I am having some issues trying to find a balance in what seems to me to be an overpowered spell (Find Familiar) considering its low level. I will state first that I have always considered the familiar as a very attractive archetype of fantasy literature and I’d love to have it in my games. But I think the way it is handled in DnD 5e is very disruptive for the game and, from a narrative point of view, very far from the fantasy trope of what a wizard’s familiar should be in my opinion.

I think the only way to address the problem is to change the spell, but before doing so (to my wizard player’s initial regret) I want to get other DM’s opinions first.

I am going to present my arguments against the spell as is written first, and after that, I am going to exemplify the effect that a familiar could have as the rule is written on a very well known adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, so that I can be told if I am misinterpreting something. The goal of using a prewritten adventure is because I cannot stress enough that what I am looking for is not ways to design adventures against the rules (more on why I don’t like/need that later), but help on shedding some light on whether maybe I am overstating its potential effects.

First of all, the narrative problem. In my opinion, a familiar should be a very special creature for the wizard, a sort of magical pet they are very fond of. It should be a creature with a name, and its survival should be of paramount importance for the wizard, being its death a great loss for them.

For example, I recall that this spell in Rolemaster required acquiring the creature by normal means, spending a week casting the spell on it and that if the creature died you had a -25 penalty for two weeks! So it was hard to get it and it was very, very bad to lose it. It was powerful, but the stakes were high.

But as the spell is written in DnD, this is just some kind of disposable resource, not even worthy of a spell slot (since you can even cast it as a ritual). You can have one familiar now and a totally different one an hour later, almost at no cost. You can even make it disappear when you don't need it and it’s going to be a nuisance for a given scene (let's get rid of the damn cat in this scene, now it is useless!). Treated this way, it seems to me a familiar has the narrative weight of a magic potion: this is, none at all. That is sad.

Second, as the spell is written, it is what would be called a “disruptive technology” for the game. I know there are a thousand forums giving advice on different ways a DM can neutralize the power of a familiar (distance, area effect attacks, etc.), and I want to stress that is not the lack of ideas on how to do it what takes me here. I have plenty. Is that I have two big problems with this approach to “solving” the problem. First, I don’t think I should warp the whole world and completely redesign every adventure to accommodate for a rule that has the power to suck the fun out of almost every adventure as it is written. I think changing that rule is a far easier and logical alternative to that. Second, I think a DM shouldn't try to design encounters where the players can’t use their special powers or use them in a very diminished form. On the contrary, the DM should design situations where the players are challenged but where their powers can shine, and there is a very thin line between challenging their powers and making them useless. DMs tend to think they are very clever designers, but players are very good at detecting when a situation has been expressly designed by the DM to counteract some of their abilities, and the third time they notice you are actively working against their powers they are logically going to be pissed off. I think it is more honest to openly state that a rule/spell is not working and just change it.

Third, and in a certain way the most important reason why I don’t like it. Familiars are going to consistently hog the spotlight of other player’s characters precisely when those characters should have their “special moment”. What’s the point in investing in that stealthy rogue abilities if each time you have to approach an enemy camp, examine the enemy’s castle defenses or scout a possible ambush, the wizard is just going to send its spider before you and map every corner of the dungeon, and at absolutely no risk and no cost, before you even have the chance of trying?

At last, I am going to exemplify the effect this spell could have on an average dungeon (not one expressly designed to purposely counteract it). As this is a first level spell, let's keep in mind that this would be something a newly created character could perfectly do. Let's examine the potential effects of a familiar as is written in some of its dungeons (minor spoilers ahead).

Cragmaw hideout: our first level wizard uses his bat familiar to spot the goblins guards (no need for the rogue to even bother). From the entrance of the cave, the bat maps out the entire cave before the characters have even set one foot in it. Exciting adventure ahead.

