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Old Hat Monsters: Animal Companions, Familiars, and Mounts

Old Hat Monsters: Animal Companions, Familiars, and Mounts

Plate from "The Arabian Nights", 'The Roc which fed its young on elephants', "The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor" (Hodder & Stoughton)“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.”
― William Shakespeare, Henry V

Fantasy novels love a good cavalry charge, or a hero who fights alongside a wolf, or a potent mage who spies from the eyes of a soaring bird. In Pathfinder, the only class feature that trumps the animal companion or familiar is spellcasting. Having another creature in a player’s control enhances tactical options and widens that character’s arrays of abilities.

A war-trained horse alone can greatly enhance character movement, carrying capacity, attack options, and defenses. A horse can be a better companion than some fighters since it begins with three attacks, scent, an outstanding carrying capacity, and an excellent move speed.

This may come as no surprise to Kobold Press regulars, but I must confess: I’m a bit addicted to monsters. As a player, I gravitate toward options that give me a familiar, animal companion, or mount since I find the game is missing something for me without that option. I feel that I’m in good company since eight of the eleven base classes either outright gives an animal companion, mount, or familiar, or have options that allow you to take one. So, join me after the jump as we discuss the best options available for animal companions, familiars, and mounts, and keep your eyes peeled for more topics around our fanged and clawed allies, including some alternate rules.

Animal Companions

Best Choices: Allosaurus, ankylosaurus, ape, arsinoitherium, axe beak, dire bat, big cat, crocodile, elephant, roc, giant scorpion, stegosaurus, giant wasp, wolf

The ape and axe beak are the best choices for a druid multiclass character paired with Boon Companion since both gain special abilities at 4th level. The ape has better statistics with regards to ability score, while the axe beak has better speed and the ability to serve as a mount that also trips enemies.

All the dinosaurs are relatively good, but many GMs are restrictive about using them. If you want similar bang for your buck with regards to statistics, size, and trample: the elephant works if dinos are restricted. Giant scorpions are also an attractive alternative if you were simply going for intimidation.

Dire bat, roc, and giant wasp make the list since all achieve Large size at 7th level, making them suitable mounts. Plus, they can fly. The dire bat has blind sense, and the roc is statistically best and can grab foes. The wasp has poison and can hover if the GM wants a bit of realism.

Big cat makes the list for pounce and rake, which is a very powerful combo with its normal stats. Wolves begin with improved trip, which makes them very viable for multiclassers or weaker melee druids and rangers. Crocs made the list because of their death roll and sprint ability, though I’d avoid them in dryer areas.

Worst Choice: The horse. Your special ability boost for the horse is combat training, which is something you can simply purchase or better yet train into your companion for free.


Medium: You get horse or camel; both are fine.

Small: Pony, pig, or wolf. I’d go wolf.


Arcane bond is a huge no brainer. You can either have a huge vulnerability or a scout that delivers touch spells and gives you about two feats.

Best Choices: Centipede (house), compsognathus, fox, hawk, monkey, owl, parrot, raccoon, raven, rhamphorhynchus, scorpion (greensting), skunk, thrush, viper, weasel

Hawk and owl make the list because they are flying scouts that grant Perception bonuses. Parrot, raven, and thrush are good choices because, in addition to being flying scouts, they also can speak, which means they can deliver messages. You could also gain a bonus to Appraise, Linguistics, or Diplomacy, with the first two being in the wizard’s wheelhouse and the latter being the domain of the sorcerer. Rounding out the flyers is the rhamphorhynchus, which is a flying scout that grants you a +2 bonus to initiative—quite a potent combo.

Green sting scorpions are the best choice for those who don’t really want to keep track of their familiar and would just like something that hangs out in the character’s backpack. Basically it and the compsognathus are Alertness and Improved Initiative packages.

Weasel makes the list because of monster stealth and provides a bonus to a weak save. The fox aids Reflex as well, but it has scent, which is also useful. Skunk is a winner because it boosts your weakest likely save, and its debilitating spray attack targets touch Armor Class. The centipede on the list makes it because of its poison, mobility, and stealth bonus for the arcane trickster builds. Viper has abilities as a scout, a poison attack, and a Bluff bonus for the arcane trickster sorcerer build.

Worst Choice(s): Otter, hedgehog, king crab

Swim doesn’t come up as often as the other choices. A bonus to the arcanist’s strong save is silly, and I’d really like to see an arcanist who wants to grapple. I suppose there might be a rare paladin build with the Eldritch Heritage feat that might appreciate the grapple bonus, but this is a stretch.

