by Anthony Jackson
Art by Kent Burles, colored by Jeremy Zauder
The rules for familiars in GURPS Magic have some appealing aspects, but they are also somewhat incompatible with a variety of other advantages which do similar things, and, at about a page and a half, they barely scratch the surface of what a familiar can be. This article revises and expands the rules for familiars.
What is a Familiar, and Why Should You Have One?
Traditionally in western mythology, a familiar is a sort of demonic ally for a witch, generally appearing in the form of an imp or small animal; it assists the witch with spellcasting in some unclear way. Note that a black cat or similar animal associated with a witch might or might not be a familiar -- it could also be the witch, shapeshifted into that form.
The tradition of familiars in Fantasy and RPGs is quite a bit broader, to a large degree because magic users in fantasy are not automatically assumed to be evil and have sold their souls to the devil. Still, in general if it's actually called a familiar it will be an animal or minor supernatural entity, with some mystical connection to the mage. In a somewhat broader sense, there are a variety of things which are not called familiars but are functionally the same -- for example, catalyst creatures in Psionics could be considered familiars.
While the definition of a familiar is moderately clear, the exact role of the familiar is not. Some literary familiars don't seem to have any role beyond making smartass comments, which makes one wonder why the mage has a familiar in the first place. While the chance to harass the players can be perfectly useful for a GM, players usually want a better reason. A few suggestions:
- Taking a familiar is somehow a rite of passage for a mage. In this case a familiar might actually be a prerequisite for higher levels of magery.
- Familiars aren't required, but they assist in some useful way with spellcasting.
- Familiars aren't required, but they provide other mystical benefits.
- Or, of course, a familiar could just be a ally, likely with exceptional abilities.
Non-mages and Familiars
While it is rare for anyone who isn't considered a witch or wizard to have something actually called a familiar, it's perfectly possible for a non-mage to have an ally who fulfils essentially the same role. This is a very broad category, but in general one of the following should be true: the familiar is a kind of creature who naturally forms such bonds (for example, Pernese dragons), or the character has a special connection with that form of animal (such as a totem animal, a knight's warhorse, a wolf to a werewolf, a cat to a priest of Bast, or just about any animal for someone with animal empathy). In this case, it is also important to consider whether the familiar is a natural animal, a magical animal, or has a spiritual or divine nature, as this will affect its motivations and likely powers.
A demonic familiar is a very special case of familiar, because unlike other forms of familiar it is fundamentally hostile to the character. As such, a demonic familiar represents a special challenge for both the GM and the player, and the GM would be well within his rights to forbid demonic familiars to PCs. A character generally acquires a demonic familiar in one of two ways: either he makes a bargain, in which case the familiar's goals are to convince the mage and anyone else convenient to damn himself, make life miserable for as many people as possible, and then arrange for the mage to die once he's thoroughly damned, or he places some sort of magical compulsion on the familiar, in which case the familiar's goals are freeing itself, killing the mage, and generally causing as much havoc as possible. The GM should keep a secret character sheet for the familiar, giving it experience as it accomplishes its goals. A character who dies while linked to a demonic familiar is probably damned -- roll a contest of wills, counting good behavior as levels of strong will, evil behavior as weak will. Due to the nature of the familiar link, demonic familiars frequently cannot be banished.
Buying a Familiar
The first part of buying a familiar is convincing the GM to let you have one. During character creation, this is usually just a matter of paying for the familiar; later the GM may require going to some effort to acquire the familiar, as well as paying points. The GM should never actually require buying a familiar, though he may certainly offer opportunities.
Methods for acquiring familiars vary widely, and are left up to the GM -- for magical familiars a roll on Thaumatology or Occultism will reveal a method, for divine familiars it's usually up to the deity's whim, for exotic animals it's generally a matter of training. In all cases there is a fairly substantial amount of luck involved. For animal familiars, it is somewhat traditional to raise them from infants; while most animals mature faster than humans, it will usually be a matter of months before a familiar becomes useful at all, and a year or more for the familiar to reach full growth. This has the advantage that the familiar can be initially fairly cheap, and then cost more points as it grows into adulthood. Once adult, a familiar usually does not age any faster than its master.
