How Does Shapechanger Work?

Today we’re exploring a rules clarification with the new Eberron Changeling. The Changeling gets a racial feature called “Shapechange” which allows it to change form. Here’s the relevant part we’ll be examining:

Shapechanger redacted

The language of the feature says that you can change your appearance as an action. It also says you stay in this form until you revert to your true form or die. The question is whether the language indicating the duration functions as a limiter to the initial action.

  • If yes, then a Changeling would need to revert to its true form before using its Shapechange ability to assume a new form.
  • If no, then a Changeling can freely change between different forms.

Analysis

Without clearer language, there isn’t a way to determine whether the second paragraph limits the first.

The first sentence doesn’t indicate that there is any limitation on using your action to shapechange. Whereas if it was intended to have a limitation, it might say something like “while in your true form…”

Conversely, the second sentence doesn’t state that you can change out of your adopted form by using an action to assume a new form. Rather, it prescribes two specific scenarios where the form can be dropped.

There is a D&D rule convention which says specific rules override general rules. Following that rule, you could argue that the specific limitation on what

Origins

Perhaps we can draw some clarity from seeing how the feature was developed. Let’s take a look back at the playtest material, which was initially released in the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron (which has since been updated with the new content). The initial version of this feature was called “Change Appearance” and it worked as follows:

Change Appearance redacted

Unlike Shapechanger, this racial feature clearly defines the Changeling’s ability to use an action to either transform or revert to their natural form. Thus, we can safely assume that the design intent was to allow the Changeling to use an action to change form at any time, without dropping back into true form.

Now, most of the time that language is changed from playtest to final iteration, the change is intended. So, if a rewritten feature seemingly removes a prior functionality, we can assume that the new limitation was intended. Otherwise, that portion would not have been rewritten.

However, we cannot assume that an intention to change a feature is the only reason that language might be changed. In this case, the entire rule was rewritten from the ground up. Every sentence.

  • The language is rewritten in a concise style and reordered.
  • Removed expository language in favor of just stating the rules and leaving the interpretation to the table. As we know, language of clarification often has the opposite effect.
  • Removed a mechanic giving the Changeling advantage on Deception checks.

As such, its entirely possible that any latent ambiguity is a result of the wholesale rewrite, and not an intended change to the mechanics of the feature.

We don’t really know what the Rules as Intended (RAI) are unless we ask.

Official Ruling

Without clear instruction on how to rule Shapechanger, we must look to the designers. So, I asked D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford.

Now, keep in mind that tweets from the D&D crew aren’t considered official rulings. However, they are a pretty strong indication of how a clarificatory ruling might appear in a future errata or Sage Advice. Without further ado, here’s the RAI:

Crawford Shapechanger feature

The Shapechanger is intended to be able to change appearance without reverting back to its true form. This is good news for Shapechangers everywhere who don’t have to spend twice the action economy and time assuming a new form.

Rewrite

How can we rewrite this rule to make it clear that the Changeling can freely change form?

Borrow Original Language

What we could do here is to borrow some language from the second paragraph and make this more like the original draft. Something like this might work:

“As an action, you can change your appearance and your voice, or revert to your true form.”

The problem with this change is that the feature reads a little oddly if you don’t change the language of the final paragraph. Even making such changes can prove difficult because you need to address the “new form” language and it doesn’t make sense to say you revert if you’re already in your true form. As such, I’d rewrite the whole second paragraph as follows:

If you are in a new form when you die, you revert to your true form.

A fix that requires changing both sentences is not the most elegant solution. Ideally, we want to change as few things as possible while preserving the intended functionality.

Expanding Limitations

Alternatively, the second sentence could be adjusted to account for additional scenarios in which you drop out of form. In this change, we just make it explicit that the new form can end when you assume a new new form.

“You stay in this new form until you use this feature again, you use an action to revert to your true form, or you die.”

This new language just builds the initial use case into the limiting language. While running the risk of redundancy, it is probably the most elegant solution because it only requires one change to the final paragraph (and an Oxford comma for good measure).

If you’re interested in seeing our final rewrite of the Changeling’s Shapechanger feature, including some changes we made last week, head on over to the ThinkDM Patreon to check it out!

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