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Arcane Sidekicks: Getting Familiar with Familiars

Written by Janna - Published on April 30, 2009

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

Picture by Antony

The Arcane Power game supplement gave familiars their 4E debut. These new familiars aren’t as… well, familiar as the ones we knew and loved in previous editions. In fact, they aren’t even real creatures at all. (As real as any creature in a fantasy game can be, anyway.) Familiars are actually spirits that hang around the arcane spellcaster, being cute and contrary and occasionally making themselves useful.

Arcane Power features an entire section on familiars and how they work. Here’s a brief overview of the guidelines that govern familiars in 4E.

Familiars Aren’t Fighters

It might sound like a good idea to sic your familiar on an enemy, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Familiars don’t get attacks. They’re designed to be scouts who can communicate with their masters through arcane messages or even telepathy. They can also grant special abilities and share their arcane knowledge. But familiars don’t really have a place on the battlefield. They can’t even help their masters flank an enemy. Also, if a familiar dies, it vanishes until after the master’s next rest.

Familiars Have Modes

At any given time, you can choose to put your familiar into passive mode or active mode.

While in passive mode, the familiar is somewhere on your body – in a pouch, in a robe pocket, on your shoulder, etc. There are two benefits to keeping your familiar in passive mode: first, they can’t be targeted by any effect while passive. And second, they can’t be damaged by any effect. (That’s right; a wayward fireball spell might singe you quite a bit, but your passive familiar will stay safe and sound.)

An active familiar can move around. The spellcaster can use their own move action to move their familiar up to its speed value. All of the familiar’s actions are actually its master’s actions; familiars can’t take actions on their own. While active, familiars can use their active benefits. These vary according to the familiar’s basic type. For example, cat familiars ignore range limits. They can roam more than 20 squares away from their masters. They also gain a +5 bonus to Stealth checks.

Switching a familiar’s mode takes a minor action.

Familiars Have Perks

Familiars confer cool effects to their masters. These are constant benefits that can be used regardless of the familiar’s current mode. Arcane Power lists 12 basic familiars, each with its own constant benefits. These benefits run the gamut from a simple +2 to Perception and Stealth checks (bat) to fire resistance, the ability to read and speak infernal, and bonuses to History and Arcana checks (book imp).

Familiars Can Be Customized

As far as appearance goes, your familiar is what you make it. You’re encouraged to use your creativity to set your familiar apart from others of its kind. As long as the familiar keeps its basic shape, you can customize it as much as you like. For example, a spellcaster could have a falcon familiar with feathers of pure shadow and glowing red eyes.

You can also customize your familiar’s mode transitions. Instead of putting your familiar into a pocket, you could have it disappear in a puff of smoke and reappear when called. Other suggestions include having a familiar turn into a stone figurine while passive, having a winged familiar fly away until called back, or storing the passive familiar as a tattoo on the spellcaster’s flesh.

Familiars are Quirky

Just as you can decide which physical attributes your familiar has, you can also choose its personality quirks. Familiars can be lazy and gluttonous, or they can be know-it-all busy-bodies. Maybe they hate being ignored. Maybe they’re protective of their master and lunge at any strangers who approach.

Though they always obey their masters, familiars have their own personalities. They can argue with their master, grumble, and offer unsolicited advice. However, they can only communicate with their master; the other PCs aren’t privy to such disagreements, though they may be aware that something’s amiss between the spellcaster and the familiar.

Are you eager to get a familiar? Do you think they add to the game, or are they just annoying? Tell us what you think!

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Written by Janna

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Arcane Sidekicks: Getting Familiar with Familiars, 2.7 out of 5 based on 3 ratings

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.



7 Responses to “Arcane Sidekicks: Getting Familiar with Familiars”
  1. Czar says:

    I’m not quite sure yet.. We`ll see if any of my PCs are interested in using Familiars. I know they’re not `fighters` but I hope they don’t get used in some way to make 4e combat even longer. :(

  2. ColoQ says:

    I do like the Active and Passive modes bit. It avoids – or perhaps facilitates – the classic “Oh Yeah! I have a familiar” statement, and then *POP* a crow, imp, Fairy dragon or whatever appears… (Ala a classic OoTS comic).

  3. Wimwick says:

    One of the first things I noticed about 4e Wizards was the lack of familiar. I wrote an article at Dungeon’s Master called Familiars Have Arrived to fill the need at the time. I feel the concept I created was close to what WotC provided. I like the fact that all arcane classes can have a familiar. While I don’t own Arcane Powers, still waiting on Character Builder to update, from the reviews I’ve read they seem to be one of the best parts of the book.

  4. Yax says:

    The picture of the old wizard with a monkey is priceless. Great find, Craig.

  5. Cyclone says:

    Familiars sound really cool! Now you make me want to obtain a copy of Arcane Power….

  6. MaleAlphaThree says:

    Passive and Active modes for familiars, huh?

    So, what’s the monthly subscription for this MMO? Do I get a special in-game familiar if I buy a special edition of the game? Are there certain quests I can do to upgrade my familiar and/or get a new one?

  7. bt says:

    I hear ya MaleAlphaThree… yet… the more “video game accessible” everyone makes this 4e business sound… the more I feel myself being pulled towards it… there is some sort of a cool factor brewing for one who has been away from rpg for a decade or so….

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