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I have a 1st-level sorcerer in my game that has a rabbit familiar. Familiars are magical beasts, so you can't use "speak with animals" or anything that specifically affects animals. As a result, she can't actually communicate with her familiar at all.

Other than to be an intelligent (INT 6) creature, the familiar seems to largely just be a liability since it's not like she can give it instructions. It sits in her backpack with its head poking out all the time but otherwise doesn't do anything.

So... what's the point of having a familiar at 1st level anyway?

Admittedly, she could get it a pearl of speech (MIC p118; 600 gp; Item Level 3rd) to grant it the ability to speak and understand a specific language, but that's quite a ways off for a 1st-level character. It seems to me that the only immediately useful abilities of a 1st-level familiar are the passive skill benefits (Alertness, and the animal-specific benefit), the ability to make it slightly less of a liability by sharing spells with it, and the possibility of leaving it to guard something so it can empathically inform you when something scary is nearby. However, that last one is useless to an adventuring sorcerer that's going to regularly be more than a mile away.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, are you implying that the Alertness feat and the animal benefit are useless? Your question reads to me as "What is the point of having a familiar if all it gives me is two free feats? \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Apr 16 '15 at 7:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ People like having a pet cat; but now you can have a pet cat that you can communicate emphatically with? Can you say "crazy cat lady wizard"? \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Apr 16 '15 at 7:30
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Not sharing a language doesn't mean you can't communicate. Familiars are smart (6 intelligence at level 1, and rising fast) and have empathic links to their associated spellcasters. Which is to say, you can demonstrate concepts to your familiar by example, even if you can't do it through speech; And you can readily communicate an emotion associated with each concept you communicate. It's less convenient than speech, admittedly; It takes a lot of effort to explain a concept without words, and it's unlikely your familiar shares enough of your cultural background that you'll be able to do it without starting from first principles... But it's enough to teach your familiar to act as a lookout for approaching humanoids, or to keep an eye on the soup and let you know if it starts to boil over.

Even without specific instruction, the empathic link can be surprisingly useful. In a campaign I was running, the Wizard opted not to take his familiar (an owl) into an undead-infested dungeon, and instead left it to wait in the blasted, deserted wasteland outside - and so was able to guess something was up outside when he later felt surprise and fear without there being anything fearsome or surprising in sight.

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I see no reason why an Int 6 familiar with which you share an empathic link that lets you directly communicate emotions would be less able to be instructed than an Int 2 dog which doesn't even have a link. Yet nobody seems to think that it's impossible to direct an animal companion, and the idea of a guard dog doesn't surprise anyone.

You might not share a language, but you can still teach your familiar commands and your emotional link lets you make them quite a bit more complicated than those given to ordinary animals, but even those can be trained to do quite complex things.

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This answer is at least partially opinion based, just as a warning ;).

The Familiar still has an empathic link, which means it is able to determine your general attitude towards a person or Situation, furthermore it is intelligent to a degree and for a first level character, you can usually assume that your familiar has "known" you for some time, therefore it is reasonable to assume you can have some sort of simple communication. So while you can't tell it to go to the tent of the ogre and sniff out wether he has the magic club of striking, you can point somewhere and suggest unease and curiosity. So to cut my rambling short. Missing a language does not mean that no communication is possible, it is just harder. So simple scouting tasks can be possible assuming some roleplaying and your willingness as a DM. I would agree that the mechanics are the main benefit though.

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A familiar with int 6 has a number of skill points equal to 1 per hit die, and you use the master's hit dice or the creature's, whichever is higher. People forget this. This means that even if your familiar does not have a language to start with, it can learn one. No, it probably can't speak it (unless it's a raven or a parrot or similar) but it can certainly learn to understand one as well as an int 6 (or higher at higher levels) human can.

When it hits int 10 it gets an additional 1 skill point per hit die (2 + 0, rather than 2 - 1), and so on for 12 and higher.

Edit: Okay, this is incorrect. The familiar retains its own skill points but doesn't gain them from its master leveling up. However:

"For each skill in which either the master or the familiar has ranks, use either the normal skill ranks for an animal of that type or the master’s skill ranks, whichever are better. In either case, the familiar uses its own ability modifiers. Regardless of a familiar’s total skill modifiers, some skills may remain beyond the familiar’s ability to use."

So if its master has ranks in speak language, then so does the familiar.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Familiars, unlike animal companions, don't actually take hit dice of their own, which means they don't get extra skill points. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Apr 16 '15 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oops, you're quite right. However, "For each skill in which either the master or the familiar has ranks, use either the normal skill ranks for an animal of that type or the master’s skill ranks, whichever are better. In either case, the familiar uses its own ability modifiers. Regardless of a familiar’s total skill modifiers, some skills may remain beyond the familiar’s ability to use." \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Lang Apr 24 '15 at 18:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm sorry to contradict you but even this is wrong. One can never have ranks in Speak Language, because he gets new languages instead: "You can purchase Speak Language just like any other skill, but instead of buying a rank in it, you choose a new language that you can speak." \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Apr 25 '15 at 16:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Then again, it's considered good practice not to add an "EDIT:" paragraph. Since all edits are saved in the editing history, it's better to just edit out the wrong parts and edit in the new pieces, so that the new answer stands by itself. (Blarg. Someone please rewrite this comment of mine in a more understandable way.) \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Apr 25 '15 at 16:53

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