Adventure Hook: The Metamorphosis Curse

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 8, 2010

When players create a character one of the most important decisions they make is choosing their race. Most often players look at the race that provides the best ability bonuses or most interesting racial power to compliment their class. It’s because of this min/maxing we tend to see the same race/class combos over and over again. Introducing the Metamorphosis Curse into your campaign will force players to try new races they might not otherwise choose on their own.

Let’s assume that you’ve created the perfect character. You’ve played through a few levels and you’re really getting to know this PC. He was built to kick butt and he’s doing a fantastic job so far. Everything’s clicking. What happens if his race is suddenly changed? How does this affect your character?

When looking through some old files I found notes for an adventure arc called The Metamorphosis Curse. The idea was that one or more of the PCs fall victim to this curse. The only detrimental effect is that they are transformed into a different race. That in and of itself might seem bad enough, but I took it a step further. Every time the PC leveled they would again transform into a new race and never into a race they’d been before. The idea was that over the course of the campaign (which I envisioned spanning at least five or six levels) the PCs would get to experience play as many different races.

I know that some players are reading this article and calling foul. After all if the DM forced them to change their Dwarf into a Half-elf the character would immediately loose his flavour. Suddenly you’re not playing the character you want to play. The DM has forced you to play something you’re not interested in. And that’s precisely the point of this hook.

Too many of my players are power gamers. All they play are those predictable and boring race/class combos. By introducing the Metamorphosis Curse they kept playing the same class but got to see what it was like to try different races.

Now I’m not a totally heartless jerk DM. I wasn’t going to impose this curse and then tie the PCs’ hands. As they searched for a cure they found that certain things could influence what race they became during their next transformation. The requirement for each race was different. For one it might require to the PC to kill that race’s mortal enemy. For another it might be to gain the blessing from a high priest of that race. Another still might be to defeat a member of that race in single combat.

As the campaign progressed the PC were given clues and ample opportunities to learn more about how the curse worked. They could apply this knowledge and shape their destiny while they sought the ultimate cure. Eventually they gained enough information to actively decide what race they’d become next. Sure the first few times they transformed it was totally random, but after a few changes it was more calculated.

To throw an additional quark into the mix I made sure that after the first couple of transformations none of the PCs were the same race. This way when the party learned the trick to becoming Dwarves during the next transformation, it might turn out that two of the PCs had already been transformed into Dwarves. So this knowledge was essentially useless to those PCs.

With the Character Builder and 4e D&D mechanics, introducing the Metamorphosis Curse is easier then ever. Every time the PC is transformed you just open Character Builder, change the race, print a clean copy of the character sheet and voilà, in less than 5 minutes you’re good to keep playing.

So think about how the Metamorphosis Curse would actually affect PCs. When they changed race their ability score modifiers would change, they’d get a new racial power and they’d get new racial bonuses to skills. Depending on if they were (or if they became) Human or Eladrin they might gain or loose training in a skill. These changes will have some impact to numbers, but it’s unlikely they’d be game-changing. Your primary ability might drop by 2 which mean all of your attack and damage scores are adjusted by 1. Assuming that this isn’t happening to level 1 PCs, is 1 point going to make that big of an impact? The way I see it, from the DM’s perspective, is that the role-playing gains outweigh the 1 point deficiency.

Given how easy it is to make the transformation, you may even decide to speed up the changes. Maybe they change after reaching 3 milestones, or if you’re looking for a really short-term arc, maybe after each extended rest. I have two big concerns about making the transformation more frequent.

The first is that it doesn’t provide a lot of time for the PCs to learn about the curse and find out what thy need to do to control the next transformation. If becoming a Dwarf means climbing to the top of a mountain then they’d better be able to fly because they’re not likely to get there in just one day.

The second is that it doesn’t give the players a lot of time to explore what it’s like to be the new race. The most fun part of seeing the Metamorphosis Curse in action is the role-playing. What kind of impact does becoming an Eladrin have on you if you’ve been a Half-orc all of your life?

