My Warlock player has Pact of the Chain and Voice of the Chain Master Invocation, and likes to explore all the dungeon before going inside. The imp turns into an invisible spider and goes through the ceiling to all rooms without hard doors. In practice, this ends up becoming a 1 on 1 conversation between me and the warlock, describing each room, for about 10 minutes until all possible rooms are revealed.

To speed things up, I have the familiar roll a single Stealth check before entering and I compare that against Perception checks from Guards and Passive Perception from all other NPCs (I usually apply disadvantage to these checks, since it's a spider and invisible). I still feel like it's a slam of exposition that bores the other players at the table. When the party is going room by room, exposition is broken down in separate parts, and the risk engages the players. I've tried to ask each player to control the imp at each part of the dungeon, but players didn't enjoy it. I also like to add important bits of information at each room (like a Guard using a secret password here, or toxic fumes there), which ends up taking even more exposition time.

On the one hand, I want to reward the Warlock and his methodical exploration. On the other hand the other players are just standing there doing nothing while the imp explores. How can I make this part of our game enjoyable and engaging for everyone?

More info, as requested by commenters:

  • This is enjoyable for the warlock, he has a completionist-like personality. It doesn't bother me, I like to exposit the dungeons I've created. The other players are bored, since they're not doing anything interesting and there's no risk; if the imp gets caught, it just dies.
  • The party usually hides somewhere near the dungeon entrance (say, 100ft, but it varies). They sometimes move while carrying the Warlock's body. It never occurred to me to ambush them during this part of the game.
  • We're playing on Roll20, and I reveal the dungeon map to the players as the imp progresses. I describe in voice chat to everyone what is being seen, and there is an assumption the Warlock will pass this information on

9 Answers 9


Having an invisible Imp floating through a dungeon is quite an investment for a Warlock character, and have the obvious effect of allowing what you describe. There are other "overpowered", scenario-breaking usages, like following a NPC all day long to track the rogue network he's part of, for example.

However, those abilities are well defined in the rules, and in no way the Warlock PC is abusing them while sending his Imp to scout before the party enters.

If you're not comfortable with the situation, you should discuss it with the Warlock player to find how important those features are for him, and if he/she accepts altering his character because you are not comfortable with the situation, despite the PC 100% following the rules.

Another, perhaps better outcome would be to have your playstyle adapt to the situation raised by the invisible-imp Warlock. Like Zeiss Ikon suggests, plenty of things can happen while a Warlock is senselessly waiting for his familiar to map a dungeon. And like Dale M writes, you can probably save time for the whole party while handing a special map to the player, created beforehand because you know he will use this trick.

Now, there are plenty of other things that may happen, or limit the ability to map the dungeon.

  • Some areas may still be inaccessible. Closed doors, sunken tunnels, or magic gates leading to other planes where the rest of the dungeon lies. Or simply secret doors and passages that the scout fails to identify, or to open.
  • Some monsters may actually be able to see invisible creatures (blindsense) and eat the familiar.
  • Some traps may trigger despite the flying, invisible familiar if it fails to detect them (think of some spider web).
  • Some monsters may wander through the dungeon and be in a totally different area when the players explore later (they were attending a religious office, patrolling, playing cards in their barrack...)
  • Some alarm spells may have been laid out at different places and trigger, setting the whole underground fortress to high alert level, closing further doors, raising the drawbridge, and somehow changing the layout of the dungeon and the path the player expected.
  • Unless benefiting from true seeing, the scout familiar will fall for illusions, and might be tricked into believing the treasure room is not in the right place.
  • Some monsters may be invisible themselves, or hidden, so undetected by the familiar.

That's just a bunch of ideas to help you deal with the player resources. There are creative ways of using one's abilities, but a DM can also use creative ways of keeping the game interesting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As far as tactics to spot or otherwise foil the familiar, you need to make sure they are sensible and expected, not purely to defeat the player who likely chose this specifically to do what the op talks about. That leads to an unhappy player as they watch their investment fail to pay off. This should be making the game fun for everyone, not taking fun away from the warlock. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 12:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, the problem is similar to any high-level PC flying, invisible, to scout a dungeon, or simply using a spell such as arcane eye (4th level). \$\endgroup\$
    – Kotrin
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ How have you used this in your own games or seen this used to address situations like this one? Can you describe how it's worked out in practice? Please see our citation expectations for Subjective answers. We try to avoid untested armchair speculation here based on no experience, answers along the lines of "here, try this, I've never tried it but I'm sure it'll work fine" represent a problem since they may actually not work or may cause problems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 13:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 7:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm accepting this as an answer because it covers multiple approaches. From asking the player to change, to tactics to speed exploration up, to tactics to limit exploration. I will likely do a mix of these, and focus on speeding up exploration phase with a cruder map. \$\endgroup\$
    – BlueMoon93
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 10:46

Take the warlock 'aside', and either narrate the dungeon to him or show him a map of features. If the warlock wants to tell the party what he saw then that's up to him.

