D&D 5E Shapeshifting dragons - only metallic?

CapnZapp

Legend
It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of evil creatures that have the ability to shapeshift into human forms--just not dragons.
Obviously.

What I meant by "free" shapeshifting was the ability to take on pretty much any form you like, and to take on different forms each time.

Most such creatures are limited in certain and often hoghly specific ways. Succubi etc are exceptional, since their very reason for existance hinges on their shapeshifting ability. And doppelgangers are the very definition of shapeshifting.

My observation is that when a monstrous creature can assume a humanoid form "just as a bonus" rather than as their defining feature, that creature is almost always a do-goody creature.

Not that the D&D rules have prevented evil creatures from shapshifting, but that has more to do with the fantastical and generous spellcasting abilities offered by the game.

But with 5th Edition, this has changed. Massively.

While I read through the various d20 supplements I was struck by how spell level requirements were not always followed - there was creatures that could polymorph with as few as three Sorcerer levels. That is, they cast the spell "as a 3rd level Sorcerer". Despite how that isn't even possible in general.

Contrast this with 5th Edition:

* most (if not all) spells that offer shapeshifting abilities have the Concentration requirement. This means that EACH AND EVERY TIME the creature takes damage (even as little as a single point of damage) there is a non-negligible risk that the spell fails, and the creature's true form is revealed.

This restriction alone means the spellcasting route is all but closed for the "undercover monster" trope.

* the minimum spell level to shapeshift into a humanoid is no longer 4th level (or even 2nd, as in the way this was implemented for copper dragon wyrmlings). At the time of this writing you need a level 9 spell, though it is reasonable to suspect this is more of an artefact due to the limited number of splatbooks released than any intentional restriction.

Judging by draconic spellcasters as an example, this would currently restrict spellcasting shapeshifters to CR 27. And not even then would it be practical, because of the concentration requirement. (I guess you could technically supply the monster with several "Potions of Shapeshifting" to waive the concentration requirement; but then you'd run afoul of the short 1 hour duration... and handing out crates of Legendary potions that the players could then loot simply isn't a realistic solution)
 
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CapnZapp

Legend
Based on this, I conclude that the "cast Polymorph as a spell" route is effectively closed, and that the only true path forward would be to apply the Change Shape ability to the monster in question.

However, it appears that this is something as rare as an unspoken rule that (almost?) never has been broken in four decades of D&D publishing, which is really saying something. :eek::confused::eek:

Thanks all for your efforts.
 

Ilbranteloth

Explorer
Actually, the ability of metallic dragons goes all the way back to Original D&D. There were 6 types of dragons, in order of intelligence and strength: White, Black, Green, Blue, Red, and Golden. The chromatic dragons had a small chance of being spell casters (5-15% depending on type) of up to 3rd level spells in the case of the Red Dragon. Golden Dragons are noted as being far more intelligent, capable of 6th level spells, and often found in human or some other form. The Greyhawk supplement adds the missing metallic dragons and The King of Dragons (platinum) and the Queen of Dragons (chromatic - with a comment on women's lib!). Only the Platinum Dragon is noted as being able to shape change, and the metallic dragons' spell casting abilities exceed the chromatic dragons.

So it would appear that in the original design, the metallic dragons were more powerful and had more capabilities than the chromatic from the start. Metallic dragons also had two breath weapons, to the chromatic dragons' one.

In the 1st edition, more metallic dragons gained the ability to shape change.

In the 2nd edition, dragons became much more powerful but the shape changing ability remained with primarily the metallic dragons. Of the gem dragons, only the amethyst dragon could shape change, as a druid does. Deep, steel and mercury dragons can change shape, some inherently, some by spell. Mist and cloud dragons can both change to an alternate shape (mist or cloud), but not humanoid form.

In the Realms, the good dragons are found in human form in larger cities studying history and magic. They are also the source of half-dragons as originally presented (in the case of the shadow dragon, usually with drow). However, as things progressed, dragons that are spell casters could potentially gain access to polymorph spells if they didn't gain them automatically or have an innate ability.

There's certainly no reason why you can't make changes for your campaign, but originally it was an ability of the metallic dragons only.

Ilbranteloth
 

MostlyDm

Explorer
Another option for shape shifting evil dragons, purely by the rules, would be to take a metallic dragon and then apply the Shadow Dragon template to it.

They retain all their metallic powers, and gain evil alignment and shadowy powers. 100% by the book, shadow dragon never states that it can only happen to chromatics.

They were corrupted, or trapped in the plane of shadow, or whatever. Make their evil tendency be the evil extreme of their metallic tendencies.

I have a copper shadow dragon in one campaign. He didn't lose his love of pranks. He just... Expanded his definition of what pranks are acceptable.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
This bears repeating, as I've always assumed this was the reason only good dragons could shapechange in D&D...

Probably all stemming from the fact that the original game had only Gold as "good" dragons and golds were designed/based off Asian style dragons (who are well-known in eastern myth as highly magical and shapeshifters). They could shapechange. So when more "metal/good" dragons were added to the lexicon, that ability was written in.

