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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Take Inspiration from the real world. Link 1 and Link 2
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- All familiars in a certain area are acting strangely. It’s up to the PCs to find out what’s going on and why.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- What is thought only to be a familiar is actually the BBEG
D20 Familiar Personality/ Quirks
|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|
|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|
|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
|2||Humanoids (d6)||1) Kobold|
|3||Mustelids (d8)||1) Ferret|
|4||Monstrous Humanoids (d6)||1) Centaur|
|5||Corporeal Undead (d6)||1) Zombie|
3) Ghast/ Ghoul
4) Mummy/ Mummy Lord|
5) Vampire Spawn/ Vampire
|6||Aquatic (d6)||1) Dire Shark|
2) Manta Ray
4) Octopus/ Squid
6) Piranha Swarm
|7||Birds (d6)||1) Eagle|
2) Peregrine Falcon
|8||Magical Beast I (d6)||1) Ankheg|
|9||Magical Beast II (d8)||1) Gorgon|
5) Phase Spider
6) Shocker Lizard
8) Grey Render
|10||Extraplanar (d6)||1) Mephit|