If I was to use the Metamorphosis Curse again I’d keep the transformation to each time the PCs level, but I’d use 20 races taken from the PHB, PHB2, PHB3 and various Monster Manuals. Most PCs will likely only transform four or five times before they find a cure, but using a larger list means that there’s less chance of doubling up. One PC may become a Minotaur but no one else in the party ever does.

At the end of the story-arc it might be interesting to let the PCs decide what race they want to stay after the curse is lifted. Give them the option to return to their original race, but I think letting them choose from any race they’ve discovered the transformation secret for seem fair. It would be interesting to see just how many players choose to go back to their original concept and how many stick with something they never intended to play from the outset.

Be sure to check out these related articles.

Is the Metamorphosis Curse something you think you’d ever use in your campaign? Do you think your players would be outraged or would they accept the transformation? How many times do you think players would accept transformation before they’d just want things to stop?

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1 Gormal October 8, 2010 at 10:35 am

I really like the idea of playing an off class/race It offers some difficulties to game play but is wonderful for roleplaying. Why not play a dwarven theif who belongs to a circus. That in actuallity is a group of wondering dwarves seeking information ithat is going on in the lands for their dwarven king. Or a hafling paladin who decided to become a paladin because their village was wiped by zombies controlled by an evil warloick. Yet can only use a short sword as a weapon because of their size. We create characters for thiws game, they should have character when playing them.

2 callin October 8, 2010 at 11:56 am

I am doing something slightly similar. After the next time they level they will be kidnapped into a quest where the end result is that they get to change their race and class (a sort of metaphysical transformation). This is my way of providing an in-game reason for the players to be able to explore all the new races and classes that have come out since the game was released. However, what they exit the quest as is completely dependent on player choice; they could make some radical changes or stay exactly the same, but the chocie is theirs.
It would really annoy me (if I was ever a player) and my players to have the GM arbitrarily force upon me something as fundamental as a race change. I know some of my players would circumvent the curse by making a new character.
I imagine some people would really like such a thing to happen to their character (my wife would probably enjoy it) but some would hate it. So, I suppose each GM has to make the decision as to their own groups. For myself, I wouldn’t force such a thing on my players on a permanent basis. I would, however, probably do such a thing for a few encounters.

3 Sean Holland October 8, 2010 at 12:22 pm

As long as there was a potential cure at the end, it would be interesting campaign, and could be quite fun.

But I suspect it would be best to warn the players before using this plot on them.

4 eh October 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm

eh, i dont like this idea, it feels like punishment

5 Soklemon October 8, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Ooooooooo! This. Is. Awesome!!!
It will allow my players to try races they normally dont, and they re always bugging me too be monster races. This is the pefect oppurtunity. I ll work it in…ASAP. Right now, theyre in RotG, but this will be next priority. 🙂

6 Thorynn October 9, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I’m in a Dwarven clan running thru some LFR mods. Its fun because we have to try and fill all the roles with just dwarves, which as we all know, is the best race anyway.

7 Chris October 10, 2010 at 5:17 am

I dig the hook. I love throwing curve balls like that at my PCs. In a recent game the most prominent character was killed and the party forked out to have Resurrection cast on him.

His bad-ass Elfin warrior came back as a considerably gayer (in the happy sense) Satyr. Even though the character’s personality didn’t have to change, he opted to let the reincarnation have some effect on his persona and gradually shifted into being a warrior/bard.

8 Z October 19, 2010 at 9:31 am

@Ameron: I know this article is a week old at this point, but I was curious how you would handle race-based feats in you Metamorphosis Curse game? Does the player lose access to the feat? Or would you allow them to swap it out for a feat appropriate to the current race? Or perhaps simply declare that the character is still their original race “inside” and the racial feat continues to work as it is?

I know that if I started the game as a dragonborn and took a breath feat or two, then I would be pretty despondent when I suddenly became a dwarf and realized my breath feats were now not just useless to my new form, but also sucking up space that could be used to make myself effective in said new form.


