Does find familiar rank as the most unbalanced spell in Dungeons & Dragons? For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players make good use of familiars, the spell rates a better value than fireball. But still, does it rate as unbalanced?
When designers aim to balance characters’ spells and abilities, they look to give each character equal time as the focus of attention—as the lead character contributing to the party’s success. Mainly, gamers question balance whenever one character proves so deadly in combat that the other players wonder why they showed up for the game. In a fight, a familiar can use the Help action to boost allies, but no one minds that support.
Instead, familiars can feel unbalanced during D&D’s exploration pillar. Smart players can use a bat or an owl to scout cave systems from end to end or to peer into every window of the villain’s lair. Such scouting isn’t limited to familiars. Druids can wild shape into a creature like a tiny spider and creep unnoticed through a dungeon. One of my players used an arcane eye to scout 5 levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods without ever leaving the entry hall. An arcane eye can’t pass solid objects, but that dungeon’s halls, caves, and central atrium mostly lack doors. The player controlling the eye could have exhausted the entire session spying, but noticed impatient players and called the scouting short. Nonetheless, for an hour or so, I frantically scanned the adventure trying to summarize the visible parts of 50 pages of dungeon. I don’t blame the scrying wizard for smart play, I love gaining familiars and scout for as long as the other players’ patience can bear.
Familiars, wild shaping druids, and scrying wizards all challenge dungeon masters to reward smart play and the players who choose scouting abilities, without turning the rest of the party into passive bystanders who wonder why they showed up. Stealthy or invisible characters can also scout and create similar challenges. Finding a good balance proves difficult because no approach works for every dungeon and lair.
What tricks can help DMs strike the right balance?
1. Include doors and window covers.
The sort of creatures able to spy unnoticed typically lack the strength or thumbs needed to open doors, so the best limit to scouting becomes snug doors. Create dungeons with enough open paths to reward short scouting trips, but enough doors to force characters ahead. If a player quibbles that surely some doors leave gaps for a mouse or spider, roll and let the dice decide.
As for my own character’s favorite trick of sending an owl to peer into windows, consider balancing the temptation of open windows with a few drapes, shutters, soot stains, and just dark interior rooms.
2. Scout between sessions.
I like to end each session by asking for players to outline their plans for the next session. This helps my preparation. Also, if the players plan to tackle a dungeon or stronghold, you can handle scouting either through a 1-on-1 mini session or just by sketching a players’ map and planning a quick summary of discoveries for the full group. If that seems too passive, you can ask the scout to make, say, a stealth check and base the amount of information on their degree of success or failure.
3. Consider dungeon inhabitants.
Monsters and even ordinary critters can create a barrier to spying. Players scouting in a beast shape or using a familiar tend to dismiss the risk of something noticing or attacking a bat or spider. As a dungeon master, be clear about the risks and the checks a scouting critter might need to make to pass dungeon predators.
When familiars or characters scout alone, encounters that would never challenge a party or even a single adventurer can create interesting dilemmas. A servant who spots a cat prowling the manor might put a character or familiar in a pickle simply by closing the window leading out.
For creatures as small as a spider, consider adding wandering monsters, vermin really, that might try to make a meal of the scout. Sure, a cave centipede poses no risk to a druid, but in spider shape, the druid faces a choice of retreat or the price of shifting to humanoid form to squash the critter. As with any wandering monsters, I recommend making the rolls for an encounter openly. For such encounters, don’t bother creating a list of potential monsters. Just imagine one creature that suits the environment capable of forcing the scout to weigh risks and rewards.
4. Split the party.
Occasionally, entertain the idle players waiting for the scouting to finish by giving both the waiting characters and the scout something to do. By “something to do,” I mean fight. And by “entertain,” I mean threaten their characters’ lives. Characters waiting for scouts to return still face risks from patrols or wandering monsters. The most entertaining situations engage both the scout and the remaining party at the same time. In these predicaments, follow my advice for handling split parties.
These split-party jams work best when they feel like the natural consequence of a risky situation when both the scout and the waiting party know monsters lurk nearby. If scouting leads to a pattern of attacks from behind, players will feel punished for smart play. Still, the invisible, flying, or wild-shaped scout who presses their luck too far can lead to some of the game’s most exciting moments.
Also keep in mind that glass is expensive and not frequently used for windows, and when it was it wasn’t clear. Windows often had no covering, but linen, horn, or other coverings that weren’t transparent let light in were more common than glass.
As for things like spiders, they would take forever to Scott a sizeable area.
Rather than have the other players do nothing, keep engaged with them in what they are doing while waiting. Such long-term scouring shouldn’t end because the players are impatient or bored, but when the PCs are.
Point 3: There has been a lot of incense consumed in one of the campaigns I’m running. Monster AoEs galore, so that familiars aren’t always around.
The Tome of the Chain familiars present a particular difficulty for “normal” predators due to invisibility, but AoE traps also make their use risky.
All that said, I love familiar scouting as a “realistic” means of getting villains to divulge plans to the players unknowingly.
None of this was a major problem in 1st Edition. Wizard Eye was a 4th level spell lasting 1 round per level and only 3″ of movement (30′) per round. Magic-users were harmed if their familiars were too far away (and in mortal peril if the familiar was killed). Crystal Balls required knowing something about the scrying target. Face it, the rules gave into player “unfun” demands over time, resulting in too little player challenge. Yes, I am a cranky old gamer. Get off of my lawn.
All these four tips are practical. In my experience, once the Wizard gets to Arcane Eye if the terrain is open and lacking doors, the best option is to do it between sessions. These long range, invisible sensors eat up hours of play time scouting and are hard to counter. This has the added advantage that it is up to the Wizard to share with others what he saw or not.
The issue is not limited to Wizards. In 5e or the Druid at those levels can summon fey to get a scout cloud of invisible, intelligent sprites that serve for an hour and can bring back information, or at spell level 5, either can conjure up an elemental to do the scouting. In dungeon environments especially earth elementals are effective, as they can move through rock. I started ruling that they are blind in rock, and have a hard time to exactly navigate, and that such movement makes rumbling noises that require at least as much stealth checks to go unnoticed, unless several meters of the surface, to curb it a bit and allow the dungeon dwellers to become aware something is going on or take countermeasures.
Regarding the Familiar, in our campaign, combining the familiar with invisibility is a regular tactic to reduce the risk of them dying during scouting ahead. If they are not scouting, you can pop them out of danger by temporarily dismissing them. We also use the bat form to detect invisible foes liek gelatineous cubes or invisble stalkers. For us, the value of the Familiar as a powerful scouting device is so high, we rarely if ever let it engage in combat to avoid the hassle of re-summoning it. Out in the open, a hawk flying high overhead makes ambushes next to impossible. At night, you can have the familiar make watch while you sleep, and wake you if something happens, oblivating the need for an alarm spell. As an aside, Darkness in the room won’t do much against an owl with Darkvision to a range of 120 feet. You need shutters, curtains etc.
I personally think the Familiar as written is overpowered, mostly due to the fact that you can have it appear within 30 feet even in an area that you cannot see. This allows multiple exploits: you can penetrate walls, windows, and doors in scouting, by popping the familiar in on the other side. Togeher with you moving, on the outside, you can scout out most mansions that are not surrounded by a large walled court, from attic to cellar. You can probe for secret doors, rooms or compartments, by trying to pop it in there — if there is no space but solid rock, nothing will happen, if there is space, it will appear. You even can teleport through walls and doors with Misty Step at level two (pop in the familiar, as an action look through its eyes, as your bonus action Misty Step to an area “you can see” within 30 feet).
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