Paying for a Familiar
A familiar is bought as a package of other advantages and disadvantages. Most of these advantages are just standard GURPS advantages and disadvantages, with a limitation to reflect the fact that they are dependent on the familiar, and do not work without the familiar. In principle essentially any advantage can be granted by the right familiar, but in practice only a few are common.
Advantages Related to Spellcasting
The familiar may join its master in all forms of ritual magic; this includes enchanting. It counts as a second mage, with skill identical to its master. This advantage does not permit the familiar to lead a circle or join any circle the master is not in, though it can still do so if it would normally be able to. The familiar must have magery to have this advantage.
Any time the mage fails a concentration roll, the familiar may make a concentration roll of its own to maintain focus. This does not apply if the mage would not be permitted to make a roll.
The mage can gradually acquire certain innate traits of the familiar, such as advantages, high attributes, and the like. Occasionally this also result in disadvantages such as bestial or stress atavism.
The mage can shapeshift into the form of the familiar; treat as the shapeshift spell. Cost is usually 6 to cast, 2 to maintain, though some familiars might be more.
The familiar gives its master a higher level of magery; cost is equal to the difference in cost between normal and boosted magery. You should be careful to note spells which have the higher level of magery as a direct or indirect prerequisite, since they can only be cast with the assistance of the familiar. The GM may wish to require you to learn prerequisite spells at 12 without the assistance of the familiar. In some worlds, this might be the only way to become a mage. The familiar must have as many levels of magery as it grants (but a magery-1 familiar can boost its master from magery 2 to 3).
As per boost magery, but applies to psionic abilities instead.
by cost of spell
Some familiars can grant their masters magical abilities in the form of spells rather than advantages. These spells should generally correspond directly to innate abilities of the familiar.
3 per point of fatigue
The mage may make use of his ally's fatigue as if it were his own. The familiar may also buy this advantage, allowing it to make use of its master's fatigue. The familiar may choose not to let you use its fatigue. Note that familiars with less than 6 fatigue require 60/fatigue minutes to recover a point of fatigue.
The familiar can maintain spells for the mage; treat as per lend spell. Transferring a spell to the familiar requires a turn of concentration, and requires the familiar to make an IQ+Magery roll at -1 per spell it is already maintaining (-3 per spell requiring concentration). The familiar must have magery.
Advantages Related to Your Link With the Familiar
Most mages have some sort of arcane link to their familiar; the GM may require some minimum level of link. Unless the familiar can talk, some form of link is generally mandatory.
Allows the mage to sense his familiar's emotional state; this will also allow knowing when the familiar is injured or in pain, but is generally not useful for communication. The familiar should also buy this advantage, for equivalent awareness of the mage. Always active.
3 per hit points
Allows the mage to transfer wounds to his familiar; cost is per hit point of the familiar. Like Share ST, the familiar can refuse to accept the injury. The familiar may buy this advantage to transfer wounds to its master.
Allows the mage to perceive through his familiar's senses, per the spell Rider Within. Requires three turns of concentration and two fatigue to activate. +1 point for -1 fatigue cost, +1 point for -1 turn to activate.
5 or 10 points
For 5 points, the mage can cast spells on his familiar as if he were touching his familiar. For 10 points, the mage can cast spells through his familiar, using range for the familiar; note that this is blind casting without a sense link. The familiar can refuse to permit the mage to cast through the link. The familiar may also buy this advantage to cast spells through the mage.
5 or 10 points
Allows the mage to communicate telepathically with his familiar, per the spell. For five points, it requires one fatigue and a turn to activate, counts as a spell on, and must be maintained. For 10 points, it is always active and does not count as a spell on.
