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Seven Types of D&D Familiar

Updated: Jun 24, 2023



Introduction: Seven Types of D&D Familiar


Ever since my Illusionist first cast Find Familiar in the dim and distant days of AD&D, I have been obsessed with magical companions, however, they're one of the most under developed areas of spell caster role playing and so today I thought I'd turn this blog over to looking at familiars and thinking a little bit out of the box when it comes not only to designing them, but to creating game mechanics around them.


Familiar was a term first used in the 17th Century when people accused of witchcraft described Satan's imps and how they influenced human affairs (the entire concept is probably the result of torture, it must be acknowledged), and they were detailed in Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins book, The Discovery of Witches:



The small black cat Pyewackett has had probably the best career out of Satan's original line up here, appearing in all manner of YA novels, though Vinegar Tom is planning a comeback and has a new agent.


Anyway, the familiar has traditionally been the link between a spellcaster and a greater other worldly power, but does it have to be? In Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials, the 'familiar' is a Daemon, or an expression of the individual's soul, one which changes form in childhood but settles in adulthood.


Firstly, here are some options on Familiar Origins, some are mild variations on a theme, others are a complete break with the idea of 'Satan's Imp'.


For more on D&D familiars, check out our glossary article here


Rescued from a great power


A familiar is often a creature who is either bestowed upon a spell caster as a gift from a other worldly patron or a way of binding the spellcaster to their master (see ball and chain below). However, what if the familiar is a spirit that was once in the service of a great being and displeased it, resulting in its exile to some distant barren rock in the void, or perhaps imprisoned in some dark infernal prison or maze in the being's realm? The familiar might meet the PC spellcaster when they have been consigned to a similar fate, or the spellcaster might spot the familiar when visiting the court of the great and evil being to bargain over magical powers. The familiar's bond to the PC, who either busts it out of prison or negotiates its release is one of gratitude and obligation (though this might later become a more equal relationship) as time goes by.


Rescued from a great power, familiars can have captivating origins that add intrigue and depth to their character. Picture a spirit familiar, once in the service of a powerful entity, but having fallen out of favor and subsequently banished to a desolate, isolated realm within the void.


Alternatively, envision a familiar trapped within the confines of a dark infernal prison or an intricate maze within the dominion of the being it once served. It is during a chance encounter that the spellcaster crosses paths with the familiar, either when facing a similar fate or while navigating the treacherous court of the malevolent being in search of arcane bargains.


The bond between the spellcaster and the familiar is forged through an act of liberation or negotiation, their destinies intertwined as they embark on a shared journey. Perhaps the spellcaster, driven by empathy and compassion, frees the familiar from its entrapment, breaching prison walls or outwitting the maze's intricate puzzles. In other instances, the spellcaster strikes a pact with the being, leveraging their own magical prowess to secure the familiar's release in exchange for their loyalty and assistance.


Initially, the familiar's bond to the spellcaster is one of profound gratitude and indebtedness. It recognizes the spellcaster's role as its saviour and feels a strong sense of obligation. However, as time passes and their adventures unfold, this relationship may evolve into one of mutual respect and equality. The familiar's spirit, once dampened by its past servitude, flourishes under the spellcaster's guidance and nurturance, discovering newfound purpose and autonomy.


These extraordinary tales of rescued familiars infuse the spellcaster's narrative with elements of redemption, loyalty, and personal growth. They serve as a constant reminder of the spellcaster's capacity for compassion and their ability to forge unique connections in a world governed by magic and mysticism.


Case Study: The Tale of Azara and Shadow


Background: In the world of Eldoria, Azara, a young sorceress with a passion for arcane knowledge, embarked on a perilous journey to uncover the secrets of ancient magical artifacts. As she delved deeper into her studies, Azara realized the need for a loyal companion who could aid her in her quest and provide unwavering support.

Challenge: Azara's search for a familiar led her to encounter a rare and enigmatic creature known as Shadow. Shadow, a celestial spirit banished to a remote corner of the ethereal realm, possessed vast knowledge and the ability to traverse between realms. However, it had been locked away for centuries by a vengeful deity after a failed rebellion.

Solution: Driven by her empathy and fascination with Shadow's plight, Azara sought to free the celestial spirit from its eternal confinement. Through a daring plan that involved navigating treacherous otherworldly trials and engaging in a complex ritual, Azara successfully liberated Shadow from its ethereal prison.

