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A creature who wants to masquerade as a creature of a different race takes a -2 penalty to Disguise skill checks according to the skill Disguise (PH 72-3). I know that kind and type (and subtype) have definitions in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, but race is less clearly defined. I also know that while the 1st-level Sor/Wiz spell disguise self [illus] (PH 222) has the prohibition that the caster "cannot change [his] body type," no such restriction is imposed by the skill Disguise.

Does this mean the Medium juvenile male dwarf (perhaps between the ages of 75 and 124 years old) could disguise himself as an also-Medium also-juvenile also-male (yet undoubtedly sort of stubby) brass dragon (MM 70-1), and to disguise himself as such a creature the dwarf only takes a -2 penalty to his Disguise skill check?

Less specifically, what sorts of creatures can a creature disguise himself as by taking that -2 penalty to his Disguise skill check? And, if it must be addressed here, what's race in D&D 3.5?

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Yes

RAW doesn't say you can't disguise yourself as something of a different type. It also doesn't say you can. One bit of note is that the Players Handbook has this not in the SRD:

A disguise can include an apparent change of height or weight amounting to no more than one-tenth of the original.

Rules Compendium makes some minor additions to the text, nothing about types is added. So there's nothing in the rules that flat out says you can't do it, and since Rules Compendium did have some text changes that didn't touch that, I tend to believe that's deliberate.

It's DM Call

The reason why is that the DM needs to apply some common sense here. I know, that's crazy talk. ;)

No amount of makeup alone is going to make a Dwarf look like a Dragon, but the Disguise skill also lets you use props. Spend the time to build prosthetic claws, tail, and wings? Then maybe you could pull it off. (Special effects people and shows like Face/Off have shown some pretty incredible prosthetic costumes that are examples of something suitable.)

Some of these type changes are easy (lots of Monstrous Humanoids or Giants aren't that different if you meet the size requirements), but you'll never convince me that you can make a Gelatinous Cube disguise using only mundane things that will fool anyone the second you try and move.

So what it comes down to in a case where you can't do the disguise with just a makeup kit and some clothes is how good is the full disguise? If they have a means to create something that in the DM's call could actually work, then there's no mechanical reason to not let them do it with the appropriate penalties.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That 10%-either-way rule for the skill Disguise is gold and eliminates all sorts of shenanigans. Excellent advice. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 7 '15 at 23:05
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It's not explicitly mentioned in the Disguise skill section, but look over at the epic use of Disguise, in which we learn that:

  • Changing height and/or weight a matter of 11% to 25% conveys a -25 penalty.
  • Changing height and/or weight a matter of 26% to 50% conveys a -50 penalty.

So off-hand, we can infer that at the very least such an attempt is very difficult, as it is somewhat unlikely that dwarves and dragons, even those that occupy the same size class, are within even 11 to 25% of each others' height and weight.

That said, neither Pathfinder nor 3.5 actually mention anything about the need for disguise to be used on a strictly humanoid->humanoid basis, but the part about height and weight in the epic Disguise rules of 3.5 seem to suggest that this is an oversight rather than necessarily an intentional design.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So it's legit then for a human to disguise himself as what the DM believes is a more reasonable creature--for example, a (stubby, starving) dire badger (which is "from 5 to 7 feet in length and can weigh up to 500 lbs.") (MM 62)--at only a -2 penalty? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 6 '14 at 20:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ RAW, yes, though even a starving version of a creature shouldn't weigh more than 20% less than its normal bodyweight. I think that the intended use of the disguise skill was always intended to be other humanoids, but there's nothing in the OGL rules that explicitly defines this requirement. \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle Willey Sep 6 '14 at 22:22
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If I were the DM being asked about the feasibility of this disguise by a PC, I would want to know a LOT more about how the PC planned to pull this off. If they wanted to wear some makeup and claim to be a dragon who had changed his shape into that of a humanoid, both Disguise and Bluff would come into play. If the player wanted to build a suit of "armor" that looked like a dragon and wear it like a cosplay outfit, Disguise and perhaps the character's crafting skill would be applicable.

If the player simply said "Yeah, I'm going to go around claiming to be a dragon" most of my NPCs would be quite skeptical and would think the character the victim of a head wound or some intoxicating food or drink unless the player made an AMAZING Bluff check.

The rules are there for a reason, but the DM is there to temper the cold mechanical details with common sense. Otherwise, there's nothing preventing any arbitrary fantasy character from "deciding" to mix sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal and being amazed when they invent gunpowder and take over a country with their guns. If the character is an alchemist? Maybe, but again the player would have to give a damn good explanation as to why they're doing what they're doing. The same holds for a dwarf disguising him or herself as a dragon.

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No.

There are three circumstances when a dwarf may attempt to disguise themselves "as a dragon", but none qualify for either -2 penalty.

  • Without the aid of magic, the dwarf who attempts to disguise themselves as a dragon automatically fails their disguise check, the same as if they attempted to use a spot check to see the inside of a locked chest.
  • With the aid of a polymorph spell, a dwarf can pass as a dragon without any penalty to their roll. In fact, they gain a +10 bonus, since it's fairly easy to pass as a dragon when you can flap your wings or bare dagger-long teeth at someone.
  • A dwarf who attempts to pass themselves off as a dragon polymorphed into a dwarf could do so with neither a penalty nor a bonus.

Addendum: "Race" is a synonym for "subtype". It even appears in the definition of "subtype."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is the automatic failure of the dwarf's attempt at a mundane dragon disguise mandated somewhere, or is that--and not in any way a bad one--a house rule? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 7 '14 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not in the SRD, but there may be an explict "some things are impossible" entry in the written books. I'll edit if I can find it. (It's not a "house rule", because, like I said, you can't Spot inside of a locked chest. It's being able to disguise yourself as a different subtype that would be the house rule.) \$\endgroup\$ – Bleep Sep 7 '14 at 0:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DougM I'm not sure how you can say "doing this would be a house rule" if the rules don't say you can't do it. In fact your own addendum says that "race is a synonym for subtype", and there's an explicit modifier for trying to disguise as a different race. If they're actually a synonym, then the rules explicitly say you can do a different subtype. Type isn't mentioned at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Sep 7 '14 at 2:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ A creature fails its Spot skill check to see a chest's contents not arbitrarily ("The impossible is impossible") but because the contents have total cover. Seriously. Further--and I'm just putting this out there--, there are rules for Practically Impossible Tasks (PH 65). \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 7 '14 at 8:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan: The PH is the only 3e book I can't locate. :-/ More ot the point, does that section mention actually impossible tasks? \$\endgroup\$ – Bleep Sep 7 '14 at 20:56

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