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The Totem Druid (Dragon 335) can Wild Shape into its Totem animal from level 1. Now, none of the creatures it is printed it can turn into has 1HD. Does this mean that if you want to turn into, say, a Constrictor Snake (3HD) you have to wait until ou have three HD, or can you still turn into one but with less HD? And if so, how do you calulate that with its other stats (saves, attacks and so on)?

Next up, if you were to level up either as a regular Druid or as a Master of Many Forms, you gain access to many new sizes. Can you use those sizes for your regular creatures as well (and how do you calculate this?), editing their stats as fitting, or are you stuck to creatures of exactly that size?

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The rules are unclear. You must

Ask the DM

According to the text of the totem druid's supernatural ability totem shape, the totem druid absolutely "gains the ability to change into" the totem shape "once per day." That ability can't be denied. Except it immediately can be denied by the sentence you noted that's part of the druid's supernatural ability wild shape: "The new [totem] form's Hit Dice can’t exceed the character’s druid level."

A ruling from the DM is required to make sense of this ability.

  • Option 1: A totem druid can use his supernatural ability totem shape to assume the forms of creatures with Hit Dice greater than his level. Were he unable to, he's given up the standard, more versatile (yet acquired later) wild shape for, literally, depending on the choice, at low levels, nothing.
  • Option 2: A totem druid cannot use his supernatural ability totem shape to assume the forms of creatures with Hit Dice greater than his level. Those are the rules, in place to prevent unbalancing the game by granting access to powerful forms too early.

The glass bear

Although it's very powerful to use totem shape (hence wild shape hence alternate form) to become, for example, a polar bear for an hour as a level 1 totem druid, the special ability alternate form doesn't, in itself, make that impossible. In fact, alternate form has these limits:

  • The creature retains its hit points and save bonuses, although its save modifiers may change due to a change in ability scores.
  • Except as described elsewhere, the creature retains all other game statistics of its original form, including (but not necessarily limited to) HD, hit points, skill ranks, feats, base attack bonus, and base save bonuses.

So even if a DM allows a level 1 totem druid to assume the form of, for example, a polar bear (MM 269), the totem druid will still probably only have 8 to 12 hp, and a lucky arrow or spear still drops him. Nonetheless, this remains a pretty serious combat buff.

The Conversation

The totem druid (Dragon #335 87) has two abilities relevant to the question. The first is totem animal:

At 1st level, a totem druid must choose one of the following animals to bind his spirit to: ape, bear, eagle, horse, shark, snake, tiger, or wolf.

The second is the supernatural ability totem shape:

Totem shape uses the same rules as wild shape, although a druid can only take the form of her totem animal. She gains the ability to change into this shape once per day at 1st level.

Starting at 6th level, the totem druid can choose to take the dire form of her totem animal once per day. The dire form is in addition to her normal form.

The specific supernatural ability totem shape overrules the more general rules of the typical druid's supernatural ability wild shape. Rather than reproducing wild shape below, I've reproduced wild shape below with the exceptions that are made because of the totem druid's totem shape.

At [1st] level, a [totem] druid gains the ability to turn herself into [her totem animal] and back again once per day. Her options for new forms include [the totem animal] with the animal type. This ability functions like the alternate form special ability, except as noted here. The effect lasts for 1 hour per druid level, or until she changes back. Changing form (to [totem] animal or back) is a standard action and doesn't provoke an attack of opportunity. Each time you use [totem] shape, you regain lost hit points as if you had rested for a night.

Any gear worn or carried by the druid melds into the new form and becomes nonfunctional. When the druid reverts to her true form, any objects previously melded into the new form reappear in the same location on her body that they previously occupied and are once again functional. Any new items worn in the assumed form fall off and land at the druid's feet.

The form chosen must be that of an [totem] animal the druid is familiar with.

A druid loses her ability to speak while in [totem] animal form because she is limited to the sounds that a normal, untrained animal can make, but she can communicate normally with other animals of the same general grouping as her new form. (The normal sound a wild parrot makes is a squawk, so changing to this form does not permit speech.)

A druid can use this ability more times per day at [3rd, 5th, 7th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 20th] level, as noted on Table: [Totem] Druid. [Insert dire forms and planar forms totem shape advancement here.--it's unimportant to this answer.]

