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4e Familiars

Cool Design & Development article about familiars behind the cut. The passive and active modes sound very sensible -- although Rover the toad did do the occasional bit of scouting, who can forget the hours, nay days, he spent tucked inside Kal's backpack, quietly giving him +3 hit points and never getting affected by nasty spells?




Logan: My first familiar was a monkey. In my first session, I sent it to scout, it died, and I lost XP. It turned out that it usually was better if you just left a familiar in your backpack and enjoyed its bonuses, but that's not very satisfying. The main goal for designing 4E familiars was to get them out of the backpack and onto the battlefield once in a while.

I decided on having two modes for a familiar: passive and active. You'd get a tactical benefit for having the familiar in active mode, but you'd put it in harm's way. Passive mode grants a different benefit and keeps the familiar safe. Each has advantages and disadvantages. In the original design, each familiar also had a continuous benefit it gave regardless of its mode.

Stephen: Well, if we're talking about out first familiars, mine was a quasit back in 1E. (And no, I didn't roll for it; I totally cheated). When I was a kid we were all just crazy for those suckers. They looked liked something from a Black Sabbath album cover and granted your character magic resistance, regeneration, and that saucy extra level. Boo-yah!

I wasn't as gutsy as Logan. I never let that quasit out of its sack. There was just too much to lose … which was a shame. So development was entirely on board with the active and passive modes for familiars. We just simplified the three speeds of familiar. We figured that keeping a familiar safe was its own reward, we didn't need to incent it further. Wrapping those bonuses into the continuous bonuses made them simpler to play.

Logan: In 3rd Edition, familiars all had full monster stats. As with many secondary creatures linked to PCs in 4E (the shaman's spirit companion and summoned creatures, for example), we went simpler, having the familiar just use its master's defenses and skill bonuses. Usually, the creature itself has nothing more than a special movement speed or mode of vision.

Stephen: As a DM in 3E, there were few things worse than waiting for the wizard/summoning druid with the leadership feat and the five dogs (trained for war, of course) to finish moving his zoo around the battlefield. Having the ability for a familiar to act within the controlling character's action economy, while still being evocative, fun, and beneficial, were things we strived to maintain throughout their development. The link to summoned creatures is intentional in more ways than one. It allows familiars to level up in a simple way without need for their own progression chart. In development, we tended to view familiars as a summoned creature that persists longer than a power allows.

Logan: In the past, each familiar was only as magical as the base creature. I wanted to broaden the scope a bit, so the player could make it as fantastical as he or she wanted. A normal-looking cat works the same as a cat with gemstone eyes and a body made of sand. I recast familiars as sagacious arcane spirits with unique forms, rather than real animals.

Stephen: Broadening the spectrum goes the other way as well. You can make your familiar seem very mundane, which can be a cunning surprise in a roleplaying encounter or even a skill challenge.

But the greatest thing about this flexibility is that you can have the familiar you really want and that fits your character concept. You want a falcon made of pure lightning for your soulstorm genasi swordmage? No problem. You want a clicking and whizzing clockwork spider for your drow artificer? Go for it. You can make the creature seem as fantastic or as mundane as you desire.

Logan: When a character dies, it's a big moment. You've invested a great deal into your PC. What about when a familiar dies? While it could, in theory, be pretty emotional, it could also just be a nuisance. It led to PCs keeping familiars in safe places and otherwise ignoring them. I've heard more stories about familiars drowning, forgotten in backpacks, than about emotional moments when familiars died. So we dropped permanent familiar death out of the picture. Since it's an arcane spirit, it just needs a little time to reconstitute its form.

Stephen: This is why I kept that quasit in my backpack. In the olden days, you lost your shirt when the familiar bit it. We wanted folks to lose something if the familiar goes poof but to have the penalty fit the crime. Basically, a familiar is a mix of a feat and a minor summoning. Having it go away for an encounter if it's "killed" seemed the best place to put the penalty. It's something you will miss but not something that debilitates your character.

Logan: In the original version of the familiars document, you took a familiar master feat to gain a Find Familiar ritual, which then let you call a familiar. There was one additional feat, Familiar Rapport, that let you communicate telepathically with the familiar and gave it a bonus to defenses.

Stephen: Development simplified the original design. While the ritual was a nod to the older editions, the extra hoop you had to jump through wasn't necessary. Now the feat is all you need to gain a familiar.

