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.