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'
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.
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.
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.
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.
What about a portfolio of familiars with different abilities that can be summoned? Sounds pretty powerful, but this might be possible be limiting access to other forms of magic, or creating the problems , ala Pokemon, of catching or training said familiars. Some might evolve in power over time, and some might just eat one another. There's a whole mechanic here waiting to be written.
In the 16th Century, so folklore has it, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Rabbi of Prague, fashioned a giant man shaped automaton out of clay and brought it to life to defend the Jewish community of the city. There is plenty of scope in the idea that the PC creates their own clay, wooden, stone or metal familiar to do their bidding. In order for it to have a familiar-like nature, it must have some sort of consciousness, perhaps an aspect of the spell caster's own mind (maybe not the nicest bit?). What happens when the golem looks to the caster as its creator, its parent, or its god? Here things could become complicated and the caster might eventually even lose control over the mini Golem, that would then disappear into the wilds and become a nemesis. This could be an excellent plot for a one shot, where the caster in question is an NPC.
Ball and Chain
Now we return to the standard ball and chain idea, that the PC is mortaged to some deviant higher power and it wants what it was promised. What if the familiar isn't the ball and chain, however? What if it's the familiar that is mortgaged to the higher power and as insurance it is anchored to the PC? It might be that the PC is an average spell caster that owes a favour to a demon, who in turn says 'this cat, owl, etc, is valuable and owes me big time, you have to babysit it until it pays up.' The PC might be able to use some (though by no means all) of the familiar's powers, but the familiar is scheming how to give them the slip. Eventually, it might be that the familiar and the spellcaster realise that they have more to gain by sticking together and might concoct a way to free each other of the power of a demonic master.
Here's a quick run down of a few familiar types that you might want to use in your campaigns. I've tried to add a little bit of personality and character in here, which should give you a bit of scope for some role playing (familiars create great role playing opportunities):
Parkast: Parkast is a red squirrel and a compulsive liar. He isn't particularly malevolent, he just can't help himself he has +2 on all deception roles. If the player knows he isn't telling the truth, then the squirrel's tall stories can be set to use in other ways, misleading enemies and opponents.
Orokin: Orokin is a pedantic heron who insists in doing everything properly. Orokin has a beedy eye for detail though and gets a +2 on perception. If something is not to her liking however, she will insist that the PC does it again until she is satisfied.
Samruk: Samruk is a 'brave to the point of reckless' ginger and white cat. Samruk is often determined to fight enemies that the PC might wish to avoid, but his infectious bravery gives, once per long rest, all other creatures within 5ft condition immunity to being frightened for 1d4 turns.
Tarale: Tarale is a small wooden doll, carved in the shape of a long dead and rather evil wizard. Tarale has spent many years looking for another wizard to belong to and whilst he is loyal to his master, he takes even the slightest possibility of abandonment very badly and becomes scary. He has spooky gemstone eyes and can stare in a menacing way, giving himself +2 on intimidation.