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PHB Page 211, Alter Self

You assume a different form. When you cast the spell, choose one of the following options, the effects of which last for the duration of the spell. While the spell lasts, you can end one option as an action to gain the benefits of a different one.

Change Appearance. You transform your appearance. You decide what you look like, including your height, weight, facial features, sound of your voice, hair length, coloration, and distinguishing characteristics, if any. You can make yourself appear as a member of another race, though none of your statistics change. You also can’t appear as a creature of a different size than you, and your basic shape stays the same; if you're bipedal, you can’t use this spell to become quadrupedal, for instance. At any time for the duration of the spell, you can use your action to change your appearance in this way again.

PHB Page 233, Disguise Self

You make yourself—including your clothing, armor, weapons, and other belongings on your person—look different until the spell ends or until you use your action to dismiss it. You can seem 1 foot shorter or taller and can appear thin, fat, or in between. You can’t change your body type, so you must adopt a form that has the same basic arrangement of limbs. Otherwise, the extent of the illusion is up to you.

The changes wrought by this spell fail to hold up to physical inspection. For example, if you use this spell to add a hat to your outfit, objects pass through the hat, and anyone who touches it would feel nothing or would feel your head and hair. If you use this spell to appear thinner than you are, the hand of someone who reaches out to touch you would bump into you while it was seemingly still in mid-air.

To discern that you are disguised, a creature can use its action to inspect your appearance and must succeed on an Intelligence (Investigation) check against your spell save DC.

Can the 2nd-level Alter Self spell make the 1st-level Disguise Self spell obsolete, either by perfectly replicating the spell's effects or by providing wholly superior effects? Based on past editions of D&D I would guess yes, but after reading the descriptions of the spells from the PHB I can't quite tell.

Specifically, I'm asking this question because the Warlock gets two different invocations: one that allows at-will usage of Disguise Self (Mask of Many Faces), and one that allows at-will usage of Alter Self (Master of Myriad Forms). The Warlock can also trade old obsolete invocations for different ones during a level-up. Is it advantageous to trade the Disguise Self invocation for the Alter Self invocation? Is it optimal for a character specializing in Stealth/Disguise/Social abilities to have both?

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Assuming it works similarly in 5e as it does in 2/3/3.5/PF, I should note that these spells could be used together. Alter Self is actual transformative magic that changes your body to be different, while you can layer Disguise Self as an illusory appearance over that, so someone who overcomes your illusion sees ANOTHER FALSE APPEARANCE. Seems overkill, but as totally different magics, it should work. –  gatherer818 Aug 10 at 9:50
    
@SevenSidedDie that is so cruel, to play on my ingrained need to collect rep :P I'll go see what 5e resources are available free so I can confirm my assumptions, and answer if someone else hasn't by then. I will hold no ill will against someone who "steals" my comment. –  gatherer818 Aug 19 at 3:48
    
@gatherer818 who, him, or me who started the bounty? Either way it needed more attention and it seems to be helping ;P –  doppelgreener Aug 19 at 8:08
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@doppelgreener it seems some comments have been cleaned up (we weren't really on topic), the comment that was directed challenged me to turn my first comment into an answer :D I'll clean mine up when I wake up after you get a chance to see this one, if someone else hasn't already. –  gatherer818 Aug 19 at 8:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted
+100

Generally better? Yes.

Strictly better? No.

As Scott mentions in his answer, Disguise Self can not only alter your appearance (via illusion), but your clothing as well.

It's important to note the inverse of this: Alter Self does not specify that it modifies your clothing or equipment. This means that, depending on how severe your alterations are, you may no longer fit into your armor and your clothing may clearly no longer fit you, especially if you are playing with the variant rules on PHB p.144. Even if it does fit you, any well known gear or accessories may still let you be identified, especially if they're more well known then your actual physical attributes.

Disguise self lets you project illusionary clothing and equipment, but you still keep your same form so your actual gear and clothes still fit underneath the illusion.

There are a few other minor considerations as well. One of them has been discussed in the comments of the original question (which I will not steal credit for), on the topic of stacking the two effects. Do note that this is only possible because Disguise Self does not require concentration, which is another point in its favor over Alter Self, which does. This means Alter Self can fail earlier than intended (especially in combat or while under stress), while Disguise Self will last the duration under most conditions, and still allows you to cast other concentration spells.

