Familiars

The role of a familiar in D&D is complex and has changed many times over the years.

Originally there was a spell called find familiar, which a wizard could learn to attract and bind a creature as a familiar. In 3E, it became a class ability that any sorcerer or wizard could do (which probably was done so a sorcerer wouldn’t have to spend a valuable spell known slot to learn a spell that you hopefully only have to cast once). In PF, it became a choice for wizards (either take a familiar, or an arcane bond) and for arcane sorcerers (ditto), and once that decision was made, it was final.

I understand this reasoning behind the PF change: in 3E, if you were a sor/wiz who decided not to choose a familiar, you were slightly less powerful than a sor/wiz who did; you didn’t get anything in place of the familiar (much like if you were a cleric and for some reason you only chose one domain instead of two… you’ve deliberately made yourself weaker/have few options, for no benefit whatsoever). In PF, if you choose not to have a familiar, you get something else: a bonded item that once per day lets you cast any one spell you know, and you can craft it as a magic item as if you had the appropriate feats, which are both pretty handy.

Of course, the big difference is it’s possible (or even probable) that a familiar could be killed as the result of a random die roll while performing its normal functions, and it’s very, very unlikely that this could happen to a bonded item. When was the last time you had a campaign where the villains captured and threatened your wizard’s ring as a way to get leverage over the wizard? When was the last time you sent your wizard’s amulet to scout ahead, and it set off a trap? When was the last time you used your wizard’s staff to deliver a touch spell, and your target decided to attack your staff instead of you?

Basically, a familiar includes the near-unique rules baggage that opponents can actually attack and kill one of your class features. And if it is killed, you have to wait one week to replace it. A druid can bond with a new animal companion just one day after the previous one was killed. Likewise, a summoner can re-summon a slain eidolon after one day. But a little tiny familiar, definitely far less powerful than an animal companion or eidolon, requires you to wait one week. Ouch.

And once you choose to have a familiar (or not), you’re stuck with that choice, forever.

Benefits

Let’s look at the benefits of having a familiar.

• Roleplaying. Some people do it for this reason alone; it’s part of their character concept that they have a special magical pet they can talk to.

• Scouting. This includes the “scry on familiar” ability. This is risky, because the familiar might be killed.

• Delivering touch spells. This is risky, because the familiar might be killed.

• Free Alertness feat for the character when it’s within arm’s reach, discouraging you from ever having it leave your backpack.

• A +3 bonus to one skill. This can be useful… unless you chose your familiar for thematic (roleplaying) purposes instead of what mechanical benefits it gives you. Frex, just because you’re a cat person and you want your familiar to be a cat doesn’t mean your character is going to be sneaking around, and therefore doesn’t necessarily benefit from the +3 bonus on Stealth checks granted by a cat familiar.

Risks

Now let’s look at the risks of having a familiar.

• They might be killed by random damage. A familiar has half the hp of its master; any effect that makes a GM think, “whoah, that could kill the wizard in one hit” is even more likely for a familiar. Frex, Paizo’s iconic wizard Ezren at level 7 has a whopping 55 hp, which means if he had a familiar it would have 27 hp; if Ezren faces off against a rival level 7 sorcerer (an easy CR 6 encounter for a group of four PCs), Ezren had better hope that sorcerer doesn’t cast fireball at him and roll much above average damage (24.5 for 7d6) because his familiar could die[1].

• They might be deliberately targeted by the GM. I don’t know why, but some GMs[2] really like to mess with PCs, and if you put your familiar at risk (like sending it to scout ahead, or to deliver a touch spell, you know, like the rules expect it to be used for), the GM will specifically target the familiar, either with the purpose of killing it, or capturing it so it can be used as leverage against the PC.

• It might be forgotten. An animal companion or eidolon is harder to forget, as it’s expected to move on the tabletop independently of the master, and are at least Small size and therefore have an easier-to-notice mini on the tabletop, and they’re likely to survive battle. But a familiar is either a Tiny bump on your mini, its own Tiny mini that can get left behind because it looks like a piece of rubble, and is so fragile that you probably want it to stay within reach (or safely within your clothes or backpack) just so it’s safe and you (the player) don’t accidentally leave it behind three rooms ago.

In other words, those risks are lame, vindictively lame, or so boring that you’re actively trying to not draw attention to a class feature because you’re afraid you’ll lose it.

Solutions

Let’s look at some possible solutions for these problems.

