DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Polymorph
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
- Green: Good options.
- Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
The Polymorph spell is an extremely versatile and powerful tool. It can crippled enemies, turn an ally into a ferocious beast, or provide you with utility options which are difficult to access without relying on numerous other spells at once.
How does polymorph work?
Before you read this guide, read the Polymorph spell description on the 5e SRD. You may also want to read the Shapechange and True Polymorph spell descriptions, but understand Polymorph is more important since it is more limited, and once you grasp Polymorph you should be able to apply that knowledge to other spells.
What do you get when you polymorph?
The target's game statistics, including mental ability scores, are replaced by the statistics of the chosen beast. It retains its alignment and personality.
You effectively lose everything but your personality. You lose class abilities, feats, racial traits, etc. You can effectively put away your character sheet and replace it with the stat block out of the Monster Manual.
Polymorph Forms by CR
Once you understand how the spell works the most important decision you make is what form to select. While True Polymorph allows any creature, Polymorph only allows beasts, so this section will analyze available beast forms. Unfortunately, the highest CR beast is currently the Tyrannosaurus Rex at CR 8.
There is no "best" form; every problem requires a different tool. However, it may be helpful to pick a few "staple" forms which you use repeatedly. When every problem is a nail, it's nice to have a good hammer. I suggest picking a form for disabling enemies, a form for scouting, and a general combat form. Your scouting and combat forms may change as new options become available, but since your disable form should generally be CR 0 it probably won't change much. Keep in mind that the lowest level you will be able to cast Polymorph is level 7, so you generally won't look for combat forms below CR 7.
Note that this guide currently only covers beasts presented in the monster manual. Expect updates periodically as additional sourcebooks are published.
Don't consider combat forms from CR 0; there are better options available the moment you get Polymorph. However, CR 0 provides the best disable forms and many of the best scout forms.
- BaboonMM: Too mobile to use as a disable form, but not mobile enough to use as a scout form.
- BadgerMM: By the time you get access to polymorph you can use the Giant Badger, which is strictly better.
- BatMM: Fantastic scout form. Decent fly speed and blindsight allow you to scout dark areas (including magical darkness). However, echolocation tends to be a bit noisy.
- CatMM: Too mobile to use as a disable form, but not mobile enough to use as a scout form.
- CrabMM: If you need to quickly move through both underwater and dry environments quickly, the crab is a useful choice for a scout. Blindsight is also useful.
- DeerMM: A tempting disable form since the deer is limited to movement on the ground and their only attack is pitiful. However, the high speed is a problem.
- EagleMM: A great scout form. With very good fly speed and keen sight, the eagle is a good scout when outdoors, but the owl is strictly better.
- FrogMM: Rat is a better disable form, and there are other scout forms which work better.
- GoatMM: Similar to the deer and slightly slower, making it a potential disable form. However, the Charge attack does enough damage to be a potential problem and you'll feel really silly if your target manages to knock someone in your party prone.
- HawkMM: Functionally identical to the eagle for scouting purposes.
- HyenaMM: Probably the closest thing you will get to a combat form at this CR.
- JackalMM: Keen hearing and smell are tempting, but with no special senses or movement modes it's not a go-to option for a scout form.
- LizardMM: A climb speed and darkvision are tempting for a scout, and with such slow speed it's a possibility for a disable form despite the climb speed.
- OctopusMM: Underwater the octopus is a great scout. Darkvision and camouflage make it easy to sneak around, and ink cloud provides a fantastic escape mechanism. Don't be tempted to use this is a disable form, as it allows the target to intentionally suffocate themselves out of polymorph while out of water.
- OwlMM: Perhaps the best scout option. With astounding 120 ft. darkvision, great fly speed, and both keen hearing and sight, it can handle anything except magical darkness and water.
- QuipperMM: Faster than the octopus and with better darkvision, but not as sneaky. Don't be tempted to use this is a disable form, as it allows the target to intentionally suffocate themselves out of polymorph while out of water.
- RatMM: The perfect disable form. Bad speed, no special movement, and a pitifully weak attack. It's also a passable scout form if only because rats are a common sight which many creatures will ignore.
- RavenMM: Useful only for mimicry if you need it for some reason.
- ScorpionMM: The blindsight is tempting, but at such short range it won't help much
- Sea horseMM: A great disable form underwater because it has terrible speed and no attacks.
- SpiderMM: Darkvision and spider climb are tempting, but flying works better than climbing and other options have better darkvision.
- VultureMM: The owl is strictly better.
- WeaselMM: Rat is a better disable form, and with no special movement types anything that can fly is likely a better scout form.
A difficult CR. CR 0 has better scout and disable forms, and nothing here is useful as a combat form.
- Blood HawkMM: For your purposes the blood hawk isn't notable than the eagle or the hawk. Pack tactics is neat, but doesn't make this a combat form.
- CamelMM: Good speed and your allies can ride you.
