Hello Fellow Game Masters & Players,

New GM here with a party of 5 players at lvl 1 (2 soon), experienced with DnD but not Pathfinder. I hope you can shed some light / give advice about familiar handling. In my case, it's about a Level 1 Witch with a Rat Familiar, but i think this question can be applied to most familiar classes / familiar types. I am in favor of handling the familiar as a NPC = GM controlled (but ofc loyal and helpful to its master)

How should communicating between master & familiar be resolved before level 5 when Speak with Master (Ex) comes into play? How do you handle it?

An Example

This Witch is about to enter a fairly dangerous underground dungeon. What if she decides to make her (really stealthy) familiar scout ahead, and after it comes back, she wants to know what he encountered / saw.

"Nibble (thats its name), go ahead, look around if there are enemies, don't be seen and come back afterwards. Don't put yourself in danger!"

resolving stealth & maybe perception rolls

"I am back mistress - there are 5 Kobolds in the room ahead, 3 of them armed. i was not seen!"


Would the familiar understand it? Should i make her describe the command to the familiar in a different way (in terms of pictures / feelings, to cater to the "Empathic Link" thing)?

Would the familiar be able to communicate the information it gathered? Maybe in a more general way like "Danger ahead"? What is a logical way to make a familiar an useful scout before level 5? What is the RAW way to make a familiar an useful scout before level 5?

Other examples

Where would be the line between possible and not(yet) possible?

  • "Nibble, try to get the key thats hanging on that wall and bring it to me"
  • "Nibble, follow that man and alert me if he meets with Rodrick (who we know)"
  • "Nibble, grab the potion from my bag, run to [Unconcious Party Healer] and pour it in his mouth"
  • "Nibble, grab the potion from my bag, run to [Party Healer] and pour it in his mouth, whenever he falls unconscious"
  • "Nibble, run across this room that is riddled with traps activating from a weight > 20 pounds and push the colored bricks at the south wall in the order red blue green"
  • "Nibble, look around the camp if you can find some onions for me"

Solutions / Ideas

I had a general idea of making either both or only the familiar use kind of sign language with a limited vocabulary (Yes, No, Numbers 1-10, Friend, Enemy, Don't understand, ...) but am worried this might be too tedious?


I am aware that answers to this can be on the line between opinion-based and rule-based. Feel free to criticize / improve the question itself!

Happy rolling to all of you


  • \$\begingroup\$ I marked @hey-i-can-chan answer as accepted, as it is really well written out and points out a good utilization of the empathic link. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 18, 2018 at 12:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nevertheless, i would like to add for future readers that @ShadowKras makes a valid point by refering to the INT Score Descriptions and also mentioning that giving instructions is not the core problem, but following complex instructions is. Thanky you very much to both of you! \$\endgroup\$ Dec 18, 2018 at 12:49

2 Answers 2


On familiars, languages, and Intelligence

This GM has always ruled that a familiar understands the languages its master knows. While Familiar Basics on Skills says, "For each skill in which either the master or the familiar has ranks, use [for the familiar] whichever is better," this GM has always extended this idea to the master's languages, whether they were acquired through ranks in the skill Linguistics, as a racial benefit, from a high Intelligence score, or even due to new language retraining. The master and familiar are just that metaphorically close.

Further, a typical familiar possesses an Intelligence score of 6 when the master's levels 1 or 2 or 7 when the master's levels 3 or 4. As a PC can possess an Intelligence score of 6 or 7 yet folks tend not to object to such a PC being able to follow fairly complicated instructions, this GM allows a familiar to follow fairly complicated instructions automatically. Although, like with that PC, that Intelligence score may become a factor when it comes time to carrying out those instructions!

Thus in this GM's campaigns, a master who is in the presence of his familiar needn't struggle to convey his instructions to his familiar with gestures, tone of voice, or an increasingly complex series of emotions. The master can just talk to the familiar, and the familiar obeys to the best of its ability. The hard part is—before the master's level 5—getting the familiar to file those after-action reports.

On communicating with a nonspeaking familiar outside the empathic link

Because in this GM's campaigns master and familiar share languages, given enough time a familiar can write, although with probably no greater facility than Bucky Katt from Darby Conley's comic strip Get Fuzzy:

enter image description here

Worse, this writing process will be tedious for the master and any familiar that—unlike Bucky—lacks fine manipulators, and the familiar will be resistant to, for instance, getting ink all over its paws: Yeesh, dude, there's this perfectly good empathic link we share, all right? Can we just use that instead? Please? (This GM does allow a familiar to communicate some things—like numbers by paw scraping—fairly quickly without issue.)

Hence this GM typically allows low-level masters who have lots of time and patience and materials or surfaces in this way to carry on ersatz two-way conversations with their familiars, but these are rarely pleasant conversations for either of the two, and the conversations are usually confusing, colored by the familiar's instincts, low Intelligence score, and physical positioning. (The world's a different place when your size category is Diminutive!)

This means in this GM's campaigns most low-level masters come to rely on the familiar's supernatural ability empathic link for information from the familiar. Raw emotion may lack the precision and level of detail of speech or writing, but at least it's not excruciatingly tedious or even possibly painful!

So in this GM's campaigns, the witch can say to his familiar, "Nibble, scout ahead, stay hidden, and look for enemies, and come back in 10 minutes to report," and Nibble will actually obey. Nibble might not obey very well, especially if Nibble's scouting a cheese factory or a lion's den, and 10 minutes is a long time for a rat, but the little guy'll do its best. Then, if and when Nibble returns, Nibble will want to use the empathic link to make that report. It's okay if the master walks Nibble through Nibble's adventure—maybe by the master drawing pictures or asking yes-or-no questions along the way—using the empathic link, but a complex report will be impossible through the link: when asked about potential foes, Nibble's emotion may be fear, but it could instead be pride at having eluded them, or hatred if they're cats. That means, if he's in a hurry and needs details, the witch is better off going to see for himself.


They are "dull-witted" or slow

A creature with 6 Intelligence is described as:

Dull-witted or slow, often misuses and mispronounces words

While a creature with 5 Intelligence is described as:

Can speak but is apt to react instinctively and impulsively, sometimes resorts to charades to express thoughts

Finally, 7 Intelligence is described as:

Has trouble following trains of thought, forgets most unimportant things

So, use those three guidelines and try to fit the familiar behavior as something in the middle ground. If a familiar with 7 Int will forget unimportant things, maybe one with 6 Int will forget important things sometimes too.

As GM, when the player comes with an idea that sounds too complex for the NPC that is recieving the order, I simply make a DC 10 Intelligence check (most likely hidden from the players). If they succeed, they follow the explanation exactly how they wanted it to go. But if they fail, it will go wrong somehow, even if it succeeds, some kind of complication has to happen because they either misunderstood something or werent capable of fully comprehending what was being asked from them.

Regardless, I would never allow a familiar to solve a puzzle, specially considering game knowledge that it doesn't possess, such as identifying the correct potion in a bag filled with other recipients without ranks in spellcraft or craft (alchemy).


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .