Rolemaster Deconstruction: Familiars. How should they work?


Familiars are not only a staple of fantasy fiction but a core visual ingredient of Rolemaster book covers–specifically the ongoing series of Angus McBride covers from earlier RM books that featured a cast of PC’s with several small animal Familiars.

Familiars had a more sinister aspect in early fiction; most often a demonic imp, crow or other dark-aspected animal tied to an evil antagonist. Early D&D applied this concept to any M-U, and broadened it to a simple servitor or animalistic henchmen of a spell-caster.

First, let’s differentiate between “animal control” spells and “familiars”. Animal control spells are featured in the Animist, Beast Master, Druid and similar professional lists in Spell Law and Companions. These are spells that summon/call, control/master and sometimes allow the caster to sense through a controlled animal. These are all powerful affects, in in some ways SUPERIOR to the limitations and penalties associated with Familiars. So how does Rolemaster deal with Familiars? Fairly easily, in fact, so easy that it behooves a caster to immediately have one.

So why would a caster have a Familiar?

Familiars have a symbiotic connection to the caster where animal control is just a magical charm or affect on a creature. So what is the symbiotic relationship? What benefit does it provide besides cinematics? How does it work, mechanically via the rules?

The basic premise is that there is a REAL benefit to the caster, but at the cost of INVESTITURE. In other words, if the relationship is severed there is a real, physical or psychosomatic cost to the caster. Otherwise isn’t it just easier and less risk to control creatures when needed?

So what is the benefit, or possible benefits, of a familiar that differentiate it from other animal control spells? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Communication. The Familiar bond should allow for free two way communication between the caster and creature. This may not be actual “language” but at least a strong empathic bond.
  2. Awareness. The caster and familiar should have some base awareness in terms of location/distance of each other at all times.
  3. Shared Awareness. With concentration the caster might be allowed to project sensory ability and awareness through their Familiar.
  4. Control. The caster, with concentration, should be able to have some control over their familiar or, at least, give simple instructions for a Familiar to execute.
  5. Shared abilities. A caster might gain some extra-abilities through the Familiar relationship. Perhaps better vision, languages, strength, sensory etc. On the flip side, a Familiar could gain some intellectual ability bestowed by the Familiar bond.

Most of these benefits mirror other animal control spells. But those are temporary spell effects; a Familiar is permanent.

My belief is that GM’s are reluctant or adverse to Familiars. Why? Familiars are really NPC’s for the benefit of the PC’s. That really complicates the narrative.  GM’s not only have to manage normal NPC’s but a constant stream of Familiars that can upend the storyline unless the GM takes the Familiars into consideration!!! At that point, who is the audience? Additionaly, Familiars can change the challenge/reaction of normal adventures–familiars act as scouts or agents with heightened senses that can off-set the normal challenge-balance. At the least, Familiars can be the “canary in the coal mine” and alert the group of traps or other imminent obstacles.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Familiars are GM agents. You can better control the narrative through them.
  • They should be of animal intelligence. They may act with pro-forma intelligence via their caster, but their base ability should be simple animal intelligence.
  • Size. Should they be of smaller size? Should a caster have a bull as a familiar? Probably not. I would restrain the spell limits using the size rules to Small or less.
  • The penalty for losing a familiar should be EXTREME, or at least cautionary. The tie that binds should snap back accordingly and in proportion. This could be loss of temp CO. or even a permanent CO pt, a general activity penalty and even worse.

Again, this goes back to risk/reward. No GM wants to manage intelligent Familiars that run the unknown gauntlet, trip the traps and distract the monsters. At that point, who is playing? Familiars should be carefully hoarded resources–a cool benefit that needs to be defended! Are familiars a great resource in you game?

Of course, if easy and beneficial, every player will have a Familiar. But if the risks and rewards are balanced, would it be different? Maybe the whole concept should be reduced to a simplified, professional agnostic “Animal Bond” mechanic and spell list. That eliminates the whole D&D Magic-User familiar trope and become a generic but specific rule-set that could be used by a variety of PC’s or classes: Magician, Animist, Druid, Beast Master, Barbarian etc. What are your thoughts?




12 Replies to “Rolemaster Deconstruction: Familiars. How should they work?”

  1. I don’t think you should limit familiars to small size. I think for example of a Paladin’s horse as essentially a familiar. Or is there a difference between a familiar and an animal companion?

    1. Excellent! This is the point of my deconstruction blogs-question things that we take for,granted in RPGs. Yes, animal companions are really familiars. So rather than have “familiars”, “companions”and “bonds”, roll them into one spell list mechanic. Thats what im trying to do with BASiL.

  2. And,

    I think the entire investiture penalty is a terrible idea inherited from D&D, where it had begun life already a terrible idea.

    Having a familiar in RM requires a lot more investment than D&D: Choosing a spell list instead of some other list, dumping precious points into that list, and then more points to keep the familiar vaguely relevant.

    All that, so the GM can have an NPC who is a convenient and easy target that makes a PC vulnerable. In some systems, NPCs like *grant* points.

