If you’re worried about looking like Carl Havoc when you use your disguise kit, but want to change how you look for a few hours, try Alter Self on for size.
TL;DR: From the school of Transmutation, Alter Self is a 2nd level spell available to sorcerers, wizards, and artificers. If you’re a circle of the moon druid you’ll get this at will at level 14.
This spell is excellent for role-playing, adding some character flavor to an event or situation and has a broad range of uses, though mostly for deception purposes. In some ways it is a DMs nightmare, but can also be a fun way to work directly with your players limitless creativity.
Alter self lasts for one hour, requires verbal and somatic components, and is a Concentration spell. If you take damage and fail your CON save or cast another Concentration spell, your alterations will immediately wear off.
Three ways to do this, change your appearance and voice, get fishy with it, go au natural and grow some weirdness. Let’s break Alter Self down further.
Who Can Cast Alter Self in DnD 5e?
Sorcerers, wizards, and artificers can cast Alter Self. It also becomes available as an at-will spell to Circle of the Moon Druids at level 14.
What School of Magic is Alter Self From?
The School of Transmutation. It is different from Disguise Self in that Alter Self holds up to physical inspection.
What are the Rules As Written for Alter Self in DnD 5e?
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 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.
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.
Aquatic adaptation seems pretty straightforward, as does Natural weapons, but where players are going to trip you up as a DM is with Change Appearance.
An important note on “size” in the “change appearance” text – You can change height and weight BUT you cannot appear as a creature of a different size.
If you are medium you cannot become someone or something that is large, gargantuan or small for example. You can shift within the parameters of yourself though, just with some guardrails. This sort of change is reserved for Enlarge/Reduce.
The Three Options for Alter Self in DnD 5e
Aquatic Adaptation, Change Appearance, and Natural Weapon.
You might look at this and say “hey John, why did they stop at those three options,” which is a great question. At the end of the day, you can’t account for everything, but they have covered a broad range of alterations. If you have some additional flavor to add, talk with your DM and see if it fits. General rules we would apply, the benefit of the alteration should not exceed that of higher level spells.
Similar, draw a hard line about if wings would give you the ability to fly. While Aquatic adaptation gives a swimming speed equal to walking speed, you technically start the game with the ability to swim, but each foot costs one extra foot, doubled in choppy waters.
Fly itself is a 3rd level transmutation and Druids don’t get Wild Shapes that can fly until Level 8. Fly is also a concentration spell. Not saying you CAN’T do it, just saying you should be cautious with doling out Wing abilities. You could always slap on some Athletics checks or Dexterity checks to see if they can work the wings.
Remember, your stats in change appearance DO NOT CHANGE.
Your clothes also do not change. Unlike Disguise self, which is explicit about clothes, if you use Alter Self and Change Appearance to be the Mayor of Mayville, you will still need the clothes of the mayor to successfully trick folks. Deception checks will likely still be important. Think of this as the Incredible Hulk ripping his trousers every time he hulks out. If you go too large or too small, you might look like a sausage or a shrimp in your clothing.
You might be able to get closer if you also have a Disguise Kit, but don’t be surprised if your DM still wants some Deception checks.
What are some Limits and abuses of Alter Self in DnD 5e?
Being able to change from one benefit to another by an action here is awesome. If you need to sneak past a fish guard and then swim for a long distance,
Another impressive piece of Natural Weapon is that is is considered a magical weapon. If you do not have a magic weapon on you and the enemy creature you’re fighting is resistant or immune to non-magic weapons, 1d6 with a +1 bonus AND your strength modifier isn’t a terrible option. Only problem here is when using your natural weapon, you would be in melee range and are likely going to have your concentration broken.
Changing your appearance does NOT grant you the history, knowledge, or background of the person you become. If you want to look like Ryan Gosling, you still need to have the acting chops and know his schedule to
Similar spells to Alter Self:
Disguise Self – first level illusion spell that doesn’t hold up to physical inspection. As long as you’re not going to get touched it’s roughly the same AND it changes your clothing. It’s more like a parlor trick than a transformation
You could combine disguise self with Alter Self and have both the physical and clothing adjustments, but remember the clothing would fade away if inspected. Disguise self is NOT concentration, so no biggie there.
Polymorph (4th level), true polymorph (9th level), mass polymorph (9th level) are great if you’re wanting to becoming quadrapedal or a true beast and get all the stats and bonuses, but way overblown for a quick disguise
Shapechange – 9th level and you need a 1500gp jade circlet, but you get the stats of the creature you’re changing into, mostly.
What is the history of Alter Self in DnD?
Alter Self has taken an interesting turn over the course of its life, likely from too many abuses.
2nd edition included clothes changing along with the physical transformation and allowed the caster to get wings and fly, but awkwardly as discussed earlier.
3rd edition made it confusing by allowing for a size adjustment by one up or down, so from medium to large or medium to small.
Consistent in all versions is the ruling that just because you take the form does not mean you get the stats, nor do you get extraordinary abilities, like darkvision, regeneration, etc.