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So the way the spell find familiar works is that you summon a fey/fiend/celestial that takes the form of a normal animal and follows your commands unquestionably. But then I see certain variant rules like this one on the Pseudodragon's entry:

Some pseudodragons are willing to serve spellcasters as a familiar... At any time and for any reason, the pseudodragon can end its service as a familiar, ending the telepathic link. (Monster Manual, page 254)

And then there's this in the Gazer's entry:

Some beholders with wizard minions insist they take a gazer as a familiar because they can see through the eyes of these creatures. (Volo's Guide, page 126)

So the implication here is that you can make familiars out of non-summoned, non fey/fiend/celestial creatures that can act on their own free will. The only problem is I can't find any rules that pertain to this in 5e. Are there any? And if not, what could I do to incorporate these kinds of familiars in a game?

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No, familiars can be gained by means other than summoning

So there are three broad ways you can gain a familiar:

  • By summoning one, using the find familiar spell;

  • By forming a pact with a creature who will willingly be your familiar;

  • By creating one yourself

In the first case, you — the player — have control over the actions of the familiar, as detailed in the spell description. But for the second case, the DM controls the familiar's actions, not you.

In other words, if you find a real pseudodragon in the game, tame it, and convince it to serve you, it becomes your familiar, but it is still an NPC. At any time, the DM may decide that you have violated the terms of your agreement/broken your mutual trust, and the familiar can leave you or betray you. It is choosing to be with you, but you don't get to decide its motivations.

It is also possible to have more than one familiar this way, if you summon one and form a pact with another one.


The Imp: the familiar that can be forged a pact with

In MM pg 69, you will find on the sidebar an "Imp Familiar" variant. They are described as:

Imps can be found in the service to mortal spellcasters, acting as advisors, spies, and familiars. An imp urges its master to acts of evil, knowing the mortal's soul is a prize the imp might ultimately claim. […]

Familiar. The imp can enter into a contract to serve another creature as a familiar, forming a telepathic bond with its willing master. […]

So there is the second way to get a familiar, as demonstrated in the RAW.

The Homunculus: the familiar that can be created

In MM pg 188, you will see the Homunculus: a tiny creature that is made by the wizard — not summoned or made a pact with. The text does not actually say the word "familiar," but its abilities as a companion are everything a familiar can do, and a little extra.

A homunculus is a construct that acts as an extension of its creator, with the two sharing thoughts, senses, and language through a mystical bond. A master can have only one homunculus at a time (attempts to create another one always fail), and when its master dies, the homunculus also dies.

Shared Mind. A homunculus knows everything its creator knows, including all the languages the creator can speak and read. Likewise, everything the construct senses is known to its master, even over great distances, provided both are on the same plane.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The Variant familiar in the MM and Volo are intended for NPCs, not PCs. Might be worth mentioning in your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Mar 15 '18 at 20:24
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Yes, familiars must be attained through the Find Familiar spell

While it is certainly possible to gain the allegiance of various creatures and forge some sort of connection between them, they are not the same as familiars gained from the spell. For example, you could gain the service of a pseudodragon in the world, but it would be unable to deliver spells for you or vanish when it dies, the way a "real" familiar would. The MM has various variants that allow you to forge a pact with creatures, such as imps, but they don't work the same way as the spell does, and they don't confer as many benefits.

Warlocks can have different forms of familiars through the Pact of the Chain

PHB 107:

You learn the find familiar spell ... When you cast the spell, you can choose one of the normal forms for your familiar or one of the following special forms: imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite.

PHB 108:

Pact of the Chain. Your familiar is more cunning than a typical familiar. Its default form can be a reflection of your patron, with sprites and pseudodragons tied to the Archfey and imps and quasits tied to the Fiend. Because the Great Old One’s nature is inscrutable, any familiar form is suitable for it.

As you can see, a warlock's special connection to their patron allows them to access these different forms for their familiars. Moreover, because these forms are explicitly tied to the spell, a warlock's imp familiar retains all of the abilities of the spell, such as delivering spells, telepathy, and so on. This is the only place in the rules that allows a character to have a non-animal familiar form with all of the benefits of the Find Familiar spell's familiar, as far as I could find.

The MM Variant allows any tiny creature to be a familiar through the spell

Applying this to PCs is a bit iffy, given that the box is referring to NPC casters, but MM 347 contains the following:

Any spell caster that can cast the find familiar spell (such as an archmage or mage) is likely to have a familiar. The familiar can be one of the creatures described in the spell (see the Player's Handbook) or some other Tiny monster, such as a crawling claw, imp, pseudodragon, or quasit.

If you wanted to allow your players to have true familiars with varying forms, you could use this passage as the basis for that.

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Familiars can be obtained by multiple means, although it might require some time.

That said, if you mean a familiar as described strictly in the Find Familiar (FF) spell found in the PHB, then the spell is really the only way to get everything described. Other methods bring about their own advantages and disadvantages, which is what is discussed here. For the familiars gained from the spell or from the Warlock's Pact of the Chain, see the PHB for all the rules.

Before listing the different approaches possible, it is worth noting that having a character possess a familiar can drastically alter the mechanic of your party, ranging from exploration, to social encounters, all the way to combat (this will be discussed later).

What exactly is a familiar?

A familiar is a tiny creature which possesses some form of connection to a character (usually a caster). This connection allows for communication between the familiar and its owner, usually telepathic, and often also allows the owner to perceive through the familiar's senses.

Gaining a familiar

Variant rules (these will have different abilities):

  • Pact: According to certain variant rules in the MM, some creatures (celestials, fey or fiends) can become familiars by forming a contract with them. There are no rules on how much time this takes, but it must be enough to actually summon the creature, negotiate with it and seal the pact. An example of this is the Imp (variant found in MM, pg. 69).

  • Creation: Some casters have the possibility to create familiars and other allies. The only one specified by RAW is the Homonculous (MM pg. 188). Again, creation time isn't specified in RAW, but it should also take around a year, in my opinion (or use Magic Item creation rules, DMG, pg. 128-129 and attribute it a rarity level).

Familiars gained through these methods are NPCs and therefore are not bound to its "owner" in the same way, usually being controlled by the DM instead of the player, and while they're considered extremely loyal to the PC to which they are bonded, if a pact is broken, or if the familiar is mistreated, it is free to leave or disregard commands. Also, while they do not gain the abilities of familiars listed in the FF spell (such as delivering spells and being stored in pocket dimension), they have access to all of their normal abilities and actions. In the case of familiars gained through pacts, the only feature added is the telepathic bond.

Homebrew rules (playtested in various campaigns):

  • Taming: A tiny creature could become a familiar if it is tamed (requires Int of 4 or less). According to downtime rules, this takes bout a year and requires Animal Handling checks (UA).

The main difference with this is that a beast, or a typically non-magical creature, is not able to form the same telepathic bond with its master as the other types of familiars. Also, having an intelligence of less than 4, it follows its master's commands almost blindly, but cannot be issued complex commands (a few words, up to a simple sentence). Any player character can possess such an NPC companion, but casters are able to go further with theirs if the following is allowed:

Casters who have access to the Speak with Animals and the Beast Sense spells can create a telepathic bond with their familiar by cast it on them everyday until the familiar is tamed. This forms a telepathic bond with their familiar, allowing them to issue more complex orders (a few sentences), communicate with them in for a range of up to a mile, and sense what their familiar can sense using an action with the same range.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In the case of an Imp familiar of the real kind (not the summoned one via FF), the master has advantage on all saves against spells if the Imp is within 30 ft of their master, sharing their Magic Resistance trait. \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 May 21 '17 at 14:59

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