9 Liack October 19, 2010 at 9:12 pm

@Z: I’ve had the same question myself, but if you consider the curse happening while levelling up, you could allow a free retraining of all racial feats. And if you go from human to something else, I’d let the player chose which feat to remove (racial feature also implied in the curse).

As Gormal mentionned, nightmare gameplay but wonderful for roleplaying opportunity. Personnaly, I’d discuss it with my players upon the cursing…and then go from there and adapt…

10 Ameron October 21, 2010 at 3:31 pm

It sounds like you’ve got some great “against-type” builds in mind. If you can find a group of players that are just as open to the unconventional, non min/maxed PCs then I think you’ll find the game very rewarding. Thanks for sharing these builds.

I thought about having the metamorphosis curse including some kind of choice about what they would become, but I opted not to in the beginning. I found that once they knew they could control their transformation (even just a little bit) the players didn’t feel quite as hostile towards this concept.

I don’t think I’d allow a player to simply get out of it by making a new character as a way out. Before killing off his existing PC I’d make it clear that anyone new to the party would be exposed through proximity (it’s magic, I can do that).

The duration of the curse should be directly related to the player’s interest. If they hate it from the outset and make no effort to work with it, then cure them and move on. If they are really getting into it, then let it go longer. In the end it’s up to each group and ultimately the DM.

@Sean Holland
I agree that advanced warning is probably best. Springing it on them out of the blue will likely just anger players.

I can see how some might see this as punishment, but remember that the motivation behind this idea was to force reluctant players to try new races. If you’ve got a player who only makes Dwarves again and again it might be a suitable punishment to force him to play an Eladrin or Halfling for a little while. Players that power game and focus only on the combat will likely find this curse more detrimental than players who enjoy the role-playing.

I’m glad I could help. Please comment again after you’ve used this in your game. I’m curious as to how other groups handle the changes.

Now imagine all of those same Dwarves transformed into different non-Dwarf races. How do brother who have lived and fought together so long handle being transformed? I see a lot of interesting scenarios ranging from humiliation to jealousy to arrogance. Have fun with it.

I miss the old Reincarnation from previous editions. We only used it a couple of times but it basically give you a “do over” for your favourite character.

I’m still trying to picture a bad-ass Satyr. Nope, can’t do it.

Although it’s up to each DM to adjudicate as they see fit, here’s how I’d handle it.

When a player is transformed, they can immediately retrain any racial feats. So a Dragonborn with breath weapon feats who becomes a Human would obviously retrain. However, players can keep any racial feats that COULD still work in the new body. So a Dwarf with Dwarven Weapon Training who becomes a Halfling can still use his Craig Hammer and get the appropriate bonuses even though he’s not “technically” a Dwarf any more.

This is one of those times when it’s good to say yes a lot. Let the players decide what they want to do and try to say yes to all of it. This is especially important if the players fell like they’ve been screwed over. Not letting them swap out feats is just wrong.

Sounds like we’re on the same page here. I also agree that it’s a role-playing gold mine but may cause a lot of friction at first.

11 Acheron October 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I believe is a very good idea, I also have players that are power gamers, so i like this idea, the different things needed to change races, like killing the race mortal enemy ( sounds very cool), i will apply it too, nice idea thanks a lot!


12 romantiCaveman May 10, 2013 at 11:09 am

Bringing hamadryads, satyrs, and warforged into the rotation could make for some interesting and possibly quite bold scenarios. What happens when a female character turns into an always male/sexless race or when a male character turns into an always female/sexless race? Do they keep their sex and thus turn into a male hamadryad, female satyr, or “sexed” warforged, thus gathering attention from strangers as an oddity? Or does their sex change with the race? I can see both scenarios being “risky” to spring on some players, but there’s also a lot of potential for good role-playing in both comedy and drama.

13 Ameron (Derek Myers) May 14, 2013 at 9:32 am

Great idea to force a gender change on an unsuspecting PC. Just make sure the player is ok with it and that they know it’s not necessarily permanent. Could make for great role-playing opportunities. A character who mistreats the opposite sex or doesn’t value their opinions could undergo a change of heart after literally being in their shoes for a level or two.

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