D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

Many Dungeons & Dragons players love animal companions for their characters, but the game’s fifth edition suffers uneven support for the archetype. Only specific character builds gain access to pets, and creating a character with an effective companion often requires a deep understanding of the game. For instance, of all the game’s class archetypes, the Beast Master ranger earns the most criticism for being too weak. To make beast masters able to hold their own, players must make some canny choices. More on that at the end.

The best route to an animal companion depends on what you want your companion to do. The more capable the pet, the more limited your options. A friendly mascot for your adventuring party hardly requires anything, but a pet capable of battling alongside a higher-level character confines you to just a few character options.

Ask yourself what you want from your pet. This post tells how to find the right creature companion.

For a friend or mascot, befriend and train a creature. In a tweet, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford writes, “Want your D&D character to have a pet or companion? Here’s a little secret: You don’t need special rules for this. Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy, as long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

Dungeon masters: When players encounter hostile animals, the characters may try to make friends instead of fighting. Players love turning an angry beast into a mascot or companion to the party. Players attracted to this strategy love seeing it succeed. Treat the creature as a non-player character. As with any tag-along character, the best such animal companions prove useful, but never overshadow characters.

For a horse or similar mount, play a paladin. At level 5, paladins gain the ability to cast Find Steed which summons a spirit that takes the shape of a horse or similar mount. At level 9, Find Greater Steed brings a flying steed such as a Griffin. This mount lasts until you dismiss it or until it drops to 0 hit points. You and your mount can communicate telepathically.

The Find Steed spells share a feature and flaw with many of D&D’s pets. Rather than gaining a live companion worthy of an emotional attachment, the spell brings a spirit. The spiritual steeds boast the intelligence of Maximus, the determined horse in Tangled, but I wish for personality to match too.

In an interview, D&D Designer Mike Mearls said, “Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.” In fifth edition, the designers mainly chose the advantages of spirit companions.

Still, nothing says your spirit mount can’t show personality. Perhaps particularly brave and true horses serve in the afterlife as a paladin’s steed. Now I want to play a paladin who struggles with temptation paired with a horse whose spirit mission includes dragging my hero out of the tavern before he has one too many.

For a scout, helpful distraction, or spell conduit, learn Find Familiar. I’ve seen enough familiars in play to witness their utility, but before researching this post, I still underestimated their power. 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 made better use of familiars, the spell would count as broken.

Find Familiar lets you summon a spirit animal in a variety of forms: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish, rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Just about every animated sidekick matches something on the list of familiars. Want to play like an animated Disney hero with a wise or comical critter for a companion? Sadly, familiars can’t talk. The designers really missed an opportunity here. Even players who claim they can’t do voices can do a toad voice. It’s so fun.

Still, your sidekick can help. Try these uses:

  • Use your flying, creeping, or swimming critter to scout, while you watch through its eyes. My players used a familiar to explore five levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods while the party stood safely in the first hall. Doors stopped the creature, but so much of that dungeon stands open.

  • Use your flying familiar to perform the Help action on the battlefield, giving allies advantage on attack rolls. Eventually, an annoyed monster will smack down your bird, but that’s one less attack on friends, which may save a 50 gp healing potion. Re-summoning the familiar costs 10 gold, which counts as money well spent.

  • Use your flying familiar to target touch spells from a distance. For clerics who heal through touch, gaining a flying familiar might justify the cost of a feat. Play a grave cleric with a raven familiar.

  • Use your familiar to channel damaging spells like Dragon’s Breath. Familiars can’t attack, but with help, your little toad can spew acid in a 15-foot cone.

To gain a familiar, select one of these options:

  • Wizard: Learn Find Familiar
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Chain
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Tome and the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation. You get two level 1 rituals, plus the ability to inscribe any class ritual.
  • Bard: Choose the Lore archetype and use the Magical Secrets feature to learn the Find Familiar spell at 6th level. Or at level 10, any bard can use Magical Secrets to learn the spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Magic Initiate feat to get a 1st-level spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Ritual Caster feat to get any ritual spells.

