GM ResourcesPlanar Mysteries

One Dozen Ways to Make Familiars More Memorable

Before we begin let’s define what a familiar is.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a familiar is: a spirit often embodied in an animal and held to attend and serve or guard a person

According to the Collins dictionary: an evil spirit constantly attending someone and typically dwelling within an animal; also, the animal within which such a spirit dwells

In European folklore familiar spirits, or “familiars” were supernatural entities believed to assist magic users in their practice of magic. They can go by various names, including:

  • Doppelgänger
  • Personal demon
  • Familiar spirit of the place
  • Personal (animal) totem(s)
  • Spirit companion
  • Alter ego.

Even though familiars may have an independent life of their own, they remains closely linked to the individual. The idea of familiars has carried into the roleplaying games, but the magic and mystique of the original idea has been lost in translation, but by looking at ways to use them in gameplay, adding them to your plots, giving them personality, and looking at different types of familiars you can bring them back to their proper place.

  1. Have the familiar connected to some place. Instead of something that travels around with them, perhaps the magician bound the spirit to the land itself, so the entire land becomes a sentinel warning him of invaders. This theme is similar to what happens in the miniseries ‘Merlin,’ where the living mountain, the Rock of Ages that holds Excalibur for him until King Arthur could claim it.
  2. Have the familiar connected to some object. The familiar spirit could also be bound to an object like the Millennium Puzzle in the Yu-gi-oh anime where the dark spirit Yami Yugi becomes timid Yugi Mutou’s confident alter ego. This is also similar to how the live action shonnen TV series “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and “Kamen Rider” where the teens who are recruited use their familiars they either found or are given by some sort of keeper to transform into heroes and summon the giant Zords to beat up the bad guys.
  3. Have the familiar “on call.” In folklore most cases, magical practitioners conjure/ summon their familiar spirit only when they needed their assistance. This can be done with such things as a ring of the Djinn, a Poké Ball, within cards, a digivice or an extra dimensional space. When they’re not on call they disappear, ready to be re-summoned again. In the case of them being in some sort of card or holding device, they can heal up after a battle. As an added incentive for using the familiars, they could become more powerful through use, such as the pokemon evolutions or digimon digivolutons.
  4. Familiar change the caster’s appearance or abilities. The classic children’s tale of “The Monster’s Ring” by Bruce Coville has a bullied kid who buys what he thinks is a cheap magic trick that changes the wearer “into a monstrous thing.” Another way that this could work is that the familiar could be something like the Venom/ Carnage symbiote in Spider Man.
  5. Familiar Takes Control. Have the familiar attempt to wrest control or influence the character in some way. In Bleach, Ichigo Kurosaki’s inner hollow fight for control of his body. Conversely, the familiar could be influencing the caster’s moods, which, in turn, affects her personality. Another way this could work is if the magic user is injured or weakened in some way, the familiar can possess the body so as not to lose its master but does things that are out of character for him.
    Not all influence needs to be for evil purposes, however. In the recent Piers Anthony Xanth novel “Board Stiff,” a girl named ‘Irrelevant Kandy’ gets turned into a board due to a wishing well. While Ease, a character whose talent is to make things easy wields her while he’s awake. When he’s asleep, she reverts back to her human form and can talk to him.
  6. Take the idea back to its roots. According to Mystical Myth: The term “familiar,” derived from the Latin familiaris means a “household servant” implies that the magic user had spirits as their servants, ready to obey their commands.
    If this were to be taken literally the “unseen servant” spell, if made permanent could serve as the caster’s eyes and ears.
  7. Familiars as supporting cast. A magic user’s familiar can be his or her closest companion, friend, offering moral support, special knowledge, insight, or physical/ emotional healing. In games that use saving throws, the presence of a familiar may be able to grant a bonus to it or an additional one based on their link. Similarly, the familiar, due to its senses, may be better able to detect things that the caster himself may not, and communicate that to her.
  8. Give the Familiars different powers. Instead of just being a conduit for spells, perhaps they have some ability of their own. They might be able to grow or shrink at will, cast illusions, pick up objects with their minds, see the future and so on.
  9. Change what the familiar can be. In Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series, Aes Sedai bind strong warriors to them as protection. Other choices might be quasi-intelligent plants, golems, and the like. Conversely, one of the PCs may be a familiar to something, such as a dragon.  In the Child of Light game, Aurora has a will-o-wisp as a familiar that helps the ebb and flow of battles. Whatever the caster’s familiar is, it should be thematically familiar with the caster’s abilities.
  10. Keep in mind that familiars may have their own motives. Some of the familiar’s motives maybe temptation of the witch or warlock to do evil, only to get to a set location so they can go home, retrieve its memories, or perhaps even revenge. In both Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, and VRAINS the protagonist has a familiar of sorts that have lost their memories. In the former, it comes in the form of the spirit, in the latter, an AI who created the VR network where the game is played. Maybe the familiar’s goals are to connect with the BBEG and need the PC to escort it to get there safely.
  11. Take Inspiration from the real world. Link 1 and Link 2
  12. Familiars as the main plot. Familiars don’t have to be on the sidelines. In fact, they can be the main plot. See this list here:

