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Ok, big edit to the question as people have suggested.

I would like to use the master transmogrifist prestige class all the way to L10, as I find it interesting to use two of its key abilities. Polymoprhing as a reaction, and the level 10 ability, where you can add on one feature from another creature when you polymorph.

However, a simple build based on taking wizard and MT means that the earliest one can get access to MT 10 and shapechange is level 21 as the MT loses 4 spellcasting levels. This means that a generalist wizard build will be considerably better at transforming into creatures at levels 17-20, as the advantages of shapechange over polymorph (25 HD limit instead of 15, supernatural abilities, extra duration, and ability to change multiple times and more) outweigh the MT's abilities.

I am looking for ways to make this build more workable, particularly at levels 17-20. The original question revolved around getting access to shapechange earlier than level 21, and this is certainly a good option. However, any other suggestions people have that are capable of making this a viable build pre epic are good too.

The aim is to make a polymorphing specialist that can change into creatures better than a wizard of the same level can. This polymorphing ability will then be used to turn into a creature or combination of creatures that has abilities to counter the current situation. General qualities that I expect to be 'tacking on' using the MT level 10 ability would be elemental resistances/immunities, spell resistance, damage reductions (and the means to overcome them), flight (taking a speed slightly faster than my opponents speed and the best available maneuverability for that speed), Fast healing. If no specific counter is obvious for the fight then I will likely do something boring - take 8 tentacles as the book suggests, give a dragon good dex or give good natural armour to something that lacks it.

Using these abilities as a reaction is designed such that my defenses are always available, as long as I know something about what is attacking me.

Combined with finding it enjoyable to play as monsters and enjoying the roleplaying aspect of turning into creatures as a way of swiss army knifing, this is why I've requested the use of MT10 as part of this build.The point of optimising is because the default build doesn't give me the enjoyment of playing the character I want until level 21, whereas I would like a RaW way of playing a character with these abilities at lower levels, ideally 17.

This making any sense to anyone yet?

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    \$\begingroup\$ As my answer addresses, what qualifies as “game-breaking nonsense”? To my mind, that category would include both master transmogrifist and shapechange themselves, much less whatever shenanigans you imagine you’ll use here. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 9 '14 at 2:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps you want to rephrase the question as to your intended result of shapechange and whatnot, as it is clear that your model-of-game differs significantly from others. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 9 '14 at 3:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ As @BrianBallsun-Stanton said, this question might be falling into the XY Question problem where you're asking the wrong question to get at what you really want to know. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Sep 9 '14 at 17:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Again, please focus much more into your results. Polymorphing into what to gain what abilities? Which features do you want to graft? How do you see using your reaction? Right now, it feels like you're trying to shoot flies with a cannon. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 9 '14 at 22:51
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A level in Metaphysical Spellshaper (Book of Erotic Fantasy), or the feat Magical Training (Sorcerer) (Player's Guide to Faerûn), which is more restrictive, can qualify you for Versatile Spellcaster without giving up any more spell casting progression. So something like:

Wizard 5/Spellshaper 1/MT 10/Something else with full casting 4

Feats:

  • 1: Eschew Materials
  • 3: Extend Spell
  • 6: Versatile Spellcaster

You will need to scribe polymorph into your spell book at level 6 to qualify for Master Transmogrifist. and you may want to delay taking levels in it so that you have more castings of polymorph. You will also have to do this at level 19 for shapechange (this is when level 9 spells will open for you).

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Some ridiculous cheese here, the sort of thing that could easily break a game wide open.

Bard 1/Wizard 2/Master Transmogrifist 7/Sublime Chord 1/Master Transmogrifist +3/Sublime Chord +61

Yes, that’s master transmogrifist at level 4. How? By being bad, bad people. Also, flaws from Unearthed Arcana. This gets us 9th-level spells at 20th level while still getting all 10 levels of master transmogrifist.

Any hope you may have had of avoiding game-breaking nonsense is out the window. That said, this is not the best way to do this, or the earliest that shapechange or 9th-level spells could be gained. The reason I like this build is that it actually sacrifices quite a bit for the power that it wields.

