IFAQ: What are Doppelgangers?

Doppelgangers have been part of Dungeons & Dragons since its earliest days. The original Eberron Campaign Setting introduced changelings as a playable species that shared some of the features of doppelgangers, but not all; in third and fifth editions, doppelgangers possess a powerful unarmed attack and the ability to detect thoughts at will. But what exactly is the relationship between the two? Over three editions, we’ve had three different answers in canon material.

  • The third edition Eberron Campaign Setting says that changelings “evolved through the union of doppelgangers and humans, eventually becoming a separate race distinct from either ancestral tree.”
  • Fourth edition books use “changeling” and “doppelganger” interchangibly. The doppelganger in the 4E Monster Manual has the white hair of a changeling and doesn’t possess an unarmed strike or the innate ability to detect thoughts.
  • Fifth Edition D&D returned the doppelganger as a unique creature with an unarmed attack and detect thoughts. Rising From The Last War says that the daelkyr created doppelgangers by warping changeling stock, essentially reversing the third edition story; doppelgangers are altered changelings rather than changelings being watered-down doppelgangers.

So, we have three different options presented in canon. So which do I use?

I loved doppelgangers long before I made Eberron. I was disappointed that we never saw any sort of doppelganger society, because I thought it was fascinating to consider the impact both of shapeshifting and innate telepathy in terms of how a culture would approach privacy, community, and identity. In The Complete Guide to Doppelgangers I presented a very inhuman approach to doppelgangers, suggesting that mimics and doppelgangers were different stages in the lifecycle of the same creature, and that the final stage of this cycle is the doppelstadt—gestalt mimics that can replicate entire buildings. It’s not just that some of the people in your neighborhood are doppelgangers; it’s possible the neighborhood itself is a doppelganger. in proposing Eberron, I wanted doppelgangers to have a place in the world; the 10-page proposal includes a mention of the conflict between the Boromar Clan, the Tyrants of Sharn, and Daask, suggesting that these things typically considered monsters were part of everyday life in Eberron. The problem was that the standard doppelganger was too powerful to work as a basic option for player characters. I liked the idea of having a weaker baseline doppelganger and introducing a “monster class”—as seen in the sourcebook Savage Species—that would let the player acquire the full powers of the standard doppelganger. In the end, we did half of that approach: we created the changelings as that weaker baseline that was suitable for player characters, but made the standard doppelganger a separate species. The problem with this is that it both left the doppelgangers themselves without any real story—per the ECS, all we really had was “True doppelgangers are considerably more rare and mysterious than their changeling descendants… They sell their services as spies, thieves, and assassins, but their true motivations usually lie beyond mere gold.” The second frustrating element is that we often had changelings and doppelgangers working side by side, and that arrangement ends up highlighting the fact that changelings are fundamentally weaker doppelgangers. I never really liked that as a story. So while I loved that changelings gave us the opportunity to explore shapeshifting cultures and societies and to have them in everyday life, I was never happy with where it left doppelgangers.

Fast-forward to the present. Fourth edition and fifth edition present two different options. Which do I use? Both. Because those two options tell very different stories. Let’s look at each of them.

The Gifts of the Traveler

I like to blend the Fourth Edition approach with my original idea—the concept that the abilities of the doppelganger are something that any changeling can develop if they put their mind to it. The defining gifts of the doppelganger are telepathy and an unarmed attack, something a psion or monk can match. I called this out in an Eberron article in Dragon 193, suggesting that “intense training, the traditions of Ohr Kaluun, and their devotion to the Traveler” allowed the changelings of Lost to develop enhanced telepathic and shapeshifting abilities. From a practical standpoint, this is a possible explanation for the class abilities of a changeling character. A changeling monk can describe their enhanced unarmed attacks and armor class as being tied to their shapeshifting, something further developed with the Way of the Living Weapon in Exploring Eberron. But there’s no need to limit such gifts to the powers of the old-school doppelganger. The Lost article notes that the hidden village has a core of mental adepts whose abilities rival those of kalashtar adepts, allowing them to communicate with sending and monitor the region with clairvoyance. It calls out that some changelings can shapeshift into animal forms, mirroring the abilities of druids—something I’ve called out elsewhere as the Changeling Menagerie.

