Sunday, August 27, 2017


A while back, I was thinking a lot about summoning. My complaint was that monster summoning spells in D&D were incredibly bland, and I proposed an alternative system that involves performing rituals out of black grimoires to bind specific entities. But besides monster summoning spells, you know what other spell ought to be incredible, but sucks in D&D and its variants? Find Familiar.

This fact has been well documented. As written in AD&D, having a familiar is pretty much just a way to boost your hit points. Besides this it gives on only some very mild bonuses to perception. In short, the effects amount to a bland buff. Also, a few special familiars aside, they are just generic animals: toads, cats, etc. This is unconscionably boring. Some more powerful and flavorful familiars have been proposed as fixes, for example by James Beach here, and in an article from Fight ON! #10 by James Smith. And then there's this flavorful table of animal familiars from +Tom Fitzgerald at middenmurk. But I hunger for something more. It occurred to me the other day that I might be able to appropriate some amazing older posts about summoning written by other folks in the blogosphere to save find familiar from the milquetoast hell in which it languishes.

When I first read them, I was fascinated a series of posts that create a summoner by taking a class and replacing its spell slots with summoned spirits. First, there's this post containing the basic idea, and this excellent post providing a list of spirits, both by +Jack McNamee  of rottenpulp fame. Then, following in his footsteps, there are some posts by +Mateo Diaz Torres of gloomtrain, the most developed of which is "but I repeat myself".

McNamee's idea is that for each spell slot you would have (as a cleric), instead of a spell you get to bind one spirit of the relevant level. These spirits generally do one or two things. The baby ifrit can light fires; the spectral hound can track infallibly and its howl causes fear; that kind of thing. You then command the spirits to use this power (or do whatever) at will by rolling command checks. Too many failures and you increase your chance that the spirit will break its bonds and run amok. Mack's list of spirits is evocative, and there are nice touches throughout. (Look at his rules for healing oneself by bleeding a familiar. Or the Dead King.)

Diaz introduces a new class, called "summoner". The summoner starts with a pact with a 1HD spirit who is able to cast a first level spell. Every time the summoner goes up a level, he can either increase the HD of a spirit he already has bound, tricking it out with more spell powers in the process, or go find a new fledgling 1HD spirit to bind in addition. The spirits are unique, scalable individuals. He presents two wonderful examples with the sort of setting specific awesome flavor I've been after. There's a bit of Shakespeare's Prospero and Ariel here, with the summoner binding named spirits, with whom he develops a history, and grows over time. But, of course, this is wedded to the demonic freakiness and unshackled imagination that gloomtrain everywhere traffics in. It's really kind of amazing.

While I have my own rules for summoning, I am wondering if we couldn't use the McNamee/Diaz approach to fix familiars. Find familiar already functions pretty much in the McNamee style. By choosing a spell you use only once, you effectively sacrifice one spell slot in exchange for having a permanent familiar bound to you. It's true that the slot you sacrifice is the less valuable spell known slot, instead of the more valuable spell per day slot. But suppose we wanted to ratchet up the awesomeness of having a familiar. Then it might make sense to require the sacrifice of the more valuable kind. (It also has a kind of logic in the shared bond you have with your familiar. You draw power from it, and it takes power from you.) The longterm relationship between a wizard and his familiar also lends itself to the kind of developing history that Diaz's unique bound spirits evoke. You should have a history with your familiar, perhaps a fraught relationship, and I like the idea of your familiar growing in power with you.