Then we added some functionality to familiars through additional feats and gave extra incentive for taking those by granting a +1 to the familiar's defenses for each familiar feat you have over the original Arcane Familiar feat. Putting these in feat form allowed us to create improved familiars without having to create just a better class of individual familiar choices. If you like the familiar you have, you should be able to improve it, not replace it with something different but mechanically superior.

Logan: Here's a balancing act we have to perform pretty often: Make a mechanical item compelling and interesting, without having it consume more of your time and brainpower than it should, given its overall importance. While we wanted a familiar to be a fun roleplaying hook and have a noticeable mechanical benefit, we didn't want it consuming your character too much. Compare the significance of a familiar to the shaman's spirit companion or the beast companion for the beastmaster ranger, and you'll notice the familiar doesn't matter nearly as much to the character's overall play style. The Familiar Keeper paragon path (from "Get Familiar" in Dragon 374) lets someone make the familiar more important to his or her character, but that's only for the devoted.

Stephen: This is one of the main reasons that you find a small list of constant benefits and one active benefit for most familiars. The constant benefits usually occupy the same game space as feats -— things that you adjust on your character sheet and forget about it (unless your familiar dies, of course), while a familiar's active benefit typically grants a single augment to the actions that you can take with your familiar when it is away from your person.

Giving them this structure and constraints allowed us to make reasonable judgments on the individual familiars' balance and limit each familiar's complexity.

Logan: Picking the cast of familiars relied both on the familiar lists of early editions and new creatures we wanted to make available. I carried over most of the basic familiars from previous editions (but left out the quasit and brownie), or at least included creatures that were similar. The classes and races of 4E also influenced the selection. That's why you'll see spiders for drow, scout homunculi for artificers, and a bunch of familiars that work well for warlock pacts (like book imps for the infernal pact and arcane wisps for the fey pact). I also hunted through our miniatures, looking for good little creatures players might want to grab to use as familiars. Only a few, such as the burning skull and the mephitis, were totally inspired by miniatures, but they fit really well as familiars.

Stephen: I don't know what Logan's talking about. The quasit's in there. It's now just called the bound demon! At least that's the shape my bound demon is going to take. Sheesh.

Seriously, with the mechanical mix that's out there and your ability to flavor the familiar spirit any way you want, the possibilities for theme and flavor are endless. I'm sure we will -- and I know fans will -- create more familiars over time.

Logan: I always saw the roleplaying hooks for familiars as the most important part of the whole package. Ideally, a player is choosing his or her familiar to serve a story concept rather than just for a mechanical advantage (though hopefully both will fit the same character concept). That's why you'll see a lot of tips for making roleplaying hooks and personality/appearance quirks for familiars. We didn't hard-code any of it, so the player gets as much freedom as possible.

Stephen: This has always been a strength of familiars in D&D from one edition to the next. With the exception of a select few that had built-in story hooks (like the quasit), it was really up to the player and the DM to breathe life into familiars. By giving options rather than restraints, it allows you infuse as much or as little story as you want into these critters.

Logan: The familiars in Arcane Power and "Get Familiar" were always intended to go in those places. The article and section in the book were designed at the same time, and I designed the familiars in one big lump. Splitting them up between the two, I asked myself two questions: How broad is the familiar's appeal, and does it fit into a category that should stay all together? For instance, I knew a lot of people across a variety of classes would want bats, cats, and dragonlings, so those went into the (relatively small) selection of familiars in Arcane Power. The rootling and disembodied hand were a little weirder, so they went to the article. I wanted the mephits and dragonspawn familiars to appear in groups, so they're all in "Get Familiar."

Stephen: Familiar design is almost limitless and will continue to expand as the D&D universe does. Arcane Power gives you the usual suspect. "Get Familiar" shows you some more directions you could go, including some tier-dependant familiars. Many are corner cases, or just darn strange, but they all have a home in someone's imagination.

Logan: Here are some familiars that we considered but that didn't make the cut. You'll also notice that they use the names of actual monsters. We later decided not to do that, to avoid confusion.

* Darkmantle
* Fire bat
* Fox
* Iron cobra
* Kruthik
* Pixie
* Primordial Toad
* Stirge
* Umbral blot
* Vargouille (proving that just because we have a mini doesn't mean we should do the familiar)
* Vestige relic
* Zairtail

I'd also included implements and weapons as familiars, but that slot was already filled with intelligent items.

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