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I have read numerous posts from various websites saying that the wizard/sorceror spell "polymorph" breaks game balance. Even Wizards of the Coast somewhat admits that. Sticking to just the core games rules, how does this spell swing game balance totally askew? Perhaps I am just not creative enough to understand the extent to which the spell can make normally challenging situations trivial. Please give examples, broken down at various ranges of character levels (from 7th level, when a wizard first gains access to polymorph, up to 20th level)?

Update (12/18/2012):

There are some great answers here. I should have posted originally about the entire polymorph chain of spells instead of just the spell "polymorph" itself, but I think most of the answers so far took the question to mean the polymorph chain.

I do want to clarify slightly what I meant in my original question about examples, in the hopes of finding more of the "loopholes" that some have mentioned. The answer about the Avariel is a good one (gaining Fly at a longer duration at CL3 than at CL5 with the Fly spell). Any more examples of overpowered usages of the polymorph spell chain are welcome.

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How to make it not broken: (Player) "I polymorph into an Avariel!" (DM) "What's an Avariel…?" PCs don't have perfect knowledge of every monster that might exist in the multiverse, and enforcing that makes Polymorph reasonable. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 15 '12 at 18:38
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SevenSidedDie, knowing what a given monster is is a Knowledge check with a DC of 10 + the monster's HD. Knowledge (local) DC 11 in the case of the Avariel. Hardly a showstopper, I'd say. –  Ernir Dec 15 '12 at 19:30
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@SevenSidedDie: That's the Oberoni Fallacy. Just because the DM can fix it does not mean it's not broken. In order to make polymorph not broken, the DM needs an encyclopedic knowledge of what creatures are and are not broken. Which is exactly why questions like this can be useful. –  KRyan Dec 16 '12 at 3:52
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@KRyan Not disputing that this question is useful. But the brokenness isn't in the rules, it's in the design assumption that groups would not play kitchen sink settings using every splat. The brokenness is a side effect of play culture going somewhere the rules never anticipated. The Oberoni fallacy requires claiming it's not broken because you can house rule. Making a setting with a curated monster list is not a house rule, it's the game as designed. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 16 '12 at 4:01
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@SevenSidedDie: I see the distinction and you have a point, but in this case you have to specifically cull monsters from Core, which is a problem. Still, I'll grant you that polymorph only gets truly awful with supplements (unlike, say, spellcasting in general). –  KRyan Dec 16 '12 at 4:15

6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted

The main issues with Polymorph are:

  • Monsters aren't designed for PC use. Many monsters have abilities that are overpowered or disruptive in the hands of PCs, as they were designed primarily as opponents and weren't balanced with polymorph in mind.

  • Versatility is power. Polymorph is by far one of the most versatile spells in the book. A more versatile character is actually more powerful, since he's more likely to have the most effective solution to any given problem. Polymorph gets more versatile for free as you add new monster books.

  • Polymorph isn't as broken as it used to be, but there are still loopholes. Because not all monsters were written with polymorph in mind, polymorph has numerous, very specific limitations. However, some forms have powerful or disruptive abilities which aren't covered by these limits.

Some particular uses for polymorph:

  • Annis hag (7 HD): Large size with 10 ft. reach, +10 natural armor, Str 25, and can still use weapons, cast spells and wear humanoid magic items. Two claws, bite, rend, improved grab and rake.
  • Mind flayer (8 HD): Four tentacle attacks and Extract (Ex). A good grapple can instantly kill any opponent. Alternatively, a rogue can use all four tentacles to make sneak attacks.
  • Dark naga (9 HD): Poison sting, DC16 or fall asleep for 2d4 minutes. Sleeping opponents can be hit with a coup de grace.
  • Roper (10 HD): Large size, 14 natural armor, 19 Strength, 50 ft. reach with ranged touch attack that inflicts 2d8 points Strength damage (Fort 18 negates). A full attack allows six strands, plus a bite with 10ft. reach and 2d6 damage.
  • Guardian naga (11 HD): Poison (bite, or ranged touch spit), DC 19 and initial and secondary damage 1d10 Con. 7 natural armor, Str 21 and Con 19, too.
  • Cornugon (15HD, requires Outsider type from planetouched race or Otherworldly feat): Large size with 10 ft. reach, 19 natural armor, flight, 31 Str, 25 Dex, 25 Con. Can still use weapons and wear equipment.

