using and roleplaying familiars in D&D 5e strixhaven featured image

How to Use and Roleplay Familiars in D&D 5e

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Familiars are small creatures that complement spellcasters with their presence. They can fulfill many functions, including combat medic, trap detector, lovable pet, and more! Let’s explore everything to know about familiars in D&D 5e.

Who Controls a Familiar?

The Find Familiar spell describes how a familiar follows the commands of its master, but the metagame can be nuanced. Players may ask or expect other players or the DM to control their familiar at times. I highly recommend talking to your DM about this.

Watching the DM Round Table discussion in my YouTube video below demonstrates that DMs have different expectations and preferences regarding familiars. Many DMs seem to be ok with occasionally roleplaying a familiar but not controlling a familiar in key moments like combat.

What Actions Can Familiars Use?

While familiars cannot make attacks, there are plenty of ways to make use of them. The Find Familiar spell clearly says familiars can’t attack, but other options are fair game. Let’s explore the options.

Familiars “Help” Action

Help: “When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn.”

Familiars can constantly use the Help action. If your DM allows it, the familiar could effectively give you advantage on most of your checks. It won’t make narrative sense, so the DM may get annoyed and ask you to limit this to what makes sense. They can technically give you advantage on Initiative by constantly helping you. Your DM may think this makes sense as the familiar is an extra set of eyes for you, but most DMs could potentially tell you no (and I wouldn’t blame them). Doing this can be as annoying as constantly declaring that you cast Guidance.

By the way, your familiar can Help you before you cast a spell like Counterspell or Dispel Magic to give you advantage on those spells’ rolls. If your familiar isn’t busy during combat, prompt it to constantly Help you. Again, the DM may choose to veto this, but it seems reasonable to me. It’s also thematic to what a familiar is. After all, a familiar used to be tied to the caster so intimately that its death would lower the caster’s Constitution stat.

You may choose to have your familiar accompany an ally who uses melee attacks. Your familiar can use Help to give your ally advantage.

Familiars “Use an Object” Action

You can use your familiar for cheeky tricks. It can drop caltrops and ballbearings as battlefield hazards, including around your position. This can punish enemies who try to rush you on the backline of combat. DMs who give you items like dynamite will enable cheeky sapper familiars.

Familiars “Search” Action

Enemies who are invisible or otherwise hidden can be a problem. Using a Search action in combat feels bad to players, so outsource it to your familiar! Your trusty pet could potentially identify the location of an invisible creature, so you at least know where they are. Your familiar could even move through a bunch of squares until it bumps into an invisible enemy.

Though Search is a useful action, most familiars have low Intelligence scores, so you should hope their Passive Perception is enough to assist your searches.

Other Familiar Actions

Familiars can distribute healing potions (technically magic items) and attempt to stabilize your allies (or you) with Medicine checks. Some DMs have been known to allow familiars to activate magic items like the Decanter of Endless Water or the Eversmoking Bottle. Other potions can be administered by a familiar to make sure you’re in combat and ready to use it without sacrificing your spellcaster’s action.

If you are in heavy obscurement on the battlefield, your familiar can move to a place outside of the obscurement so you can see through its senses as an action and use a bonus action to cast Misty Step towards the familiar (because you must see where you’re teleporting).

Familiars can be your trap detectors! Have them go ahead and test things out so you can remain a safe distance back.

If your party gets knocked out with a sleep spell or another effect that requires an action to end, your familiar can shake you awake.

How to Roleplay a Familiar

You can certainly treat familiars as passive mechanical cogs in the game machine, but many players want more. Familiars can feel like additional characters. Giving them quirks, characteristics, moods, and opinions can be fun for players and DMs alike. Ask your DM if they want to occasionally describe how your familiar behaves, and let them know the instances where you want to reserve that control (such as combat).

Get creative and write down ideas for how your familiar might help your allies. Pay attention to what your fellow players want to accomplish or what they’re excited about with their characters, then build on those interests with your familiar.

Familiars Roleplayed in Downtime

Get your familiars involved in everyone’s chores. They help the Fighter stir the porridge. Your pet helps the Ranger keep watch and stands at attention with a cute salute. If you’re in your keep our base, have the familiar fetch the newspaper! The key is to think of fun ways to describe how your familiar behaves and responds to what other players do. Take care not to overdo it, but describing your familiar once per scenario is a welcome spritz of roleplaying fun.

Familiars Roleplayed in Combat

Casting spells will be more fun if you get your familiar involved. When you extend your arm to deploy a firebolt, have your familiar perched on your wrist with its own arm (or similar appendage) as if they’re also casting the spell. If you get knocked down or fall from a ledge, describe your familiar reaching up to keep your hat on your head as it nests in your hair.

When helping allies with the Help action, describe your familiar jumping onto the visor of an enemy knight to temporarily block vision.

Familiars Roleplayed in Social Scenarios

Have your familiar mirror your own mood and mannerisms. If you’re swooping your hand like a professor in discourse, have your familiar copy you (whether affectionately or mockingly). When you grimace in dissatisfaction with an NPC, have your familiar growl and angrily nod in agreement with you.

