Lions and Tigers and Dire Bears, oh my!
Copyright © David Bareford 2003
Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion
While dogsledding with my Alaskan Malamutes after the recent snowfall here in Chicago, I was struck by how differently animals behave in RPGs compared to reality. My dogs do not move at a constant 30 ft./round as stated in my Player's Handbook; I have seen no rules that allow them to stop and sniff or ignore my commands or get tangled in their traces. Experienced equestrians will attest that real horses are often stubborn, fearful, or maddeningly locked into old habits. Yet RPG animals are as reliable as automobiles, resolute as old soldiers, and self-effacing as church mice to fit the player's convenience.
Mounts, animal companions, and familiars present a difficult problem in role-playing. On one hand, they can be an excellent source of obstacle for players in the hands of a clever DM who makes sure that the RPG animals act similarly to their real-world companions. On the other hand, most games center on the lives of the heroes, not biological minutiae. In such a setting, mounts should carry riders docilely, animal companions should obey, and familiars should follow their master's command. Animals should not take the focus off the point of the game and the overall story arc.
Over the years, I have tried many tactics to deal with the "animal problem." The easy way out is to discourage characters from having any animals, either through pressuring the players directly or simply having a monster eat their horses every time they leave them at the dungeon mouth. This is a poor solution, however. Many character archetypes include animals as part of the features of the class. A wizard's familiar confers benefits to its master that are unattainable otherwise. The very nature of a druid (pun intended), along with their animal friendship spell, suggests a few critters hanging around her. A paladin without his special mount seems less than chivalric. Getting rid of animals from a game completely is not the answer.
The reactionary extreme is to treat animals merely as an extension of the character, only appearing when convenient and always following the character's wishes. The ranger may have a timber wolf at her heels, but it obeys like a Border Collie and only gets noticed when the character wants it to attack or stand guard. The wizard is just assumed to have a live ferret stashed in a pocket somewhere that he only takes out when a little advance scouting is needed. Horses never shy from the clash of battle (much less at more mundane sounds), and can always move the daily distances stated in the rules with no fear of foundering, sprained muscles, or a thrown shoe.
But this approach can become ridiculous. When a druid walks into a tavern with a bear at his side, the innkeeper should take issue. The idea of a wizard in a dungeon with a tagalong cat underfoot will make the grizzled fighter roll his eyes. And what happens to the paladin's mount left alone outside a volcanic cavern complex for three days with no food or water?
But animal companions can and should be a part of fantasy role-playing. The following are four principles my group follows to make fauna less frustrating:
1. Decide which animals are featured. Just because the bard named his horse Dulcet doesn't mean the animal is a featured companion. It's a horse. It eats, it runs, it carries him around. That's generally all the detail necessary. The DM does not detail the life history and inner psychology of every NPC in a large town, either. Some just remain Lincoln the Leather Worker, content to serve a function for the PCs, perhaps offer a tidbit of personality, and then fade neatly into the background. So it is with most animals. Special animals like the paladin's mount, a druid's animal companion, or a wizard's familiar deserve much more attention than beasts of burden or transportation animals. Too much focus on non-featured animals bogs down game flow and can frustrate players, as their heroes must constantly deal with recalcitrant animals when they should be fighting evil instead.
2. Give them personalities. Featured animals should be given personalities to accompany their stat blocks. After all, an owl familiar is not just an owl, it's an intelligent owl (some familiars are smarter than some party members), and it will act differently than a normal member of its species. Give such animals likes and dislikes, emotions, and tempers. If the companion can communicate with its master, it can be verbose in expressing its feelings. If mute, the animal can make its opinion known in many other ways.
Even heroic animals are not automatons. A paladin's horse is fearless in battle, but it might hate getting its feet wet crossing streams. A befriended wolf, absolutely loyal to the druid, may not risk itself for another party member. That weasel familiar may have discovered his favorite nesting place is the inside of the bard's lute! An animal companion should feel like another member of the group.
3. Use them to advance the story, not impede it. DMs are often guilty of creating too many difficulties because of animals. If a horse shies at every noise, or a dog team tangles after every half mile, players will quickly tire of animals altogether. Paladins have enough to think about without worrying that their special warhorse will get a burr under the saddle and start bucking in the middle of a lance charge. Beware of animals causing dissension within the party, too. A cleric may disdain using her divine healing magic on the wizard's injured frog familiar. A ranger who sends a bear cub into melee may risk the safety of other party members who must rescue the bear from death at the hands of the enemy. Animals should not be mindless automatons, but they should not be so cantankerous that they are unplayable. Remember that special mounts, familiars, and animal companions are supposed to be advantages of character classes, not liabilities.
4. As a player, help the DM keep track of your animal. DMs juggle a dozen things at once in the course of an adventure, and the personality nuances of a featured animal are generally far down the list. If your character has an animal companion, remember where it is and decide how it is interacting with its environment. Sometimes the DM will "take control" of the animal as a story element, but the player is the primary arbiter of the animal's actions and reactions. Also, keep in mind that your animal companion does not have to be everywhere your character is. It is perfectly acceptable for the ranger to leave her falcon on its perch in the inn room, rather than shopping for arrows with a raptor perched on her arm. Understand that your dire bear companion would cause consternation if you brought it into the city — it can probably fend for itself in the outlying woods for a few days.
I am interested to learn how other RPG groups deal with animal companions...specifically times when such creatures added to the game rather than detracted from it. Who "ran" the creature: the DM or the player? How did the other PCs feel about the animal? Let's hear some of your stories...