So overall, I like the idea that changelings are the shapeshifting species that are part of everyday life in Eberron, and that “doppelganger” is actually a skill set a changeling can master… and the “doppelganger” in the 5E Monster Manual is a changeling with a particular set of skills. The one problem with that is that while a player character changeling can improve their unarmed attack by taking a level in monk, there’s no easy way for them to replicate the ability to detect thoughts at will. However, the uncommon helm of telepathy lets a character do just that, and more. In my campaign, I’d allow a changeling player who trains to become a “doppelganger” to acquire a supernatural gift, something like this…

Doppelganger’s Vision (Requires attunement, can only be attuned by a changeling)

This supernatural gift reflects your training in the telepathic techniques of the doppelganger. To use this gift, you must devote an attunement slot to it, just as if you were attuning to a magic item. While you are attuned to this gift, you can use an action to cast the detect thoughts spell; Charisma is your spellcasting ability for this. Once acquired, this gift is a part of you, but you can only use it while you are actively attuned to it.

This is similar to the blessing of wound closure, a supernatural gift in the DMG that provides the benefits of an uncommon magic item; however, it is weaker than a helm of telepathy (only providing one of the helm’s three benefits) and I’m saying that it requires an attunement slot to use to balance the fact that I’d be willing to grant it at a lower level than I’d allow most blessings. But like any supernatural, it’s not just something you can buy. To gain this gift, the player character would need find a mentor—a skilled doppelganger willing to teach them this technique. Developing the gift would take time and the mentor would set tasks the would-be doppelganger would need to carry out during their other adventures; at a narratively suitable time, I’d grant them the gift. If you don’t like supernatural gifts, the Telepathic feat from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything is an alternative, although it doesn’t provide the full at-will use of detect thoughts.

So this is my primary approach to doppelgangers in my campaign: a doppelganger is a changeling who has developed the abilities we associate with the doppelganger monster. Having said that, there’s also room in the world for a very different sort of doppelganger….

Doppelgangers of the Daelkyr

Eberron has always challenged the idea of “what makes a monster,” and this was part of the point of the changeling—to take a creature that was generally featured only as an antagonist and to add depth to it. At the same time, in some stories you want a monster. There’s horror in the moment when you see your reflection and it smirks at you and draws a knife, or in the fear that one of your friends isn’t actually your friend. Compare Mystique from the X-Men to the alien in the movie The Thing. In this analogy, Mystique is a changeling. Sometimes she’s a hero and sometimes she’s a villain, but in either story we understand her motives and can sympathize with her. The Thing is incomprehensible. It may be driven by a desire to survive. It could be an anthropologist that researches alien worlds by assimilating their species. It could just be hungry. We don’t know.

This is the purpose of the Daelkyr doppelganger: to be a source of horror, a shapechanging enemy whose motives are unknowable and, at the end of the day, potentially irrelevant; in The Thing, what matters most is survival. In a story in which a changeling impersonates a duke, their motives matter; they might be trying to seize power or they might be trying to free oppressed peasants from the Duke’s tyrannical rule. By the end of the story, the players will understand why the changeling has taken these actions—and in the latter example, they may have a difficult decision to make as to whether they bring down the imposter or allow them to remain as a more benevolent Duke. By contrast, you may never know the motives of the Daelkyr doppelganger. Perhaps it’s helping a cult of the Dragon Below. It could be that the doppelganger has a non-linear experience of time and is consuming creatures in reverse, unwinding its way through its own timeline until it reaches the moment of its death when it is finally itself alone. It could be that it feeds on specific memories and needs to digest the memories of the duke before it moves on.

One of the reasons I like this approach is to expand the roster of creatures you can expect to deal with when clashing with daelkyr and Cults of the Dragon Below. It doesn’t have to be all dolgrims and mind flayers. Doppelgangers, werewolves, gargoyles—there are many monsters that can work as daelkyr creations; they should just feel different from their mundane counterparts. Rising From The Last War suggests that daelkyr doppelgangers are creations of Dyrrn the Corruptor, but I think that’s an unnecessary limitation; with few tweaks you can create unique versions of the doppelganger tied to different daelkyr.