Redbrand Hideout: our heroes approach the dungeon from the secret passage. Unless the DM rules that the spider is too big to pass under the doors (while the player suspiciously squints at him), 90% of the basement is going to be discovered without moving a finger. Yeah, you could get them attacked with the Nothic first, but since they are probably going to send the spider through the passage before them, it is going to be discovered earlier anyway. Exciting adventure ahead.

Castle Cragmaw: the wizard sends his owl to every window in the castle to examine its contents and enemies. Again, 90% of the castle is known before even getting too close to it. Sure, the wizard should move to repeat the operation from the southern and northern limits of the castle to cope with the 100’ limitation, but that's pretty easy. There is a chance that the owl is discovered in the window, but with almost no consequence: it would be very hard to attack, and the worst thing it could happen is that they have to wait an hour before repeating the operation. The rogue is again just yawning in a corner. Exciting adventure ahead.

Wave Echo Cave: since there are no doors, characters can easily be aware of every corner of the dungeon three or four rooms ahead. You could save time and lay out before them the entire dungeon floorplan and all its enemies. Exciting adventure ahead.

I know, I know, there are ways to avoid these uses of the familiar, but it would end up being too obvious that you are working hard against it, and when they notice (and they always do), that’s very annoying for the players (oh, what a coincidence, it turns out that the goblins have a trained hawk guarding the castle for no apparent reason!).

So, to wrap things up, it seems to me that the only logical alternative is to modify the rule. As I said, I love the idea of familiars in a fantasy setting, so ruling the spell out completely is something I don’t want to do. But I think I have to adjust it so that its effects are not so disrupting for the game. I haven’t made my mind about how to do it yet, honestly, but I like the idea of “hard to get, hard to lose” that the Rolemaster spell had. And I think also that the extent of the remote senses capacities should be limited somehow too.

So, how do I handle the wizard's familiar invalidating exploration, outshining the rogue, at low to no cost?


4 Answers 4


Find familiar is not overpowered by itself, you are giving it too much leeway.


There are 2 ways for a familiar to map an area:

  • The familiar maps the area, and telepathically relays what it perceives.
  • The wizard uses their action to perceive through the familiar's senses until the end of their next turn.

The latter is risky. While perceiving through the familiar's senses, the wizard is deaf and blind to its own senses. In turn, this means they should be immobile within 100 ft. of their familiar.

Let that sink in. If it takes 30 min. for the familiar to map the interior of a cavern, house, etc., you've got a seemingly unconscious character lying down within 100 ft. during that time:

  • Are there patrols which could fall upon the characters during that time?
  • Are there dangers which could fall upon the characters during that time? (Dogs? Wolves? Snakes?)

100 ft. (30m) is a very small distance. The group needs to sneak in within that distance without being spotted, and to then stay out of sight with an "unconscious" character that has to be "woken" up if anything needs avoiding.

There's nothing simple or automatic in this.

But, wait, who's drawing the map? In order to map something, someone must draw the map. Or somehow communicate to the others what they're seeing... and have those others remember when they actually go in.

Once again, there's 3 options:

  • The familiar is telepathically relaying what they see to the wizard, who draws the map.
  • The wizard is seeing through the familiar's senses, and relaying what they see to the party.
  • The wizard alternates between seeing through the familiar's senses, and drawing what they saw.

Have you ever tried to draw something someone else was describing, without that someone simultaneously seeing what you were drawing so they can correct it? Try it. It's good fun. The results are very different from reality.

If you want an accurate map, you'll need the 3rd option. It's going to roughly double the exploration time.

(If your wizard player wants to rely on memory, that's fine too. They, and only they, get a quick look at the map, and then they have to draw it from memory...)


Is the wizard proficient in Investigation and Perception?

A map of the rooms is nice, but is it enough?

It takes a good Perception roll or Investigation roll to notice the unusual stonework of a hidden door, or to notice the guard dozing on a chair in the corner hidden from the door by the coat hanger.

The spider has no such proficiency; it's only proficient in Stealth.

