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In our group we had a discussion about whether it's possible to use Wild Shape and simultaneously profit from a "Bite of the Were-X" Spell (Spell Compendium, p. 28/29).

The DM (me) did not allow it because:

  • the spell descriptions clearly refer to a humanoid body

    "Your face becomes that of a boar", "your hands become claws", "your mouth becomes that of a tiger", etc. (emphasis mine).

    Obviously, the idea of these spells is a "lycanthropic" transformation of the caster. Since only humanoids and giants can be lycanthropes, the reference to hands, mouth and face makes sense. But if you have assumed an alternate form via Wild Shape and now possess a beak and paws – you have no mouth or hands to become anything else any more. - Or maybe you wildshaped into a snake and have no limbs at all. In the spell it doesn't say that you grow claws … So I argued that you have to have a humanoid body to make this spell work.

  • although it's not a polymorph spell, the wording of the "Bite of the Were-X" spells suggest that the benefits you gain arise from becoming a half-animal creature. But would the benefit of being a, let's say, half-bear not overlap with that of being a bear?
  • I have the strong feeling, the spell wasn't meant to be combined with Wild Shape. It seems to be overpowered to turn into a Dire Bear and cast Bite of the Weretiger, giving you a strength score of 31+12=43 (which is that of a Titan...).

I have to admit that my reasons not to allow this combo seem to be mostly common-sense arguments. So my question is: should it be allowed by RAW?

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The rules are woefully under-defined for this question. Far too much inference and context is necessary to reach any conclusions. Often the best rules we have available are only distantly related to what we actually want to know, and we are forced to extrapolate from imperfect comparisons.

Despite all of that, I am confident that there are some firm conclusions we can draw. I am going to treat this answer as a kind of informal “proof,” where I show contradictions in the rules with certain ideas that one might have about this combination.

Combining Magical Effects

Spells or magical effects usually work as described, no matter how many other spells or magical effects happen to be operating in the same area or on the same recipient. Except in special cases, a spell doesn’t affect the way another spell operates. Whenever a spell has a specifi c effect on other spells, that spell’s description explains that effect. Several other general rules apply when spells or magical effects operate in the same place.

[...]

One Effect Makes Another Irrelevant

Sometimes, one spell can render a later spell irrelevant. Both spells are still active, but one has rendered the other useless in some fashion.

(Player’s Handbook pg. 171-172, Rules Compendium pg. 137, SRD)

Wild shape is not a “spell,” but the headers here emphasize that this describes “magic effects,” and truly, non-spell magic effects don’t have any other rules found anywhere else.

The emphasis is on one magic effect not interfering with another magic effect, and if they truly must interact, the interaction is limited as much as possible. To wit, if your wild shape effect means that some aspect of bite of the were-X doesn’t apply—no hands to turn into claws—that doesn’t cause the spell to fail or be impossible to cast. It is “still active,” and should apply as much of its effect as possible—meaning that if you wild shape into a snake, bite of the were-X can still affect your face and give you a bite, even though you don’t get the claws. If you end your wild shape before bite of the were-X runs out, then it is still active, and you return your normal form with the effects of bite of the were-X applied, claws included. To claim that the spell fails entirely and none of its effects apply is wrong.

Natural weapons generally require a limb or other extremity with which to use them. The rules don’t discuss this requirement explicitly or in great detail, unfortunately. Instead, it’s the conclusion we must come to based on some descriptions and the examples given in creatures’ statblocks. This comes up most often when someone uses a clawed hand to attack with a manufactured weapon—they can’t also use the claw on that hand in the same attack sequence—but nothing actually says that, we just see it in monsters’ statblocks. It also matters a great deal when transmutation effects are applied that give multiple natural weapons. For instance, if you cast two different spells that say you get a pair of claws, but you only have two arms, you can’t make four claw attacks—you just choose the better pair. So if you wild shape into something with claws, and then cast bite of the were-X that grants claws, you’ll have to choose which set of claws you’re actually using. This is also consistent with the same combining magical effects section referenced above, which also includes a section on “same effect more than once in different strengths” and says “only the best one applies.” And we have examples of effects that explicitly overcome this limitation, such as the girallon arms soulmeld from Magic of Incarnum that explicitly allows you to use four claw attacks with only two arms (by giving you two magical arms for the two other claws). Therefore it would be wrong to claim that wild shape and bite of the were-X could combine to give more claw attacks than one has hands, or multiple bite attacks when one has only one head, and so on.

