A Change for the Better

A look at shapechanging in Shadowrun

In most Shadowrun campaigns, magician characters will have a fairly “standard” assortment of spells, including some of the old stand-bys like manabolt, heal and armor. However, there is a virtually limitless range of possible spell in the Shadowrun magic system and many effects are overlooked by magician players. One of these effects is shapeshifting.

There are two primary spells for shapeshifting: shapeshift and critter form. Critter form is just a limited version of shapeshift that only allows the magician to assume a single animal form.

Limits on Shapeshifting

There is no mention in the spell of any limit of size or other abilities for the critter form beyond the fact that it must be a “normal” critter (that is to say, a non-Awakened “real world” animal). To quote Madame Mim from Disney’s Sword in the Stone, “no purple crocodiles or pink dragons allowed.”

However, there are still many “normal” animal forms that can be quite powerful. An elephant must have Strength and Body well into double digits, not to mention what the abilities of, say, a blue whale must be (easily Strength 40 or more). There is also the possibility of turning into a very tiny form, like an insect. What about microscopic life-forms like amoebas or Merlin’s trick (again from Sword in the Stone) of turning into an invisible germ?

Obviously some sort of limit on the forms that magician can assume is probably needed to keep things under control. A simple rule is to limit the change based on the Body of the desired animal form (which is also a rough guideline as to its mass), say no more than plus or minus three to the magician’s original Body score. This would allow most magicians to assume animal forms with mass a few times greater than human, such as a horse, but nothing as massive as an elephant or whale.

Likewise, the magician is not allowed to reduce Body to lower than 1, and so cannot assume the form of anything much smaller than a rat. Of course, with the attribute bonus generated from the spellcasting test, it could be one tough rat!

Naturally, the gamemaster can vary these limitations as needed for the campaign. Perhaps he feels that the larger forms are not too great of a concern because of their limited utility (you can’t become an elephant in an enclosed space nor would you want to become a whale on land) and only very tiny forms are restricted.

Another question to consider is whether or not the shapechange spell allows a character to assume (meta)human forms as well as animals. This is probably better covered by the mask spell, but it might be allowed by some gamemasters.

Animal Fighting

The ability or attribute used by a character in animal form to make attacks is also not given by the spell description. Would the human-oriented skill of unarmed combat even apply to fighting in the form of an eagle or a tiger?

Normal animals use their Reaction as their attack score and I would suggest that characters in animal form would do the same. This makes a shapechanged combatant formidable, because the animal Reaction is increased by the Intelligence of the subject of the spell, but this seems to well represent the terrible power of a creature like a bear or tiger controlled by a human intellect. This seems to reflect the fantasy-genre fiction where shapeshifting magicians who are quite combat inept become fearsome fighters in animal form. Keep in mind that all tests (including attack tests) made in animal form may still suffer a target number penalty from sustaining the shapechange spell.

Alternately, the gamemaster might require a specialization of Unarmed Combat for animal forms. This could even be a different skill for each species or even each type of animal! This is generally too restrictive, but it is a good way to limit the combat abilities of a shapechanger, if desired. If Unarmed Combat skill is required, then the shapeshifted character can also default to Quickness or Reaction, which will likely be fairly high in the beast form.

Can’t Take It With You

One of the limits of the shapechange spell given above is that it doesn’t affect clothing or equipment. Anything the character is carrying or wearing will either fall to the ground or might possibly even be destroyed by the shapeshift if the character doesn’t bother to remove his clothing first.

This can be a nuisance (not to mention embarrassment) for a shapeshifter. Armor, in particular, can be lost when changing into a very large form and there is always the possibility of the character becoming entangled in their clothing when assuming certain animal and (especially) avian forms. There are several possible solutions for this problem.

The first, and simplest, is to create a version of the shapechange spell that is a physical spell and transforms anything that the character is wearing (but not carrying). The character’s clothing disappears when the spell is cast and reappears when they assume human form. The clothing might be displaced into astral space, be changed along with the character (see below) or perhaps it is a mystery that magical theorists are still working on.

An option within the existing system is for the magician to stack a Fashion spell (Grimoire, p.131) along with the shapechange spell to transform his clothing into a collar, leg band or something similar on the person of the animal form, then reverse the spell upon changing back to human form. This allows the shapeshifter to carry “compressed” clothing along with him. The drawback is that the multiple spellcastings can be become very draining, especially if multiple changes in form are called for.

A third option is to take a page from White Wolf Games’ Werewolf and allow magicians to spend karma to “bond” items much in the way they bond foci. This allows the items so enchanted (and only them) to change shape with the character. A normal set of clothes might cost a point of Karma or two, while something like a weapon or other item might cost more. If this option is used, magical foci should automatically have this ability as part of their normal bonding cost.

Character with cyberware who are the subject of a shapechange spell need not worry. Although cybernetics are not “living,” the character has expended Essence to tie those implants to his personal aura, allowing them to change form along with the rest of the character. It is worth noting that the various bonuses granted by cyberware do not apply while the character is in animal form but return to normal when the spell ends.

