Level Up (A5E) Warlock Exploration: Pact of the Chain

The warlock is one of the most flexible and versatile classes in Advanced 5th Edition, and, arguably, no warlock feature epitomizes this flexibility quite as much as the Pact of the Chain. This exploration will review the Find Familiar spell, how the Pact of the Chain warlock takes that spell from great to excellent, and then give an overview of all the creatures in the Monstrous Menagerie that the Pact of the Chain warlock can summon.

Find Familiar (Adventurer’s Guide 540)
Here are the highlights of the Find Familiar spell:
  • 1 hour casting time, may be cast as a ritual
  • Requires 10 gp worth of materials, which must be burned in a brazier, to cast
  • You may summon any one CR 0 beast as your familiar, which must be Small or Tiny; may be changed to the celestial, fey, or fiend creature types
  • If your familiar dies, you must recast this spell to get your familiar back
  • Creature acts on its own initiative and is entirely loyal to you, but may not take the Attack action
  • Telepathically communicate with your familiar if it is within 100ft; additionally, as an action, may use your familiar’s senses, which causes you to be blind and deaf to your own
  • As an action, may dismiss a familiar to a pocket dimension (any distance) or resummon it within 30ft
  • Recasting Find Familiar while your familiar is still alive allows you to change its form
  • If your familiar is within 100ft, you may cast a spell with a range of touch and have your familiar deliver it for you as a reaction
What a densely packed spell! The ability to summon any CR 0 beast that is Small or Tiny gives Find Familiar a tremendous amount of flexibility. Familiars are most often used for scouting, so the most commonly-used forms will likely always be anything that can fly and that has good vision—owls are an arguably the best choice for this, having a great fly speed, amazing darkvision, and keen senses, but there are other solid choices as well. Combine this with your ability to see through your familiar’s senses (within 100ft), and your ability to yeet your familiar out of danger as an action, and you have, as a 1st level spell, an excellent scout that will give the rogue or ranger a run for its money. The most common size for a familiar—Tiny—also provides the advantage of having a little friend that can sneak in and out of tight spaces to steal things.
Familiars have very low health and low armor classes, so it is uncommon for a familiar to be battle-focused, but some wizards may choose to use their familiars to deliver touch attack spells; these wizards will probably want to prioritize fast familiars that are capable of safely strafing combat. Again, the owl comes to mind, thanks to flyby. Just ready a spell, cast it as a reaction when your owl flies near an enemy (your owl will deliver it as a reaction), then have your owl attack once so it can use flyby to get away safely. Unless your enemies decide to prioritize ranged attacks on killing your little flying friend, you’re in the clear!
Given the time and expendable resources, you also have a loyal slave that can feel out every trap in the Tomb of Horrors, thus preventing the need to put yourself at risk.
I think that the owl is the most consistently useful of the base familiars, but limiting yourself to solely owls is smooth brain thinking—Find Familiar allows you to cast the spell as often as you want (provided you have the time, consumable materials, and a brazier), so do so! Need a minion with opposable thumbs? Turn your familiar into a baboon. (The baboon is also the same size as a halfling, so with a disguise kit you could turn your familiar into a strangely-proportioned halfling. Why would you do this? I don’t know, but it’s an option.) Need a creature that can dig? The badger isn’t fast, but it has got you covered. Don’t want to carry around torches, just want a living glowstick instead? Fire beetle was born for this (and not much else). While a small number of CR 0 beasts have significantly more to offer than all the rest, Paul Hughes did an excellent job at making each one distinct and interesting relative to its power level, so familiarize yourself with your options so that you always have the best tool for any given situation.
As for the ability to change your familiar’s creature type, I have never personally been in a campaign where that choice went beyond the player’s aesthetic designs for his familiar, but a creative Narrator can easily incorporate a familiar’s creature type into roleplaying or combat. Perhaps the wizard’s fiendish weasel (delicately wrapped around her neck to provide warmth) is extremely offensive to clerics of Good deities, and so that wizard incurs their wrath when unthinkingly walking into one of their churches…

