Monday, June 30, 2014


a wizard and his familiar

Many people assume that familiars are animals that a wizard has empowered to be servants and allies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Paladins will tell you that familiars are demons, sent to corrupt wizards with power. Others say that they are the ancient spirits that originally taught mankind magic, or that familiars are spells that have slipped away from their masters and now meddle in the affairs of wizards.

Whatever is true, wizards obtain familiars by casting the spell known as call to familiar spirit. This is optional, and many (smart) wizards never mess around with familiars in the first place.

Once called the familiar will appear in 1d20 hours. What sort of familiar appears depends on where they are summoned. A frog familiar might appear if summoned in a swamp, while calling for familiars within a city sometimes returns a brownie or a jenkin.

a wizard and his familiar

The wizard must then bargain with the familiar. Familiars usually want to ally themselves with promising young savants with a bright destiny. Every familiar wants to be the voice in the ear of an archmage. They want power, indirectly. After bargaining, the hopeful wizard makes a Charisma check with the following modifiers.
  • If the wizard is boring, meek, or unambitious, there will be a -1/-2 penalty.
  • If the wizard is power-hungry or promises the familiar great things, there will be a +1/+2 bonus.
  • The wizard can sacrifice things to appease the familiar. First, sacrifice as much stuff as you want, then make a Wisdom check. Success means that you get a +1 bonus for every 100sp of stuff sacrificed this way (gold thrown in the well, holy books burned, gemstones turned to dirt,etc). Failure means that you have misjudged the familiar's desires and your sacrifices will count for nothing.
If the wizard succeeds on the Charisma check, the familiar agrees to join you in a mutually-binding, magical contract. If the check is failed, roll on the Breach of Covenent Table below, and that familiar will never again appear to you. In fact, no familiar will ever appear to you at this location.  You've been 86'd.

a wizard and his familiar
Once a familiar has agreed to work with you, it can be summoned to your side. But familiars are fickle. Whenever you attempt to summon your familiar, make a Charisma check. Success means that the familiar arrives immediately. Otherwise it arrives in 1d20 hours. If you have annoyed your familiar, you automatically fail this Test, while familiars that are extremely pleased will always arrive promptly.

Your familiar doesn't really exist before it's summoned.  It crawls out of your hair, or scrabbles out of the wall.  And leaves in similarly dramatic fashion.  It can only be hurt by magic.

Familiars can use the detect magic spell at will, and will even share the results with you if you ask nicely (this is so trivial that it doesn't demand a favor in exchange). More importantly, familiars can perform services, but never more than 1/day. However, for every service it performs, you owe a favor.

1. Familiars can teach you spells, which you can then add to your spellbook immediately and at no cost. Roll on the random spell table to see which one. The familiar will only perform this service 1d4+1 times before it refuses. It cannot teach you what you cannot understand. The first spell is free.

2. Familiars can give you an extra spell slot of your highest level spell for one day.

3. Familiars can give you +2 to your caster level for one day. 

4. Familiars can save you from a violent death—but only once, and only if the familiar answers your summons immediately (i.e. you make that Charisma check mentioned above). The details are best left to the DM, but the familiar might crawl inside your mouth and give you the strength you need to overcome the situation, or you might just walk back into the campsite later on like nothing happened. Regardless, once your familiar has performed this favor for you, you become bound to it body and soul. You will never be rid of it. You owe it a favor every time you level up, or every time you gain a negative level.

5. Pretty much anything else you can dream up. Want it to scout out the next room? No problem. That counts as a favor, though.

Each favor is always something that the familiar can call in immediately, or at a later date. It's up to the DM, but the most appropriate favors are ones that are appropriate to the familiar's goals (see below) and potentially destrucive. Forgetting to return the spellbook to the wizard who has treated you kindly? Kill the silly NPC paladin who always gets in the way? Stealing a torch from a baby?  If this seems harsh, you can roll a 1d6 or something to see how unpalatable the familiar's request is.

If the wizard performs the favor that the familiar requests, that's the end of it. But if the wizard refuses, that is a violation the contract with the familiar, and deserving of a roll on the Breach of Covenant table.

Breach of the Covenant (d6)
1-2. random curse
3-4. random mutation
5-6. permanent -1 to an ability score

a wizard and her familiar

As long as you can convince your familiar that you still have a chance to fulfill your destiny, it will not abandon you (although it might get grumpy). It has a contract to fulfill, after all.

To see a suggested familiar, roll on each table below, or just roll once for all four.  DMs are encouraged to make up their own, and especially to tailor the appearance for the environment where the call to familiar spirit spell was first cast.