And of course, one must consider ability scores:

  • The familiar's ability scores are fixed, per type.
  • The wizard's Ability Scores will evolve as they level, but Wisdom is generally not a priority.

This means that over time the gap between a familiar's or wizard's Perception score and a rogue's Perception score will keep widening. Especially accounting for the rogue's likely Expertise. And the same is true for Stealth.

There's a scaling issue inherent in the approach.


By @Erik.

Speaking of Perception, pay attention to special senses.

Many familiars have Darkvision 30 ft., which is nice. A notable exception however is the Raven, which doesn't. Sending a Raven in a dark place is not going to work.


By @Erik.

A Tiny Beast such as a spider faces dangers that a character would not. For example, it's at risk of being hunted by other vermin which would traditionally avoid humanoids: rats, other spiders, centipedes, ...

This may not be an issue is a well-maintained mansion, but anywhere else, it definitely is.


It's a common trope that "monsters" just stay in place until someone enters the room, but that's obviously not realistic.

While you are exploring, those monsters should be moving. One of the guard went to the toilet. A goblin is fetching food for the kitchen. Another goblin is sweeping the corridors.

This is important in two ways:

  1. The monsters may "double" up. If there's multiple paths, and they're using the other, the explorer may never some of them, or count some twice.
  2. The monsters will not be where they were spotted. They've got better things to do than wait around for players.

And the longer it takes to do the exploration, the bigger the discrepancies will likely be.

Let your players get bitten twice or thrice, and they'll ditch the unreliable tactic by themselves.


Now, a spider is likely to go unnoticed. Especially if it keeps to the darker corner.

But an owl flying from window to window? If it's dark outside, okay, but if it's light outside, they'll have disadvantage on Stealth from the shadow they're suddenly casting. And someone's bound to wonder that owl's doing... it's a rather unusual behavior for an animal. And it looks tasty.

Speaking of:

When the familiar drops to 0 Hit Points, it disappears, leaving behind no physical form. It reappears after you cast this spell again.

A disappearing owl will cause alarm. That's definitely unusual.

Time Pressure

And finally, where is the time pressure?

Preparation is a good thing, however in general preparation time is limited due to time pressure: the monsters are not waiting for the players to show up -- unless it's an ambush -- and are moving ahead according to their own schedule regardless. The longer the players take to prepare, the more advanced the schedule of the monsters is... and then it's not about stopping them, it's about controlling and limiting the damage.

Or, conversely, and especially if the players are spotted, the more time they take to act, the more time the monsters have to prepare themselves, or to steal the initiative.

Time pressure should not be a staple of every single encounter, but it should not be dismissed altogether either.

So, to sum up, you're just allowing the familiar to get away with too much.

The familiar scout approach does not give a perfect map without assuming any risk. Far from it. And it should be inferior to sending a rogue in.

Also, and in another direction, the rogue may regardless prefer for the familiar to scout ahead in certain situations. Or to team up with the familiar for the scouting mission. Not all rogues are daredevils, quite a few care for their lives...

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Another issue with 'your Familiar describing what it sees', unlike in earlier editions (I believe in 2e it gained 2-3 int points) ...the familiar in 5e is as smart as the creature it takes the shape of. Without homebrewing, your Owl familiar has 2 int and probably isn't the best at describing certain things. This means without doing the 100 foot 'lay on the ground' Tango, your information gaining is pretty limited. +1 overall \$\endgroup\$
    – Jihelu
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 3:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @findusl: Maybe? I could remember the Monopoly game as a kid -- by which I mean the board, and all the cards -- but this was learning by repetition, and it doesn't mean I could remember well something I only saw a "flash" of. I don't think there's any guidance for mapping Int to IQ (or any other measure), and even then, there's quite a difference between reasoning capabilities and memory so it's not clear how good short-term, spatial, memory Int 16 (or 20) is supposed to entail. I could see being more lenient if the Wizard was trained in the use of Cartographer Tools. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 9:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @findusl: Maybe? If the players are happy with a "fuzzy" map -- distances not respected, etc... -- it may be good enough. And there are good moments to be had if the Barbarian plans to rush straight to the BugBear when entering, only to realize as they do that the BugBear is quite a bit further away than anticipated. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 9:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ "(If your wizard player wants to rely on memory, that's fine too. They, and only they, get a quick look at the map, and then they have to draw it from memory...)" - I have always hated this "make the player do the character's mental task" thing. You don't throw a pencil at the rogue to see how they dodge a trap, why are you making the wizard act out what should be an INT check? \$\endgroup\$
    – Deacon
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jihelu: I love this idea: you get a tremendously detailed description of the field, with precise locations and populations of all the mouse and rabbit holes, and the keep is just a big rock in the middle. "oh yeah and there were some orcs inside the rock" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 19:59

