creatures are always significantly less powerful than the PCs. To my mind, this makes summoning a bit rubbish. I’ve seen it quite frequently in the games I have run, that the sorcerer summons a massive extraplanar beastie to much fanfare only to discover that said beastie can’t hit their enemies for toffee, and is almost instantly killed. So, the new rules allow you to summon help that is roughly the same power level that you are. Using the most powerful Summon Monster  spell available to summon one creature is the same as adding 1 additional PC to your party for the duration of this combat. This is a big change, and a fairly significant increase in the power level of summoning spells.

Summoning Repetoire: Here’s the biggest change, though. There isn’t a list of summonable creatures any more. When you learn a Summoning spell you pick one creature of the appropriate type and that’s what the spell allows you to summon. This is a significant reduction in the versatility of the spell. However, as you advance and adventure you can find or research other summoning forumulae that allow you to increase your summoning repetoire. As characters advance they are actively building their own summoning lists in the same way they build their own spell lists. I think this is a cool feature, and better explains how summoning spells actually function.

So why not have just one spell for each creature type. This is a “Summon Fire Elemental” spell, this is “Summon Fiendish Porpoise” and so on. I did consider going down that route, but in the end I though it unfairly penalised spellcasters like sorcerers who can only ever know a finite amount of spells. Best to keep it to just the nine spells across the nine spell levels, and then introduce summoning formulae that can be discovered in lost spell books or researched like any other spell.

So how do you research these formulae? It works the same way as researching spells, which is pretty much the same rules as in third edition. Researching a new formulae takes one hour per level of the lowest level summoning spell you would need to summon the beast. So a CR 9 Vrock requires Summon Monster V, which is five hours of study. At the end of the five hours you make a Spellcraft check at DC 15 + the spell level (DC 20 in this case). If you fail then you can’t learn this particular summoning formula until you gain another rank of Spellcraft.

Preparation Time: I am hoping that a smaller more focused list of summonable creatures will help players in better preparing ahead of gaming sessions. Ideally, I would want every player who can summon a creature to have full stats for that creature immediately to hand. Then once the spell is cast, the player can instantly send his creature into the fray without searching countless Monster Manuals for inspiration. Invaribaly, players have their favourite summonable monsters and stick to what they know – I think this new way of doing things makes preparation easier, and should speed up play.

Summon Nature’s Ally: The Summon Nature’s Ally series of spells work in exactly the same way as Summon Monster. The only small change is that instead of summoning creatures of the Animal type, the new Summon Nature’s Ally allows you to choose from creatures of the Animal, Fey, Plant or Vermin types. This makes it a little more like the second edition spell Call Woodland Beings on which it is based.

Polymorph Spells

Now Polymorph spells certainly live down to their criticisms. The unholy trinity of Alter Self, Polymorph and Shapechange can bring play to a halt. PCs casting these spells can turn into pretty much creature that has been published in any D&D sourcebook ever. Many players believe that there is no problem that cannot be overcome by turning into the appropriate monster – and those players will spend no end of time searching for that monster.

Pathfinder solves the problem by introducing a series of spells that allows you to turn into various creatures but using different mechanics to how these creatures appear in the Monster Manual. Have a look at Beastshape, Elemental Body, Plant Shape and Form of the Dragon and you’ll see what I mean.

The solution in third edition was creature a new Polymorph subschool, and to change the rules for the subschool so that many abilities in D&D that used to work like the Polymorph spell instead worked like the Alter Form special ability. What’s the difference? Well, that was both complicated and subtle, and fortunately irrelevent to the task at hand.

I think that characters assuming the forms of other creatures should use the same statistics and mechanics for those creatures that are listed in the Monster Manual. There shouldn’t be an additional short-hand system. This is one of the major problems of 4e: different rules for PCs and NPCs do not sit well with me. I don’t care how utilitarian they might be, they are just profoundly wrong. Story trumps mechanics.

So, here’s my version of the Polymorph spell. The same principles apply to Alter Self and Shapechange. Have a read, and then I’ll talk you through the changes in a minute.


Transmutation (Polymorph)
Level: Arcane 4
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Personal
Target: You
Duration: 1 minute/level
Saving Throw: None

This powerful spell allows the subject to take on the form of another creature. When a spellcaster gains or develops this spell then he must choose one specific kind of creature that he can transform into. Every time he casts the spell, that is the creature he becomes.

