Pathfinder 2e - Practical Guide to Familiars
Last Updated: August 24th, 2020
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.
Like anything in Pathfinder 2e, how effectively you can use an option depends heavily on how you build your character.
Familiars are available via Ancestries, Classes, and Archetypes, 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 (similar to innate spellcasting), so unless the feature specifies otherwise your familiar is Charisma-based.
Familiars are available from several character options, and if you plan to capitalize on your familiar it's important to understand which options will work to get you the capabilities that you want. Familiars can do and be a great many things, and depending on what role you see your familiar playing different options will vary in effectiveness.
Remember: You can only have one familair at a time, so while many of the class options below are tempting it may be difficult to combine them. Familiars also take a full week to replace if they die, so be cautious about protecting them.
- : You get a familiar which is a plant instead of an animal. Normally getting a Leshy Familiar costs a Class Feat that does nothing else except change the creature's type, but this feat also grants you a familiar.
- : 2 more familiar abilities.
: You gain an extra Familiar Ability from a list of three options not available anywhere else. Unfortunately, most of them are bad.
- : Extra reach is great for delivering spells, using items, etc.
- : Too situational.
- : Neat, but unless you let your familiar die it will never be helpful. If you do let your familiar die for the healing, you're out a familiar until you have a full week of downtime to replace it.
The Familiar Master has a lot to offer. It doesn't get as many Familiar Abilities as the Witch and doesn't get all of the same feats, but it has three new options (Familiar Conduit, Familiar Mascot, Mutable Familiar) not available anywhere else.
Remember that if you gain a familiar from this feat it's Charisma-based. : An easy way to add a familiar to any character. If you already have a familiar from another source (such as from a class feature or from an Ancestry Feat), you get the effects of Enhanced Familiar instead, giving you two additional Familiar Abilities. For classes which already grant familiars like the Witch and the Wizard, if you don't plan to take another archetype but really like familiars, you should take this feat instead of taking Enhanced Familiar directly.
- : 2 more familiar abilities. Note that the Familiar Master gets access to this feat 2 levels later than the Witch or the Wizard.
Surprisingly, touch spells work well with Familiar Conduit. While there is a Familiar Ability to help deliver touch spells, it requires that your familiar start adjacent to you and deliver the spell the same turn so you're limited by your familiar's speed. With Familiar Conduit, you can have your familiar ride around on your allies' shoulders and deliver touch spells (including beneficial ones) without needing to return to you first.
However, the Action economy here is difficult. It takes one Action to Command your familiar, then one Action to activate Familiar Conduit, leaving just one Action to cast a spell. Most spells require 2 Actions to cast, so you'll need to get your familiar positioned the turn before using Familiar Conduit, which can be difficult if targets move around at all. : Considering that is much easier for familiars to gain access to flight than it is for player characters, this is a fantastic way to make spells with short ranges or difficult AOEs work better. For example, your familiar could fly above combat, firing cones downward to target a circular area from above while remaining just out of melee reach.
- : If you're heavily invested in your familar, it'll have a large number of Abilities. Sharing these abilities with your party can provide a number of very useful benefits if you have spare Abilities which you don't need. It's also really fun to have an animal in the party which everyone is emotionally attached to.
- : This can get you access to a Specific Familiar early, and since the Familiar Master doesn't grant additional Familiar Abilities as you level it's more helpful than it is for the Witch.
- : Not everyone who uses a familiar will need this. But if you use your familiar as a scout, the ability to change some of its Familiar Abilities will allow you to quickly adapt it to most environments. The listed abilities include move speeds, senses, and a couple other things like Amphibious and Resistance to help your familiar succeed almost anywhere.
- : 2 more familiar abilities.
Gnomes were the first Ancestry to get a Familiar from an Ancestry Feat.
- : There's no built-in way to advance this, but classes with familiar-related class feats like those available to the Familiar Master and the Wizard can advance it. Just remember that this familiar is Charisma-based so you'll need to be careful about its stats. Still, if you plan for your familiar to play a supporting role without doing a lot in combat, this is a good way to get a familiar without spending a Class Feat. The only distinguishing difference between Animal Accomplice and Rat Familiar is that Animal Accomplice doesn't mandate anything about your familiar. It's not a huge distinction most of the time, but if you want a Specific Familiar it's important.
Ratfolk get exactly one feat which grants access to a familiar, then nothing else related to familiars.
- : Rats are a perfect base for a familiar because they're not locked into any specific Familiar Abilities. However, there's no built-in way to advance this familiar and you're locked out of Specific Familairs since the base form can't change. Class feats like those available to the Familiar Master and the Wizard can advance this familiar, but remember that it's Charisma-based so you'll need to be careful about its stats. Still, if you plan for your familiar to play a supporting role without doing a lot in combat, this is a good way to get a familiar without spending a Class Feat.
A familiar is a central feature of the Witch, serving as both a familiar and as the Witch's equivalent to the Wizard's spellbook. Witches get a familair by default and add an additional ability at 1st, 6th, 12th, and 18th levels, matching the progression of the Wizard's Improved Familiar Attunement.
In addition, they get several features that other familiar users can't match. If the Witch's familiar dies, it comes back during their next Daily Preparations instead of requiring a week of downtime to replace it. You also get the powerful Phase Familiar Focus Spell which allows you to give your familiar some Damage Resistance as a Reaction.
- : Your familiar becomes a leshy familiar, which changes its type from Animal to Plant, the only effect of which is to change how your familiar handles effects related to creature type.
- : 2 more familiar abilities.
- : How effective this is depends heavily on your creature's base form. If you go this route, I would probably avoid Specific Familiars since they tend to be unusual creature types like dragons and oozes. If you just want to talk to your familiar, select the Speech Familiar Ability instead.