Try to avoid gameplay that revolves around "special moments".

I played in a campaign once that was very much about "special moments". The DM would do a half-hour scene that focused on one character, and then a half-hour scene that focused on a different character, et cetera. Frequently the characters that weren't having a "special moment" were actually not present in the scene and had no way to participate.

It was awful. I spent most of the adventure sitting quietly at the table listening to other people roleplay.

You've told us that the wizard familiar might prevent the rogue from splitting off from the party and having a long scene where he scouts the dungeon by himself, and I'm thinking that honestly sounds like an improvement.

It's okay for the players to have information.

Many of your examples end with: "...and now the group knows the dungeon layout. Exciting adventure ahead."

I have found that players have more fun when they have more information, and especially when they can use that information to make better decisions. If they know something about the dungeon layout, they can use that information to make a plan. They can bar doors, lay traps, divide-and-conquer their enemies, and sneak past sections of the dungeon they want to skip. This can be a lot more fun than just "Okay, we open the next door. What's in this one?"

This is the difference between blundering through the dungeon and actually planning it like a heist. Of course it's better if the dungeon has places where good planning can actually make a difference, but ideally you're building those in anyway.

Remember that monsters will attack the familiar.

You've written that the DM might rule that a spider is "too big to pass under doors" -- no. The spider can pass under the door just fine, but anyone on the other side of the door will promptly squish it.

(Rules As Written, the spider cannot hide unless it has something to hide behind, and "just crawled under a door" is unlikely to leave it under cover. The DM might choose to house-rule that the spider can hide in plain sight because it's so small, but even then it should have to actually make the Stealth checks.)

In a magical world, many intelligent creatures are aware that an out-of-place creature might be a wizard's familiar. Even less intelligent creatures will attack random animals that venture into their home.

Also, if someone squishes a spider and the spider "disappears, leaving behind no physical form", that might even tip them off that there's magic afoot, and they might sound an alarm. I'd actually recommend against doing this too frequently, because it could lead to not-fun outcomes for the group that was doing the scouting -- but the threat of it happening might lead the wizard to exercise more caution about scouting.

The rogue has other opportunities to use their skills.

Rogues have lots of things they can do that don't involve splitting off from the group and doing a long rogue-only scene. Most rogues can disarm traps and pick locks. Some rogues can use their mage hand to manipulate objects at a distance; some rogues can use their charisma skills to lie or persuade. All rogues have their unique combat style where they hide and get sneak attack.

These things will let your rogue continue to feel engaged with the adventure, without needing to split off from the group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree that a character could squish the spider, said character should first notice it, and if clinging to shadows/creases, the spider should be unlikely to be noticed in the first place. It's important not to go overboard there. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Worth adding to this that there are threats a tiny spider would face that a human being would not. Is the spider prepared for a life-and-death struggle with a centipede whose hiding place he just disturbed? Can they successfully navigate the water dripping down the walls and pooling on the cavern floor? What about avoiding the hungry sparrow that's actively searching for tiny insects to consume? There are lots of ways for a spider to die that would not be threats at all to the party. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 10:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 specifically for the suggestion that giving the party more information makes for a better adventure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cooper
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 15:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. A spider clinging to shadows/creases is going to take a very long time to explore. A spider moving along fast enough to explore is going to be visible, even if trying for realism. Going by the rules, it is going to be even more noticeable. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 15:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ And from experience rogues are the worst for getting special moments, because scouting is every time the party wants to move, takes 20 different perception and stealth checks and 30 minutes. The the fighter rolls an athletics check, heroically moves a rock and there moment is over, back to the rogue exploring the cave. Again. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 7:52

Don't let them bypass skill checks.

