So the witch PC in my game has a fox familiar. It never comes up. May as well be a spellbook with fur. The existing by-the-book familiar rules are just fucking boring.
Now I have perused some fantastic wizardly familiar rules around the OSR-sphere, and they all kick rich amounts of ass. But with Pathfinder, I need to approach familiars in a different way. They are integral to the witch class, taking the role that a wizard's spellbook would.
Meanwhile, the witch picks two new spells to learn every level automatically! To be fair, they pick from a limited spell list chosen for the flavour of the class (ie. you don't get fireball), but if you elected to play a witch, this isn't really a drawback is it?
Once a wizard has a spell in his book, he can rely upon being able to memorize it any day that he wants. A spellbook that got angry and refused to open would be a serious problem indeed! Meanwhile, some fantastic OSR familiar rules that add personality, goals, motivations etc. have the chance of screwing over a witch completely. If she wasn't on speaking terms with her familiar, she wouldn't even be able to memorize spells!
You can see how player skill is circumvented here in favour of "character skill": two 6th-level witches could have exactly the same spell list, despite coming from different campaign worlds, because they just made the same choices every time they gained a level. It's much less likely that any two wizards would have come upon exactly the same spellbooks in their travels, or indeed that each would have had the same degree of success in wresting those treasures from their previous owners.
This all means that changes to the witch's familiar rules have to be undertaken with care. A wizard can opt not to take a familiar - the witch has no choice. A balance must be struck between flavour, fidelity to the source material, gameability and fairness. The player picked his class in good faith and I can't very well start cutting it off at the knees a few sessions in!
1 - In the sidebar called "Adding spells to a witch's familiar," there are two methods in addition to that described above. First, a scroll can be used: it is actually eaten by the familiar and the witch makes a Spellcraft check to see if the familiar learns the spell. This is cool, but since witches can only learn spells from their own spell list, its usefulness is limited.
2 - Another method of adding spells is for one witch's familiar to teach another. This is kinda cool and sets up good quests - "do this service for the grezelda and her familiar will teach yours a new spell." But this throwaway line at the end is what REALLY grabbed me:
"If a familiar belongs to a which that has died, it only retains its knowledge of spells for 24 hours, during which time it is possible to coerce or bribe the familiar into teaching its spells to another..."
There Can Be Only One!
This sets up a Highlanderian world of WITCH-MURDER! - hunting down & killing rival witches, trapping their familiars and convincing them to give up the goods - where the winner can amass an incredible sum of spells. I can see witches forming covens for mutual protection not only against the ignorant masses and religious authorities, but their own power-hungry peers! Meanwhile, each one ponders the chances of stabbing the others in the back.
After all, witches are vectors for the power of their Patrons, who have invested them with mysterious magical power through their familiars. It makes sense that they would roam the world wiping out the champions of competing gods, demons & other entities.
In Land's End, monsters like the dreaded night hags began as witches, then killed so many of their sisters and amassed so much magic they ascended to another state of being. Their familiars would be repositories of tremendous knowledge, powerful beings in their own right. Even if you could slay a hag (in E6 some of them are no joke - Night Hags are CR 9), her familiar could fight as well, or run and hide for 24 hours, or summon allies, maybe cast its own spells, or call upon her infernal Patron for help.
How to draw a witch PC into this most dangerous game? I see at least two possibilities here:
1 - Every familiar knows (or will know in the future) a unique spell not available on the standard witch spell list. If you're happy with just the one your PC gets... fine, but with such a lack of ambition it's amazing you ever became an adventurer (I'll probably roll randomly). Familiars of puissant witches could have learned dozens of unique spells, making them extremely dangerous foes and a potential goldmine for enterprising PCs. Gotta problem? Need a brand-new spell? Carve out the solution with blood and betrayal, sista.
2 - Obviously if other witches learn of your character's existence, they'll come gunning for you. Better take the fight to the enemy with your adventuring pals, rather than wait for a black-hearted century-old murderess to develop the perfect plan for snuffing you out.
This is getting me stoked. I already had the wilderness seeded with multiple witches and a coven, all with their own abilities and agendas. Let's see if the players twig onto the possibilities? Those lines about learning spells from other familiars are right in the class description. No witch PC can ever say they weren't warned...
Happy Halloween! Let's bump this track in the hearse tonight: