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Core Question:

Is restricting a warlock's familiar to not be able to fly (or turn into any animal capable of flight) too much of a nerf to its functionality?

Background:

I'm about to DM a new homebrew campaign. I'm playing a lot with some of the more extreme functionality of D&D and warned my players that to fit in this campaign they might be required to make some early-game sacrifices in terms of character design, in trade for exciting payout later on. They were very on board at the time and quite excited about my proposed changes.

(To get in the right mindset, imagine something like a campaign where in session one, as early-level characters, everyone draws three cards from the Deck of Many Things. I'm planning something similarly crazy.)

One of my players has approached me and wants to play a warlock with Pact of the Chain. I've yet to DM for or play one, so I took a look through their class and got hung up on the familiar. Because of the story of my campaign it will be impossible for her to have a familiar that can either fly or that resembles a bird; it ruins half of my plot. I brought this up to her and we ended up in a rather heated discussion about whether I was nerfing her unduly.

I am okay with swapping the bird/flight form (most seem to have something like an owl, raven, bat, etc) for a different ground-based species.

She believes removing the option of flight nerfs what the familiar can do for her too much, and I don't understand the use of a familiar enough to feel comfortable laying down the law with certainty.

So back to my question; is removing a familiar's flight-based abilities and any stats one could use by assuming the shape of a bird a large nerf to a warlock's familiar, or is this no big deal?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious about what in the story makes it "impossible" for her familiar to be a bird? It sounds overly restrictive unless it's a world feature, all of which the players should know about before creating characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Asher Mar 15 '18 at 20:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Asher As I actually just mentioned in another comment; the plot of the game is specifically that suddenly flight no longer "works" - flying animals are grounded, flight-based objects fail to lift off and flight spells don't have any effect. Their quest is to discover why and how this has happened. To avoid spoilers to my player it seemed simpler to just say "no birds or anything with flight when shapechanging". \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Mar 15 '18 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sirjonsnow We tend to play in microcosms of time; this one quest line (which will be about a week in game time) could take our group 30+ sessions to complete (which would span 15ish weeks real time). That's a long, long time to have your biggest asset not able to do part of its function and I want to make sure the player doesn't feel slighted. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Mar 16 '18 at 12:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sirjonsnow -cont- Realized that came out weird too late to edit - should be more like 20+ sessions over 10 weeks. We play for only an hour or two at a time irl, and that might span as little as one several-minute combat encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Mar 16 '18 at 13:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Alex While the question itself is answered, with regards to what you should do instead I would recommend clarifying to your players that flight as a whole won't be available for (at least most of) this campaign. It sounds like this will happen early so it shouldn't be a major spoiler, and it will help the warlock player understand that you were trying to avoid her character being unduly nerfed by the story, rather than trying to make her character unduly nerfed because you don't want to deal with your story getting scouted. \$\endgroup\$ – Kamil Drakari Mar 16 '18 at 13:46

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Yes, it would be a noticable nerf.

Mechanically, having a familiar capable of flight - such as an owl - can indeed be rather useful, especially for scouting purposes - which is one of the main benefits of a familiar, barring RP purposes (RAW, familiars should be unable to carry anything noteworthy, so that won't be an issue).
Hence, disallowing flight for your warlocks familiar would indeed be a huge nerf, especially since familiars are generally not very useful in combat either, and you would be taking away their main out-of-combat non-roleplay purpose.

Therefore, if you can't convince your player to choose a different pact boon for her warlock - who, btw, won't have a familiar until level 3 anyways - you could allow her to choose a familiar that for some reason can't fly until the warlock reaches level XY, if that's an option you're ok with.
Of course, the in-game reason would not be tied to the level, which would be too "meta", but instead, a raven familiar could be too young or physically impaired to fly. Around the time when the warlock reaches the desired level, the raven has grown up enough or has healed, so the raven can now fly.

Also note that all creatures that are on a Pact of the Chain warlock's extended familiar list are either naturally capable of flight, or have means of shapechanging into a creature that does.