All of your problems seem to be issues of the sort that involve skills. Scouting a castle? Sounds like a perception check. Finding an ambush? Sounds like a stealth check.

They are sentient beings. If an animal tries to go around, the guards can eat them, or crush them as people often do to animals. At level 1, a spider will be competitive with a rogue, with both having around +6, but the rogue be better able to generate advantage and hide from enemies. At higher levels the rogue will be vastly more effective.

If they find the spider then they will prepare for the PCs as it will vanish rather than be beat and the encounter will be harder, so the players should send the best rather than a familiar in most situations if they want to avoid the enemy being on high alert.

You don't need a trained hawk. Normal goblins or whatever with bows can attack and eat animals that fly at them.


Well, the familiar is as you've said: it's disposable in many ways. It takes 1 hour to summon a new familiar and it obeys you no matter what. Furthermore, it's main purpose on the rules as stated seems to be exactly to allow them to explore certain places without risk as well as to cast some spells at a distance, as seen in the following parts of the spell's description:

While your familiar is within 100 feet of you, you can communicate with it telepathically. Additionally, as an action, you can see through your familiar’s eyes and hear what it hears until the start of your next turn, gaining the benefits of any special senses that the familiar has. During this time, you are deaf and blind with regard to your own senses.

Finally, when you cast a spell with a range of touch, your familiar can deliver the spell as if it had cast the spell. Your familiar must be within 100 feet of you, and it must use its reaction to deliver the spell when you cast it. If the spell requires an attack roll, you use your attack modifier for the roll.

So essentially, if the familiar seems to be pretty good at exploring things for the wizard, that's because it probably is. Mechanically speaking, the familiar is something that can work as an extension of the wizard, which can have some good role-playing involved. However the fact that the spell itself states no penalties in loosing the familiar (probably because the familiar will always be a low CR creature and 5e prefers to give smaller bonuses instead of bigger bonuses with big penalties associated) does mean its essentially a disposable aninal drone unless the DM intervenes.

Now, as for what can be done to prevent it from becoming too problematic:

  • talk to the players.

If you notice the rogue is getting bummed out for not having as much of a chance to show his skill, talk with the wizard and the party. If the rogue is not feeling left out and the party likes to strategise how they'll deal with each enemy like some guy with glasses in a Japanese animation, then probably there's no problem to solve other than that your dungeon has now been read like a book. The familiar cannot attack in any way, so the rogue still has meaning in assassination and attacking enemies first without being noticed. If you twist some things in the dungeon, maybe the rogue and the wizard's familiar can start going together if you organize the dungeon properly (the place has spaces only the familiar could go through, and sealed doors that must be unlocked, or maybe the familiar just sticks around in case the wizard wants to help the rogue with some familiar-friendly spells)

If you confirm it's a problem and everyone but the wizard is feeling bummed out and talking doesn't solve it, then try to interfere in game:

  • remember that the familiar is an extension of the wizard in many ways.

This might an option you can adopt, however while I'm adding it here, I don't recommend to use it too much, especially not for the entire dungeon, because it risks making the familiar dungeon ruining shenanigan last much longer and put only the familiar in the spotlight, at which point the wizard will be the only one playing. If the familiar can cast some spells for the wizard, transmit its senses to the wizard and do the job for the rogue, it should also need to do some rolls. Sure an owl probably won't have to worry about triggering ground traps, but it shouldn't magically and instantly detect them either. In fact, a familiar probably should miss most of the traps that rely something heavy enough to trigger them unless it's actively looking and nailing it's perception checks. Furthermore, while a smarter enemy might ignore the random bat flying in the dungeon, it might start paying more attention if the bat is slowly flying around and spending a good portion of time hovering near the traps.