As a Human Bard 1/Wizard 2 with two flaws, take these four feats, as well as any metamagic feat of your choice: Eschew Materials, Precocious Apprentice,2 Sanctum Spell,3 and Versatile Spellcaster.4 Also, hoard all of your wealth, because you need to spend 2,000 gp of your 2,700 gp at that level to activate the Dragonsblood Pool.5 By the way, find a Dragonsblood Pool. At least 400 gp of the rest goes to scribing polymorph into your spellbook.6

Prepare a Sanctum Spell in your Precocious Apprentice spell slot; inside your sanctum, this counts as a 3rd-level spell. Designate the Dragonsblood Pool as your sanctum; thus when you activate the pool, you can cast a 3rd-level spell and are therefore entitled to a bonus 3rd-level spell slot from the pool.7

You now have two 3rd-level spell slots; Versatile Spellcaster allows you to combine those to make a 4th-level spell slot. You have polymorph in your spellbook, so you can now prepare and cast polymorph, qualifying you for master transmogrifist.

Getting the skill requirements for sublime chord at this point will be tricky, but do-able. Make sure to put 4 points in Disguise, Knowledge (arcana), Listen, Perform, Profession (astrologer), and Spellcraft, as well as 2 in Bluff, when you take bard 1. Since ranks in Disguise, Listen, and Perform will cost double after bard, you need 51 ranks to qualify for master transmogrifist and sublime chord. Assuming Int 18, you get 6 skill points per level for the remaining 9 levels, so 54, plus 1 more at each of 8, 9, and 10 thanks to level-up increases to Int, so that leaves you 6 skill points unaccounted for. Concentration is very much the obvious choice (it should also probably get 4 ranks from bard). Your 6th- and 9th- level feats could potentially help, either by getting more skill points from Open Mind,8 or by turning reducing the costs on Listen with Guerilla Scout.9

1 Any arcane spellcasting prestige class that doesn’t have any lost levels can be used to advance sublime chord instead of taking levels beyond the 1st. Sublime chord 2 is generally considered worth grabbing though.

2 Complete Arcane, but not in the Feats chapter. It’s in a sidebar on page 181. Note that it’s first-level only.

3 Complete Arcane, in the Feats chapter this time. Requires some other metamagic feat.

4 Races of the Dragon, requires the ability to spontaneously cast spells, which you have by virtue of your level in bard. The benefit is not restricted to spontaneous spellcasting, so we can use it on your wizard spell slots.

5 Complete Mage, in the section on Magical Locations, page 149. Basically requires the DM to play along to find one.

6 Note that wizards do not need to be able to cast a spell to scribe it in their spellbook, they merely have to succeed on a Spellcraft check. DC 19 is the highest you’ll have to worry about, and you should have a minimum of +12 on that check if you’re a transmuter.

7 It’s probably not necessary to designate the Dragonsblood Pool as your sanctum and actually have the 3rd-level spell at the moment you activate it, since you simply must “be able to” cast one in general, not specifically at that moment. But doing so eliminates any potential ambiguity.

8 Expanded Psionics Handbook, or the SRD.

9 Heroes of Battle.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't know whether to be more scared of the build, or that you were able to produce it... \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Sep 9 '14 at 15:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bobson Mostly, I know where to look for compiled lists of the resources necessary to pull shenanigans like this. It mostly involved knowing how sublime chord works/how to get the most out of it, perusing the Early Entry Handbook, and then fiddling with the options to produce a progression that hits all the requirements by the necessary levels. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 9 '14 at 16:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ This build requires taking wqizard at level 1, as precocious apprentice is 'level 1 only', right? \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Sep 9 '14 at 22:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Scott Err, yes. Which is going to make skills far more awkward, as you lose the times sixteen skill points... that will probably make Guerilla Scout necessary. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 9 '14 at 23:50
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I have no wish to break the game with nonsense.

Then do not take master transmogrifist. Arguably, don’t take shapechange either. And definitely do not go into epic levels, particularly as a spellcaster. All of these things are, I would argue, game-breaking nonsense.

Polymorph effects are wildly, impossibly powerful; even Wizards of the Coast, loathe as they were to admit flaws in their product, admitted that they were broken. Master transmogrifist loses four spellcasting levels, a major no-no, and the only way that becomes optimal is if you abuse polymorph effects to the hilt.

One of the few limitations on polymorphing, usually, is that you cannot get supernatural abilities from it; shapechange throws that out the window. It also gives a massive duration, and the ability to swap forms at will. It is easily one of the top-five most-powerful spells ever printed (along with time stop, gate, contingency, and celerity). You’ll note that all five of these spells do one of two things: they let you act when you should not be able to, or they let you access the powers of monsters. There are no more tried-and-true methods for breaking the game than these.