One Dozen Familiar Related Plots

  1. A spell caster has been replaced by a look-alike and the original’s familiar tries to warn the PCs of the switch. What do the PCs do when they find out about the switch?
  2. A caster’s familiar has been replaced and is negatively influencing the caster, but the caster can’t put into words what’s wrong. It’s up to the PCs to find out what’s going on.
  3. A caster has asked the PCs to track down their mischievously missing familiar. But given its nondescript nature, they’re not going to have an easy time.
  4. All familiars in a certain area are acting strangely. It’s up to the PCs to find out what’s going on and why.
  5. One of the PC’s familiars has gotten sick and it’s up to them to find out what’s wrong with it and find a cure before it dies.
  6. A magic user has paid the PCs handsomely to catalog the different magic user’s familiars. What does he want with the information and why?
  7. A local magic user has rejected his familiar and now seeks to become a familiar to one of the magic users in the party. Do they try to reunite the familiar with its former master or do they take it on?
  8. A familiar is spying on the party and they know it. But they also know that killing it would cause more ham than good. What do they do?
  9. A spell caster’s familiar is being controlled (charmed or otherwise) by an enemy magic user. Do they attack their former ally or do they acquiesce to the other caster’s demands?
  10. A familiar has gotten itself into trouble and has gone to the PCs for help, but is unable to communicate with them effectively. Will they realize that it’s asking for help or think it’s simply a nuisance and shoo it away?
  11. A familiar decided to abandon its master for unknown reasons. The PCs are hired to track it down and capture it so that its former master can apologize to it.
  12. What is thought only to be a familiar is actually the BBEG

D20 Familiar Personality/ Quirks

#

Personality

Quirk

1 Shy Doesn’t like bright lights
2 Possessive Doesn’t like water/ baths
3 Aggressive Afraid of heights
4 Cultured (read “snobbish”) Afraid of enclosed spaces
5 Fearless Nimble fingered/ light fingered
6 Independent/  Adventurous Loves “shineys”
7 Intelligent / Imaginative Coin Toss: Mute/ Extremely Vocal
8 Opinionated (and lets caster know it) Physically Affectionate
9 Likable Sickly/ Low health
10 Coin Toss: Obedient/ Disobedient Acts as if it’s humanoid (even though it’s obviously not)
11 Picky Collects random things, returning it to the caster
12 Malicious Hates strangers
13 Dependable Constantly cleaning self
14 Sullen Coin Toss: Brightly Colored/ Camouflaged
15 Meticulous Coin Toss: Poisonous/ Venomous
16 Reliable Roll d4: Tall/ Short/ Fat/ Thin
17 Stingy Agile
18 Helpful Knows 1d4+1 tricks
18 Happy/ Exuberant Wants to be treated as a pet
20 Rude Destructive to others’ property

Unique Familiars (d10)

