Over the years there have been numerous descriptions of familiars. Each type of familiar provides various benefits. But many of the benefits seem somewhat silly to me. Or, at the least, they just don’t match my vision of what a familiar should be.
So what IS my vision of what a familiar should be? I’ve never been able to answer that to my satisfaction so I’ve never been able to invent one. I thought I would take another stab at it and see what I can come up with. Forgive me if this is a little chaotic. I’m just brainstorming here.
I don’t think a familiar should be a normal creature. It seems to me that it should be a magical creature with some innate powers of its own. I want it to be mysterious and useful but not overpowering or distracting.
I like the idea that the Wizard gains something from having the familiar nearby and loses something when it isn’t. It should also enhance the Wizard’s spellcasting ability in some way.
Also, to offset the benefit of having a familiar, the Wizard should suffer a significant loss upon the death of the familiar. Some rules have imposed a waiting period of a year and a day before being able to summon a new familiar. I’m torn on the need for a waiting period but either way I think a year and a day is excessive.
There should be an intimate bond between the Wizard and the familiar. No familiar, or Wizard for that matter, should be willing to allow a second familiar to intrude upon that bond.
Combat or Non-Combat Pet
Should the familiar be a combat pet or a non-combat pet? If it is a combat pet, the familiar could tank for the Wizard allowing for single-player adventures. I find this concept very attractive. Wizards, imo, would prefer a solitary lifestyle. Adventuring alone with a single trusted comrade/pet seems very realistic to me. But how often would solitary adventures come up?
In a normal party, a combat pet equates to a second character. There are situations where occasionally letting characters run two (or more) characters may be reasonable but a combat pet means that the Wizard would have to be allowed to effectively run two characters all the time. Otherwise you would be imposing a penalty on the Wizard whenever you force the familiar to be out of range (by not being allowed to come along).
Another issue is that, as with any NPC, the player does not have complete control over the familiar. The DM has the final say in what the familiar does. DM-run party members tend to take over party decisions to some extent. I wouldn’t want familiars to create that sort of issue. All in all, I think a familiar should probably be a non-combat pet.
As a non-combat pet, the familiar should never perform any action that directly assists the Wizard or the party. The familiar isn’t designed to go test a passage to see if it is safe or to retrieve a key from the next room or even to perform reconnaissance. The familiar is a companion that benefits the Wizard simply through proximity and through the comfort of their empathic link.
A talking familiar would be right back in the role of a DM-controlled party member. Therefore, I would rule out speech right off the bat. The Wizard and familiar should be able to communicate though. I would envision an empathic link at least. Possibly one that isn’t affected by distance or even by being on different planes. A telepathic link, on the other hand, is effectively speech and again creates the issue of the DM being forced into an active role in running the familiar.
With just an empathic link, the Wizard should be able to communicate basic instructions such as telling the familiar to phase to the Astral plane to protect itself or to tell the familiar that it is safe and to return.
As I said, I think the familiar should be a magical creature of some sort. I’m thinking that a natural inhabitant of the Astral Sea may work out nicely. Familiars not bonded with Wizards would not be encountered outside the Astral plane. That helps preserve the mystery.
Being a non-combat pet, I want them to have a means of avoiding combat. Being a creature of the Astral plane, the familiar could simply phase in and out of our plane when necessary.
Familiars have been described as cats, frogs, ravens, etc. I would like to maintain that tradition but I don’t want to have a bunch of different types of familiars. I actually have always envisioned familiars as a sort of pseudo-dragon about the size of a large cat, say around 15-20 pounds. That could be the natural form. Then add in the ability to polymorph at will to explain the other appearances. Being a dragon-like creature, I would give familiars the ability to fly and hover while in their natural form.
I think it is important that the familiar not have any abilities that allow the party to do anything they couldn’t do otherwise. Therefore I would avoid any form of detection or danger sense. I think I would add darkvision just so the familiar wouldn’t become a liability by potentially being the only party member not having it.
Possibly, the Wizard could gain abilities from the familiar based on what form the familiar is in: distance vision when in Owl form, darkvision when in Cat form, etc. Given the other abilities, this may be too much. Alternatively, these types of abilities could be added as the familiar goes up in level.
I’m thinking that, as a non-combat pet, the familiar would phase out immediately upon taking any damage and stay away until it sensed that the encounter was over. I don’t want it to be so vulnerable that it can’t survive that first attack but I don’t want it to be invincible either. I’m thinking level four or five should accomplish that. If the summoning ritual is that level as well, then the Wizard and familiar will start out as the same level. I’m not sure how I feel yet about letting familiars gain levels or otherwise become more powerful as time goes by. I can see some benefits to that but I don’t want the familiar to become overpowered.
An alternative would be to set the ritual at 5th level and have the spell summon a familiar that is the same level as the Wizard at the time of the summoning. After that, the familiar would gain a level every time the Wizard leveled. (My house rules allow for low-level multiclassing. I would tie the familiar to the Wizard’s class level instead of her character level.)
Armor Class and Reflex should be somewhat better than average due to size and speed. I’d give them high Constitution to help with Hit Points and Fortitude. Because of their nature, I would increase their Will Power as well.
Effects of Having a Familiar
When the familiar is within a certain range of the Wizard (say 60 feet), the Wizard should gain some advantage. I’ve been toying with familiars having the nickname Luck Dragons. That being the case, they should bring luck to the Wizard. I think this could be represented by: +1 to all skill checks, attack rolls, and saves. Similarly then, when the familiar is out of range the Wizard suffers a -1 to all skill checks, attack rolls, and saves. (Note that intelligent opponents would then immediately target the familiar so that it would phase and cause the Wizard to have these penalties).
In addition, because of the soothing effect of the empathic link between the two, both the Wizard and the familiar receive a +5 bonus to Will Power at all times, regardless of distance (unless the empathic link is somehow blocked).
As an aside, non-Wizard characters might benefit from bonding with a Luck Dragon as well. If they cannot cast the summoning ritual, they would need another method of finding one. Just a thought.
This still does not supply the benefit to spellcasting that I mentioned earlier. I want the familiar to somehow benefit the Wizard’s spellcasting ability in a way that, by itself, makes having a familiar very worthwhile.
I’m toying with the idea that, because of the familiar, the Wizard is treated, in all matters related to the Wizard class, as if she is one level higher than she actually is. A fifth level Wizard would then be able to cast sixth level spells. Range, duration, area of effect, spell energy and energy regeneration would all be calculated as if the Wizard were sixth level.
Losing a Familiar
If a familiar is ever killed, there should be some serious consequence to the Wizard. Right now I’m leaning toward losing experience sufficient to put the Wizard at the beginning of the current level and not being able to summon a new familiar until the Wizard gains a level. Possibly even a -2 penalty to Will Power until the Wizard has passed through the mourning period (gains a level).
Keep in mind that it should not be easy to lose a familiar. They do not engage. They phase to the Astral plane upon taking damage. Being able to fly (in their natural form) or be carried, they would not set off most traps. Not having language or telepathy, they cannot be asked to perform dangerous actions (nor would they if they were made to understand the request).
Concerted attacks or severe damage may kill a familiar before it is able to phase. Certain magic may prevent phasing and some creatures can follow a familiar to the Astral plane. Short of those scenarios though, the familiar is pretty safe so death should be very rare.
Being a creature of the Astral Sea, familiars phase upon death and cannot be resurrected.
This is much closer to what I’ve had in mind. I’m going to give it some more thought and get some input from friends but I think I may implement something similar to this and see how it works. If all goes well, I’ll do a proper monster entry write-up and post it here.