Implementation: Upon their reunion, Azara and Shadow formed an unbreakable bond. Shadow, grateful for its newfound freedom, pledged its loyalty to Azara, vowing to assist her in her magical endeavors. As their journey unfolded, Shadow's celestial nature and ability to traverse different realms proved invaluable. Its knowledge of ancient lore and hidden realms became instrumental in deciphering cryptic inscriptions and navigating dangerous magical barriers.

Results: Azara and Shadow's partnership became the stuff of legends. Together, they uncovered long-lost artifacts, deciphered arcane texts, and outwitted cunning adversaries. Shadow's unique abilities allowed Azara to uncover ancient secrets and tap into the true potential of her sorcery. Moreover, their shared experiences deepened their bond, transforming their relationship from a master-familiar dynamic to that of trusted friends and confidants.

Conclusion: The tale of Azara and Shadow exemplifies the extraordinary impact a familiar can have on a spellcaster's journey. Through their symbiotic partnership, they overcame challenges, unearthed hidden truths, and forged a deep connection that transcended the bounds of the mortal realm. The case study of Azara and Shadow serves as a testament to the transformative power of the bond between a spellcaster and their familiar, highlighting the potential for extraordinary adventures and personal growth that can be achieved through their unwavering companionship.


Little Mercenary


In this re-imagining of the familiar, the spell caster's companion wasn't created by an evil demon or angelic creature, it is a naturally occurring interdimensional spirit in the multiverse that has served a variety of different masters.


It is in essence a freelance familiar and is only loyal to its employer (the demon/angel, grants is specific powers, and the creator gods have placed an injunction on demons and angels from making their own servants, for fear that they might rebel against their masters).


The mercenary familiar can be contracted out by the demon/angel to a particular mortal and told to serve them. This way, there can be clearly defined limits to the familiar's service, it might advise, but it won't fight, or if it does fight, it won't be obliged to seriously risk its life.


This can make for some fun role playing, as a familiar could present as a cynical character who won't completely obey the PC's every demand, and can rely on some powerful back up if PCs don't accept this.


In this re-imagining of the familiar, the bond between the spellcaster and their companion takes on a unique twist. Rather than being created by an inherently evil or angelic entity, the familiar is an interdimensional spirit that naturally exists within the vast multiverse. This extraordinary being has traversed numerous planes of existence and served various masters, earning it the reputation of a freelance familiar.


Unlike traditional familiars, this spirit is not bound by a sense of unwavering loyalty to a specific alignment or deity. Instead, it operates as a pragmatic entity that acts as a hired aid, taking on contracts from powerful demons or angels.


However, the creator gods, wary of potential rebellions, have prohibited demons and angels from crafting their own personal servants. As a result, the freelance familiar serves as a perfect solution to bridge the gap between celestial beings and mortal spellcasters.


When a demon or angel wishes to grant the powers and guidance of a familiar to a mortal, they can enter into a contract with the freelance familiar. This agreement sets clear boundaries and limitations on the familiar's service.


While it may offer advice and support, it is not obligated to engage in direct combat or put its existence in serious jeopardy. This arrangement allows the familiar to maintain a sense of self-preservation and independence, ensuring its longevity and freedom.


The presence of a mercenary familiar in the party introduces intriguing dynamics during roleplaying sessions. The familiar may adopt a cynical demeanour, unafraid to challenge the PCs' commands or offer sarcastic commentary.


It knows that it possesses powerful backing from its demon or angel employer, giving it a level of assurance and bargaining power. This dynamic can lead to compelling interactions as the PCs navigate the delicate balance of respecting the familiar's autonomy while still benefitting from its unique abilities and knowledge.


The concept of a freelance familiar adds an extra layer of depth to the familiar-master relationship, offering opportunities for nuanced roleplaying and character development. The spellcaster must learn to navigate the intricacies of this unconventional alliance, striking a balance between the familiar's independence and the fulfilment of their own magical goals.


As the campaign unfolds, the evolving dynamics between the spellcaster and their mercenary familiar promise engaging and sometimes unpredictable narratives that blend loyalty, self-interest, and the pursuit of power in a multifaceted dance of magical collaboration.


Case Study: The Little Mercenary - A Freelance Familiar

Background: In the lands of Alarion, the concept of familiars took an intriguing twist. Rather than being created by powerful entities, a unique breed of interdimensional spirits known as "Little Mercenaries" emerged. These freelancers possessed the ability to serve different masters across realms and dimensions, offering their services as familiars for a predetermined duration.