For a more dangerous familiar, play a Pact of the Chain warlock. Warlocks who opt for the Pact of the Chain can choose an imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite as a familiar. These hardly count as animal companions. But unlike animal familiars, these creatures can attack—although after level 9 their bites and stings and tiny arrows amount to little. All these creatures fly and most turn invisible, so they make particularly good spies and spell conduits.

For an unusual mount, play a Beast Master ranger and a small character. Neither a familiar nor a paladin’s steed count as true animals. For a flesh and blood animal companion, opt for the Beast Master ranger archetype.

A small beast master such as a halfling or gnome can ride their medium animal companion as a mount. Ride a wolf for its pack tactics, 40-foot speed, and cool factor. Ride a giant wolf spider for its climb speed, poison bite, and creep factor. Ride a giant poisonous snake for its brazenly phallic implications.

For a partner in battle, play a Beast Master ranger and a creepy, crawly beast. Beast masters’ animal companions earn a reputation for weakness. At level 3, when the companion arrives, the poor beast has merely adequate hit points. As the party levels, the creature will have fewer hit points and worse AC than the wizard, despite having to fight in melee. Meanwhile, the wizard’s familiar makes a better scout.

The Beast Companion class description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4. If you want such a pet, follow Jeremy Crawford’s suggestion and train a creature to be your friend. Or spend a feat learning Find Familiar.

Unfortunately, warm, fuzzy, charismatic beasts like lions, tigers, and bears have size and challenge ratings that disqualify them as animal companions. If you want a furry friend, wolves rank as decent and panthers as adequate. But the very best companions make some folks say ick. For a pet that makes an able battle partner, choose one of these options:

  • A flying snake offers a 60-foot fly speed, flyby attack, and poison damage.
  • A giant crab brings decent AC, Blindsight 30 ft., grappling, and a swim speed. Plus, I understand such companions perform calypso-flavored musical numbers.
  • A giant wolf spider boasts Blindsight 10 ft., a climb speed, and poison.
  • A giant poisonous snake offers Blindsight 10 ft., a swim speed, and poison.

Dungeon masters: As special non-player characters, allow rangers’ animal companions to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points.

With the D&D rules as written, animal companions lack the armor proficiency required to wear barding without suffering disadvantage on attacks, checks, and saves. Nonetheless, I doubt allowing a few extra points of AC breaks anything. Besides, cats in armor look adorable.

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12 Responses to D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

  1. Arggh, I’m going to have to be a aguafiestas here (party pooper!), and say “please drop the animal companions D&D players!” Nothing boils my blood more than a f**king rabbit / bat / gerbil performing a role that an actual PC should be playing, such as scouting. And on top of that why should I have to wait twice as long for one player to act, because they are controlling two creatures at the table instead of one, like every other more considerate player?

    I’m sure this will cue some comments from other readers about that unforgettable and hilarious time Humperdinck the hamster saved the entire party blah blah blah…. but no, no, and thrice no!

    • Robert Verhagen says:

      Which is why animal companions/familiars were written into D&D as “special abilities” that is limited to only certain characters (e.g. a Wizard’s spell). If they were not special abilities, then every single PC would have one all the time, and each one would steal the limelight, take up tabletop gaming time, etc. Could you imagine (as a DM) processing a single combat round with 5 PCs and their 5 animal companions/familiars running amok?

      • I love the fact the Beastmaster in the PH sucks as that put a stop to some annoying characters for sure and maybe demonstrated that the designers realised the problems animal companions can cause (ie. no one by the companion owner enjoys having them around). However, they kept Find Familiar and don’t think we can classify that as a special ability. Using just a 1st level spell slot once in a while (or not, as you can cast it as a ritual), and you have a creature that can act autonomously and go around usurping the roles of other PCs and gaining quick and cheap wins for the party to the detriment of the game.

        As the author of this post shows it’s an incredibly powerful spell… and IMHO by far the most annoying one in D&D.