Once Through Quickly

One thing a shapeshifting magician might want to do that is common in the source literature is change directly from one form to another without assuming human form. This is common in shapeshifter’s duels and similar situations. For example, a magician in seagull form flying over the ocean spots something faint under the water. She wants to assume dolphin form to dive down and take a look. Does she have to re-cast the shapechange spell? There are several options.

The gamemaster could require that a character assume human form (i.e., drop any existing shapechange spell) before assuming another form. This would prohibit changes like the one described above, and the magician would have to dive into the water in human form, then become a dolphin.

The gamemaster can allow another shapechange spell to be cast while in animal form. This assumes the magician has no geasa or fetishes required for the spell that the animal form does not have or is not capable of. For example, if the magician needed to speak to cast the spell, she would have to be in the form of a parrot -not a gull-to pull it off.

Lastly, the gamemaster can allow a single shapechange spell to grant multiple changes of form, with the same number of successes as the original casting. Whether or not these additional changes cause any additional drain is up to the gamemaster. This option makes shapechange a highly flexible spell and should be considered carefully before being adopted.

Going Over to the Beast

A common danger of shapeshifting in the source literature is losing one’s own personality in the mind of the animal form. The longer the shapeshifter remains in animal form, the more likely they will become the animal in mind as well as body.

If the gamemaster wants to include this possibility, a shapechanged character must make a Willpower test every hour against a target number of 4. A failed test reduces the characters Intelligence by 1. When the character’s Intelligence drops to the normal level for that animal (as listed in the critter descriptions) the character mentally becomes that animal and the shapechange spell is effectively Quickened at the force it was cast at (at no Karma cost to the magician, unless the gamemaster is especially cruel).

The only way the character can assume their normal form again is if the shapechange spell is dispelled or overcome in astral combat by another magician. This ends the spell and returns the character to normal with no adverse effects.

A Changeling Primer

Listed here are some useful forms for a shapechanging magician to keep in mind.

Combat: Most predatory animals are useful combat forms, especially tigers, bears, and wolves. Gorillas have great Strength and Body as well as the ability to handle equipment when directed by a human intelligence. A shark form in the water can be frighteningly effective.

Disguise: Any breed of domestic dog is good for this in the city (remember the Thing, directed by John Carpenter?) as are rats, pigeons and other critters that are omnipresent in the city.

Flyers: Bird forms of all kinds are useful for aerial scouting and spying. Pigeons and seagulls are common enough in most cities as not to be noticed by anyone, while falcons and eagles have extraordinary distance vision and also make useful combat forms. Bats are an excellent aerial form at night, providing natural sonar. Owls make a good nighttime form as well.

Poisonous: Some small forms can be highly effective in combat because they are also poisonous. This includes most poisonous snakes like cobras and vipers.

Runners: Swift land animals like deer, antelope and cheetahs are superb for fast pursuit or escape, especially in wilderness areas. They are less effective in the metroplex where smaller forms like rats and domestic cats allow one to disappear more easily into dark alleys and small nooks and crannies.

Swimmers: Useful aquatic forms include otters, seals and small cetaceans like dolphins. Shark forms can be very frightening and strange ones like manta rays and jellyfish (especially poisonous ones) have their uses as well, and don’t forget electric eels.

Lycanthropic Adepts

A specialized “shapechanger” adept would make an interesting character to play. The character (most likely a sorcery adept) would specialize in spells like shapechange and mask that allowed him to assume different forms and the various support spells (such as fashion, mentioned above). The character might even be unaware of his abilities and believe himself to be some kind of “were-creature” instead of a normal magician.

The Shapeshifter’s Duel

Another common occurrence from the source fiction (remember Sword in the Stone?) is a duel between magicians using the shapeshift spell. While the duel is in effect, each magician assumes a series of shapes, trying to use superior knowledge and cunning to overcome his opponent.

Each participant cast shapechange normally at the start of the duel. During the duel, the magician may not use other magic, but may assume a new shape as a Simple Action. Each form change requires a new Force Success Test, but does not require an additional Drain Resistance Test (this may vary if the gamemaster places additional limits on shapechange). Remember any limits on different forms that the magician may assume.

This sort of combat exists in numerous traditions (most of them shamanic). At the gamemaster’s discretion, any magician who knows the shapechange spell may participate in such a duel. Indeed, it would be interesting to see such a conflict played out between two magicians of different traditions.

Exclusive Sustainment Modifier

This spell modifier is similar to the normal Exclusive modifier for spell force (SRII, p.133). Exclusive sustainment has the same requirement that the caster may not cast any other spell or perform any other magical activity while this spell is being sustained. It is different in that the modifier is not applied to the spell’s Force, which remains at the learned level. Instead, the caster is allowed to expend a Free action each turn for the sustainment of the spell and takes no distraction modifier for sustainment. Therefore, the caster can act normally while sustaining the spell, with the exception of not being able to take any other magical actions while sustaining.