Challenge: In the realm of Eldorath, a young sorcerer named Rylan sought to enhance his magical prowess by acquiring a familiar. Unbeknownst to him, a powerful demon named Malakar had contracted out the services of a mischievous Little Mercenary known as Zephyr, with explicit instructions to serve Rylan for a specified period.


Solution: Zephyr, a free-spirited and cynical familiar, made its presence known to Rylan. In the beginning, the relationship was one of mutual skepticism and negotiation. Zephyr outlined its terms of service, emphasizing that it wouldn't engage in life-threatening battles unless absolutely necessary. Rylan, intrigued by the unconventional nature of this arrangement, agreed to the terms, setting the stage for an unusual partnership.


Implementation: As Rylan delved into his magical studies, Zephyr's presence proved both amusing and useful. The Little Mercenary provided invaluable advice and insights, leveraging its extensive experience in serving various masters. While Zephyr refrained from participating directly in combat, it used its cunning and magical prowess to create distractions, manipulate the environment, and provide strategic guidance. Rylan soon discovered that Zephyr's true strength lay in its ability to call upon its demonic benefactor, Malakar, if situations grew dire.


Results: Rylan and Zephyr's partnership became a tale of unexpected camaraderie and clever problem-solving. Zephyr's presence added a touch of cynicism and unpredictability to their adventures, challenging Rylan to think creatively and adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Together, they navigated treacherous dungeons, outsmarted cunning adversaries, and uncovered ancient secrets that propelled Rylan's magical abilities to new heights. Despite their initial reservations, the bond between Rylan and Zephyr grew stronger with each shared triumph and near-miss.


Conclusion: The case study of Rylan and Zephyr highlights the uncharted territory of freelance familiars, where loyalty is conditional and service comes with clear limits. The dynamic between a sorcerer and their Little Mercenary can introduce an intriguing blend of cynicism, cunning, and occasional reliance on powerful allies. It offers a unique roleplaying experience as the sorcerer must navigate the complexities of a partnership where trust is tested, and the boundaries of responsibility are constantly negotiated. In the realm of Eldorath, the presence of the Little Mercenary Zephyr breathed new life into the concept of familiars, proving that even in the vast multiverse, loyalty can come from unexpected sources.


Dark Materials


As mentioned above, a familiar doesn't necessarily have to be a gift from a powerful entity, in fact, a familiar doesn't have to come from anywhere external to the PC at all. Could the familiar be an expression of the unconscious?


Mrs Coulter's golden monkey in Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials is beautiful to behold but cold and malicious, both brutal and brutalised, which gives us clues as to the inner workings of its master.


It might be that a particular spell (or a magical accident) brings forth a familiar that is an expression of the unconscious mind of the character. It might be a familiar that is engaged in a dialogue with the character, as the mind is always engaged in a dialogue with itself, or it might be a more silent expression of the character's inner workings.


Expanding upon the concept of familiars originating from the unconscious mind, we delve into a realm where the familiar becomes an intricate reflection of the character's innermost thoughts, desires, and struggles. This intriguing twist introduces a psychological dimension to the familiar-master relationship, offering a deeper understanding of the character's psyche and motivations.


In the world of D&D, the manifestation of a familiar from the character's unconscious mind adds a layer of complexity to their bond. Taking inspiration from Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials, we can explore the notion of a familiar that serves as an embodiment of the character's inner workings, mirroring their hidden depths and unspoken truths.


Imagine a spell, either intentionally cast or the result of a magical accident, that acts as a catalyst, bringing forth a familiar that is a manifestation of the character's unconscious mind. This familiar, like Mrs Coulter's golden monkey, exudes a captivating beauty while harboring an aura of coldness and malice. Its demeanor hints at the character's hidden complexities, reflecting both their capacity for brutality and the wounds they themselves have endured.


This type of familiar engages in an ongoing dialogue with the character, mirroring the constant internal dialogue within the character's mind. It may serve as a conduit for the character's deepest fears, unresolved conflicts, or unexpressed desires. Through this interaction, the character gains insight into their own subconscious, unraveling the complexities of their psyche and illuminating the motivations that drive their actions.


