Introduction

High level transmutation magic offers some of the most tempting and easily abusable magic available. True Polymorph didn’t exist before 5th edition and is an odd combination of Polymorph Any Object and Shapechange that has the notable distinction of being permanent if you can concentrate on it for the full hour.

Now, in terms of power, neither True Polymorph nor 5e’s version of Shapechange hold a candle to Wish. But sometimes you want to break the world in other interesting ways, and True Polymorph is a great way to do so. The whole spell is so vaguely worded that basically any casting of it starts with an argument with your DM, so I’m going to try and provide some clarity here.

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.

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 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.

RPGBOT is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.

Spells

Because I can, and thanks to the magic of the SRD, I will reproduce the text of both spells in this article.

True Polymorph

LEVEL
9th
CASTING TIME
1 Action
RANGE/AREA
30 ft.
COMPONENTS
V, S, M*
DURATION
Concentration, up to 1 hour
SCHOOL
Transmutation
ATTACK/SAVE
Wisdom
DAMAGE/EFFECT
Buff/Debuff

Choose one creature or nonmagical object that you can see within range. You transform the creature into a different creature, the creature into a nonmagical object, or the object into a creature (the object must be neither worn nor carried by another creature). The spell lasts for the duration, or until the target drops to 0 hit points or dies. If you concentrate on this spell for the full duration, the spell lasts until it is dispelled.

This spell has no effect on a shapechanger or a creature with 0 hit points. An unwilling creature can make a Wisdom saving throw, and if it succeeds, it isn’t affected by this spell.

Creature into Creature. If you turn a creature into another kind of creature, the new form can be any kind you choose whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or its level, if the target doesn’t have a challenge rating). The target’s game statistics, including mental ability scores, are replaced by the statistics of the new form. It retains its alignment and personality.

The target assumes the hit points of its new form, and when it reverts to its normal form, the creature 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, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech, unless its new form is capable of such actions.

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

Object into Creature. You can turn an object into any kind of creature, as long as the creature’s size is no larger than the object’s size and the creature’s challenge rating is 9 or lower. The creature is friendly to you and your companions. It acts on each of your turns. You decide what action it takes and how it moves. The GM has the creature’s statistics and resolves all of its actions and movement.

If the spell becomes permanent, you no longer control the creature. It might remain friendly to you, depending on how you have treated it.

Creature into Object. If you turn a creature into an object, it transforms along with whatever it is wearing and carrying into that form, as long as the object’s size is no larger than the creature’s size. The creature’s statistics become those of the object, and the creature has no memory of time spent in this form, after the spell ends and it returns to its normal form.

* – (a drop of mercury, a dollop of gum arabic, and a wisp of smoke)

The beginning

Choose one creature or non-magical object that you can see within range. You transform the creature into a different creature, the creature into a non-magical object, or the object into a creature (the object must be neither worn nor carried by another creature). The spell lasts for the duration, or until the target drops to 0 hit points or dies. If you concentrate on this spell for the full duration, the spell lasts until it is dispelled.

This spell has no effect on a shapechanger or a creature with 0 hit points. An unwilling creature can make a Wisdom saving throw, and if it succeeds, it isn’t affected by this spell.

Ok, a few things here. Worth noting though is that if you concentrate on it for the whole hour the spell becomes “permanent until dispelled.” This means that it’s not actually permanent and would cease in, for example, an Antimagic Field (temporarily), or if successfully targeted by a Dispel Magic. This allows you to do some interesting cheese where you cast a Contingency – Dispel Magic and say “When I think ‘unmorph me’ of my own free will, cast Dispel Magic to target the True Polymorph running on me,” then live for up to just shy of 10 days as an Ancient Brass Dragon, flip to human for a moment, and go back to being a dragon.

This lets you almost fully turn into something while still being an enormously powerful spellcaster from time to time if needed. Just gotta make sure you can pass the Dispel check against yourself (maybe a friend can help you with a Guidance/Enhance Ability/Bardic Inspiration) or you’ll turn into a nothlit.

Or at least that’s what you’d think, if you hadn’t read this Sage Advice. Because it turns out that hitting 0 hp as your new form will always end the spell on you, even if it’s been 1000 years of living as a dragon. It’s unclear what happens when you revert: has time passed for your body? Has your original stat block gained the benefits of any rests you may have had in the interim? Fully open to DM interpretation and therefore argument.

Speaking of, what happens if I turn someone into something with a naturally very short lifespan like a housefly? Around a month later it’s going to die, but not for having 0 hit points. Do they remain dead? That one gets a solid probably from me but is still strange to think about.

