Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted fulfill a community request to create a master of disguise for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. In the video Dave and Ted discuss skill, feats, class features and spells players have to work with for making a master of disguise character. There’s plenty of options in 5E D&D for characters seeking to disguise themselves, from mundane to magical means including inherent abilities like a kenku’s Mimicry trait and a changeling’s Shapechanger trait. Players who focus on their character’s ability to alter their appearance open avenues to adventure a more straightforward character might not find easily accessible. But for Dungeon Masters, fear not! You’ve got even more tools to work with including a robust list of creatures whose mastery of disguise open up pathways for you to introduce adventure too — right under the party’s noses! Let’s get into it and take a look at creatures with the Shapechanger trait making them masters of disguise for 5E D&D.
Creating a shapechanger campaign for 5E D&D
There’s about 50 creatures in official 5E D&D sources tagged with the Shapechanger trait, with challenge ratings anywhere from 1/2 to 24, so let’s start by breaking these down by tiers of play. I suspect a DM could run a mindbending campaign featuring these shapechanger creatures and causing quite a bit of paranoia for adventurers. A campaign focused on shapechangers could highlight themes of identity, misdirection and intrigue, and looking ahead there’s a fantastic creature waiting at the top of the CR chain as a mastermind for the entire thing. Sowing discord and teaching painful lessons that not all beautiful things are good, this villain draws from a list of minions all of whom might be anyone or anything the adventurers encounter. Good luck!
For these lists I’ll give you the creature name, their source and their challenge rating. Individual NPCs from various 5E D&D campaign adventures won’t make the cut, except for a handful that are either unique in an interesting way or included to become tier ending villains for your shapechanger campaign. The rest are either too specific or more likely they’re basically generic creatures with a name. With these lists in hand you can create your own memorable NPC shapechangers.
To round out this collection of shapechangers I’m also including 5E D&D creatures with alter self and disguise self on their spell lists. A DM can of course take any creature and apply either or both those spells and the Shapechanger trait, something to keep in mind.
Tier 1 shapechangers in 5E D&D
- Apprentice Wizard (Volo’s Guide to Monsters) — CR 1/4
- Barovian Witch (Curse of Strahd) — CR 1/2
- Changeling (Eberron: Rising from the Last War) — CR 1/2
- Deep Gnome (Svirfneblin) (BR) — CR 1/2
- Jackalwere (Monster Manual) — CR 1/2
- Imp — including familiar variant (Basic Rules) — CR 1
- Quasit — including familiar variant (BR) — CR 1
- Halfling Wererat (Waterdeep: Dragon Heist) — CR 2
- Hobgoblin Iron Shadow (VGtM) — CR 2
- Mimic (BR) — CR 2
- Reaper of Bhaal (Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus) — CR 2
- Svirfneblin Wererat (Out of the Abyss) — CR 2
- Werebat (Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage) — CR 2
- Anchorite of Talos (Dragon of Icespire Peak) — CR 3
- Deep Scion (VGtM) — CR 3
- Doppelganer — OG Master of Disguise! (BR) — CR 3
- Giant Mimic (W:DH) — CR 3
- Illusionist (VGtM) — CR 3
- Werewolf (BR) — CR 3
- Yuan-ti Malison — including Types 1-5 (MM) — CR 3
- Yuan-ti Priest (Tomb of Annihilation) — CR 3
- Barghest (VGtM) — CR 4
- Incubus (BR) — CR 4
- Lamia (BR) — CR 4
- Pudding King (OotA) — CR 4
- Succubus (BR) — CR 4
- Warlock of the Archfey (VGtM) — CR 4
- Wereboar (BR) — CR 4
- Weretiger (BR) — CR 4
- Yuan-ti Mind Whisperer (VGtM) — CR 4
- Yuan-ti Nightmare Speaker (VGtM) — CR 4
Tier 2 shapechangers in 5E D&D
- Barlgura — including summoner variant (MM) — CR 5
- Cambion (MM) — CR 5
- Transmuter (VGtM) — CR 5
- Werebear (BR) — CR 5
- Yuan-ti Pit Master (VGtM) — CR 5
- Annis Hag (VGtM) — CR 6
- Blood Witch (Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica) — CR 7
- Drow Mage (MM) — CR 7
- Warlock of the Fiend (VGtM) — CR 7
- Yuan-ti Abomination (MM) — CR 7
- Green Slaad — including control gem variant (MM) — CR 8
- Gray Slaad — including control gem variant (MM) — CR 9
- Biomancer (GGtR) — CR 10
- Death Slaad — including control gem variant (MM) — CR 10
- Yochlol — including summoner variant (MM) — CR 10
Tier 3 shapechangers in 5E D&D
- Alhoon (VGtM) — CR 11
- Baba Lysaga (CoS) — CR 11
- Cloud Giant Smiling One (VGtM) — CR 11
- Radiant Idol (E:RftLW) — CR 11
- Arcanaloth — including summoner variant (MM) — CR 12
- Archmage (BR) — CR 12
- Yuan-ti Anathema (VGtM) — CR 12
- Ultroloth — including summoner variant (MM) — CR 13
- Vampire (BR) — CR 13
- Green Abishai (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes) — CR 15
- Vampire Spellcaster (MM) — CR 15
- Vampire Warrior (MM) — CR 15
- Titivilus (MToF) — CR 16
Tier 4 shapechangers in 5E D&D
- Lazav (GGtR) — CR 17
- Bael (MToF) — CR 19
- Hutijin (MToF) — CR 21
- Mooch (MToF) — CR 21
- Geryon — including summoner variant (MToF) — CR 22
- Fraz-Urb’luu (OotA) — CR 23
- Graz’zt (OotA) — CR 24
- Archduke Zariel of Avernus (BG:DiA) — CR 26
- Zariel (MToF) — CR 26
You’ve got all your shapechangers — now what?
