06 April 2013

F is for Familiar

The wizard's best friend, familiars are a rather basic, usually non-combat aid to a spell-caster's arsenal. I say usually because most wizards I've encountered who had a familiar found them too easily killed to put them on the front lines. However, familiars are an interesting addition, and have several properties that the DM can use for their own purposes.

I often rule that since familiars are not PCs they are therefore NPCs, making them my domain. Of course, since they are also an extension of the player, I will only use my control to do something specific, like use them to sniff out an alternate path I want the players to know about, or even refuse to help a player who is acting against the alignment of the familiar.

I had a player who really wanted a dragon familiar, but knowing the dragon's distaste for being essentially a pet, I decided to change the familiar from what she was expecting. Instead, the unattended nest where they found the egg of the dragon was in a realm where dark magic had corrupted the magical beasts that inhabited the place. When the egg hatched, what was within wasn't eggs-actly (har har har!) what she had in mind. The dragon was part mind flayer! It also had a strong will of its own, as well as a penchant for feasting on brains. As a result, the little familiar rarely did what she wanted, and in fact more than once caused some pretty serious problems for the party. It was most entertaining.

Familiars gain intelligence as they level, and in my book, that means more independent thoughts. High level familiars can be smarter than some of the other characters, which can create some interesting conversations to roleplay, as well as providing a way for a DM to impart knowledge they want players to have without coming up with something too hokey. By the fact that they are magical beasts, familiars are characters too, complete with emotions, goals, desires, favorite foods, hated enemies, and personalities. They are not just tools for a magic user to utilize and then discard, and I believe that a well-played familiar can have as big an emotional impact as any character. If they die, they should be mourned, and if their master dies first, they may even mourn his death.

The feat Improved Familiar allows for a number of other familiars than the standard ones. I would encourage any DM to take a look at this potential when picking a familiar for their spell casters. One of the earliest foes my players defeated had an imp as a familiar, and the trouble that single creature caused was enough to plague them all the way to level 20. He would appear every few levels, make some one-sided deal with them, and disappear to trick them another day. A familiar of all things ended up being the most reoccurring and most hated villain my players had ever faced. I could never have predicted that.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned Monday for "G is for Golem".

Relevant Links
D&D 3.5 Familiars
D&D 3.5 Improved Familiar
Pathfinder Familiars
Pathfinder Improved Familiar

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