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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\$ Nov 29 '17 at 17:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Late to this (very) but your answer starts really good, and right at the end says "but ignore all that and do it anyway" which is a huge contradiction \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Nov 20 at 11:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri - At no point does it state to ignore all of that at all. Please don't put words in my mouth. I quite clearly state that I would houserule, which is DM prerogative at all times. I made no mention that they should ignore what I've stated. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21 at 23:32
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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\$ Jun 15 '16 at 18:21
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    \$\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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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 shapestays 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 key points are pretty specific, but what is allowed is very flexible as well.

It says that you can change your height and weight, but not your size. If height and weight aren't your size, how and why does this contradiction exist in the RAW?

My interpretation for this is pretty straight forward: If you are a medium sized humanoid, you can't alter yourself into a small or large sized humanoid.

A medium sized creature is anywhere from 4 ft - 8 ft tall and 60 lb - 500 lb. So alter self should work within those parameters.

As far as statistics staying the same, first thought is that it is referring to Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha. One of that adaptations completely changes your stat block to add swimming speed and breathing underwater, adding webbing between your fingers and doing some pretty intricate changes to your lungs.

Adding flying isn't too far out of question, but how that's handled is another matter which brings me to the part about your basic shape staying the same. With the aquatic adaptation, your basic shape is the same, but now you have some pretty crazy alterations to your body.

The main thing is that you have two arms, two legs and a head. This is your basic shape. Natural alterations like claws, webbed fingers, spines, fangs, horns, are all included, but none of these are a new appendage, but instead an adaptation of something you already have. Fingers, bones, teeth, skin, etc. Giving yourself suction cup fingers would be interesting as well.

You wouldn't be able to add new wings growing out of your back or even a tail, since those are new appendages and part of your basic shape. On the other hand, I could see you changing your own arms into wings, ie; your fingers would work similarly to how a bat's would function and work out from your armpit to the end of your arm and then create a membrane. I don't think feathers would be possible since hair is a part of your basic form. If you make yourself 4 ft tall with an 8 ft wingspan, and drop your weight down to 60 lbs, I think you could fly pretty decently. You wouldn't be performing somatic gestures to spells very well though, holding any weapons at all, or be very combat oriented by any means. Whether you could add magical talons to your feet to attack with is another question all together.

As far as transforming into another race, it would have to be a race with similar basic attributes to you. You could try and make your skin look like scales or feathers, but they will just have the basic shape and colour changes you're already capable of, ie; I would ask for a deception roll to see how well you made your "scales" or "feathers" look, since touching them would give it away as being skin right away.

One last thing I can think of is darkvision. If you can breathe underwater, why can't you change how your eyes function in the dark if you give yourself cat eyes? It meets the criteria for basic shape, colouration, and distinguishing characteristics if a cats eye. The caveat is that you still need some light to distinguish details. Essentially, your low light vision would be all that improves. Imitating an eagles eyes wouldn't be out of the question either.

The tough one is echlocation. You have the basic shapes to alter; your voice and ears. Getting the use of it down might take some time and practice until you have used it a number of times and maybe even had some practice using your bat familiar to get an idea of how it works.

All of these more creative uses that aren't explicitly described in the spell should be rolled on, and perhaps even with multiple checks. Survival, history, medicine, etc. Just to get a working knowledge of what you are are actually altering. Some things are easier to do then others, so the DC could be adjusted accordingly. The nice thing is that you have an hour each time to play around with it, but unless you have some free time to play around with the spell, you aren't going to get a lot of combat uses out of it except for natural weapons which is a pretty easy concept to grasp in the first place, just like a human making themselves look like an elf would be. The DC for more difficult things should start high, and the more often you use it, slowly lower the difficulty over time until they have used it enough times to master the alteration.

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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 '20 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\$ Feb 10 '20 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 '20 at 6:31
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RAW, may say no to flying with alter self in 5ed. But in the spirit of the rules, I say yes to it at my table and I think the system should too. Primarily this is because of the huge number of opportunities for the players to get themselves killed. I encourage they be allowed to use this spell to fly like Icarus into the sun.

Given this runs contrary to the grain, I base this on my experience with 2nd edition. Back in the day, alter self would let you get wings. You'd get poor maneuverability and you were slower than the normal but you got to fly.

Why this should be allowed even though the fly spell can do it. If you take 1/2 your hp in damage while in flight you fall to the earth (that can kill you). On top of that it really really isn't as good as the fly spell at all in that you don't get to descend when it ends by the character losing concentration or if it's dispelled. Well then the caster will again, fall and die too.

Oh and you can't be wearing armor or a shirt when you do it either, making the casters MUCH easier targets to strike.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the stack Tom, and thank you for contributing. Do take the tour if you haven't already. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Nov 22 at 7:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is tagged [dnd-5e], which means it's explicitly about the Alter Self spell as it appears in fifth edition. Because your answer isn't directly answering the question, it doesn't really fit with our relatively tight problems/solutions format. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Nov 22 at 7:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this is an answer, though, you'd probably benefit from putting your last paragraph first. On my first read, I thought you were going to give me an answer applicable to 2nd edition (and you kind of did) but it was the final paragraph where you finally come to providing an answer that's applicable to 5th. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22 at 14:16

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