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I was discussing the spell with my DM relating to this question Can a Wizard polymorph low-level PCs into over-powered beasts? about the polymorph spell.

According to Polymorph's description,

The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or the target’s level, if it doesn't have a challenge rating).

I was excited about the idea to turn one of my fellow group members into a giant ape or T-rex, but my DM told me that anyway with our current level (lvl 9) I would only be able to turn them into a CR 4 monster.
He bases his judgment on this part:

The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s

From my understanding, PC's don't have a CR - CR seems to have been invented to adapt monsters' levels to players' levels (originally in D&D 3e). In other case, we could have just put experience levels to monsters instead of creating an alternate ranking system. And why does the spell specify:

(or the target’s level, if it doesn't have a challenge rating).

I'm still relatively new in D&D 5e world so I'm maybe wrong. I understand that at the end of the day the DM's word is law and I got no problem with that. But I was wondering if there was any precision points in the rules that I could show him if it's just a problem of interpretation?

I think that my DM isn’t making a house rule on purpose and is just misunderstanding the rules. I think he used a "conversion array" that he found on google: something like a level X creature is a normal threat for 4 level X PCs. Right now he tells me that he is right and the spell is just badly written.

So the question is does a PC fall under the

The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s

part of the spell's rule or under the

(or the target’s level, if it doesn't have a challenge rating).

part of the spell's rule? Please justify.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Apr 15 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for extra guidance if you need it. Your title and body don't ask the same question, are you asking what CR creature you can polymorph a PC into, or how to calculate CR for PC characters? which exist and your question may be a duplicate. That isn't a bad thing. If you don't think it is a duplicate edit the question to focus more on what issue you have that those questions don't cover. Thanks for participating and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Apr 15 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I made some small edits for readability. If you disagree feel free to edit further or revert the changes. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Apr 15 at 12:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Is there a playable correlation between CR and level in 5e? \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Apr 15 at 12:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ My question is in the same vein that link but I'm asking for a justification. In the other trade they speak more about the overpowerness of the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Coloniseur Apr 15 at 13:10
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Your DM has chosen to vary from the RAW

You correctly point out that by the letter of the rules, his ruling does not match the rules text for the polymorph spell.

The spell as written uses the character's level as the basis for the CR of the beast that the PC is polymorphed into.

The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or the target’s level, if it doesn't have a challenge rating). (spell description, SRD p. 169)

The bolded part is the key.

You are also correct in understanding that the DM's ruling is how the game is played at his table. Now that you know what the ruling is, you know how powerful polymorph is in your DM's world.

What do I do?

I'd suggest that you discuss with your DM why he feels that the bolded part (above) of the spell text should not apply to a PC being polymorphed. Find out if a "balance1" motive is the case, or if it's a simple misunderstanding.

I'd further recommend you do this away from the table (not during a game session) and work with your DM to discover the process he goes through to determine the CR level of the PC under a polymorph spell. There is a section in the DMG (pages 273-285) that addresses how to build a monster or NPC and assign a CR to it. The DM may feel that the spell should work a different way, or, he may be using an unofficial "conversion array" as you mentioned in a comment, or this may be a simple misunderstanding. The DMG and the game's developers point out that the rules serve the game at the table, and the that DM is Master of Rules(DMG p. 5) so for the moment play within his guidance until that is revised (if it is revised).

Beyond that discussion, and finding out if the DM agrees on the rules text and makes a change, what you can do is:

  1. Check with the DM ahead of time on what the estimated CR is of a PC so that you know what you can try and polmorph them into.
  2. Play and have fun.

1 As an aside:
There is a school of thought that I have seen among various players and DMs in on-line discussions; they have fallen into the "polymorph is overpowered" school of thought. Those folks see a CR adjustment as a remedy to a perceived imbalance or loophole in the game. DM's do things like that for a wide variety of reasons with the intent of making the game play more smoothely/better at their table.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast This is a good answer, but seems not to address that, based on Coloniseur's questions and comments, the DM here seems not to be saying "I've changed this, as is my right", but rather "the spell is RAW this way". The latter statement is wrong, and I think your answer would be better if it addressed the case where the DM is simply mistaken about the RAW of the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil Apr 15 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Vigil: It appears that there was an edit after I answered the question, so I'll adjust that a bit. I don't care to get all "The DM's Wrong!" in this answer because I don't feel as though that's a helpful way to approach how to address this at the querent's table. Thanks for the comment, there was some other cleaning up that was needed also. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 15 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the “possibly for balance” needs to go, even if it doesn’t get replaced with “the DM is wrong.” It looks like the DM has confused themselves by googling things about CR that aren’t relevant to the spell — the DM’s confused, not making balance changes. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 15 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie OK, yeah, clean up. Agree. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 15 at 14:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie the cause of the DM's confusion might well be an unconscious effort to balance the spell. Being able to turn a PC into something that is supposed to be as strong as four of those PCs seems so wrong I could not believe I read it right when I first saw the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – András Apr 15 at 15:21
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What the Spell Does, Rules as Written

The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or the target’s level, if it doesn't have a challenge rating).

