So your party has rescued an adorable baby owlbear…now what?
D&D gives you an avenue for exploring a lot of things that are unattainable in real life: magic, interplanar travel, defeating ancient liches…all with an animal companion by your side! Mechanically, there are only a couple of classes that come pre-structured for having a “pet”, but why should Rangers and Wizards have all the fun? And if you’re running a game for young players, as soon as one person gets a pet, they’ll all be scheming for one!
Naturally, this can pose some unique challenges for the adventuring party and the DM alike, as little Snickerdoodle could turn into a fine snack for any number of beasties. As a DM, you’ll be faced with the inevitable puppy-dog eyes of your players as you’re about to roll damage against the equally-helpless animal companion they just adopted…and if they survive that fight, it’s only a matter of time before the next suspense-ridden battle.
Since I’m not one to enjoy killing off the pets my players find during their travels, I try to find ways to incorporate them more creatively into the game. In fact, I find that the inclusion of some animal companions can actually offer good opportunities for problem solving and character growth! Here are some things you can consider when it comes to balancing the challenge and reward of having pets in the party:
Pets can be trained to perform simple tasks, starting with the basics (come to th eplayer when called, sit, stay, etc.) and progress into more complex commands. You can assign a “Training Level” to a pet, which can be increased depending on how much time a player spends on the training and bonding. It’s up to you to determine the driving factors for level progression, whether it’s time spent or types of commands learned.
Some homebrew guidelines for Training Level include increasing time commitment for each task taught (i.e. 2 hours for “come”, 4 hours for “stay”, 6 hours for “fetch/retrieve an object”, and so on), along with the appropriate Animal Handling Checks. Certain tasks, such as attacking or maneuvering during combat, would require a more advanced level.
The maximum Training Level and complexity of the tasks a pet is able to learn would be based off its Intelligence score (which you can pull from the appropriate stat block…if one does not exist, use the closest related creature stats). More intelligent creatures will be able to learn and execute more complex tasks.
Care and Feeding
Just like in real life, pets need to be fed and sheltered, though it’s up to you how much of this realism you want to include at the table. This aspect can be as strict or as lenient as you make it, though it’s a good idea to have the requirements match your expectations for the party. If you track rations, food and water for your players, then be sure to keep track of feeding the pets too. If the pet gets too hungry, they may become less obedient and stray off in search of something to eat. Also remember that things like temperature and environmental stressors can impact the pet’s demeanor as well.
Combat is inevitable, therefore you should think about how you want to handle pets in battle ahead of time! You have a couple of different options: the easy way is to treat the pets the way you do a Ranger’s animal companion, and have the player command their movement on their turn in combat, to either attack, take a “hide” action, or complete a relevant task.
Alternatively, you can have the player roll an Animal Handling Check to determine how focused/obedient the pet is going to be. The DC for this check would depend on how well trained the pet is…the more trained the pet, the more loyal it will be during combat. On a failed check, the pet would simply act upon its own “fight or flight” survival instincts.
Plot and Backstory
As with any other aspect of the game, I always look for ways to tie mechanics in with plot or backstory as it makes for a more well-rounded and immersive experience. Perhaps the animal companion is a family pet that came with the player when they left home, or maybe the new pet is tied to a significant area in some way. The more you can incorporate the pet into the story and narrative threads, the more invested your players will be in its well-being.
There is plenty more to explore when it comes to the mechanics of including pets in a game, but this is a good start! I think I’ll end up creating a more tangible set of guidelines for our home-brewed rules, so be sure to keep an eye out!
In the meantime, let’s hear some of your stories: Share your experiences with D&D pets in the comments below!