I've regularly done this one-on-one information dump (I think I stole it from a Matt Colville video) when a familiar or druid-as-spider explores a dungeon. It works well for our group because it stops the very problem you describe: Me narrating the entire dungeon to the party whilst a single player controls the sequence, leaving everyone else disengaged and on their phones. I find this increases the engagement between the players as now the rest of the party are interrogating the Warlock (instead of you) and it's up the the Warlock to remember which parts are important are need preparing for.

It means everyone is "invested" in the exploration, rather than passively received it all, which is why I prefer not to just dish out a map. I also feel that map violates the "roleplaying" aspect, as the party doesn't have a perfect information feed about the dungeon. Instead it has a spider's perspective filtered through the memory and speech system of a druid.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing I've done with success is, prior to giving "secret" information, ask them if they're just going to tell the party (which, usually they are for basic stuff like room layouts). This way I can just tell everyone at once. Even if someone were to ask something for clarification I usually just allow it, because the alternative would be the player waiting until they're done then sending the familiar back in (assuming they are in the mode where they cannot hear anything). I've done this for a familiar who was a sparrow flying into a ruined castle. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ How does this solve the problem? Instead of players being bored waiting for the 1-on-1 conversation in front of them to end, the warlock is pulled aside and the players are bored waiting for the 1-on-1 conversation in the other room to end. \$\endgroup\$
    – Behacad
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 0:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Behacad: It also doesn't necessarily make narrative sense to me, as the warlock could simply be constantly describing what their familiar is seeing as the exploration is happening anyway, rather than only waiting until the scouting is done. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 7:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is my biggest problem with Find Familiar in this system... they are throw away scouts and spies. No real consequences other than an hour and 10g... I implemented a house rule to provide some investment in getting something that powerful... if the familiar is killed the caster gains a level of exhaustion. Recently happened to one PC when he sent his cat after a 5 legged rat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Behacad The information can be provided before the game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 2:26

Hand the party a map

You know this is going to happen: prepare a map of everywhere the imp can go before the session and hand it to the party when they get to the dungeon.

I’ve done this for all sorts of “insider” knowledge: the description from an escaped slave, the blueprints from the architects office and, yes, the exploration by familiar, Arcane Eye and polymorphed PC. It’s quick and easy and it involves all the players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It is important that this map be a curated version of the dungeon. Rough outlines with no exact dimensions (the familiar isn't going to be pacing out the exact dimensions of each room). I suggest drawing it on blank paper, not graph paper. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 0:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GreenstoneWalker I don’t see why the players should get more detail on their map than I put on my map. Graph paper? We don’t need to stinkin’ graph paper! \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 5:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Imps and other familiars don't have perfect memory and adjusting scale from the perspective of the Imp, should he decide to use its senses would preclude the Warlock from drawing as he went. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 12:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dale M more info? It should have less. If the GM has a nice map drawn on squares, what the players get should be rough. If the GM only has a rough outline on a blank piece of paper , then the players get a rougher one. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 23:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GreenstoneWalker My point is I do NT have a nice map drawn on squares. They are very pretty but functionally useless. My maps look more like the London Underground maps instead that it says “4 ogres” not “Piccadilly” \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 23:41

Start doing planning sessions

Disclaimer: I haven't tried this for your exact situation, but have tried several elements of it individually to address players interested in heavy roleplaying with planning involved.

This does require buy-in from your players to keep themselves in-character. If a player rolls like garbage during planning, that crappy roll needs to be followed in-character. If your table can't do this, I wouldn't recommend this technique.

The Shadowrun style of play would strongly advocate support of this idea by the players, mostly because combat can be so much more deadly in that system. Given it's heavy focus upon breaking and entering into places you're not supposed to be, it provides heavy support for things like magical scouting, hacking the information systems, etc. Just about everything short of going in person, but you might even send the party face in disguise to get a rough idea of the general security protocols. As a result, the party can easily spend several hours just making rolls and roleplaying associated with the scouting itself.