The Find Familiar spell is really good all on its own and tends to finds itself on the spell list of every caster that has access to the spell. But the Pact of the Chain warlock makes this spell immeasurably better in so many ways. Here’s an overview of what Pact of the Chain brings to the table:
  • The warlock learns Find Familiar and can cast it as a ritual
  • In addition to the base options, you can choose any creature that is Tiny and has a CR of 1/2 or less. (The rules call out imps, quasits, sprites, and pseudragons as options, but all of those already meet the aforementioned criteria.) Not counting CR 0 creatures (which are utterly outclassed by the CR 1/4 options, let alone the CR 1/8 options), that adds eight new options to your list of potential familiars
  • In addition to the base options, you may make the creature type of your familiar an aberration, elemental, or undead
  • You can forgo one of your own attacks when making the Attack action to allow your familiar to make an attack as an action; notably, if you have multiple attacks, this only costs you one of your attacks, but, per a strict reading of the difference between the Attack action and making an attack, you cannot sacrifice extra uses of Eldritch Blast
  • You can use Eldritch Scythe from your familiar’s location as though you had cast a spell with a range of Touch; by my reading, this follows the same rules as casting a regular Touch spell from your familiar’s location, meaning it costs your familiar its reaction and limits your range to 100ft. This is handy, but not as flexible, powerful, or consistent as Eldritch Ray (if you want your Eldritch Blast to be focused on ranged attacks), but it is a very doable way for a melee chainlock to access a ranged attack without having to spend spell points
The real gem here is the greatly expanded list of familiars available to the Pact of the Chain warlock, a list that, presumably, will continue growing as A5e grows; with this feature, from level 3 you can have a powerful minion with a host of unique abilities ranging from blindsight to invisibility. Even more than any other spellcaster with Find Familiar, a Pact of the Chain warlock needs to know the familiar options inside and out to make full use of this incredible feature. (The expanded list of creatures, with abilities and commentary, will be provided at the end of this post.) As a random example, the gear spider familiar can take pictures for you—a guaranteed way to document incriminating evidence? A way to pass yourself off as an artificer? These niche abilities might not be immediate go-tos for the familiar form a Pact of the Chain warlock, but they are very useful to be familiar with when the situation arises.
The ability to allow your familiar to attack in place of yourself is mediocre at best. Most familiars, even of CR 1/2, do very little damage, not nearly enough to justify giving up Eldritch Blast or a spell for a turn. To make things worse, most of the Pact of the Chain warlock’s familiar options only have melee attacks; coupled with the low HP and AC of almost every single familiar (numbers that, with the current Adventurer’s Guide, do not go up at all as the warlock levels up), attacking with a familiar is high risk and low reward.

By themselves, the above features easily justify a warlock class feature and will remain useful for a warlock’s entire adventuring career. But the Pact of the Chain isn’t done there. No sir! The Adventurer’s Guide contains two Pact of the Chain–specific invocations that will make any creatively-minded warlock salivate.
Voice of the Chain Master: While on the same plane of existence, you can communicate telepathically communicate with your familiar and use its senses—with no cost whatsoever. This effectively means that you have a second pair of eyes that you can see from at all times, ears that you can hear from at all times, and, as long as your familiar is alive, renders certain invocations redundant. For example, so long as you have a living imp familiar, you can see out of your imp’s eyes with darkvision at a range of 120ft—and you can see through magical darkness! If you plan on keeping your familiar nearby, you can now throw the Devil’s Sight invocation in the trash. Or, better, the Gear Spider has blindsense out to a range of 60ft—you will never be snuck up on by invisible creatures again. This is also incredible for warlocks who want to use their familiar as a scout or trap finding dummy, too, as you will always know exactly what happened to your familiar and how, provided your familiar is aware of it, regardless of the distance. As an added bonus, this is a Court invocation receivable at level 4, which eases the burden against a warlock’s precious eight primary invocations. (Oh—and you can speak out of your familiar’s mouth with your own voice at any distance, which can be used in social encounters to entertaining effect, especially within invisible familiars.) I don’t think any Pact of the Chain warlock should ever not choose this invocation.
Frog Fangs: I think this invocation is much more situational than the above invocation, but it is useful for adding a few extra points of damage every round in combat. With this invocation, your familiar can take the Attack action on its own, uses your spell attack bonus to hit, and deals extra force damage equal to your proficiency bonus. Since familiars begin the game pretty fragile and never get any tougher, using this invocation in conjunction with a familiar that makes melee attacks (especially once that doesn’t have some form of invisibility) is a pretty good way to get your familiar killed. I would recommend only picking up Frog Fangs if you plan on consistently using familiars with ranged attacks, such as the sprite or gear spider.

