Introduction

8th-level spells occupy an awkward position among D&D’s magical power scale. They must be strong enough to justify waiting until 15th level to be cast, but not so powerful that they invalidate the strength of a 9th level slot. Some 8th-level spells are able to find a good middle ground, like Clone or Feeblemind, but the vast majority go off with a whimper rather than a bang. On first glance, this is the case with Animal Shapes, an 8th-level druid-only spell.

The intention of how Animal Shapes should be used seems fairly apparent. You turn your party members into animals while allowing them to retain their minds. Situationally, players may occasionally find a situation in which having the whole party be birds or rats is worth the slot, but most of the time it’s passed by in favor of something that does immediate damage and doesn’t use concentration.

It’s clear to me that the designers of 5th edition penned the spell and never took a hard look at it either, because Animal Shapes is utterly broken. Having read this spell, I have come to the conclusion that it is poorly written, easily abusable, and chaotic in the best way possible. Animal Shapes deserves a second look.

Table of Contents

Disclaimer

RPGBOT uses 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. Nearly never useful.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
  • Green: Good options. Useful often.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.

We will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, in handbooks for official content because we can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. We also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and we can’t guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

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Animal Shapes Spell Description

8th-level transmutation

LEVEL
8th
CASTING TIME
1 Action
RANGE/AREA
30 ft.
COMPONENTS
V, S
DURATION
Concentration, up to 24 hours
SCHOOL
Transmutation
ATTACK/SAVE
None
DAMAGE/EFFECT
Shapechanging

Your magic turns others into beasts. Choose any number of willing creatures that you can see within range. You transform each target into the form of a Large or smaller beast with a challenge rating of 4 or lower. On subsequent turns, you can use your action to transform affected creatures into new forms.

The transformation lasts for the duration for each target, or until the target drops to 0 hit points or dies. You can choose a different form for each target. A target’s game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the chosen beast, though the target retains its alignment and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. The target assumes the hit points of its new form, and when it reverts to its normal form, it returns to the number of hit points it had before it transformed. If it reverts as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to its normal form. As long as the excess damage doesn’t reduce the creature’s normal form to 0 hit points, it isn’t knocked unconscious. The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak or cast spells.

The target’s gear melds into the new form. The target can’t activate, wield, or otherwise benefit from any of its equipment.

Breaking Down the Spell

The classical use of Animal Shapes is to turn your entire party into beasts, but it’s not particularly good when used that way. Let’s take a look at the spell to figure out what it’s actually good for:

“Choose any number of willing creatures that you can see within range.” 

We’ll get to exactly how good this is in the next section, but this is incredible. With a group of well-positioned medium or smaller creatures, you can transform more than 90 of them. Assuming you want to transform these individuals into size large creatures without them trampling over each other, you can affect over 20. Incorporating third dimensional space into this equation, and utilizing something like scaffolding, balconies, or a body of water, you can squeeze an even larger number out of this spell. 

“You transform each target into the form of a Large or smaller beast with a challenge rating of 4 or lower.”

Annoyingly, there are no beasts of CR 4 who are smaller than size huge in the core books, and only one CR 3 option (the Giant Scorpion). There are a number of interesting options in adventure paths and other supplements, but those are not covered on RPGBOT as we cannot assume that your group uses any content specific to adventures. 

Take note of the fact that this transformation can be used on a creature with a lower CR than what they can be transformed into.

“On subsequent turns, you can use your action to transform affected creatures into new forms.”

This is where the spell actually gets fun. When a creature assumes a new form, they gain the hit points of the new form, so you can have the affected creatures cycle through forms, allowing you to completely stall an enemy who can’t cut through the form’s hit points in one round. You could have entire fights without ever taking any real damage, but this is slow because the damage you’d be outputting is likely worse than what the party can normally do.

It may also be useful if you quickly need to shift between sizes or shift between forms with different movement speeds. You can turn all of the affected creatures into small birds for transport, and then turn them into giant scorpions as an Action when a fight breaks out. A great way to stretch the spell’s effects all day long. 