The Familiar as an Ally
Aside from any advantages a familiar might grant, a familiar normally also counts as an ally or dependent. If you do not want to take the penalties associated with putting a dependent in danger, treat the base ally cost as 1 for negative point value, 2 for 0-24 points, 3 for 25-49 points, 4 for 50-74 points, and normal for higher ally point values. Familiars are usually better than 9- availability as allies; if you want a familiar who is absolutely always available, treat as a x4 frequency multiplier. A familiar not being present does not necessarily prevent use of its powers; take limited availability (below) to reflect that. Demonic allies are considered to be unwilling allies, at half normal cost.
Limitations on Familiar Advantages
The main difference between an advantage granted by a familiar and a natural advantage is that it's connected to the familiar, and may thus not always be present. At the GMs option, these limitations may be bought off, as the increased abilities become innate.
Dependent on Familiar
This power is lost if your familiar dies. At GMs option, also applies if familiar is in another dimension, time, or solar system. You can't take this limitation on link advantages, they're already automatically limited. Can be combined with any of the below limitations; required for anything other than mana-dependent. At the GMs discretion, up to half the points in abilities bought this way may be spent to obtain a new familiar if the old one dies.
Contingent on Behavior
Your familiar can, and will, deny you use of its powers if you misbehave. Limitation value is 2% times the value of an equivalent vow, or the actual cost of such a vow, whichever is less. You cannot take this limitation for a vow you already have. Half value if the ally can only refuse permission to use powers by triggering limited range or maintenance requirements. This is most common for divine allies.
Your familiar must be convinced to help you. Treat identically to the fickle disadvantage; if the fickleness roll fails, the familiar is unhelpful. Bribery may increase the reliability of a fickle familiar. This is not precisely the same as limited availability; your familiar can be present and still not very helpful.
The power is not always available. -5% if only available 15-, -10% if available 12-, -25% if available 9-, -50% if available 6-. How often this roll is made depends on why the power is limited availability. You may link this limitation to the appearance roll for the familiar, but the rolls need not actually be the same -- even if your tomcat familiar only actually shows up on 9-, its probably within a mile on 15-.
Power only works if familiar is within a certain range. -5% for 1,000 miles, -10% for 100 miles, -15% for 10 miles, -20% for 1 mile, -25% for 100 yards, -30% for 10 yards, -35% for 1 yard, -40% for touch only. Usually not purchased on link advantages.
This advantage does not work in a no mana zone, or if a no mana zone lies between you and your familiar. This value should change in a setting where mana is particularly common or rare. The GM should ban this for advantages which normally do not operate in a no mana zone, such as magery.
Your familiar need not be in range to sustain the power, but you need to be regularly in contact with your familiar to maintain your powers. -5% for one month, -10% for one week, -15% for one day, -20% for one hour, -25% for one minute. Cannot be taken as along with limited range; just use the greater limitation. Add an additional -5% if this maintenance causes a wound (1 HT, cannot be healed except by normal daily healing).
Disadvantages Associated with Familiars
There are also a number of traditional disadvantages associated with familiars. Any limitations which apply to familiar advantages may also be applied to familiar disadvantages. The GM may choose not to count familiar-related disadvantages against the normal disad limit.
Infectious Empathic Link
The mage is aware of the familiar's emotions, per empathic link -- but will also feel those emotions, and may be required to make a will roll to avoid acting on them.
The mage feels his familiar's injuries, and takes shock and stunning penalties based on wounds to his familiar; high pain threshold does not help against this damage. If the familiar is killed, the mage is automatically stunned, and must make a fright check at -10.
Reversed Spellcasting Link
Spells can be cast on you through your familiar, based on range to the familiar. Spells which cannot normally be resisted can be resisted when cast in this way, resisting with HT. Missile and jet spells cannot be cast across the link. It is possible to have special vulnerability to spells cast in this way, add -1 point per level of magic susceptibility.