Tricks and Tips for Getting the Most out of your Animal Companion or Familiar

  • Deliver touch spell is an excellent ability for buffing and healing spells. Perhaps the best use of flying familiars in combat is to have them land on your frontline melee character and deliver a buff.
  • Small-sized creatures grant flanking bonuses even if they don’t attack or if they remain unnoticed by the enemy (using stealth).
  • Anything with hands or a way to grip might be able to say pull a rip cord (I had a compie with a backpack full of caltrops for this) or take and drop something (think hawks and splash weapons or thunderstones).
  • If a creature has a poison attack, it could be milked of poison for your rogue or melee characters.
  • Spells that are otherwise self-only buffs can be used on animal companions and familiars. This includes transformation.
  • When selecting an animal companion, have an idea if you want it to serve as a flanking buddy or mount. What does the companion bring to the table right away?
  • Many, many things in the Bestiary have a bonus vs. trip; you have been warned.
  • If you aren’t in a class that gains an animal companion or familiar, you can take the Eldritch Heritage feat to gain one (arcane and sylvan bloodlines) but you must have a Skill Focus in the bloodline’s bonus skill first. This is easier to swallow for a human (alternate race trait that gives you 3 skill focuses in place of a free feat) or half elf.
  • A rogue plus a roc animal companion is a very nasty combo. Roc always lets rogue flank, and they eventually serve as a flying mount. It can also grab and drop enemies in front of the rogue (fetch).

16 thoughts on “Old Hat Monsters: Animal Companions, Familiars, and Mounts”

  1. My Abberant bloodline Sorcerer/Monk grappler might find use for that crab, though I’m not sure the cost of two feats would be worth it. I’m surprised armadillo isn’t on here. +1 Nat armor to the caster, plus its got scent, can burrow to places others can’t go, and with their protective ball ability a 19 AC which is pretty respectable especially at low level.

    Pity that horses are so meh. I could have sworn that we made variant breeds for the Midgard CS, but I can’t remember if they made it into the final product. Might be something good to look into.

  2. And then the bad guys poison your familiar. Or shoot it full of crossbow bolts.

    Most GMs are kind and do not target the squishy, squishy inappropriate-for-encounters-with-lumpy-metal-things small creatures. But let me put it this way– a familiar is a big, four-legged flag that says, “Hi, I sling spells. You should hit me in the face with a brick first.” Bonded objects present no such flag.

    Just putting it out there.

    It never fails to amaze me when a player, who has pets, has their character put their character’s pet in harms way– in a pet’s world, they have no one more important than their owner. They are utterly devoted, and yet I see rangers push their Meatshield#6 or a wizard push their hawk into dangerous situations. When the companion takes a dirtnap, the response is, “Oh well, guess I’ll get another one.”

    Pets have one appropriate place: home. Bringing your familiar on a journey where it could be another monster’s tasty meat snack is just terrible.


  3. @Ben

    Some things to consider:
    -It’s not the modern world. A familiar is actually smart enough to know the risks and make choices, also I’m certainly not advocating the familiar go out and fight. Flying to a fighter to deliver a bull’s strength is not getting into combat per-se nor is providing a stealthy flanking bonus. Familiars can drop caltrops or drop things form a height ect.

    -An animal companion is a partner and depending on level can be tougher than the fighter in some ways. You can always choose feats that give your animal companion a ranged option such as giving the ape companion throw anything.

    -In neither case are the animals pets, think more along the lines of police dogs and also divorce yourself of modern world notions. Most fantasy campaign settings take place in a time when animals were a real world threat, when the nights were owned by fang and claw and the woods were dangerous.

    As to the arcane item, you lose the ability to cast spells if it is sundered or taken, if your familiar dies you lose the bonus it provides and alertness. You can have it all back in a week for the cost of $200 gold per level.

  4. Our fondess for our pets is no construct of the modern world. In Pompeii, they discovered a survivor of the eruptions, two thousand years later. He had hidden in the basement of the insula with his pet dog.

    They know he survived because of the coprolites in the area afterwards. They also know that while he died of deprivation, he never ate his dog. In fact, there was evidence the dog ate him after he died.