This means exactly what it says. When the target is a player, who doesn't have a CR, you let the player ploymorph into something that has a CR equal to or less than the player's level.

How to have the Conversation

You may try, away from the table, to convince the DM they are incorrect. The best way to start that conversation is to talk about how you feel about the ruling, rather than coming at them with statements that could be seen as an attack. Starting with "The internet says your wrong..." or even "Jeremy Crawford says in sage advice compendium..." is a good way to make them angry and shutdown the lines of communication. Instead, try opening with something short sweet and to the point like, "In the last game you made a ruling about the polymorph spell, and it feels (he can't argue you don't feel that way) a little unfair and complicated. and reading up on it I'm not sure we're (note "we" not "you") doing this right."

Acknowledge his perspective, to get a "that's right" reaction to work forward from. "Man, you work hard away from the table preparing adventures for us, dealing with personal interaction issues, always looking up rules and monsters and settings that would be cool. Even when the time at the table turns out epic, that part we don't see has sometimes gotta be a thankless job."

Pause, let them talk. Listen to then. Empathize with them.

Then preface your next statements by acknowledging what you think will by their largest objection will be, without denying it, because denial will plant the objection if it isn't already there. "I know it seem like I'm nitpicking or attacking your decision." Don't say "but" following this, or it turns into a denial. Pause. Uncomfortable silence for a heartbeat or two. You may get them to give you, "No, I get it" or deep inhale waiting for the shoe fall after this. Live in those two heartbeats of silence before landing on open ended "How" questions leading them to where you want to go. Maybe questions like:

  • "How am I supposed to know ahead of time if the polymorph I'm attempting is valid if there is table you have behind the screen?"
  • "How am are we supposed to beat a [CR X] creature if waste our [only/few] level 4 spell turning into a creature that has a CR of [X/4]?"

Then, flat out, ask for his help in the matter, appealing to his authority. "I know I'm being pain about this. Can you help me out?"

Maintain a trust communication. Make sure your questions aren't being lobbed like accusations but sound like you're asking for help in this situation -- which you are. The more you let the DM feel in control, the more they will feel they are "winning" and the more likely they are to hedge their position and help you.

What Your DM does

If he's unconvinced, and your talk didn't work: let it go, don't bother him about it again. If you have a good game otherwise, this isn't the hill you want to die on, is it? Moreover, what the DM says at the table is the rules for the table. You've made your case; now, don't flog the deceased equine.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with the sentiment that one shouldn't attack the DM's decision; however, being too self-deprecating or sycophantic could make one come off as weak, disingenuous, or manipulative. I recommend being more direct - tell him you want to understand the reason for his decision and then present evidence it's incorrect if he doesn't convince you \$\endgroup\$ – Weasemunk Apr 15 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the "I feel we are doing it wrong" or "we aren't getting it right" approach. We, the table, play together. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 15 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I never said be "self-deprecating" or weak.My advice comes from "Don't Split the Difference" written by Chris Voss, former head FBI hostage negotiator. He stresses the point is to be genuine, and not manipulative. Evidence, sadly, doesn't convince most people of things. Confirmation Bias and digging in heals is to powerful. Look at any political argument on the internet as proof. (Did that evidence convince you? No. Well how about that as evidence? Still no? lol.) \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Apr 15 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ I made a brief edit in your "Maintain a trust communication" paragraph since it seemed to be missing some words. Please review to make sure it helped, rather than hurt. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 15 at 21:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ CR X/4 is a key phrase here. A CR 5 monster means that 4 players of level 5 will have a 'not too hard and not too easy' time. If your level is 9, how many regular players would you have a moderate time fighting. The conversion approximates 4 level 4 characters would take you on alone, and make it a challenge. So therefor your CR is approximately 4 at level 9. I think your DM is spot on. \$\endgroup\$ – Kieveli Apr 16 at 17:53

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