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The spell alter self mentions nothing about the affected creature losing its racial traits that are natural abilities, like the warforged racial trait composite plating.

With this in mind, if a warforged employs an alter self effect to assume the form of another construct, does the warforged continue to benefit from its composite plating, including any magical enhancement bonuses, magic armor special abilities, armor augment crystals, and feats that affect the composite plating? Does this answer change depending on the warforged version—from the Eberron Campaign Setting (23–4), Monster Manual III (190–3), or Races of Eberron (7–9)—that's used in the campaign?

My suspicion is that a warforged that paid to have added to its composite plating a +3 magical enhancement bonus (9,000 gp; 0 lbs.) and the magic armor special ability fearsome (Drow of the Underdark 97) (5,000 gp; 0 lbs.), that stuck a crystal of aquatic action (lesser) (Magic Item Compendium 25) (1,000 gp; 0 lbs.) on its composite plating, and that took the feat Adamantine Body (Races of Eberron 118–19) continues to benefit from those game elements when it uses an alter self effect to assume the form of, for instance, a Medium animated object—like an entirely normal armchair—, but I want confirmation.


Note: I'm considering having a new player take on as a PC a warforged who's a reformed thrall to Juiblex from the Book of Vile Darkness (70). That prestige class gains at level 3 an at-will supernatural ability like the spell alter self except at a fixed caster level of 4.

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You can retain composite plating even in another form.

In an unusual move, I'm making a second answer to show a plausible contrary argument. Users can upvote whichever they agree with.

The alter self/polymorph series of spells have been changed and errata'd more frequently than any group of spells in the history of D&D third edition. The reason is that by allowing you assume the form of any creature, the versatility of the spell is unbounded, and broken or unintended combinations are inevitable.

As per the Eberron Campaign Setting and Races of Eberron, the warforged's Light Fortification is listed as (Ex), while Composite Plating is unmarked. As per PHB p.180, this makes Composite Plating explicitly a Natural Ability, one which is not Ex, Su or Sp.

As per the Primary Source rule (DMG errata), the PHB is the primary source for general game rules and rules for player characters, and the ECS/RoE the primary sources for playing a warforged character. The player is free to ignore the DMG/MM (which do not allow for the existence of abilities which are not Ex/Su/Sp) and may ignore MM3 (which is only the primary source for using a warforged as a monster).

Reading alter self literally, rules-as-written and as favorably to the player as is reasonable, nothing directly says you lose your natural abilities. You don't lose anything except Ex abilities acquired from a source other than character class, Su/Sp abilities that you no longer have a body part for, and speech/spellcasting if your new form cannot speak or make the verbal and somatic components.

Since you keep your plating, you keep everything else on it: any embedded crystals which you can still use, any magical enhancements, any magical attributes, and any warforged components.

The FAQ states that a human who uses alter self loses their human bonus feat, but not any other feats gained from level. This means that feats are either Natural Abilities or Ex abilities from class, and since feats aren't specifically stated as Ex, they are Natural Abilities. You keep all your feats in your new form.

There's one catch, which is that a warforged who transforms into another creature is arguably no longer a warforged. They no longer meet the prerequisites for any feats which have "warforged" as a prerequisite, and as per PHB p.87 cannot use any feat for which they no longer meet the prerequisite.

On a similar topic, the FAQ says that a humanoid polymorphed into an animal is no longer humanoid, and is thus immune to hold person, so it's a reasonable argument that a warforged polymorphed into an animated object is not currently a warforged, and cannot benefit from feats like Adamantine Body.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Bold move! To be clear, though, a human polymorphed into an animal isn't a humanoid anymore because the polymorph spell changes type; the alter self spell changes neither type nor subtype, leaving, for example, the creature's racial traits intact unless otherwise specified. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Feb 20 at 6:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Asserting that feats must be either Ex or Natural abilities seems like it's pushing things. Some feats might generate Ex or Natural abilities, but they aren't necessarily that in and of themselves, and some pretty clearly either generate or modify Su and Sp abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Feb 20 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden You can have Ex ability wich in turn gives you Su ability. Or gives you Su ability among other abilities it gives... probably? \$\endgroup\$ – annoying imp Feb 20 at 18:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @annoyingimp It's more that there's no particular reason to say that a feat slot or a nonspecific feat is an ability at all. The ability to take a feat is no more an EX ability than, say, your hit points or stat points are... and if you're asserting that those are either Ex or Natural abilities is a pretty extreme position to take. I'm not saying that it's necessarily wrong, but it's extreme enough that it demands a lot more than just the bare assertion. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Feb 20 at 18:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden I myself think feats aren't special abilities at all. It just seemed to me you state "X generates Su or Sp effect -> X can't be Ex or Na" at least to a degree. \$\endgroup\$ – annoying imp Feb 20 at 19:08
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By the most current rules, you lose Composite Plating when you alter self.

The most recent version of the rules on Transmutation spells is the Rules Compendium (2007), which includes the Polymorph subschool introduced in Player's Handbook II (2006), of which alter self is retroactively a member.

With the exception that a spell's text takes priority over the subschool definition, the following rule is true of alter self:

In all other ways, the target's normal game statistics are effectively replaced by those of the new form. The target loses all the special abilities it had in its normal form, including its class features, even if the new form would be able to use these class features.

