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Pathfinder - Practical Guide to Polymorph

Disclaimer

I will use content from the core rules, but will intentionally omit any content not published on the official Pathfinder SRD due to the unmanageable volume of non-SRD content, and the wildly varying quality of non-SRD content. If you would like me to write handbooks for specific content not published on the official SRD, please email me and I will consider it on a case-by-case basis. I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks. Also note that many colored items are also links to the Paizo SRD.

Temporary Note: Pathfinder Unchained and Occult Adventures were both recently added to the SRD. I'm excited to explore them, and I am actively working on adding their contents to my collection of handbooks. I appreciate your patience while I make these changes.

Introduction

Polymorph is one of the most confusing and difficult parts of the magic system in Pathfinder. This guide is an attempt to explain how the rules work, and how you can best make use of Polymorph spells.

I can't reasonably cover every possible form for every polymorph form available, so this guide will generally only go into the options presented in the original Bestiary. For additional options, check the official Bestiary Index and filter by the creature type and size that you want. Hopefully the analysis presented below will help you to asses omitted forms on your own.

How does polymorph work?

Before you read this guide, read the section on Polymorph on the Pathfinder SRD. I'll wait here because this is a text document on the internet.

Are you good and confused? That's alright, so was I. Let's break things down a bit.

What do you get when you polymorph?

What do you NOT get when you polymorph?

What happens to you when you polymorph?

If you polymorph into a humanoid, not much. But unless you're using Alter Self, you're probably polymorphing into something cool. Namely "a creature of the animal, dragon, elemental, magical beast, plant, or vermin type." If you polymorph into one of these, here's what happens:

"While most of these should be obvious, the GM is the final arbiter of what abilities depend on form and are lost when a new form is assumed. Your new form might restore a number of these abilities if they are possessed by the new form."

What if I polymorph something which is smaller than Small or bigger than Medium?

The only difference is that you need to adjust the abilities for the creature's size before you apply the modifiers for polymorph.

Ability Adjustments from Size Changes
Creature's Original Size Str Dex Con Adjusted Size
Fine +6 -6 - Small
Diminutive +6 -4 - Small
Tiny +4 -2 - Small
Small - - - Small
Medium - - - Medium
Large -4 +2 -2 Medium
Huge -8 +4 -4 Medium
Gargantuan -12 +4 -6 Medium
Colossal -16 +4 -8 Medium

Can I use weapons while polymorphed?

Yes! "If your new form does not cause your equipment to meld into your form, the equipment resizes to match your new size." So if you're an Eldritch Knight and you use Giant Form, you can continue using your awesome magic sword.

Let's look at some examples

Marly is a level 10 dwarf wizard. His move speed is 20, and he has Darkvision. He has no other special movement speeds or vision types. He regularly casts Polymorph, so he needs to understand what happens to him when he changes shape. Polymorph allows you to duplicate the effects of Beast Shape II, Elemental Body I, and Alter Self, so let's look at some examples.

Marly wears bracers of armor +1, a ring of protection +1, a cloak of resistance +1, a quickrunner's shirt, and a belt of physical perfection +2.

Marly polymorphs into a human

In this case, Polymorph behaves like Alter Self. Marly loses his darkvision and his 20 foot movement speed. He gains the human 30 foot move speed, and a +2 size bonus to strength, as specified in the Alter Self spell description. Because he is still a humanoid, his items all continue to function normally.

Marly polymorphs into an earth elemental

Being a dwarf often involves a large quantity of being underground. At one point, Marly decides that he wants to earth glide through some walls and ceilings. When he polymorphs into an earth elemental, Marly looks at the entry for earth elementals in Elemental Body I.

"you gain a +2 size bonus to your Strength and a +4 natural armor bonus. You also gain darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to earth glide." From the bestiary entry for Small Earth Elementals, Marly gains a 20 ft. move speed. He does not get the elemental's burrow speed, as it is not specified in the spell. However, he does get the Earth Glide ability. Because you can't Earth Glide without a burrow speed, it stands to reason that Marly should get the burrow speed as part of the Earth Glide ability, even though it is not specifically stated in the spell description.