    For me, maybe the worst part of this kind of game design is that the more problems that having or losing a familiar can impose, the more extensive the benefits must be for a player to even consider it. That leads to a vicious cycle, encouraging the GM to compensate even further for those benefits by accentuating the problems, which of course….

    For me, a good design would tend as far as possible toward a pure benefit: Given the resources devoted to having a familiar, how good should it be? And, if further penalties can be accepted in order to also gain further benefits, why not let the player choose? If.

    I don’t think it’s an accident that the penalties for losing a familiar in D&D have trended steadily downward over the years, into insignificance. Or that other systems also have adopted that kind of approach, to the point of R2D2-like script immunity.

    Of course, those snowflake games cannot support the classic scene in which Harry Potter loses consciousness when the Slytherin cruelly pulp Hedwig, and then suffers massive penalties to all spellcasting for months and months due to residual trauma. What do you mean, you don’t remember that scene?

    Old school familiars: An idea whose time has passed.



    1. Ken, I’ve read through your post a few times now and you have great points. The never-ending cycle of “increase benefits -> increase penalties -> so increase the benefits -> but wait, increase the penalties… is very true . It’s ultimately self-defeating.

      One point in your post planted a seed of innovation into my brain!

      “For me, a good design would tend as far as possible toward a pure benefit: Given the resources devoted to having a familiar, how good should it be? And, if further penalties can be accepted in order to also gain further benefits, why not let the player choose? If.”

      The mage has to spend points in a list to summon a familiar (at the expense of another spell list or much needed skills), we accept that as something unavoidable to having a familiar. Make the changes to that list that allow the caster to “Increase sight, Increase carrying weight, grant caster sight, grant caster additional strength from the familiar, Grant familiar ability to channel a spell from the caster, etc.” The bonuses would be for the duration of the spell, not permanent. The penalty for losing the familiar could be reduced. The caster is allowed to choose which benefits the familiar grants.

      The familiar could be used more as a “tool” of sorts rather than GM fodder with horrible penalties. Imagine the caster transfers his strength bonus to a wispling and it can now lift a brick to drop on a guard. The caster is able to use the familiar as a conduit to cast the spell out of the wispling for a nifty back attack! Or conversely, the mage is able to send the wispling out and is able to see or to hear through the wispling’s senses. Perhaps the caster is able to gain the wispling’s Con bonus for extra HP for 5 rounds (more rounds at higher levels). The Caster could gain precious HP for a battle he couldn’t avoid. (Peter’s AT 1, OB 18 mage who was 2nd through the door). The caster can use the wispling’s PR/EM/IN bonus to gain a +5, +10 bonus to a spell attack.

      Because the caster is spending PP to take advantage of the familiar, the penalties for loss of familiar could easily be lowered. There could be a few lists that that focus on “Familiar Enhancements.” Enhance Familiar, Transfer to Familiar, Draw from Familiar, etc. There could be a profession for pure-spell users that focuses on Familiars. Ummm… Familiar Master? Familiar Tamer? Summoner Master? Familiar Keeper/Trainer?

      In the spirit of the original post… I’ve been gaming with a group of guys for about 4 years now who are hardcore D&D players. One player invariably takes a caster with a familiar and he knows how to wield that familiar like a brain surgeon with a laser scalpel. He knows the risks and the potential for the familiar and he does some amazing things with it. But he also knows to protect it and to call it back to safety to keep it alive. He’s very much aware of the penalties and he plans his moves accordingly. I think this may be a rare case as it’s very little work for the GM, although he does stimey the GM at times with the creative use of the familiar. That group of guys has been gaming together for 30+ years and they know each other well and know the gaming styles. In the brief time I’ve been part of that group, I’ve seen the familiar as a boon, a possible liability, but well played and very helpful. Could it be a little unbalancing? I think it was a couple of times in gameplay, but the GM adjusted the scenes to compensate for the Familiar being part of the party for the next session.

      1. You should check the Summoner profession in RMFRP Channeling Companion. The base spells allow for Summons, Familiars, Companions and Bonds.
        The most versatile is the bond, because there’s a whole list of abilities that can be activated.
        There’s also the concept of True Familiars in RMFRP Essence Companion, which enhances the power given, and I think it also increases the penalties.

  3. I like the ideas of #1 – #4. #5 I would flat out eliminate in my game. It simply grants too many bonuses without penalties to the caster.

    – The caster has a familiar, an extra NPC to the benefit of the party controlled by the player, not the GM. I treated summoned creatures as GM-controlled, familiars as more PC-controlled than GM-controlled. Wild animals are still wild animals regardless of a bond.
    – The caster can control the familiar unlike a Beastmaster’s called wild creature to which he has considerably less control
    – The caster also gains additional perks that are permanent (languages, vision, strength, whichever fits), unlike those temporary gains from controlling the called creature (senses, scouting, get that key, douse that candle…)
    – The familiar will also gain permanent bonuses from the caster (Intelligence, Strength, whatever)

    The bonuses to having a familiar with option #5 has just tripled with no increase in penalty for the death of the familiar. That is addressed later in the post though. The penalties should be commensurate with the loss of the familiar. Given the benefits have tripled, the penalties should be more than tripled. I say “more than tripled” because the loss of a familiar now, with RAW, is about triple the penalty vs. benefits. If the benefits are tripled now with option #5, the penalties would be crippling. I think (believe/feel/imagine) that casters would say ” it! I’m not getting a familiar!”