  • remember the familiar looks like an animal.

A smarter enemy might start so suspect a familiar that's not acting like a normal animal would. However, some enemies, mindless or not, might attack the familiar regardless if they spot it. A snake in the dungeon ceiling doesn't care if the bat is a familiar or a normal bat, it's the right size and a good meal, especially since it's been hovering over a place for the past minute, same for a goblin or kobold that just spotted a delicious looking, cat-sized bag of food walking around the place (chase scenes might ensue).

  • remember your players are just standing in a place outside the dungeon while it all happens.

While the familiar is mapping the dungeon (or trying to do so without dying), the players are standing there. Are they hidden properly? Are there scouts outside of the dungeon ready to detect them and send in a warning for everyone to prepare and rearrange within the dungeon? Remember that the wizard's body is basically defenseless so long as they're doing familiar shenanigans in the dungeon while not using his own senses. Furthermore, they might be standing in the same place for more that 2 hours if a familiar dies twice. Are they really so well hidden no enemies noticed then and decided to prepare an ambush?

  • remember the familiar is not actually a beast.

Let's take another look at what the familiar is emphasis mine:

You gain the service of a familiar, a spirit that takes an animal form you choose: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish (quipper), rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Appearing in an unoccupied space within range, the familiar has the statistics of the chosen form, though it is a celestial, fey, or fiend (your choice) instead of a beast.

You're not summoning an animal, you're summoning an animal-shaped Fiend, fey or celestial, and while a Fiend might not care about others of its kind, maybe a higher ranking celestial or fey might not be too happy to discover the spirits of its kind are being made to suffer by some guy in a robe who doesn't like dungeon crawling.

  • sometimes there are survivors.

Think about it: you're an orc, you see an owl flying within your den, looking suspicious but not enough that you'd do anything about it. Then a party of adventures destroys the entire place and you barely make it out alive, then you meet another orc and a bugbear who went through the same thing. Now because the wizard spammed familiar dungeoneering, the medieval not-so-sinister six are bulking up their forces and hunting them for revenge, becoming a major force the party needs to deal with. The problem? These guys don't discriminate and have traps and foes for nosy explorers of all shapes and sizes. Maybe you might want to send the rogue with your familiar, or move from your position as soon as it gets found and everyone goes on high alert.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think it is always "the same" familiar, unless the spellcaster intentionally dismisses the familiar forever. Your answer might be improved by incorporating that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 18:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack actually the rules do allow you to change the familiar's form, but you need to cast the spell again. "If you cast this spell while you already have a familiar, you instead cause it to adopt a new form. Choose one of the forms from the above list. Your familiar transforms into the chosen creature." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 19:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's fully possible to RP the familiar as having the same consciousness in different forms. (e.g. Liam O'Brien does that on Critical Role, giving his familiar a name and talking to it affectionately the same way, even when not in cat form. (He has RP reasons for preferring a cat).) And yes, when killed, he re-summons it in the same or a different form, but it's always the same identity just in a different body. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 4:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know if I love the rest of this answer, but this line is a great point If the rogue is not feeling left out... then probably there's no problem to solve Actually ask the players if there's a problem to solve here, because there may not be. \$\endgroup\$
    – jhocking
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ProjectApex I should have been clearer in my comment. By "familiar", I mean the spirt. "You gain the services of a spirit that takes animal form..." My reading of the spell, the animal form may change, but the spirit doesn't change, unless the caster dismisses the spirit: "Alternatively, you can dismiss it forever." The way I read it, if you do that, then the next time you cast FF, you get a new spirit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Aug 29, 2021 at 15:42

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