Note that the spell allows you to gain the elemental's darkvision, but does not specify tremorsense. This means that Marly does not get tremorsense. Marly also gains the small earth elemental's slam attack, dealing 1d6 damage plus his newly modified strength bonus. He does not get the elemental's immunities to bleed, critical hits, etc.

Marly loses the effect of his bracers of armor ("with the exception of armor and shield bonuses, which cease to function)") and can't activate his quickrunner's shirt, but his ring of protection, cloak of resistance, and belt of physical perfection all continue to function as normal ("items that provide constant bonuses... continue to function":).

Elementals are capable of speech, which means that they can perform Verbal Components. Marly will likely need Eschew Materials for many of his spells, or he will need to set his spell component pouch down before he polymorphs and pick it up later. At his DMs discretion, he may also be able to use Somatic Components, but the DM may rule that earth elementals rock-like appendages aren't precise enough to mimic complex Somatic Components. This is entirely up to the DM, so Marly needs to make sure to check with the DM before his tries to cast any spells. At some point, Marly may choose to invest in Still Spell to remove this complication.

Marly polymorphs her Horse... into a Horse

Marly is clearly mad. A Horse is Large and has Str 16, Dex 14, and Con 17. Because it is large, we adjust the horse's size down to medium (Str 12, Dex 16, Con 15), then apply the Beast Shape modifiers for Large animals (See Beast Shape II), giving it Str 16, Dex 14, Con 15, and a +4 bonus to natural armor. The horse is essentially identical, but traded 2 points of Constitution for +4 natural armor.

Building your character

Regardless of class, there are a few points in your character that you need to address in order to by an effective polymorpher.

Race

Your race will matter less when you're no longer human/elf/etc., but your ability score modifiers and size will influence your ability scores when polymorphed. Halflings and humans are a prime example. Halflings have higher dex, but lower strength. These modifiers don't go away when the Halfling changes size, so a Halfling and human with otherwise identical stats will have slightly different ability scores. This makes Halflings more useful while in dexterity-based forms, and they may want to take Weapon Finesse and focus on forms which primarily depend on Dexterity.

Abilities

If you are building your character entirely to focus on polymorphing, you can afford to not focus on your spellcasting abilities. Where normally a wizard would need to dump his ability points into intelligence, a Transmuter needs to give up some of his intelligence to put points into Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Druids who plan to rely on wild shape must do the same, instead sacrificing some of their wisdom.

Because you give up armor and shield bonuses when you polymorph, your AC may not be good enough to protect you. Many polymorph options will give you a bous to natural armor, but this is very unlikely to keep up with a fighter in full plate. As such, you will need to have reasonable dexterity for AC and Constitution for hit points. Strength will most likely be your primary source of damage. Make sure to find a reasonably balance between the physical abilities, and enhance abilities which you find yourself depending on most heavily.

Class

Feats

Polymorph options by spell

Alter Self

alchemist 2, bard 2, magus 2, shaman 2, sorcerer/wizard 2, summoner/unchained summoner 2, witch 2

Polymorph into a small or medium humanoid. You can't get natural armor bonuses, but you can get some special senses (most notably darkvision and scent) and a swim speed, and you get a modest ability bonus depending on what size you change to, even if you were that size already.

Only races which provide one of the bonuses allowed by Alter Self are included. There are numerous races which do not grant anything with Alter Self. Lycanthropes are also omitted because they are templates applied to humanoids.

Beast Shape I

alchemist 3, bloodrager 3, magus 3, sorcerer/wizard 3, 4th-level Wild Shape

Polymorph into any small or medium animal. You can get climb 30 feet, fly 30 feet (average maneuverability), swim 30 feet, darkvision 60 feet, low-light vision, and scent.

For your combat needs, Deinonychus is your best bet. Use Cheetah if your DM prohibits dinosaurs. For scouting, use the Dire Rat or Eagle. For swimming, use the Electric Eel or Bull Shark.

Unfortunately, with the addition of Monstrous Physique, Beast Shape I becomes a much less appealing option for polymorphers not locked into it. Gargoyle outpaces the deinonychous in damage output, and the gargoyle can match the eagle's flight without sacrificing offensive output.