So what if the mechanics worked this way? In order to acquire a familiar, one must perform the ritual necessary to bind the familiar to you. (Some of these are widely known, others found only in certain moldering tomes.) This involves sacrificing a first level spell slot. When one acquires access to a new level of spell, one has the option to sacrifice a single higher level spell slot to increase the power of the familiar. To get to each successive step, you would have to have completed all the prior ones. So, for example, when I'm a second level wizard I sacrifice one of my two first level spell slots to bind a familiar. When I'm a fourth level wizard with 2 second level spell slots, I might choose to sacrifice one of these permanently to increase the power of the familiar I acquired by one step. This proposal would, in effect, allow one a la cart use of Diaz's summoner class. It would have a different mechanical basis than my summoning, since it wouldn't work via the use of a monster summoning spell. Ideally, it would have a different flavor too: it would be less calling on pacts with demons and cosmic horrors and more the sort of Prospero and Ariel thing.

Here are two examples. The first is an enslaved fairy familiar, influenced by McNamee's rules on bleeding familiars and his blight lamb, and especially by Jack Vance's Lyonesse books. The second is an ancestral spirit familiar inspired by James Beach's post linked above.

Enslaved Fairy

These familiars appeal to magicians with unwholesome appetites and meticulous habits. To acquire one, the magician must first craft a suitable habitation. This is usually a gilded cage of fine mesh bars, often decorated with doll's furniture (500-1000GP). Slightly larger than a lantern, it is often carried by a ring at the top, or over the shoulder hanging from a stick. The magician must also acquire one thing that fairies long for, such as delicate candied rose petals, or tears of laughter collected from a small child. He must also carry about his person something fairies dread, such as carpenter wasps, fiddler crabs, or heated needles.

The magician must then locate a fairy enclave. This is no easy task, as they are invisible to mortal eyes, and their location a closely kept secret. Near the enclave, the magician must situate the cage in a bucolic scene of great beauty that at once invites while nevertheless obscuring its confining nature. Placing the lure within, the magician then awaits his future familiar. Having secured a fairy, the magician must hasten away before alarm can be raised, or face considerable complications. Once at greater leisure, the magician may set about cowing the faery through firm application of the object of terror, until achieving an abject state of (temporary) compliance. At this point the captive familiar and the magician must mingle their blood to achieve a magical bond.

Freedom, Death, and Enmity

As the fairy moves through the stages of corruption and servitude, their relationship to captivity will change. At the early stages, the fairy will display pure hatred and fear of their master. They will escape at any chance. At later stages, when the magical bond is stronger and the fairy's corruption has progressed to a point where escape is no longer an option, they will still play malicious tricks, and sow unpleasant obstacles for their master. At its best, the relationship is one of dependence and spite. In some cases, even after a long captivity, they will bring ruin upon themselves for the sake of revenge.

Although the rewards bestowed by a fairy familiar are great, the escape or death of a fairy also represents a significant source of vulnerability for a magician. For Faeries are, being but slight creatures, not overly difficult to slay. Should this happen, the caster will lose the invested spell levels, regaining them, beginning with the 1st, at the rate of one spell level per session. A new bond cannot be formed with a captive for a year and a day.

Possessing a fairy is a vile transgression that marks one immediately as an enemy of all fairy folk. Should it come to their attention, fey will seek to free the captive and visit punishment on the magician. If a fairy should escape, the magician must take caution, for the reprisal will be terrible.

Powers of an Enslaved Fairy

Level 1: The enslaved fairy may produce either fairy fire or dancing lights once per day*. The fairy may also glow at will, illuminating as a lantern. At this point, the fairy is six inches tall HD1/2 AC5 MV3/15 Att: by tiny weapon (1hp) or spell-like ability.

Level 2: The enslaved fairy may either speak with animals or become invisible once per day. If the fairy's blood is drawn with a tiny syringe and consumed while they are invisible, the invisibility is transferred to the imbiber. Note that the bleeding causes 1d4 damage to the fairy (but never takes the fairy below 1 hp). As the bond grows stronger, the fairy grows to eight inches in height. HD1 AC5 MV3/15 Att: by tiny weapon (1-2) or spell-like ability.

