OK, why mess with Find Familiar? Easy answer: the spell’s fun. It’s always been fun. It’s one of the most fun spells in the history of D&D (when it was a spell; sometimes it was a fun feat). But in 5e, it gets less fun, because it gets weak as you level. At level 1, it is one of the most powerful spells in the game. By 5th, it’s running with the pack and by 10th, it’s in the back of the pack. Higher, it’s trivial. As one person put in on a forum, even if you level up the creature called, at later levels, it’s just an accouterment for a character’s outfit. It just doesn’t scale. Other spells do. It doesn’t.
OK, well, can’t we have fun with a weak spell? In Advanced D&D, 2e, and 3e, absolutely. But with 4e and 5e, not so much. In design, “balance” now means much more than storytelling. So now, yeah, fun things need to be useful. And as I’ve read on the Internet (so it must be true), Find Familiar was de-powered for the same reason that the Ranger class got messed up—that is, the design team was overacting to overpowering summoning in previous versions.
So, it needs to be homebrewed (so that it scales when cast using a higher spell slot). Many people agree as no other spell gets so much homebrew attention. Everyone wants to mess with it. WotC does too as they’ve tried to fix their mistake by adding new spells—Create Homunculus and to a lesser extent Find Greater Steed, and the ridiculous Flock of Familairs. But these and the homebrews I’ve seen don’t fix it and familiars still end up as “accouterments.” The reason is the spell doesn’t call a familiar; it calls a spy-pet. A spy-pet is great at lvl 1. At level 15…nah. Most of the homebrews change the spell to call creatures with higher CRs, but while that isn’t a bad thing, it just gives you a bigger spy-pet, so now you’ve got a wolf instead of a cat. Shrug. The other most common is to allow the familiar to level up–gain hit dice, +2 to abilities, etc. Again, not a terrible idea, but just gives you a stronger spy-pet and high level casters can already summon much stronger things. A familiar is supposed to protect the caster and aid in casting/learning to cast magic. A bit of spying is fine, but it’s primary purpose shouldn’t be spying or using the help action to give your allies advantage. You want a spy-pet? Be the crappy Ranger they’ve designed. I want a familiar.
So, for homebrewing, up-casting Find Familiar should:
1—Allow for slightly “better” creatures, CR-wise.
2—Give some color and flair to the familiar
3—Decrease its use as a spy-pet/meat-shield/ally-helper
4—Make it directly helpful to the caster with magic
Will this all make for a longer and more complex spell? Sure, but anyone who wants to use it will be happy to dwell on this.
#1 is easy. Just allow more creatures, and when Find Familiar is cast with a higher level slot, allow for higher CR. Now I’d stick to Tiny and Small creatures (so it can sit on your shoulder), but, historically (IRL) horses have been familiars, so, up to you, but I like Tiny and small. As for the CR, allow 1/8 CR with a 2nd level slot, ¼ CR with a 4th, etc. If you care about stepping on the toes of the Chainlock (and why would you care about that? Really?), then cut it off at ½ CR, but I’d go to 1, and others online suggest higher. But since it doesn’t actually make much difference, all you really need to do is open it up a bit (so we can get the monkey, raccoon, tressym, and almiraj in!)
#2 is easy as well. First, give the familiar a cantrip. Specifically one of Prestidigitation, Thaumaturgy, or Druidcraft. This will cause zero balance problems as they are 90% for show. But come on, having your cat clean your clothing with Prestidigitation, your Frog let out a super-loud belch with Thaumaturgy, and your Bat lighting a candle when you are reading are all just fun. ABSOLTUELY DO THIS. The other thing is to let players design their familiar. How about a tiny elephant? A hand (The Addams Family’s Thing)? Familars are spirits, not creatures, so they can look like anything. As long as they aren’t given any scores/skills way outside of what the current ones get (nothing faster than the hawk, around 2 skills, etc), it’s fine.
