I have always had a fondness for familiars and homonculi. My characters have had a few of each with the homonculus Bentwing being a party favorite after he took down the Hobgoblin King. I have made a few items just for familiars and such.
But, as I have mentioned before, in 1e/2e I have never seen very many players who can have a familiar actually gain one. The reasons are pretty evident; 3e tried hard to make familiars worth it, although I think they missed the mark a wee bit.
In my Blackstone campaign two different characters researched 3rd level spells that were essentially 'get this special familiar' spells. Each also created their own special familiars: Elemental Spirits (2 HD elementals) and Arcane Servants (a Good Outer Planes version of a Brownie familiar). Each was on par with a brownie or quasit.
I viewed this as more than acceptable for the following reasons
- The cost and time of spell research
- The cost and time of casting the spells
- The loss of a 3rd level spell slot (I enforce maximums of known spells per level)
The player who made elemental spirits stands by his creation. The player that created arcane servants thinks he made a mistake. His argument is,
"Familiars should really be about 'almost normal animals'. What we did was create almost-henchmen."Interesting point.
No one seems to mind the 'special' familiars but many don't take the chance of 'only' getting a normal familiar.
So, since I talk about the five roles a lot, what is the role of a familiar?
Familiars cost a 1st level spell slot and some gold to acquire. If you get a 'normal' familiar you get improved senses and (on average) +3 hit points if the familiar is relatively close to the character. If the familiar is killed the character loses (on average) 6 hit points - permanently.
The character can also 'converse' with the familiar and it can act as a spy, scout, and even guard (although it is noted it very rarely fights).
This seems to put the familiar in the scouting and intelligence role within the party. Familiars are like thieves - they can get into odd places, observe, and report back. Surem they can't pick locks, but they can slip through cracks!
So if a familiar is a scout that gives you better senses and bonus hit points, why don't more characters use them?
My theory? Math.
At first level getting a familiar is great; a beginning wizard has an average of 3 hit points (rounded up) and a familiar will likely double this, which is great. If you keep the critter out of combat so it doesn't die you get (for example) great hearing, a scout, double hit points, and only a small risk of losing 6 h.p. which will, of course, murderize you.
But at 5th level the math is different. You have 13 h.p. (average, rounded up) so +3 is not a 100% increase anymore, it is a 23% increase. On the other hand, -6 h.p. (permanently) is the potential loss of 46% of your hit points. Ouch.
Plus, if you are really interested in helping the thief with scouting at this level you could use Clairvoyance or Clairaudience and event Detect Evil or Detect Invisibility. The bonus h.p., boosted senses, and scouting are still nice, but not as nice.
Plus, now the party is facing area effect attacks ranging from Fireball to gorgon's breath. The odds of the familiar getting dead increase as you level up and face tougher foes with more area effect and won't-miss attacks.
I have indeed DM'ed a session where a mid-level magic-user and his weasel both made their saves vs. a Lightning Bolt such that the weasel died anyway and the combination of damage killed the mage who would have lived if he hadn't had a familiar.
I have seen some players get a familiar and once they reach 4th-5th level they leave the familiar at home. forsaking the senses and hit points (the familiar has to be close for those!) to avoid the chances of losing the familiar.
Others I know wait, plan ahead, and make homonculi (I have done this) seeing them as tougher, more useful, and having much less of a penalty. I have seen other people come up with spells or rituals to ensure characters get a 'special' familiar. AD&D 2e had the Enhance Familiar spells that did just what it says on the tin to the point that a focused archmage could end up with a familiar that could, for example, Polymorph into a human, Dimension Door once a day, and have a 16 Wisdom and 17 Intelligence, along with a variety of other powers.
Personally, I think a middle path would work fine. here are my thoughts on making 'normal' familiars end up with better math.
- The familiar gets +1 hit point for every level beyond first of its master. If the master is multi-classed, only from advancing as a magic user. The master still only gains the initial hit points of the familiar!
- Every 3rd level of its master (i.e., 4th, 7th, 10th, etc.) the familiar has its armor class improve by 1.
- If the familiar successfully saves vs. area effect spells they take no damage.
- Once its master reaches 4th level the familiar is immune to area effect spells.
- Once its master reaches 11th level the familiar is immune to level drain and death magic.
So if you are 2nd level and get a black cat with 3 h.p. and an A.C. 7 the caster gets +3 h.p. and the familiar immediately has 4 h.p. Once the caster reaches, say, 12th level the black cat has 14 h.p., takes no damage from Cone of Cold and similar spells, and has an A.C. 4 and is immune to level drain.
Much more likely to survive, but not even close to being too tough, in my opinion.