Fairy, sans glamour
Level 3: The enslaved fairy may now either grow a toadstool into a spacious and exquisitely decorated abode (as Tiny Hut), or shrink someone (as reverse enlarge 5 levels higher than the magician) once per day. The magician may now also steal the fairy's glamour once per day, receiving +2 charisma for one hour and the ability to make a single lie utterly convincing. While bereft of their glamour, the enslaved fairy appears haggard and unappealing, like a toddler with the face of a drunken sot. By this time, the fairy has grown to one foot in height. Too large for a traveling cage, they are now usually kept on gilded chains. HD2 AC5 MV4/15 Att: By tiny weapon (1-3) or spell-like ability.

Level 4: The enslaved fairy may now bestow a curse of terrible luck on another (treat as Fumble) or bewitch the intelligence of man, calling up enchanted vistas (hallucinatory terrain) once per day. By this time, the fairy is two feet high, and has begun to take on a darker glamour. Should the fairy escape, they will suffer terrible withdrawal from the magical bond (save vs. poison or die). HD3 AC5 MV5/15 Att: By small weapon (1-4) or spell-like ability.

Level 5: The enslaved fairy may now summon a twisted unicorn from Fairyland at will to serve as the magician's steed, with a golden horn and milky black eyes HD6 AC2 ATT1-8/1-8/2-12 MV24 MR12. In addition, stealing the fairy's glamour now also allows the magician to sow discord between any two allies with whom the magician converses. At this point, escape seals the doom of the fairy and restraints are no longer necessary. The fairy is three feet high, with wings of black gossamer and dead eyes. HD4 AC4 MV6/15 Att: By weapon (1-6) or spell-like ability.

Level 6: The enslaved fairy may now either banish victims to the bewitched green hedge labyrinths of the Summer King (as maze) or, if the fairy knows their name, cause them to vomit forth their wits as a monstrous raven (as feeblemind) once per day. The fairy is now four feet high, and the gossamer of its wings begin to tatter. HD5 AC3 MV9/9 Att: By weapon (1-8) or spell-like ability.

Level 7: Once per day, the enslaved fairy may either reverse gravity or cause an object to vanish to fairyland (as Vanish), replaced by a perfectly shaped (momentarily!) simulacrum composed of clustered butterflies. At this point, the fairy's wings lie like a torn black cape from its back. Instead of flying, it may now stride through the air, and walk on walls and ceilings. It is now 5' tall, with a halo of darkness HD6 AC2 MV12/12 Magic Resistance 10% Att: By weapon or spell-like ability.

Level 8: The enslaved fairy may either call the enchanting music of the summer balls of the fairy court, which compels all to dance (treat as irresistible dance, 120' radius), or instill a mad and jealous love (mass charm) in those present once per day. When stealing the fairy's glamor, the magician may now appropriate the latter power, as well as the fairy's magic resistance. The fairy is now 6' tall with long and crooked legs like a deer. HD6 AC2 Magic Resistance 20% MV12/12 Att: By weapon or spell-like ability.

Level 9: The enslaved fairy may now call forth a doom of white roses once per week. Its snaking brambles and needled thorns grow outwards from a single seed at a rate of 100' feet per round, until reaching a desired radius up to 1000'. The doom will crumble buildings and break walls. Those swallowed by the surging thorns suffer 8d6 damage and are entangled. The enslaved fairy may also compel all those who enter into a bargain to execute the terms (as geas), but doing so places the fairy under a like compulsion. When stealing the fairy's glamour, the magician now appropriates the latter power as well. The fairy is now 7' tall, with eerily elongated features, and nails like iron needs. HD7 AC0 Magic Resistance 30% MV15/15 Att: By nails 1d12/1d12 or weapon or spell-like ability.

*When it says that "the enslaved fairy may do X or Y once per day", this means that the fairy may do one but not both of these per day. However, which of the two spell-like powers will be employed that day need not be decided in advance. This holds for the spell-like powers of theancestral spirit as well.