• Make the familiar better at surviving. This doesn’t have to mean “give the familiar more hit points,” it just needs to mean “make it easier for the character to bring back a dead familiar.” I’m the designer who made sure we finally got the raise animal companion[3] spell in Ultimate Magic, because I understand how much it sucked for a druid or ranger (who’s supposed to have a close bond with an animal companion) to basically discard a lost companion and replace it with a new creature: the character would want their old friend back, not a new friend. So if it’s easier to revive a dead familiar, you don’t have to be paranoid about it getting accidentally killed by a trap, CR-easy foe, or jerk GM.

• Make it easier for you to send away your familiar when you know it won’t be safe or that having a familiar will ruin your disguise, and to call back your familiar when that time is done. It’s one thing to leave your horses tied up outside the dungeon, but familiars are tougher and smarter. Basically, it’s okay (and fair) to let a PC do this without the familiar getting captured or killed.

That’s… amazingly simple. Make it harder for the character to lose a class ability for a week due to a dice mishap or a jerk GM. Make it easier for the character to send the familiar to safety when having the familiar is too risky.

The first point I’ll explain in the next section with the prototype Familiar spell writeup.

In Five Moons RPG, the second point actually relies on the built-in game mechanic that each day you ready what combat feats, spells, and stunts you want to use that day (a warrior might practice her sword-feats that morning instead of hammer-feats, a rogue might do some limbering stretches instead of practicing diplomatic speeches, a mage might ready an extra fire spell instead of his familiar “spell”). In the same way that the warrior’s hammer-feats can’t be attacked, dismissed, or disabled (whether or not she’s using them that day), a mage’s familiar can’t be attacked or captured on any day he doesn’t ready the use of the familiar. In effect, the familiar is called to serve on the days the mage readies that spell, and is safely away on the days the mage doesn’t ready that spell[4].

Prototype Familiar Spell

Here’s a prototype version of the Familiar spell for Five Moons RPG.

Familiar (spell) [companion]: You gain the service of a familiar, a magical helper in the shape of an animal. The first time you ready this spell, you must spend 8 hours in a magical ritual bonding with an animal of your choice, such as a cat, lizard, rat, or snake, which gives it the powers of a familiar. The familiar obeys you, but is a trusted friend, not a slave.

{D&D-like table of familiar/master abilities would go here. In addition to the flat +3 skill bonus that each familiar type gives, each can give you a new boost ability specific to its animal type. Frex, a cat familiar could let you spend a boost to fall safely, a lizard familiar could let you spend a boost to turn a critical hit into a normal hit, and so on.}

{Specific rules about the familiar’s health, saves, and so on would go here.}

If your familiar is killed, you may revive it by spending a boost and performing a 1-hour ritual. If you dismiss your familiar or want to replace it with a new one, you must perform the 8-hour ritual as if you were readying this spell for the very first time.

  • Boost: Your familiar increases by 1 size category for 1 minute, as if it had the giant creature simple template.
  • Boost: Your familiar calls a swarm of creatures of its type, which attack one opponent as a swarm for 5 rounds.
  • Boost: Your familiar survives an attack that would have killed it, leaving it unconscious and stable at –1 health.

Even More Fun

One of the neat things I’m liking about this “make Familiar a spell again” idea is the related idea that any character can learn any ability.

So if you’re a warrior and you really want a hawk familiar, you can have one.

If you’re a bard and you really want a tiny dog familiar, you can have one.

If you’re a ranger (or its equivalent in Five Moons RPG) and you want a ferret familiar to go along with your black tiger animal companion, you can (and if you want a second ferret familiar so they can get into mischief together, just ready the Familiar spell a second time and you’re all set).

Just remember that your character’s backstory justification for why you have that familiar is more important than the suggested game mechanics for acquiring that familiar. For example, instead of being turned into a familiar by a spell or ritual you used, your familiar might be a spirit in animal form, an old mentor who transformed into an animal to escape enemies, the reincarnation of a lost love or wise family member, the victim of a rival’s curse, and so on.

—–

[1] Yes, the familiar has improved evasion and (at level 11) spell resistance… because the familiar is fragile and the designers needed to compensate for that so a familiar wouldn’t auto-die if it were hit by CR-appropriate effects.

[2] The same type of GM who, if you include any family members in your character’s backstory, uses them as targets for kidnapping and assassination plots by your character’s enemies. This is why most PCs are orphans… either initially, or eventually.

[3] Yes, it’s a high-level spell, and it has the same stupid negative level and gp cost that raise dead has. I’ve argued against death penalties in the game, but unfortunately they’re a legacy item that PF kept as a backwards-compatibility issue. 😦

[4] And, like any ability you didn’t ready for the day, you can spend a boost to gain access to the familiar for a short period of time.