Like pain link, but worse; damage taken by the familiar is also taken by the mage. If the familiar is killed, the mage must roll vs HT to avoid dying as well. Cannot be taken with health link. This is the same as "the mage suffers his familiar's wounds," from Magic.
Some familiars have a dependency on their master's blood; a witch's teat is the mark left where the familiar feeds. It has a somewhat distinctive appearance, and is immune to pain. If in a particularly obvious position, this might be a 5-point unnatural feature.
Character Sheets for Familiars
Most mundane animals really aren't enough points to cost much as an ally. However, supernatural creatures and other exceptional familiars might be. In addition to any advantages associated with their form, magical familiars should take magery, and most familiars have the same link advantages as their masters. The stats below assume that the process of becoming a familiar boosts IQ to human levels; if this is not true simply buy IQ down to 7, add 3 levels of alertness, bestial, uneducated, and primitive TL0, and usually add at least two levels of short lifespan. This saves 40+ points for a TL 3 setting, and the GM may choose not to count this against disadvantage limits.
New Advantages and Disadvantages for Familiars
This creature is unusually small; size modifier is -1 or less. Each level gives -1 to see or attack the creature, +1 DX for dealing with small objects at touch range, halves life support requirements, halves damage from falls, and generally allows any other actions the GM feels that being small would help with. The creature may still take disadvantages related to being small.
The creature has claws which do damage based on the bite table rather than on the thrust table. 5 points for crushing, 10 for cutting, 15 for impaling. This is a slightly modified version of the teeth advantage, with +5 cost for the slightly greater reach and not endangering the head.
Familiars can be dependent on contact with their masters for one reason or another. This is basically a normal dependency; treat contact with the master as a common substance. If it actually needs to drink its master's blood, treat as occasional. Animal familiars may replace the damage with 1 point of IQ loss; once IQ drops to 7 the familiar becomes nonsentient and loses all supernatural abilities.
Typical Mundane Animals
Here are a few typical mundane animals as familiars, with complete character sheets. Many familiars will have attributes at the high end of normal, though it is also moderately common for familiars to be fat and out of shape. Most familiars should also have magery, but that is not included in the template.
A typical housecat. A black cat would be likely to have Magery-2 with an innate "curse" spell, the Jinx disadvantage, or both, and a bad reputation.
Attributes: ST 3 DX 14 IQ 10 HT 13/3. (-35 total)
Speed 6.5, Move 13, Dodge 7, PD/DR 0/0, Claw/Bite 1d-4 cut.
Advantages" Alertness +2(10), Catfall (10), Small Cutting Claws (10), Combat Reflexes (15), Four Legs(5), Fur(1), Increased Running x2 (10), Night Vision(10), Perfect Balance (15), Sharp Teeth (5), Skill Bonus: +3 stealth(4), Small (size -3)(30). (115 total)
Disadvantages: No Fine Manipulators(-30), Horizontal (-10), Inconvenient Size (small) (-15), Mute (-25), Sleepy (50%)(-10), Social Stigma: Property (-10). (-100 total)
Skills: Acrobatics(1), Brawling(1), Climbing(1), Jumping(1), Stealth(1)
Spells Granted: balance, night vision, slow fall.
A good-sized horse; horse allies generally seem to be cavalry horses or warhorses. ST includes -40% for no fine manipulators. This is a fairly expensive template, but note that horses are prone to being basically smart animals.
Attributes: ST 40 DX 9 IQ 10 HT 15. (158 total)
Speed 6, Move 15, Dodge 6, PD/DR 0/0, Bite 2d Cr, Kick 4d+1 Cr.
Advantages: Alertness +2(10), Four Legs (5), Increased Running x2.5 (15) (45 total)
Disadvantages: No Fine Manipulators(-30), Horizontal (-10), Inconvenient Size (large) (-10), Mute (-25), Social Stigma: Property (-10). (-85 total)
A large owl, such as a great horned owl. Most small owls will have ST 1. An owl's attack dive is basically an all-out attack for damage, but gains +1 damage due to velocity.