- Flying snakeMM: A startlingly good combat form despite its CR. Flight and swim speeds make it extremely mobile, it has blindsight for some reason (albeit with a tiny range), and the combination of flyby and poison damage with no save makes it an effect hit-and-run attacker. A fantastic option if you're scouting and might also need to kill something weak.
- Giant crabMM: Crab is a better scout despite lower speed simply due to the size difference. Blindsight is tempting, but not enough to make the giant crab useful.
- Giant ratMM: Not appreciably better than the rat as a scout.
- Giant weaselMM: Too big for a scout, and no special movement types.
- MastiffMM: A good scout in populated environments.
- MuleMM: Allies can ride you, but camels are faster
- Poisonous snakeMM: The flying snake is strictly better by a large margin.
- PonyMM: Mules are the same speed and have some other occasionally useful abilities.
- StirgeMM: The flying snake is strictly better.
Like lower CRs, CR 1/4 is too weak for combat forms. However, it does offer useful forms that your allies can ride.
- Axe beakMM: Weak combat form.
- BoarMM: Weak combat form.
- Constrictor snakeMM: Weak combat form.
- Draft horseMM: Slower than the camel, but allies can still ride you.
- ElkMM: Faster than the draft hose and your allies mayt be able to ride you. The charge attack is also decent.
- Giant badgerMM: Darkvision, keen smell, and burrow speed. While it's no combat mosnter and other scout options will usually be better, it's the best burrowing option available to you.
- Giant batMM: Better blindsight than the bat and better fly speed, but at large size it will be easy to notice and it will have trouble flying around in small areas where a bat would fit easily.
- Giant centipedeMM: Climb speed and blindsight, but bats will make better scouts.
- Giant frogMM: Worthless.
- Giant lizardMM: Not as fast other ridable options, but it's the only ridable option with a climb speed.
- Giant owlMM: All of the benefits of the owl, but bigger. Personally I would still stick to owl for scouting purposes, but the extra durability may be worthwhile.
- Giant poisonous snakeMM: The flying snake is more mobile and does more reliable poisons damage.
- Giant wolf spiderMM: Fast with spider climb, but remember that spider climb is still worse than flying.
- PantherMM: Weak combat form.
- PteranodonMM: Weak combat form.
- Riding horseMM: Extremely fast and ridable. The warhorse is more durable, but otherwise identical, so stick to the warhorse.
- WolfMM: Essentially a mastiff with pack tactics, but it won't be able to go around in most populated areas without drawing attention.
- ApeMM: Weak combat form.
- Black bearMM: Weak combat form.
- CrocodileMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant goatMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant sea horseMM: Might be ridable in the water, but that's the only reason I can think of to use this.
- Giant waspMM: Weak combat form. The flying snake will probably still do more damage.
- Reef sharkMM: Blindsight is tempting, but there are still better aquatic scout options and this is too weak to serve as a combat form.
- WarhorseMM: A more durable version of the riding horse.
- Brown bearMM: Weak combat form.
- Dire wolfMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant eagleMM: Extremely fast, making it a tempting scouting option. However, its senses aren't as good as the owl's.
- Giant hyenaMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant octopusMM: All of the appeal of the octopus, but bigger and more durable. You may be able to get into smaller spaces as a regular octopus, but if you know anything about real-world octopi you'll know that they can fit into any space that can fit their beak because their bodies are extremely malleable.
- Giant spiderMM: Weak combat form. The giant wolf spider is faster if you need something with spider climb.
- Giant toadMM: Swallow is tempting, but probably still not enough to make this useful.
- Giant vultureMM: Weak combat form.
- LionMM: Weak combat form.
- TigerMM: Weak combat form.
A bunch of weak combat forms.
- AllosaurusMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant boarMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant constrictor snakeMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant elkMM: Weak combat form, but also probably ridable. At huge size you might be able to carry the entire party.
- Hunter sharkMM: Weak combat form.
- PlesiosaurusMM: Weak combat form.
- Polar bearMM: Weak combat form.
- RhinocerosMM: Weak combat form.
- Saber-toothed tigerMM: Weak combat form.
More weak combat forms.
- AnkylosaurusMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant scorpionMM: Weak combat form.
- Killer whaleMM: Weak combat form.
One very lonely combat form.
- ElephantMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant crocodileMM: Weak combat form.
- Giant sharkMM: The most powerful aquatic combat form available.
- TriceratopsMM: Weak combat form.
The lowest CR that you should realistically consider combat forms.
- MammothMM: Trampling Charge is the big draw, which might be enough to justify this over the giant ape depending on your play style.
The highest CR you can access at the level you will generally get access to Polymorph.
- Giant apeMM: Not very exciting, but this is the best option available when you first get access to polymorph.
The highest CR beasts currently published.
- Tyrannosaurus RexMM: The pinnacle of beasts. An absolute ton of damage, and the grapple mechanic on the t-rex's bite can easily win fights against single foes.