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The Conjure Animals Spell doesn't seem to have any limitations on what you can conjure beside the number per CR, and that they have to be beasts. Seemingly you could conjure a creature that you've never seen before. Wild Shape on the other hand makes the distinction that you can only assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before. Is this a loop hole for Wild Shape? Could you conjure a Giant Owl, "see it", and then Wild Shape into a Giant Owl later?

Some of the distinctions that are making this tricky for me is that with the Conjure Animal Spell you aren't actually conjuring creatures, but "You summon fey spirits that take the form of beasts" (PHB 225). I'm interpreting this as these aren't actual beasts, merely impostors. There's something just not entirely real about these creatures, so they don't count as a creature that a druid has seen in the wild.

On the other hand, with Wild Shape you aren't actually turning into a real creature either, but you "assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before" (PHB 66). So maybe seeing the shape of the beast is enough to transform into it.

So, does a spirit in the form of a beast summoned with the Conjure Animal Spell count towards a creature that a druid has seen and can now Wild Shape into? Does it matter that it is a spirit and not a real creature, or is seeing its an impersonation or its shape enough for a druid to Wild Shape into it?

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Yes it does

Yes, you can add beast forms to your Wild Shape repertoire of beasts seen by casting conjure animals. The spell explicitly says the conjured creatures literally are beasts, and a creature of the type beast is all Wild Shape needs you to see in order to add its form to your repertoire.

Though someone might by tempted to quibble that they're not real beasts because they're really fey spirits clothed in the shape of beasts, look at it this way: First the Druid conjures a bunch of spirits that take on the form and behaviour of the real beasts they look like. The creatures so conjured proceed to behave and look exactly like the real thing. What better opportunity is there for a shapechanger to learn a new form to wear, than to see a nature spirit do the exact same thing as they're wanting to learn to do?

But it's of limited use

What you might actually run afoul of is limitations on metagaming, or a DM whose setting doesn't include just any creature you can think of (even if it's in the Monster Manual).

  • A DM who wants to limit metagaming would be within their rights to ask you to justify your choice. If you try to summon a Giant Owl but your druid has never seen one before, a DM could easily say "How do you know those exist? You've never seen one. How is your druid "choosing" an animal (s)he has never seen or heard of before?"
  • A DM who has developed a custom setting isn't straightjacketed by the Monster Manual and doesn't have to include everything in it. Giant Owls might not exist in a DM's campaign.

This also means that this is much less of a loophole than it might seem — after all, how big is the difference between the set of creatures a druid has personally seen and the set of creatures the druid knows about well enough to deliberately try to conjure? I can't imagine it's a very large number.

But in principle, yes, a conjured animal inhabited by a fey spirit is plenty to learn that form from. Just mind that, if you can conjure a particular animal, it's highly likely your druid has already seen it anyway. This makes this method of acquiring new forms both limited in utility and not much of a loophole to worry about, either way.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 31 '15 at 8:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Would it be useful to add to the answer that the Sage Advice Compendium contains an explicit clarification that the specific animals summoned are by intent completely DMs choice (so any caster preferences are just suggestions for the DM)? \$\endgroup\$ – Michał Politowski Feb 6 '17 at 14:19
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I personally don’t worry about how a druid has seen a beast, in my game. I assume that druids have broad experience with regional fauna, and most of them have some means of observing even exotic fauna. The game doesn’t require the druid to see the beast in play in front of the other PCs – that would be a pretty weird metagame requirement.

Because of this, the rule doesn’t matter balance-wise. There simply aren’t any balance controls on it, so it only helps with plausibility. Druids can only change into stuff they have reasonable personal knowledge of, stuff that actually exists somewhere plausibly near them. I don’t think it matters whether they have seen a real beast, a simulacrum, or even a detailed piece of art. There’s nothing to get hung up about, and I recommend that other DMs be laid back about this too.

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Of equal relevance, if you have seen a picture, statue or illusion of the beast, is that enough?

This is a DM call, basic rules page 3:

  1. The players describe what they want to do.

  2. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

RAW says "seen". The Free Dictionary defines seen as "past participle of see", so see is defined as

  1. to perceive with the eyes; look at.

  2. to view; visit or attend as a spectator: "to see a play."

  3. to perceive by means of computer vision.

  4. to scan or view, especially by electronic means: "The satellite can see the entire southern half of the country."

  5. to perceive (things) mentally; discern; understand: "to see the point of an argument."

  6. to construct a mental image of; visualize: "He still saw his father as he was 25 years ago."

  7. to accept or imagine or suppose as acceptable: "I can't see him as president."

Definition 6 would, interpreted liberally, allow you to imagine a beast and then assume its form.

Personally, that is too liberal for my taste but I would allow the summoning, picture, statue or illusion - it's a beast - 4 limbs and a head - if you can visualise it in general I would allow the magic to fill in the gaps.

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