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DISCUSSION: What makes a good familiar or animal companion?


I think we've all done it. You're booking passage on a ship or saving from fireball damage and forget to include all of your party members. Somehow, the existence of your raven or loyal wolf has completely slipped your mind. He's "over there" is the usual excuse. After enough of that, the companions begin to fade into the background, as illustrated here.

How do you keep that from happening? How do you make sure that the party's pack of NPC familiars, henchmen, animal companions, and hirelings remain relevant throughout the game" In other words, what makes a good familiar?

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Start by naming them, and I don't mean "Bobo" or "Meatshield".

Next, consider what their role is in the party, beyond "He'll watch the horses".

Does the Druid's animal companion scout for the group? Does he/she/it have a real combat role?

Does the Wizard's familiar scout, carry touch spells in combat or provide a flank for the Rogue?

Realistically, if you never make use of them, why carry the liability?


The animal companion or familiar needs to be valuable. If it rarely is involved in the game then it shouldn't be involved in the game. Familiars in D&D generally have fallen into this category in that the benefit that they offered generally was not worth the costs of having them around. Loss of a familiar in 1e AD&D was particularly crippling and a DM had to go out of his way to tempt a player into getting on.

The companion needs to be personified. It needs an name and seven sentence NPC write up. The PC needs to be OK with the DM sometimes taking the lead and personifying his companion.

Players should be responsible for their pets. If they forget about them, then the DM has full rights to establish the fictional positioning of the pet, up to and including, "Yeah, the wolf went down with the ship." The rules may give you a right to a companion, but as a practical matter you must accept the burden this is imposing on everyone at the table because companions are potentially spot light stealing. As such, I consider having companions or henchmen an advanced RPing skill and would discourage newbies from going that way.

I find it helps for companions to be actually intrusive. The shaman who had a an oversized grizzly bear for a pet had a hard time forgetting about it, because it was always comment worthy and always a hassle what you did with it.

As a general rule, companions can be quite helpful, but they are best left outside the dungeon. If properly cared for, your animal companion, familiar, pet, mount, or henchmen can be a valuable resource, but taking them down into the dungeon to face challenges that are at or above your CR is probably not well caring for them. Make a camp, and leave them behind to defend that camp. Or if you have some means of magically transporting a companion out of harms way like a 'familiar pocket', then fine, do that. They probably can fend off a wandering monster. When the fireballs start getting thrown around, and the gaze attacks, and the breath weapons, and the environmental hazards, and the grapple brutes ambush you, your companions are going to go down hard and you will cry.

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