So to address your original concern, my recommendation would be to try and take a page from SR and lean into the problem. Make your overall dungeon's combat encounters notably harder, but allow the party to benefit from as much foreknowledge as they can get via their scouting efforts. Give them information on terrain, traps that are located (and can be used against the inhabitants), give them numbers (give them numbers that strongly suggest direct assault isn't a good idea), identify doors (including which ones can be blocked/barred), give them enemy physical descriptions (and let them make knowledge rolls to identify abilities). Let them build a map, let them fill in the information they think is important, let them plan and scheme different ways to engage with each room as they move towards their goal. I wouldn't recommend giving them the location of any secret doors unless the Imp's Devil Sight would be the reason they're spotted; Imps don't have particularly good Perception scores, so leave finding those to the party itself (they may have a good idea where to look based on the map they've made).

It will be your choice as to whether you want to give them time for things like Long Rests to address the problems they've identified, but know that if you do you'll definitely see much more efficacy from your prepared casters.

Once the planning is complete, it's up to the party to actually put their plan into action. And if it goes at all like SR, 50% of things will go according to plan, and the other 50% is going to be a crapshoot because of bad rolls, which is perfectly fine. There's a lot of fun to be had because the party's fighting a troll which they thought was an ogre because some rolled a 2 on a knowledge check and they don't have an obvious source of fire.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like the suggestions are: Encourage Scouting; Make the Scenarios Complex; Get the Whole Party Involved. I like this answer, but feel like it could be improved with a bit of editing. Also, it would be good to make sure the whole party is on board with making heists a central campaign structure. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aherocalledFrog this answer isn't about making heists central to the campaign, it's about how to keep everyone involved in recon efforts. The answer is borne out of those experiences and would likely work well for that scenario, but if the goal is to scout a dungeon I anticipate this method of gameplay would be conducive to full table involvement. Regarding edits, you'll have to provide some recommendations before I can implement anything. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 21:15

One of the problems with adding new classes with new capabilities is that the world needs to accommodate them within its historical framework. That means fitting into the world, but it also means there is a balancing and response. A world in which familiars exist is one in which you will expect some forms of defense against familiars being able to do what you are experiencing.

For dungeons that never had a magic user living there or critters that see invisible, then Id prepare a lightweight map that you can hand to your player. It isn't any fun for your other players while one player investigates the dungeon while they sit on their hands.

Critters that can see invisible, especially intelligent ones, are going to wonder why there is an invisible spider lurking about. If that spider is crawling across a ceiling, it is also possible ceiling dwelling critters will notice it and take a bite.

A magic using previous occupant may also have all sorts of traps set up with the intention of keeping out the familiars of enemies. They may not simply kill the familiar but instead, 'cage-trap' them in a cage that won't allow them to escape, and then shuttle them into the wizard's examination room for later inspection. They will know better than to release it.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ How have you used this in your own games or seen this used to address situations like this one? Can you describe how it's worked out in practice? Please see our citation expectations for Subjective answers. We try to avoid untested armchair speculation here based on no experience, answers along the lines of "here, try this, I've never tried it but I'm sure it'll work fine" represent a problem since they may actually not work or may cause problems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 17:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ "As your spider walks across the ceiling, a roosting bat is grateful for the snack you delivered" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 20:49

Roleplaying is a Discussion

The main issue you seem to be having is player engagement when only one player is involved in an information heavy task. You've already sped up the dice part of it, but are still stepping through the descriptions room by room. This halts the flow of the game to a discussion between you and one player, where even the player involved has very little input or interesting choices to make.

"I go into the next room" Listens to exposition "I go into the room after that one"

To bring everyone back into the discussion, and engage them in it, skip ahead to the Warlock conveying this information to the other characters. Give the players a rough map of the dungeon with a few points of interest marked on it, depending on how well the scouting went. You can draw this up of the spot, it doesn't have to be fancy, and definitely not accurate, it was constructed from the point of view of a spider. Some simple points could be:

  • Danger
  • Enemies
  • Treasure
  • Traps

Hand this to the players and let them ask questions. "What kind of treasure did your familiar see in that room?" "How many goblins in this room?"