Even in 5E, the gold dragon's depiction more strongly resembles traditional Asian dragon mythology. The other metallics are more like "Western dragons, only good," but they were added to the game later.
 

If from the earliest days of d&d there were 6 types of dragon, 5 chromatic and baddies and only the 1 metallic being a goodie, the shape change ability allows the gold dragon to be mega rare and also an npc advisor/mentor while shape changed; all a bit mysterious and exotic, more spiritual/knowledge-hoarding than sat atop a pile of gold.

I've never been a fan of brass dragons. What next? Tin? Aluminium? Please.

I dont bother with any other metallic dragon than gold, for flavour purposes.

In the event of a dragon war, the scattered and hidden gold dragons would be hopelessly outnumbered by the chromatic ones, and thus they make themselves known to other races in order to help them fight the evil dragon army. Adventure hook!

Were chromatics inmate shape changers they'd all be kings or tyrants or tax collectors and wouldn't Smaug it up in a cave somewhere. That in itself might be a nice premise for a campaign world, though there may also be a concurrent development in dragon/shapechanger identification magic or artefacts.

If you allow chromatics to be innate shape changers I'd nerf the ability a little - time limit, perhaps longer than an hour, and a higher reveal threshold: say, up to 12 hours and requires 12 hours rest before they can shape change again, and they need to sustain 10% (young), 20% (adult), or 33% (ancient) of their total HP before the need to check for dropping the shape change.
 

jrowland

First Post
ok, so, going by memory alone (sketchy at best), there was a Dragon Magazine article discussing this topic (1E/2E era). I have probably mis-remembered it, but I've carried it for many years. For those with good Dragon-Mag-Fu I'd start with the anniversary editions, they focused on Dragons typically.

IIRC - Good Dragons (Metallics) actually care about humanoids, and so developed the ability to shapeshift to better interact with them. Think Star Trek Prime Directive and all that: Let the humanoids find their own, but gently help them develop. Evil Dragons (Chromatics) could care less. Humanoids are chattel, why debase oneself to appear like one? It's a ghastly practice. That said, it's not that Chromatics can't if they so choose, but they typically don't. I'll let someone else find/confirm/deny this. My memory is shot, and my mags are in storage.

In my home campaigns, I've kept to this, but have had Chromatics shapeshift as the story demanded. I am pretty sure its only been Blacks and Greens in my campaigns, they are the "subtle" dragons and it fits (see previous posts about Cyan Bloodbane). Whites and Reds don't do subtlety. Blues might, imo, but i've never run it.
 

Obviously.

What I meant by "free" shapeshifting was the ability to take on pretty much any form you like, and to take on different forms each time.

Most such creatures are limited in certain and often hoghly specific ways. Succubi etc are exceptional, since their very reason for existance hinges on their shapeshifting ability. And doppelgangers are the very definition of shapeshifting.

My observation is that when a monstrous creature can assume a humanoid form "just as a bonus" rather than as their defining feature, that creature is almost always a do-goody creature.

Yeah, you're probably right.

The 3e Oriental Adventures books includes a lot of shape-shifters--many (if not most) of them evil, and I think several of them at least would fit your criteria. It stands out in contrast to the other monster books. I'm not sure how many of these creatures had those abilities back in AD&D--I don't have my old books (kicking myself for selling them).

Even in 5E, the gold dragon's depiction more strongly resembles traditional Asian dragon mythology. The other metallics are more like "Western dragons, only good," but they were added to the game later.

Yep. Except then they made the Lung dragons and downplayed the Asian elements of the gold (or at least gave it more of a Central Asian than East Asian feel).
 

dave2008

Legend
Based on this, I conclude that the "cast Polymorph as a spell" route is effectively closed, and that the only true path forward would be to apply the Change Shape ability to the monster in question.

However, it appears that this is something as rare as an unspoken rule that (almost?) never has been broken in four decades of D&D publishing, which is really saying something. :eek::confused::eek:

Thanks all for your efforts.

Dragons of Eberron, page 15 "Hidden Dragons"

"In Eberron, the ability to assume humanoid form is not limited to certain dragons; with proper training and dedication, any dragon can master this gift. Dragons that specialize in shapeshifting have developed a number of feats and at least one spell to enhance their abilities in humanoid form."

It then provides the following feats and spell:

"Alternate Form" - feat

"Half-Dragon Form" - feat

"Hidden Strength" - feat

"Strength of the True Form" - spell
 

CapnZapp

Legend
ok, so, going by memory alone (sketchy at best), there was a Dragon Magazine article discussing this topic (1E/2E era). I have probably mis-remembered it, but I've carried it for many years. For those with good Dragon-Mag-Fu I'd start with the anniversary editions, they focused on Dragons typically.
Thanks!
 

CapnZapp

Legend
FWIW: I do understand the reasons not to hand out free shapeshifting to creatures.