And finally, before reviewing a curated list of familiars, there’s one shenanigan to discuss: unlimited flight, at-will beginning at level 3. Tiny creatures have a carrying capacity in pounds equal to 7.5 multiplied by their Strength score (AG 404), and the only limit I find in the Adventurer’s Guide to this is that a creature that exceeds its carrying capacity is Encumbered, or its movement is reduced to 5ft. This means that many of the familiars available to a Pact of the Chain warlock could very reasonably provide at least an effectively permanent fly speed, with hover, of 5ft to a Small sized warlock, probably a Gnome or Halfling (which both have average weights of 40lbs). Given how tremendously useful flight is, even a 5ft flight speed, any warlock small enough to take advantage of this feature would be crazy to not at least consider it—and carefully consider how lightly to pack as a result.
When you get down to it, carrying capacity is a really interesting thing to read up on in the Adventurer’s Guide. As mentioned above, the only limit on carrying capacity that I read is that a creature that exceeds its carrying capacity is Encumbered. Nowhere that I’ve found is a hard upper limit to what a creature can carry mentioned, nor is carrying capacity mentioned to be a limiter to flight, beyond being Encumbered reducing flight speed. It is stated that Tiny creatures cannot carry bulky items, but it’s never stated what counts as a bulky item—an item is either defined as bulky in its description or it isn’t. I think this is all really good design and I think that messing too much with any of this to prevent a Pact of the Chain warlock from having a familiar-induced flight speed risks messing a lot of other stuff up: for example, ruling that any creature of a size category larger than you counts as a bulky item when carried would prevent a Small warlock from being carried by a Tiny familiar, but it would also could annihilate a grappler-character’s mobility when grappling or restraining a larger creature. However, it’s still worth knowing, as a Narrator, just in case a cheeky player decides to take too many liberties.

Now, on to the real fun stuff: the best of the best familiars. Personally, I don’t think there’s a single CR 0 or CR 1/8 creature that isn’t entirely overshadowed by a CR 1/4 or CR 1/2 option, so I will not list the CR 0 or CR 1/8 creatures in their entirety, but I will list a few options that I think have something interesting to make them worth considering in niche situations.

CR 0 Familiars
Crab
HP: 2
AC: 12
Offense: +2, 5ft, 1 piercing, cannot reduce Small or larger target to 0 HP
Other Features: Swim (20ft), Blindsight (30ft), breathe air/water
Comments: If, for some reason, you are in a situation where you really, really need your familiar to not be an obviously magical creature, and if shapeshifting your imp or quasit isn’t an option… crabs. Or, rather, crab. With Voice of the Chain Master, you’re now got a little scuttling buddy granting you blindsight, which can reasonably compete with flight in certain situations.

Homunculus
HP: 5
AC: 13
Defense: Immune (poison; charm, poisoned)
Offense: +5, 5ft, 1 pierce. Chance to poison, then chance to put to sleep.
Other Features: Darkvision (60ft), Telepathy w/creator
Comments: I mostly mention the homunculus as the single available CR 0 that isn’t’ a beast. I wouldn’t pick the homunculus myself—its chance to put an enemy to sleep may look tempting, but the odds of success are incredibly low, especially as the levels go on.

Owl
HP: 1
AC: 11
Defense: Fly (60ft), Flyby
Offense: +3, 5ft, 1 piercing, cannot reduce Small or larger target to 0 HP
Other Features: Darkvision (120ft), Keen Hearing/Sight
Comments: If only owls could turn invisible! Then, with flyby, owls would be the nearly undisputed kings at delivering spells with a range of Touch for their masters, provided you made good use of holding actions. As it stands, Owl familiars are one of the few familiars that I would consider letting get briefly near melee combat, as flyby allows an allow to approach an enemy, attack, and then flee without repercussion, but they don’t last long if the enemy starts shooting arrows.