Meanwhile, the epic spellcasting rules are a joke; a 21st-level spellcaster can, with proper mitigation abuse, create and cast a spell called solve all my problems. Obviously, a DM won’t allow that, but it means that the system is completely useless: it offers zero to the DM in terms of guidance or support, and he’s better off just OKing or negating each proposed spell on a case-by-case basis without consulting the Epic Level Handbook at all. But even without epic spellcasting, the things you can do with epic metamagic, not to mention the fact that already have 9th-level spells, mean that epic-level spellcasters are all-but-impossible to challenge outside of heavy DM-fiat.

Finally, your question itself admits no answer. With enough cheese, you can get shapechange (and much, much more) at level 1. If nothing else, Pun-pun exists (though there are other ways to accomplish it without using manipulate form). So that’s the “earliest” anyone could get it, and then you could continue leveling up so you could take master transmogrifist levels if for some reason you saw a point to doing that (though if you do go the Pun-pun route, you could easily just grant yourself whatever master transmogrifist class features you want without bothering to take the levels).

But that’s obviously game-breaking nonsense. So what isn’t game-breaking nonsense? I guess I could argue that the earliest you could get shapechange without “game-breaking nonsense” is 17th, the level a single-class wizard gets it. Anything earlier than that is game-breaking nonsense by definition. There are numerous ways to accomplish that, all of which I’d ban immediately and so would (I imagine) just about every other DM, but that’s the closest I can imagine to getting it earlier than the 20th you propose “without” game-breaking nonsense.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Pun Pun" is a correct and valid answer to all optimisation questions. However, it is not helpful or useful. Yes, to address your specific point, I am hoping to make a class that specialises at one thing (Master Transmografist - shapeshifting) be as good as pure wizard at shapeshifting. So yes, if you know a way that I can get the spell at 17, that is as good as I want. Even if it's 18-20 that's still good. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Sep 9 '14 at 4:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please refine your question, Scott, such that we can answer to the results of your desires instead of to the means of achieving them. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 9 '14 at 4:45
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What you want to do is a bad bad idea. Let me rephrase: "I want to get access to 9th level spells at level 16" Which flatly contradicts: "And yes, I know this will not be a particularly powerful wizard build. I don't care."

But that's fine. You want to surpass those limits by focusing on shapechange. We will ignore brain-eating doppelgangers who can steal spellcasting abilities for now, as that way lies madness.

Unfortunately, the way to get faster-than-wizard casting is the sublime chord. Given that we have a requirement of Master transmogrifist 10 and Sublime chord 3 (as the transmogrifist provides 6 levels of casting) and the requirement to be able to cast polymorph means that we cannot achieve this goal in 20 levels. The second half of the build would be MT 1 / Sublime Chord 2 / MT 9 (giving us 6 caster levels), sublime chord 1. for 13 levels. Without resorting to cheap tricks for bardic music (apparently a "Heartfire Fanner" from Dragon 314 may be able to progress casting and give us bardic music (but I've seen no evidence of this)) we cannot fit 7 wizard levels, 1 bard (or equivalent level) and 13 of sublime chord and MT. Even heartfire fanner is a no-go, as it can't be taken before level 8.

Just be a druid instead.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, Sublime Chord can't be taken before level 11. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Sep 9 '14 at 9:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ The hope is to produce 'as fast as wizard spell progression' for 1 cast per day with 1 spell known. Anything that produces greater than that is beyond my requirements (although if people have ideas that exceed these requirements, I can always just make that build and just not use the excess power.) \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Sep 10 '14 at 0:17
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Be a druid/master of many forms.

You cite a desire for shapeshifting to be the centre of your character's concept. There's a class that does that, it's a druid.

Looking at the master of many forms bible we see:

  • An exhaustive list of immunities
  • Movement modes of the desired qualities
  • Access to shapechange if necessary
  • Less game-breaking cheese needed to enter (and exit).

If we combine this with craft contingent spell, we can even have reactive shapeshifting and polymorphing. (It'd be better to just be immune to those things, but if you feel like showing off, nothing will stop you.) In lieu of combining extraordinary abilities from your "second form" you can just cast buffs that last longer that provide those abilities.

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