Game: Encyclopaedia Arcane: Familiars
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 5th, August 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 18
Average Score: 6.00
Encyclopaedia Arcane: Familiars is responsible for one of _those_ moments. The d20 sceptical little brother was visiting, he picked up the book from the to-review pile, flicked through it and commented, “Oh, you can have a Tyrannosaurus as a familiar now.”
I hadn’t actually read the book at that point but I felt compelled to defend it. “It makes sense in some circumstances,” I pointed out, “Would a lizardman shaman have a cat as a familiar?” Thankfully he didn’t counter by pointing out that a toad familiar would suit the lizardman perfectly, I was even more fortunate that he didn’t know the d20 rules well enough to point out how silly it would be to have a tyrannosaurus with only 2 hit points.
In fact, the tyrannosaurus wouldn’t have had only 2 hit points – that’s clear after just one casual flick through the book. To summon a familiar as powerful as that then a more powerful summon familiar ritual is required. The tyrannosaurus is a Challenge Rating 8 beast so it would need to be summoned with the Beast Familiar Ritual IX. That ninth level ritual would be the wizard or sorcerer would be, at least, 17th level. At the very least, it would have 9 hit points. Heh.
It should be noted that the to-review pile of books from which Encyclopaedia Arcane: Familiars was plucked from by the D&D doubtful roleplayer was rather high. I think EA: Familiars stood out for two reasons. It’s a good idea, familiars are present in every game with a wizard or sorcerer character and yet they’re terribly under supported. The book has a great front cover with a catchy tag line, “Crouching Monkey, Hidden Toad”. You’ve got to smile.
As already made clear by the opening paragraphs of this review one of the ways this Encyclopaedia Arcane sets about fleshing out Familiars is to dramatically increase the types of familiar available. Anything’s available now; oozes, undead, fey, humanoids and even dragons. Fey don’t have to accept the familiar bond but are bound if they do. Dragons can unhitch the familiar link between you and themselves at will – begging the question ‘Who’s really the familiar in the relationship?’ My favourite addition here are the Construct familiars. The book makes use of numerous illustrations of scary rag dolls dragging a large knife along side them. You’re able to select from a range of familiars and so you should find one that suits the flavour of game you’re playing better than the standard list of little animals. This is a success rather than an embarrassment for the book. EA: Familiar’s long list of possible familiars includes special boons for them all. The now notorious tyrannosaurus relates to +2 to Fortitude saves, Shield Guardians grant +1 to natural armour, an Efreeti’s special boon is Immunity (Heat) and Derro grants the Blind-fight feat. And so on.
Encyclopaedia Arcane: Familiars is fully 3.5 compatible. The “traditional familiar special abilities” table is the same one as you’ll find in the updated rule set. Share Spells and Empathic Link are available at level one, the natural armour bonus is +5 when the Master’s Effective Class level is between 9 and Scry Familiar becomes available when the ECL is 13. This traditional path assumes that the familiar is going to try and share and enhance their master’s arcane energy. Crouching Monkey, Hidden Toad adds some alternative paths for the familiar and the more powerful ones are balanced through an experience point investment. Summon your familiar and be tempted by the Path of the Assistant, the Path of the Envoy, the Path of the Guardian, the Path of the Gladiator, the Path of the Infiltrator or the Path of the Seeker. These different paths have widely different abilities; sometimes the familiars have the full hit points of their master and sometimes they can even soak up damage to protect their master (and regenerate it quickly if they’re powerful enough). My personal preference is to shy away from the more combat orientated familiars but to take a shine to the wizardly assisting familiars. The path of the infiltrator should mean its unlucky/unwise to allow a raven to sit up in a tree and watch you plot against the local witch. The Path of Seeker has the familiar busy itself with trying to find material components for its master. This is a great idea. I hate it when the search for components consumes too much game time. Get the familiar to do it in the background and sell the idea to BioWare’s CRPG designers.
Another option is to do without a familiar all together. The Path of Independence gives the mage the ability to forever do without a familiar and gain a feat instead. Doesn’t sound like a fair trade to me (especially since some familiars grant feats in this book) but options are generally good. A better idea is to sacrifice other people’s familiars and harvest the power yourself.
Familiars naturally advance in power along side their master but EA: Familiars suggests that they can be specifically trained too. Training isn’t natural. It requires a Training Ritual and plenty of experience points. Training Ritual I grants a class level of 1 to the familiar, Training Ritual V grants a class level of 5 to the familiar and Training Ritual VIII takes it up to class level 8. Just as players must advance one level as a time, so do familiars. Do familiars have character classes? Yes! But they don’t get all the associated special abilities though. You can train your familiar to be a wizard and it’ll be able to cast the spells you know but not be able to summon a familiar all for itself. A Barbarian familiar could rage. A monk monkey family can deflect arrows if it has enough levels. (“Crouching Monkey, Hidden Toad”, remember).
Some standard feats don’t suit familiars at all but the book offers up some special familiar only feats. These familiar feats wouldn’t normally be required but with familiar training they could need as many feats as their master. Extended Empathic Link will allow your familiar to contact you up to five miles away. Sense Component is a feat that lets your familiar magically sense when a component is nearby. Handy.
Encyclopaedia Arcane: Familiars contains prestige classes for mages especially interested in the familiar link. The Acolyte of the Ghost must have an undead familiar and, as the name suggests, will transform into a ghost as they level up. The Beastheart must have a magical beast familiar and are interested in how the arcane familiar experiences the world. Already mentioned in this review is the idea and practise of sacrificing someone else’s familiar and the Libertine Darktongue prestige class is spawned from this. True Magi are those who do without a familiar and explore the possibilities and arcane secrets that become apparent without that connection. Mongoose’s Ooze Lord class is no less silly than the Oozemaster in WotC’s awful Masters of the Wild. The Treantblood class is less silly since even though it has a similar transformation process it’s not one that defies belief and prevents roleplaying.
The book finishes off with a collection of familiar related magic spells and stat blocks for common familiar suitable animals like otter and, of course, the mongoose.
Crouching Monkey, Hidden Toad is a pick’n’mix book. If you pick it up and read something at random then you could well find an article or idea that holds no attraction for you. On the other hand you’re equally as likely to find a winning idea. However, all these ideas, whether they appeal to you or not, are wrapped up in typical Mongoose professionalism and this gives the book just the edge it needs.