Moreover, the rules for magic items—the only rules we have that discuss different body forms in much detail—specify that most creatures have the same slots as humanoids. Quadrupeds use their forelegs as arms and hands (Magic Item Compendium pg. 219, Rules Compendium pg. 84), and so on. There are some body shapes that lack slots entirely, but the rules generally try to make things work the same for everyone. Therefore, getting hung up on words like “face” or “hands” when a creature has similar extremities is inconsistent with the rules we do have. It is thus difficult to say it’s “wrong,” but it is at least inconsistent with the general thrust of the rules to distinguish between, say, “hands” and a bear’s paw.

Addressing specific points

Obviously, the idea of these spells is a "lycanthropic" transformation of the caster. Since only humanoids and giants can be lycanthropes, the reference to hands, mouth and face makes sense. [...]

although it's not a polymorph spell, the wording of the "Bite of the Were-X" spells suggest that the benefits you gain arise from becoming a half-animal creature. But would the benefit of being a, let's say, half-bear not overlap with that of being a bear?

This isn’t obvious at all—for all we know, the bite of the were-X spells are named that because of perceived similarities between the effects of the spell and the effects of lycanthropy, but that the two have absolutely nothing to do with one another and the similarity is coincidence. Nothing in the spell descriptions says anything like “this magic gives you a form of temporary lycanthropy,” or anything like that. It’s not at all clear how much we should or should not read into the names of the spells. After all, names are things that people apply to the spells, not inherent properties that they come with—I mean, presumably. The game never goes into enough detail to say for sure. Maybe verbal components do require calling out your spells by name. But that’s not the impression that I get.

But if you have assumed an alternate form via Wild Shape and now possess a beak and paws – your have no mouth or hands to become anything else any more. - Or maybe you wildshaped into a snake and have no limbs at all. In the spell it doesn't say that you grow claws … So I argued that you have to have a humanoid body to make this spell work.

The game has rules for spells that can only apply to humanoids; they say things like “Target: One humanoid creature,” or “This spell can only be cast on [or by, for personal spells] creatures with humanoid bodies,” or the like. Plenty of spells like that exist in the rules, like charm person, and non-humanoid races explicitly call out the inability to be targeted by such spells as an effect of having a non-humanoid creature type. So reading this requirement into the rules, despite it not being explicitly called out, is a misreading I think. The rules’ authors knew to write such requirements where they were intended. The lack of any such explicit requirement is telling in this case.

Beyond that, though, the rules we do have already cover much of your concerns. No, an effect granting a claw attack does you no good if you have no limbs with which to make it. It is—infuriatingly—not an explicit, written rule, but it is apparent in examples of both monsters and in effects like girallon arms that work their way around it. And you can’t use both a bite and a beak at the same time—the rules explicitly state that you have to use the “best” effect (which is presumably up to the person controlling the effect to decide which is best). But the rules also explicitly state that both effects are active; the spell certainly doesn’t fail wholesale.

And the rules generally try to have effects do as much as possible or reasonable, in cases where they are partially invalid. Magic effects aren’t supposed to mess with other magic effects unless they explicitly say so, for the most part. So saying you can’t target yourself with bite of the were-X at all because of wild shape is very inconsistent with that trend—to the point that I would say that it is wrong to rule that way. It certainly doesn’t improve the game.

I have the strong feeling, the spell wasn't meant to be combined with Wild Shape. It seems to be overpowered to turn into a Dire Bear and cast Bite of the Weretiger, giving you a strength score of 31+12=43 (which is that of a Titan...).

Certainly, I feel very strongly that if they meant the spells to be limited to humanoid casters, they would have said that. They did for plenty of other spells, and didn’t here. And the bite of the were-X spells were very much written for druids—it would be very odd if they forgot about wild shape while writing them.

