A Familiar Problem

09 Mar

There is a segment in a recent episode of Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff discussing how to make a magic-user’s familiar more interesting. It’s a good bit and it has me reconsidering their use in Dungeons & Dragons, however a glance at the spell description in 1st Edition reminded me why we stopped using them.

On the plus side, familiars give magic users a few perks. These include serving as a spy for their master and the ability to converse with the magician. I’d thought that a telepathic link existed between them as well, but this isn’t part of the 1st Edition spell. There’s also a 1 in 20 chance that the player will summon a special familiar, the type being determined by the caster’s alignment. These are the really cool and useful familiars and include creatures like pseudo-dragons and imps.

Possibly the biggest benefit from a familiar is that they add their hit points to the caster’s, which is excellent for a low level magic-user. However this is also the biggest danger, because of what happens if the familiar dies.

“Normal familiars have 2-4hit points and armor class of 7 (due to size, speed, etc.). Each is abnormally intelligent and totally faithful to the magic-user whose familiar it becomes. The number of the familiar’s hit points is added to the hit point total of the magic-user when it is within 12″ of its master, but if the familiar should ever be killed, the magic-user will permanently lose double that number of hit points.”

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 66*

So the death of an AC7 creature with three hit points means the magic-user will permanently lose six hit points.

Ah… yes. That would be why our casters stopped summoning familiars.

I was curious if 2nd Edition AD&D did anything to fix the problem. The spell’s entry is almost twice as long and adds a few extra benefits.

“The wizard receives the heightened senses of his familiar, which grants the wizard a +1 bonus to all surprise die rolls. Normal familiars have 2-4 hit points plus 1 hit point per caster level, and an Armor Class of 7 (due to size, speed, etc.).”

“The wizard has an empathic link with the familiar and can issue it mental commands at a distance of up to one mile.”

“When the familiar is in physical contact with its wizard, it gains the wizard’s saving throws against special attacks. If a special attack would normally cause damage, the familiar suffers no damage if the saving throw is successful and half damage if the saving throw is failed.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

That is a little better; the benefits are boosted, the extra hit points are nice, and the saving throw certainly helps. This flavor of familiars is more useful for a low level wizard, however it’s still going to be a liability once the magician starts facing things like dragon breath and fireballs. No problem, once the caster reaches those levels they can leave their familiar at home. Right?

“If separated from the caster, the familiar loses 1 hit point each day, and dies if reduced to 0 hit points.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

Okay… so that’s not an option. Well, on the plus side, in 2nd Edition you don’t lose twice the familiar’s hit points when it dies. However,

If the familiar dies, the wizard must successfully roll an immediate system shock check or die. Even if he survives this check, the wizard loses 1 point from his Constitution when the familiar dies.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

In the end, 2nd Edition familiars are less risky to have than their 1st Edition counterparts, but the benefits still don’t match the danger. Also, they did away with the special familiars, removing the chances of a really useful sidekick.

The idea of familiars is cool and suitably thematic for a magic-user, but their implementation in early D&D doesn’t justify the risk. There should be risk involved, but it needs to be something more balanced with the rewards they provide. I’ve been considering the following for my games:

  • The familiar is able to communicate telepathically with the magic-user.
  • Once per day, the caster can telepathically “ride” their familiar. This allows them to see, hear, and smell what the familiar can. The magic-user can also cast a spell through the familiar. This action cancels the link for the day.
  • The familiar adds to the magic-user’s spellcasting. The magic-user can memorize one additional spell per spell level available to them.
  • The familiar’s saving throws are equal to the casters.
  • Familiars and their magicians are linked and share a common pool of hit points. Attacks directed at either target will damage both. This is not limited by range, so a captured familiar can be used to torment the caster, like a Voodoo doll. Area of Effect attacks that catch both targets do not do double damage.
  • The death of a familiar causes the caster to make an immediate Save vs Death Magic or die. If the save is successful the caster loses one point of Constitution. (Alternately, roll randomly to see which attribute loses a point.)