Beast Shape II

alchemist 4, bloodrager 4, magus 4, sorcerer/wizard 4, 6th-level Wild Shape

Now you can get climb 60 feet, fly 60 feet (good maneuverability), swim 60 feet, darkvision 60 feet, low-light vision, scent, grab, pounce, and trip. The addition of grab, pounce, and trip makes previous Beast Shape forms considerably more useful, including Deinonychus and Leopard, which both continue to be decent, but the additional strength and natural armor make larger forms more viable.

For scouting, continue to use Dire Rat or Eagle if you want speed, or switch to Viper or Hawk if you need stealth. For combat, use Dire Tiger: Three primary attacks that do as much damage as a flachion/greatsword, gran, and pounce.

Beast Shape III

alchemist 5, magus 5, sorcerer/wizard 5, 8th-level Wild Shape

Now you can get burrow 30 feet, climb 90 feet, fly 90 feet (good maneuverability), swim 90 feet, blindsense 30 feet, darkvision 60 feet, low-light vision, scent, constrict, ferocity, grab, jet, poison, pounce, rake, trample, trip, and web.

For scouting, your previous options continue to be your best bet. With the addition of Rake, Dire Tiger continues to keep up with your combat options at this level. For charging and murdering single targets, use Allosaurus. For running down mobs, use Mastodon. For area control in combat, use Stegosaurus.

Beast Shape IV

alchemist 6, magus 6, sorcerer/wizard 6

You can now get burrow 60 feet, climb 90 feet, fly 120 feet (good maneuverability), swim 120 feet, blindsense 60 feet, darkvision 90 feet, low-light vision, scent, remorsense 60 feet, breath weapon, constrict, ferocity, grab, jet, poison, pounce, rake, rend, roar, spikes, trample, trip, and web. If the creature has immunity or resistance to any elements, you gain resistance 20 to those elements. If the creature has vulnerability to an element, you gain that vulnerability.

For scouting, your previous options continue to be your best bet. Allosaurus continues to a fantastic combat option, but it has to compete with magical beasts with similar offensive options which can fly.

Elemental Body I

alchemist 4, bloodrager 4, magus 4, sorcerer/wizard 4, 6th-level Wild Shape

Elementals can speak, so they can perform verbal components. They may also be able to perform somatic components with your DM's permission. All elemental forms get darkvision, and 2 natural slam attacks. At this level, the slams deals 1d4 damage plus strength. Regardless of size, the elemental forms typically have one specific function. Air elementals are scouts, earth elementals are damage dealing tanks, fire elementals are strikers, and water elementals are low-damage tanks.

At this level you need to compare your options to Beast Shape II. For scouting, Air elemental may be a better option than Hawk, and your DM may let you cast spells while polymorphed. None of the combat forms will come anywhere near Dire Tiger unless you're fighting enemies with vulnerability to fire.

Elemental Body II

alchemist 5, magus 5, sorcerer/wizard 5, 8th-level Wild Shape

Now you're medium. Most of the bonuses at this level are flat numerical increases. Your slams increases to 1d6 damage plus strength.

This levels competes with Beast Shape III, which adds Rake to the already formidable Dire Tiger, and introduces the Mastodon for stomping mobs. Being a larger elemental with no additional speed actually makes the Medium Air Elemental a worse scout than the small elemental, and none of the other elementals gain meaningful combat options.

Elemental Body III

alchemist 6, magus 6, sorcerer/wizard 6, 10th-level Wild Shape

Now you're large, which gives you 10 foot reach. This level also brings in bonuses to a second ability score. Slams increase to 1d8 damage plus strength.

At this level your combat options need to compete with Beast Shape IV, which lets you turn into a fucking Chimera. You could be a large fire elmental and set some people on fire, or you can be a chimera and set the whole room fire.

Elemental Body IV

sorcerer/wizard 7, 12th-level Wild Shape

Now you're huge, which gives you 15 foot reach and 2d6 damage on your slams. Even with the improved reach and slam damage, Beast Shape IV is still a better combat option, and Air Elemental stopped being a scout several levels ago, even with the improved fly speed.

