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It is balanced to allow Owl Familiars to deliver long-distance messages (written on paper or tiny objects)?

Find Familiar spells explains:

Your familiar acts independently of you, but it always obeys your commands.

So giving the instruction is not the issue. However, it's not clear if the intelligence of 2 and wisdom 12 are enough to understand the task and find the place. Delivering a tiny object seems to me a simpler task than guard duty, so I guess the answer should be yes.

Furthermore,

What is a reasonable distance limit for an owl familiar to deliver a tiny object?

I can't find much information to decide what would be a balanced ruling.

Well-received answers to this question about long-distance messages suggest familiars and Carrier animals, however, it's not clear what are the reasonable limits to that long distance for different animals.

IRL on the one hand, record travel distance by homing pigeons is around 11,600 kilometres, however on the other hand barn owls' territory is only a 4 km radius.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that for 10g you can have many other forms of familiar I am not sure limiting this to the owl form is helpful, otherwise it lends follow up questions like 'could a raven do it'. It's probably enough to say is it within the power of the spell in general. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Aug 9, 2022 at 9:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related/ useful: Can a familiar travel any distance? \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Aug 9, 2022 at 12:30

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You can ask your familiar to deliver a message to any location that it knows how to reach, or any person that it knows how to find.

Once you do that, your DM will decide if your familiar was actually able to reach the destination. Your DM will think about questions like:

  • How long does it take to get there?
  • Are there any hazards along the way?
  • How well does your familiar know the path? Could it get lost?
  • Is the person you're delivering the message to actually there?

This DM probably would narrate that most familiars can follow simple directions like "follow this road until you reach a city", but that they can't follow more complicated directions, and they can't find a given location within a city unless they've visited it many times.

I don't see a balance issue here. If you wanted to send a long-distance message, you could just send it by mail, and it would be more reliable and wouldn't mean your familiar was gone for a long time.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for an excellent answer that avoids unnecessary complexity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Aug 15, 2022 at 21:36
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There already is a spell for this

Animal Messenger is a spell that does exactly what you're asking for and given that it's a 2nd level spell and Find Familiar is 1st level and already plenty useful, I'd be hesitant to allow the familiar to do what Animal Messenger does and I certainly wouldn't allow a better utility than that. You shouldn't be able to duplicate the effects of a higher level spell by using a lower level one so if I were to allow it at all, it would have to be significantly weaker than what Animal Messenger offers.

First of all, I would argue whether delivering a message is a simpler task than standing guard. You also seem to disregard the fact that standing guard is not synonymous with succeeding at detecting danger, so yeah, your familiar can perform guard duty but there's no guarantee that it will actually manage to detect and correctly identify all dangers. And "watch the camp and make loud noise if you spot movement" is a simpler instruction than "follow this set of directions to this particular place, find this specific person and deliver the message, and also avoid all predator on the way".

Second, the analogy with homing pigeons doesn't really work here, since these were generally used to only fly to a one single destination and they would have to be brought back by someone, training them to fly back and forth was possible but significantly more difficult and any more than that was just plain impossible. So if you're going to implement this, I'd definitely stick closer to the barn own territory of 4 km, which is a more reasonable area for an owl familiar to not get lost on the way, I'd maybe make the distance a bit larger, 5-10km I think is reasonable. Animal Messenger has a limit of 50km if you cast at the base level and as I've said, Find Familiar is already a very useful spell that has lots of utility so 1/5 of the distance seems generous to me.

I would also put similar restriction on it as Animal Messenger has, that the place the familiar is delivering to must be one that you have already visited with your familiar. I wouldn't allow a delivery to a specific person, just to a place of residence. I would also maybe add a roll to see whether your familiar succeeds, based on the distance it has to travel and how well it knows the area.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your thoughtful answer. I would argue that "Animal Messenger" is way more powerful, as it acts like 3 spells: "Familiar" (the animal) + "Minor illusion" (the message) + "Locate creature" . The spell description reads: "When the messenger arrives, it delivers your message to the creature that you described, replicating the sound of your voice". Is it really true that "There already is a spell for this" ? \$\endgroup\$
    – rhermans
    Aug 9, 2022 at 10:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Kind of but not really, Animal Messenger works in a way that resembles those 3 spells to some extent but it doesn't really "act like them", most notably it doesn't really locate the creature, you need to already know where it is or your messenger won't find it. And unless you are for some reason explicitly interested in an audio message, a piece of parchment with stuff written on it serves exactly the same purpose, in fact it's better as it doesn't limit you to 25 words \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Aug 9, 2022 at 10:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast it is a spirit but with the stats of the animal, including the intelligence and the telepathic communication is limited to 100 feet. If you wanted to use it to carry the message up to 100 feet away, I'd allow that gladly. \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Aug 9, 2022 at 13:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ The find familiar spell is a powerful spell granting a lot of resources, giving up advantage, remote casting and an inconspicuous spy for a message -- I have no problem with that. And from a RAW perspective, there is absolutely no reason you couldn't send your familiar with a note attached. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 10, 2022 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, you don't REALLY answer the question. What happens, according to your ruling if in one of your games, I were order my owl familiar with "Here, take this message to the top of the wizards tower back in that city we left 3 hours ago?" How are those outcomes supported by the rules of the game? \$\endgroup\$ Aug 11, 2022 at 19:25
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Absolutely