Think of this discussion more to be about how to express our collective amazement that a directive has hold so firmly (if not absolutely) for som many years and so many editions. This in a game which is absolutely overflowing with crossbreeding ideas from various legends and myths, a game which otherwise has no qualms whatsoever with "breaking" norms and ideals of its individual sources... :)

More than a discussion about the specific whys of how chromatics weren't given shapeshifting, I mean.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Dragons of Eberron, page 15 "Hidden Dragons"

"In Eberron, the ability to assume humanoid form is not limited to certain dragons; with proper training and dedication, any dragon can master this gift. Dragons that specialize in shapeshifting have developed a number of feats and at least one spell to enhance their abilities in humanoid form."
I know little of Eberron, but I do know Eberron was concieved to challenge (and overturn) certain tropes of classic D&D fantasy (read "the Greyhawk-infused Forgotten Realmsian generic D&D").

Could it be that what this is really saying about D&D is "the ability to assume humanoid form is limited to certain dragons"?

So thank you for this little tidbit. My campaign isn't set in Eberron, so this is mainly useful to me as background info on how that campaign world is "different", rather than a canonical example of a "rules-breaking" chromatic: in your campaign world it wouldn't be breaking any rules. But interesting nonetheless to find Keith Baker must have had this conversation previously! :)
 

dave2008

Legend
Could it be that what this is really saying about D&D is "the ability to assume humanoid form is limited to certain dragons"?

No, it clearly doesn't - your reading into it.

If we want to read into things I would point out that by WotC estimate approx. 50% of D&D is homebrew. I know I have always given Chromatics in my world the ability to shapechange, so that could be the norm for over 50% of D&D!
 

dave2008

Legend
I know little of Eberron, but I do know Eberron was concieved to challenge (and overturn) certain tropes of classic D&D fantasy (read "the Greyhawk-infused Forgotten Realmsian generic D&D").

Could it be that what this is really saying about D&D is "the ability to assume humanoid form is limited to certain dragons"?

So thank you for this little tidbit. My campaign isn't set in Eberron, so this is mainly useful to me as background info on how that campaign world is "different", rather than a canonical example of a "rules-breaking" chromatic: in your campaign world it wouldn't be breaking any rules. But interesting nonetheless to find Keith Baker must have had this conversation previously! :)

Also, Dragon #50,page 12 "Finally, at age 401 or more the dragon can shapechange, as the ninth-level magic user spell."

This was refer to all dragons, not just chromatics.
 

dave2008

Legend
ok, so, going by memory alone (sketchy at best), there was a Dragon Magazine article discussing this topic (1E/2E era). I have probably mis-remembered it, but I've carried it for many years. For those with good Dragon-Mag-Fu I'd start with the anniversary editions, they focused on Dragons typically.

IIRC - Good Dragons (Metallics) actually care about humanoids, and so developed the ability to shapeshift to better interact with them. Think Star Trek Prime Directive and all that: Let the humanoids find their own, but gently help them develop. Evil Dragons (Chromatics) could care less. Humanoids are chattel, why debase oneself to appear like one? It's a ghastly practice. That said, it's not that Chromatics can't if they so choose, but they typically don't. I'll let someone else find/confirm/deny this. My memory is shot, and my mags are in storage.

In my home campaigns, I've kept to this, but have had Chromatics shapeshift as the story demanded. I am pretty sure its only been Blacks and Greens in my campaigns, they are the "subtle" dragons and it fits (see previous posts about Cyan Bloodbane). Whites and Reds don't do subtlety. Blues might, imo, but i've never run it.

I found it - Dragon #50,page 12
 

CapnZapp

Legend
If we want to read into things I would point out that by WotC estimate approx. 50% of D&D is homebrew. I know I have always given Chromatics in my world the ability to shapechange, so that could be the norm for over 50% of D&D!
Sorry Dave but I have already clearly stated I'm aware I can just do whatever I want.

The premise of the discussion on chromatic shapeshifting precedent or the lack thereof will have to be "official WoTc publishing history" or it will be essentially meaningless.

So far, we have the d20 era Polymorph spell. It allowed pretty much any spellcaster to change shape at will, with none of the crippling 5E disadvantages (duration, concentration) that pretty much shuts down any attempt at inserting a dragon into the PCs midst unbeknownst.

Then we have Eberron. Cool, cool, cool... but still pretty much a self-contained campaign world, and a relatively new one at that.

All other examples so commendably dug up and presented here provide circumstancial evidence at best.

That doesn't mean I'm not enjoying the conversation. It only fuels my amazement at finding what appears to be a very rare case where TSR/WotC have managed to keep to the company line for decades...!
 


SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
Well the mother of all evil dragons can shapechange...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiamat_(Dungeons_&_Dragons)


Tiamat in human form.

Tiamat.jpg
 

dave2008

Legend
Then we have Eberron. Cool, cool, cool... but still pretty much a self-contained campaign world, and a relatively new one at that.

But not nearly as new as 5e!

Perhaps you have stated it earlier and I missed it, but can you clarify what you are trying to find out or what your goal is? Every time I think I've helped answer your question, ya shoot me down. So, I'm starting to think I don't no the question! Can you enlighten me please and thank you for the discussion.
 

Halivar

First Post
FWIW, the Princes of the Apocalypse (OFFICIAL!) adventure has a black dragon shapeshifted as a drow lady-of-the-manor the PC's must negotiate with. I take this as license, as a DM, to give evil dragons whatever powers I need to make them bad-:lol::lol::lol: NPC's.
 

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