Form of the Dragon I

alchemist 6, magus 6, sorcerer/wizard 6

You gain a +4 size bonus to Strength, a +2 size bonus to Constitution, a +4 natural armor bonus, fly 60 feet (poor), darkvision 60 feet, a breath weapon, resistance to one element, and vulnerability to another. You also gain one bite (1d8), two claws (1d6), and two wing attacks (1d4). All of the natural attacks are primary, and the breath weapon can only be used once each time you cast the spell. At 6d8 damage, the breath weapon isn't your best combat option.

Keep in mind that your ongoing magic effects remain in place, and you can cast spells as a dragon. Effects like the Copper Dragon's Spider Climb are easily replaced with a spell, and elemental vulnerabilities can be easily overcome with Energy Resistance. With spells available to cover the dragons' weaknesses, they are essentially identical except for their breath weapons. Because the breath weapon will be strictly worse than a fireball at this level, the breath weapon isn't really worth considering, so each dragon is functionally identical.

At this level you must compete with Beast Shape IV, which turns you into a chimera. Beast shape gives you +6 strength, -2 dexterity, +2 constitution, and +6 natural armor. The -2 to dexterity is mostly offset by the natural armor, so the base stat bonuses are better. The Chimera doesn't get reach, but it's large, gets the same number of natural attacks with better damage, and it has a breath weapon that also deals 6d8 damage and can be used every 1d4 rounds. The chimera gives up 10 feet of fly speed, but is otherwise better than a medium dragon as a combat monster. However, Dragons can cast spells, so I would assume that you can also cast spells whil polymorphed. If this is something you want to do, go for Form of the Dragon. Otherwise, go for Beast Shape.

Form of the Dragon II

sorcerer/wizard 7

This level adds more strength and constitution, more fly speed, DR 5/magic, better natural attack damage, reach on your bite attacks, a new tail slap attack, 2d8 more damage on your breath weapon, and you can use the breath weapon a second time. 8d8 damage slightly beats the average damage of a 10d6 fireball, but at this level you have plenty of other blasting spells available (such as Cone of Cold) which will do more damage than the breath weapons.

Form of the Dragon III

sorcerer/wizard 8

The bonuses to strength, constitution, and natural armor are truly stunning at this level. 120 foot fly speed is fantastic, and you get blindense, 120 foot darkvision, and a frightful presence. Your reach goes up to 10 feet (15 feet with bite), and your natural weapon damage goes up with your size. You gain elemental immunity, and you can use your breath weapon at 12d8 damage every 1d4 rounds. 12d8 is roughly equivalent to 15d6, and you can use the breath weapon every 1d4 rounds for 1 minute per caster level. That's a lot of breath weapon damage.

Monstrous Physique I

alchemist 3, bloodrager 3, magus 3, sorcerer/wizard 3

Polymorph into a small or medium monstrous humanoids. You can get climb 30 feet, fly 30 feet (average maneuverability), swim 30 feet, darkvision 60 feet, low-light vision, and scent, and the aquatic and amphibious subtypes. Since you get both subtypes from aquatic creatures, you don't need to worry about breathing air or water.

Monstrous physique runs the same levels as Beast Shape, so it's easy to make comparisons between the two. Since monstrous humanoids have human-like anatomy they have the massive advantage of being able to use your weapons and armor. For classes which work well in melee (alchemists and magi), this is an important advantage.

For full casters, Beast Shape is typically a better option at any given spell level because it gives you a complete melee package without you needing to spend gold on a pointy stick. However, there are exceptions (like Beast Shape 1 vs. Monstrous Physique 1), and there is something to be said for the ability to cast spells while polymorphed.

Gargoyle and Storm Hag provide everything you need. They're fast, they fly, they have excellent natural weapons, they can talk, they have human-like hands, and they have Darkvision. Full casters who don't have something like power attack to boost their damage will probably get more out of Storm Hag, but alchemists and magi will likely be able to do more with the gargoyle's additional attack. If you're stuck in the water, go for Deep One.