At any point after gaining this spell, the caster may attempt to add additional creatures to his polymorph repetoire. Simply seeing new creatures or knowing of their existence is not enough; the caster must research each additional creature using the same rules as an acquired spellcaster researching new spells. Once a creature has been researched it is added to the list of potential creatures that can be assumed. There is no limit to the number of different creatures that can be available through the Polymorph spell, as long as each creature follows the guidelines laid down below:

The new form may be the same type as the subject of the spell, or any of the following types: aberration, animal, dragon, fey, giant, humanoid, magical beast, monstrous humanoid, ooze, plant or vermin. The assumed form cannot have more hit dice than your hit dice or caster level (whichever is lower), to a maximum of 15 HD at fifteenth level. You cannot assume a form that is Miniscule or Colossal creature with the Polymorph spell, neither can you assume an incorporeal or gaseous form. You may not take the form of any creature with extra racial hit dice, class levels or with a Template.

When assuming a new form you gain some, but not all of the new form’s abilities. Equally, you lose some (but not all) of your own abilities. This addition and subtraction of your character’s ability and statistics can be complex, and it is strongly suggested that players whose characters can cast this spell create full statistics for their characters in each of their available forms. If the player does not have such statistics immediately to hand, then the GM may rule that the spell cannot be cast at this time.

All characters have certain abilities derrived from their race, and certain abilities derrived from their class. Polymorph does not alter the abilities gained from the subject’s character class: therefore all your class abilities are available in your new form. The only exception to this rule is if your new form simply isn’t capable of performing the class ability. For example, if the assumed form cannot talk or hold a focus then it cannot cast spells. If the assumed form has no legs then the flying kick feat is useless. If the assumed form cannot wield a sword then it cannot make use of the suite of combat feats that depend upon using a sword. On the whole, these restrictions should be obvious. The GM and the player should discuss what they are each time a new form is added to the character’s polymorph repetoire.

The character’s racial abilities are significantly altered. However, Polymorph only affects a physical change to the character: it does not allow access to any of the magical or supernatural abilities associated with the new form. Neither does it affect your character’s mind or mental acuity. A summary of the changes wrought by the Polymorph spell are as follows:

Racial Features Gained:

  • Gain the new form’s Type and Subtype (if any).
  • Gain the new form’s Strength, Dexterity and Constitution scores. These changes modify your skills, attack rolls, saving throws, CMB and CMD, but not your hit points.
  • Gain the gross physical qualities of the new form: this includes the creature’s appearance, colour, number of limbs, wings and so forth. Characters can decide the form’s more specific qualities such as height, gender and hair colour as long as it is within the norm for the race.
  • Gain the mundane movement capabilities of the new form: including burrowing, climbing, walking, swimming, flying with wings. You speed can never be more than 30 ft. (swimming or burrowing), 60 ft. (on land) or 120 ft. (flying) regardless of what a normal creature of this race.
  • Gain the natural weapons of the new form, and proficiency in them. However changing form doesn’t give you any extra attacks. If you assume the form of a bear you don’t automatically gain its claw/claw/bite attack routine. If you only have one attack per round, then you still only have one attack per round in the new form, but you can choose which natural weapon to attack with.
  • Gain any racial bonuses to skills.
  • Gain the Natural Armour Bonus to armour class of the new form.
  • Gain the Size of the new form. This may mean applying a size modifier to your Armour Class and attack rolls (but not to your ability scores).
  • Gain the new form’s Exceptional racial abilities.
  • Gain any bonus racial feats of the new form as long as those feats provide Exceptional advantages. Bonus feats that provide Magical or Supernatural advantages at not gained.

Racial Features Retained:

  • Retain your Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma scores.
  • Retain your own hit point total (do not modify your hit points even if your Constitution score changes as a result of the Polymorph).
  • Retain your own Magical and Supernatural racial abilities.
  • Retain your own base saving throws.
  • Retain your own base attack bonus.
  • Retain the ability ability to speak, as long as the new form is able to speak intelligbly – i.e. it has a decernible language, not just the ability to make sounds.

