Pathfinder 2e - Practical Guide to Familiars
Last Updated: October 8th, 2019
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
Familiars are a small, magical animal-like creature that serves as equal parts pet and multipurpose tool. With a long list of potential abilities and the ability to replace them daily, your familiar can be an important and powerful part of your character's toolset.
Before proceeding, be sure to read the full rules for familiars. The precise wording of the feature is important, and the text below is meant to expand upon and clarify the rules text, and to provide guidance on how to get the most value out of a familiar. It is not a replacemet for the official rules.
Familiars are available to several classes (and to some races), and the source of your familiar determines the ability score used to the determine your familiar's stats. When considering acquiring a familiar, remember that how useful they are may be heavily affected by this ability score. However, if all you want is a cool pet that can talk and fly, you may be fine basing your familiar on a dumped ability. By default your Key Ability for your familiar is Charisma, so unless the feature specifies otherwise your familiar is Charisma-based.
Your choice of base animal is a surprisingly important part of your familars capabilities. If your familiar naturally has an ability from the list of Familiar Abilities, that ability is locked in and you are unable to change that decision. For example: If you choose an owl as your familiar, one of your Familiar Ability slots must always be spent on flight.
Because you get so few Familiar Abilities, it's important to avoid being locked into an ability which you won't use constantly. Flight is often a good choice, fortunately, but we wary of other options.
If you're ever uncertain, stick with something like a rat or a turtle.
Familiars have the "Minion" trait, which means that in order for them to act you need to spend an Action to command them. When you command your familiar, they then take two Actions. In a lot of ways they function more like a remote-controlled robot than like an independent creature. Your GM might relax these restrictions outside of combat, but when weapons come out your familiar loses any ability to act on their own.
Because your familiar is often most useful when they start in your space, it's often helpful for your familiar to ride around on your shoulder, hang from your equipment, or sit in a pocket or pouch. Your familiar doesn't automatically follow you about, so having your familiar on the ground means that you're comitting actions every turn to simply command your familiar to follow you.
Familiar Skills and Perception
Familiars always add your level to skill checks and attack rolls, and adds your ability modifier (see Key Ability, above) on Acrobatics and Stealth skill checks, and on Perception checks. This means that your familiar may be better than you at a significant number of skills, but keep in mind that it's not technically proficient in anything so it can't take any actions which require proficiency.
The rules for familiars don't discuss attacks in any detail. Familiars use your level as their modifier on attack rolls, but it's unclear if or how familiars can attack. Familiars are (with some exceptions) tiny animals, but even tiny animals have the ability to attack. Several animals are suggested as possible familiars, but none of the suggested creatures have stats in the bestiary. Apparently Paizo no longer saw fit to provide stat blocks for single rats and housecats. The closest I can find is the Viper, which might be an option if your GM allows it.
As a GM, I would simply rule that your familiar lacks any sort of natural attacks until Paizo gives us further clarification on how that works. It's entirely possible that future supplements will include ways to give your familiar an attack.
Familiar and Master Abilities
During your daily preparations each day, you are allotted two (or more with certain feats and class features) ability slots to determine your familiar's capabilities. These can be spent on Familiar Abilities and/or on Master Abilities in any combination you choose. You might choose to customize your familiar on a daily basis to suit your present needs, or you might settle on some broadly useful options and rely on them exclusively.
Familiar abilities expand and improve your familiar's ability to act on its own. Generally when you plan to rely on your familiar acting in combat, these are the abilities that you'll want to emphasize.
- : Situational by design. When you gain your familiar you permanently choose for it to have either a land speed or a swim speed, and unless you're in an aquatic campaign you probably chose a land speed. If your campaign takes an unexpected dive underwater, you'll want to pick up Amphibious for a few days. This also raises the question of whether or not the familiar needs to breath, which isn't addressed in the rules text.
- : Burrow speeds are really good for a lot of things like sneaking under walls or past gates or other obstacles. The speed is very limited, but since you're probably only using this outside of combat that usually won't be a problem.
- : Why would you choose a climb speed when flight is an option at the same cost?
- : If you rely on your familiar acting in combat, this can help keep it alive. I recommend Reflex saves so that it doesn't die whenever someone casts fireball or whenever a dragon breaths on it.
- : Darkvision is really good, and having it dramatically improves your familiar's ability to serve as a scout.
- : More speed is always nice, but it's doubtful that you'll have sufficient ability slots to make room for this. If your familiar can't do anything especially meaningful, being able to do it while moving quickly isn't helpful.
- : Objectively the best movement type.
- : Situational, and it depends on your familiar being a common type of animal which may be less fun. If you plan to use this, I recommend choosing a familiar that's common where your character lives like a rat or a bird.
- : Potentially fantastic for the Alchemist. You still need to spend an Action to command your familiar, but your familiar then gets two Actions. It can use one to perform Quick Alchemy, then it could its other action to either do it again or to use whatever item it just produced. Manual Dexterity is required, so your familiar can take Manipulate actions to activate items, likely including those which it creates.
- : Hands allow your familar to do things like use items and open doors. Send your familiar to feed your allies potions, or use it to spread caltrops or something.
- : Even imprecise Scent allows your familiar to notice and locate invisible and hidden enemies.
- : If your familiar is serving as a scout, the ability to speak is crucial. Your familiar could spot all kinds of useful things, but if it's limited to communicating basic emotions to you and possibly gesturing it will frequently be unable to meaningfully convey whatever it found. One important note: familiars don't have ability scores, so it's not at all clear how intelligent your familiar is.
Master abilities primarily cantrip to your own capabilities. These are often good options for spellcasters who don't rely heavily on their familiar's actions, though Lifelink can be an important option for spellcasters who rely on their familiar acting during combat.
- : Cantrips are nearly always good. Spellcasters normally get no more than 4 or 5 cantrips known/prepared, so an extra cantrip can expand that pool by 20% or more.
- : Alchemists are heavily dependent on Infused Reagents to make their most powerful items without burning through precious gold. You get one batch per Alchemist level, plus your Intelligence modifier, so as you gain levels you'll have an ample supply of reagenets. But at low levels one extra batch can be a signficant expansion to your capabilities for the day.
- : If you're heavily reliant on Focus Spells this can be a nice fallback. However, it's only one point per day and if you're reliant on Focus Spells you're probably walking into fights with 3 Focus Points to throw around. This might be useful at low levels before you max out the size of your Focus Pool, but otherwise you're probably fine without it.
- : Replacing a familiar takes a full week of Downtime. In a campaign where time is precious, that's a big commitment. In addition, if you're heavily reliant on your familiar as part of your character's skillset, losing your familiar can feel like losing a hand. If you simply can't handle losing your familiar, Lifelink is the way to go. Otherwise, skip it and let your familiar die in your place.
- : More spell slots are always great, though this spell slot is significantly below your best spells.
- : This basically replaces Reach Spell, but it's not without issues. First, it's unclear precisely how Actions work here. I think the intent is that you cast your spell, then spend an Action to command your familiar to deliver the spell. This costs just as many actions as Reach Spell, making it a great replacement for another feat. However, it also leaves your familiar adjacent to your target. If the target is an ally, it's probably fine. If the target is an enemy, your familiar is now in melee reach, and while it shares your AC it only has 5 hit points per level. Expect to spend an action on your next turn commanding your familiar to retreat to safety.