Encourage them to take notes on the map if they want, further engaging them. This bring the exposition back into the flow of a natural group conversation, driven by the players' curiosity. If the players miss anything during this stage, bring it up when they encounter it in the dungeon. "The door is locked, but your spider overheard the password earlier" Likewise save your detailed descriptions for when the characters see it with their own eyes for the first time. If you want, reference this back to the warlock, describe how different the statue looks from when they saw it through the spider, that they can properly admire the craftsmanship this time. This is essentially breaking down the information into manageable chunks, only delivering it when the players ask for it, or it is immediately important for their characters. No one wants to hear a detailed description of the room they never visit because the initial scouting deemed it unimportant.

In my experience your players may be tempted spend a very long time pouring over the map, milking it for as much information as possible. This can also bring the game to a halt. Reassure them even if they don't ask now for all the information available to them, you will provide it when it becomes pertinent. They're not going to blunder into a trap, or miss the secret door that the scouting revealed just because they didn't ask about it now. (They might however, blunder into a trap or miss a secret door that wasn't discovered by the scouting) The aim of this is to give them the overview of what paths the may want to take or avoid, based on enemies, traps, and the promise of treasure. This is a sort of "flashback" style of prep I've borrowed from Blades in the Dark that can take some getting used to, but has worked very well for me for avoiding long periods of inaction or non-choices.


I have not personally run into this particular issue before, but I can tell you how I'd handle it if it became a regular thing at my table:

First, between sessions, sit down with your Warlock player and have a quick discussion with them so they know how you're going to handle their exploration in the future.

When the Warlock declares that their familiar will explore the dungeon, answer that the familiar enters and begins feeding information back to the warlock. You can do some rolls to check if the familiar is discovered, but you shouldn't be doing dozens of rolls; have the enemies roll group checks to prevent having to do tons of rolls.

Do not start providing exposition on every detail that the familiar sees; but instead give only a few overarching details

The familiar begins exploring the cave at your behest. The cave system is damp, with many small rooms and deadends throughout. It is populated by a clan of kobolds, who have some guards that patrol the main corridors, and and a few gathering spots for other members of the clan. Occasionally, the familiar overhears the kobolds talking, but is unable to understand their language. The prisoners you came to rescue are near the back of the cave system, in a small prison with one snoring guard watching over them.

That's it. Quick, simple, overarching view of some of the details of the explored dungeon. Depending on what is being explored, feel free to add important details (number of floors, some traps are spotted, etc) but even in the case of traps or hidden rooms you just mention they exist, no reason to give details about where or what kind for now.

Then have the players begin exploring. As the players approach key locations, you can then provide details that the scouting familiar discovered about the area ahead.

As you approach the bend in the tunnel, you recall that your familiar had found a spike trap ahead, with three guards positioned just beyond.

Your battle ends, three kobolds lay dead at your feet. Your familiar points out a hidden switch which opens a trap door that they had discovered when scouting the area.

This gives your players the benefit of having used their abilities/resources to scout the area without also giving a massive exposition dump. Details are provided as needed, when needed. If a player asks a specific question in advance, you can provide additional detail as needed but otherwise, dole things out piecemeal.


I generally disagree with just handing over a map, although a crudely-drawn map as @Asher suggested 'from the point of view of a spider' with intentional scaling inaccuracies isn't a bad idea. Better to provide, and constrain, 'what the spider sees' and let the Warlock, and if they choose, the party, do the work to make that meaningful. Instead of letting the 'familiar auto-map' become a de facto disarming of the dungeon and by extension the experience, turn it into another dimension of discovery that enriches the experience.

Along that vein, the situation provides an opportunity to filter anything the imp experiences through the perceptual lens of the imp as well as the familiar relationship - this could serve to ultimately improve the narrative / immersion. Present how a spider would perceive its surroundings rather than how the Warlock would. Maybe it can only see a certain distance and so any room larger than that distance is just a 'large room' of indeterminate size, or impose other creative limitations that restrict its ability to accurately survey the dungeon - if a ceiling is too high, the spider can't see what's on the floor without dropping down, prompting fresh Perception checks if the room is occupied.

Also, leave as many deductions up to the party as possible - obviously you wouldn't say, "Your spider sees a trap in the next room;" if a feature isn't something a spider would naturally notice, decrease the chance that the information is relayed to the warlock - basically NPC the familiar. This gives you complete control over how much is known before the characters enter the dungeon, and also gives the warlock player the chance, if this is a sidebar discussion, to involve the party to see what they make out of the shiny object leaning up against the wall that tastes metallic - limit the vocabulary to the scope of the spider's world awareness. This forces the player(s) to exercise their inner eye to interpret the imp's perception.