    Now I keep saying the benefits are tripled with #5, here’s why. 1) The caster has the NPC, 2) The caster gains additional benefits for having the bond, 3) The familiar is gaining benefits for having the bond, 4) The benefits are permanent, not temporary from concentration or the duration of a spell. I agree with BriH, the penalties would be extreme. Lower level caster are challenged as it is (RM2), giving that possibility of “extreme penalties” I think the mages would be relegated to riding in the cart until the penalties pass.

  4. I agree with Hurin here. I don’t think there should be size limitations on Familiars. I once had a Grand Vizier who had an Elephant familiar. Picking up Ken’s Harry Potter reference Nagini was effectively a snake familiar and was far from small.

    The RMC rules as written limit Familiars to 10% of the casters weight which is a mechanism I don’t like. So a human magician can have a cat familiar but a halfling magician cannot? There are illusion mechanics that use the casters weight as a base for weight bearing illusions. Not something I am keen on.

    I cannot remember a single PC having a familiar in any game I have run since my AD&D days. The fact that familiars tend not to survive Fireballs tends to put people off them.

    From a GM point of view, going back to Hurin’s Paladin, I would not encourage the adoption of a mount as a familiar for a PC. The reason I am against such a thing would be from the practical and story telling side of things. If I want to sink the characters ship then I am seriously harming one PC above all others, if I teleport the party somewhere else what happens to that familiar bond. If the horse was tied up in a clearing outside the orc hold then it may not live too long. Too many adventures go into places where the mount cannot go and too many plots revolve around the party not returning the way they came. If the PC became reluctant to leave its mount then that can break the story thread.

    1. Hi,

      I think this is a general issue with horsemen in most rpgs! The horse is a real boat anchor. :)/2

      (Another issue is that few rpgs really give horses their due. Game rules tend to overlook the massive advantages provided by mounts, and prefer rules that make it even more difficult to do anything mounted. I know of only one rpg in which mounted combat is truly advantageous, and that game goes overboard in the opposite direction.)



  5. I’m in agreement that “Familiars” has to go; just too much baggage from other game systems. I prefer the concept of “Bonding” which again, while more generic, provides a broader mechanism that fits into many settings.

    However, I still like the idea of investiture. I always have an issue with any level spell that provides a permanent functioning spell like ability. It’s like a perpetual motion machine of unlimited work with a single PP cost. But these comments have me reconsidering the penalty aspect. Ken is right, that too is an artifact of a bygone era and I dislike the meta gaming angle of attacking a Familiar to impact a caster.

    I’ve settled on a general “Bonding” list that is a combination of “Animal Bonding” (BASiL Channeling file:///C:/Users/Michael/Downloads/Animal%20Bonds.pdf) and Talisman (

    This would create spells for bonding creatures with the usual Spell List progression for creature size and intelligence. Other spells would allow for temporary abilities like shared senses and other abilities similar to the Talisman spell list (which is the merging of Wizard Staff, Druid Staff and similar concepts that can be applied to any weapon or utility object).

    I’ll post up the list in the next week or so.

    1. Hi,

      The cost isn’t a single PP, but all the DP that went into the spell list, and perhaps the cost of familiar spells wasting space on one of your base lists. Oh, and in some editions of the game, you are very limited on how many lists you can advance at a time. The cost is very large, before any PP are spent.

      I was going to say something about staff spells and similar in this context, but you beat me to it!

      Here too, the benefits are dubious. You get to invest a bunch of DP into a spell list that does provide some benefits, but also some very real limitations, including lugging around this crutch that announces to the world that you are a dangerous wizard to be targeted first, and woe to you should you lose your crutch.

      RM likes to abstract everything as a spell list where possible, yet for me, having a familiar or staff ought work more like a talent into which DP can be invested every level, providing solid benefits. You know how to use a staff to better focus your magic? Great. You don’t lose anything when you don’t use your staff. How good are you at it? Well, how many levels of the talent do you have?

      Familiars seems similar. Want one? That’s a cost. Want a tiger rather than a sparrow? That costs more. Is the familiar also a spell adder? Oh, and since we know that your familiar is an important part of your character, we build into this cost that it will come back next session if “killed,” or even that it simply doesn’t get targeted (13th Age does this).

      The same rules can be used for a staff: It’s like having a very lazy, meowless black cat familiar, but you can hit things with it.

      And then the same rules can be used for Anduril or other signature weapons. It’s not about wizards, but about signature accoutrements.



  6. From what I recall of AD&D familiars, having familiars, especially such as a pseudodragon, was a useful boost at a low level but highly dangerous to have in the magic-user’s vicinity when foes got more dangerous.

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