Ancestral Spirit

Not all familiars are drawn from the ranks of the living. To bind a spirit as a familiar, it must recognize in the sorcerer the bond of shared blood, the ties of familial sorrows and triumphs. In life the spirit must have had overweening ambition, a great unslaked desire that ties it to the earth, preventing its easy passage from the bright lands to Ushanpor, City of the Brass Sepulchre.

In preparation for the doleful performances that will bind the spirit, the necromancer must anoint himself daily with myrrh, and don the cerements of the grave, intoning in the Hymn of Opening the Sepulchres at the gloaming hour. If he is of the better sort, he must accustom himself to poring over family histories and genealogies, ferreting out old letters, gazing at dusty portraits, and most of all, lingering among the tarnished crests and moldy sarcophagi of his family tombs. If he is drawn from more humble stock, he may meditate on a simple object that has been passed down for generations--an anvil, clay pot, a sickle, or such--and wander amongst unmarked graves in the region where his family has dwelt. The spirit will seek him out in these melancholy perambulations. He will know that it is present when the temperature suddenly drops. At this point he must provide proof positive of his kinship by spilling a small quantity of his life's blood within a copper bowl. If the bowl is overturned violently, then necromancer in the presence of an unsuitable spirit, and must take precautions immediately to guard his life. If the spirit accepts, it will give an unnerving sign.

The DM must have some idea of who the ancestor was, including his chosen profession, and the nature of his ungratified ambition. The spirit will have been a remarkable individual in life, possessing unique talents, and a dangerous desire. Normally, this information will not be conveyed to the player. The identity of his familiar will be, for a long while, a mystery to him. You may roll on this chart if you like, or better yet, make something fun up.

Who is the Ancestral Spirit? (1d6):

  1. Disgraced, and cast out from the family for the murder of his brother, he rose through sheer strength of will from anonymity to lead legions of men into battle. He died ingloriously, with his breeches around his ankles. He is brutal and reckless, and holds his family (including the necromancer) in scorn. He wishes above all to draw the party into battle with implacable and awesome foes in order to win for himself the glorious death he was denied. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level fighter.)
  2. She was a great jewel thief who lost her life in failed theft of a priceless black diamond from the crown of Astyanax, the Lich King. She has irrepressible penchant for casual theft, including from her own party. She is spoiled but daring, and expects her family (including the necromancer) to cover for her crimes. Her great hunger is to carry through the bronze gates of Ushanpoor the black diamond for which she died. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level thief.)
  3. He was a zealot who untiringly preached his unwholesome faith. For the black crimes he committed in the name of his cult, he was rightly burned at the stake. His family members never speak of him, and are ashamed and afraid of his legacy. But there are some in the family who have secretly continued his work and await his return. He is dogmatic and evil, relishing open blasphemy and spurning eternal rest to continue his (un)holy work. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level monk.)
  4. He was a scheming merchant who sought endless wealth through unscrupulous means. He schemes always after filthy lucre and seeks revenge against the wealthy descendants of the merchant who poisoned him. He is a master of commerce and knows all the ruses and stratagems of the merchant's guild and others. He was either betrayed by a family member (if the family is wealthy), or by a clan that is high (and mighty) in the ranks of the merchant's guild. He is crafty and cruel. (When embodied, treat as a level fifth level merchant.)
  5. He was a scholar who worked to uncover hidden and terrible secrets. He was infected with white buboes by grave wrappings and lost his life on the verge of uncovering the terrible antedeluvian prehistory of man. He still hungers for arcane knowledge, and is desperate to reach the library vaults of the Yuan-ti, where the secrets he craves are kept. He is didactic and obsessive. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level sage.)
  6. He was a con man, with a love of the art. On the verge of pulling off the greatest racket of all time, he was hung for impersonating the prince. He tells endless tall tales, and will fleece respectable persons. He is dishonest but irresistible, and has a desperate desire to rule on the throne in a stolen identity. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level mountebank.)  