The result is that alter self now explicitly causes you to lose all special abilities, except for those which either alter self or the Polymorph subschool definition explicitly state that you retain.

What type of ability is Composite Plating?

Depending on your source, the warforged's Composite Plating ability is either a Natural Ability, or an Extraordinary Ability.

In the Eberron Campaign Setting (2003) and Races of Eberron (2006), Composite Plating is not defined as Ex, Su or Sp. According to the Player's Handbook, p.180, all abilities which are not defined as Ex, Su or Sp are Natural Abilities:

Natural Abilities: This category includes abilities a creature has because of its physical nature, such as a bird's ability to fly. Natural abilities are those not otherwise designated as extraordinary, supernatural, or spell-like.

In Monster Manual III (2004), Composite Plating is defined as an Extraordinary special quality. The DMG p.289 and MM p.6 both concur that all special abilities are either Ex, Su or Sp. However, MM III updates the monster rules that a special ability is merely usually categorized as Ex, Sp or Su, not always. Nevertheless, the particular warforged monster race rules in MMIII define Composite Plating as Ex.

Composite Plating is therefore a Natural Ability, unless you intentionally choose the version of the race appearing in the warforged monster entry in Monster Manual III, in which case it is Extraordinary.

Can a warforged retain Composite Plating if it is a Natural Ability?

No.

The spell description of alter self does not include Composite Plating, armor bonuses, or natural abilities in general in its list of things which you retain.

Can a warforged retain Composite Plating if it is an Extraordinary Ability?

No.

You do not retain it because your Composite Plating ability was not derived from class levels:

You keep all extraordinary special attacks and qualities derived from class levels, but you lose any from your normal form that are not derived from class levels.

What about Adamantine Body?

Probably not.

Like most feats, Adamantine Body feat is not listed as Ex, Su or Sp, and is therefore a Natural Ability. You retain your class and level, and therefore arguably retain all the benefits of level, including feats. The FAQ, p.7, even argues that you technically don't need Composite Plating to take feats like Adamantine Body; you just need to be a warforged.

However, the Polymorph subschool asserts that:

In all other ways, the target's normal game statistics are effectively replaced by those of the assumed form.

For the duration of an alter self spell, you are no longer a warforged. You therefore no longer meet the prerequisites for Adamantine Body, and as per PHB p.87 this means you can no longer use that feat. It would be particularly noodly to argue that you're still a warforged deep-down, but perhaps you can convince a DM to accept that argument.

Magical enhancements

Generally not.

Whenever you lose composite plating, you're also going to lose any modifications to it. That includes magical enhancement bonuses and other magical properties. It's effectively the same if you were wearing bracers of armor, absorbed them into your new form, and they stopped working. You can't logically benefit from an item you don't have.

You could get extra noodly and argue that your armor enhancement is a supernatural quality, but as per alter self these aren't retained if you lose the required body part (your composite plating). You could argue that your armor is a magic item, the rules for which are clear:

When the change occurs, your equipment, if any, either remains worn or held by the new form (if it is capable of wearing or holding the item), or melds into the new form and becomes nonfunctional.

Unfortunately, Composite Plating is a warforged-specific technology, and no other known creature in the books is "capable of wearing" it.

Armor augment crystals can only be placed into masterwork or magical items. This means your new form must be masterwork or magically enhanced, or you cannot use continue to benefit from it. You could, I imagine, simply transform into an animated suit of masterwork armor.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ interesting expansion: if you took one of the feats that augment composite plating, that seems like it might be a benefit derived from class levels. would that count?. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Feb 19 at 19:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden In a similar issue, the FAQ argues that you can still take and use feats enhancing Composite Plating when you don't have Composite Plating, because their prerequisite is Warforged, not Composite Plating. However, assuming a new form with alter self means you no longer meet the prerequisite of being Warforged. The FAQ does imply that abilities gained through feats may count as abilities gained through class levels, but it's a somewhat ambiguous ruling. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Feb 19 at 20:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Huh. So, in sum, because the MM3 (and it alone) makes the composite plating an extraordinary ability, it's lost because of alter self. And were the warforged from either of the other sources — like the published-after-the-MM3 Races of Eberron — used instead, though, a warforged would keep the composite plating when using alter self? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Feb 19 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Not precisely. I'm arguing that even if composite plating isn't Ex, the line "you acquire the physical qualities of the new form while retaining your own mind" still implies that you inherit that creature's innate armor or lack thereof; you are also "effectively disguised as an average member of the new form's race". Natural abilities are not listed under the list of things you retain, and the spell largely specifies what you can retain, not what you lose. As I see it, you never get to keep composite armor. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Feb 19 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ A problem with the alter self spell being in the polymorph subschool is that, like the RC says, "Any spell based on either alter self or polymorph should be considered to have the polymorph subschool. However, a spell’s existing rules text takes priority over that of the subschool" (123). In other words, the specifics of alter self beat the general rules of the subschool. A reader can, of course, say, "Everything that isn't mentioned by alter self and is mentioned by the polymorph subschool applies to alter self," but then the RC really should've reprinted alter self! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Feb 20 at 12:48

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