Shapeshifting is one of the most iconic of all magic types, but also one of the least common. True shapeshifting masters are very rare, more so than the great majority of life magic types and even most types of universalist.
Shapeshifters are sometimes viewed as a subset of life mages, though it would be more accurate to say that the two types overlap. Shapeshifters have the same ability to sense life that life mages do, and they can regenerate and fortify their own bodies in a very similar manner. However, unlike life mages, they can’t directly manipulate other living creatures. Life mages turn their energies outward as well as inward, learning to affect others for good and for ill, but shapeshifters are among the most narrowly-focused of all mages, and instead of learning to affect other bodies, they’re hyper-specialised in affecting only one body – their own.
In exchange for their specialisation, shapeshifters can do things that life mages can’t. Life magic is primarily focused on working with the natural order of the body, and most healing spells are really just ways of optimising and accelerating the body’s natural rate of repair. Shapeshifters, on the other hand, learn to rewrite the structure of their body completely. They can sharpen the nails and bones of their fingers into claws, grow plates of natural armour over their vital organs, extend their legs or arms, and even add totally inhuman features like gills, extra limbs, or wings.
One a shapeshifter has learned basic alteration, the next step they usually attempt is changing into a different animal entirely. Although a larger change in gross terms, this can actually be easier than an individual alteration, since the shapeshifter is copying the ‘blueprint’ of another creature rather than designing one from scratch. It helps a lot if the shapeshifter has previously used their lifesight to perform a detailed study of the creature they’re attempting to change into, which is one of the reasons so many shapeshifters keep exotic pets.
Although shapeshifters have free reign over their biology, there’s a physical law they can’t get around so easily: conservation of mass. Creating extra body mass requires a phenomenal amount of energy, and so while a moderately experienced shapeshifter can turn into just about any animal he can think of, he’s still going to be about the same size that he was already. Shapeshifters can get around this to a limited degree by making their new forms more or less dense, but only within limits.
More experienced shapeshifters can learn to take on the forms of smaller creatures by ‘storing’ their excess mass. The most common technique for doing this uses a type of space magic to shunt a certain fraction of their body mass into a small pocket dimension. Due to various practical considerations, the new body does need to be of a certain minimum size – making the brain too small, for instance, has some highly inconvenient side effects – so while a dog or cat is feasible, a flea isn’t.
Shapeshifting into a creature that’s larger than human is extremely difficult, and only master shifters can do it. The basic problem is that a large creature requires a lot of organic matter to make up its body, and that matter has to come from somewhere. There are various more or less ethical ways to do this, and the exact techniques are generally not widely advertised.
Learning the Form
Shapeshifting is an enormously versatile magic type – a skilled shapeshifter can solve almost any phsyical problem by adapting his body to the situation. It does, however, come with a catch. When a shapeshifter alters their body, they alter their mind to match, adapting their physical reflexes so that they don’t have to spend weeks relearning how to use their new limbs. Unfortunately, by doing so they risk making changes to their own minds that they didn’t want. The more extensively a shapeshifter changes himself, the greater the risk of losing parts of his identity or personality – instincts can be overwritten by the new form, and in extreme cases the shifter may forget who he’s supposed to be entirely.
For this reason, more careful shapeshifters tend to stick to shapes that they know very well. The more familiar a shapeshifter is with a form, the less difficulty they’ll have with adapting their mind to it (and with enough practice, they can learn it so well that changing their own mind is no longer necessary). It’s perhaps also for this reason that while shapeshifting mages are rare, shapeshift adepts are quite common. They learn one form and practice it over and over again until they’re as comfortable with it as they are in their own skin.
A shapeshift adept is often referred to as a were-creature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the types of animals that humans best get on with, the most common shapeshift adepts are werecats and werewolves (or other canines).