This is still a work in progress. My priorities are:

  • A familiar should provide significant, thematic benefits.
  • A familiar should provide a risk to the caster, one that will make a lasting impact on the character but not out of proportion to the benefits they bring.
  • The familiar should work in tandem with the spellcaster. The mechanics should promote a partnership beyond that of a pet or henchman.
  • Things that help spellcasters cast more spells are good things.

Do you use familiars in your games? Have you revamped them? I’d love to hear stories. Also, I have no idea how D&D handles familiars in editions after 2nd, so I’d welcome any information on that.


*For those not familiar with 1st edition AD&D, 1″ equals ten feet indoors or ten yards outdoors.


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8 responses to “A Familiar Problem

  1. Darnizhaan

    March 9, 2016 at 3:29 PM

    I play AD&D first edition only. I always made common familiars anthropomorphic. They could talk, were always a funny color, gave the senses bonus, could be used as spies, had hands, didn’t give hit points, and didn’t cost hit points when they died. The special familiars: brownie, imp, quasit, and pseudo-dragon I left as is.

    • Fractalbat

      March 9, 2016 at 4:02 PM

      I like that. That’s within the risk/reward balance, and adds some color to the game.

  2. Matt

    March 9, 2016 at 4:24 PM

    In 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, the things that you could do grew in power as you leveled up.

    At 1st level, you gained the Empathetic Link of up to a mile with your familiar. You could also gain Alertness and shared spells (your spells could affect you and your familiar) if it within 5 ft from you. Your familiar also had improved evasion (it took no damage from successful saving throws, 1/2 from failed saves)

    At 3rd, you could use the familiar to deliver touch spells as long as its in contact with you when you’re casting it and you don’t cast anything else before the spell is delivered. So for example, you can cast Shocking Hands, then send a rat familiar to scamper down the hall and deliver it on an alert orc sentry.

    At 5th, you and your Familiar can speak with one another as if using a common language.

    At 7th, you can communicate with all animals of the approximate kind as itself.

    At 12th, the familiar developed a spell resistance of your level + 5.

    At 13th, you can scry on your familiar once per day.

    A familiar’s hitpoints (1/2 of it’s master’s hit points rounded down), attack bonuses, and saving throws were based on its master’s scores.

    A familiar’s intelligence and natural armor also went up as you leveled.

    Both 3rd Edition and Pathfinder allowed the player to select their Familiar, so you could get the type of creature you wanted instead of the randomized result from 2nd Edition. Each creature also gave the wizard a special bonus (like +3 hit points for a toad or +3 stealth check for cats), so you could choose one based on something you wanted your wizard to be better at.

    Familiar deaths or dismissals were handled differently in 3rd Edition and Pathfinder.

    In D&D, you had to make a DC 15 fortitude save if a familiar died or was dismissed. Failure to make the roll meant you lost 200 xp per level. Succeeding meant you could lost 100 xp per level. You could not recall a familiar for a year and a day.

    In Pathfinder, there was no system shock. After a familiar was displaced or died, you had to wait one week and then perform a ritual that took 8 hours and cost 200 gp per level of caster.

    Pathfinder also allowed a wizard to choose whether the character wanted to choose a familiar or bond with an object instead. Once the choice was made, it couldn’t be reversed.

    • Fractalbat

      March 10, 2016 at 7:19 AM

      There’s some good stuff in there. Interesting that you have to wait until 13th level to scry on a familiar, I’d have thought that would be a more basic power. The 3rd level spell power is pretty cool.

      Interesting putting the hit on the caster’s experience. So how much of a hit is it if, for example, a level 5 caster loses 1000 XP? Does the experience loss have the ability to drop your actual level? Or do you retain the level and are just “in the hole” on your progress to the next?

      Thanks for the info Matt, that’s interesting reading.

      • aemmel

        March 10, 2016 at 8:08 PM

        I’d say that’s a typical 3.5/PF thing (loss of XP). A wizard has to use xp to create magic items, potions, scrolls, etc.

      • Matt

        March 10, 2016 at 10:33 PM

        The XP loss from familiar dismissal or death does have the potential to drop you a level. The character loses all hit points, bonuses, and abilities that came from the higher level until they earn enough XP to gain reach their old level again.

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