Attributes: ST 2 DX 14 IQ 10 HT 12/5. (-40 total)
Speed 6.5, Move 3/13F, Dodge 7/9F, PD/DR 0/0, Claws/Bite 1d-5
Advantages: Acute Hearing +2(4), Alertness +2(10), Small Cutting Claws (10), Combat Reflexes (15), Feathers (1), Night Vision (10), Sharp Teeth (5), Skill Bonus: +3 stealth (4), Small (size -3) (30), Winged Flight (30) (119 points)
Disadvantages: One Fine Manipulator (-10), Poor Manipulators (-10), Poor Day Vision (-10), Inconvenient Size (small) (-15), Mute (-25), Sleepy (50%)(-10), Social Stigma: Property (-10), Reduced Ground Move -3 (-15) (-105 total)
Skills: Stealth (1)
Spells Granted: night vision, mage-stealth
Typical Supernatural Animals
There's a lot of variation on stats for miniature dragons; this one is in the 20 lb range, with a poisonous bite. In most cases there should be a telepathic or empathic link to the familiar.
Attributes: ST 5 DX 13 IQ 10 HT 13/5 (-30 total)
Speed 6.5, Move 4/13F, Dodge 6/8F, PD/DR 1/0, Claw/Bite 1d-4 Ct.
Advantages: Magery 1 (15), Small -2 (20), Small Cutting Claws (10), Scales PD1/DR0 (25), Sharp Teeth (5), Extra Limb (Tail, No Attack, Extra Flex) (10), Winged Flight (30), Poison (15) (130 total)
Disadvantages: Inconvenient Size (-15), Social Stigma: Pet (-10), Dependency: Mana, Daily (-15), Mute (-25), Reduced Running -2 (-10). (-75 total)
A small but fairly compact imp, around 15 lb and 18" tall. Note that its vulnerability applies even against nondamaging attacks (holy water does 1d against DR 5) and applies to attacks of magical beings (so imps can hurt one another...barely) but does not apply against spells. The compulsion: evil can be replaced by other 'evil' disadvantages for a particular imp.
Attributes: ST 5 DX 13 IQ 13 HT 13/5 (10 total)
Speed 6.5, Move 6, Dodge 7, PD/DR 1/5, Claw/Bite 1d-4 Ct.
Advantages: Magery 3 (35), Literacy (10), Small-3 (30), Small Cutting Claws (10), PD 1 (25), DR 5 (15), Sharp Teeth (5), Poison (15), Extra Limb (Tail, No Attack, Extra Flexibility) (10), Immunity to Poison (15), Immunity to Disease (10), Strong Will +10, Only vs. Supernatural Abilities that Affect the Mind (-50%; 20), Extra Fatigue-5 (15) (215 total) Disadvantages: Vulnerable, Magic/Holy Weapons/Items, 1d (-10), Dependency: Mana, Constant (-25), Dependency: Master's Blood, Weekly (-10), Dread (Holy Items or Holy Ground, -20), Unliving (-50), Inconvenient Size (-15), Bad Reputation -4(-20), Compulsion: Evil (-30). (-180 points) Innate Spells: Gift of Tongues-15 (4), Gift of Letters-15 (4), Suggestion-15 (2).
Familiars as Characters
It's certainly possible to play a familiar as a PC, though it would be unusual for a non-demonic familiar to be at the point level of a typical PC, and demonic familiars are generally not advised as characters. A familiar to an NPC mage should take the mage as a patron, and a duty to that mage. A familiar to another PC should handle this through roleplaying, and note that disadvantages such as limited availability, contingent on behavior, and fickle are usually inappropriate. On the plus side, PCs need never pay for other PCs as allies.
Article publication date: September 29, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to email@example.com.