A Familiar Problem

by Shaun Makes

Familiars present a challenge for both GMs and players. In most typical role playing games, your player character is the focus of your attention. You invest heavily in your character’s backstory by planning and dreaming up motivations, bonds, flaws and ideals for them to live by. You may pour over resource books, articles and forums for ideas and mechanics that suit the build you have in mind. You spend all of this time and effort designing the perfect character to roleplay for weeks, months, or even years, but if you’ve picked a PC that has a familiar … Do you even typically remember you have the class feature?

A Familiar Story

I believe that we can enhance the stories and experiences we have at the table by giving some additional thought to the strange companions we bring along on our adventurers. After all, you chose the feature, why not bring this being to life alongside your character?

Familiars in popular culture and fiction run the gamut from well developed to token inclusions. In order to get the most out of our familiar we want to look to some good examples of familiars and sidekicks that can help us get inspired:

  • Bob the Skull (Dresden Files)
  • Salem the Cat (Sabrina the Teenage Witch)
  • The dæmons in the His Dark Materials book series
  • Iago (Aladdin)
  • Nibbler (Futurama)
  • Archimedes (The Sword in the Stone)
  • Scabbers (Harry Potter)
  • Gunther (Adventure Time)

Personality Killed the Cat

Note that I’m specifically avoiding some commonly known familiars like Hedwig in the Harry Potter series. Sure, snowy owls are cool, but we learn so little about Hedwig, and she’s given so few real character traits, that Dobby is a much better example of an interesting familiar or sidekick. When brainstorming for our new familiars, we want to avoid passive characters. Each of the familiars I’ve listed have distinct personalities. They have their own desires, histories and flaws that impact their master’s stories. Salem is actually a witch cursed to live 100 years as a cat; Iago is evil and cruel, with his own machinations and goals; Gunther wants to have some time to hang out with his penguin friends when the Ice King isn’t around.

The strong personalities of these familiars come forth in the way they interact, by providing a foil to the personalities and ticks of their masters. Iago is sarcastic and over the top to contrast Jafar’s brooding and scheming; grumpy and sceptical Archimedes chastises Merlin and taunts him when he’s overconfident; the dæmons in His Dark Materials shift form to reflect their counterpart’s inner emotions.

Some Familiar Ideas

Your familiar …

  • Embodies one of the four elements. They become irritable, frightened or paranoid when in situations involving their opposed element (Fire and Water, Earth and Air).
  • Is obsessed with piercings and will invade stranger’s spaces to check them out
  • Wants to feel in control, even when they aren’t
  • Is afraid and timid to a fault, may attempt to hold back the group from danger
  • Accuses people of lying about insignificant things, but is quite dishonest themselves
  • Is nocturnal, and you’ve begun to match their circadian rhythm
  • They are in charge and you’re the familiar
  • Collects eyes, insists they are a beholder

You might also consider who roleplays as your familiar. Are you going to give them a voice and make roleplaying decisions for them yourself, or will you ask the GM or another player to bring them to life? Make sure the other player or GM is comfortable in this role. Let them know what you’re looking for in a familiar and what sort of choices you want them to avoid.

Keeping the Familiar in Mind

The big thing to avoid is allowing yourself to forget about your familiar. By finding ways not only to give your familiar personality, but also a history and a goal, they become integral to your character’s story. Is your familiar cursed to be your partner? Are they serving time bonded to you before they earn their wings or their freedom? Do they intend to use you to achieve a personal goal? Are they your cheerleader and closest confidant? Does your familiar change shape or colour in response to the situation or your emotions? Do they have a connection to the campaign’s Big Bad Evil Guy you have yet to discover? Work with your GM to brainstorm ways to make your familiar more than another note on your character sheet.

Your familiar…

  • was gifted to you by a powerful lich/demon/demigod, they expect great things from you, and the familiar is there to make sure you don’t forget it
  • Is a clone of an infamous wizard’s familiar, and is having a crisis of identity … surely you can help them with that
  • Is a reincarnation of one of your ancestors and they have unfinished business
  • Has an important quest to save the world of their very own, and you better start paying attention before something goes awfully wrong
  • Takes the form of an intelligent item such as a talking sword, floating magical cape, golden ring. They once belonged to someone important and they tend to brag about it
  • Knows a secret about each of the members of your party

Put Them in Harm’s Way

Now that you’ve thought of ways your familiar’s personality and personal goals may express themselves, it’s time to treat them with the same attention you give your own character. When in a dangerous encounter, your familiar needs to be in harm’s way the same way that you, an animal companion or a hireling may be. Examine the rules of the game you intend to play. Do the familiars explicitly get special protection from attacks or spells? If not, make a note for yourself to roll saving throws, stealth checks and watch your familiar’s position on the map. Your character experiences growth and excitement by putting themself on the front line of danger, and your familiar will become that much more important to you if they have to confront the same challenges alongside the party.

Reward Them

When playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, magic items are a big part of your character’s advancement. Sometimes rules exist that bar animal companions or familiars from benefiting from magical items, but you may consider discussing this with your GM. Surely your reincarnated uncle, now a monkey familiar, can handle a wand? He was a master sorcerer back in his day after all!

If the mechanics of the game don’t reward the use of your familiar, and allow them to improve and grow alongside you, consider ways you would like to see them improve. Do they grow in size? Gain additional attacks or spells? Can they slip between the ethereal and material planes to warn you of danger? Do they have a little jacket with magical pockets that can produce any of a number of non-magical items at a whim?

Bringing It To The Table

As is always the case with any of this character focused advice and brainstorming be sure to consult with your gamemaster. Keep in mind that if you come with concrete ideas, it will help your gamemaster plan for interesting rewards and story moments that will make you feel like your choice to have a familiar was an important one. 

In terms of etiquette, watch that playing as both your player character and your familiar doesn’t cut into the rest of the player’s time. Avoid “that’s what my familiar would do!” situations. Your familiar needs to be a productive member of the team that will not only encourage other players at the table to interact with them, but help them along their character journeys as well.

Do you have some great ideas for familiars? Share them with us in the Discord!