Project Arcana: Transmutation

Well, I’ve done it. This is my final article of the school breakdowns for Project Arcana (next week’s Divination piece is all Dad). I’ve got to say that it’s been a roller coaster of hatred, frustration, and sheer bafflement. Ultimately, I keep asking the same question: “Oh FFS, why!?”

Transmutation, the conversion of one thing into another. Seems simple enough, right? Every time Dad and I sat down to divvy up the schools for these articles, the same conversation would happen, like some sort of cruel record skip:

Me – Okay, so, do you want Transmutation?

Dad – Transmutation? So, changing inanimate objects?

Me – Well, and creatures, too.

Dad – No, creatures are living, Transmutation can’t do that.

Me – Uh, yeah, that’s how it works in this edition.


After a half dozen identical exchanges, I told him that I would just take care of it.

Okay, let’s get to it. Right, we know where this is going…

Transmutation spells change the properties of a creature, object, or environment. They might turn an enemy into a harmless creature, bolster the strength of an ally, make an object move at the caster’s command, or enhance a creature’s innate healing ability to rapidly recover from injury.

Off the bat, this school seems like it’s going to be very straightforward: we’re changing the properties of stuff. Okay, got it. Of course, we run into problems with the vagueness of the word “properties”, but that’s a generalization that I’m willing to overlook. The implication, of course, is that we are changing the physical properties of things. If there were a spell which changed someone’s alignment, for example, that would not be a Transmutation. Honestly, that’s a weird spell idea, so I’m not sure where it would fit.

Next, we get into the examples, which is where things always get hairy.

Turn an enemy into a harmless creature 

This is fine, as a polymorph is certainly changing the properties of something, albeit a bunch of properties all at once. But now we’re going to

bolster the strength of an ally (?)

As Mr. Colville says, this gets a “little noodley” when you consider that if you can alter properties like strength, then you can also alter dexterity, constitution, and, more weirdly, wisdom and intelligence. But this works. If you can alter some property of muscles to make them stronger, you can alter your brain to make you smarter, your nerves to make you more dextrous, and so on. This covers spells such as Enhance Ability quite neatly.

make an object move at the caster’s command

Here is where we start having trouble. What property are we changing here? Stoppedness? Immobility? There is an argument to be made, perhaps, with Levitate that we are somehow changing the target’s gravitational constant or something, but that’s too big a stretch. It’s easier to just say a magical force is counteracting the creatures weight. Magical force, you say? That’s Evocation!

Let’s assume that this is a poor piece of wording and that they mean “…make an object move itself at the caster’s command…”. That makes a little more sense, that’s Animate Object. But what’s troubling is Animate Object imbues life, in a way. We actually puzzled through this specific spell quite a bit, finally settling on the idea that “animacy” is achieved by changing micro properties of an object, such as making a wooden leg briefly flexible. What about Awaken? Well, if enhancing strength and dexterity by altering a creature is okay (see bolstering strength above), then changing plant parts to be able to walk is cool, too. The intelligence and language piece are a little trickier, but if a creature can be made more intelligent by altering the brain, then it stands to reason that a creature could be given some form of intelligence the same way. So yeah, Transmutation there, too.

enhance a creature’s innate healing ability to rapidly recover from injury.

This is where we finally break down. We’ve already discussed why healing should belong in Necromancy, but, more importantly, why did they put it here? Okay, if we’re going to consider “healing rate” a property of a creature, then why not put every healing spell here? If you allow that Transmutation lets me change one type of flesh into another, it would make sense that I could change torn flesh into whole flesh. So an instantaneous ‘transmutative’ heal would work. But Regenerate is just a slow Cure Wounds, there is no mechanical difference between the two.

Frankly, there’s probably a whole article’s worth of bitching I could do about healing in this system. So, if we’re saying that healing is a manifestation of positive energy in the school of Evocation, then why are the mass healing spells in Conjuration? If the mass healing spells in Conjuration, then why did Mass Healing Word end up in Evocation? Why is Regenerate here in Transmutation? What the hell is going on!?


As usual, Project Arcana breaks this school into three forms.

Shapechange spells are those that convert one independent object or creature into another. The obvious example is Polymorph, which turns things into animals, or animals into other animals. This form is distinct in that the before/after of the target is a different shape entirely. Thus, turning a small spider into a big spider isn’t a shapechange, but an enhancement (see below). Other spells in this form include Animal Shapes and, obviously, Shapechange.

Enchancement spells are those that change certain properties of an object or creature without changing the overall target in a macro sense. Things like Alter Self and Barkskin are here, because they change a certain aspect of their targets. This also includes things like Giant Insect and Enlarge/Reduce.

Transfiguration spells are those that rearrange the environment on a molecular level, otherwise known as “quintessential transmutation.” When converting lead into gold, this is the form you’d use. Thus, spells like Fabricate and Disintegrate are here.

Less intuitively, perhaps, we’ve lumped in any spell that seems to create stuff from nothing here, like Create Food and WaterWall of Stone, and Entangle. Our reasoning here is simple: there’s no such thing as creating something from nothing. The idea of this is either A: you bring something from elsewhere, even another plane of existence (Conjuration), or B: you convert the molecules around the area into whatever you’re making (Transmutation).

Originally, we were leaning toward option A, but that became problematic when we started making food. Despite the fantasies contained in my wildest and wettest dream, there is no elemental plane of food.

Only in my dreams…

So, we hashed out option B and realized that it made enough sense to go with it. Basically, when a transmuter is creating something from nothing, he’s actually condensing and manipulating air into the object. From a medieval/fantasy scientific brain, this would appear as if the caster made whatever it was appear from nothing. This may become problematic if the transmuter is ever in a sealed chamber or in the vacuum of space, but she would likely then have other things on her mind rather than creating 45 pounds of food.

So, with this in mind, we’ve moved over any spell that creates something from nothing into Transmutation. This includes all of the acid spells, because they’re not elements being magicked into existence, they are physical liquids popping up out of thin air.

Finally, let me talk about Time Stop for a moment. This spell was a bit of a puzzler for us as it does something that nothing else in the book seems to do: directly affect time. At first, we thought about crazy Conjuration explanations and Evocation ones, but ultimately, I had an epiphany: to the casual observer, Time Stop just means the caster is moving really, really fast for a split second. Here, I’ll give a practical example:

Quicksilver: Super Transmuter

You see, Time Stop isn’t literally making time stop, it’s just moving the caster so fast that it seems that way. Making someone move fast is Transmutation, and we already have Haste in there. So, it’s easy to treat them as the same spell mechanic.

Yeah, that feels good.