“The transformation lasts for the duration for each target, or until the target drops to 0 hit points or dies.”

Important to note that the transformation lasts until the target drops to 0 hit points, but not the spell itself. Referring back to the last line, if a target is dealt enough damage to be knocked out of their new form, you can still use your action on a subsequent turn to put them back into their animal shape.

“You can choose a different form for each target.”

There are certainly fun combinations of beasts that you can use to get the most out of this feature of the spell, and it’s only limited by your knowledge of the viable beast shapes and your ability to strategize. 

“A target’s game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the chosen beast, though the target retains its alignment and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores.”

This describes the same basic rules as the druid’s wildshape, which as a 15th+ level druid, you are hopefully familiar with. If not, I suggest you read our practical guide to wild shape

“The target assumes the hit points of its new form, and when it reverts to its normal form, it returns to the number of hit points it had before it transformed. If it reverts as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to its normal form. As long as the excess damage doesn’t reduce the creature’s normal form to 0 hit points, it isn’t knocked unconscious.”

The spell doesn’t prevent you from transforming a creature that’s currently dying, so as long as the subjects aren’t outright killed, you can transform them again which not only gets them back in a fight, it also resets their death saves.

“The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak or cast spells.“

Wild Shape specifically calls out that a wild shaped creature retains class and racial features that aren’t form dependent, as well as their proficiency bonus. Animal Shapes does not. Your DM can choose to interpret this whichever way they want. 

Because transformed creatures retain their Intelligence score, it’s implied that they also retain their understanding of language, so a target can still understand their companions, read, and even write if the form would allow it. A creature is treated as a beast for the purposes of spells and similar features, so they could talk with ease to a person who had cast Speak With Animals. 

“The target’s gear melds into the new form. The target can’t activate, wield, or otherwise benefit from any of its equipment.”

This spell does not allow a creature in an animal shape to choose to wear their equipment. It’s absorbed by its new form, and the target can’t activate, wield or benefit from the equipment, so even passive benefits like the AC bonus from Bracers of Armor don’t function. However, this only applies when the creature transforms. If an item happens to be laying on the ground (How it got there is a mystery! Perhaps someone dropped it?), it doesn’t count as the creature’s equipment, so the transformed creature is free to pick up and use the item provided that their new form could do so. Your DM might reasonably view this with some skepticism, so try not to abuse this too much.

Bag of Rats

Unlike polymorph, the desired forms you can change a creature into are not bound by the original creature’s challenge rating, and Animal Shapes can affect a staggeringly large number of creatures. 

You can cast Animal Shapes and then concentrate on it and re-transform the targets from safety. If your party’s Face is capable of rallying a decent size horde of angry villagers against the dragon that’s been harassing them, one spell can give them the power to take matters into their own hands. 

However, you’re not always going to have access to twenty town guards who are willing to lay down their lives, even if they’re about to receive a significant magical powerup. D&D mostly incentivises DMs to discourage this behavior, forcing ways to make the party members the heroes of the story.  

This is where a classic D&D trick comes in: Carrying a bag of rats around with you. By casting the spell Animal Friendship, you can convince an unintelligent creature to be a willing participant of a spell effect, among other benefits. Animal Friendship lasts 24 hours, which means any day you’re not adventuring, you can spend less than two minutes dumping all your spell slots into casting it repeatedly. At 15th level when you get access to Animal Shapes you have access to 8th-level spell slots and you can cast Animal Friendship up to 18 times if you spend all of your spell slots. Combine that with the Speak With Animals spell, or the Shepherd Druid’s Speech of the Woods, and you can issue commands to your contingent of magically friendly beasts. 

It’s worth noting that while you can dish out a great deal of damage with this method, many creatures will have resistance to non-magical bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage. This is the majority of damage that your army will do. This method will always be most useful for locking down enemies by surrounding them, providing advantage with the Help action, and taking damage from annoyed enemies which might otherwise be directed at one of the party members. 