Monstrous Physique II

alchemist 4, bloodrager 4, magus 4, sorcerer/wizard 4

Polymorph into tiny or large monstrous humanoids. You can get climb 60 feet, fly 60 feet (good maneuverability), swim 60 feet, darkvision 60 feet, low-light vision, scent, freeze, grab, leap attack, mimicry, pounce, sound mimicry, speak with sharks, and trip. If the creature has the undersized weapons special quality, you gain that quality.

Anunnaki is really the only useful form at this level, and while it's neat that it has so many attacks it's only occasionally a good option. Sneak Attack users will get just as many attacks from the Giant Octopus in Beast Shape III.

Monstrous Physique III

alchemist 5, magus 5, sorcerer/wizard 5

At these size categories you have very few options. Gegenees is your besy bet for raw damage output, but use Thiae Queen if you need flight. Alchemists and magi will get more use out of these forms than full casters since these forms have such poor natural weapons. Full casters should use Beast Shape III instead.

Monstrous Physique IV

alchemist 6, magus 6, sorcerer/wizard 6

Essemtially the same as Monstrous Physique 3, but now you can get tremorsense, breath weapon, rend, roar, spikes, energy resistances and vulnerabilities, and a bonus on saves against poison. You also no longer get saddled with undersized weapons.

The improved list of abilities doesn't make things much better, unfortunately. You'll likely get much better results from Giant Form I at this level.

Giant Form I

alchemist 6, sorcerer/wizard 7

At large size you get 10 foot reach, and you get low-light vision as part of the spell. The bonuses to strength, constitution, and natural armor are pretty great, and you can cast spells because you can speak normally and have humanoid hands. If you do use weapons (Eldritch Knights are great for Polymorph), giant form is great.

Because you probably don't have a big scary weapon to wave around, you probably want to use this to change into something with natural weapons that you can rely on. This means that Troll is essentially the only option worth considering, which is fine because Troll is pretty fantastic. The natural weapons still aren't great, but you get Regeneration and Darkvision.

At this level you need to compete with Form of the Dragon II and Elemental Body III. Elemental Body III is terrible, but Form of the Dragon II will give you much better combat options for full casters. Weapon users like alchemists will do very well as a Rock Troll since they can continue using their armor and weapons, and gain Regeneration.

Giant Form II

sorcerer/wizard 8

You get slightly better strength and constitution, 2 more natural armor, and a 10 foot bonus to speed. Your size also gives you 15 foot reach. Full casters still have the same problems that they did in Giant Form I. None of the available forms have regeneration or natural attacks, which makes them strictly worse than rock troll in some ways. You can use Giant Form II to be a rock troll with the better bonuses, but at this level you could also be a Huge Dragon. This spell is basiclaly only useful for Eldritch Knights since they're the only ones who use weapons enough to make this useful and also get access to the spell.

Plant Shape I

alchemist 5, sorcerer/wizard 5, 8th-level Wild Shape

Literally all of the options are terrible. Beast Shape I is better, and you get it a spell level earlier.

Plant Shape II

alchemist 6, sorcerer/wizard 6, 10th-level Wild Shape

Your options at this level are better than Plant Shape I, but have to compete with Dire Tiger and Chimera. Shambling Mound doesn't even come close.

Plant Shape III

sorcerer/wizard 7, 12th-level Wild Shape

The forms aren't any better than Plant Shape II, and now you have to compete with turning into a large dragon.

Polymorph

alchemist 5, sorcerer/wizard 5

Functions as Elemental Body I, Beast Shape II, or Alter Self, with the added ability to cast it on other willing targets. Turn your Barbarian into a Dire Tiger for insane charges. Turn your Rogue into a Giant Octopus for 8 tentacle sneak attacks. For polymorphing yourself you have much better options at this level.

Polymorph, Greater

sorcerer/wizard 7

All the benefits of polymorph, but the options list expands to include Beast Shape IV, Elemental Body III, Plant Shape II, and Form of the Dragon I.

Shapechange

sorcerer/wizard 9

Replicate every other polymorph spell, plus you can change shapes as a free action once per turn. Start off as a Dire Tiger, charge into combat, then change into a dragon and wreck some people. If your HP gets low, change into a troll and regenerate for a few turns.