Suggested Appearances (d8)
1. matte black crow, flies backwards.
2. fat weasel, sleeps constantly in your pocket or purse.
3. swollen toad, nearby objects and surfaces become soggy.
4. miniature woman, 2' tall with gold skin, wearing only jewelry.
5. small pig, walks like a man, fond of eating bones and skin.
6. white mouse, everyone gets goosebumps when it appears, speaks like a king.
7. brown jenkin, sort of like a large rat with human hands and face, fond of fetching things.
8. black cat, always stands on your shadow, causes discomfort on places where it's paws touch

True Appearance (d8) visible only using wizard vision or some magical truesight bullshit
1. small, misshapen version of you.
2. nauseous cloud of impossible colors.
3. hole in the universe.
4. empty skin, twitching/fluttering as if in a wind.
5. misshapen human child
6. pulsing mass of roiling meat.
7. there is nothing there and never has been.
8. suspiciously, it looks the same (or does it?).

Unique Power (d8)
1. can see the future in spilled intestines, quite accurate
2. can teleport the caster (only) to the nearest graveyard
3. can double your current HP, but will fade in 1d20 hours
4. can create false gold that will disappear in 1d20 hours
5. can create a feast fit for a king
6. can make a virgin fall in love with you
7. can fetch a named item that has been forgotten by all
8. no special power, but it will pretend that it has one

Goal (d8)
1. exploration of new frontiers (especially of the mind and/or other planes) and cosmic truth
2. iconoclasm and an end to banal religions (cosmic horror-gods are the only true gods; worship is optional)
3. magical power to bend the universe to your will
4. political power to rule the world and become a leader of men (preferred: starting a cult, marrying royalty)
5. deaths of weaklings and fools
6. carnal pleasure, incomprehensible ecstasy
7. construction of a vast object, built for some distant, undefined purpose (preferred: tower, ziggurat, ship)
8. destruction of the self through dissolution, dissociative drugs, anomie, and constant exposure to danger


  1. Replies
    1. True! But these rules allow you sidestep: figuring out your familiar's stats, how much HP it is, what it is doing every turn of combat, etc. Because it's a spirit, instead of a real animal, it can be more abstracted.

  2. On the mark and well done. 1st level spells that permanently conjure up magical beings should prove to be troublesome to the unwarry and power mad.

  3. Great, flavorful stuff here.
    Despite the name 'Familiars' shouldn't be all that cozy comfortable... kind of like a lesser version of DCCs 'Patrons'.

  4. I'm doing it wrong lol ok buddy. Looks like a rip from Cthulhu sorry

  5. This is cool and all, and fits very nicely into a certain weird/horror aesthetic, but one of the nice things about this hobby is that - if it fits your game / your campaign / your players - there is literally no way to "do X all wrong." Does the internet really need more antagonism being used as mere reader hooks? 8^/

    1. You're right. The title is just linkbait. See also: "7 Myths Everyone Believes About Druids". I guess I was going for ironic, but it became indistinguishable from the stuff I was parodying.

      I still like the title.

    2. Alright, I can see that. It's actually pretty clear about the druids, if only because the whole concept is so silly, but here you did use the exact words that certain unnecessarily aggressive bloggers would use sincerely.

  6. On suggested appearances, I got the brown jenkin and a crow that flies backwards references. I am curious about the others.
    Nice post, BTW. Sorry for bad English.

  7. I like keeping magic a bit dangerous, and this does just that. Well done!

  8. This sounds quite a bit like a Sandestin from Dying Earth. Inspiration?

  9. Horror indeed; maybe too much for my taste. Yet, and then there is the terrifying consequences to the wizard upon the death of a familiar.

  10. Cool ideas, but this isn't something that fits well into 5e, possibly most D&D games. It's excessively complex and really, far too complex for what a 1st level spell should be doing. If you really wanted to put this into 5e, it should be its own, far more dangerous spell.

    1. While technically true that this would be a hard thing to implement in 5th edition, most of this blog is geared for OSR content rather than 5e so seems like a bit of a moot point. Good things to be aware of if you did happen to be trying to design a system for 5th edition of course, just not strictly important in the scope of this blog

  11. Had a neat conversation with the D5 discord server about this. Got 5e players thinking about how they would do a greater find familiar in their own game, since they hated most of the risk and lethality of your ideas.

    That being said I'm definitely using some of this in the future

  12. Had a neat conversation with the D5 discord server about this and possibly making a greater find familiar for 5e play.
    They didn't like how """""unfair"""" it was so they moved some things around with the fickleness and favors.

    That being said I love this and am gonna use it in the future.

    1. Perfect! Nothing you find on my blog should be used without adapting it to your own game first.

      What is the D5 discord server?

  13. Everyone is saying this is really complex, but to me it's simple, elegant, and way more interesting!