  2. Matt says:

    Find familiar is such a powerful ability. It does like 6 things crammed into a single 1st level spell that you don’t even have to cast every day like mage armor! (Wizards don’t even need to have it prepared to cast!) It’s ability to be a ranged, flying, tiny scout has caused me a lot of grief.

    It also has some vagueness in how it’s written. Sure, a lot of things do, but I seem to find a lot of edge cases where I have to make rulings on how this spell works. (Did you know it’s sort of written that you can use it as a way to find secret doors? By poofing your familiar in behind a wall? “you can cause it to reappear in any unoccupied space within 30 feet of you.”)

    That being said, I don’t really have a problem with animal companions and I wish there was a bit more support in how to raise and tame them RAW. I seem to only run 2 types of table: groups with 3 players, where every little bit helps, or a table with 8 players, where I need people to stop trying to bring MORE characters into the session.

  3. Seven says:

    When used correctly Find Familiar is way over powered. My owl scouts ahead so we dont get ambushed, my owl flies down the tunel triggering the glyph, my owl scouts the dungeon as I watch . Oh it dies ok I ritualy cast let’s burn an hour. I disallowed aid another in combat for familiars and my player try not to abuse the power they grant, but I miss the old days when you suffered a consequence when your familiar died

    • Robert Verhagen says:

      Back in the Good Old Days, when a familiar died, the Character’s eyes bled, and he permanently lost 2 points of Constitution! Ok so maybe this isn’t exactly accurate, but things had consequences in the good old days.

      • This is my problem with animal companions. They can end up upstaging the actual PCs. Imagine being a rogue in a party that has a familiar. You may as well tear up your character and go home.

        Meanwhile setting off traps with a familiar is clever (well it’s obvious actually) but it’s hardly interesting. Danger is what makes the game exciting. By hardcoding a way of avoiding it (with Find Familiar), the designer made the game a lot worse.

        Not to mention familiars are also a nightmare for DMs and adventure writers. What could be a fascinating problem or conundrum can often be solved by sending in a bat, owl or gordon the gecko to do the dirty work while the PCs twiddle their thumbs. Is that fun? Not for me…

  4. Ilbranteloth says:

    Why can’t a spirit have a personality? Gwenhwyver was a magic item, but had a personality and sting connection to Drizzt.

    Having a personality is up the the player. It has nothing to do with being a “flesh and blood” creature that only exists in our imagination.

  5. Gondlar says:

    As a rogue, you can also play an Arcane Trickster and then get Find Familiar at 3rd level as the one non-Illusion/Evocation spell. You can pratically scout at two places at once and the Familiar ca grant you your Sneak Attack with the help action.

  6. tripleagoth says:

    My players collect pets like mad. They currently have a snake, a stolen warhorse from Cormyr, a bison, an owl, Meepo the kobold, a giant chicken, and a harmonic hedgehog. None but the hedgehog have ANY abilities, they’re strictly flavor, and often get left behind when the characters go dungeon delving. The hedgehog can cast the equivalent of a magic missile spell, but strictly to save himself. This way, the balance doesn’t get thrown out of whack, but they still get to rescue, adopt, and steal whatever interesting animals they may come across. I was astonished last week, they freed a dinosaur in Chult and didn’t try to adopt it. I doubt my luck will hold.

  7. Educational DM says:

    I always loved Alan Dean Foster’s Pip and Flinx books, so a flying snake always appealed to me.
    I have a Tabaxi that has a canary for the amusement factor. For stat purposes, it was a reskinned owl with it’s fly-by ability without provoking an attack of opportunity. Reskinning existing familiar stats gives players much flexibility in flavouring their familiars.

  8. Larissa says:

    The find greater steed of a paladin is what i believe a 4th level spell, so they won’t get acces to it until lvl 13. So for the greater steed I would almost say take a bard and take that at lv10, because for a paladin is a long wait. The normal steed is fine tho. It’s cheaper than buying a horse

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