It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, but spring runs amok in the southern one. As usual, perspective is always meddling around here, and today’s article is no exception. We’ve been summoned by our Lady of Pitfalls and Pixies to join November’s RPG Blog Carnival and we were intrigued to say the least. I mean: Cats? I need to write about cats? Alright, then. Challenge accepted, I said. Then I realized it was not about cats necessarily… but I decided to focus on them at least for the illustrations. You see, the real topic is tricksters spirits and animals. Being a fan of both “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and also “His Dark Materials”, I knew I had to do something related to familiars.
On one hand, in European medieval folklore, familiars were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist witches and cunning folk in their practice of magic. According to records of the time, those alleging to have had contact with familiar spirits reported that they could manifest as numerous forms, usually as an animal. When they served witches, they were often thought to be malevolent, but while when working for cunning folk they were often considered benevolent (although there was some ambiguity in both cases).
In the other, dæmon refers to a lesser deity or guiding spirit in the Hellenistic religion and philosophy of Ancient Greece. As such, they were possibly seen as the souls of men of the golden age acting as tutelary deities, and from there, Philip Pullman came with the idea of external physical manifestations of a person’s “inner-self” that takes the form of an animal in his universally acclaimed fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials”. In this world (or should I say “these worlds”?) dæmons have human intelligence, are capable of human speech and usually behave as though they are independent of their humans. Pre-pubescent children’s dæmons can change form voluntarily, almost instantaneously, to become any creature, real or imaginary. During their adolescence a person’s dæmon undergoes “settling”, an event in which that person’s dæmon permanently and involuntarily assumes the form of the animal which the person most resembles in character. Dæmons are usually of the opposite sex to their human, though same-sex dæmons do exist. Human contact with another individual’s dæmon is taboo.
Why am I doing this lengthy introduction? I’m glad you asked.
Back in the days of Third Edition, the familiar was a class feature for sorcerers and wizards, but it shortly disappeared in Fourth Edition, only to come back in the Arcane Power supplement as a feat. Now in 5E, we have the Find Familiar spell. As you can see, there have been many iterations of this popular mechanic… so we’re gonna make a new one refurbishing many different elements from all these editions. Prepare for an Improved Familiar. I’m gonna call it the Sovereign Familiar, just because I want it (and also because it’s related to the spectacular illustration below: Feline Sovereign, by Dan Scott).
In the different worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, familiars are not real creatures: they don’t eat nor breathe, for example. Many consider masters and familiars to be the one and the same, and some familiars act as mere extensions of their masters’ will. However, sovereign familiars grow personalities all their own, and undertake the commands of their masters with individuality and sometimes even attitude. The Sovereign Familiar feat lets you gain special benefits according to the shape you chose for your familar spirit when casting the Find Familiar spell and additional ones depending on your character level.
Each of these sovereign familiars grants you proficiency with a skill or saving throw and a benefit you can use as a bonus action (advantage in a check related to the skill or saving throw mentioned). Once used, you need to get a short rest to use that benefit again.
- Bat: Proficiency in Perception related to hearing.
- Cat: Proficiency in Dexterity saving throws from effects that deal damage.
- Frog (toad): Proficiency in Constitution saving throws from effects that impose a condition.
- Hawk: Proficiency in Perception related to sight.
- Lizard: Proficiency in Insight.
- Owl: Proficiency in Wisdom saving throws from effects that don’t deal damage.
- Poisonous snake: Proficiency in Deception.
- Rat: Proficiency in Stealth.
- Raven: Proficiency in Sleight of Hand.
- Spider: Proficiency in Intimidation.
- Weasel: Proficiency in Nature and Perception not related to sight or hearing.
- Starting at 3rd level, and as long as it is within 100 feet of you, your familiar shares any bonus to its saving throws that you also have (such as the ones provided by a magic item or a paladin’s Aura of Protection)
- Starting at 6th level, it can attack: its attack bonus is equal to your spell attack bonus. As a melee attack, it deals force damage; as a 30-feet ranged attack, it deals psychic damage. The damage equals 1d4 + your spellcasting modifier.
- Starting at 9th level, as a bonus action, you can cause creatures adjacent to your familiar to lose the benefits of cover and concealment against you until the end of your current turn.
- Starting at 12th level, the range at which you can communicate with your familiar telepathically is now 500 feet. Also, you can cast spells with a range of self having your familiar as the origin. Your familiar must be within 100 feet of you, and it must use its reaction to deliver the spell when you cast it.
- Starting at 16th level, and as long as it is not into its pocket dimension, you can use both your and its reaction to have an attack deal only half damage, or to reroll a spell attack and using the new result, even if it’s lower. Both effects make your familiar disappear leaving behind no physical form until you cast Find Familiar again.
Summoning a familiar to your side makes it take the shape of a particular animal, which you choose at the time of the ritual. Find Familiar provides a decent list of options, but that doesn’t mean your familiar has to look like every other spellcaster’s familiar, even if you choose something as common as a raven or a cat. Within reason, you can customize your familiar to look like nearly anything as long as the identity of the basic creature is not lost. And just as you can decide how it looks when it’s next to you, you can also decide what its pocket dimension is like. Discorporating into a puff of smoke is a classical, but you can also whistle and have your loyal bird fly down from an unseen height, open a mirror dimension for your four-legged companion to run into (Doctor Strange style), or even turn your slithering reptile into a tattoo that crawls into your skin and stays there until you summon it back.
And that’s our take on improving familiars in 5E. Are you planning to summon a helpful spirit to your side now? Doesn’t your DM allow homebrew content in his/her campaign? Leave his handle on the comments and I’ll make a Persuasion check on your behalf.