[RPG] Can a druid use Wild Shape to take the form of a specific, individual beast


The rules for the 5E druid's Wild Shape ability simply say:

you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before

This previous question asks if you can go beyond the exact form of a beast you've seen (like, if you want to be a dog, and you've only seen corgis, are you stuck with that?) but I think the general assumption tends to go the other way: once you've seen some example of a beast, you can become that type of beast, but only a generic form of it. For example, a comment on a question here about making up combined forms says:

you can't even wild shape into a specific kind of beast. You always become a generic, average representative of that species.

However, I don't see any wording around that. The Shapechange spell says:

You transform into an average example of that creature, one without any class levels or the Spellcasting trait.

… but I don't see anything similar for Wild Shape (and for that matter, for any of the other transformation spells and abilities in the rules).

Can a druid look exactly like the watchdogs of a particular estate? And if she can, can she also choose sometimes to just be a generic dog?
Somewhat related: the Monster Manual has a mastiff, but not other types of dogs — so, if you've seen pomapoo (challenge rating presumably somewhat less than zero), can you take the form of a mastiff? What about an Irish wolfhound, as CR ½ or 1 instead of the mastiff's ⅛? What about a wolf? What about a dire wolf? Where does it stop?

Or, not to get all fixated on dogs, if you've seen a garden spider, can you become the more dangerous spider listed in the rules, with its lethal-to-many-commoners 1d4 poison bite? What about a giant spider then?

Finally, if it's not in the 5E rules, where did this idea of "average representative" come from? I know 4E had this whole thing where shapeshifting and summoning worked on a sort of platonic-ideal spirit, not real animals at all, but that doesn't seem to have carried over here. Was there something in 3.5? I remember playing it that way, but can't find a specific rule there either.

That's a lot of text, I know. Summary questions:

  • Can you take the exact form of a specific, individual animal you've seen?
  • Can you take the form of a "generic" animal of the same general species or name or categorization as a specific individual you've seen?
  • If you can generalize, can you then vary from that generalization? What defines the platonic ideal of a given creature? What if there's no Monster Manual entry that comes close?
  • If you can generalize, how far away can you go? Spider to Giant Spider? Tiny Lizard to Riding Lizard? Tapir to Elephant?
  • Where did this idea of generic, average example come from, if not 5E rules?

… and I'd like to see rules references for any answers, please.

Best Answer

Rulings, Not Rules

Jeremy Crawford, the lead game designer, called the rules "intentionally silent on these corner cases":

Wild Shape can introduce wild situations. What happens when someone swallows a druid in a Tiny form? Is a druid fecund in beast form? The rules are intentionally silent on these corner cases, leaving adjudication to DMs. As always, I say go with what's best for your story.

The particular ruling (the druid can shapeshift into a specific animal) can lead to a very satisfactory in-game situation. Or it can be utterly boring and devastating, depending on the plot. It is the DM's job to make the right decision.

Aside from the combat, there will always be huge difference between classes' features, so you can't compare (or "balance") them. Some features will be much more useful than another ones in certain situations.

Following the rules-as-written as strict as possible won't help here. In the end of the day, making the game fun an engaging is not about the rules. For instance, if your game is all about picking locks and disabling traps, and you have only one rogue in the party, (s)he inevitably steals the spotlight. You, the DM, have to balance these things by your self — how exactly do class features work in order to not to spoil the fun.

You are the DM and you want to decide, how does magic (the Wild Shape, in particular) work in your world. For this job, what things should you consider in the first place — your own story, the fact if your players have fun, common sense, or nitpicking these minor semantic details in the rules (which are concise and not detailed enough)?

The Adventurer's League Guide describes the role of the DM the similar way:

As the Dungeon Master, the most important aspect of your role is facilitating the enjoyment of the game for the players. You help guide the narrative and bring the words on the pages of the adventure to life. The outcome of a fun game session often creates stories that live well beyond the play experience at the table. Always follow this golden rule when you DM for a group: Make decisions and adjudications that enhance the fun of the adventure when possible.

Wild Shape description is open-ended

PHB gives only basic restrictons of the Wild Shape:

Starting at 2nd level, you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.

Your druid level determines the beasts you can transform into, as shown in the Beast Shapes table.

The only limitations it describes are the creature type, its CR and its flying/swimming speed — pure balancing ones, a sound base for DMs to build their own adventures. As a DM, you are free to apply all the necessary restrictions — the creature size, type, features or appearance. It would be reasonable to discuss this with the player beforehand, say, prepare a list of their wild shapes.

You don't have to though — if you are happy with the default restrictions, just say that all other things are allowed (dinosaurs included), unless it spoils the fun.