Curating a list of all the 5E D&D shapechangers and masters of disguise is one thing but creating a campaign is quite another. Keeping themes of identity, misdirection and intrigue in mind, choosing a villain makes a great first step. Keep the tiers of play in mind when making your choice. Here’s a summary of the kinds of plots and goals for villains at different tiers of play.
Tier 1 shapechanger monsters present the longest list and there’s some fantastic options here. A lamia as a tier 1 campaign villain serves as an excellent choice. Lamia are chaotic evil monstrosities that use trickery, illusion and disguise to lure victims into their lair for dire purposes. A campaign tasking adventurers with solving a string of disappearances provides a terrific way for heroes to make an impact in a small region. Using jackalweres as their primary minions this lamia orchestrates thefts and kidnappings. Apprentice wizards with imp and quasit familiars, organized by an illusionist are useful agents to infiltrate local villages. A hobgoblin iron shadow serves as a great enforcer and a lair populated by mimics pits adventuring parties against a foe and their forces who can be anyone or anything. As a bonus, part of lamia lore even points towards much larger dangers.
Tier 1. “The threats they face are relatively minor, usually posing a danger to local farmsteads or villages.”
Tier2. “These characters have become important, facing dangers that threaten cities and kingdoms.”
Tier 3. “These mighty adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents.”
Tier 4. “The fate of the world or even the fundamental order of the multiverse might hang in the balance during their adventures.”
“Minions of Graz’zt. The demon lord Graz’zt creates lamias from his mortal servants, granting them immortality in return for monstrous power and an oath of fealty. Graz’zt sometimes tasks lamias with guarding locations important to him, but lamias in his service remain free to spread their evil as they see fit.”
Tier 2 shapechanger monsters begin getting really nasty with the appearance of slaad, hags and fiends. The ambitions of these creatures extends beyond simple pleasures like a lamia seeks. These monsters look to topple civilizations and they’re going to rely on subterfuge to accomplish these goals. I like the cambion here, because it builds off the lamia our adventurers faced in their tier 1 campaign. Cambion also have a link to Graz’zt so we can already see a stronger thread emerging. Demonic forces seek power in the Material World and a growing list of shapechanger monsters infiltrate society at all levels. Want to make your players paranoid about the campaign setting? This cambion villain can have a pair of barghests are pets and guardians, with a warlock of the fiend for an ally and a trick to summon a barlgura for added muscle.
When the adventurers reach tier 3 they’ve already put a stop to a sinister threat against a large region, sending the cambion packing back to the Nine Hells. Unfortunately these demonic forces in disguise aren’t done yet. An arcanaloth represents the villain for the next phase of this shapechanger invasion. Highly intelligent and deceptive, these fiends could certainly orchestrate threats to entire continents, with all manner of forces at their command. At this level you might consider making an important NPC an arcanaloth in disguise. Don’t worry if you haven’t planned this from the start. You never know what NPCs a group will take a shine to so choose one the party is familiar with and use them to twist the knife. Were they an arcanaloth in disguise the whole time, or did they snatch the NPC and replace them in society? Arcanaloths possess the power, intelligence and ambition to cause strife on a large scale!
“Spawn of Graz’zt. The demon lord Graz’zt is fond of procreating with humanoids who have made pacts with fiends, and he has sired many cambions who help him sow chaos across the multiverse. These cambions are characterized by charcoal-black skin, cloven hooves, six-fingered hands, and unearthly beauty.”
“An arcanaloth properly paid can broker treaties or alliances with subtlety and finesse, just as an arcanaloth who changes sides can easily turn the best-laid peace talks into all-out war.”
At last the adventurers reach tier 4 and they’ve worked their way through hordes of shapechangers. Is nothing what it seems? Anyone they meet or even anything they see could be a villain in disguise. High level villains might use magic like scrying to keep tabs on the heroes, but these methods can be detected and overcome fairly easily — especially for a party of paranoid adventurers dealing with shapechangers and deceivers from the get go. But consider your ultimate villain’s legion of shapechanging minions, including mimics. Any object in the adventurers’ home or headquarters could be a mimic and report back to its masters. Sure, they only have 5 Intelligence and no languages but you’re the DM! A little tweak and all of a sudden mimics become living spy gear. I’m imagining a campaign villain like Lazav, sending out mimics the way Soundwave ejects his underlings in the Transformers universe. Lazav’s whole schtick is shapechanging and with all the power under their command could absolutely pose a threat to the fate of the world or fundamental order of things.
With all the shapechanger monsters in 5E D&D, plus the fact you can take any creature and give it some abilities to disguise itself, you can create not only an engaging series of adventures but also craft an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia. This can be tricky though because you don’t want to the players to mistrust everything and everyone. At the same time these secretive monsters give you an opportunity to turn things sideways at any given moment. And with the tips and tricks Dave and Ted discuss in the video, master of disguise characters can use their enemies tactics against them!