Quipper
HP: 1
AC: 13
Offense: +5, 5ft, 1 piercing, on hit get extra attack as bonus action
Other Features: Swim (40ft), Water Breathing
Comments: Quippers are exclusively useful in underwater campaigns, and even then they aren’t that useful, with only 1 hit point, a low AC, and only melee attacks. That said, a warlock that was really committed to turning its familiar into a damage-dealer through the Frog Fangs invocation might be attracted to the fact that quippers are the only familiars that can attack twice in one turn. It’s not a lot of extra damage, but it’s some.

Seahorse
HP: 1
AC: 11
Defense: N/A
Offense: N/A
Other Features: Swim (20ft), Water Breathing
Comment: Seahorses are hilariously useless. I just found it funny enough that I had to share.

CR 1/8 Familiars
Flying Snake
HP: 7
AC: 13
Defense: Fly (60ft), Flyby
Offense: +5, 5ft, 1 piercing, 1d6 poison damage (no save)
Other Features: Swim (60ft)
Comments: Flying snakes do more damage than owls do and have the same fly speed, which allows them to make use of the amazing flyby ability much better, even if poison is a poor damage type overall. That said, the damage still isn’t great, even at level 3. Is the extra damage and swimming speed worth sacrificing the owl’s superior darkvision and keen senses? For me, if I have Voice of the Chain Master and don’t already have access to good darkvision from my heritage or Devil’s Sight, probably not.

Poisonous Snake
HP: 2
AC: 12
Offense: +4, 5ft, 1 piercing, CON 2d4 poison (half save)
Other: Swim (30ft), Blindsight (10ft)
Comments: I mention the poisonous snake for the same reason I mention the crab: want access to blindsight and, for some reason, can’t have an obviously magical familiar (and can’t have a shapeshifted quasit or imp)? The poisonous snake has got you covered.

CR ¼ Familiars
Pseudodragon
HP: 7
AC: 13
Defense: Fly (60ft), Magic Resistance (grants to master if in 10ft)
Offense: +4, 5ft, 1d4+2 piercing. Chance to poison, then chance to put to sleep. 3/day stunning effect.
Other Features: Blindsight (10ft), Darkvision (60ft), Limited Telepathy (10ft)
Comments: I like A5e pseudodragons much more than O5e pseudodragons, and I think they have a much better niche in this edition. Like the imp, pseudodragons have Magic Resistance that can be imparted to their masters. Imps have much better darkvision than pseudodragons, but pseudodragons have blindsight, which provides better protection against invisible creatures; gear spiders have much better blindsight than pseudodragons, but pesudodragons have flight, which is much better for mobility. In essence, you gotta pick your poison, but I think the A5e version of the pseudodragon is able to much more effectively justify itself as a familiar of choice than the O5e version. Finally, if you’re small enough to have your familiar carry you, the pseudodragon and imp are both your best choices, both with a Strength score of 6.

Sprite
HP: 2
AC: 14
Defense: Fly (40ft), Invisibility (bonus action)
Offense: Rapier/Shortbow (1 piercing + poison, may sleep 0HP target), Gust
Other Features: Common/Elvish/Sylvan, Faerie Light (weak torch), Heart Sight (read mental state, surface thoughts, alignment of creatures)
Comments: If I want to have an attacking familiar (with Frog Fangs), under most circumstances this is my go-to choice. The sprite’s shortbow has decent range, but more importantly it has invisibility as a bonus action, which allows it to attack, turn invisible, then move to a different location—this also has the added bonus of making the sprite really good at scouting and spying. Heart Sight also has potential to be an incredibly useful ability in interrogations. I don’t see the sprite’s sleep effect being useful that often, but it is a way for a party to try to incapacitate a creature rather than kill it. Overall, I would rate this as the second best familiar option, the most consistent first if you want to use Frog Fangs.

