The familiar is a common component in magical culture, it’s strongest iconic heritage being traced back to the witch and her black cat. This creature was no mortal feline of flesh and blood, but rather it was an imp, or familiar spirit that assumed the shape of a black cat. This servant assisted the witch in question by performing domestic chores, spying, and being intelligent companions. Another attribute was that the familiar spirit could serve as a muse, inspiring the witch in her tasks.
In most pen and paper RPGs the Familiar is a beneficent creature summoned by a magic user for a variety of purposes, though very few of these purposes relate to the historic aspect of being a servant and muse. In the Dungeons and Dragons game, a familiar provides a bonus to a skill, the master of a raven familiar gaining a bonus to spot checks for example. In the Mage: The Ascencion game, familiars are employed for the purpose of consuming Paradox, the mystical backlash of doing inappropriate magics, or just doing magics poorly. Too much of that sort of thing though, and the familiar dies. For the most part, the basic idea behind the familiar has taken a back seat to game mechanics and as such the rules are variable in inconsistent between game systems.
Summon Familiar I - This is the most common and widely accepted version/method of gaining a familiar. With the application of this spell, the magic user in question summons a familiar spirit to him, at which time the shape of the spirit is assumed, either by the magic user ‘I summon thee in the form of a cat’ or by the familiar just picking a shape. The form assumed by the familiar is highly variable, but generally no smaller than a good sized rat, and no bigger than a small dog. While cats, owls, toads, and ravens are the most popular, there is no limitation as to what sort of animal the familiar may become. Dangerous animals may be created, but the magic user in question is not protected from their familiar. A magus with a cobra must keep his familiar satisfied at all times, and a sorceress with a porcupine need mind her hands of her muse’s quills.
A familiar at this level of summoning has the ability to move objects that weigh up to 5 pounds by effort of will, create minor illusions and tricks of light, and mend and repair damaged materials. These skills are employed for the purpose of serving the magic user as a servant and assistant. These skills can be used for cleaning, sorting objects, mending torn or tattered robes, and keeping books from falling apart due to heavy use.
Summon Familiar II
While functioning almost identically to the Summon Familiar I ritual, this version, at suitably higher difficulty, allows one of two things. A magic user may use this spell to summon a familiar spirit of greater size and ability, or to draw more arcane force to enhance an already existent familiar. The familiar summoned or enhanced by this ritual may reach a size up to medium size, no larger than a large dog, small great cat such as a lynx or leopard, or similar creature.
While perhaps less inclined to be relegated to cleaning duty, the Familiar II is much better equipped to deal with such matters. The ability to move objects by will grows to an upper limit of 25 pounds in weight and the ability to mend and repair objects extends from paper and fabric to repairing wood and metal objects as well. Familiars created at this level have a stronger personality and are more independent than common familiars. A witch’s black cat might loath to be away from her master, while a witch with a panther familiar might find her ally occasionally vanishing to hunt small prey, or a scholar’s great horned owl prefers to hide and keep secrets to herself. to have a greater familiar is a sign of greater magical aptitude and an indicator of the magic users power and savvy.
Summon Familiar III
This spell, the most difficult of the familiar rituals, allows for the summoning of familiar spirits that can assume the shape of a creature as large as a horse. Aside from the physical aspect, the creature has no basic abilities greater than that of a familiar summoned with the level II ritual. The basic use of such a spell is for the summoning of large and dangerous familiars such as tigers, bears, drakes, griffons, and the like. While the application of Summon Familiar II is seen as a sign of ability, Summon Familiar III is seen as ‘compensation’ in much the same was as men who drive Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
Each familiar is unique in that each has a trick or knack that it can perform. The familiar is under no obligation to inform the mage what it’s knack is, nor can the mage force it to do so, this is one of the aspects of the familiar that grants it a small degree of existential freedom. A knack wont exceed a low level spell for ability, so a cat wont be coughing up fireballs, but it might be able to summon other cats, or speak with other animals. Another example could be a mage with a turtle familiar that has a knack of sharing it’s shell’s protective ability in form of a magical armor class bonus. a Level II familiar has 2 knacks, and a level III has three knacks, with the ability limit suitably raised for each. A knack, no matter the level can be used only once a day.
History keeps familiars as common animals, but our history has not been kind to those who practiced the arcane arts and this form was required lest the authorities discover the magic users practice. In a more common fantasy setting there was no Spanish Inquisition or Salem Witch trials and in most magic users have no need to hide their abilities. This means that the form of the familiar need not be ‘familiar’. While cats, ravens and owls, and other such creature will remain common enough, they are not the only such things allowed. A familiar spirit may assume the form of a fantastic or exotic creature suitable to it’s size. I make this distinction because it would be all to easy for a canny player to summon a pygmy or toy dragon familiar complete with spell abilities and breath weapon.
Thus a Sorceress might summon not a raven or an owl but might instead summon a tiny drake. If a magic user is able to summon a familiar to emulate a creature with beyond normal abilities, the familiar will not have those abilities. The afore mentioned pygmy dragon, if such exist in a setting, would have the shape and form of the dragonlet, but would not have the dragon’s breath attack or any innate magical abilities, but would have the ability to fly, and have a nasty bite.