Help! I'm a GM and Polymorph is Breaking My Game!

Polymorph is an extremely powerful mechanic, and the more creatures are published for Pathfinder the more powerful it gets. While not every new creature will provide a viable new option, even a handful of useful new forms totally rebalances polymorph. Having a massive list of potential options means that a polymorph user will have a form which fits every situation, generally at no cost beyond knowing the spell. So, a reasonably gamemaster might ask "How can I allow polymorph in my game without letting it totally unbalance the game?"

Consider requiring familiarity with the creature. A druid who has never left the arctic tundra certainly shouldn't be able to polymorph into a reptile or a tropical bird since they have never seen one, and likely have never heard one described unless they studied the appropriate skill.

We'll define "familiarity" similar to the way that knowledge skills allow players to identify a creature's abilities and weaknesses, and we'll grant modifiers similar to Scrying's "knowledge" modifiers. However, instead of requiring a check, we'll simply require that the spellcaster have a requisite skill modifier, modified based on their familiarity with the creature in question and possibly an object which establishes a connection to that creature.

You could instead require skill checks to adopt new forms. If you choose to do, set the DC at 10 + the number of ranks required.

Polymorph Spells and Required Skills
Spell Required Skill Modifier
Alter Self Knowledge (Local)
Elemental Body Knowledge (The Planes)*
Form of the Dragon Knowledge (Arcana)
Monstrous Physique Knowledge (Nature)
Giant Form Knowledge (Nature)
Plant Shape Knowledge (Nature)
Polymorph Varies - Use the appropriate skill for the replicated spell
Shapechange Varies - Use the appropriate skill for the replicated spell
Undead Anatomy Knowledge (Religion)
* - Druids may substitute Knowledge (Nature) when using Wild Shape to replicate a polymorph spell.
Polymorph Familiarity Requiremenets
Familiarity Ranks Required Description
Secondhand 10 + Spell Level + CR You have read about the creature or had it described to you in detail. This is the level of familarity gained from normal skill rank advancement; creatures may be described in great detail in books or oral descriptions, but they are still considered "secondhand" sources.
Firsthand 5 + Spell Level + CR You have encountered the creature, and spent at least one minute observing or otherwise studying the creature. Fighting the creature counts for these purposes, provided that the total time you spend observing the creature still totals at least one minute.
Familiar 0 + Spell Level + CR You have studied the creature, alive or dead, in person for at least one uninterrupted hour. This study may require touching, manipulating, and often dissecting the body. After this hour of study, the body is no longer usable for study. However, if other creatures participate in the study period they also gain the benefits of doing so.

Creatures with a CR less than 1 count as CR 0 for these purposes.

You may also allow players to acquire "connections" to their polymorph forms which improve their familiarity similar to the way Scrying works. These connections help establish a mental understanding of the creature, allowing the spellcaster to more easily adopt forms with which they might not have studied in great detail. Players must acquire these connections ahead of time, and must do so with GM approval. These might be easily acquired or created, or may require the spellcaster to purchase them from a trader or artisan who can produce them.

Polymorph Form Connections
Connection Familiarity Bonus Description
Likeness +2 A figurine, drawing, or painting accurately depicting the creature.
Token +4 A piece of fur or skin, a piece of claw, etc. taken from the body of the creature.

Example: Craig the 5th-level human wizard knows Alter Self. He has 18 Intelligence, and 1 rank in Knowledge (Local). Alter Self relies on Knowledge (Local). He has spent a lot of time around common humanoids like humans and elves, so he is considered to have Firsthand familiarity. If he wants to polymorph into an elf, he needs a total modifier of +7 (5 + 2 for Alter Self + 0 for and elf's base CR), which his skill modifier of +8 covers (1 rank, +3 class skill, +4 Intelligence). If Craig wants to polymorph into a Sasquatch (which he has read about, but never seen), his +8 modifier won't be enough to cover the required modifier of +9. However, Craig acquires a detailed sculpture of a Sasquatch from a traveler who lives in an area where sasquatches are common, giving craig a +2 modifier, and allowing him to meat the required +9 modifier to polymorph into a sasquatch.

Other Discussions on Polymorph