 

Poison Arrow Frog Drawing

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19 thoughts on “Familiars

      • I know you’re referring to more D&D vernacular, where it may not seem as viable (cue penalties/restrictions), or as “obvious” of an option. Though nevermind Spellcasters at higher levels can run around w/Charmed foes, Raise Dead, Greenbound Summoning, and Planar Binding of like Angels to run around and beat everything up.

        Basically, I’m saying I don’t see that as a bad thing, someone wanting to play a Summoner, Pokemaster, Mech-suit or have you is totally cool and fine. Where they themselves might not be the “awesome” they are definitely its source, and/or reason it functions so well.

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  1. You are allowing warriors to customize their weapons so not every longsword or crossbow is the same.

    Given that, is it so bad if you select one of 2-3 possible bonuses that you get from the familiar? That way some cats may give stealth, while others give perception or a bonus to reflex resist. I think that would shift it more towards choosing what type of familiar you take based on role-playing reasons rather than strictly mechanical advantages.

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    • That’s actually the plan, yes. 🙂 (Especially in a game/world where a particular “animal” doesn’t have to be an Earth creature… you could have a cat familiar that has a lot of snakelike traits, a frog familiar that has cockroach traits, and so on).

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  2. I like what I see so far – looking forward to seeing how it ends up.
    I’m also intrigued by the last comment – about scrapping death penalties. How do you see that? I mean, CON loss is a big legacy thing – the touch of the grave or what have you. Now it’s money and a negative level. You’d tone it down to – the inconvenience? Or do you have something else in mind.

    Sorry – that’s totally off topic – but maybe an idea for a future blog?

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    • Personally I would tone it down to nothing.

      Your PC dying means the chance of the rest of the group also dying just went up by a lot. The risk of death is the risk of TPK, which usually means rerolling unless you have an unusually nice GM. So it’s really not even about TPK. It’s risking perma-death. Of everyone. That’s totally enough of a penalty.

      Considering the level of risk, a boosted cure spell should suffice to raise the dead. Or a high enough heal skill. If things go badly enough, you’re breaking out fresh character sheets regardless of any “extra” penalties. When you look at it that way, nothing that happens between being full health and perma-dead really matters at all.

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      • In my games, I’ve embraced the idea of the “TKO” condition. Basically where they would’ve died, hitting -10, SoD or Death Effect etc, They instead Knocked out of the fight. No conventional healing brings em back into the fight, though I could see exceptions (that one spell does it for x rounds, or maybe high DC on Heal skill?), but are brought back after the fight is done. Through the houserule, you can still die by getting double tapped by a [Death] Effect, Coup-De-Grace or have you, but unlikely foes do that in middle of combat w/other PC’s doing stuff. So when you would likely be “killed” would be w/no one around to save you, and thusly probably a TPK anyway.

        I think Five Moons should go for a policy like that, no worrying of hitting negative HPs, just simply out of the fight. Albeit, I could see some Warrior abilities that bring em back into the fight, or lets someone project their Soul to fight in real world, or even negating TKO condition for X rounds, and so on. That said, Death should be possible, just have means in the way that make it unlikely. Especially as PC’s accrue in levels, I really could see death just being another Inconvenience where “the heroes got better”.

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    • It goes without saying that I wouldn’t want death to feel trivial. I mean, heck, it already feels weird that my players are building “raise dead insurance policies.” I really like the flavor of being raised having a traumatic effect on you with possible diminishing returns. That being said, I admit that the party spending a lot of money to raise you only to have negative levels feels like a punch in the face.

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  3. I really like it. I absolutely love the Boosts. “I spend a Boost to have Elle summon a swarm of kittens to snuggle the bandits into submission!” One of my favorite new spells in PF is polymorph familiar where my witch turns her cat into a giant bird for the fighter to ride, making use of the deliver touch spells to heal and cast buffs when necessary. It’s great fun, though the party still finds it disquieting to see the giant majestic winged creature occasionally meow. I’d love to see more spells and class features so you can be a mage all about doing fun things like that with your familiar.

    Spells and class features blur together in Five Moons, so it makes perfect sense to me why it’s a spell. Whereas, some spells in D&D/PF make me wonder why they’re spells at all. I could never figure out why secret chest was a spell and not a magic item.

    While I admit it sucks to have the GM take your class feature away, I don’t see utilizing a character’s family and bonds as part of the plot a bad thing. It’s a way to involve a character in a narrative. Characters without bonds and a workable backstory are really difficult to work with, so much that I now require all characters have them in my campaigns. Every player I had that refused to give me a workable bond/backstory for the specific reason of preventing me from messing with them later complained I didn’t have enough adventures around their character.

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  4. Woo! An Update! good to see something other than “touch AC”!