But balance concerns are different from what the rules say, or what the rules are meant to say. The authors don’t intend things to be imbalanced, of course, but they may well have intended things to work a certain way, not realizing that they were overpowered. And they also may well write things not realizing that it deviates from their intent, potentially causing imbalance. Most of the discussion so far has been about what the rules actually say, and possibly what the authors meant to say, and not about what’s balanced.

So, is it imbalanced to wild shape into a dire bear and then cast bite of the weretiger and get 43 Strength? The druid needs to be 12th level to wild shape into dire bear form, and then needs a 5th-level spell to cast bite of the weretiger, when they probably only have 4 slots for that. More importantly, the druid needs a standard action, and then the effect only lasts 12 rounds—in a lot of situations, it won’t last long enough for the druid to cast it ahead of time, and won’t have the time to cast it mid-combat. And 5th-level spells are very, very powerful—there are definitely more powerful things that the druid might cast.

The counterargument is that it’s vastly stronger than anything a fighter or barbarian is doing. Which is true—but it’s true of nearly anything the druid does. The druid is one of the most powerful classes in the game, and the barbarian and fighter are some of the weakest. On some level, one concerned with balance should be glad that a druid is taking on the shape of a dire bear, casting bite of the weretiger—because there are absolutely much more powerful forms they could take, and vastly more powerful spells they might cast.

So my answer to the balance argument is kind of a shrug. It’s a druid. They’re overpowered. Wild shape is overpowered on its own and it’s a distant second to the druid’s spellcasting. If you’re concerned about it, consider nerfing the druid. Player’s Handbook II has a shapeshifting variant which replaces both animal companion and wild shape with a far weaker effect, that is also incompatible with Natural Spell. Doesn’t really stop the druid from being overpowered—again, it’s the spells that do that—but it does really limit the “add on” power of the druid class. You can still combine bite of the weretiger with shapeshifting (just cast bite of the weretiger first), but it’s harder.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear, by this answer, a caster can, for example, cast a magic missile spell at an object but the missile will have no effect or cast a charm person spell on a non-humanoid then see that spell take effect after the subject's type changes to humanoid. Is that accurate? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 14 '20 at 17:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan No, and I see absolutely no reason why that conclusion would come from this answer. I discuss targeting requirements at length—it’s non-requirements that have that kind of effect. The target entry can establish requirements, as can the description, but neither has done so in this case. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 14 '20 at 18:15
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On Spell Failure, in part, says

If you ever try to cast a spell in conditions where the characteristics of the spell (range, area, or the like) cannot be made to conform, the casting fails and the spell is wasted. For example, if you cast charm person on a dog, the spell fails because a dog is the wrong sort of target for the spell. (Player's Handbook 171 and emphasis mine)

It's up to the DM how expansively he'll read that parenthetical or the like.

A generous DM will ignore everything except a spell's header material because only examples from the spell's header material are included as parenthetical examples. In such a DM's campaign, any creature can benefit from these spells as the header material says the only targeting restrictions on it are Range: Personal and Target: You.

A stricter DM will look at all of the spell's characteristics—including its actual prose description—, then rule whether or not the spell fails. It sounds like the question would prefer the strict reading, so with that in mind, here's that reading:

  • When a caster that doesn't possess at least one face casts either the 3rd-level Sor/Wiz spell bite of the wererat [trans] (Spell Compendium 28) or the 5th-level Sor/Wiz spell bite of the wereboar [trans] (ibid), the spell fails as it tries to transform the creature's face because the creature lacks the minimum number of faces for the spell to successfully come into effect.

  • When a caster that doesn't possess at least one mouth casts either the 6th-level Sor/Wiz spell bite of the weretiger [trans] (ibid.) or the 7th-level Sor/Wiz spell bite of the werebear [trans] (ibid.), the spell fails as it tries to transform the creature's mouth because the creature lacks the minimum number of mouths for the spell to successfully come into effect.

  • When a caster that doesn't possess at least two hands casts either the 6th-level Sor/Wiz spell bite of the weretiger [trans] (ibid.) or the 7th-level Sor/Wiz spell bite of the werebear [trans] (ibid.), the spell fails as it tries to transform both the creature's hands because the creature lacks the minimum number of hands for the spell to successfully come into effect.