Familiars Roleplayed in Exploration

When you recall information about an area’s geography or a monster’s lore, maybe it wasn’t you that remembered… at least, not entirely. Maybe your familiar reaches into your notes and pulls out a scribbled note with the information you need! Your familiar may also try to pantomime something you’re trying to remember, giving you advantage by helping you recall.

It’s well-known that familiars are excellent for exploration due to their mechanical features, but they can be roleplayed during exploration, too. Maybe they suddenly have an explorer’s hat to indicate their eagerness to explore. If they’re following your order to find traps, they might act very hesitant and cover their head with a book (heartbreaking).

How Do You Get a Familiar in D&D 5e?

Player characters can get familiars by learning and casting the Find Familiar spell! DMs may also consider awarding familiars to players as rewards if the players want pets that won’t permanently get put down in combat.

How Many Familiars Can You Have in D&D 5e?

You can have one familiar. If you cast Find Familiar again, you can resummon a downed familiar or give your familiar a new form.

Which Class Gets a Familiar in D&D 5e?

Spellcasters typically get access to familiars with the level-one Find Familiar spell. Non-spellcasters can still gain a familiar, though, with feats like Magic Initiate and Ritual Caster.

How Smart Is a Familiar in D&D 5e?

Intelligence is not an impressive feature of familiars. They’re based on beasts, and they typically are not intelligent. This doesn’t mean they’re dumb, but it may limit their behavior and ingenuity outside of your orders.

What Happens to a Familiar When Its Caster Dies?

The Find Familiar spell does not specify what happens to a familiar when its spellcaster perishes. Seemingly, the familiar would persist as normal.

List of Familiars Available in D&D 5e

You can describe and flavor a familiar however you like, but it’ll need to use the stats of a beast within Find Familiar’s criteria (with some exceptions). Let’s explore which stat blocks familiars can use. I include special skills, including senses like Darkvision and Blindsight, for familiars in D&D 5e.

  • Bat
    • Flying, blindsight, and keen hearing (SO good)
  • Cat
  • Crab
    • Amphibious, blindsight
  • Frog (toad)
  • Hawk
    • Flying, keen sight
  • Lizard
  • Octopus
    • Excellent for underwater with its stealthy camouflage and ink cloud.
    • Notably, small size instead of tiny. This means it can clog up the battlefield better to hinder enemy movement options.
  • Owl
    • Flying (with Flyby), perceptive, stealthy, Darkvision, Keen Hearing and Sight (SO GOOD).
  • Poisonous snake
    • Blindsight, potential poison harvesting (heavy DM discretion).
  • Fish (quipper)
  • Rat
  • Raven
    • Flying, Mimicry
  • Sea horse
  • Spider
    • Climbing, stealthy, unique web senses
  • Weasel

Familiars for Pact of the Chain Warlocks

Players who choose Pact of the Chain for their Warlocks receive four “greater” options for their familiars:

  • Imp
    • Flying, Devil’s Sight, potential poison harvesting (heavy DM discretion), invisibility, disguises, damage mitigation (barely matters), magic resistance
  • Pseudodragon
    • Stealthy, perceptive, Blindsight, Darkvision, Keen Senses, potential poison harvesting (heavy DM discretion)
  • Quasit
    • Scare, potential poison harvesting (heavy DM discretion), invisibility, disguises, damage mitigation (barely matters), magic resistance
  • Sprite
    • Flying, perceptive, stealthy, invisibility, Heart Sight

Familiars with Darkvision

Several familiars have Darkvision or Blindsight as special senses. See my summaries above to explore your options.

What Is the Best Familiar in D&D 5e?

The best familiars are Owl, Bat, and Octopus. Raven and Crab can be fun, too.

The Pact of the Chain Warlock familiar options are clearly very useful, but they’re not basic familiars.

Can You Have a Flying Monkey as a Familiar in D&D 5e?

Not explicitly, but you can describe any familiar as being something else. You can pretend an owl, for example, is a flying monkey. The familiar is mechanically an owl, but narratively a flying monkey.

Helping Players Remember Their Familiars

A common problem with familiars, sidekicks, and pets is that players forget they have them. You can help players remember their familiars in several ways.

A miniature (bought or 3D printed) can help players remember their familiars. A physical representation is difficult to forget, particularly if you’re playing on a map or some other visual medium. Aside from that, a player can use a plushie or doll to have at the game to represent the familiar, possibly on the table if small enough.

When playing online, players can have a token for their familiar or incorporate a familiar in their character art. They can still keep miniatures or plushies next to them on their desk, table, or wherever they play virtually.

Familiars Are Fun!

Whether you’re roleplaying a familiar in downtime or commanding it during combat, familiars can appeal to anyone. You can express your creativity through your utilization of your little buddy. Pets are fun, but familiars are even better.

As an interesting note, the existence of familiars comes with implications in worldbuilding. They make excellent spies, so people may slay small animals on sight. Sad to think about!

How do you roleplay your familiar? What combat utility do you deploy with your familiar? Cast Message in the comments section to tell me all about it! I enjoy hearing about player creativity and DM experience.

You can learn about Warlock patrons that may grant interesting familiars in this next article. Familiars go well with witches, so here’s how to play a witch in D&D 5e.

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