Archive for January, 2022

Tweaking the Improved Familiar feat for Pathfinder 1E

January 25, 2022

The Improved Familiar feat is almost a microcosm of the evolution of d20 System options across its most notable RPGs.

In D&D 3.0, the feat didn’t exist under the Core Rules, premiering in the Tome and Blood supplement. D&D 3.5 saw it added to the Player’s Handbook (as well as the SRD), and while it had a few expansions here and there (such as in Dragon #331, which allowed a PC to take the feat and gain an additional ability in exchange for keeping their existing familiar), Pathfinder 1E made its expanded list of improved familiars Open Game Content (just like the rest of the system), making its options much easier to collate.

One thing that’s worth noting, however, is that the Improved Familiar feat doesn’t always require you to take a new familiar in place of your old one. It’s entirely possible for you to take a standard familiar with a template (originally that was only celestial or fiendish, but more possibilities were added over time). While that can be a different creature altogether, there’s no reason to think that this can’t be the same familiar you’ve had up until now, imbued with planar energies that “upgrade” it to a planar being.

Taking that idea further, why not allow for the Improved Familiar feat to augment your familiar in other ways as well? Likewise, why do those template require such strict alignments on behalf of the familiar’s master? It makes sense that you need to be good-aligned to have a familiar with the celestial template, but limiting it to Neutral Good feels too restrictive. Clearly, some tweaking is needed.

To that end, here are my suggestions for alternative options (in addition to simply selecting a more powerful creature) for what Improved Familiar can do:

Upon taking the Improved Familiar feat, if you are at least 3rd level or higher in the class that grants a familiar, you may apply one of the following templates to it (with your alignment requirements as noted):

Advanced, aerial, aqueous, celestial (any good), counterpoised (any neutral), cthonic, dark, entropic (any chaotic), fey-touched, fiendish (any evil), fiery, giant, primordial, resolute (any lawful).

Any abilities which are dependent on Hit Dice use either the familiar’s Hit Dice, or your levels in the class that grants you a familiar, whichever is higher.

Special: If you have a subtype corresponding to a particular template noted above (e.g. the Good subtype for the celestial template, the Aquatic or Water subtype for the aqueous template, etc.), have a familiar, and have at least 3 or more Hit Dice, you receive Improved Familiar as a bonus feat, but only to grant the corresponding template. If you have more than one subtype, you may pick which corresponding template to apply to your familiar; once made, this choice cannot be changed.

At the GM’s option, a template with a Challenge Rating adjustment of +1 or less other than the ones above may be granted to your familiar upon taking this feat.

This allows for a much greater degree of customization, along with a greater range of who can select the various aligned templates for their familiar. Likewise, the special notation allows for characters from alien realms to have a templated familiar without costing them a feat (since otherwise it would be odd to consider, for instance, an efreeti wizard might have to carefully protect a non-elemental familiar on the Plane of Fire until he could earn another feat slot). We’ve also left the possibility open for a different template to be applied if there’s one that’s not on this list but would otherwise be appropriate.

Hopefully this makes your familiar feel a little more new.

Random Thought Encounter: Giants and Rock Catching

January 10, 2022

One of the stranger monster abilities you’ll see throughout various editions of Dungeons & Dragons is the ability for giants to catch rocks.

Now, giants being able to throw rocks makes perfect sense. Giants are big, rocks are plentiful, and it saves them from having to spend resources on ranged weapons, which are typically disposable and would require more materials to be spent scaling them to giant-size. If there’s only so much steel to go around, do you want to waste it on huge-sized arrowheads or on a sturdy suit of armor?

But catching rocks as a special ability for giants makes a lot less sense to me. At least from a game design standpoint. This simply isn’t something I see coming up at most game tables. PCs tend to be human-sized characters who, when making ranged attacks, resort either to more sophisticated weapons (typically projectiles of some sort, e.g. crossbows) or spells. The only ones likely to be throwing rocks at giants are other giants.

Now, that could still come up in the course of play. A PC magic-user might polymorph into a giant, or the fighter might drink a potion of giant control, or the bard might convince a clan of friendly giants to help them attack a rival clan who’s been attacking human lands. But overall, that’s not much of a case for introducing a specialized ability into giant stat blocks.

For that matter, this particular quirk isn’t universal to giants in D&D. The original Chainmail game (1971) has giants being able to attack as with rocks per catapults, but there’s nothing in there about them catching them. Nor is there in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Holmes Basic (1977), or B/X (1981); giants in the Rules Cyclopedia (1991), which collects the first four sets of the BECMI iteration of D&D, lack this ability as well, as do giants in D&D 4th Edition.

Rock catching, as it turns out, only appears in AD&D 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, D&D 3.X, and 5E…and even 5E only keeps it for stone giants, whereas the earlier versions of the game assign it to most giants in some form or another. (Giants in Pathfinder 1st Edition, I’ll note, also carries this over from 3.X, and Pathfinder 2nd Edition has them retain it.)

So where does this ability come from in the first place? While it apparently started in AD&D 1E, what inspired Gary Gygax to write this particular ability into the monster entries for the giants in the 1977 Monster Manual? After some Googling, the best hypothesis I can find is that he wanted to mechanically represent what happens in this passage:

“Bilbo … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang … they could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”

The Hobbit, Chapter IV: Over Hill and Under Hill

Of course, it’s worth noting that AD&D 1st Edition also introduced a few instances where the players might very well be hurling rocks. For instance, the potion of giant strength on page 126 of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) directly references doing so, as does the girdle of giant strength (p. 145). Not to mention the possibility that the PCs might, under certain circumstances, make use of catapults themselves (e.g. defending a settlement against a besieging army of humanoids, among whom giants might be found).

Interestingly, the mechanics behind rock catching also changed across the editions. While 1E and 2E gave giants percentage chances (which varied among giant types) of successfully catching rocks thrown at them, 3.X let them make a Reflex save once per round to do so, with the DC varying depending on the size of the rock. Given that Reflex is a bad save for creatures of the Giant type, and most giants had terrible Dexterity scores, this meant that even on the few occasions that giants in 3.X were called on to catch a rock, they likely wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

5th Edition, it should be noted, was a bit more generous in this regard. Although only stone giants can catch rocks now, as noted previously, they need only make a DC 10 Dexterity save to do so (and be able to use their reaction for the round). Since they have a +5 bonus to Dexterity saves to begin with, that makes them very likely to successfully catch any rock that comes their way, albeit not quite as certain as back in 1E and 2E (where stone giants had a 90% chance of catching a rock).

While I doubt that many players have anecdotes about this particular ability, I can’t help but wonder how this might have come up during play. If you have a tale about giants catching rocks in your game, please feel free to share it in the comments below!