Five out of four of my players choose bonded object as their Arcane Bond option. The only player that summons a familiar does so because he likes to roleplay with his talking crow. He doesn’t care for the mechanical benefits and, in fact, can’t even remember most of them during play. Such is the issue with familiars in D&D (which has a long tradition as this instructive tale reminds us).
Familiars should be fun and easy to use, besides presenting a clear mechanical benefit for spellcasters. They also should add a layer of mystery and potential roleplay for Gamemasters and players that like to explore this theme. At least when talking about rules, my favorite ones so far is Warhammer 2nd Realms of Sorcery.
I suppose there’re good variant rules for familiars in D&D out there. The simpler option (besides removing familiars from the game) that I know comes from Trailblazer. D&D 4th Edition presents a much more useful familiar, but is unfortunately restricted to the grid-based system of that edition. In my Chronicles of the Seventh Moon campaign I boosted familiars by adding new powers and options to their progression; however, they still aren’t popular with my groups and I admit that the extra bookkeeping of my house rules doesn’t pay off (i.e. the “fun factor” remains the same).
My favorite take on familiars from fiction comes from Clark Ashton Smith’s short stories, like "The Last Incantation" (probably one of the best). In the Forgotten Bard’s tales familiars are outsider spirits with strange agendas and minds, summoned to assist their spellcaster masters. It doesn’t matter which form a familiar takes, they’re always mysterious and not entirely trustable – they’re aliens beings; useful for sure, but whose ultimate motivations are unfathomable.
With that theme in mind, how to turn this into something worthwhile from a mechanical perspective? I suggest taking a look at the Arcane Bond (Bonded Object) feature first.
A bonded object – basically – works as a masterwork item that can be enchanted without item creation feats and that can be used, once per day, to cast any spell that the wizard can prepare from his spellbook. It has all the limitations of a physical object (hit point, hardness etc). It’s also important to note that without his bonded object a wizard must roll a Concentration check to cast any spell.
Let’s forget the normal familiar rules for a second. With bonded object as our sole reference, how a CAS Familiar – let’s call it a Servant – would work?
A Servant is an outsider spirit, summoned from strange planes and weird dimensions, through an old ritual that lies at the foundation of the wizardry tradition. Some believe that the first Servants thought wizardry to lesser sorcerers and sages, eons ago.
Once summoned, a Servant tailors a temporary body for himself, usually mirroring a minor local lifeform. If this form is destroyed, the Servant is only sent back to its natural dimension, without any lasting consequences (maybe a little annoyed or offended). In many ways, this ‘materialization’ executed by Servants work as a reversed astral projection.
Mechanically speaking, Servants are small or tiny outsiders with a number of Hit Points equal to their master’s HPs. For rules’ sake their HD and BAB are equal to their master’s caster level (CL). Their AC is equal to 10 + ½ master’s CL + master’s Int modifier. Servants have the same save bonus of their master. A Servant deal 1d4 of physical damage that counts as a magic weapon for the purpose of DR/magic. Servants have SR equal to 11 + their master’s CL. All Servants are considered to possess Escape Artist, Perception and Stealth skills with a total bonus equal to their master’s CL + their Int mod +3. All other skills have a total bonus of +0.
While within 5 feet of their master, Servants are treated as normal animals for the purpose of effects that target and affect outsider (divination magic can’t reveal their true nature).
Anything a Servant touches is considered to be touched by his master (including touch spells that were not discharged). A master can see and hear everything that his Servant see or hears by concentrating (using a full-round action that provokes attacks of opportunity); while doing this the master can’t use his own senses and is considered helpless. Servants possess darkvision 60 ft., doesn’t need to eat, sleep or rest.
A Servant retains its material form if within 1 mile of their master. Out of this range it’s instantly banished. At every five levels, this range is increased by 1 mile.
A Servant’s advices and accumulated arcana are always helpful, although it’s clear that either the Servant doesn’t fully comprehend the subject or is holding something back. In game terms, these sporadic advices grant a +2 bonus to Knowledge and Spellcraft checks (it allows the master to treat all Knowledge checks as if he was trained).
The master also develops a strong animal affinity with his Servant. An owl Servant could grant better vision, while a snake Servant could contortionist abilities. The master gains Skill Focus with one physical-based skill, as a bonus feat.
At 5th level, the Servant helps protect its master if within 5 feet of him. The outsider can, once per day, do a counterspell against any dweomer that includes its master in the area of effect or among its targets (in game terms treat this counterspell as a dispel magic cast by the master, as an immediate action).
At 8th level, the Servant’s occasional insights allow their master to “take 20” with any Knowledge, Spellcraft or Use Magic Device check, once per day, without the usual time dilations or skill limitations.
At 11th level, if within 5 feet of its master, the Servant grants a +2 bonus to caster level checks (for example, when using dispel magic or attempting to bypass SR).
At 14th level, if within 5 feet of its master, the Servant protects his master from one spell, spell-like or supernatural effect. The effect must be susceptible to SR. Treat the effect as if it automatically failed to pass the master’s SR.
The Price: Servants demands something from its master. A Servant inflicts a constant -2 penalty to a Wizard’s Wisdom score (affecting skills and Will saving throws). The wizard also gains one physical and obvious animal trait from the Servant (like cat’s eyes or a tail) or a strange animal habit (this one resulting in a -2 to Diplomacy and Sense Motive checks).
Servants are untrustworthy. In game terms, the GM makes a secret Will save for the wizard each day (the DC is 10 + the wizard’s CL + the wizard’s Int mod). If a failure occurs, the Servant will refuse to execute one order that day and will dissipate for the next 1d4 hours. If the GM agrees, special (and constant) sacrifices or obeying the weird demands from the Servant can stop the bizarre behavior.
Banished Servants: If a Servant is banished, the master is automatically exhausted and must realize a special ritual that costs 300 gp per wizard level and deals 1d6 points of Constitution damage (that must be healed naturally) to summon it back.
You can temporarily dismiss your Servant (an action that requires one minute) and summon it back by offering a pinch of your blood (1 HP). The Servant will materialize within 1 mile of your in the next hour and move in your direction.