That's actually pretty clear by Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition standards.

The DM must determine, however, if this text is part of the the supernatural ability totem shape:

The new [totem] form's Hit Dice can’t exceed the character’s druid level.

Which is the whole problem in a nutshell.


The Second Issue

A creature who can assume different forms can't deviate that far from the creature's printed entry unless special abilities tell him he can and how that's done. Most creatures who can assume alternate forms are stuck with printed creatures or variations on printed creatures. A generous DM may allow a character to advance the creature to such a degree that the creature's size changes if such advancement is still within the confines of his abilities. For example, a character who can assume the form of a hyena (MM 274) but is limited by his level in HD when doing so might be allowed, upon reaching level 4, to assume the form of a Large hyena (like a hyena that is advanced to 4 HD), but such a character could never become a Huge hyena nor a Small hyena as there's no way to make the printed hyena bigger than Large or smaller than Medium according to its creature entry; such a character would be stuck with either the Medium or the Large hyena form.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Alright, so if I understand the first correctly you can turn into a shape at a lower level (say, an 8HD character turns into a Fire Giant who is normally 13HD), but you are still stuck to your amount of HD and level. And for the second, you are stuck to the advancement as described in the creatur entry, both in size and HD. But does thelatter affect things like strength, AC and more as described in the appendix of the Monster Manual? \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Jacobs Jun 5 '14 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1st--Please be aware: I didn't say you can; I said the DM may allow it. The text is contradictory, therefore everything's his call. Were the DM to allow it, doing so would probably follow the rules of alternate form, which, unlike wild shape, lacks an explicit HD limit, but I really can't speak for your home game. 2nd--Yes, the more-HD-than-normal creature should, unless the DM rules otherwise, advance as per the Monster Manual. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 5 '14 at 14:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I know that I'll have to ask the DM if I want to do stuff like this. Plus, it would be kind of silly to make a class that can Shape into stuff at level 1 despite everything that you *can turn into being way above your level. And I'll keep the other thing in mind, thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Jacobs Jun 5 '14 at 14:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're right, of course, that it would be silly, but sometimes the rules just are silly. I mean, obviously, no one expected the game to have these kind of legs wherein we'd still be talking about an optional rule in a magazine article 9 years after its publication. Also, while researching this answer, eagle and snake are totally available at level 1. There are also more tigers that are animals than I originally thought. Here's the official monster index. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 5 '14 at 14:33
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As a DM, here's how I have played this before, based upon the following from the totem druid entry:

Under the Totem Shape entry, it specifies that the "She gains the ability to change into this shape once per day at 1st level". My ruling on this is that this overrides the general HD restriction for a stock Druid's wild shape ability.

Most of the animals for a totem druid would not be usable until 5th level or later if we followed the HD restriction, which would, outside of flavor, negate a large portion of the benefit of the class variant.

Also, I would like to add a clarification around 'Hey I Can Chan''s answer; In Option one, Hey I makes reference to the Totem Druid losing spells. This is not the case. The text of the class variant makes no mention of losing spells, but does state that "unless other wise noted, a totem druid advances in the same manner as a druid". Also, while the table for the totem druid does not include a spell progression, I fall back to text over table with the understanding that if it did not change, there was no need to use valuable space in the magazine on re-printing that information, similar to that the table is lacking any BAB or Save progression.

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    \$\begingroup\$ O, and welcome to the site! Take the tour. Thank you for sharing your experiences. So you know, the site sets a higher bar on rules as intended than most places, usually requiring developer statements that prove that is the intent. (Using In my opinion is usually better when that's what's meant even though that's more verbose.) Anyway, thank you for helping strangers and for pointing out my error. Have fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 13 '16 at 11:06
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I know I'm kinda late to the party, but how my DM and I solved this (as I was a snake Totem Druid) was I was limited to the form of a snake of my HD.

At First Level I was limited to a small Viper at second level I was allowed to be a medium, at 3rd a large, at 6th a huge, at 11th a Giant constrictor.

Don't know if that helped any, especially how late this response is.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi and welcome to RPG.se! If you can find the time, please take the tour. Your answer works for snakes, but what about for other animals on the Totem Druid list? \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Apr 17 '17 at 5:34

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