The rules for the 5E druid's Wild Shape ability simply say:

you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before

There is previous question asking if you can go beyond the exact form of a beast you've seen (like, if you want to be a dog, and you've only seen corgis, are you stuck with that?) but I think the general assumption tends to go the other way: once you've seen some example of a beast, you can become that type of beast, but only a generic form of it. For example, a comment on a question here about making up combined forms says:

you can't even wild shape into a specific kind of beast. You always become a generic, average representative of that species.

However, I don't see any wording around that. The Shapechange spell says:

You transform into an average example of that creature, one without any class levels or the Spellcasting trait.

... but I don't see anything similar for Wild Shape (and for that matter, for any of the other transformation spells and abilities in the rules).

Can a druid look exactly like the watchdogs of a particular estate? And if she can, can she also choose sometimes to just be a generic dog? Somewhat related: the Monster Manual has a mastiff, but not other types of dogs — so, if you've seen pomapoo (challenge rating presumably somewhat less than zero), can you take the form of a mastiff? What about an Irish wolfhound, as CR ½ or 1 instead of the mastiff's ⅛? What about a wolf? What about a dire wolf? Where does it stop?

Or, not to get all fixated on dogs, if you've seen a garden spider, can you become the more dangerous spider listed in the rules, with its lethal-to-many-commoners 1d4 poison bite? What about a giant spider then?

Finally, if it's not in the 5E rules, where did this idea of "average representative" come from? I know 4E had this whole thing where shapeshifting and summoning worked on a sort of platonic-ideal spirit, not real animals at all, but that doesn't seem to have carried over here. Was there something in 3.5? I remember playing it that way, but can't find a specific rule there either.

That's a lot of text, I know. Summary questions:

  • Can you take the exact form of a specific, individual animal you've seen?
  • Can you take the form of a "generic" animal of the same general species or name or categorization as a specific individual you've seen?
  • If you can generalize, can you then vary from that generalization? What defines the platonic ideal of a given creature? What if there's no Monster Manual entry that comes close?
  • If you can generalize, how far away can you go? Spider to Giant Spider? Tiny Lizard to Riding Lizard? Tapir to Elephant?
  • Where did this idea of generic, average example come from, if not 5E rules?

... and I'd like to see rules references for any answers, please.

Rulings, Not Rules

I have to challenge the frame of the question. You are the DM and you want to decide, how does magic (the Wild Shape, in particular) work in your world. For this task, what things should you consider in the first place — your own story, the fact if your players have fun, common sense, or nitpicking these minor semantic details in the rules (which are concise and not detailed enough)?

I have to say, 5e isn't meant to have very detailed descriptions. Instead, it provides a sound base for DMs to build their own adventures.

Jeremy Crawford calls the system "infinitely customizable" in his tweet:

As DM, I allow changes to characters/classes/etc. whenever it serves the story. The beauty of D&D—it’s infinitely customizable

Making their own rulings, both Jeremy Crawford and Mike Mearls often end their tweets with "the DM has final say" or "a DM can say otherwise".

The Adventurer's League Guide describes the role of the DM the similar way:

As the Dungeon Master, the most important aspect of your role is facilitating the enjoyment of the game for the players. You help guide the narrative and bring the words on the pages of the adventure to life. The outcome of a fun game session often creates stories that live well beyond the play experience at the table. Always follow this golden rule when you DM for a group: Make decisions and adjudications that enhance the fun of the adventure when possible.

Wild Shape description is open-ended

PHB gives only basic restrictons of the Wild Shape:

Starting at 2nd level, you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.

Your druid level determines the beasts you can transform into, as shown in the Beast Shapes table.

The only limitations it describes are the creature type, its CR and its flying/swimming speed — pure balancing ones, a sound base for DMs to build their own adventures. As a DM, you are free to apply all the necessary restrictions — the creature size, type, features or appearance. It would be reasonable to discuss this with the player beforehand, say, prepare a list of their wild shapes.

You don't have to though — if you are happy with the default restrictions, just say that all other things are allowed (dinosaurs included), unless it spoils the fun.

I am going to answer one specific question of the many you have asked: "Can a druid look exactly like the watchdogs of a particular estate?"

As you say wildshape allows you to

use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before

To be able to look exactly like the watchdog, you must have, pretty much by definition, seen it. So whatever the outcome is to the other questions you have asked, the answer to this one is yes, you can as it is a beast that you have seen before.