#3 is easy too, but meaner as here I’d take away power from the familiar (so don’t do this unless you are doing #4) by returning an old idea to the game. That is, your familiar dying hurts you. I’m not suggesting anything as extreme as Advanced D&D had, where you lost permanent points. A good option would be the caster taking the familiars hits worth of damage when it dies (a good choice if you choose to allow familiars to level as many homebrewers do—if the familiar has 5 hit dice, you’ll feel that damage). I like the idea of imposing a negative condition when it dies, such as the caster is “mentally” poisoned until it makes a WIL save (incapacitated, stunned, or unconscious also work if you want to be meaner). This will keep the caster from sending the familiar into combat, including for the help action, particularly if the save is at a negative or multiple saves are required. Now, if doing this, the familiar needs to be protected under other circumstances (which I’ll get into in 4), so it doesn’t go dying from every AOL fireball tossed your way. Now you can allow the familiar to have the attack action because they won’t be using it. Not letting them attack was a silly game mechanic that’s main problem is everyone notices it’s a game mechanic. But if the caster is de-buffed when the familiar dies, he’s going to be keeping it away from battle. Which means a cat can scratch a peasant who tries to kick it, which it can’t do now.
#4 is not so easy. The idea is to have familiars protect and aid with casting, so here are a few options. I’m not expecting you to use all of them—just some. Unless you choose the last. Then take them all:
4-1. Give it the Arcana skill. It can help on Arcana checks and/or you get advantage on Arcana checks. IT’S A FAMILIAR! THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE DOING
4-2. A familiar may be used as a focus (Again, IT’S A FAMILIAR! THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE DOING)
4-3. +1 INT for each spell slot lvl above 1st. (IT’S A FAMILIAR! IT’S SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON).
4-4. Fix the gaming mechanic for it casting your touch spells. Move the familiar’s Initiative to always come after the caster’s or wrap their turns together, and drop the requirement of using the caster’s reaction. The way it is currently slows the game. This isn’t a big deal because unless you have healing, you’re not doing this much anyway.
4-5. Allow the “Use their Senses” ability without requiring a standard action (either bonus action or none at all). In reality, this would 90% be used to gain dark vision (Dark vision, that thing that almost all characters have already, and if they don’t have, they buy goggles eventually). But come on, doing a cat-sniff-sense during a battle would be cute.
4-6. Add a “Still Mode” (as in 4e and as used in 5e for the UA Raven Queen Pact). When the familiar is parked on your shoulder (in your arms, etc), it can’t take regular actions/bonus actions/reactions, though it can still “talk” to you. In this state it cannot be targeted, except by you, and is immune to all damage. As a DM, you want this. Speeds up the game.
- While in Still Mode, it grants you a “buff”- normally Advantage on one skill check based on kind of familiar (since it can’t be taking help actions any more). So, Perception (based on sight) from a Hawk. Stealth from a cat. Perception is the expected from an Owl, but I’d go symbolic and give History. Others have made lists for this—again, comes from 3 & 4e, where it worked if the familiar was up to a mile away. (I’ve listed possible buffs below.)
- And if you won’t give #4-5’s “use their senses” without using up an action normally, do it when they are in Still Mode.
4-7. Level them. Add 1D4 to hits, +1 to saves, +2 to characteristics for each higher spell slot used. I am dubious on this, mainly because I think it adds complexity without real benefit. But, it’s what everyone suggests, and it shouldn’t hurt as long as you are using #3 (otherwise, it will be a meat-shield). I’d rather give them resistance to all damage and be done with it. Well, that and Immunity to Charm (Do this—no one should be able to take over your familiar).
4-8. Give the familiar spells. This can be done in cool ways without significant balance issues. Such as:
- Give it only Non-Damage doing cantrips. Look, Spare the Dying sucks. No 5th level Cleric who isn’t a disappointment to his mother will have this thing. He’ll just use Healing Word. Or anyone in your party will use a medical check. But, having your Raven fly down and land on your chest to stabilize you is kinda cool. Also Dancing Lights, because it’s a fun-ish spell that no spell caster would waste concentration on—but imagine a cat casting it to then chasing the lights around. Give it one cantrip per spell level used to call it.