Racial Features Lost:

  • Lose your Type and subtype (if any).
  • Lose your Strength, Dexterity and Consitution scores.
  • Lose your gross physical qualities – i.e. appearance and form.
  • Lose your mundane movement capabilities (these are replaced by the new form)
  • Lose your natural attacks (if any).
  • Lose any Exceptional racial abilities that you possess.
  • Lose any racial bonuses to skills (but don’t lose any extra skill points conferred because of your race – such as the bonus points granted to a human).
  • Lose your Natural Armour Bonus to armour class (if any)
  • Lose your Size (and any size modifiers to armour class and attacks).
  • Lose any bonus racial feats you have (this includes the bonus feat that humans receive at first level). If the lost feat is a prerequisite for any other feats, then also lose access to those feats for the duration of the spell.

Upon casting this spell, you are effectively disguised as a member of the assumed race. If you want to disguise yourself as a specific individual, then the Polymorph spell grants a +10 bonus to the disguise check.

When the change occurs your equipment, if any, either remains worn or held by the new form (if it is capable of wearing or holding the item), or melds into the new form. Items that provide constant bonuses and do not need to be activated continue to function while melded in this way (with the excpetion of armour and shield bonuses, which cease to function). Items that require activation cannot be used while you maintain that form.

When you revert to your true form, any objects previously melded into the new form reappear in the same location on your body they previously occupied and are once again functional. Any new items you wore in the assumed form and can’t wear in your normal form fall off and land at your feet; any item that you could wear in either form or carry in a body part common to both forms at the time of reversion are still held in the same way.

Any part of the body, or piece of equipment, that is separated from the whole reverts to its true form. Should the subject die when in the assumed form, then he immediately reverts back to his true form upon death.

Dissecting the new Polymorph spell

Crikey, that’s a wall of text. Have I just succeeded in making Polymorph even more complicated? Hopefully not. Hopefully, the text of the spell now includes everything that it should have included to begin with. Now the text of the spell adequately points out exactly what you lose and what you gain. The text of the old spell may have been shorter, but you had to spend your time flipping backwards and forwards through different sources to work out what you gained and what you lost. At least this is clear.

Preparation Time: As it says in the text of the spell, anyone with the Polymorph or similar spell needs to stat up their character in all its alternate forms in advance of any play session. All the rules are to hand, there’s no excuse for not doing it. If the character isn’t statted up and read then the GM can simply declare that the spell cannot be cast. The alteration to the Range of the spell, and the new Polymorph repetoire should hopefully make it easier for players to keep track of things.

Range: The range of the spell is now Personal. Polymorph cannot be cast on other people any more. You can’t turn the fighter into a four-armed Girallon before each combat. There may be higher level spells that can transform your comrades, but again, if this is something that crops up regularly make sure that a version of the polymorphed character is generated in advance of the session.

Polymorph Repetoire: These are the same rules I use for summoning. When you learn Polymorph you learn how to change form, but you only gain the formula to change into one creature. You can buy, find and research other formula as you advance. The number of creatures you can change into isn’t simply “everything”: it’s a personalised list of the creatures that you think are the most useful for you character.

Supernatural, Spell-like and Exceptional Abilities: Things have changed from third edition, though. In third edition polymorphed characters gained the extraordinary special attacks, but not the extraordinary special qualities of the target creature. What are “special attacks” and “special qualities”? These are categories of abilities that only appear in the description of creatures in the Monster Manual. Special attacks are tricks that can be used in combat, like the dire bear’s Improved Grab. Special qualities are more utilitarian abilities, such as the dire bear’s low-light vision and scent.

I think this is a complication. All abilities are already divided into mundane (Exceptional), magical (Spell-like) and Supernatural abilities. It makes sense to say that when you assume a form you only gain mundane abilities and don’t gain any of the others. Therefore I rule that all Exceptional abilities are available to polymorphers. This increases the power of the spell slightly, but as there is less choice in number of available forms I think this is a fair trade off.

Wildshape: Druids or other classes with the Wildshape ability use the same rules as Polymorph. However, druids automatically gain new forms as they gain levels – and they can also research new creatures in between levels. Druids are limited in their types of alternate form. They start out at fifth level only being able to turn into animals, but they eventually branch out into Plants and Elementals. A druid’s wildshape also lasts much longer than a Polymorph spell.