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    So would you rule that the druid is limited to only the exact individual form? If you've seen a black dog, can you become a brown one? – mattdm Nov 3 '17 at 14:21
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    I'd rule this: you can add cosmetic differences out of your head, but to successfully impersonate a specific creature you must have seen it personally (or on a good photo-like painting of specific beast + live general example of that kind). Because a description provided by someone else would miss exact details, exact shade of fur or form of head would be a dead giveaway. – Barafu Albino Nov 3 '17 at 19:42
  • @BarafuAlbino That is what I would say in reply to mattdm's comment too. – Protonflux Nov 6 '17 at 10:56
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    @jeff I would not track it, I would decide on a case by case basis on the request of the player whether it is possible. If your story has so many opportunities for a Druid to assume the exact shape of specific animals that it is necessary to track in any detail then the campaign is already out of the ordinary. – Protonflux Nov 6 '17 at 10:58
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    Also this adds interesting opportunities for the use of the deception skill. – Protonflux Nov 7 '17 at 9:56
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The new "Xanathar's Guide" book has a section named "Learning Beast Shapes", which doesn't specifically resolve this issue, but does casually mention:

The tables include all the individual beasts that are eligible for Wild Shape (up to a challenge rating of 1) or the Circle Forms feature of the Circle of the Moon (up to a challenge rating of 6).

... emphasis mine. The table does not, actually, list "Bessie, the mule from Farmer Grumwold's place up near Meadowville" as an "individual beast". It lists "mule".

This strongly supports the idea that intention behind the rules is that "a beast" means "an individual beast entry from the Monster Manual or similar", not actually a singular, individual beast.

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    Individual may be also related to not a swarm, or am I missing something? – HellSaint Aug 15 at 23:53
  • @HellSaint: It could be, but I don't think so, because it's already established that wild shape is singular. If that weren't the case, the implication of reading this text as "individual as opposed to swarms" would be that the table doesn't show all possibilities, just the singular ones. But since we know that that's not the case..... – mattdm Aug 30 at 14:57

The basic rule in D&D 5E is this: abilities do what they say they do. Wild Shape says you can take the form of a beast you've seen; this means that:

  • Yes, you can take the form of a specific animal that you've seen, by definition.
  • No, you can't generalise at all. You must take the form of an animal that you have seen. If you've not seen a brown dog, you can't be a brown dog.
  • Probably 4E - people tend to assume the rules for a new edition are similar to those for ones they're familiar with - but I can't give you a good answer for this.

So that's RAW, but the other basic rule of most any RPG is that the GM can change anything they like, so ruling it any other way is also reasonable. That said, there's plenty you can do within RAW: pretty much any adventurer will have seen several examples of dogs, cats and various woodland creatures - especially a druid - so it's not something that warrants careful tracking.

Can a druid shapechange into the form of a specific, individual beast?

Yes, it must be of a beast and of a beast that the druid has been seen before, and within the limits of the druids level allowances to shift into. It continues on for an entire half a page with details on wild shape. I highly recommend reading it through its entirity as it will clear up alot of your assumptions. PHB 66/67

Wild Shape vs Shapeshifting. Wild Shape is not Shapeshifting, if it was it would be called shapeshifting.

Can a druid look exactly like the watchdogs of a particular estate? According to the answer to the first question, yes if they have seen the watchdogs of the particular estate in question, or at least of a watchdog within reason for the GM to allow it, at the GMs's discrretion.

Spider situation. If the druid has seen a Giant Spider but not a Giant Wolf Spider, then the druid would be able to Wild Shape into the Giant Spider and not the Giant Wolf Spider as the druid has not observed a Giant Wolf Spider. Or if the druid has seen both the Giant Spider and the Giant Wolf Spider but NOT the Phase Spider, then the druid would not be able to Wild Shape into a Phase Spider but would be able to into a Giant Spider or Giant Wolf Spider. According to PHB 66/67 it entirely depends on what the druid has witnessed.

Can you take the exact form of a specific, individual animal you've seen? Yes

Can you take the form of a "generic" animal of the same general species or name or categorization as a specific individual you've seen? No, ie Giant Spider vs Giant Wolf Spider vs Phase Spider.

If you can generalize, can you then vary from that generalization? GM's discretion at this point. Work with the GM on what would be too far and what would be allowed.

What defines the platonic ideal of a given creature?

What if there's no Monster Manual entry that comes close? Check online for homebrew content in the community, there are tons out there. Check the DM's Guild for options there too.

If you can generalize, how far away can you go? Per the GMs discretion.

Spider to Giant Spider? No, beast type change would not allow that.

Tiny Lizard to Riding Lizard? Nope, type change would not allow that.

Tapir to Elephant? Way too different to allow that.

Rhino to Elephant? No. Hippo to rhino? No.

It if is a Different beast than what the druid has witnessed it cant be allowed per the rules on PHB 66/67, as it MUST be of a beast the druid has seen.

Where did this idea of generic, average example come from, if not 5E rules? This one not sure as the community did a lot of homebrew after the SRD 3.5 and SRD 5e were released. Though it may be from before that.

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