Wringing Special Abilities from the Find Familiar Spell in 5E D&D
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted help get you extra familiar with the find familiar spell for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Part of the video includes a breakdown and brief summary of a spellcaster’s different options for the spirit that takes an animal form you choose. The celestial, fey, or fiend can take the form of a bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish (quipper), rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Warlocks who make a Pact of the Chain at 3rd level gain a few more options in the form of imp, pseudodragons, quasit or sprite. Some monsters like the gazer in Volo’s Guide to Monsters explicitly call out possibility for becoming a familiar and in fact any character can potentially gain the service of a familiar. In our Out of the Box book, Fibble’s Fantastic Familiars presents an opportunity for characters to acquire new and strange familiars too. Familiars come in very handy in so many situations in 5E D&D, but if I’m honest there’s something I miss from earlier editions of the find familiar spell, which at one point wasn’t a spell at all and granted special abilities to its master when the master and familiar are within 1 mile of each other.
Getting familiar with find familiar
First off, looking back through previous editions of D&D reveals familiars and the find familiar magic evolving quite a bit over the years. In first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons the 1st level magic-user spell worked like this. A magic-user got a brass brazier going with charcoal then added 100 gp worth of incense, herbs and fat. Next the incantation began and continued for up to 24 hours (!!). The Dungeon Master rolled a few dice to determine if a creature would show up at all to heed the call of becoming a familiar and if so, what sort of creature arrived. A familiar assortment of cats, birds and vermin might show up, or a special variety on a high roll — quasit, imp, pseudodragon or brownie. Substitute sprite for brownie and there’s your 5E D&D warlock options. Or the magic-user might incant for 24 hours straight and nothing shows up. That’s magic for you. These familiars bestowed extra hit points to their master (yay!) but if the familiar died the master lost twice that many hit points permanently (boo!).
In second edition AD&D find familiar is very similar to the previous edition with a few notable changes. First off the biggest change is cost. Remember the 100 gp of materials from first edition? Now it’s 1000 gp, and there’s still a 25% chance no creature answers the summons at all! And you can only attempt the conjuration once per year, because it’s so powerful. Except…the crunchy benefit of extra hit points is gone too. Most of the find familiar spell description describes the complicated casting and connection to the spellcaster. The familiar itself gains a benefit from being near the master, but the master gets no such benefit and in fact if the familiar dies the master must immediately make a system shock check or straight up die on the spot. Even with a successful saving throw the master loses 1 point from their Constitution score permanently.
Find familiar takes an unusual turn in third edition/3.5 D&D. The biggest change is there’s no longer a find familiar spell at all. Instead, sorcerers and wizards have a class feature called Summon Familiar. Doing so costs 100 gp of materials, saving spellcasters 900 gp over the previous edition! If a familiar dies there’s a complicated calculation for determining how many experience points the master loses, but at least they don’t have to wait an entire year to summon a new familiar. Or, you know, die immediately. On the benefits side though, familiar masters receive perks depending on the familiar form. Bat masters gain a +3 bonus on Listen checks, while toad masters gain +3 hit points.
Like it does in so many other ways fourth edition D&D doesn’t even include find familiar or familiars of any sort in the Player’s Handbook. Instead, Arcane Power presents familiars as a feat tree starting with the Arcane Familiar feat. Any Arcane class (bard, sorcerer, swordmage, warlock or wizard) could take the feat and subsequent ones to empower and customize their familiar. Players can choose any appearance for their familiar, which had active and passive modes. The familiars in 4E D&D offer a pretty robust system and the magical creatures can provide some pretty cool special abilities.
Gimme those special abilities
Let’s get down to brass tacks. In the history of D&D familiars have changed quite a bit throughout the editions, with two of them not even including a find familiar spell at all. In 5E D&D find familiar returns to spell form at a bargain cost of 10 gp and only 1 hour casting time. It’s also a ritual spell so you can save a spell slot by spending extra time casting the spell. You will summon a familiar with 100% certainty and you can choose the form it takes and you can change the form every time you cast find familiar. You can see and hear through a familiar and deliver touch spells through the creature too. All around a solid return on investment, especially when you consider cost and versatility. Spending 1000 gp for just a chance to summon an extremely fragile creature whose death might cause your own instant death makes 2E AD&D find familiar the worst of the bunch. I’d say the 5E D&D iteration falls right in the middle. Abundant access to spellcasting, not the least of which through the Magic Initiate feat, makes a versatile creature ally with find familiar accessible for any character.
But I want some of the juicy perks of third and fourth edition D&D from a familiar! The way 4E D&D handles familiars through a feat family appeals to me and rediscovering it got some ideas percolating. That’s a much broader scope than this post can handle though. I’m filing the idea away for our Patreon supporters. I can definitely take the concept of familiar buffs from 3E D&D and give their 5E D&D counterparts some spiffy features. In that edition a familiar grants special abilities to its master when the master and familiar are within 1 mile of each other.
- Bat. Advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing
- Cat. Advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks that rely on moving silently
- Crab. +1 AC bonus
- Frog. +3 hit points
- Hawk. Advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight
- Lizard. Advantage on Strength (Athletics) checks to climb
- Octopus. Advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks made to hide
- Owl. Advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing or sight
- Poisonous snake. Advantage on Charisma (Deception) checks
- Quipper. Advantage on Strength (Athletics) checks to swim
- Rat. Advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell
- Raven. Advantage on Charisma (Performance) checks to mimic a sound or voice
- Sea horse. Hold your breath for up to 15 minutes at a time
- Spider. Advantage on saving throws against poison
- Weasel. Advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing or smell
Some are clearly better than others, but then again some familiars are too. These quick and dirty familiar special abilities came to mind while reading more about the history of the find familiar spell in D&D. I was surprised to find familiars were only summoned via spell in half the prior editions, making 5E D&D the weight towards the spell side. Between this particular video on getting the most from the find familiar spell, Stibbles Codex of Companions and a more recent video we planned we’re lousy with familiars over here. Because familiars are so accessible in 5E D&D I dig the notion of creating more content like these special abilities and other customizable elements for these creatures and their masters. Would you like to see more special abilities tied to find familiar? I like the idea of developing special feats or a subclass and, of course, magic items, monsters and adventure hooks for familiar aficionados. If the characters in your game love collecting pets, critters, creature and familiars they might enjoy visiting Fibble’s Fantastic Familiars, one of the 55 Out of the Box encounters you can get in on through the Pledge Manager, which will remain open until the wildly successful book goes to print. Check it out here.