Besides being susceptible to different types of creatures, some of which could hunt by smell, the spider could be distracted by its ideal prey for example. It could even get lost or confused, and start sending back dis-oriented information. Or if you want to throw a real curve, let it get detected by something that can take control and manipulate what it sends back to the party, so they start the dungeon with a complete misconception and essentially walk into a trap to have to fight out of - that'll teach 'em.

To the larger question of party flow and involving everyone vs. just the warlock player, if it were me I would pass notes with the warlock player, or use a private chat on laptops or phones. This way the party could continue to take its own action with whatever information has been gained by that point, and the information received from the familiar is appropriately filtered through the warlock player for him to act upon however he wants (I have friends? that would let the party walk into an ambush for giggles). This slows the pace of information to track with the familiar moving through the dungeon and forces the warlock player to command the familiar to get results, while the party can proceed with their actions, and the warlock can update the party as information comes in.

It also, in a way, simulates the telepathic link between the warlock and the familiar via chat / note-passing - so no spoken words are ever used to describe what the familiar sees. This can serve to effectively differentiate it from spoken party communication, as well as potentially represent it as less efficient - an artistic choice, perhaps, but one which could condition the party and the player to take it less for granted. But it does make for a nice group dynamic: without any verbal or audible communication, all of a sudden the warlock player says "OK guys, now I'm getting back from my familiar it's in a room with lots of firelight and creatures making noises at each other. If I'm tracking it's position vs our position correctly, it should be maybe 2-3 rooms to the west".

This might require a little bit of juggling between speaking with the entire party and managing the private chat / note passing, but spacing out 'familiar reports' could also shift away from the 'pre-entering-dungeon' ritual of everyone else sitting and waiting for the imp to auto-map the dungeon, and forces the warlock to wait to get pieces of useful information instead of getting it all up front. Or if the party insists on waiting to enter the dungeon until the imp-mapping is done, it could get the party involved if they're helping to organize or interpret 'data' as it comes in 'real-time' over chat or note-passing to the warlock player.

In any case, I certainly wouldn't give the complete description of rooms via familiar to the warlock - I'd want to save something for when they actually enter the room. "The shadowy lumpy mass your familiar saw in the southwest corner turns out to be sacks of grains and fruit in various states of decay."

I suppose if you're going to take this kind of approach, you should give fair warning to the players. I can see a player protesting that their familiar should have seen something you didn't tell them about - better to remind them ahead of time that their familiar is limited by their senses / awareness, and that your discretion is ultimately motivated by wanting to create a compelling experience for everyone involved.

I should also add that I'm not current with specific rules, so if anything I've suggested contradicts any, apologies.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Mark, welcome to rpg.se! Take the tour and visit the help center or ask here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) for more information. This is a nice first answer with some great recommendations for handling this narratively. Thanks for participating and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 4:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you provide some input on how these ideas have worked for you at the table? As I read through this answer, there appears to be a lot of extra work for the DM (i.e. private messaging systems, notes). Furthermore, the querent suggests that the other players are bored, so I'm concerned that boredom would be further exacerbated by long pauses as you type notes to the player for him to convey to the table. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a separate issue, you advocate a bit of an adversarial tone in your 4th paragraph between the DM and the warlock. Given that the player has invested in these skills, why are you advocating to punish them for it? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Mark/sphiral, It looks like you've accidentally made two accounts. You should go through the process of getting them merged then you would own your own answer (including the rep) and should be able to comment on your own answers. In general, you should make any improvements based on comments as seamless additions to the post, not as replies. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 23:09

I see that you've stated that you never considered ambushing them while the Warlock is exploring using the familiar. Do that once or twice, with high powered opponents, and the party will become much more judicious in how they use the familiar.

Using familiars to explore also has less utility in outdoor settings such as dense forests, foothills or swamps — for instance — since there are no set boundaries and things can creep up from anywhere. It would be unrealistic to think that the familiar could explore every square inch of a forest. This will require more of the theater of the mind, as opposed to a map, but mixing up the settings that they have to explore may also help you.

Finally, the use of the familiar to explore seems like a system that a crafty opponent could easily exploit. If a big bad knows that they're investigating this way, he could show them one thing — a weak gathering of enemies — that is actually cover for a subtle trap. Think Emperor Palpatine on Endor. Just because the Warlock sees something via the familiar doesn't necessarily mean that he understands what he is seeing.


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