D&D 5E Familiars, what for?

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
A few years back, I remember some people griping online that it was "cheap" to let a Familiar take the Help action.

Then, on another forum I frequent, a day or two ago, I started seeing arguments about how Familiars are not only not good at scouting, but should probably be killed more often than not if someone insists on making them scout.

I rarely take Familiars on my casters because they are notoriously fragile (though I have made use of Improved Familiar in Pathfinder). In 3.5, you took one for a passive benefit and then hid it in a pouch or something.

But in 5e, I'm a little confused. If there's pushback for having Familiars take actions, what the point of them even is. What should they be doing?

And are the complainers just being jerks?
 

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BookTenTiger

He / Him
In my experience, Familiars serve a number of purposes:

Scouting
Roleplay
Spying
Extrasensory Perception
Help
Sneak Attack Opportunities

I've always found familiars to be really fun. It's great when they're helpful, and it's great when they get hit as a consequence during combat.

In the campaign I run, the Warlock's familiar went scouting through a water-filled pipe that lead to an underground grotto... In which lived an aboleth! The aboleth charmed the familiar and learned all about the party.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Sometimes certain game elements are going to have an outsized or unintended impact on a given table's game because of the content they choose to engage in, how they use the rules (or don't), and how they play in general. In that specific context, their complaint may be well-founded. However, their concerns do not apply to all games equally. One thing to do when seeing these complaints is to try to imagine what must be true of their game for the complaint to make sense (or just ask). Often this will reveal what's really going on and reveal how their game is different in some ways than yours. In my experience, the objection is usually just a symptom of something else that's happening.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
They have a number of capacities which can be fun, and they are, at least as long as the player does not use them to push the envelope too much, and in particular to hog the spotlight in the exploration pillar, especially at the expense of another party member. It's annoying when this happens, to the DM and sometimes to other players, and it can lead to problems, especially since the familiar is so fragile and when it's so easy to kill, which the player can then resent if he thinks it's totally preventing him from using his capability. It's all a question of balance and agreement between the DM and the player, and should probably be discussed beforehand at session 0.

And then there's the "help in combat", which is often abused as well, I have in particular seen players insisting that they should basically get permanent advantage because of this (invisible imp or owl with flyby) and this is way too powerful for a level 1 permanent spell with other benefits. Again, these need discussing in advance to avoid problems.
 


beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
I don't see a problem with familiars. Using them as scouts and spies is a viable tactic. I use my PCs familiar (I play a warlock) to invisibly keep guard while the party takes a along rest, which goes a long way to preventing a surprise attack. Also, using a familiar as a scout can be a risk if the familiar is noticed, it will likely get whacked and put the enemy on alert.

The help action isn't as powerful as people think - familiars are easy to kill, so placing it within melee range is a huge risk, with maybe a round or two payoff.

An invisible familiar should NOT be able to use the help action...
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I don't see a problem with familiars. Using them as scouts and spies is a viable tactic. I use my PCs familiar (I play a warlock) to invisibly keep guard while the party takes a along rest, which goes a long way to preventing a surprise attack. Also, using a familiar as a scout can be a risk if the familiar is noticed, it will likely get whacked and put the enemy on alert.

All of these are reasonable uses, the main difficulty comes from how alert the enemies are to familiars. I've, had, at level 1, first use of my familiar, an owl shot down at night in the woods by kobolds, just for flying in the woods. I did not even see what happened, just the owl died for no reason that I could determine, without even spotting the kobolds. Was that an abused use of the spell ? And since it was level 1, I did not even have the money to summon it again until way later, which I did not do since I could by then see how it was going to go with that DM, who hated the spell anyway.

The help action isn't as powerful as people think - familiars are easy to kill, so placing it within melee range is a huge risk, with maybe a round or two payoff.

An invisible familiar should NOT be able to use the help action...

The problem is that the rules clearly say that it's able to, and that it does not break the invisibility. Moreover, there can be some justification, fluttering invisibly around an adversary's head would certainly be distracting, for example.

As usual, my problem is not using tricks like this now and then, they can be fun and even a little inventive at times. My difficulty is more with players who make assumptions that they will work all the time, and then complain that it's not fair that the familiar was whacked or that the adversary had anti-familiar tactics...
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
Familiars have always been easy to replace but losing them came with a cost, the loss of that cost in 5e is the big problem that makes them a standin for a ten foot pole. Here's how it used to work

  • In an 2e losing a familiar was one of the most terrifying things a wizard could have happen. specifically "If the familiar dies, the wizard must successfully roll an immediate system shock check or die. Even if he survives this check, the wizard loses 1 point from his Constitution when the familiar dies.".
  • In 3.x the caster lost access to a familiar specific skill bonus & needed to spend 24 hours along with 100gp (a serious loss) to resummon it after "If the familiar dies or is dismissed by the sorcerer, the sorcerer must attempt a DC 15 Fortitude saving throw. Failure means he loses 200 experience points per sorcerer level; success reduces the loss to one-half that amount. " on bringing it back tomorrow instead of using that slot for something else.
  • Now in 5e the caster says "hmm.. I need to spend an hour ritually casting find familiar & subtract ten funbucks worth of pointless gold"
 

jgsugden

Legend
Across the editions, my familiars have been used for:

1.) Companionship for the wizard. It is an eternal ally and friend that accompanies them for their careers.
2.) Scouting. They're often not great at stealth - but that does not make them a bad scout. An owl, rat, raven, cat, etc... that stops and hangs out to watch something is not that conspicuous in many situations. Guardsmen in a town don't exactly shoot their crossbows at every bird, rat or cat they see.
3.) Assistance. I'm not talking about the help action, here - I'm talking about fetching small things, delivering messages, and generally being a poor man's unseen servant.
4.) Combat 'b tasks'. During combat, they do not attack. However, they do perform other small tasks. Larger familiars might shut doors, snuff flames, and knock over cauldrons. Smaller familiars might take papers, chew through a rope, or look under a door.
 

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