Animal Companions

The RPG Blog Carnival for August is being hosted by Tower of the Archmage. The topic chosen? The Role Animals Play in Our Games.

What I notice most about animals in games is that they are conspicuous in their absence. In particular the absence of pets and animal companions is suspect, in my experience. While everyone seems to know it is an option, I can count on the fingers of half of half of my allotment of hands the number of players that have proposed having an animal companion in one of my games.

I have an animal companion in real life, and so in the games that I play, I notice the lack – even when the genre does not preclude their inclusion. I can’t imagine I was the only one who appreciated Porthos on the short-lived Enterprise. When I was playing the original Fallout, I clearly remember going out of my way to always find and befriend Dog, and I have often dug the Fionavar Tapestry from the depths of my shelves to read simply for the story thread of Cavall incorporated there, tied in with Paul and Arthur. It seems odd that there are comparatively fewer examples of these ties between hero and animal in RPGs.

That said, I don’t often include animal companions with my character concepts. In retrospect, this usually has more to do with the majority of campaigns I could potentially play in being vaporware, than any lack of desire on my part, but there are lots of reasons why folk give this particular option a miss.

Working in a Coal Mine…

One of the primary reasons I have noted for players not having an animal companion as part of a character concept is simply that it can be a hassle to create and track the animal, and the rules may not clearly support all aspects of the chosen animal in play. How fast can a dog swim in the World of Darkness? If my cat is chaotic evil in the monster manual and my character is chaotic evil, does that mean we can communicate through our shared alignment tongue? How much does a Liger in Palladium eat per day, and are Rifts Ligers SDC or MDC creatures? Do pieces of ferret crap make effective sling stones? Who can keep up with it all?

Marked for Death

A close second for ignoring this aspect of life is, of course the very real fear of death for the poor hapless grizzly bear with laser cannon cyberware you have chosen as your pet. GMs by nature hate happiness and healthy relationships, so by choosing an animal companion, you are by extension, condemning the sweet little thing to a cruel death. It is just a matter of time.

Game Balance

As anyone with even a cursory familiarity with this blog will note, I am not all that interested in Game Balance, but instead focus on Game and Character Concepts. I can agree that it is not entertaining to play the lackey to a more powerful character, but I also know that both the real and fictional worlds get along just fine with characters of varying degrees of ability – they just need to be interesting people. If you would like to read more on that theme check out the Imbalance Principle.

Adding an animal companion to a character concept expands and also limits that character in several definable and indefinable ways – depending on the animal. In most cases, the animal will provide some sort of extension to ability the character alone would lack. In some rigidly balanced systems, this should come with a compensatory cost. Even in lighter, more concept-focused systems, obtaining the companion will in some way come with a cost. The effect of this is, of course, that no normally competent person in the system will be able to have an animal in their lives, instead, only those with some sort of lack or limitation will be found with them. I suppose we can see a good example of that in the Road Warrior, where his awesome fighting prowess in and out of ‘the last V8 Interceptor,’ and the fierce loyalty and intelligence of Dog, his animal companion, are purchased with his amputated social skills and gimpy leg. Some might cite the dead wife and child, but as we all know, family connections in an RPG are anathema as the GM might use them as a story hook and that might make you weak….  No, those are a merit purchased with the Bad Luck trait.

Potential for personality and attachment based weakness, and the many situations where one’s companion cannot follow the party is in and of itself a balancing factor, but that can often be overlooked in the heady rush of how much awesome character enhancement will be added by purchasing a fierce Battle Budgie at chargen.

Finally free of his cage, he was determined to kill the bastards who put him there

“Squawk! Who’s your daddy!? BLAM BLAM BLAM!”

Not just an animal

I find I prefer the understanding that the animal companion is a specialized form of NPC and as such is not merely a tool for the player, but a being with whom the character has a close and very personal relationship. Just as the family dog might fetch anything and everything you want whenever you want it, it will also find a way to chew every left boot of every pair of boots you own, get hair all over everything, and smell awful when it rains. It takes a lot of love to cuddle with a wet dog by the fire in the wilderness.

More than this, these beings are often intelligent, but this does not normally manifest in the same way that human intelligence does, and bringing those differences to light can make all the difference in presenting an animal companion, or a shameless merit with a name and a weak description like ‘grey fur,’ that deserves the label slave more than the label companion.