There are a few ways to curb the excesses of polymorph without banning it outright.

  1. Limit the players to assuming forms of creatures they've actually encountered. This prevents cherry-picking the most broken options from monster books.
  2. Don't allow armor to resize when the character assumes Large size. The rules don't strictly say that armor resizes (although it does suggest that "Size should not keep characters of various kinds from using magic items"). This prevents Large forms with high natural armor from being too powerful.
  3. Pay close attention to which forms the polymorph rules actually allow. For example, you cannot assume the form of a templated creature, or a creature of a size more than one larger or smaller than your own.
  4. Take a look at Pathfinder's version of polymorph.
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All of these answers are good, but I like this one the best, mainly because it not only lists the mechanical flaws of Polymorph, but also because it gives specific examples at various levels of target forms that represent overpowered usages of the spell. Thanks, Jonathan. –  Matt Hamsmith Dec 19 '12 at 19:03
    
And once you get Shapechange the Hecatoncheiries is simply stupidly broken. –  kleineg Jul 17 at 12:51

Wizards of the Coast explain this problem here. The ways this spell is used and abused are summarized here.

As some examples of this whole subschool being broken:

  1. Alter Self into Avariel - you just got yourself a cheaper and longer version of Fly two levels early
  2. Start as an outsider and Alter Self into Ravid - you just got yourself +15 of Natural Armor (not that it's much, but really, should a second level spell produce that sort of effect at CL3?)
  3. Or just go Polymorph your party rogue into a Hydra - lots of attacks and full attack at every opportunity (Opportunist anyone?)

The problem, of course, is that we are just getting started...

The core gives much less options for polymorphing into, so could be considered more-or-less safe, at least in the part that caster's options about this spell are not unlimited. And the Pathfinder version of this subschool could be considered fixed - it explicitly states what you can get from each spell.

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I very much appreciate the links. Thanks. –  Matt Hamsmith Dec 19 '12 at 19:16

The word "broken" has different meanings to different people. Polymorph fits a few of those, which is why we have a lot of people saying it about the spell.

In core 3.5, the fundamental problem is that the spell's power is not bounded by the contents of the spell description, it is bounded by the power of the monsters available. This has a few consequences:

  • The spell is more versatile than any other spell of its level, capable of being useful in almost any kind of encounter.
  • It so happens that there exist monsters with raw numbers much more powerful than those expected of equivalent-level PCs.
  • It grants access to special attacks not normally accessible to PCs.

Out of core, the list of problems gets bigger as the list of monsters (and supporting material) gets bigger. Particularly, feats such as Assume Supernatural Ability [Savage Species] and Metamorphic Transfer [Expanded Psionics Handbook] add a whole new dimension to what Polymorph and its relatives can do.

Eugene's post contained an excellent link to listings of the more useful Polymorph forms, broken down by level ranges as you requested. You asked for forms up to level 20, but (in core) the spell caps out at level 15 as far as new forms are concerned. Thus, the core monster lists end there.

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Another broken aspect is that it messes up point-buy for ability scores. You can choose to dump your physical stats when you make your character, focusing entirely on mental stats, and then use polymorph to give yourself great physical stats as well.

And that's just one spell to do it; you still have plenty more.

