Familiarity Question

How do you know what you can or cannot shapeshift into?

In roleplaying games with fantasy elements shapeshifting abilities can be within the reach of the party. So of course one day one of the players might come up with a character whose main gimmick is being a shapeshifter, or rolls a Druid in D&D/Pathfinder. This allows for a lot of freedom and potentially interesting roleplaying from that character, it might also horribly break the game and allow that one character to steamroll the entire campaign on their own. While some shapeshifting abilities contain an in-build limit in the rules with how many shapes are available, not all games do this. As such it might be necessary to limit this ability. But doing so might cripple the shapeshifter in question, which won't make the player in question happy. So now and then, DMs make posts on how to handle such shapeshifting. They ask what is known as the Familiarity Question.


What to do as a playerEdit

Players have three things to do when making such a character, and they have to stick with them all the way.

Oath of Humility: aka Don't Be a MunchkinEdit

Few things are more annoying in a game than to have one player solve all of the problems the party faces without anyone else getting a say in this. As such, players will have to state to everyone (both the DM and the party) that yes, they are aware they can do a lot of things and they must SWEAR to not use their powers to break the game or overshadow the other party members. Aka: don't solo the game. This will garner a lot of goodwill with the rest of the party.

Write up your bestiaryEdit

Having someone go through several books to see what they can turn into to help the party, or write up a new form for a situation is VERY ANNOYING for it grinds the game to a halt. If you want to turn into a variety of things, you have two ways of doing this.

  • Write down all your forms. In case that you can generate infinite forms on your own, make sure you have a form ready to go. Order them by name, by type, by species; whatever works for you as long as it is fast to look up. Use sticky notes for various types if you need them.
  • When you want to use critters from the Monster Manual or other physical books, know where they are. Don't go turning pages to see what works best: know what you want to turn into, then flip to that page. And please, use your own books for this effort. As a rule of thumb, if it takes longer than a turn (6 seconds or so) to look something up you're doing it wrong.

Additionally, you might find it useful to keep notes with several forms fit to a specific solution. For example:

If the rules indicate that your stats contribute to the creature's stats, make sure to calculate this along the way. Make tables if you need them to determine things like your new AC if you have armor that contributes to this.

Justify your character knowing these thingsEdit

Both the easiest and the hardest part. Have a reason for your character to know all these creatures. Maybe he was raised by a circle of druids who taught him all about the creatures of the natural world? Maybe your grandfather was a renowned ranger who wrote some great almanac of the monsters of the world, from which he read to his beloved granddaughter. Maybe your parents were Aberration hunters who wanted their child to know of the monsters they faced? Or maybe you're playing a GENTLEMAN ADVENTURER who is in it to hunt and bag all the great beasts of the world. Make something up, something fun and with hooks for the DM and you'll be set.

Take ranks in Knowledge skillsEdit

Later Monster Manuals explicitly state that a knowledge check of 10+CR allows you to identify a monster, and per the knowledge skill that means you're remembering what it is. Since a Wizard is already rocking knowledge skills and a Druid should have max ranks in Nature, this means you aren't likely to be hindered by this too much unless you're a Sorcerer or other caster that somehow got polymorph spells on their spell list. Simultaneously the most explicit and least restrictive solution.

Things a DM can doEdit

As a DM you have the final say in what your players will or will not do. As such it is in your power to say no to powergaming shenanigans, but keep in mind that your players want to have fun. So there's a few things you can do. Whatever you do, to make sure to tell this to your player while you're still in the character creation stage and not right before the start of a session.

Tell your player to do all of the aboveEdit

Simply put, the steps above give the player the most freedom (and indulge their desire to play a shapeshifter), at the cost of breaking the game. Make sure to stress the importance of the non-Munchkinnery statement for them, the party and the campaign as a whole.

Limit depending on the character's abilitiesEdit

A more convoluted way of dealing with them. Determine how many forms a character can know based on some kind of stat (flat number plus one of its stats, maybe level or a skill as well). This might appear arbitrary to a player and might end with them minmaxing to get the most out of their character, which may result in them not having a good time.

Have them roll Knowledge (whatever)Edit

Elegant on paper, useless in practice. Druids can turn into natural animals, but since those are all bound to the same skill it's just a matter of minmaxing it (or just plain old leveling up) to reliably roll for the specific creature's Knowledge DC. Do try and avoid invoking Bear Lore, beause as we all know that's just stupid. On the other hand, a character such as a Master of Many Forms who can turn into monsters linked to a variety of different sources (kind of how an Archivist's class feature works). This means that there are at least five Knowledge skills the character will need to invest in (not all of whom will be on their skill list) to get the most out of their character, which will result in the player trying to minmax his character, which is not a desirable result.

Limit them to whatever they have seenEdit

The WYSIWYG solution. Only allow your player to change shape into the the creatures their character has seen, with perhaps some basic forms. On one hand this will make the forms in question limited and easy to manage, and might be a desirable solution when dealing with new players. For a more experienced player however this will cripple their character and greatly limit their most important class feature, which will not be the solution the player is going for.

No shapeshiftersEdit

The simplest yet most rigorous solution: ban shapeshifters altogether. If you want to do something like this make sure to tell the players in advance, right at the first steps of the campaign. If you do this while setting the tone for the campaign you can have players know what to expect and will design their characters with this in mind. If you do this all the time however this might eventually create resistance from your players, who'll want you to change this or, perhaps for the best, have them give it a shot at DMing.


When facing a shapeshifter inform the player of the concerns and limits you have when dealing with shapeshifters. Imposing limits outside of what is in the rulebooks might be met with resistance, but if you have a player who can handle the freedom you should definitely allow them to play with the sheer versatility of the shapeshifter.