Creature into creature

Let’s take a look at each paragraph in turn here.

If you turn a creature into another kind of creature, the new form can be any kind you choose whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or its level, if the target doesn’t have a challenge rating). The target’s game statistics, including mental ability scores, are replaced by the statistics of the new form. It retains its alignment and personality.

Immediate vagueness problems. What does “any kind you choose” mean? Does that mean any printed creature? Does that include NPCs with levels? Does it mean you can make up creatures from whole cloth and, as long as the calculated CR is less than that of your target, you can turn someone into a weredracopyre lich? There’s no right answer here. In discussing this with Tyler, his answer was to lean heavily on the word “kind.” To him, “kind” meant “species as defined by taxonomical classification,” so I could choose to make you a human or a pit fiend, but not the Diviner stat block from Volo’s.

This gets weird when we have multiple stat blocks, a la dragons. So I could choose “brass dragon,” but then what age category am I? If I choose “skeleton,” what kind of skeleton am I? Are animated things like Golems and Strangling Rugs creatures since they have stat blocks and therefore fair game, or are they magic items and therefore verboten? If I can be a golem, they don’t have species so what happens there? On the other hand, if you go for “any printed stat block of appropriate CR,” suddenly I can turn myself into named beings like Ogremoch.

I would personally try to fall between the two but closer to the lax end (because this is a 9th level spell and the game left the rails behind long ago at that point). Let’s say, at my table, you can use any stat block that isn’t for a unique creature.

I brought up a problematic point a moment ago with golems when dealing with created/animated creatures. What happens if I choose, for example, a golem with text in its stat block “A golem can’t think or act for itself?” I don’t have a good answer.

One fortunate piece of clarity comes from this episode of Dragon Talk where Crawford clarifies that “retain[ing] its personality and alignment” means that it’s intended that you still understand who your friends are, even if your intelligence is now lower than the average bear.

Next paragraph: “The target assumes the hit points of its new form, and when it reverts to its normal form, the creature 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.”

Nothing particularly noteworthy here. Next paragraph: “The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech, unless its new form is capable of such actions.”

There’s nothing really surprising here, although one thing can be a bit confusing. Just because a form you take is capable of casting spells does not mean you can inherently cast any spells that aren’t part of that stat block. Just because your character knows the hand wiggles and latin necessary for casting Wish does not mean that your assumed form has the wellspring of power within to be able to make it happen, any more than if you taught the components to a random farmer.

Next paragraph: “The target’s gear melds into the new form. The creature can’t activate, use, wield, or otherwise benefit from any of its equipment.” This one is a little disappointing because Shapechange is way more generous about what you can do with your gear if you cast it on yourself, but given that this is also supposed to function as Uber Baleful Polymorph I guess it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to let the person you’re turning into a standard turtle continue wearing their Robe of the Archmagi.

I’m going to list a few great options for Undead and Constructs here since I cover everything else down in the Shapechange section.

  • Boreworm: Straight up immunity to B/P/S unless the damage comes from magic or adamantine weapons and a handful of other good brute stats make this a fun way to mix it up in melee. Just don’t get stuck like that because your intelligence is 1.
  • Demilich: Howl is a ludicrous ability. The Con save is admittedly a low DC, but if things fail they just die. Here’s another fun piece of vague though: when you turn into one, do you get a phylactery? Because if you do, all that’s required to become a full Lich is to feed it a single soul.

Object into creature

You can turn an object into any kind of creature, as long as the creature’s size is no larger than the object’s size and the creature’s challenge rating is 9 or lower. The creature is friendly to you and your companions. It acts on each of your turns. You decide what action it takes and how it moves. The GM has the creature’s statistics and resolves all of its actions and movement.

This inherits all of the issues with “any kind of creature” from the first section but I’m not going to list them again. Deciding what actions the new creature takes and how it moves isn’t called out as requiring any kind of action on your part, or even interaction with the creature. As written, I can polymorph a sufficiently large rock into a Drider, Plane Shift it to the Demonweb Pits, and then have it run up and try to attack Lolth while I sit safely at home. I somehow have full access to its knowledge for the purpose of making it do things, but I can’t use that knowledge for anything else.

If the spell becomes permanent, you no longer control the creature. It might remain friendly to you, depending on how you have treated it.

Boy. “Depending on how you have treated it.” What a fun clause to start yet another argument with this spell. By what metric are we going to judge that? “Well-treated” is entirely culture dependent. Does it use its culture? Your culture? What if, again, it’s a golem that you ordered to protect something and it sat for an hour doing absolutely nothing? Did it enjoy being used for the purpose for which it was made? Would being ordered to fight be better or worse? It’s certainly more exciting but also more dangerous.