Hit Dice vs. Challenge Rating: The power of summonable creatures is measured by their challenge rating, while the power of potential polymorph forms is measured by the form’s hit dice. Is this an inconsistancy? Actually, I think it is using the best took for the job. In balanced characters (such as PCs) hit dice and challenge rating should be the same. It is only in unbalanced characters that have a truck-load of special abilities where the CR exceeds the HD. This is relevent in summoning, as summoned creatures appear with all (or nearly all) of their exceptional, spell-like and supernatural abilities. A character who polymorphs into a Vrock instead of summoning one, only gains the Vrocks’ exceptional abilities. In this case, the HD is a fairer measure of power.


So, a fairly lengthy post. However, I hope now that you have a clear understanding of Summoning and Polymorph spells in the new game. They are different. The number of different creatures you can summon or turn into have been curtailed, but the power level of the options you have is a little higher.

I think it’s a fairer and saner way of doing things. Just looking at all the summoning and wildshape options of an 11th level druid tells me that we have to be more focused. I know when I sit down to play Druid Skarra in Jack’s next game it’s going to be with close to sixty pages of notes for my summoning and wildshape abilities. I think this is excessive, and hopefully the new system will allow players to go into the necessary detail without generating quite the volume of work.

I would be very interested to hear your opinions on this.


It’s been a couple of months since the last post, and I thought the seven people who are continuing to follow the blog may want to know where things stand. At the moment I’m continuing to work on the new magic systems, drawing together many of the rules we have been discussing over the last couple of years. I’m more or less on course, although there’s still a fair amount to do.

So here are my current projects and expectations of when they might be finished:

February 2011

In February I’ll a document containing the new and revised magic system to this blog. If there’s time, I’ll also be running a few low-level Pathfinder games around this time to test it out. The document will include following:

  • Explanation of the magical weave on Iourn, and how spellcasters draw powers for their magic.
  • The refined mechanics for Acquired casters (recharge magic) and Instinctive casters (languor checks). We’ve discussed these rules on the blog before; they remain essentially the same but have been tweaked to work in the context of third edition D&D as opposed to HD&D.
  • Descriptions of the six magical traditions: Arcane, Divine, Pact, Primal, Psionic and Song. Casters in each of these traditions share new mechanics that should make each approach to magic feel special and unique.
  • Many spells published in the third edition PHB are being revised. Largely these are the same spells that Pathfinder revised, but I’m revising them slightly differently. Summoning, Polymorph and Teleportation spells are the ones I’m specifically looking at.
  • There will be new spells (mainly new 0-level spells) added to the game.
  • There will be a number of new feats that play off the new magic system. These will include new mechanics for the way Divine Feats work, as well as feats that help Acquired casters overcome some of the limitations of their craft (such as Favoured Spells).
  • There will also be some revised class abilities, where those abilities play off the new magic system. I’m looking at the druid’s Wildshape particularly, to bring it in line with the new rules for Polymorph. It won’t be a debilitating change, so don’t panic.
  • There will also be new classes. I’m specifically looking at classes and prestige classes that the characters in the League of Light campaign have acquired. I’m going to check over classes such as the Divine Servitor, Templar, Warshaper and Spellsword to make sure that are suitably ‘Pathfindery’.
  • If there’s time you may see a new version of the Warlock as well. But I make no promises.

Hopefully, by posting the document to the blog many of you will find the time to read it. At the time I will urge you to take a firm interest in the way the proposed changes are affecting your character.

April 2011

During Roleplaying Retreat VII we will convert the existing PCs from D&D 3.5 into Pathfinder – or rather into the version of Pathfinder that we’re going to be using. We won’t be adopting Pathfinder whole-cloth as there are aspects of it that are still a bit rubbish in my view.

As I’m taking some Pathfinder rules, some third edition rules and some of the rules we developed for HD&D and squashing them all together, I suspect there could be some confusion over what applies. The only thing I really want to finish before the retreat is the magic system, everything else – including the way we deal with Concentration checks and Attacks of Opportunity – can be fleshed out at the retreat. My view is that we don’t need either, but I’m willing to be guided on that.

I had originally intended to upload all the rules to the Iourn site before the retreat. Realistically, that’s not going to happen before April, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

Winter 2011

By the end of this year (or whenever the current Star Wars game has run its course) I’ll be back running a weekly D&D game with whatever rules we’ve managed to up with in the meantime. More on that nearer the time.

As for the blog, it will continue to be somewhere we can get together and discuss new rules: both the magic system that you’ll see in about  a month or so as well as all the other smaller changes that are coming out of RRVII in April. So bear with me, I’ll let you know when new content appears.