The Gassy Gnoll: Animals in RPGs (RPG Blog Carnival), Part 1 – Familiars

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is “Animals in RPGs” (hosted by Tower of the Archmage). And at first I was stumped. But as I started doing a bit of brainstorming, I came up with a few different topics to talk about this month: Familiars, Omens, The Hunt, and Heroes & Monsters.

Let’s start out with an easy one… Familiars. Back when burning witches was popular, witches, healers, and other practitioners of magic were often seen consorting with their animals. Sometimes these animals (black cats seemed to be popular) would be thought to spy for their masters. And some animals were rumored to be able to sense sickness. Even today, dogs are trained to help diabetics and those affected by seizures know when symptoms are coming to give the patient time to react or at least let caregivers know something is going on.

Personally I just think witches were pet people and liked talking to their animals. If you’re a pet owner, you know what I’m talking about. I’d swear people might think I’m nuts when I work from home and talk to my dogs or cat throughout the day. But I promise I’m not working any magic – please don’t try to fry me on a stake. (Though if you want to grill me a nice steak, I wouldn’t object…)

But even before witchcraft, Native American peoples believed in animal totems and getting some form of guidance or extraordinary abilities from the totems that chose them. This type of belief in using the spirits of nature to help with the hunt, in war, and love has to go way back to early man attempting to make sense of the chaotic and uncaring world around them as they tried to survive.

So the fact that wizards and witches have had familiars (whether natural animals or extra-planar creatures) in roleplaying games for as long as I can remember isn’t much of a shock. I know Harry Potter enjoyed his big white owl, but even in that series you hardly see the owl after a while. And that tends to be the problem with most wizard characters I’ve seen with familiars.

Sure familiars are cool at first. In the last campaign I played in I had a gnome druid with a big riding dog as a familiar. Initially I spent time with my dog and used him in combat, but as the sessions dragged on it was simply my ride around town. Unless you develop a personality for your familiar, it just turns into another item to keep track of on a character sheet.

And not every game treats them the same. For example, Dungeonslayers, which I’m playing with my family, has familiars that are simply highly intelligent pets. But you can’t talk to them or use them in any grandiose way. It’s not like D&D where you can talk to your pet, communicate, and even use it to enhance spellcasting…

It’s funny though. As a GM, I’m a fan of using “familiar”-type mechanics for villains. At one point I pondered creating a summoner who made bargains with demons for additional power – until the summoner slipped up and didn’t close his protective circle all the way. And another time I considered using a traditional witch (evil) bartering for more and more abilities from her extra-planar masters. But as a player, those thoughts kept me mostly away from creating yet another way for a GM to get to my character.

Here’s a question for you. Can you think of any modern or science fiction movie or television show that used something like a familiar? Scratch your head on that for a minute and be sure to leave comments with your ideas below – I’d love to hear them.

If you give up, the only one I could come up with was the “Bit” in Tron who was a sidekick to Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). It’s not exactly a familiar, but pretty close.

So in your current games, do you use familiars as a player or a GM? Do you follow the standard D&D rules for such a bond or do you have any house rules or variants you use instead? I’d love to dive further into familiars in the future and am looking for some angles to pursue.

There are numerous products available at RPGNow about familiars, so I’d definitely poke around and see if you find any cool ideas there. I plan on doing the same.

Next up… Omens!

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8 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Animals in RPGs (RPG Blog Carnival), Part 1 – Familiars

  • forged

    The only one that came to mind was whatever the little creatures that were around Jabba the Hutt.

    Btw … “I’d swear people might think I’m nuts when I work from home and talk to my dogs or cat throughout the day.” Actually we think you are nuts for lots of other reasons that have nothing to do with your talking to your pets. 🙂

  • In one of my campaigns, one of my good friends had a talking mole who could cast magic missile (seriously!). His name was Pelgo. As the party didn’t have a wizard at the time, the friend (who was playing a ranger) would carry the mole on top of his backpack. He almost became a sidekick to his own pet/familiar as the rest of the party dubbed him “the mobile mole missile launcher”. Pelgo was a ton of fun and I played him as a slightly shy, good-natured mole who was quick to defend his ranger friend/owner. We had a catchphrase that parodied a slightly better known saying involving bulls and horns – “You mess with the mole…you get the missile!”.

  • BirdManFmVito

    In a previous DnD Midnight campaign, I played an elf channeler who had a basset hound for a familiar. The basset hound, whose name was Tig, was a deep philospher who constantly bemoaned his lack of thumbs. As my channeler was shy (or autistic, depending on who described him), Tig became his outlet and interface to the world.

    I’m not sure if the rest of the gaming group was as amused as I was with Tig and his antics, but it threw some levity into an otherwise dark and moody campaign.

    • Fitz

      @BirdManFmVito – Love the basset hound familiar. What a unique idea! And a little levity can never be a bad thing in my book. Thanks for sharing!

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