Alternatively, the familiar may embody a more silent expression of the character's inner workings. It becomes a silent observer, a guardian of secrets, conveying emotions and unspoken truths through gestures, expressions, and symbolic actions. Its presence serves as a reminder to the character of the uncharted depths within themselves, prompting introspection and self-reflection.


The inclusion of an unconscious-based familiar adds profound psychological depth to the character's journey. It offers opportunities for exploration of their personal growth, emotional struggles, and the integration of their conscious and unconscious selves. As the character interacts with their familiar, they gain a better understanding of their own complexities, confronting their shadows and embracing the full spectrum of their identity.


This unique interpretation of a familiar deepens the roleplaying experience, inviting the player to delve into the psychological nuances of their character. It encourages introspection, emotional exploration, and the exploration of themes such as self-discovery, identity, and personal transformation. As the character's story unfolds, the familiar's presence becomes a captivating thread, weaving together the conscious and unconscious aspects of their being in a truly immersive and psychologically rich narrative.


Case Study: The Enigma of the Unconscious Familiar

Background:

In the world of Eldoria, the enigmatic sorcerer known as Aric ventured into the arcane arts with a burning curiosity and an insatiable desire for self-discovery. In his quest to unravel the depths of his own psyche, Aric found himself drawn to the realm of the unconscious mind.


Challenge:

Aric sought to tap into the mysterious forces that lie hidden within his own being. He yearned to confront the shadows and unspoken truths that shaped his existence. To aid him in this introspective journey, he conjured a unique familiar, one that would serve as an expression of his unconscious mind.


Solution:

Through a complex ritual and a deep connection to his innermost self, Aric brought forth a familiar unlike any other. This manifestation of his unconscious mind appeared as a mysterious creature, with ethereal tendrils and shifting forms that mirrored the intricacies of his own psyche.


Implementation:

The unconscious familiar became a constant companion to Aric, engaging in an ongoing dialogue that mirrored the internal conversations within his mind. The familiar's gestures, expressions, and symbolic actions served as a mirror to Aric's deepest fears, unexpressed desires, and unresolved conflicts.


As Aric embarked on his adventures, the unconscious familiar's presence provided him with invaluable insight and guidance. Through its silent expressions and enigmatic actions, it conveyed hidden truths and offered new perspectives that expanded Aric's understanding of himself and the world around him.


Results:

The bond between Aric and his unconscious familiar grew stronger with each passing day. The familiar's presence allowed Aric to confront his shadows, embrace his vulnerabilities, and tap into his hidden strengths. It challenged him to explore the depths of his psyche, ultimately leading to personal growth and a profound integration of his conscious and unconscious selves.


As the campaign progressed, Aric's unconscious familiar became a central figure in his journey of self-discovery. It guided him through pivotal decisions, unveiled the layers of his identity, and served as a catalyst for transformative experiences. The familiar's role as an expression of his unconscious mind fostered introspection and emotional exploration, shaping Aric's path with newfound depth and complexity.


Conclusion:

The case study of Aric and his unconscious familiar illuminates the transformative power of intertwining the realms of psychology and magic within a D&D campaign. By tapping into the unconscious mind, Aric embarked on a profound journey of self-discovery, guided by a familiar that mirrored the depths of his psyche. Through their unique bond, Aric confronted his shadows, embraced his true self, and forged a path of personal growth and integration. The case study underscores the potential for psychological depth, introspection, and emotional exploration when incorporating the concept of an unconscious familiar in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons.


Spirit Animal


In many tribal traditions, those of the Native Australian peoples for example, the tribe's spiritual leader is believed to summon forth an animal that does their bidding and finds out information for them while they are in a trance, meditation or sleep.


In game terms, this might be an actual animal that is normally wild and which minds its own business for much of the time, or it might be some spirit entity that is not corporeal most of the time. If the purpose of the familiar is to find information for its master while the master is in a trance (which can cause issues of their own in gameplay, but that's a side issue), it might be that the familiar can explore other dimensions or even look backwards in time, seeing or smelling or sensing what has happened in a particular location.


Expanding upon the concept of familiars within tribal traditions, we delve into a world where the spiritual leader of a tribe summons forth an animal companion to aid them in their spiritual journey and gather crucial information. Drawing inspiration from the practices of Native Australian peoples and other indigenous cultures, we uncover a fascinating connection between the familiar and the trance-like states of the tribe's spiritual leader.