In addition, there may be rare times where being the actual height you are disguising yourself as may be inconvenient, I.E., you've Altered Self to appear taller but wish to fit into an original-you-sized hole. Though, since you can't actually Alter Self to change your size category, you can't even go so far as halfling -> dwarf, so this is a very 'up to the DM' answer. ... Though now that I say that, Disguise Self doesn't have that restriction about disguising yourself as a larger size category (as long as you don't change by more than a foot in height), so you could go from halfling -> dwarf with it. Another point! (Albeit minor :-P)

Overall, I'd probably rate Alter Self better than Disguise Self in the following situations:

  • There is plenty of time to make preparations in advance, including having an appropriate alternate outfit ready.
  • You are unprepared, but you only need minor superficial changes with no drastic change such as size. The lack of alternate costume is not an issue.
  • You are in no danger of having your concentration broken for the next hour, nor are you likely to need to cast any other Concentration spells.
  • You are likely to be thoroughly inspected for some reason or another.

In other situations, there is a chance Disguise Self may be the more appropriate spell. In a situation requiring an emergency drastic appearance change (clothes, size, and all), for example, I may be more willing to say Disguise Self is the better option.

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To answer the title question:

Yes.

Alter Self is a much more powerful disguise effect, allowing you to reconfigure your disguise as often as needed during the duration and not allowing an automatic save when you get interacted with physically because your transformation is real, not an illusion. Your body actually physically changes to match your desired disguise, which overcomes many of Disguise Self's weaknesses.

Except...

The questions you ask in the body of the question are a bit different. If a heavily Stealth-focused character were to have at-will access to both spells, would he have additional benefits above and beyond the powerful Alter Self spell? Yes, significant benefits, actually.

  • A psychological benefit - Should your Disguise Self spell be overcome, and someone discovers your "true" appearance beneath it, they are very likely to assume that really is your true appearance and not dig further. Your Alter Self layered beneath the illusory Disguise Self can trick someone into thinking they've found you out, when they're still not even close.

  • A convenience benefit - Because Disguise Self masks what you look like beneath the illusion, you can use Alter Self's ability to change your appearance right there in broad daylight with no one the wiser. For example: The character is human. While hidden, he casts Alter Self to look like an elf, but layers Disguise Self over that to appear half-orcish. Then, as he approaches the person he plans to "reveal his true self" to (in order to gain their confidence), he realizes that his information was wrong - the person is Eladrin, not Elf! Were he using only Alter Self, observant onlookers might notice if he suddenly changed from being an elf to an eladrin; but this warlock has no fear of being discovered, since all the onlookers see only his half-orc appearance anyway. He adjusts the necessary details - hidden in plain sight - and then when he later drops his disguise to the eladrin, his second disguise is perfect.

  • A communication benefit - This one is iffy in 5e, and probably falls into house-rule territory, but I'm including it here in case your party has access to magics that let you pull it off with rules-as-written or else you have a DM that's willing to allow it. In many roleplaying games, someone who realizes the truth under an illusion actually gains the ability to see through it - they see the illusion super-imposed over the reality. In other cases, some magics automatically defeat the illusion and reveal the truth beneath. Typically, neither of these cases overcome Alter Self (short of True Seeing, anyway), as I mentioned in the first paragraph. Clever parties have used this effect to permit near-undetectable coded distance communication: Set up ahead of time a code so that your assumption of particular shapes have particular meanings. "Blonde female elf" could be "create a distraction", while "bald male dwarf with braided beard" might be "I have been made, prepare for combat". Set up your Disguise Self spell, appropriate to the situation, and then let your party members physically interact with (and thus defeat) the illusion (or just have them cast their spell that lets them see through it). Now, while the rest of the world still sees your illusory Disguise, your party can see your coded messages underneath as you change forms to transmit information.

These are probably only the start... would I say a character who keeps both is "optimized"? Probably not. Does it sound fun as heck to play? Yes, indeed. A creative player can build on or just be inspired by these benefits and find more and more ways to combine the two spells to endless effects.

Scott's answer points a key benefit that I forgot to mention, so all credit for this paragraph is his: Disguise Self can specifically change your clothing and equipment's appearance as well, while Alter Self cannot. By layering a false image over the real thing, you can display anything you want with Disguise Self, while Alter Self specifically only changes your body. This effect can be exploited to completely confuse or get the drop on enemies. Display a holy symbol and make your dagger look like a mace, and foes will think you're a cleric. Give yourself a bow and twin short swords on your belt, and people's mind jump instantly to ranger. If nothing else, a spell component pouch and some robes could at least make them think you have a limit to your spells-per-day...

