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Alter self can turn your body into anything as long as you basically retain the same body shape. It can even change your weight. Moreover, it can transform you into a member of another race.

So, this spell can, in theory, grant the caster flight in two ways:

  • Turn yourself into an Aarakocra
  • Reduce your weight to a bird's, and turn your arm into wings

However, this is not explicitly RAW. The spell has the Aquatic Adaptation mode which explicitly grants the caster a swim speed equal to their walking speed; it doesn't have this for flight. Further, the fly spell is a third level spell, which this use shortcuts to, albeit for one target only.

My question is, would this be a valid use of the spell?

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No, for full flying

The Change Appearance portion of the alter self spell says (emphasis mine):

Change Appearance. You transform your appearance. You decide what you look like, including your height, weight, facial features, sound of your voice, hair length, coloration, and distinguishing characteristics, if any. You can make yourself appear as a member of another race, though none of your statistics change. You also can't appear as a creature of a different size than you, and your basic shape stays the same; if you're bipedal, you can't use this spell to become quadrupedal, for instance. At any time for the duration of the spell, you can use your action to change your appearance in this way again.

The important part to note is that it explicitly states that none of your statistics change, and you retain your basic shape. Adding wings that would be large enough to allow you to fly is a major alteration to your basic shape (humanoid). I think the portion that covers being quadrupedal sufficiently demonstrates that a major modification in methods of travel is outright denied. Especially since if you can't change your arms into legs (which is a very minor change considering they function similarly), logically you wouldn't be able to change them into wings either. The intent of the spell seems to be for small changes such as:

Skin pigmentation, reshaping ears, eye colour, hair colour, talons, claws, teeth, and other minor modifications. The most major modification is definitely the ability to breath water, but even that simply allows you to extract oxygen from a medium other than air, which is another minor modification.

How I would rule as DM:

I would personally say no to wings, but yes to a bat-like membrane (picture a wing suit) between your legs, arms and body. I would even house rule that you could get half speed flying out of it, and of course, gliding. Since you don't have hollow bones, or a small mass like a bat, that's why I would personally impose the half speed limit. This conforms to the restrictions of the spell and would permit some creative experimentation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would think a natural wing-suit-like membrane would be a significant change to body shape, plus it's still changing your statistics. RAW is clearly no, you can't gain a flying speed. I would even judge that the spirit of the rules would restrict your weight to reasonable limits for your size, otherwise you could claim to change your weight to that of your volume in helium, or even the surrounding air, and use that to "fly" instead, which ironically seems to be possible with RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeus Nov 29 '17 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ So how does that help improve an answer that already addresses everything you said? \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Nov 29 '17 at 17:19
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No.

I believe the RAW, it doesn't allow flying.

Previous Editions Listed it.

The previous editions had flying listed as a form, like aquatic form, that you could take. 3.5 version of the spell:

... and flight with wings, to a maximum speed of 120 feet for flying or 60 feet for nonflying movement. ...

The implication of it being removed in this version is that you aren't able to do it in 5e.

Possibly Add Wings, but Stats Don't Change

You might be able to alter appearance to have wings, but that wouldn't grant you flying speed as that use of the spell states clearly that:

You can make yourself appear as a member of another race, though none of your statistics change.

That, however, could be ruled to be in violation of "your basic shape stays the same" clause of the spell, or not, depending on what the phrase means to your DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @markovchain Everything in a "statistics" block is a statistic, as well as some other stuff, like the descriptions of certain monster characteristics. Things like Undead Nature (Any undead, really), Immortal Nature (Angels), Living Fire (Azers), etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Javelin Jun 15 '16 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ " You can breathe underwater and gain a swimming speed equal to your walking speed. " A human doesn't have a swim speed by default so the spell would change its stats by your definition. Although it can swim without the movement would be half according to the DMG I believe. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jun 15 '16 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not quite strong enough for a downvote, but I really don't think that changes between the wording of the spell in this edition versus a previous one is any sort of indicator for a ruling. Someone who is new to D&D and only familiar with 5e should not need to know anything about previous editions to make a decision on the rules. I agree that "none of your stats change" can be taken to include movement types/speed, though. \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Jun 15 '16 at 17:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ My point is that the designers specifical used to mention it, and they no longer do. Which is evidence that they intended to remove that feature from this edition. \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Jun 15 '16 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth But the "Aquatic Adaptation" use of the spell doesn't have the same restrictions as the "Change Appearance" use. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeus Nov 29 '17 at 16:37
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Yes, I believe it does allow you to change into an Aarakocra.

The alter self spell description says:

You assume a different form. When you cast the spell, choose one of the following options, the effects of which last for the duration of the spell. While the spell lasts, you can end one option as an action to gain the benefits of a different one.

Aquatic Adaptation. You adapt your body to an aquatic environment, sprouting gills, and growing webbing between your fingers. You can breathe underwater and gain a swimming speed equal to your walking speed.

Change Appearance. You transform your appearance. You decide what you look like, including your height, weight, facial features, sound of your voice, hair length, coloration, and distinguishing characteristics, if any. You can make yourself appear as a member of another race, though none of your statistics change. You also don’t appear as a creature of a different size than you, and your basic shape stays the same; if you're bipedal, you can’t use this spell to become quadrupedal, for instance. At any time for the duration of the spell, you can use your action to change your appearance in this way again.

Natural Weapons. You grow claws, fangs, spines, horns, or a different natural weapon of your choice. Your unarmed strikes deal 1d6 bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, as appropriate to the natural weapon you chose, and you are proficient with your unarmed strikes. Finally, the natural weapon is magic and you have a +1 bonus to the attack and damage rolls you make using it.

The Aarakocra is a Medium-size and bipedal humanoid, thus it qualifies by RAW. My Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis & Cha don't change, but the spell specifically says, "You decide what you look like, including your height, weight, facial features, sound of your voice, hair length, coloration, and distinguishing characteristics, if any." So, yes, you can make yourself weigh less, as light as an Aarakocra.

Its wings give you a new movement, but the aquatic adaptation give you a new way to breathe and a new movement (swim speed at full land speed), so this is simply an aerial parallel to the aquatic ability.

Finally, the spell allows growth of additional items on the body like spines, horns or tentacles. Wings can be used as weapons by claws on them or by buffet, so it qualifies this way as well.

So, in conclusion, things like griffons, Pegasus, hippogriffs, etc. are specifically forbidden in the spell, mainly because they are bipedal, but a medium size humanoid like an aarakocra would be an acceptable shape and give the fly speed of that race.

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    \$\begingroup\$ " You can make yourself appear as a member of another race, though none of your statistics change." (emphasis mine). This would let you look like an Aarakocra, but gain it's features such as the flying speed (no more than looking like a tiefling would give you the infernal legacy feature). \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Feb 10 at 22:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Grond, did you take your SE name from the Anti-Paladin who nearly did for Finieous, Fred, and Charlie? 8^D \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 10 at 22:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I had a big thud of a character with it before the comic came out. Being Finieous was quite the doofus, I naturally cheered for Grond! I am also dating myself with this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Grond May 21 at 6:31

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