Creature into object

If you turn a creature into an object, it transforms along with whatever it is wearing and carrying into that form, as long as the object’s size is no larger than the creature’s size. The creature’s statistics become those of the object, and the creature has no memory of time spent in this form, after the spell ends and it returns to its normal form.

Remember from way up at the beginning that you can’t transform the target into a magical object, so no you can’t turn someone into a Sphere of Annihilation.

As a kill spell, this is incredible functionality, although we run into suddenly needing to know things like how many hitpoints a 5ft cube of rock has because, once again, reducing the block to 0 hitpoints will end the spell. What about if you change it in ways that don’t damage the product though?

If I turn you into a gold statue of yourself and then use Fabricate to explode you into a literal pile of money (remember Fabricate starts “you convert raw materials into products of the same material”), then give each of these cursed gold pieces to a different member of my pirate crew that I scatter throughout the world, what happens if one gold piece gets dispelled?

Speaking of gold, this is an even better way of breaking economies than Wish, which is impressive. Just transmute a sufficiently large rock into a brontosaurus, then transmute that into, if I’ve done my math right, roughly 100,000 pounds of diamond.

Shapechange

LEVEL
9th
CASTING TIME
1 Action
RANGE/AREA
Self
COMPONENTS
V, S, M*
DURATION
Concentration, up to1 hour
SCHOOL
Transmutation
ATTACK/SAVE
None
DAMAGE/EFFECT
Shapechanging

You assume the form of a different creature for the duration. The new form can be of any creature with a challenge rating equal to your level or lower. The creature can’t be a construct or an undead, and you must have seen the sort of creature at least once. You transform into an average example of that creature, one without any class levels or the Spellcasting trait.

Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the chosen creature, though you retain your alignment and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. You also retain all of your skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature. If the creature has the same proficiency as you and the bonus listed in its statistics is higher than yours, use the creature’s bonus in place of yours. You can’t use any legendary actions or lair actions of the new form.

You assume the hit points and Hit Dice of the new form. When you revert to your normal form, you return to the number of hit points you had before you transformed. If you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form. As long as the excess damage doesn’t reduce your normal form to 0 hit points, you aren’t knocked unconscious.

You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them, provided that your new form is physically capable of doing so. You can’t use any special senses you have (for example, darkvision) unless your new form also has that sense. You can only speak if the creature can normally speak.

When you transform, you choose whether your equipment falls to the ground, merges into the new form, or is worn by it. Worn equipment functions as normal. The GM determines whether it is practical for the new form to wear a piece of equipment, based on the creature’s shape and size. Your equipment doesn’t change shape or size to match the new form, and any equipment that the new form can’t wear must either fall to the ground or merge into your new form. Equipment that merges has no effect in that state.

During this spell’s duration, you can use your action to assume a different form following the same restrictions and rules for the original form, with one exception: if your new form has more hit points than your current one, your hit points remain at their current value.

* – (a jade circlet worth at least 1,500 gp, which you must place on your head before you cast the spell)

Paragraph breakdown

You assume the form of a different creature for the duration. The new form can be of any creature with a challenge rating equal to your level or lower. The creature can’t be a construct or an undead, and you must have seen the sort of creature at least once. You transform into an average example of that creature, one without any class levels or the Spellcasting trait.

Already we have more clarity than True Polymorph, although that comes with some frustrating limitations. If we take both spells together, this seems to imply that Shapechange would allow you to turn into constructs were it not for the inclusion of the part where you can’t, meaning that True Polymorph probably means that, in fact, you can.

It also explicitly calls out that you don’t get any class levels or a spellcasting trait, (meaning you can’t use the Diviner stat block from Volo’s mentioned above) which, again, seems to imply that you can with True Polymorph since this spell bothers calling that you can’t. It doesn’t fix what happens when you choose “Brass Dragon” though. Can you choose an age category? Does your DM need to know or decide by fiat the mean age category of all Brass Dragons out there? Can you only turn into the age category of Brass Dragon that you, personally, have seen? Who knows.

Now, there is a very important distinction in that paragraph. You don’t gain any Spellcasting traits, but you do gain Innate Spellcasting traits. This is to represent that you’re turning into a normal creature of that type, not one with additional training. You need to look carefully at what you choose, but most high-level things have Innate and not regular so expect to be able to use everything unless you are, for instance, looking at the Diviner stat block.

Speaking of seeing the thing you intend to turn into, from the same Dragon Talk mentioned above, there’s some vagueness about what “seeing” one actually means. Crawford calls out that, RAI, a depiction of one (like a drawing) would not work, but then goes on to say that using a Crystal Ball on one would.

