A new RPG Carnival is up this month, dealing with "Transitions and Transformations". I intended on writing for last month's "Religion" theme, but never got around to it. Anyway, there are all kinds of Transitions and Transformations in RPGs, to be sure, and that leaves me a bit spoiled for choice.
I think I will go with a literal transformation that most RPG players are at least passingly familiar with: polymorphing. This can be either lycanthropic, wild-shape, or magically induced, among probably a thousand other varieties. I will focus on the above three. They are each fairly different processes, but I think they share enough to talk about in one post here.
More than it might seem by conventional thought, people associate with and define themselves by their physical shape. When you look in the mirror, you expect to see a certain figure looking back at you. If you notice a new pimple, or a few extra pounds, it's worrisome or at least annoying. Cutting your hair drastically or shaving off a raging neckbeard can immensely change not only your physical looks but also your self-image, confidence, and even personality, in one way or another. One of the most horrifying things imaginable would be to look in the mirror and see someone else entirely looking back. It would lead to a terrifying loss of identity, as well as any sense of permanency in your own existence.
How, then, can people take polymorphing so casually in gaming?
As a lycanthrope, the physical change is, at least in the beginning, unwelcome or even unexpected. Suddenly, your body twists and contorts, your bones snapping and reforming as a lupine or ursine shape, your flesh prickling and growing wiry fur, your teeth extending quickly and violently, your fingernails stretch and tear, becoming vicious claws. Is it any surprise, after this monstrous transformation, that your mind would tend to snap? You have become an abomination of nature and foul magics, a dangerous half-breed of animal and human. In the depths of your mind, the animal encroaches, hungry and violent. The wolf or bear in you doesn't recognize this wooden structure, filled with panicking, hairless apes and the strange, chemical smells of alcohol and lamp oil. Your human mind, with it's capability for higher reason and concepts such as reciprocity and civilization, fades in the face of this new, predatory will. No longer capable of knowing why you are here, why these tattered strips of cloth are hanging off of you, or why those apes are now holding implements you dimly recognize as dangerous. Of course you would lash out in violent anger. When you awoke after the night of slaughter, your mind and body once again human, is it surprising that the memory of your deeds would be wiped away or suppressed? You awoke in the woods, with a splitting headache and no clothing. Perhaps you just... maybe you just got drunk last night. Yes, certainly that's what it was. You would never do any of those things that you half-remember from your dreams, even if evidence is shown that points to the contrary.
Now, obviously, wild shape is pretty far removed from lycanthropy. As the form is assumed intentionally, and through communion with and understanding of the natural world, the transformation itself is less violent and painful. Simply put, you might be human one moment, feel a tug as your body shifts, and then become a bear the next moment. Now, as a druid in wild shape, you generally maintain your own mind. Still, with your new shape and power, certain effects have to manifest. Imagine, as a human, being mugged by some punk in an alley. You're under his power, in a sense, as he holds a knife to you threateningly. Suddenly, you triple in physical strength, grow to twelve feet tall, gain claws and teeth capable of tearing flesh nearly effortlessly, and lose your ability to speak, cutting off diplomacy as an option. His knife is no longer a threat of any real scope. Certainly, your new and powerful position makes you feel a bit feral and violent. Power corrupts, and physical power is included in that. Of course it would be easy to bat the mugger thirty feet across the street, then jump after him and maul him to death. As a human, you would never bite into another person's flesh, but after changing, it just feels... natural. So, as a druid, think about how powerful being a bear would feel, how fast and nimble you would be as a cheetah or panther, or how invisible you could be as a fly on the wall. Put some thought into your animal forms, and how you act within them.
Compared to wild shape, Polymorph as the spell is simply a matter of scope, as are variants such as Shapechange. However, they are also a different sort of approach. Druids can become animals due to their connection with nature. They already empathize with the creatures, and becoming one physically is just an extension of that. As such, their minds are likely easier to recover when they shift back. With magic, you are bending the rules of the world, changing yourself physically and possibly mentally (if mental stats are changed by the given spell) into another creature. Instead of growing to twelve feet and gaining claws, you suddenly go from a physically weak, wiry human to a colossal Red Dragon. Your senses are a dozen times more acute, your slightest movement shakes the ground itself. With a breath, you can devastate huge areas of the landscape. Your very appearance causes terror and fear all around you. Your mind expands to that of an ancient beast, and the most difficult concepts and theorems for humans to grasp suddenly become child's play. Your mind, to an extent, begins to know the lust for treasure, for the glitter of gold and the tinkling of coins, that all dragons feel. Your greatly expanded size shows you that your former companions are just ants. They are only playthings; petty nothings before your great might and ancient power.
If a shift to a dragon would be so powerful, a shift to an outsider would be even more disruptive mentally. Consider changing into a Balor for the purposes of combat. This requires Shapechange or the like, a ninth-level spell. Extremely powerful magic, challenging the gods themselves with your control of reality. Anyway, you still have all the changes of a physical variety, but also something a bit more disturbing. In your new form, in every beat of your six hearts, with every twist of your warped muscles, and with every thought in your wracked and altered mind, is geared towards evil and malice. You have dozens of powers and talents now that exist solely to destroy and torment. Without any conscious effort, your hands twist when you strike, adding extra tearing to any wound, causing excess pain and blood loss. Holding back and trying to take prisoners becomes difficult, if not impossible. Treating a prisoner humanely is beyond your imagining. He is weak. He should suffer. All mortals should suffer, and you finally have the strength, intelligence, and supernatural powers to make them do so. It should be no wonder that wizards are known for going mad with power. Who wouldn't?
This post is just intended to get you thinking about transformations as more than just skill and ability changes. Think about how different you would feel and act if your entire form were suddenly changed to another. Think about the animal or magical influences on your mind, whether lycantrhopic, animalistic, or supernatural. Make transformations such as these more interesting your campaigns, and it will pay off in your roleplaying.