Mood

In James O’Barr’s beautiful graphic novel, The Crow, and even in the film, the cat Gabriel adds as much to the atmosphere of loss, displacement, and redemption as some of the more overt elements do. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the trained monkey spy earns a lot of credit for his prowess, and contributes a sense of depth to the Egyptian Bazaar setting.

In much that same way that consultation between players and GM is necessary for the party and game setting to mesh, so too must attention be paid to the role and effect any animal companion might have on the game and its atmosphere.

Appropriateness

Not all animals make good adventuring companions. Jack and Jake in the Tales of the Gold Monkey make an ideal pair, but it’s hard to imagine Spock coming aboard the Enterprise with  a sehlat. What would Jake the Snake Roberts have been without Damien? Where would the Lone Ranger and Tonto have been without their clever companions Silver and Scout? How many times would Tintin have bitten the biscuit were it not for Snowy? By the same token, however, how much did Jack the Monkey add to Pirates of theCaribbean’s Captain Barbossa that a dropped banana peel could not have? That is not to say that monkeys are useless, just that one has to choose one’s friends carefully. I would prefer Silver over Jack any day… even in my cramped quarters.

Kidding aside, a fair knowledge of what sort of campaign is intended is as an essential a part of companion selection and creation as it is for player character creation. If there won’t be situations where one’s horse can come to the rescue, or if all the dungeons to which one is given maps are inaccessible, Jack the Comic Relief starts to look more and more attractive.

In conclusion

Sam

I have to walk my dog now, so this article must come to an end. Judging by the look on his face, there is no time for any further ruminating.

Comments
8 Responses to “Animal Companions”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    It’s an interesting post. For me the answer is somewhere in the middle of a lot of these factors.

    Mostly, I see the problem for players stemming from system. By which I mean — in most fantasy games (for example) it only takes a little “leveling up” and the characters are no longer threatened at all by “normal” animals. The same dynamic effects the decision to have a companion — because that companion will be “statistically” a liability — even if that only shows in the fact that you have to hide/protect it in some way to prevent it from getting fireballed because it only has 12 hit points…

    On the other side of the screen, you mention the monkey in Indiana Jones and how animals like that are part of the story — but who is playing the animal? That’s the problem in a game setting as I see it. Players key in on what the GM is saying — if the GM makes an animal important then players will devote attention entirely out of proportion to normalcy, to that animal. And, the GM has the additional difficulty of communicating with players via the furry little buggers… which often ends up dangerously close to comic relief territory no matter how hard you try not to.

    Finally, I hear what you’re saying — I have two cats that are my favorite things in the world… but I wouldn’t ever want to put them in harm’s way — so I’d leave them at home when adventuring, you know?

    • Runeslinger says:

      Balance in all things, I say~ except, apparently my gaming.
      😉

      I’m right there with you. It’s an interesting challenge isn’t it? You have brought your cyber-bear through thick and thin in your Shadowrun campaign, but once it’s time to take on the dragon in the volcano with the shamanic cult to back it up, you know the bear is toast… do you stop everything to take it home? Will a ‘Stay here, Bruno!’ work?

      Including this element in play is definitely work, and as these little problems pop up more often than not, more work than the norm in most systems I have seen.

  2. In a recent game of D&D the party druid had a giant owl animal companion and a giant spider it was trying to tame. The session involved diving into a lake and passing through an underwater portal. Nobody said it at the table but I think most people tried to picture the scene and could not. Nor could I.

    Perhaps I should have taken the time to role-play a heart wrenching scene as the druid cries and hugs the owl, “please, please come – don’t let me leave you behind on this plane of shadows!” But that’s not how the group rolls. And perhaps that’s also not what the player expected to get when all these animals started showing up.

    • Oops, forgot to subscribe by email. 🙂

    • Runeslinger says:

      Ha~ nice!
      So… what did they do? Spin them a line like, “Wait here, we’ll be right back?”
      😉

      • A wizard in the group had a spell that creates a barge that glides through earth and not through water, ie. it moves along the lake bottom. They tied the animals to the barge, held onto something themselves and sailed into the lake.

        On the other side, the barge ended on a water fall and started to dive. There was an exciting combat with a squid. Player characters jumped left and right (or fell into the water). Only later did I wonder about the two animals that had been tied down. Oh well, time to move on. 🙂

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