That’s just basically a movie screen that a Scrying is playing on. So what level of authenticity is required? Can I have my friend True Polymorph into a pit fiend, let me see it, not concentrate for an hour so they turn back, and then I can do it? If I use magic to see a pit fiend in a dream (with the Dream spell), does that count? What about mundane illusions while awake?

Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the chosen creature, though you retain your alignment and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. You also retain all of your skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature. If the creature has the same proficiency as you and the bonus listed in its statistics is higher than yours, use the creature’s bonus in place of yours. You can’t use any legendary actions or lair actions of the new form…

…You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them, provided that your new form is physically capable of doing so. You can’t use any special senses you have (for example, darkvision) unless your new form also has that sense. You can only speak if the creature can normally speak.

Wow, this is the part of the spell that’s so good. Unlike every other polymorph-type spell or ability, you maintain access to all your class features (including spellcasting). You also maintain your mental ability scores, which is a slightly double-edged sword but at least means you’re not going to hose yourself if you do turn into something dumb and burly.

It does mean you don’t get the full benefit out of, for example, Shapechanging into a pit fiend and using the Charisma of 24 to power your Bard spells, although that’s still a very good idea since they can clearly speak and have hands for somatic components on top of a pile of other great benefits.

Now, if we again look to the specifics of this spell versus True Polymorph, then this would seem to imply that, given that you can’t use lair or legendary actions when you Shapechange, you can when you True Polymorph. Fortunately, Crawford specified that you can’t.

You assume the hit points and Hit Dice of the new form. When you revert to your normal form, you return to the number of hit points you had before you transformed. If you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form. As long as the excess damage doesn’t reduce your normal form to 0 hit points, you aren’t knocked unconscious.

As above, nothing interesting here.

When you transform, you choose whether your equipment falls to the ground, merges into the new form, or is worn by it. Worn equipment functions as normal. The GM determines whether it is practical for the new form to wear a piece of equipment, based on the creature’s shape and size. Your equipment doesn’t change shape or size to match the new form, and any equipment that the new form can’t wear must either fall to the ground or merge into your new form. Equipment that merges has no effect in that state.

Alright, so this means that, if you have any equipment you really care about, you’re going to want to keep yourself to medium size and probably humanoid-ish.  Quick list of some excellent forms for this:

  • Amnizu: A bunch of mind control options on a Devil body.
  • Death Slaad: The CR is low here but you get several excellent things. Fantastic innate spells and resistance to elemental damage let your regeneration (which notably isn’t turned off by any damage type unlike most creatures) heal you back up to 170 before you change into something else and go back to pressing the attack.
  • Red Abishai: Incite Fanaticism is really good if you’re about to fight something that uses Fear or if your allies make a lot of attacks.

During this spell’s duration, you can use your action to assume a different form following the same restrictions and rules for the original form, with one exception: if your new form has more hit points than your current one, your hit points remain at their current value.

So let’s talk about some other good forms:

  • Ancient Brass/Crystal/Deep/Topaz/White Dragon: I don’t really need to explain this one.
  • Frost Worm: Need blindsight, tremorsense, and the ability to burrow through solid rock? Here you go.
  • Kalaraq Quori: Even more horrifying mind control options than the Amnizu, plus you’re incorporeal.
  • Lesser Star Spawn Emissary: Ia! Ia! Expertise in deception, 120ft Truesight, 1000ft telepathy, and exceedingly rare resistance to Force damage on something that can change its own shape back into looking like you while maintaining the stat block are incredibly useful.
  • Pit Fiend: A pile of beneficial bonuses (120ft Truesight!) on one of the most frightening creatures in the multiverse.

As for the last line there, basically it’s saying don’t turn into a goldfish first, then turn into a Pit Fiend and expect to have 300 hp because instead you’re still going to have 1 (although see the Death Slaad above). Other than the HP part of it though, go nuts. Be a Quori, use Mind Seed, turn into a Frost Worm and burrow into the ground. Pop out from under someone and turn into a Pit Fiend and beat the absolute tar out of them.

Conclusion

A few last thoughts. One amusing thing you may have noticed that you can’t do with True Polymorph is turn objects into other objects. This is just not included for no particular reason, so if you want to turn a boulder into diamonds it needs to go through the intermediate step of being a Brontosaurus as described above. Additionally, with both of these spells, Legendary Resistance is a perfectly valid tool you gain access to.

With that said, I hope that this article helps if you are among the tiny fraction of players or DMs who ever get to cast high-level transmutation magic.