    It’s interesting you’re choosing to make em a power, with them replicating other powers. I can see the balance point of it replicating other powers is through the fact it doesn’t have those Boost options, though if a given mimicked power is good on its own and same level, can mean Familiar power ends up being simpler better (Familiar + Good Power? Hell yeah!).

    It sounds like +1 size to Familiar doesn’t sound all that impressive, but depends level this comes online at, and I regard this further below.

    ” as if it had the giant creature simple template.”
    Templates eh?, definitely sounds like something that should warn DM’s/Players to prepare this in advance. As while I’m sure these templates will be “fast and easy” still not something I would encourage to go down during play. In any Encounter, or MM using templates upon a creature, I would hope it’s already done the work of applying that template (If for some reason it’d be referenced, like Bull-Demon having a “Demonic-template” to its Bison and Minotaurs in its encounter ideas section). So I ask, how simple is it going to be to add Templates to creatures, PC’s, and what are the measure that are going to make it so?

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    • +1 size is kind of a big deal. Assuming 5M uses similar rules to PF, it means your Tiny familiar becomes a Small creature and can threaten adjacent squares for area control and flanking benefits. This is very appealing for melee characters who preferred having a familiar over an animal companion.

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  5. I’d need to understand more how spells can be obtained by standard adventurers in Five Moons before I can comment on if familiar being a spell vs a class feature is a good idea.

    Back in the “old days”… you couldn’t multi-class. My memory is foggy, but I don’t think fighters could UMD a scroll either.

    One danger, if familiars were just a 1st level spell in Pathfinder… is that if you sat down for organized play at any tenured store, you’d see EVERY SINGLE PC with a familiar. Which could be cool… or it could be a nuisance. If it’s built into the campaign (His Dark Materials style), then it’s no big deal… but I could see if PF rules added the ability for anyone to pick up a familiar by casting a 1st level spell (from a scroll perhaps if they didn’t have spellcasting on their own), that everyone would certainly pick one up… to futher maximize an ability, or to cover a short-coming.

    For example, “Diplomacy” builds would always involve picking up the +3 Diplomacy familiar and then shove it away into a pocket. Or, a character that dumped Dexterity might pick up the +2 Reflex familiar and again shove it away in a pocket.

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    • {I’d need to understand more how spells can be obtained by standard adventurers in Five Moons before I can comment on if familiar being a spell vs a class feature is a good idea. Back in the “old days”… you couldn’t multi-class. My memory is foggy, but I don’t think fighters could UMD a scroll either.}

      With a few exceptions, anyone can learn anything. A combat feat, stunt, or spell have basically the same “cost” (one feat slot), so (to use D&D/PF terms) a 3rd-level fighter could use his new 3rd-level feat to learn Power Attack or Familiar.

      {One danger, if familiars were just a 1st level spell in Pathfinder… is that if you sat down for organized play at any tenured store, you’d see EVERY SINGLE PC with a familiar.}

      Not necessarily, because of how Five Moons handles “readied” combat feats, spells, and stunts. If your character knows 7 feats (whether they’re combat feats, spells, stunts, or some combination of those) and each day you’re only able to ready 5 of them, the player has to choose what’s the best option for that day—does the fighter decide to *not* ready Minor Healing and Power Attack that day, or does he *not* ready Dodge and Familiar? In other words, gaining a familiar is not a one-time resource expenditure (like casting it from a scroll)… if you want to *use* that familiar during a session, you need to ready it as one of your abilities that day.

      {For example, “Diplomacy” builds would always involve picking up the +3 Diplomacy familiar and then shove it away into a pocket. Or, a character that dumped Dexterity might pick up the +2 Reflex familiar and again shove it away in a pocket.}

      … which they can do, because it’s one less other ability they could have readied for that day. Or they could have learned Skill Focus (Diplomacy) or Lightning Reflexes, and readied that for the day instead of the familiar that grants that feat.

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  6. Sean,

    Have you seen the Find Familiar spell for D&D 5e yet? In a nutshell, it’s a 1 hour ritual (so you never have to prepare it) that summons a spiritual (you choose celestial, fiend, or fey) version of an animal. You can change it out each day if you wish, or just dismiss it, and if it dies you just summon another one. You can see through it’s senses or cast touch spells through it while it’s within 100 feet, and it can’t attack on its own. They’re not as special as PF familiars, but they come with no real cost other than putting the spell in your spell book, and so far only wizards can cast the spell. It’s an interesting trade-off.

    I like where you’re going with the familiar options, especially being able to get them for no-wizards, and I like boosts in general, but I wonder if the spirit animal concept might help to offset the potential pain of having one of your abilities get killed. The 5e version can jus be re-summoned (or changed to a different type) whenever you have an hour to perform the ritual.

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