  • Dyrrn is known for creating the mind flayers and the dolgaunts. Telepathy and tentacles are one of Dyrrn’s signatures. A standard doppelganger has a slam attack that deals 1d6 bludgeoning damage. For a Dyrrn doppelganger, I’d change this natural attack to deal piercing damage and describe it as the doppelganger’s fingers becoming burrowing tentacles or it attacking you with its barbed, prehensile tongue—that when it drops its disguise, it’s dramatic. I’d also highlight its telepathic nature, giving Dyrrn doppelgangers Telepathy with a range of 120 ft as a language. Dyrrn doppelgangers would only speak when interacting with other humanoids; among themselves they would always be eerily silent. A more dramatic change would be to give them blindsight based on the idea that they actually see using detect thoughts rather than standard vision, and that their eyes are just cosmetic (and likely absent in its natural form); like a dolgaunt, they would be blind beyond the radius of their blindsight.
  • Kyrzin loves oozes. I’d see a Kyrzin doppelganger as being an ooze that has the ability to assume humanoid forms. While it would generally use the doppelganger stat block, its slam attack would reflect it transforming its fist into a heavy pseudopod. I’d give the Kyrzin doppelganger a form of the Amorphous trait possessed by many oozes; it has to squeeze, but when it squeezes it can flow through any opening up to one inch wide. This ability wouldn’t extend to equipment, but I’d be willing to let a Kyrzin doppelganger to mimic basic clothing with its shapeshifting.
  • Belashyrra’s doppelgangers could function the same as standard doppelgangers, but with the idea that they don’t physically change shape but rather psychically change the way you perceive them. Given the power of the daelkyr, I’d be willing to just make this a flat effect and not something that requires a saving throw to succeed, and to say that the effect extends to senses other than sight—but I’d probably add that it doesn’t undead or constructs, or possibly creatures immune to being charmed. I could also imagine a version of They Live, where an adventurer can acquire a set of goggles or a salve that allows them to see through the disguise of Belashyrra’s doppelgangers.
  • Valaara could create a form of doppelganger that can’t change shape instantly, but instead kills a creature and then enters a chrysalis state to assume its form; so more limited than a normal doppelganger, but still able to replace people in an extended story. Its unarmed attack would be a concealed stinger that would deal piercing damage; if I wanted to make it more dangerous, I might add poison. I could see Avassh growing duplicates of people; these doppelgangers wouldn’t be able to change shape and I’d make them plants instead of humanoids, but it would still allow its cult to infiltrate a region. For either of these I’d likely give the doppelgangers a form of Telepathy that they can only use to communicate with others tied to their kind or allied cultists, playing to the idea that they’re part of a communal mind.

With all four of these, the key point is that they’re VERY DIFFERENT FROM CHANGELINGS. Dyrrn might have created his doppelgangers from changelings long ago, but the other three described here have nothing to do with changelings. They might all use the doppelganger stat block, but they’re different both from changelings and from one another.

Fey Changelings and Other Variations

While I haven’t personally seen the text, the word on the street is that Monsters of the Multiverse makes a number of changes to changelings—notably making them Fey instead of Humanoids. On the surface, this seems logical enough; they’re called changelings, and a mischievous shapeshifter sounds fey enough. However, it’s not a change I’ll use for the main changeling population in my Eberron campaign. We’ve never presented the common changeling as having ties close ties to Thelanis, and we’ve even said the name “changeling” comes from a minsunderstanding—people assuming a fey connection even though none exists. That 4E article calls out the changelings of Lost mastering techniques of Ohr Kaluun, not Thelanian magic. Beyond this, once changelings are fey, it becomes very easy to spot a disguised changeling by casting detect evil and good, which pinpoints the location of any fey within 30 feet—undermining some of the more interesting methods we’ve discussed for dealing with changelings. So in MY campaign, the main population of changelings will remain humanoids.

However, just because they aren’t mainstream doesn’t prevent there from being fey changelings in the world, and I’d certainly allow a player to play such a changeling. The obvious path for such a character would be to literally be a changeling—a humanoid carried off to Thelanis as a child and raised there, and transformed over time into a fey creature themselves. There’s a changeling Greensinger in the Threshold campaign I’m running on Patreon, and I might give them the Fey subtype, because it fits their story.

But there’s another point to this. Just as I’ve presented five different ideas for creatures that use the doppelganger stat block, there can easily be different types of creatures that use changeling traits. The Children of Jes and their descendants are the most common form of changeling. But I’d allow someone to use changeling traits to represent a shapeshifting assassin magebred by House Vadalis, someone with an unusual aberrant dragonmark (I could imagine a Wild Magic changeling sorcerer whose form changes uncontrollably when they have a Wild Magic Surge), or a Cyran changeling necromancer who can only assume the forms of people who died in the Mourning. So I’m happy for there to be fey changelings alongside the changelings of Sharn and Droaam—and potentially other exotic changelings as well.

That’s all for now, and perhaps more than anyone wanted to know! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.