- : This can get you access to a Specific Familiar early, but I would only take this if the Specific Familiar that you want requires more than 6 abilities, and even then it's only appealing if you want to spend your higher-level feats on something other than Incredible Familiar.
- : 2 more familiar abilities.
- : By this level your familiar may have as many as 9 abilities, making it powerful and versatile. The ability to percieve through its senses and communicate with it telepathically allows you to command it at great distance, using it to scout, retrieve objects, deliver messages, or any number of other activities without personally endangering yourself. However, it is partiall redundant with the Share Senses Master Ability
The Wizard's familiar options are largely a side-note. While you can still do quite a bit with the Wizard's familiar, it's nowhere near as effective as the Witch's or the Familiar Master's.
- : You get a familiar with two abilities. If you plan to take this feat, strongly consider taking Improved Familiar Attunement as your Arcane Thesis instead.
- : You get the Familiar Class Feat for free, plus your familiar gets an extra ability and adds another at 6th, 12th, and 18th levels for a total of 6 (not counting Enhanced Familiar).
- : 2 more familiar abilities.
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.
How Many Can I Get?
Currently the Witch holds the lead on the maximum number of Familiar Abilities which you can obtain.
- 3 at 1st level
- Enhanced Familiar (+2)
- +1 at 6th level
- Incredible Familiar (+2)
- +1 at 12th level
- +1 at 18th level
- Total: 10
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.
For Familiar Ability descriptions, see the Familiars Page on Archive of Nethys.
- : For a bard, a persistent and easily available bonus to Performance is very welcome.
- : 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.
- : Very helpful if you rely on your familiar in combat, especially if you don't have inexpensive healing options.
- : Depending on your familiar's otherwise other abilities, one Action per turn can still be a huge benefit. They might be able to use items or do stuff on the edges of combat while not drawing attention. This does make Commanding your Familiar feel less appealing because it only gives them one more Action, but you'll likely still need to do that sometimes.
- : 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.
- : Very situational. Cases where this would be useful are very rare and would require a lot of pre-planning.
- : Great for rogues and similar characters. Deception useful in social situations and to Feint, and Thievery is important for things like disabling traps.
- : Situational. The best use is likely to hide your familiar in plain sight to spy on other creatures.
- : The only reason to use this over just applying the poison directly is for portability. You can have your familiar ride around on your ally's back, then apply the poison mid-combat. That just doesn't seem worth the cost of a Familiar Ability.
- : Unless you expect to face the selected damage type frequently on the day on which you select this, it's not worth the Familiar Ability. The resistance is just too small unless you're going to benefit from it repeatedly.
- : Even imprecise Scent allows your familiar to notice and locate invisible and hidden enemies.
- : Your Key Ability Modifier is almost always going to be +4 or higher, so for casters this is a big boost to your Familiar's skills. Unfortunately, this doesn't allow your Familiar to take Actions which require proficienct with a skill.
- : 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.
- : This can be a great way to get some extra spellcasting quickly, but remember that Command only gives your Familiar 2 Actions so you'll need to limit yourself to giving your Familiar spells which take 2 Actions or less. This also only works if you have a Spell Repertoire, so classes like the Witch and the Wizard can't use it.
- : Situational, but potentially helpful if you like to use something like Thieves' Tools in combat.
- : Speech is typically sufficient, but this can be helpful when silence is crucial.
- : A decent option if you plan to use your Familiar in combat.
- : Useful for alchemists planning to throw bombs and for martial characters fighting with two weapons.
For Familiar Ability descriptions, see the Familiars Page on Archive of Nethys.
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.
For Master Ability descriptions, see the Familiars Page on Archive of Nethys.
- : 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.
- : This varies wildly in effectiveness depending on your Ancestry and Heritage, so it's difficult to rate.
- : 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.
- : Great for scouting since you don't need to rely on your familiar communicating its findings to you.
- : 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 viable 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.
Instead of customizing your familiar and potentially changing its abilities every day, you can choose to take a Specific Familiar. Doing so requires that you have at least the required number of abilities. If you have additional abilities, it's not clear what happens but I believe that they're simply ignored. In effect, you're trading customizability for the additional capabilities provided by the Specific Familiar which you choose.
Specific Familiars are not strictly better than regular familiars. They can do some specific, unique things that make them appealing, but you lose a lot of versatility which you normally get from the ability to customize a regular familiar.
For the full list of Specific Familiars and their stats, see the Specific Familiars page on Archive of Nethys.
The Spellslime is a weird magical punching bag. Throw it into combat and hope that enemies are dumb enough to waste actions attacking it. It can't actually do anything except move around and maybe deliver spells if you have the Familiar Conduit feat, but beyond that it's basically useless. As soon as enemies figure out that it's harmless, they'll stop attacking it and focus their attention on your and your allies instead.
Remember that you need to be able to cast spells using spell slots (no innate spellcasting) to select the spellslime.
The combination of base abilities is pretty good. I'm not a fan of Touch Telepathy, but otherwise this is a great familiar for use as a scout. The breath weapon applies Stupefied, which makes targets weak to effects which target their Will saves (among other penalties), so if you're a spellcaster it's easy to follow this with spells which call for Will saves.
Similar to the Faerie Dragon, the Imp is a great basis for use as a scout. Skilled (Deception) probably won't help you much, but if you want an imp familiar maybe you do want someone around to lie on your behalf. It also adds the ability to make itself invisible (again reinforcing its capability as a scout) and Infernal Temptation. Infernal Temptation is amazing both thematically and conceptually. You gamble with your eternal soul, risking losing the ability to be raised from the dead, but in exchange you get to roll an attack or save twice and use the better result, potentially saving your life by doing so.