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As a Warlock invocation, the first half of your sentence in the first paragraph of your answer is wrong, since both spells can be cast as often as you like. –  GMNoob Aug 19 at 5:53
    
Also just a note, about the communication benefit. The spell "Hallucinatory Terrain" specifically says you see an "over image" once you disbelief the illusion, so the lack of such text here might imply that the over image is not seen in this case. –  GMNoob Aug 19 at 6:08
    
@GMNoob You have a point there with your first comment. The communication benefit I specifically call out as probably not being rules-as-written in this edition. The other answerers have the benefit of information I do not, re: concentration duration on Alter Self, so I imagine my answer will not be the best. –  gatherer818 Aug 19 at 6:30
    
I just wanted to let you know about Hallucinatory Terrain so you could know how the game rules discuss that issue. –  GMNoob Aug 19 at 6:32

I would say the ability to create the illusion of clothing, armour, weapons and other belongings is a very good reason to keep disguise self around.

Uniforms and rank designations can gain you access to things that changing hair color won't. If you wear the livery of the local guards, you will almost certainly be accepted as a guard and permitted into the barracks.

In combat, appearing to be wearing plate and holding a shield might convince your opponents to attack someone else, or to not attack at all. This of course comes down to how your DM plays NPCs, but generally, moderately intelligent monsters understand that attacking people without armour is likely to produce better results.

If you're disarmed and in a prison, create a makeshift sling ( a strip of cloth) and disguise self to appear as yourself with a loaded crossbow. When the gaoler comes by to feed you, it's then a simple bluff of "release me or I'll shoot you".

Alternative get out of gaol card? Disguise self as the gaoler from the night shift who is tied and gagged. When the day shift gaoler opens the door to free you, they will quickly find you are not actually tied up and can cast spells.

Impersonating an individual person will raise suspicion if you do not also impersonate clothing/gear they usually wear/carry.

The advantages of Alter self include being able to change your appearance multiple times and that the changes stand up to bodily contact.

There could easily be advantages of combining both spells.

A scenario in which the spells could be combined quite simply.

You want to impersonate the local lord, who is short and bears a shield with his family crest on as well as a sword with a distinctive design.

With Disguise self, you can hold an ordinary shield and sword, and use disguise self to make yourself look short, and make your weapon and shield mimic the distinctive items. However, you will need to duck when passing through low doorways, which will look odd for a short person to be doing.

With an alter self, you could transform into the lord, but would have to pantomime some indignation and start a manhunt to find the guy who mugged you and stole your items. This will draw an undesired level of scrutiny.

With both, you are able to take on the complete appearance and form of the lord and his items and decrease your chances of being discovered.

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I love your example. It is a great representation of when and how to use alter self so it is as useful as possible, and yet how to combine it with disguise self for a practical benefit. –  Aviose Aug 19 at 16:17

There are three main differences between Alter Self and Disguise Self, and No, Alter self is not Always Better. It's not even necessarily superior.

  • First and most important difference. Alter Self is a concentration spell that lasts up to an hour, Disguise self lasts for 1 hour without concentration. This means that while casting alter self, you can not cast other concentration spells such as Invisibility or Fly. If you are on a stealth mission, you might need to make use of other concentration spells. As a warlock this means you can't use Armor of Shadows (which gives mage armor) or Ascendant Step (Which gives levitation) as well as Master of Myriad Forms at the same time. So depending on if you have other Invocations that also require concentration you might want to keep Mask of Many Faces (disguise self) and not take Master of Myriad Forms

  • The second difference is that Alter Self is a transmutation spell and Disguise Self is an Illusion spell. This means that Disguise Self can be detected with an int check, while Alter Self can only be detected with a True seeing ability. Other differences may come up that key off these different schools as well, though I have not noticed anything that gives special attention to transmutaion that would ever make Disguise Self better for these differences.

  • The third difference is that Alter Self only transforms your body while Disguise Self can also change your clothing. Sometimes, making yourself look like a different person who still has the same standard of living may not be as effective as changing your clothing and face to look like a pauper or noble. These are situational differences and sometimes Alter Self is good enough. (Especially if you know there are those who can easily spot illusions)

  • Lastly, there is no reason not to use both spells at once for a double bluff, or if it's really important that everyone thinks you are a dwarf even after the illusion of different clothing and race fails. Since Disguise Self is not a concentration spell, you can cast it at the same time as Alter Self and have both active at once.

To reiterate. Because Alter Self is a concentration spell, this reduces it's "better" quality, since it greatly restricts other spells you might need to have going on for you. Because Disguise Self is only an illusion and can be detected, it reduces it's "better" quality. Disguise Self is useful for changing clothing and appearances and for doing other magic at the same time, while Alter Self is useful for when people will be physically interacting with you, and there is a chance that someone will detect the illusion. Using both together allows for the most secure "false identity".

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