I'll summarize the argument here.
"Familiars suck," he complains. "They're too risky for the mage, so it's not worth owning one. I rolled d4 hit points, and it starts with 2d4. If it dies, the permanent hit point loss would kill me. Our game is dangerous enough that using it to scout would put me at far greater risk than just sending a hireling or Thief instead."
Familiars (as written) are too great a risk and they don't do enough. My primary fix is to replace the lost 2d4 hit points with a "Constitution modifier loss" instead, which can be remedied by a friendly cleric's Restoration spell. A Constitution modifier loss basically drops the ability score down below your current hit point modifier threshold.
If the magic-user has 18 Constitution (+3 HP), it drops to 17 (+2 HP).
If the caster started with 13 Constitution (+1 HP), it drops to 12 (0 HP adjustment).
If the caster started with 12 Constitution (no adjustment), it would drop all the way down to 8 (-1 HP).
That sounds complex but it should be quite simple at the table. The caster must still wait a full year before summoning a new familiar.
I'm also a fan of making familiars more valuable to their masters as the bond between them grows over time. This will also make their loss that much more painful. Here's the three-part plan for scaling familiars.:
- Familiars gain a bonus hit point if they live to see their master gain a level, and this bonus hit point is conferred to its master as well, just like its base 2d4 hit dice. For tracking purposes, the familiar should be considered to have "gained a level."
- A familiar who has survived long enough to become "3rd level" can deliver touch spells on behalf of the wizard.
- Those long nights with your study buddy have paid off! A "5th level" familiar provides it owner with the ability to memorize an additional 1st level spell.
The 2d4 bonus hit points gained by summoning a familiar is the equivalent of two levels for a mage, making it a no-brainer as to whether it's worth summoning one. These changes should make the risk/reward analysis more favorable, but I don't think the spell becomes too powerful either.