A downside to Exotic and Fantastic familiars is such a strange shape tends to make such familiars haughty and arrogant. The mistress would not have put such effort into summoning a Ghost Lemur to have it tend to sweeping and mending books and collecting herbs from the garden. Surely a more base and common sort of familiar would have been chosen for that.
In religious perspective familiars are demons and devils in common form, sent to earth by infernal powers to guide wicked souls into the black arts and blasphemy. As mentioned above, most games don’t take such a severe tone towards magic, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be real infernal familiars. A demonic familiar follows the same basic rules to summon as a normal familiar, but the ritual is considered evil and requires a suitable evil component, such as spilt blood, components secured by murder, etc. This ritual, while creating the same end, is very much different in function. The basic Summon spells call forth a creation of arcane magic, that is the familiar spirit is created then and there. On the other hand, the Infernal Summons calls forth a minor demon or devil to assume the shape of a familiar. Thus, the Imp has a memory and may have served other magi, where the normal summoned familiar did not exist until it was drawn into being by the Summon ritual.
The infernal familiar is much more of a tutor and much much less of a servant. As such, the Imp in question will not debase itself to menial tasks unless it is being punished by it’s master. As can be expected, the Imp will provide only malefic spells and guidance and will always seek to drive his master deeper into darkness and evil, and into deeper debt to his infernal patron. The infernal patron can at any time communicate with the Imp and can use it as a window to communicate with the magic user in question. Heaven help (Heh!) the magic user who has so drawn the attention of his infernal patron that said demon actually speaks through the mouth of his familiar.
If Infernal Familiars are available, then surely Celestial Familiars are available? The answer in short is no. Celestial spirits serve their higher powers and in rare cases may be sent to assist things in the mortal plane, but the divine powers work not through magic users and conjurers but have established faiths, clerics, and other implements of their holy power. A magic user who investigates a Summon Celestial Familiar should get a nagging feeling like a grandmother telling him to stop asking for material things and to go to church on Sunday.
With this ritual of moderate to high difficulty, a magic user to make a living creature into a familiar, infusing the creature with arcane energy. As such, the creature is preserved by magic, and gains intelligence as an awakened familiar would, but retains it’s personality, and intellect. Thus a faithful hound might be preserved from death’s embrace, and retain all it’s loyalty to it’s master. But this is not the original or even intended use of the Familiar Bond.
With the bonding ritual, a magus can turn a human being, or other intelligent creature into his Familiar. While not capable of providing magical guidance, such familiars are much better suited to being companions, and assistants to the magus. While there are certain benefits to becoming a familiar to a wizard, such as gaining immunity to illness and disease, it comes at a heavy price. Becoming a familiar automatically gives the magic user dominance over the familiar. A human could not refuse common orders from the mage or even basic suggestions unless they went against the very grain of the person in question. While a serving woman turned familiar could not reasonably be ordered to attack an armed party, she could not refuse even the most basic gesture to clean or serve. Likewise, a knight so bonded could not refuse an order to attack a foe, but the magus could not order said warrior to act cowardly or craven.
After the issue of dominance, the familiar becomes life bonded to the magus. While loosing a familiar is detrimental to a magus, loosing a magus is instantly fatal to a familiar. Should something happen to the mage who holds the bond over a human familiar, that human also dies, instantly. Creating a human familiar is considered a crime even if the human in question was willing. If the human was not willing, not only is it considered a criminal act, it is also considered and evil act.
The Loss of a Familiar
Loosing a Familiar can be a highly negative event. There are a variety of methods by which a familiar can be lost. The most common method is that the familiar is by happenstance or intent slain by a weapon. Once a familiar assumes a solid form, they gain it’s abilities as well as it’s weaknesses. A cat can be killed with an arrow, a giant slug can be salted and killed, and so on and so forth. This loss is immediately felt by the magic user who summoned the familiar and it is a hard blow to them, both magically and physically. The stress caused by the breakage of the bond between summoner and summoned also causes physical pain, and some instances, death. On a side note; familiars do not age, cannot be starved, choked, or otherwise killed, nor do they become ill. They are a creation of magic and though they can be undone by mundane effort, they are not biological in nature and do not require food or water, though many prefer to have it.
A less common way to loose a familiar is by magical banishment. If the spirit is banished, it has been removed from the mortal realm and cast back into the arcane realms from which it was originally drawn. If a Familiar refuses to serve his summoner, the summoner is able to banish the familiar without ill effect other than having the cast the Summon Familiar ritual again. There is a social stigma among magic users against those who change familiars frequently, a familiar is a very close companion and actually having one refuse to serve is a rather rare thing. someone who is able to regularly offend such creatures is obviously unbalanced or disturbed.
A magic user may use magic to banish another magic users familiar, thought this should be rare. Such an act would generally be considered dishonorable and cowardly among magi, even moreso if the banisher in question had a familiar and knew of the bond between magus and familiar. such an act carries the same emotional resonance for a magus as if the banishing magus had slain the other’s child. Of course in acts of war, such behavior is common, though afterwards those banishers tend to be ostracized later. They did it once, they could do it again.