1 Great Cats (d4) 1)      Lion/ Liger
2)      Tiger/ Tigon
3)      Panther
4)      Cheetah
2 Humanoids (d6) 1)      Kobold
2)      Orc
3)      Lizardman
4)      Gnoll
5)      Goblin
6)      Hobgoblin
3 Mustelids (d8) 1)      Ferret
2)      Weasel
3)      Otter
4)      Badger
5)      Weasel
6)      Marten
7)      Mink
8)      Wolverine
4 Monstrous Humanoids (d6) 1)      Centaur
2)      Hag
3)      Gargoyl
4)      Minotaur
5)      Sahuagin
6)      Harpy
5 Corporeal Undead (d6) 1)      Zombie
2)      Skeleton
3)      Ghast/ Ghoul
4)      Mummy/ Mummy Lord|
5)      Vampire Spawn/ Vampire
6)      Ghoul
6 Aquatic (d6) 1)      Dire Shark
2)      Manta Ray
3)      Nixie
4)      Octopus/ Squid
5)      Merman
6)      Piranha Swarm
7 Birds (d6) 1)      Eagle
2)      Peregrine Falcon
3)      Vultur
4)      Osprey
5)      Penguin
6)      Ostrich
8 Magical Beast I (d6) 1)      Ankheg
2)      Warg
3)      Gryphon
4)      Stirge
5)      Roper
6)      Hippogriff
9 Magical Beast II (d8) 1)      Gorgon
2)      Darkmantle
3)      Owlbear
4)      Chimera
5)      Phase Spider
6)      Shocker Lizard
7)      Manticore
8)      Grey Render
10 Extraplanar (d6) 1)      Mephit
2)      Quasits
3)      Gensai
4)      Aasimar
5)      Tiefling
6)      Azer

 

Shares
  • Dave(s) 4 Goombella

    It’s interesting how, in fiction, familiars and companion creatures are often more powerful than the people that command them: Daenarys’ dragons, Digimon, etc. But pen-and-paper RPG designers seem loathe to do that. In D&D 5e, for example, the “pet classes” (i.e. Wizard/Warlock with Find Familiar, Paladin with Find Steed, and Beastmaster Rangers) give the bulk of their power to the humanoid character rather than the pet.

    As a consequence, familiars and companion animals tend to be very fragile. Playing a Beastmaster Ranger, my companion animal was frequently dying due to massive damage. That made it hard to form an attachment to the animal as a character. (Wizard familiars and Paladin steeds are spirits rather than beasts, so their personality can endure a “death” and resummoning. I think one of the Unearthed Arcana variant Rangers also had a “spirit” animal companion, rather than a flesh-and-blood animal companion.)

    Overall, I really like these ideas. Whether you’re using a system where familiar animals are strong or weak, it helps turn a familiar from a tool into a character.

    • Thanks for the comment and encouragement. I may be doing more articles like this in the future. Stay tuned!

    • Marandahir

      I think the idea where the character with all the combat powers is the familiar while the PC who does the adventuring and social interactions is worth exploring more.

    • I will have to mull that over to see whether or not I can actually come up with a full article on that topic on this site, but I may discuss that on my own personal blog.

  • Sporelord0179

    The big issue I have with the familiars in 5E is that they’re all tied to a Find spell. Even pact of the chain only gets an upgrade to the find familiar spell. This means that if I want to dismiss my familiar or they die, I have to spend a spell slot to bring them back.

    This is annoying for two reasons. Firstly, it’s turned my familiar into a resource that needs to be managed, especially at low levels. I don’t want to summon my familiar because that’s a use of magic missle or burning hands gone. It also means that summoning my familiar could land me in a situation where I can’t cast the one needed spell. I know it’s only a 1st level spell but that slot is important right up until about sixth level.
    It also means I can’t summon or dismiss my familiar when it’s reasonable. I *have* to have it with me while I’m around. If I want my familiar in case the realpolitik goes south and I have to fend off the guards/assassins I need this spiny, evil looking quasit sitting around.

    Most fluff can easily be redone – for example locking people into one specific familiar – but to properly do the mechanics I’d need to create an entire system.

    I personally believe that the familiar should be a class feature for druids/wizards/warlocks and you can get a weaker version of one as a feat if you’re playing another class and still want it.

    • One of the common things I do in my articles is to challenge the “status quo” of the game’s rules, to turn the tropes that they represent on their head, to experiment with doing things differently, and,by doing so, improve the game.

      And in terms of mechanics… that’s a side thing. Most of the time I don’t discuss the “nitty gritty” of them because at day’s end it doesn’t matter. People aren’t playing RPGs because of mechanical aspects, though it can be a part of why they play (or don’t play) a particular system. It’s story and character and world and a sense of adventure. Try one thing mechanically; if it doesn’t work, try something else, until you get the balance, “feel” you’re looking for.

Shares