Nonetheless, a druid that's used the supernatural ability wild shape to assume a different form (and, similarly, any other creature that has assumed a different form in a different way) may be able to benefit from a spell like one of the above. That is, many animals, elementals, and plants have one or more definable and recognizable faces, mouths, and hands. Thus, if capable of casting in the assumed form in the first place, a creature that's assumed the form of an ape, an earth elemental, or a treant should be able to transform its face into that of a wererat's, its mouth into that of a werebear's, or its hands into that of a weretiger's (but typically not all at once).

Further, the Monster Manual technically allows creatures like half-dragon dragons, a half-fiend fiends, and a half-celestial celestials, even if these do seem a little weird. And while the Monster Manual doesn't allow multiple-animal lycanthropes—a creature technically can't be a human-black bear-boar lycanthrope, for instance—, those other unusual combinations lead this reader to believe that a druid that's assumed boar form, for instance, can still benefit from a bite of the wereboar spell. (A druid that assumes bear form can't benefit from a bite of the werebear spell, though, as, properly, a bear has paws not hands.)

If the DM is still uncomfortable with the spell granting these animal-like bonuses, this reader recommends chalking up the spells' bonuses to magic: the bite spells grant enhancement bonuses—that most commonly granted magical bonus—rather than the animal's actual ability scores like, for example, the ability wild shape does. In other words, if the spell comes into effect, the spell simply magically enhances the creature's current form, no matter what form the creature's currently assumed.

To be honest, I've personally not had any issues with the spells even when read this technically. First, to be honest, I've never had to rule that any of the spells fail because the caster lacked a specific part; that's a problem that's literally never arisen in my campaigns: nobody in snake form has ever cast the spell bite of the weretiger, for instance. Beyond that, while the spells' bonuses are significant, the duration of each remains but 1 round/level. Further, their Range: Personal entries means there's typically no potion of bite of the wererat, for example. This makes access to the spells limited and expensive for those that don't have them on their spell lists, a sorcerer or wizard is usually better off just killing his foes than he is buffing himself, and a druid is the game's most powerful class with or without these spells.


Note: This DM has had a half-red dragon half-farspawn treant druid (yes, it had wings) cast on itself the bite of the wereboar spell, and none of the players complained, although they found its appearance somewhat disconcerting. Still, high-level characters' enemies—and, typically, the high-level characters themselves—are often as dangerous as they are goofy-looking.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am reasonably certain somewhere it’s stated that spells do as much as they can. I don’t think this reading is “strict” so much as “cruelly reading unnecessary requirements in between the lines,” and as such, I find it pretty unhelpful. Torn over an actual vote, but this kind of bending over backwards to achieve a pre-determined conclusion isn’t ever my idea of helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 14 '20 at 13:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan This is deliberately the strictest reading. Seriously, the question's asking for the rules as written, and this is one of the ways that the rules can be read. To be fair, I, too, find such "secret requirements" distasteful, but it's not crazy for a DM to say that a druid in snake form does not grow hands that then become claws if that druid casts bite of the weretiger. Should the whole spell fail? Ideally not, but the game makes no allowances for half measures in this regard. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 14 '20 at 13:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ “This is deliberately the strictest reading. Seriously, the question's asking for the rules as written, and this is one of the ways that the rules can be read.” I disagree; I see this as well beyond any “reading” of the rules, and well into the territory of twisting them. Also, again, I am reasonably sure that the game does make allowances for half-measures in this regard. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 14 '20 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan If that's the case, exactly how much of any effect's description can be ignored until it does finally fail? I mean, the spell says that "[y]our hands become claws." If a thing ain't got hands, what are the other options that the game provides? No choices are being made about this when the spell tries comes into effect, for instance. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 14 '20 at 13:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewNajmon I think it's closer to casting owl's wisdom on a creature that has Wisdom as a nonability: The spell wants to affect something that doesn't exist. The idea that the spell affects the subject as much as it can and the remainder of its outcomes wait for the spell's duration to see if they can affect the subject sounds off to me. I mean, I totally get the desire to have that happen, but—in addition to those not being what I think are the rules—I worry that adjudicating partial effects is a lot more complicated and liable to lead to fights than just having the spell fail. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 15 '20 at 8:49

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