The find familiar spell tells us that:

Your familiar acts independently of you, but it always obeys your commands.

So, you order it to carry a message to a person or place it knows, and it will obey and try its best to carry the message. From a RAW perspective, that is the whole answer as to the "can they?" question.

Range Limit

As long as the familiar can find food and water, there really isn't a limit, but it would take time to travel. Unless it is a Warlock casting it with Voice of the Chain master, it would have to come back or die to return because the caster wouldn't have a way of knowing when the message was delivered, so it'd be a two way trip.

The weight of the object it can carry is determined by the strength of the creature following the carrying capacity rules.

Carrying Capacity. Your carrying Capacity is your Strength score multiplied by 15. This is the weight (in pounds) that you can carry, which is high enough that most Characters don’t usually have to worry about it.

...

For a Tiny creature, halve these weights.

If you playing using the option encumbrance rules, those would apply. So, in short, carry a small amount of weight, the familiar can keep travelling until they reaches the destination, die or are dismissed according to RAW.

Balance

About the balance questions other answers are concerned about. Having a familiar in battle can grant you advantage on one attack every round until the familiar is killed or dismissed, as it can take the help action. Familiars can be used to spy and scout ahead. And the spell allows the caster to cast other spells through the familiar. Find familiar is a powerful spell. Sending it on a long journey to deliver a message removes these others benefits, and I have no problem with a player giving up those benefits to let the familiar attempt to deliver a message.

Failure is an Option

There is a chance it could fail, albeit small for simple delivery in the same general area. As others have gone on and on about, there are complications the familiar could run into. Remember that it is an animal with the stats of the animal, and while it will follow your instructions it will do so as a well trained animal can. Pidgeon and falcons carry messages in real life, so assuming an owl or hawk that is a fey or celestial spirit can too is completely reasonable.

The longer the journey the more likely complications will arise. I would suggest having the player roll some dice using the familiars stats for some complications. The caster's player only gets to know what those are for when the familiar is back with them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Pigeons have a homing instinct, this is what people take advantage of to get them to carry messages, you take pigeons from some place, transport them somewhere else and they will just fly home once you release them, this isn’t really how the familiar works and afaik falcons were trained to hunt down messenger pigeons, not carry messages themselves so neither of those is really a good analogy \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Aug 10, 2022 at 19:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnnaAG You are right about how pigeons, but you can't talk to normal pigeons and give them commands either. I can tell my dog "go to X" or "bring me your Piggy" and he'll go to X or bring me his Pig toy (instead of, say, his ball). And to my knowledge, he is "just" an animal and not a fey spirit who can communicate telepathically. About IRL Falcons, they can be trained to go to specific named near by targets, but cannot "home". \$\endgroup\$ Aug 11, 2022 at 1:41
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TL;DR:

One needs to accept that Find Familiar (Lvl1: Wizard) is very powerful, RAW does not prevent familiars been ordered to travel large distances. The instructions are always understood and an attempt will be made to deliver an object if the location and path of the target are known.

For balance:

  • Only a single tiny object could be allowed.
  • Under most conditions, there will be a significant chance of failing to deliver the object unless the familiar has been previously instructed to memorize the target location and the route is safe.
  • Once the object is dropped at the location, there are no warranties that it will be found by the intended recipient.

Long Analysis

Here I try to respect RAW and balance whenever possible. The main limitation that allows balance are the intelligence and knowledge necessary to find the target location, the events that may interrupt the travel and the likelihood the object will not be found once delivered.

Baseline

There is clearly a lot in common between this question about balance and "Q76171: Can a familiar travel any distance?". While Q76171 only asks if it's at all possible, this question assumes it is possible (based on RAW "always obey your commands") and focuses on asking if it is balanced, and what distances to allow.

