RPGaDay 2019, Day Seven: Familiar

I love wizard’s familiars. They have been a staple of fantasy fiction for ages, and a part of TTRPG lore for as long as the hobby has existed. I love that the bookish, sometimes curmudgeonly, wizard has a cute(ish) little companion that follows them around. Occasionally they are even useful, though that doesn’t matter because in the hands of a talented player a familiar is a roleplaying gift.

And I especially like the way that the find familiar spell works in 5e. Instead of calling a passing animal to them, the wizard instead summons a spirit which takes the form of an animal, from an impressive range of choices. This spirit creature then allows the wizard to talk with it telepathically, see and hear using the familiar’s senses, and cast spells with a range of touch through the familiar. I especially like the restriction that familiars can’t take the attack action. Flavour-wise I think that’s an excellent choice, and the game certainly doesn’t need another animal companion added to the mix.

As much as I love familiars in 5e, however, I do house rule the spell a bit, both for ease of use, but also to give it a smidge more magical flavour and added utility at higher levels.

Changing the Familiar’s Form

As written, if you want to change your familiar’s form you have to recast the spell. That seemed a bit restrictive to me, as part of the usefulness and fun of having a creature I had formed out of spirit and magic would be changing its appearance and shape. In my game a wizard can change any aspect of the familiar’s appearance (colour, fur length, patterns and markings, and so on) as often as they like. Once per long or short rest, the wizard may change the form their familiar takes. This allows the wizard to have their familiar blend in better in specific situations, with the utility of changing it to a more useful form occasionally. And putting a once per rest limit on that last keeps it from being used for every little thing and turning it into a nuisance.

Expanding the List

I also don’t restrict the wizard to picking things off that list. I understand the traditional reasons for keeping the familiar as an animal, but I give wizards in my games the option to be as creative with the familiar’s form as they like, while keeping it within the general parameters of the suggested forms. But why shouldn’t a wizard fond of clockwork toys have a wind-up toy soldier as a familiar? Maybe your very young wizard has a stuffed animal familiar because it makes them feel safe.What about the wizard who was told, “You’ll study magic when pigs fly!”, and now has a flying piglet familiar just to spite everyone? It does take a little bit more discussion and work with the player to figure out how to make their familiar work, but I think it’s worth it in the end. And as a DM, all of this is a story and roleplaying goldmine.

Bigger and Better

Find familiar cast as a ritual allows me to find creative ways to expand the spell’s power, so that as they go up in level the wizards in my campaigns can use it to gain the benefit of more powerful familiars. In turn this lets me offer up magical creatures of all sorts for the wizard to draw upon, and makes it more summoning than conjuration. Instead of the wizard creating something out of spirit, they are instead calling a specific type of creature to serve as their familiar. This can give them very powerful familiars upon which to draw, but also carries extra cost and risk. Essentially what I’ve done is created higher level versions of find familiar, which increase the casting time and the cost of material components. You can see the different versions on this handy chart:

Spell Level

Casting Time (Hours) Cost in Gold Pieces Maximum CR of Familiar

First

1 10

As spell

Second

2 50 3

Third

4 250 6

Fourth

8 1000 8

Fifth

12 1500

10

Sixth 18 2000

12

Seventh 24 4000

16

Eighth 32 8000

18

Ninth 48* 16000*

20+

*Each CR above 20 will need four more hours of casting time and require another 1000 gp.

So wizards in my campaign can certainly just “buy off the rack” as it were, spending the time and gold listed to summon and bind more powerful familiars. But, if the wizard can provide me with situational additions to the casting ritual, I will allow them to bump down one level on one of either the Time or Cost tracks. In addition, if the wizard wants to remove or modify something in the base spell (allowing the familiar the attack action, for instance), the spell is bumped to the next highest casting level for each thing modified. If find familiar is cast at any level higher than first, the wizard must succeed on a caster level check with a DC of 8 + the maximum CR listed for that level, or the spell fails and the material components are wasted. Additionally, after a period of time equal to the CR of the creature in days, the wizard must again succeed on this check to keep the familiar bound. If the creature remains willingly the check is made at advantage, if the creature is unwilling the check is made at disadvantage. As well, the DC for checks on an unwilling familiar go up by 2 for each successive check.

Example: Florenia the Flamboyant really wants a riding peacock as a familiar. We talk it out and decide that the best fit is a re-plummaged griffon, which is CR 2. Great! Florenia can spend a couple of hours and 50 gp and they will have the prettiest familiar mount around. But with something the size of a griffon, Florenia really wants it to be able to protect itself from unruly creatures which might try to steal its tail feathers. She wants to change the base spell to allow their familiar the attack action. This bumps the ritual to a third level casting; now it’s going to take four hours to cast and cost 250 gp in material components. Florenia has the time, but isn’t quite that flush with cash at the moment. Not to fret, though, a little research has revealed that giant peacocks (griffons) can’t get enough of the heartfruit. As luck would have it, Florenia did a favour for a fruit merchant a while back, and can collect on that favour in the form of several baskets of precious heartfruit. As the DM I decide that is an acceptable addition to the ritual ingredients, and Florenia’s player decides to reduce the Cost back down to that of the second level casting. With the heartfruit, 50 gp in other components, four undisturbed hours, and a successful DC 14 caster level check, Florenia will soon be showing off her peacock! 

Now you might look at that chart and say, “Brent, you great doofusarus, why would I ever want my already powerful wizard, who can cast ninth level spells, to also have a CR 20+ familiar?!” First of all, mean. Second, why would you not want that? Think of all the roleplay and story potential involved in getting to a point where the wizard can even cast that spell. Assuming they do nothing to reduce its level, it’s going to take two days and 16,000 gp to pull off. Players of even the highest level characters are going to get sweaty-palmed about spending that much money all at once. And then there is the casting time to consider. Forty eight hours is a lot of levels of exhaustion! Which maybe wouldn’t matter except for, oh yeah, that pesky caster level check at the end! So now what?

Maybe the wizard has to convince the party cleric, with whom they don’t get along, to join them in the ritual and help them deal with the exhaustion. Roleplaying! Or the wizard has to research ways of making the spell easier to cast, speaking with sages, reluctant librarians, and delving into musty stacks of books. Roleplaying! The wizard has to want this big nasty familiar for a reason, and maybe that reason doesn’t want the wizard to have it. Is someone sent to “take care” of the wizard, through bribery, duplicity, or violence? Story and roleplaying!

Everything about this situation is fecund with opportunities for roleplaying, adventure, and ridiculous good times! And all from one little first level spell. That’s value for money, that is!

I hope you’ll consider these house rules for your campaign. If you do, drop me a line to let me know how it works for you. And do you have different house rules for familiars in your campaign? I’d love to hear about that as well.

Comments? Questions? Amusing Anecdotes?

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