Side note

I also recommend checking out the dark wanderer's answer, which lists other reasons why you shouldn't disallow flight for your player's familiar, other than just targeting the mechanical implications of flight for a familiar, as my answer does.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Flying isn't the only unique movement type useful for scouting familiars though, right? What about familiars that can Climb, Swim, or Burrow instead? For instance, a snake can swim and enter small spaces easily, and be very stealthy while doing so. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Mar 15 '18 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare except when the thing you are wanting to explore is a wide canyon, a lava river, a pit, etc. I agree that there are other options but flight is fairly universally useful and therefore a nerf if removed. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Green Mar 15 '18 at 21:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewGreen All you need is a pink balloon. \$\endgroup\$ – Bilkokuya Mar 16 '18 at 14:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ May want to mention that all the improved forms exclusive to her pact upgrade have flight. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Mar 16 '18 at 19:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ that's not entirely true. Quasits do not have flight, at least not in their untransformed form. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 17 '18 at 10:39
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It is a serious nerf

A plain vanilla wizard can have a flying familiar (hawk).

Warlocks have significantly fewer spells known, less powerful spells, and no school. In exchange they get the most powerful cantrip (Eldritch Blast), and a pact.

If you pick Pact of the Chain, you are entitled to a very powerful familiar. Many of them can turn invisible at will, and can fly.

Is flight overpowered?

No, familiars are good for scouting, and not much else. They can Help, but with Eldritch Blast, they only help with one of the attacks.

TL;DR: Powerful =/= overpowered.
Flight is not overpowered, it is simply powerful, but that is necessary.

You should still do it

No one is forcing her to pick a Pact of the Chain Warlock.
With prior warning, she is free to create a character that is not affected at all by this change.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer seems to contradict itself; you say that flight is powerful, but then say it's not overpowered. If it's only good for scouting, is it actually essential? \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Mar 15 '18 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ regular wizards also have no issues choosing a familiar capable of flight - owl, raven, ... \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 15 '18 at 19:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Alex powerful =/= overpowered. It is not overpowered, it is simply powerful, but that is necessary. \$\endgroup\$ – András Mar 15 '18 at 19:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Alex Being able to swing an axe for 1d12+5 damage is powerful, but not overpowered. On the other hand, if you took an axe fighter and said "sorry, you can only attack with 1d4 damage stones", that fighter build would be broken. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Mar 16 '18 at 13:56
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No - Characteristics of the world are not nerfs

For instance, if your campaign is set underwater, or in a region of tight tunnels, then flight is useless and there's no benefit to having it anyway. Would the players insist that you house-rule that their bird can fly through walls, to make it not be useless? That's nonsense. If you were playing in a world without elves, would you let the player insist you allow them to play an elf? Maybe you should give the medieval warrior a lightsaber, because hey, otherwise you're unfairly nerfing their weapon! That's just silly, right?

As long as whatever rule you set applies to everyone equally, and doesn't change unexpectedly, then you're not nerfing anything - you're just laying out the scenario. I would make clear to the player that they can take whatever familiar they want (within the rules, of course), but that if they take a flying one, it will not be able to fly. If they don't like it, then either take a different familiar, or play a different character, or play a different game.

That sounds harsh, but it's really not - the design of the world should be at least somewhat a collaboration; If the player specifically wants to play in a world with certain features, you should discuss that with the whole group, and decide together what kind of game you want to play. Remember rule 0: The purpose of the game is for everyone to have fun. If one specific thing is critical to a player enjoying the game, then you either need to accommodate it, or play something else.

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This is a bad nerf

It's not about flight or the power of a familiar, it's about where you are nerfing the class.

By choosing the Pact of the Chain your player said 'The most important thing to me about the character I'm making is getting to pick my familiar'. Each of the pacts focuses on something different and, like any of the archetypes for any of the classes, is hugely impactful if not determinative as to how the character will play. Your nerf isn't a problem because of balance, it's a problem because it completely invalidates your player's character concept without owning up to that; it's like if someone said "I wanna play a Sorcerer" and you said "Okay, but no metamagic and you use a spellbook". It's not that you're making their character untenably weaker, it's just that you should have said "No, I'm not allowing Sorcerers in my campaign. You can be a wizard, though". By pretending to allow a (sub)class when actually you are forbidding it, you set yourself up for problems with your player.