- Give it low level spells from a list you choose (well, I’ve chosen one listed below). Give it spells that no caster would still have, like Sleep. Sleep is perfect as it’s of little value at high level, but it shouldn’t be completely forgotten. Plus, room for fun roleplay: You are ignoring your cat to talk to some guys in a pub. Cat decides to put them to sleep. Hey, familiar is loyal, but doesn’t mean it can’t be pushy. Sudden Awakening would be another good one. Also, defensive spells with range of Self—so only helps the familiar. Let this happen only when Find Familiar is cast as a 3rd level spell or higher so we know the chosen spells time is past..
- Give it Detect Magic IT’S A FAMILIAR! THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE DOING. Also other detection spells (Evil and Good).
4-9. Gives a plus to magic casting—either in the from of Disadvantage to your target’s spell saves (generally or for a specific type of spell), or you gain advantage on your spell saves when attacked, or a +1 to your spell DC. OK, this is different. Up to now, most of what I’ve suggested has been minor. This is major. This is the one that makes you keep around a familiar, This is where I’ll get accused of messing up balance and over-powering a spell even if I’m requiring a 5th level spell slot. So, some adjusting has to be done. 1st, I’d suggest this when the familiar is in still mode (so doesn’t work if he’s spying). Second, let’s think—there are things that already give this. Magic Items. And your familiar is magically connected to you. So, have it require an attunement slot. If you have a familiar called using a 4th level spot or higher, it uses up 1 attunement spot. So yes, a powerful ability, but that means no Staff of the Magi. Basically, Call Familiar at high levels becomes a much cooler way of getting a magic item, and yes, getting it via a familiar is cooler than going on a quest for an item because there’s more personality involved. Balance restored, and fun spell.
So – three ways you can go.
If Cautious – Spell Casting Familiar
Just adds some cantrips and a few spells. Very little effect on game or combat, but sparks up the fun a lot.
If Old-School – Buffing Familiar
Just adds Still Mode and skill buffs. Again, very little effect on game or combat, unless you add easy access to its senses, in which case, in practice, darkvision.
If Up for Change – True Familiar
Adds ability to aid spell casting but takes up an attunement slot.
My Homebrew Find Familiar
Here’s my version. Add to current spell:
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the familiar called gains the Arcana skill, gains one cantrip chosen from Prestidigitation, Thaumaturgy, or Druidcraft, gains the ability to attack, and gains Still Mode. In Still Mode the caster gains advantage on one skill dependent on the form of the familiar, and can switch to using the familiar’s senses without using an action. If the familiar dies, the caster is “mentally” poisoned until he makes 3 WIL saves.
The familiar gains +1 INT and may choose 1 cantrip (from the Familiar Spell list) for each slot level above 1st. Starting at slot level 3, it may gain a 1st level spell from the list (usable once per short rest) instead of a cantrip.
If you cast the spell using a 5th level slot or above, you may choose one school of magic; when your familiar is in Still Mode, opponents have disadvantage when saving from your spells of that school. This uses one attunement slot.
Familiar Spell List
• Blade Ward
• Control Flames
• Dancing Lights
• Encode Thoughts
• Mold Earth
• Shape Water
• Spare the Dying
• Animal Friendship
• Charm Person
• Comprehend Languages
• Detect Evil and Good
• Detect Magic
• Disguise Self
• Expeditious Retreat
• False Life
• Sense Emotion
• Speak with Animals
• Sudden Awakening
Familiar Buffs (in Still Mode)
All Buffs are in addition to one for Arcana. Each buff is advantage on the stated skill check.
Bat: Perception related to hearing
Cat: Stealth to move silently
Hawk: Perception related to sight
Lizard: Athletics to climb
Octopus: Stealth to hide
Poisonous snake: Deception
Rat: Perception related to smell
Rabbit: Acrobatics/Strength for jumping
Raccoon: Slight of Hand
Sea horse: Acrobatics in water
Tressym: Acrobatics for balance
Weasel: Perception related to hearing or smell