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I am a wizard with an owl familiar (created by find familiar) that I wish to send on a long-distance delivery mission, requiring it to be away from me for several days. I would like to be able to check up on my familiar to make sure it hasn't been attacked or otherwise prevented from making its delivery. I'm hoping I can do this using the sending spell, but I'm unsure of exactly how the spell would work when communicating with a creature that doesn't speak a language. I'm confident that my familiar would receive my message, since the spell states:

The spell enables creatures with Intelligence scores of at least 1 to understand the meaning of your message.

However, it's not clear whether my familiar can respond, and if so, how. The spell says:

You send a short message of twenty-five words or less to a creature with which you are familiar. The creature hears the message in its mind, recognizes you as the sender if it knows you, and can answer in a like manner immediately.

So, the spell says that my familiar can "answer in a like manner", i.e. in "a short message of 25 words or less". However, my familiar (an owl) doesn't speak any languages, and it's not clear to me whether it's possible to make such a reply without a language. On the other hand, if a creature can understand my message without needing to understand a language, it seems logical that it could also reply. So, RAW, is my familiar capable of replying to my sending spell? If so, what form does that reply take? If not, can I still tell whether my message was received (i.e. can I tell whether my familiar is still alive to receive the message)?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @lightcat See this FAQ for why your comment was removed. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 12 '19 at 18:39
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Using the general guideline that "spells do what they say they do", I would rule that the familiar can indeed answer. Find familiar says that you can "communicate with [your familiar] telepathically", but doesn't otherwise grant you any special ability to speak to the creature, which "has the statistics of the chosen form" of animal, none of which know any languages.

Since sending specifically says that "creatures with an Intelligence score of at least 1" can understand you, with no special requirement that they speak a language, and that "the creature ... can answer in a like manner", I would rule that the spell magically allows the familiar (or any creature known to you with an Intelligence of 1 or higher) to both understand your message and to reply, to the best of its ability (i.e. its animal level of understanding would be translated into up to 25 words by your DM).

This seems very reasonable for the power level expected of level 3 spells; speak with plants, by comparison, makes all plants within 30 feet capable of communicating with the caster for 10 minutes, and (it can be inferred from the terrain-altering effects) compels them to follow your simple commands, so a single 25-word exchange across space and even dimensions with a creature with an Intelligence score seems fair.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related Mearls tweet (disclaimer: Mearls' rulings often don't necessarily match the actual rules :P). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 12 '19 at 5:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast thanks for the link! I’ll stick with my answer but it’s good to have a semi-official answer for contrast. \$\endgroup\$ – Guybrush McKenzie Jan 12 '19 at 6:03
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Reply in a like manner means that they can reply in 25 words and you can understand them despite the language. Similar to how tongues, and speak with animals works. But given that a creature that has no language is incapable of formulating words a telepathic translation of 25 words probably won’t be sufficient for getting a response out of an owl just as much as a magical languageless owl who cast tongues or speak with animals can’t talk to you.

Unfortunately the sending messages sends words, and translates them to be understood, it does not send ideas and word them in 25 words.

Now by the same logic that a sigh doesn’t count as a word count when you send a sending, you may get animal noises back but they aren’t content from the spell so you won’t get a translation out of them. A one hoot two hoot can get you some information. But that’s a heavy cost of complexity. I’d recommend just using the telepathic bond you have with your familiar to communicate with it and speak with animals to communicate back

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That is a nice answer, welcome to answering questions, take the tour for further guidance, and happy gaming :) \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Mar 22 '20 at 7:19
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Words are definitively part of a language. The best they can do is an onomatopoeia for their animal noise. “Hoot” but just like how you can’t spew goobldy gook with the intention of expressing more complex information than what sending allows and be understood, you won’t get more complex Information out of your familiar than “owl noise” However, although the message is comprised of words you don’t have to speak, so any creature that understands a language even if it can’t speak, can send a message such as a pseudodragon or found stead

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Dillon, you appear to have answered this question twice and created two accounts. Please see this help center article to merge your two accounts and regain control of your earlier post so you can edit it. Also, please take care to back up your assertions. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Aug 22 '20 at 19:14

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