With the right spells and a bit of imagination magic users in D&D can get up to some pretty weird things. Without a doubt Alter Self allows for some of the strangest results when you’re still at low levels.
The spell allows the caster to sculpt their own body as they see fit, so long as they stay roughly the same size and retain their basic configuration of limbs (I would love to have been in the playtest where they realised the need for that clause). Within those boundaries they can appear as anybody and anything they like.
Want to be a Drow Priestess for the afternoon or see what it’s like to roam the streets of Waterdeep as a Tiefling? Go ahead! The spell can change all of your physical characteristics, including your voice, so in many ways it has Disguise Self and other illusions beaten when it comes to impersonating that troublesome Duke.
There’s nothing in the rules to stop you getting weird with Alter Self either. You can turn your Half-Orc into a dinosaur-woman, a rat that walks like a man or even a diseased, shambling monstrosity that makes enemies retch and flee in terror. On the other end of the spectrum it can transform a skinny, bookish Wizard into a towering hunk with a Herculean physique and watermelons where his biceps should be.
Just remember that though it changes the shape of your body, Alter Self doesn’t actually modify your statistics to match your new form. You can’t rustle up a Constitution bonus by magicking yourself into a Dwarf or boost your weedy strength with sculpted muscles.
There are only two exceptions to this, both of which are set out in the spell text. The first allows you to modify your body so that you’re aquatic, growing gills and sprouting webbing on your hands and feet, while the second causes you to grow natural weapons.
These weapons can take the form of claws, horns, talons or anything else you can dream up, and modify your unarmed strike so that it causes 1d6 damage and counts as a +1 magic weapon. Mechanically it’s not really worth burning a second-level spell slot to create what amounts to a +1 shortsword that disappears after one hour. Thematically, however, growing bone-claws and going full-on-Wolverine is awesome enough for most people to overlook its comparatively low power.
These secondary effects of Alter Self are somewhat niche, only really coming into play when you’re exploring underwater caverns or are stripped of your equipment. However, when you do get a chance to make full use of them they can be real game-changers.
And if nothing else it represents the very best way to transform yourself into a man-shark with only a second-level spell. That’s got to be worth something, right?
A very cool spell with the potential to spark off some truly memorable moments. Most of its useful effects can be replicated with other abilities, however, making it a somewhat niche choice.
Casting time: 1 Action
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour
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.