DM’s Guide to Familiars

Perhaps it is a classic black cat. Maybe an owl or a bat, but chances are high that at least one member of your party has a familiar. If you struggle with the difference between a familiar and a pet, what familiars can and cannot do, and how to use the “help” action, then you aren’t alone. Familiar’s can perform these basic actions:
  • Obey commands (any simple action that is not an attack)
  • Communicate telepathically if it is within 100 feet
  • See and hear through the familiar
  • Cast specific spells

What is a “Familiar?”

Players can choose the form of their familiar
D&D 3.5e defines familiars as “normal animals that gain new powers and become magical beasts when summoned by a sorcerer or wizard.” However, this changes a bit for 5e. However, D&D 5e defines a familiar as, “a spirit that takes the animal form you choose.” This definition doesn’t really change the function of a familiar, but it does change the flavor of the role play. Instead of finding an animal and binding a spirit to it, you now simply summon a spirit and make it look like an animal. Because the familiar is no longer a normal animal, recasting the spell allows you to change the appearance of the familiar. In 3.5e, whatever your familiar animal started as is what it stayed, making 5e familiars much more versatile. In a situation that requires dark-vision? Make your familiar an owl. Need a swimmer? Make your familiar a fish. Ect. This mechanic makes familiars less of a companion/sometimes useful alley into a swiss army knife of intelligence gathering. Which, admittedly, can get frustrating for DMs. Granted, the spell “Find Familiar” that allows players to do this does take one hour to cast, making this less of an option at times; however, this is seldom a deterrent.

Find Familiar Spell

You can find the spell itself at Roll20 here, but here are the basics:
  • 1 hour cast time (ritual)
  • Range: 10 feet
  • Components: 10 gold worth of charcoal, incense, and herbs which are consumed by the spell
  • Class: Wizard
  • When you cast the spell, you gain the service of a spirit in the form of an animal
  • The familiar acts independently of its master and rolls its own initiative
  • Familiars cannot attack
  • As long as the familiar is within 100 feet of its summoner, the player that summoned the familiar can see and hear through the familiar. This counts as an action. During this time, the summoner is considered both deaf and blind to your own senses.
  • The familiar can be dismissed to a pocket dimension (this costs an action). It can then be resummoned to any unoccupied space within 30 feet of the summoner.
  • The summoner can choose a new form for their familiar only by recasting the spell “Find Familiar”
  • Familiars can cast spells with a range of touch for the summoner. The familiar must use its reaction to do so and must be within 100 feet. If the spell requires an attack roll, the player will use their own modifier for the attack.
Looking for a way to make your wizard’s familiar a part of the party? Try giving them a personality! Here is a handy Random Familiar Personality Chart I made! Feel free to download it!

What Can Familiars Do?

I have seen players try to do a lot of crazy stuff with familiars. Some of it was pure genius, other times, it was pure chaos. The question becomes, what exactly can a familiar do? While I cannot address all possible situations, here are a few examples to help you make decisions in your own campaign.
Yes, A familiar can: NO, a familiar cannot:
Rub up against an enemy and cast inflict wounds Be summoned inside the body of an enemy
Speak telepathically to its master Speak telepathically to other members of the party
Cast a spell with a range of touch Cast any other ranged spell
Take the “help” action, this means a familiar can gnaw through ropes, get a set of keys, distract the guards, or do any other normal action the player can conceive. Attack directly in any way, shape or form. An attack is considered

Animal Companions vs Familiars

Having an animal companion is not the same as having a familiar.
Some classes and backgrounds (such as ranger and urchin) grant players animal companions. These companions are fundamentally different from a familiar in a few key ways.
  • They are actual animals, not just animal forms. This means that the animal companion dies when they reach 0 hit points, as opposed to simply disappearing.
  • Animal companions can attack. Unlike familiars, animal companions can take the “attack” action as well as any other help action. However, the animal has its own stats. This means that when it attacks, it uses its own attack stats, not its master’s, unlike the familiar that uses its master’s attack stats.
  • Unlike familiars, animal companions cannot cast any spells, communicate telepathically, or be used to hear and/or see for its master.
Animal companions are useful and can create amazing role-play opportunities, but they are not familiars and cannot be used as such. They are fundamentally different.

When Familiars Go Too Far

There are times when players take familiars too far. In these cases, the overuse of a familiar can effective the overall gameplay in a negative way. Here are some examples I have seen and how to deal with them if they occur regularly in your own game.

Mapping Out the Dungeon

Since the summoner can look through the eyes of his/her familiar as long as it is within 100 feet, having the familiar map out the entire dungeon 100 feet at a time can be a problem. While I have no problem with players being cautious and using all the tools at their disposal, it is seldom entertaining for the other players who have to just sit and watch the wizard stare off into space for 10 minutes. There are a few ways around this.
  1. Ask the other players what they would like to do
While the wizard sits on the ground, staring into the dark, ask the rest of the party what they would like to do. I doubt you have an entire party that will wait patiently for him to finish up. There is probably at least one player that will go looking for trouble. Reward that player for looking around on his/her own with a neat trinket or an interesting item. When the others see this, you can bet they will start exploring on their own as well, making it less enticing to use the familiar constantly. 2. Use Magical Darkness or Kill the Familiar If you have an area you do not want the players to know about beforehand, then you can use magical darkness to prevent the familiar from exploring it. Alternatively, just before the familiar gets to the area you want to conceal, kill it. You can have a roper fall on it from the ceiling or a dark hand reach out and snatch it. However you want to do it, kill the familiar before it sees too much. Of course, the familiar isn’t really dead, it can be summoned again, which is why I don’t have a problem with this solution.


Familiars are an interesting and useful addition to D&D 5e, and many players are sure to use them. As the DM, they can be both a boon and a bane. As long as you know what they can and cannot do, you should be able to run your campaign with little interruption from these adorable companions. Until next time, May your game have advantage, my friends! -Halfling Hannah

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