CR ½ Familiars
Gear Spider
HP: 28
AC: 13
Defense: Immune (poison, psychic; blind, charm, deaf, fatigue, frighten, paralyze, petrify, poisoned)
Offense: Claw/Needle (needle ranged)
Other Features: Blindsight (60ft), Photograph (up to 10 at once)
Comments: The gear spider has a lot of hit points relative to the other familiars! While this amount won’t remain impressive as the levels goes in, it does allow the gear spider, at level 3 and for a little while after, to survive at least one hit, most of the time, in combat, which is useful. Combined with Voice of the Chain Master, I think the 60ft blindsight is the gear spider’s most important feature. It’s ranged attack has a poor distance, but still combines with Frog Fangs better than melee attacks. And finally, creative adventurers will absolutely find good ways to make the photograph feature useful, especially if there’s a party member with a decent Investigation check.

Imp
HP: 14
AC: 13
Defense: Fly (40ft), Resist (cold, nonmagical), Immune (fire, poison; poison), Magic Resistance (share with master 10ft), Invisibility (bonus action)
Offense: Sting/Bite
Other Features: Darkvision (120ft, Devil’s Sight), Infernal, Telepathy (120ft), Ventriloquism, Lawful Evil, Shapeshift
Comments: I think the imp will be the most common go-to for most Pact of the Chain, and I would rate it as the best familiar choice on average. 120ft darkvision with Devil’s Sight, telepathy, ventriloquism—some good role-playing opportunities there—sharable magic resistance, invisibility, and some resistances and immunities, even flight! The imp almost has it all. As a final bonus, the imp is also strong enough to reasonably carry a Small master, although under most circumstances the imp will be Encumbered doing so. Still, a 5ft flight speed is a 5ft flight speed.

Quasit
HP: 14
AC: 13
Defense: Fly (40ft, must be transformed), Resist (cold, fire, lightning, nonmagical), Immune (poison; poison), Magic Resistance (share with master 10ft), Invisibility (bonus action)
Offense: Claw, Frighten
Other Features: Darkvision (120ft)
Comments: Very comparable to imp, but without Devil’s Sight or the ability to fly without being transformed, which prevents it from using its Frighten ability. I would always choose the imp over the quasit unless I really wanted the Frighten ability.

Some Closing Thoughts
I made a level 6 melee warlock recently with Eldritch Whip, Pact of the Chain, Frog Fangs, Voice of the Chain Master, and a gear spider familiar that I keep on my chest or back at all times, which I don’t plan on switching out unless it’s really needed. Eldritch Whip does pretty good damage on its own, and it keeps me in perfect range for my gear spider familiar to make use of its ranged needle attack, giving me a small boost to damage (with Frog Fangs, about five extra points of damage a round). After attacking, my familiar can then hide behind me, granting it full cover in combat and preventing most enemies from attacking it. Why did I choose to build my character this way? Honestly, it has nothing to do with the bonus damage from my gear spider—that’s just gravy. I just loved the 60ft blindsense that my gear spider grants me, thanks to Voice of the Chain Master, so I wanted to keep my familiar on my person at all times. Honestly, I would have been just as happy if I had picked an imp as my default familiar, which I also would have kept near me at all times (for the shared Magic Resistance trait), and which also would have allowed me to skip Devil’s Sight as my Secrets of Arcana choice since I would have gotten the same benefit through my imp and Voice of the Chain Master, and instead I would have picked Eldritch Sight or Otherworldly Leap—and, with free invisibility and flight, my imp would have made a good enough scout to make my rogue cry. My point is, Pact of the Chain is an absolutely incredible class feature for warlock, a feature that can be easily molded to fit a very large number of playstyles and niches. And, other than a few familiars of CR 1/4 and below, you can’t really make any objectively bad choices here. It is easy to make a warlock that is fun, flavorful, and very useful without overshadowing the rest of your party as a Pact of the Chain warlock. While my current character is very combat-oriented, I think my next Pact of the Chain warlock will focus on filling the role a rogue or ranger usually would, then use ranged Eldritch Blast attacks in combat.
Have fun with your characters. Regardless of the class, try to familiarize yourself with your options and think outside the box as much as possible. Or just make something and figure it out as you go—have fun your way.
 

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