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This is a big issue with the druid's wild shape, which lasts for an hour per level. A high level druid with the Natural Spell feat can spend most of his time in alternate form with no major drawback. The polymorph spell only lasts 1 min./level, so it's harder to keep that form all day. –  Jonathan Drain Dec 16 '12 at 3:35
    
@JonathanDrain: A good point, but note that the final version in the "polymorph chain" is shapechange – and that lasts plenty long (and is way, way more powerful than polymorph or Wild Shape). –  KRyan Dec 17 '12 at 5:45

I’m only answering the update section, since the problems with polymorph have been well-addressed.

Polymorph any object is like polymorph but much better. It potentially lasts much longer (and, in fact, RAW two castings simultaneously cause it to become Permanent), and a lot of the restrictions in terms of type and HD are removed.

But shapechange is just absurd. The lack of Supernatural abilities on the earlier forms was the only significant limitation on them (well, that and HD caps, but shapechange still has those, though they are higher). The Supernatural abilities of monsters are ridiculous. Consider the Choker’s Quickness (Su) – two Standard Actions per turn. That’s immensely powerful, and the caster of shapechange can get it trivially. And you can change form as a Free Action, bouncing around between shapes as you please, over the course of the spell’s long duration.

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"in fact, RAW two castings simultaneously cause it to become Permanent" huh? –  Simanos Jan 12 at 19:34
    
@Simanos The duration of PAO is based on how similar you are to the thing you polymorph into. If you match closely enough, the duration is Permanent. If you use PAO twice, with the second casting matching the first exactly, by definition you match every aspect of what you are polymorphing into, so duration Permanent. RAW, the spell only looks at your current state, not your “base state” before you originally cast PAO. –  KRyan Jan 12 at 19:42
    
It says "The duration of the spell depends on how radical a change is made from the original state to its enchanted state", original state means unenchanted or base state. Your interpretation lacks balancing and common sense too. Otherwise you could manufacture permanent creatures this way easily since it has no costly Material component. –  Simanos Jan 12 at 19:47
    
@Simanos You are incorrect; “original” only means “before this casting.” There is a ton of precedent for this. The rules lack any way to clearly indicate any other definition of “original.” And yes, the spell is broken. That’s what the question was about. It’s broken even if (like just about everyone) you houserule this facet. That this just makes it more broken is almost irrelevant, because the spell really deserves to be banned at very-nearly every table. It’s absurdly powerful. –  KRyan Jan 12 at 20:00
    
I would direct you to Enlarge Person and similar spells and then to this page: d20srd.org/srd/magicOverview/… mainly " In cases when two or more identical spells are operating in the same area or on the same target, but at different strengths, only the best one applies. " –  Simanos Jan 12 at 20:34

Everyone has done a great job delving into the question, providing examples and offering solutions to this issue, so I won't add to the pile. I just have this to say:

Polymorph is indeed 'broken' if it is allowed to be...but that's the built-in failsafe right there. What self-respecting player wants to play the game like that? And moreover, how many characters (in-game) would actually exploit the spell in various ways. For example, would a LG, NG or CG wizard change into an Annis Hag or a Mind Flayer? What about the LE sorcerer turning into a good-aligned creature for the purpose of enhancing his movement? Doubtful. Finally, what DM is going to let their players plumb every rule-book to find the very best combination of abilities for any specific encounter?

Honestly, if your characters are exploiting the spell for raw mechanical purposes in a game of dungeons and dragons, why not suggest they just do something purely math-oriented, rather than causing problems within a fantasy role-playing game?

Just my 2 cents.

Of course, the spell isssssss awesome and fun to exploit...so I get it :)

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Hi, welcome to the site! Gotta admit, I disagree with you pretty hard about how alignment should be played (and polymorph is not an aligned spell), but this is a well written answer, so have a -1, +1, net 0 from me. If you haven't already, take a look at the Tour, and when you get 20 rep, feel free to join the Role-playing Games Chat. –  KRyan Jul 17 at 2:54
    
I had the same concerns regarding "...what DM is going to let their players plumb every rule-book to find the very best combination of abilities...". So I asked a follow-on question here: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/19674/2787 –  Matt Hamsmith Jul 17 at 15:05

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