Mob Combat

At this point, you may be thinking “If I use the spell this way, I’m going to annoy everyone at the table. Turns will take so long!” This would be entirely true if you were forcing your DM to roll attacks individually. Luckily, there’s a method in the DMG to expedite this process called Handling Mobs (DMG pg. 250) which I recommend reading before proceeding. 

With this method of handling combat, our army is not using attack rolls, so we can’t rely on advantage to hit or critical hits to deal damage. Instead, you simply want to get as many creatures as possible to surround a target to make sure they deal damage. The larger your enemy’s size, the more of your army you can properly position. This makes the ideal enemy for using this spell in this way a very big creature with low or middling AC. Occupying a larger space means that more of your transformed beasts can get into melee.

Important to note: under the mob attack rules, a creature doesn’t benefit from advantage but it also isn’t penalized with disadvantage. This can be exploited by creatures with long-ranged attacks (apes and giant spiders get a ranged attack), or by putting the entire army in a bubble of Darkness. It’s not clear that this is intentional in the rules; they simply omit any discussion of advantage/disadvantage.

Animal Forms

Although the spell description says that you may transform a creature into “the form of a Large or smaller beast with a challenge rating of 4 or lower,” in the core books there are no beasts of CR 4 smaller than size huge. Instead we’ll be looking at beasts of CR 3 and below. 

You can choose different shapes for each target, so you can create a team with synergies that play off each other. Remember you can use your action to change affected creatures into new shapes, so you can use one form to get positioning, and then on subsequent turns swap into forms purely for attack purposes. 

This guide assumes you are using the Mob Combat rules. If your DM is not planning on using them, check out our practical guide to wild shape for more accurate rankings. 

CR 3 – Giant Scorpion

Three attacks, an automatic grapple on hit, and decent health. However, their attack roll is low and much of their damage comes from their poison. If you suspect a target has a good constitution save or is immune to poison, go for cave bears instead. If you really want to make use of the auto-grapple, I suggest giant octopus as they add the restrained condition and have 15 feet of reach.

CR 2 – Allosaurus

Great hit points, fast move speed, and a bite attack that hits pretty hard.

CR 2 – Cave Bear

Multiattack, and the highest attack roll for a beast in the CRs we’re looking at.

CR 2 – Plesiosaurus

The most hit points from the available options, a decent attack bonus, okay damage and an attack with 10-foot reach. Reach allows you to position more allies around an enemy. They also breathe air, so this is a viable option on land if you use another form to gain positioning.

CR 2 – Hunter Shark

Without the ability to benefit from blood frenzy with mob combat, this is not a useful option.

CR 1 – Giant Octopus

A lot of hit points for a CR 1 creature, and an auto-grapple that causes the restrained condition. Because of the tentacles’ 15-foot reach, this is a very solid option for surrounding an enemy. Though they will be slow, you can still use this option on land, just make sure to transform them into a new shape every hour so they don’t suffocate.

CR 1/2 – Ape

One of the few options with a ranged attack that deals damage. Remember that with mob combat they are not penalized by disadvantage, so they can target a creature from long range without a drop off in their attack accuracy. You could even have a familiar deliver magic stones to three of them every turn. However, they have a fairly low amount of hit points.

CR 1/4 – Giant Owl

Flyby is great for keeping your army out of harm’s way and just swooping in to deal damage, but the Giant Owl’s attack roll is very low, and they don’t have many hit points.

CR 1/4 – Giant Badger

With how low their hit points are, there’s no reason to use a giant badger unless you intend on using their burrow speed to ambush a creature. 

CR 1/8 – Flying Snake

Flight, flyby, and a slightly better attack roll than the Giant Owl. Because they are size tiny, you should have no problem getting them a lot in position to surround an enemy. However, one hit will almost certainly kill them, so any AoE effect could instantly wipe out your army.