This is especially problematic is a game where you are going to be giving out secret GM-discretion powers that hugely affect the way characters work later. That requires the players to trust that you will be sensitive to their out of game cues and give them a character-via-powerups that they will want to play. By indicating that you don't think disallowing flying forms for her character's familiar is invalidating, you breach that trust, which can cause anxiety as to what else you will misunderstand about her desires in the campaign going forward.


This section is about showing why the change is a problem

It's not actually relevant if you already understand that flying familiars are central to the Pact of the Chain Warlock even if they aren't a large part of their power (and flight isn't a large part of the familiar's power, either).

So, this is what you get from Pact of the Chain:

You learn the Find Familiar spell and can cast it as a ritual. The spell doesn’t count against your number of Spells known.

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.

Additionally, when you take the Attack action, you can forgo one of your own attacks to allow your familiar to make one Attack of its own with its reaction.

So, all three of these have to do with familiars. All three of the special forms provided, which are intended to be significantly more powerful than normal familiars, can fly. None of this does anything for a warlock who isn't making use of their familiar.

Also, each pact gets access to special invocations. Chain gets:

Voice of the Chain Master

You can communicate telepathically with your familiar and perceive through your familiar’s senses as long as you are on the same plane of existence.

Additionally, while perceiving through your familiar’s senses, you can also speak through your familiar in your own voice, even if your familiar is normally incapable of Speech.

and

Chains of Carceri

You can cast Hold Monster at will—targeting a celestial, fiend, or elemental—without expending a spell slot or material Components. You must finish a Long Rest before you can use this invocation on the same creature again.

So even one of these is familiar-based.

The point is, the Pact of the Chain is the 'I wanna put everything into having a cool familiar' subclass.

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It's a Big Nerf.

As others have said, yes, it is a serious Nerf. The warlock gets a familiar that can take all the forms listed in the Find Familiar spell, and/or the improved forms: Sprite, Imp, Psudeodragon, or Qusit. The improved forms include flying and most have invisibility. Removing flying creatures removes all the improved familiar.

Why Are you Nerfing?

Because of the story of my campaign it will be impossible for her to have a familiar that can either fly or that resembles a bird; it ruins half of my plot.

That's a bad reason to nerf a spell, let alone a subclass major class feature. Your plot isn't yours. You as the DM control the outcomes, and rest of the world. The one thing the players have is their builds and abilities. If a player having a flying familiar messes with your plot, then your plotting too much. The familiar comes at level 3. If you have planned out everything up to level 3 before the game starts, you're either going to be railroading a lot or your players are going to break a lot of your plans by then anyway.

By the time they get to whatever you have planned, will someone have the fly spell?

My guess is that you have something planned where a large drop is separating the players from a key, switch, etc. Or you have something hidden in plain sight, and flying would give them enough height that it is no longer hiding. If either of those is the case, simply change the puzzle.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Appreciate the advice in your first section but your second is way off-base. 1. We're starting the campaign with them at level three. 2. The plot of the game is specifically that suddenly flight no longer "works" - flying animals are grounded, flight-based objects fail to lift off and flight spells don't have any effect. 3. As stated, I am specifically thinking of just removing the flight capabilities and swapping for something else, not completely banning the improved familiars. Please don't assume before answering, it makes your actual - valid - argument seem much weaker. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Mar 15 '18 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed with Alex. One of the most popular campaigns in D&D history (Dragonlance) started off with no magical healing, yet the return was a major factor in the development of the story. A DM is free to set the ground rules for the campaign. The players are free not to play in it. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 15 '18 at 23:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 for reasons outlined in the OP's comment. \$\endgroup\$ – ThunderGuppy Mar 16 '18 at 20:19
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Yes this is a significant nerf to the class -- any class with Find Familiar actually.

A flying familiar gives a warlock an eye in the sky, the ability to overcome terrestrial obstacles, cast touch spells upon otherwise inaccessible opponents, and use the help action without triggering Opportunity Attacks from all intervening ground-based characters. It allows them to transfer small items (such as a potion) to other characters with similar facility. In the hands of a creative player, they can do much more. Removing the ability from the Warlock's arsenal is a major change.