In this reimagining, the familiar serves as a conduit between realms, bridging the gap between the physical and the spiritual. It can take the form of an actual animal, typically wild and independent, or it may manifest as a spirit entity that remains intangible for most of the time.


During the spiritual leader's trances, meditations, or deep states of sleep, the familiar is summoned forth to embark on a quest for knowledge and exploration. The familiar's role is to venture into other dimensions, traverse astral planes, or even peer backward in time, using its heightened senses to observe, smell, or sense events that have transpired in specific locations.


While the familiar may spend the majority of its time minding its own business or existing as a non-corporeal entity, when called upon by the spiritual leader, it awakens to its purpose. It becomes a loyal guide, traversing ethereal realms and gathering vital information that can shape the tribe's destiny or offer insights into ancestral wisdom.


The inclusion of such a familiar in gameplay introduces intriguing dynamics and narrative possibilities. The spiritual leader's trances, while providing access to valuable knowledge, can also pose challenges and vulnerabilities. The tribe must protect and support their leader during these vulnerable states, ensuring their safety as they commune with the familiar and journey into realms beyond the physical.


The familiar's ability to explore other dimensions and perceive events in the past adds depth and richness to the gameplay experience. It becomes a source of ancient wisdom, allowing the tribe to unravel secrets, uncover lost knowledge, and gain a deeper understanding of their history and connection to the world around them.


Furthermore, the familiar's interactions with the spiritual leader and the tribe present opportunities for engaging roleplaying scenarios. The familiar might possess its own personality and quirks, offering a unique perspective on the tribe's affairs or challenging the spiritual leader's decisions. This relationship creates a tapestry of connection, trust, and shared destiny between the spiritual leader, the tribe, and their extraordinary familiar.


Incorporating the concept of a familiar intertwined with tribal traditions expands the scope of storytelling in a D&D campaign. It infuses gameplay with themes of ancestral wisdom, spirituality, and the delicate balance between the physical and the metaphysical. By venturing into realms beyond, the familiar serves as a vessel of knowledge and exploration, offering a captivating tapestry of ancient lore and mystical discovery for the tribe and its spiritual leader.


Case Study: The Tribal Seer and the Spirit Guide


Background: In the mystical land of Vaelara, the Kaelani tribe holds ancient traditions and profound spiritual beliefs. At the heart of their community, the tribal seer, known as Nala, harnesses the power of trance-like states to commune with the spirit realm and guide her people with ancient wisdom.


Challenge: Nala, the esteemed tribal seer, sought a trusted companion to aid her in her spiritual journeys and gather crucial information from the ethereal planes. She needed a familiar capable of venturing into other dimensions and accessing ancestral knowledge to guide her tribe toward prosperity and protection.


Solution: Embracing the tribal traditions of the Kaelani, Nala summoned forth a spirit guide as her familiar. This mystical entity, called Ember, manifested as a shimmering ethereal being that could traverse the boundaries between realms. Ember became Nala's guide, protector, and confidant in the spiritual realms.


Implementation: During Nala's trances and meditative states, Ember would accompany her, using its unique abilities to explore other dimensions and access the wisdom of ancestors. Ember's presence was marked by a gentle glow and a sense of reverence, signifying its connection to the spiritual energies that enveloped Nala.


As Nala delved deeper into the trance state, Ember would embark on astral journeys, navigating unseen pathways to gather vital information and witness events of the past. It would relay its observations to Nala, who interpreted these visions and translated them into guidance for her tribe.


Results: The bond between Nala and Ember grew stronger with each spiritual encounter. Ember's ethereal nature and ability to traverse realms granted Nala access to profound ancestral wisdom. As Nala shared these insights with her tribe, they gained a deeper understanding of their history, culture, and the interconnectedness of all things.


Ember's presence also brought a sense of security to the tribe, as its ethereal form acted as a guardian spirit, warding off malevolent entities that sought to disrupt the delicate balance of their community. The tribe looked to Nala and Ember for guidance, finding solace in their shared connection to the spirit realm.


Conclusion: The case study of Nala and Ember exemplifies the profound impact a familiar rooted in tribal traditions can have within a D&D campaign. By summoning forth a spirit guide, Nala was able to bridge the gap between the physical and the metaphysical, tapping into ancestral wisdom and protecting her tribe from unseen dangers.


The bond between Nala and Ember served as a beacon of s