Killing the Ancestral Spirit

While in spectral form, the ancestral spirit cannot be harmed by weapons or (most spells). Even if slain when embodied, it will simply manifest again in a weeks time. The ancestral spirit may be permanently slain only through an exorcism spell. Should this happen, the caster will regain the lost levels of spells invested in the spirit, beginning with the 1st at the rate of one spell level per week. It will also vanish if it is ever able to fulfill its uttermost wish. For this reason, the ancestral spirit is likely to conceal the true nature of its desire. The ancestral spirit will likely remain to pursue its own agenda if the caster is slain. 

Powers of The Ancestral Spirit

To acquire each level of power, the necromancer must give up one spell slot of the corresponding level. The powers can only be acquired sequentially.

Level 1: The ancestral spirit may manifest spectrally once per day, either as the spell jarring hand or manipulate fire.

Level 2: The ancestral spirit acquires a permanent presence, serving as a perpetual unseen servant. Once per day it may strike terror into mundane animals (horses, dogs, and the like).

Level 3: The ancestral spirit may possess a willing subject for 1 turn, once per day. During this time, it may use the possessed body to perform the sorts of feats they could when living, but cannot use its other powers. The ancestral spirit may also fuse with it's master to speak in a voice that echoes across the lands of the dead (treat as speak with dead), or produce a spectral gust of wind once per day.

Level 4: The ancestral spirit may reveal horrifying vistas of the land of the dead (as fear spell) or instill a slavering servitude in corpses (as animate dead) once per day. They may also possess someone willing for 1 hour per day. During this time they may perform the sorts of feats they could when living, but cannot use their other powers.

Level 5: The ancestral spirit may now open a great door into and out of the land of the dead (dimension door) once per day. They may also possess someone unwilling once per week. An unwilling victim gets a saving throw vs. spells to resist. The possession lasts up to one day and during that time they may use the possessed body to perform the sorts of feats they could when living. During this time, the ancestral familiar cannot use their other powers. A successful exorcism of the ancestral spirit now requires two clerics.

Level 6: The ancestral spirit may now may now pull unwilling living beings to the land of the dead (as death spell) once per day. They may also inquire among the dead for forgotten lore, but will be absent during the duration of this inquiry (as legend lore spell).  Finally, they may possess someone either willing or unwilling indefinitely, although unwilling victims get a new saving throw once per week. While embodied, the ancestral familiar cannot use their spectral powers.

Level 7: The ancestral spirit may now shine the light of the necromantic moon into the lands of living, sapping the life and vigor of all those upon it falls (as Power Word Stun 30' radius) once per day. At this point, it may also use its full menu of spectral powers while embodied. An exorcism of an ancestral spirit must now be led by a cleric of twelfth level or higher to have a chance of succeeding. 

Level 8: The ancestral spirit may now control undead as an evil cleric of half the levels of the necromancer it serves. It may also raise dead once per week, although those who return will be strange, and their alignment evil. Those who are unwillingly possessed by the ancestral spirit now receive a saving throw only once per year. It now takes three clerics to exorcise the ancestral spirit, of no less than twenty combined levels.

Level 9: While embodied, the ancestral spirit may now drain energy levels by touch. Those slain by this attack become faceless wraiths under the control of the ancestral spirit, with a maximum number of wraiths equal to the necromancer's level. Faceless Wraiths HD5+3 AC4 Att: 1d6+energy drain Silver or magical weapons to hit MV12. In addition, the ancestral spirit may now summon a vast wall of corpses 30' area per caster level once per week. Exorcisms of the ancestral spirit must now be led by a cleric of no less than sixteenth level.


  1. These are beautiful and great writing. Thank you for writing such thoughtful familiars and sharing them.

    It's very different from my idea of familiars. It's spurred my imagination and now I will rethink what a familiar should be.


  2. Glad you enjoyed it Scott Anderson

  3. "A successful exorcism of the ancestral spirit now requires two clerics."

    Quick, I need a young priest and an old priest!

  4. You divined my intention Skerples ;)