You have done the right thing by being up front with your players during character creation. There is nothing inherently wrong with forbidding any character class, race, spell, magic item, alignment, or other game element from your campaign.

Since communication is paramount when setting the ground rules, it is important to let that communication flow both ways. If a character really likes a character concept, realize that this is what provides them with their creative outlet. You have explained briefly that certain things are not available, but apparently do don't want to get into the reasons why in any great detail, in order to preserve a sense of discovery. You may not be able to do both and still have a happy player.

You really have two options for compromise, which is essential to the Player/DM social pact. 1) You can let the player know that the lack of flight is central to the campaign action, or 2) You can give them some sort of extra power or ability to make up for the loss of a central part of their chosen character class. Ideally, you could do both, and it might go a long way toward improving the buy-in of your player.

I'm guessing that the lack of flight (you mentioned "no birds") will quickly become apparent to the world at large. Is there then any need to keep it under wraps during character creation? Players are sometimes quite good at roleplaying a lack of meta knowledge, and you might be selling them short. They might even come up with character concepts that mesh quite well with the intended central conflict.

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Lack of flight does make familiars significantly less effective.

A familiar that cannot fly is significantly less mobile than it could otherwise be. This does make the familiar less generally useful, since it is a less effective scout, and it will have a harder time getting into useful positions in combat, where it can deliver touch spells for its master. Since familiars, even the improved ones available with the Pact of the Chain class feature, are still very fragile, making them move around at ground level in combat where they will have to contend more often with opportunity attacks or being targeted by ground-bound foes will mean they're much more likely to die if their master tries to make use of them in combat.

All of the Warlock's improved familiar options are naturally capable of flight even without shapeshifting (and they have pretty pathetic ground speeds), so you would have to go a step further than restricting their shapechanged forms if you wanted them to be unable to fly. Unless you do some homebrewing to buff the familiars in a different way to compensate for the lack of mobility, Find Familiar and by extension the Pact of the Chain will be pretty lacklustre options, and your player would be advised to choose a different pact.

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There are other useful modes of scouting aside from flying.

Many of the other answers point out that a primary use of familiars is for scouting purposes. This is true - however, there are other unique ways of scouting aside from flying. Familiars that can climb vertical surfaces, swim underwater, burrow through solid ground, squeeze into small-sized places, or simply move especially stealthily all have their uses.

While not a Warlock-specific familiar type, snakes are an example that are exceptionally good at most of these things - snakes can climb trees, swim underwater, enter small holes, and move unnoticed. Depending on the context, these abilities can be more useful than flight.

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Sorry to give a non-answer to the question, but here is my opinion.

The character's quest is solve the flight problem. They don't know about it, so you don't have to tell them about it.

When your character enters the game, THAT is the right point to mention "your bird don't fly".

This is not a detriment to the game, but a boon to the DM who gets to IMMEDIATELY introduce the plot of the game in a very dramatic way that should be an enticing challenge to the player

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    \$\begingroup\$ "THAT is the right point to mention "your bird don't fly"." And THAT is the right point for player to say, "I don't want to play this character then. Back to the drawing board." . I would prefer to know about any changes to my character potential, which affect me from the start. For example, being told, that we play our first few levels in a dead magic zone, after I just rolled my low-str-and-dex wizard is not a fun move. \$\endgroup\$ – Revolver_Ocelot Mar 17 '18 at 6:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ It will probably depend on (a) whether your players like an RP challenge and (b) what kind of pay-off they might expect. If you allow a couple of sessions where the players get to explore their characters before the big plot event, this could provide a major motivating factor for the warlock's player to strive to restore flight to its (beloved?) familiar. This won't work if the player sees the familiar as a game mechanic, or if you make it a nerf re the challenges you present to the PCs. Give the player a chance to 'un-nerf' through gameplay. \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Mar 19 '18 at 10:07
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Yes it would be a large nerf since not only would it be much worse at scouting but also invis flight help is one of the only ways it is useful in combat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello and welcome! Take the tour for a quick site introduction. This answer as it stands is not really adding much that hasn't been said in other answers already. It could also benefit from elaborating a bit more on what you are trying to convey. As it stands it risks getting downvoted, I think. Thank you for participating! \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Aug 1 '18 at 14:39

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