This article was first broadcast in Episode Two on 6th December, 2017.
“You did well in your scouting, Sir Fluffykins, though I could have used less detail about that mouse’s nest you found,” Aristobulus grinned at his familiar.
“Meow,” replied Sir Fluffykins wittily, because he was a cat and only had 3 intelligence.
5e’s Find Familiar is a useful spell, allowing a spellcaster to summon a magical animal companion to assist them in their adventuring, as well as letting the character partake in a fine storytelling and magical tradition going back millennia. However, while many literary familiars are intelligent and capable of speech, 5e’s familiars are limited to the intelligence of the shape they take, which is to say animal intelligence. While this isn’t terribly limiting as far as game mechanics go, it makes it more difficult for the player to express the interplay between master and familiar. Aladdin’s Jafar would not have been nearly as interesting if Iago had been limited to a common parrot’s speech ability.
The familiar can communicate with its master, just not verbally. By means of the telepathic link shared between the master and familiar, they can converse normally, although the familiar is still limited by their intelligence. A cat can tell you that it’s seen a bunch of men, and some of them have horses, not that it’s spotted a mix of infantry and cavalry. But since all the familiar can say aloud is typical animal noises, it’s harder to create a personality for it that can be appreciated by the rest of the party. That said, most pet owners can testify how each of their pets has its own personality; it doesn’t need speech to make its feelings, preferences, personality, and quirks known. Here are some techniques to help your party members get familiar with your familiar, even though it can’t talk to them.
One technique would be to use the familiars available vocalizations. In other words, it expresses itself with hisses, squawks, growls, purrs, chirps, and other noises appropriate to the animal in question. Approval is registered with positive noises and disapproval with negative ones, helping to establish its likes and dislikes verbally. With this technique, the familiar is primarily responding to cues from other players, like the cat hissing when the party brings up the possibility of swimming across a river, or the owl hooting happily at the possibility of nighttime action. As a bonus, these interjections rarely require a response from the rest of the party, helping to keep the roleplay going with minimal sidetracking potential.
Sometimes the familiar can express its preferences just by what it does. The lizard basks near the campfire coals, the raven nudges aside polished coins and gems to pluck out the shard of stained glass it prefers, the hawk finds the highest sheltered spot to settle in for the night. Your familiar knows what it likes and it dislikes, and acts on it. Some aspects will come naturally from a particular animal’s disposition, such as a cat’s aversion to water, while others will be distinct to the individual. Still others might come in defiance of the familiar’s current form; a familiar that usually takes the form of an owl might occasionally forget it can’t fly while it’s a cat. By seeing occasionally what your familiar does or what it avoids, the party will start to see it as another character instead of an accessory.
Though the familiar is unable to speak aloud, it can communicate telepathically with its master, and while the master can respond in kind, responding verbally gives the player a chance to imply what the familiar has said.
“Yes, I’m sure that rabbit would be tasty, but you’re supposed to be watching for orcs.”
“Heh, with that many shiny things, he probably is part-raven.”
“That’s hair, not webbing, but yes, it is beautiful.”
By making a good “response” to an unspoken comment, the rest of the party can infer what the familiar “said”, giving them insight to the familiar’s personality…or sometimes just a good laugh.
“I know it’s a rat, but do not eat the Lord High Wizard’s familiar!”
While these methods are effective, there are some issues that can come up from using them. The first is concentration; the player needs to monitor conversation not only for points their character would respond to, but also cues their familiar would react to. While practice will help with this, at first it can help to focus on only a few cues for the familiar to react to, like the cat objecting to getting wet. As the player grows more comfortable with the familiar’s quirks, they can start adding other cues they would look for in party conversation. Another potential issue is that some animal choices for familiars don’t vocalize,or are alien enough that the rest of the party may be unsure how to interpret the familiar’s reaction. What noise does a spider or octopus make? Is that crab clicking its claws in an approving or disapproving fashion? Can that fish even hear what’s being said, much less respond in a meaningful fashion? For these kinds of familiars, using the master’s responses will be the most valuable technique for expressing its personality.
The two biggest factors to watch out for, though, are moderation and impact. D&D is about the adventures of the party, not just the antics of the wizard and his familiar. While some scenes will benefit from more interplay between the master and familiar, there are times when that interplay would take the spotlight away from other players. Likewise, just because an interaction is possible doesn’t make it interesting. Interrupting tense negotiations with the chancellor to inform everyone that your lizard has just eaten a bug is just not going to sit well with anyone. Unless that bug is relevant to the plot, people won’t appreciate the distraction. When big things are in motion, interruptions by or about the familiar should be short and relevant; during downtimes or interludes, a random interaction is fine, but one should try to keep it interesting.