    If your familiar is on the battlefield, it’s in combat. It’s at risk. That’s putting the pet in harm’s way– and pet is the term used in the book, not mine. It’s a regular animal elevated through the connection to the wizard. It’s still a big, furry flag that you’re a spellcaster, and it’s got a target painted on it. I would argue that familiars should be regularly attacked, *especially* in a world where animals might be considered a threat. If that’s an intelligent being your character has elevated, who is your wizard’s constant companion via a mental bond, putting them unnecessarily in danger is reprehensible.

    And losing your bonded object doesn’t prevent you from casting– it just requires the wizard make a concentration check to pull off the spell.

  5. @ Ben

    I’m all for roleplaying immersion but let’s remember its a game, nor real life dogfighting. As to it being an advertisement of being a spell caster anyone can purchase a battle trained horse or have a wardog, A rogue can have a familiar in 2 ways (advanced rogue trick, eldritch heritage,) the vast majorityh of classes have an option.

    Plenty of familiars can be subtle with stealth or simply choosing to fly above the battle field. Some are small enough to fit in your character’s backpack and this is still a far better trade then the item. The familkiar is basically a 2 feat package that can also scout, the item takes an item slot and leaves you with a far bigger vulnerability then any familiar.

    I guess we can agree to disagree on that.

  6. I realize this isn’t “Dogfighting: The RPG,” but it’s the same reason my characters don’t rummage through dead opponent’s pockets without a strategic reason, like finding information about something. And while other classes can and do purchase other animals, no rogue is roaming around with a scorpion, a skunk, or a weasel. Treating the familiar like a “2 feat package” is the exact opposite of immersion.

    You keep calling a bonded item a “far bigger vulnerability,” and you fail to qualify that statement. Bonded items give the prepared caster flexibility in their spell selection. While you claim the bonded item “takes” a magic item’s slot, nothing prevents a character from using an item in that slot as a bonded item. Bonded items may be concealed in social environments, allowing the caster to appear to be any other sort of profession. Bonded objects do not need food, may be enchanted, warded, even potentially swallowed in the case of rings. An opponent attempting to sunder a bonded object can never be sure if he’s aiming at the right target or a decoy. Very few familiars have that benefit without a (short duration) _mirror image._

    The concentration check necessary, should the wizard lose a bonded object, is (20+spell level)– not an outrageous target as the wizard progresses in experience, and especially not if one takes combat casting. I think Pathfinder’s elimination of the potential experience point penalty for losing a familiar trivialized the animal’s possible loss and encourages endangering what should be valuable companion.

    I think we can certainly agree that we disagree regarding the proper treatment of familiars, but I think your dismissal of bonded objects is hasty and unsupported.

  7. ” If a wizard attempts to cast a spell without his bonded object worn or in hand, he must make a concentration check or lose the spell. The DC for this check is equal to 20 + the spell’s level. If the object is a ring or amulet, it occupies the ring or neck slot accordingly.”

    Not only must you have your bonded object it must be in hand or worn in order to cast a spell without a concentration check, furthermore the DC start at 21 for a first level spell! That is absolutely crippling to low level casters, if you choose bonded object you have to build around it.

    Take away that restriction and you have either a familiar or an object you get item creation feat for on that item and an extra spell which is a nice choice. As written: disarm, sunder, theft, being greased if its a held object all screw the caster.

    I do not advocate throwing your familiar in the perils of combat if your GM is the type to target them. Allot of GMs have their villains target threats in combat which I support as a general rule its not worth an action to kill a familiar that is not attacking just providing a flank bonus and it takes a perception check to notice (because the familiar is using stealth.)

    Of course we seem to have different play styles as I will absolutely loot the dead with all but my NG and LG characters.

  8. I believe your bonded object argument is specious. A wizard could have a ring on every finger, three amulets, two daggers on their belt, possibly a wand or cane, as well as another dagger in hand– every one a potential bonded object and possessed in a suitable manner for casting. All of them thematic and appropriate to a wizard. No “build” is necessary– which object does the enemy attack, disarm, grease, steal, or sunder?

    If you really want to point at the weakness in the wizard’s belongings, it’s the spell component pouch. In my experience, few players and almost no designers have their wizards carry a backup. And at low levels, I find wizards need to worry more about thunderstones– the Fortitude save is usually hard to beat, while the 20% spell failure and initiative penalty for being deafened are problematic and persist well beyond the combat.

    I would agree, it sounds as if our playstyles are quite different.

  9. Alexander Deel

    I really love your articles, they have all come in handy with my gaming group lately.

    Out of curiosity, what is your opinion on aquatic animal companions and familiars?

