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I would like to allow a level ~5 character to have a dragon as a familiar. (My DM style is a little more flexible.) Other than having a "baby dragon," how would you keep that balanced? I'd also appreciate any advice about running a dragon-assisted campaign.

Addendum: What if I just reduced the HD, and restricted a few abilities? Example, too young to fly, but intelligent to talk and give additional reasoning. Randomly remove a spell-like ability, and/or supernatural ability.

Would I be restricting the player too much, by actually turning the dragon into a pet she needs to take care of, rather than an independent familiar?

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What are you concerned about balancing the dragon familiar against? Do you want to maintain balance with fellow PCs who don't have dragon-pets? Is it against "level-appropriate" encounters? Published adventures? There are all sorts of different answers, depending on with what you want to maintain balance. – SevenSidedDie Apr 3 '11 at 5:11
I'm sorry, Yes. I have a player who's only desire is to have a dragon pet. It seems innocent enough, it doesn't seem to be a plot for a power play. But I need to keep her balanced with the other players. As for encounters I assumed I could just pit my party against slightly tougher or larger encounters. – Ray301 Apr 3 '11 at 14:34
Is a pseudo dragon close enough? – C. Ross Apr 3 '11 at 19:43
What class is she? What class is the rest of the party? – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 3 '11 at 21:37
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Okay, so I found a reference in this archived thread on the Giant in the Playground forums to a Dragon Familiar feat in the Draconomicon.

There are rules for acquiring a dragon cohort using the leadership feat, which the character can take now. Depending on their charisma, they'll either be able to take a pseudo dragon (+0 cha), a brass wyrmling (+3 cha), or a copper wyrmling (+4 cha) at 6th level.

There are two other relevant feats: Dragon Cohort (requires level 9), or Dragon Familiar (requires level 7 in an arcane casting class; level 9 for a good dragon). Dragon Cohort functions as leadership, but gives higher quality dragons. Dragon Familiar grants a wyrmling dragon based on the caster's level.

There are other rules which might help in making your decisions in Races of the Dragon and Dragon Magic, and I think both have a host of useful feats for the dragon to take.

If you instead mean that you want to have a more powerful dragon adventure along with the party as if it were another player, you should be careful, since said dragon could very much end up coming across as a DMPC. My suggestions for doing so are the same as if you did have the party bring a DMPC along: don't let it steal the spotlight. One way to do that is to avoid having the dragon suggest ideas to the party; another is to make sure they aren't as optimized as the party; and a third is to make sure that the plot revolves around the players, not the dragon.

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The problem of the dragon not being optimized is tough, considering the benefits of the Dragon type in 3e: full BAB, d12 HD, all good saves and 6+Int skill points per HD. For the dragon not to outshine any party member in one area or another it would have to be of a much lower level than the party which is difficult considering the HD of even wyrmling dragons. If only the looks (and a few smart-ass comments now and then) were required, I'd suggest considering the pseudodragon ( as a familiar. – user660 Apr 3 '11 at 12:35
Added a summary of the Draconomicon rules. They seem spot-on. – AceCalhoon Apr 3 '11 at 15:55

One thing that occurs to me is that a highly intelligent and powerful dragon might consider the low-powered human to be its pet. It might even be amused by the human's view of the relationship and attempts to "take charge." It may occasionally help the PC out of extreme situations, but it would do so for its own reasons, and possibly not always in ways the player might want.

What do you mean that was money? Don't be silly, little human! Money is gold, silver, gems - stuff like that. That was just a pile of worthless paper. It's pretty when it burns though.

(Edit) Another possibility would be excessive mothering by an over-protective dragon.

You think you're going adventuring in that?!? You march right back up those stairs and change clothes this instant! You're not leaving this house until you're decently covered! And don't forget your cloak and boots - the sages are predicting rain this afternoon.

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Hahaha, I like it. What about adding a different personality twist, by severely reducing the dragon's intelligence? – Ray301 Apr 4 '11 at 23:32
Or a severe phobia - imagine a dragon the size of a bus, quaking in fear and trying its best to hide behind a magic user because it saw a mouse. Or, one that faints whenever it sees blood. A DM could even build a series of adventures around a quest to find a cure for such a problem. – Sherm Pendley Apr 5 '11 at 1:13
I would have severe issues with a "familiar as lodestone" especially if I was investing resources getting it. Your player may enjoy that kind of interaction though, but make sure to discuss it beforehand. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 5 '11 at 2:08

There are two obvious extremes to avoid. NPC-as-bazooka(note 2), and the ever dreaded Escort Mission, where the NPC is obviously helpless.

However, there is a far more fatal trap: Giving a bazooka to a Tier 1 character. The depressing thing is that at level 5, a wizard or cleric with access to all of the books will destroy a ECL 5 dragon. A Brass Dragon Wrymling, ECL 6, has pathetic saves, a pathetic breath weapon, and no spell resistance.

This is still better than a Tier 5 Fighter or arguably Tier 4 Rogue because of its breath weapon, and movement modes. I'd allow a Tier 5 or 4 to play the dragon without modifications if most of the party is averaging Tier 2. If you have a Tier 5 character in your party and the party is around tier 2, the simplest solution is to ask that player if they would like to play the dragon as well as their character.

If the group is around Tier 2, with everyone between 1-3, the easiest expedient would be for one PC to play the dragon voluntarily and abandon their current character. Unfortunately, for things that this level of group will find difficult, the dragon will be hopelessly overwhelmed and die quite easily. Not quite as easily as a normal familiar, but close...

Under no circumstances should you apply the buffs granted by the familiar features to the dragon on top of the dragon's inherent attributes. That's just cheesy. (But only very mild flavours of cheese. It's not like the character is casting Awaken Beast on herself for Nigh-Infinite Intelligence...)

If you give us more details about the group, I can narrow my answer down more.

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Firstly, use the Dragonlance setting. Second, I recommend the following:

  • Pseudodragon familiar. Since the wizard must be 7th level to get the improved familiar feat, begin by having the familiar as a pet, until the mage proves himself worthy for the pseudodragon to bond with, at level 7.
  • The mage is royalty, (noble class, at least 1 level, which at least explains a silver wyrm mentor, mainly there to give advice, as with Palin Majere's son Ulin.)
  • the mage is a dragonrider
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The AD&D setting/option Council of Wyrms had less of a familiar setup and more of a symbiote set up. On alternating adventures you'd either play a dragon or their human, so they would have a similar relationship to a familiar and a wizard, but it wouldn't be the same as having the dragon constantly around you to constantly do your bidding.

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The primary elements which make any monster suitable for being a familiar include being of fewer HD than the caster, and not fully sentient at first... since they are a magical beast version of a normal animal.

This would rule out most true dragons, even as hatchlings.

Any of the dragon-kin that lack intelligence could make passable familiars, if one doesn't mind the limited hit points per HD (due to a familiar having HP based upon that of their master...).

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See the 'Improved Familiar' feat for why you have a -1. – the dark wanderer Nov 3 '14 at 7:15

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