On the answers to Q76171 the consensus seems to be in accordance with the RAW, a familiar can be given a command to travel (a familiar always obeys your commands) a large distance. The 100 feet limitation applies only to telepathic communication.

Balance

To answer the question about balance, and the conditions and distances to be allowed, one needs to address the following issues:

  • Is the command intelligible to the familiar?
  • Does this replicate the effects of Animal Messenger (Lvl2: Bard, Druid, Ranger)
  • Can the familiar reasonably succeed on the task?
Intelligence

IRL untrained animals do not understand commands from people, in D&D5e familiars are spirits that "always obey your commands" so the message should be received by the familiar without a language barrier, thanks to the magical link between the caster and the creature.

However, familiars act with the stats of an animal of the chosen form, so intelligence (usually 1-3) will limit the likelihood of success. Consequently, this is one opportunity to limit the effects to maintain balance.

A DM could rule that familiars of low intelligence could not recognize specific people, only places.

The familiar must know the way and the place to attempt to deliver the object. Known places but unknown routes or conditional statements will most likely fail. The Familiar could get lost and be unable to find the location, if unfamiliar with the location or the path to it.

Recalling a location could be facilitated if the spell caster linked to the familiar instructs their familiar to memorize a particular location and associate it with a name. Otherwise, the item may en in any random location in the general area.

Complicated orders may be attempted but will always fail.

Replicating animal messenger?

No, this does not replicate Level 2 spell Animal Messenger (Bard, Druid, Ranger), on which

[The message replicates] the sound of your voice. The messenger speaks only to a creature matching the description you gave.

The "sound of your voice" is not replicated, a "creature matching the description" is not found magically, and no new animals get recruited to serve. This is a spirit familiar already linked to the character which is following an order. Furthermore, there is a class mismatch, Find Familiar is a Wizards' spell (And subclasses that use Wizard spells like Arcane Trickster Rogues) while Animal Messenger is a spell for Bard, Druid, or Rangers, even if the effects were to be the same, within a class, there is no duplication of effect for a higher level spell.

Speed

The target travels at the speeds defined in the statistics of the chosen form. It could travel at a maximum speed rate and does not have to stop at regular intervals to rest or feed because it is a spirit, not a beast.

You gain the service of a familiar, a spirit that takes an animal form you choose[...] the familiar has the statistics of the chosen form, though it is a celestial, fey, or fiend (your choice) instead of a beast.

Distance

A "familiar has the statistics of the chosen form" and is therefore susceptible to the limitations of that form. They are susceptible to being attacked, affected by weather or getting lost, or being obstructed. This could imply that the familiar may be "killed" (disappear) or forced to drop and lose the message with a likelihood proportional to the distance travelled.

Whenever the familiar drops to 0 hit points or disappears into the pocket dimension, it leaves behind in its space anything it was wearing or carrying

This is the other main opportunity to limit the effects of this idea to provide balance without conflicting with RAW. At the discretion of the GM, the Familiar could be interrupted and fail to fulfil the instructions.

Consequently, the distance itself is not a limitation, but the time it takes to reach the destination is a limitation. Also, the likelihood of being interrupted on the way must increase proportionally to the distance and the difficulty of the terrain.

Other sources of failure

The spell caster may miss-calculate when is safe to recall the Familiar, and that could happen before the message is delivered.

Once delivered to a location, the object may never be found. Probably dropped in an inconvenient location like on a tree, roof or well.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Expanding upon your first sentence, I have often seen find familiar characterized as more of a wizard class feature rather being "just another 1st level spell". \$\endgroup\$ Aug 10, 2022 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, you can use "#, ##, ###, ..." for headers. It's much easier than playing with html tags. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 10, 2022 at 14:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @rhermans Are you sure about that? It doesn't seem to be in it's spell list and I'm not aware of any feature which would add it. Warlocks might be a better footnote, though in that case it's definitively a class feature. The magic initiate feat also bears mentioning, but a very similar argument can be made there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Aug 10, 2022 at 14:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil I was wrong, got confused. It's Arcane Trickster Rogues, not Artificers, "When you reach 3rd level, you gain the ability to cast spells. See chapter 10 for the general rules of spellcasting and chapter 11 for the wizard spell list." -- PHB p94 \$\endgroup\$
    – rhermans
    Aug 10, 2022 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Small improvement suggestion: Intelligence would be usually 1-3, several familiars such as spiders only have 1. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 10, 2022 at 15:11

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