  10. @ Alex

    I love the theme and concept of water based adventures and under water campaigns which is why I and a friend are working on a 3d prototype mini board (using reels.) But those campaigns are rare which would make me consider more strongly the familiars and animal companions that can deal with land or water.

    For animal compaions you’re looking at some of the dinosaurs, crocodyles, and hippos. I like the croc for death roll in particular and it’d be fun to have one with a ship campaign (assuming there’s some handwaiving on salt vs freshwater.)

    For familiars I’d strongly recommend getting improved familiar at 7th level and upgrading to a water mephit if you want a water based familiar. Fast healing, some sla action and likely an ok UMD score.

    Hope that helps, and thanks for reading…

  11. You make good points, Frank, but I have to side with Ben about the familiars. I’m more of a roleplayer than a tactician and, as such, I have a hard time justifying having a familiar do anything but “get the hell out of the way” when it’s time for combat. In noncombat situations they’re great for acting as couriers or sentinels, but scouting could be dangerous.

    I also agree that the nerfing of a familiar’s loss has trivialized their value. They should never be considered disposable, but many characters treat them exactly that way. As a DM, it can be frustrating when a party is (over)loaded with familiars, animal companions, and trained pets. Now I have to account for multiple extras and worry about hurting a player’s feelings if the nasty monsters snipe the hawk. It can be fun, however, when two different companions/familiars have natural predator/prey relationships and the players sometimes use such circumstances to vicariously annoy each other. Most of the intelligent monsters in my campaign will target a familiar if it is “scouting,” either because it may raise the alert level by being out of place (e.g. a parrot underground) or simply because it will fill the stew pot.

    Familiars and animal companions definitely add flavor to an adventure, but shouldn’t be treated solely as min/maxing accessories.

    Other than those peccadilloes, it was another great article, as we’ve come to expect from you.


  12. @ Gary and Ben

    Maybe its one of those topics a GM should chat with the game table about in advance to prevent hurt feelings. My table, both the games I GM and the ones I play in, familiars very rarely enter combat, though scouting is very very common. Usually its a hawk or raven and we’re talking the riverlands or the old margreve so such creatures are not out of place.

    Next week’s article is actually going to discuss ways to equip familiars, animal compainons and mounts. I find that when a reasonable allowance on magic item placement is given the critters do a much better job surviving.

    I’ll leave the rest of that to next week’s article :)

  13. I’ve played tables where the familiar was played by a sock puppet and practically a character in its own right, though a very urban one (a cat who detested being outside), and I’ve played at Living tables where the wizard’s total design was based around putting his familiar into combat in a polymorphed form. And really, it was probably the attitude of the Living players (who regularly sacrificed animal companions in a truly spectacularly uncaring fashion) which caused me to be so cognizant of the behavior.

    Now, when I join a game, I ask three questions: “How is slavery treated in this world?” “How does the perception and treatment of spellcasters vary from region to region?” and “How technologically advanced is the world? Bronze age? Roman Empire? Medieval? (Follow up, Islamic, Western European, or Other?) Renaissance? Steampunk?”

    Generally, those three answers let me know most of what I need to know about a game world.

    I am interested to see how you address equipping familiars, especially when most magical (or even mundane masterwork) items are worth a decade or more of a common laborer’s wages. If anything, this discussion is highlighting a space in need of some utility magics. Certainly not sexy stuff, per se, but then again I doubt anyone’s thought _feather fall_ was until they found that well disguised pit trap.

  14. I’m very interested to see what you come up with for equipping the critters, too. Should be fun.


  15. I think familiar should not be sent into combat. I feel that a familiar is bonded in a way that you would want to protect it. But at the same time your going into battle so why not them? Now trained animals different story. I will train tigers, dogs, anything I can and send them all into to combat. If they die it cost me gold maybe, time for training yes, time tracking and capturing maybe. But at that point they are no more than daggers. You are training them for weapons. I would not send my pack mule into combat unless I needed to get away. Better I live than the beast. I am currently trying to build a Beast-Man from He-man type build where my main weapon is my beast. This is just me but love the article. Would love an article on tracking, hunting, and capturing of animals.

  16. Robert: But that’s very different from an animal *companion* or a familiar. What you’re describing is not a pet, not a pal, but a working animal/handler relationship, one where the hazards of the work are known and expected. (From what I’ve read, this is still a pretty close bond) That’s a bit more palatable situation to put the animal in harm’s way.

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