Where Are The Familiars?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 3, 2009

During my weekly game the person playing the Wizard made an interesting observation. D&D 4e is the first edition of the game not to offer the Wizard class the option of taking a familiar. I have yet to play a Wizard in 4e and even if I had I don’t know if I would have even noticed this omission. I’ve never liked familiars. They always felt like an afterthought to the spell casting classes. In my opinion we can say good riddance to bad rubbish. Good call, Wizards of the Coast!

Over the years I have played a few Wizards myself. And if I wasn’t playing the Wizard there was a really good chance someone else in the party was. And in all those years of playing I don’t remember a single Wizard’s familiar having any impact to a campaign, storyline or individual encounter. The familiars were useless!

Of all the Wizards played at my gaming table over the years, by me or another player, I only recall a handful of them ever taking a familiar. And therein lays the real problem: I’m sure most of those Wizards had familiars recorded on their character sheets, but only the person playing the Wizard knew about it. And the reason no one else knew was because none of those familiars were ever made a memorable part of the Wizard to which it was bound.

I think the only reason any player ever took a familiar was to power game. Why not take a toad familiar if it gives you a few more hit points? Why not take a bat  familiar if it means getting bonuses to Perception? I don’t fault the people playing Wizards for exploiting this part of the character creation process. I fault the game mechanics for presenting this beneficial option (for Wizards and Sorcerers only) and not having any negatives to balance it off.

If the familiar was really such an important part of the Wizard class then many of the monstrous spell casters would have familiars, too. I can’t think of any monster entries in the 3e or 4e Monster Manuals that describe familiars. That should tell you something. And that something is that familiars are useless and serve no practical purpose other than making your Wizard look cool (hawk familiar) or dirty (rat familiar) or creepy (snake familiar). Put simply, the familiar is just an affectation designed to facilitate role-playing. It should not have any in game relevance or impact other than to help make your character more memorable.

“I’m looking for a particular group of adventurers,” he said as he bellied up to the bar. “Can you describe them?” asked the barkeep. “They’re pretty non-descript. But the guy in the cloak had a ferret that he kept kissing and feeding. I think he was a druid.”

There have been a lot of complaints about things missing from 4e D&D, but I don’t think anyone is complaining about the missing familiars, least of all me.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suddry March 3, 2009 at 6:01 am

Hate to spoil your party but the ark known as “Arcane Power” is bringing the boatload of familiars with it.

http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/4pr/20090302
(Scroll to the bottom under Arcane Power.)

I’ve played wizards and always had a familiar. I also remember other characters using them. However the reason they faded into the background so often was that the group tended to get annoyed when the rat was sent in to scout. That was the rogues job! And if somehow the rat was allowed to go then essentially the wizard was now playing two characters while the rest of the group sat on their hands.

Looking at the blurb on the link above I think they have addressed some of the issue. If someone wants to use a familiar in 4E it uses its masters actions. Similar to the few conjuration spells we’ve seen so far.

That is how is should have been all along.

Sudds

2 greywulf March 3, 2009 at 6:12 am

4e isn’t the first edition of the game to lack familiars in the core rules, not by a long shot. There were no familiar as such in Classic D&D (Moldvay, BECMI, Rules Cyclopedia, etc), and only came into AD&D with later supplements and Kits. Familiars (and the whole menagerie of animals for the other classes too) only really came in with Third Edition.

3 Ameron March 3, 2009 at 8:12 am

@Suddry
I assumed Arcane Power would have familiars, but I was really hoping that Wizards of the Coast would pass on the whole concept. Oh well, hopefully they’re reviewed the mechanics and made it more balanced.

@Greywulf
I stand corrected. I guess I should have said: “D&D 4e is the first edition of the game that I remember playing not to offer the Wizard class the option of taking a familiar.”

4 Wyatt March 3, 2009 at 10:51 am

I worked around it using my Spirit Pact rules, but I’m a pretty lenient DM and they’re pretty specific to my setting. After playing with my own rules I’m not really very interested in Wizard’s take on it.

5 Wimwick March 3, 2009 at 12:41 pm

@ Wyatt
Tomorrow we’ll be publishing an article with our take on 4e rules for familiars. We figure there might be some in the community who miss familiars and don’t want to wait until WotC release their version, so we’ll offer something in the mean time.

I often find that when a home brew rule is developed to cover a shortfall in the rules that the homebrew rule usually stands even after the official ruling is released. I’d be interested in checking out your Spirit Pact rules.

6 Thasmodious March 4, 2009 at 12:26 am

Greywulf, I think you’re missing something. Familiars were in core AD&D (1e). Find Familiar was a 1st level spell, granting a normal familiar most of the time and a chance to get an alignment appropriate special familiar like a pseudodragon or imp.

7 rekres March 4, 2009 at 12:49 am

I think familiars in 4E should work as a type of implement for Wizards. So your choice of implements becomes: Wand, Orb, Staff, Familiar.

Of course, flavor-wise that might look a little weird…
PC: “I hold up my cat and cast magic missile at the fleeing goblin!”

8 Wyatt March 4, 2009 at 7:37 am

I’m working on a small redo/tightening of my spirit oath material, I’ll be sure to link you to it once it is done.

9 Wimwick March 4, 2009 at 3:14 pm

@rekres
ROFL!

@Wyatt
Let us know when it’s done, I’d love to take a read through.

10 Ameron March 5, 2009 at 8:18 am

@Thasmodious
Glad you found us. Thanks for the fact checking.

@Rekres
Familiars as implements… hmmm. That could work. Of course I can see a lot of great role-playing opportunities when you try to enchant your familiar.
“Fluffy, sit still! I’m trying to make you a +2 cat.”
But with all seriousness I like this idea a lot.

11 rekres March 5, 2009 at 9:26 am

I’ve never been one to overlooking the RP potential of familiars.

In one 3.5 campaign I ran, one wizard had a raven familiar named “Nevermore”. The bird had a mind of its own and refused to do anything without being coaxed for half an hour.

One time he finally got Nevermore to do some scouting in one dungeon. While flying around it spotted something that scared it so badly it turned its feathers completely white. NM refused to discuss the matter and even blanked it from its memory…

It became a running gag that ‘Nevermore’ wasn’t its name, but its volunteer status.

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