Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about building animal companions.
You know me, I absolutely LOVE taking reader questions when I can! Today’s article comes from Tyler Genuenden. He writes:
Big fan of the Crunch you bring to [the Private Sanctuary Podcast]. I was wondering if you had any suggestion for feats. I have any suggestions for [animal companion] feats. I have a paladin that will be taking Monstrous Mount to get a griffon mount.
I know there are some monster feats, such as Fly-By Attack and such. Do you have any other suggestions for feats to give the griffon?
Why yes, Tyler. Yes I do. But in truth, you’re not asking me, “What feats should I take.” You’re actually asking me, “How do I build a successful animal companion?” And that’s a question that I’m more than happy to answer for you!
What is an Animal Companion?
So, the first thing we have to address is, “What’s an animal companion?” The animal companion game mechanic, as we know it in Pathfinder, gets its roots from the 3.5 Druid class (rangers could also take it with a –4 to their effective druid level). In 3.5, the animal companion ability was basically, “Pick an animal from a bestiary. You have that animal and it gets bonuses as you level,” and higher-level druids could pick higher-level companions. In short, as you leveled up you often wanted to replace your animal companion with a shiny new one.
In Pathfinder, that changed. A lot. The animal companion rules were standardized so all animal companions had the same basic progression and used the same basic rules, with some slight variations between animal to animal. All animal companions were scaled down so as to be available to all druids at Level 1, which was part of Pathfinder’s “You should have more choice, not less choice,” mantra. This is even present in what size your animal is, as the animal companion rules in Pathfinder grant bonuses if you choose to remain your current size.
Regardless of which edition you play, however, the basic idea behind the animal companion is the same: they’re mini characters. Trained creatures that normally do what you want, when you want to.
So before we begin, let’s talk about the base mechanics surrounding the animal companion.
- Master-Based Advancement: An animal companion’s Hit Dice (as well as saves and BAB), Strength, Dexterity, natural armor bonus, and special abilities improve with their master’s level. As you leave up, your companion levels up with you. Animal companions have Medium BAB/d8 Hit Dice, good Fortitude, and Good Reflex, and they start out with 2 HD at 1st level, so their stats are pretty good to begin with; from there on out, an animal companion’s Hit Dice (as well as its other statistics) don’t always improve with every new druid level.
- Handle the Animal: In order to get your animal companion to do what you want, you need to command it using the Handle Animal skill. For most characters, doing this is a move action. Animal companions, however, have an empathic bond with their master that grants the master a +4 bonus to handle the animal and reduces the action needed to a free action. So you’re really, really good at handling YOUR animal.
- Tricks: You can’t handle your animal if it doesn’t know the necessary trick. All animals have a default number of tricks that they can learn; Int 1 animals can learn 3 tricks while Int 2 or higher animals can learn 6 tricks. All animals gain bonus tricks that they can learn based upon their level, and hunters can teach several additional bonus tricks to their animal companion beyond this. Tricks are important because you can’t command your animal companion to do something unless it knows that trick, so you typically want to spend the time teaching your animal companion the most important tricks for its role first.
- Special Abilities: Animal companions gain a small number of special abilities and bonus feats based upon their Hit Dice. Some of these special abilities are fantastic, such as evasion or multiattack. Others are more situational and niche in application, but useful nevertheless. Although I’m not going to cover the mechanic here. The Animal Archive introduced animal companion archetypes that trade one or more of these default abilities for new ones, so if you’re an advanced player you might want to give those sources a look.
With those basic mechanics out of the way, let’s talk about an animal’s role in regards to its master.
Finding an Animal Companion
There are actually a number of different ways to get an animal companion, though not all are created equally. I’m going to list a few of the more common ones below.
- Druid: The “default” animal friend, all druids can choose to take an animal companion as early as first level. They basically have access to whatever animal they want.
- Ranger: Rangers get an animal companion like a druid does, but their effective druid level is at a –4 compared to a druid’s. This can be fixed by taking the Boon Companion feat, from Animal Archive, which adds +4 to the character’s effective druid level.
- Cavalier: Like druids, cavaliers get an animal companion at 1st level. This animal gets Light Armor Proficiency instead of share spells and has to picked from a small list that focuses on creatures that commonly serve as knight-ridden mounts.
- Hunter: Like druids, hunters get an animal companion at 1st level. Hunters get tons of special perks that they share with their animals, including a permanent-effect version of their animal aspect class feature, bonus tricks, and the ability to share ALL of their teamwork feats with their animal companion (and the hunter gets one at 3rd level and another every three levels thereafter). They also can teach skirmisher tricks (from the skirmisher ranger achetype) to their animal companion instead of standard tricks, which makes them by far the most dangerous animal companions around.
- Archetypes: Several archetypes grant animal companions. The most notable is the inquisitor’s sacred huntsman, which gives the inquisitor many of the hunter’s cool tricks, the wild child brawler, the mad dog barbarian, and sylvan wild bloodline for wild blooded sorcerers.
- Feats: Anyone can take an animal companion by taking the Animal Ally feat. This requires Nature Soul as a prerequisite. You’re also likely going to want the Boon Companion feat to boost your effective druid level to equal your full character level.
With the options out of the way, let’s talk about what animal companions can DO in combat.
An Animal’s Role
So we’ve talked about what an animal companion, so now let’s talk about what an animal companion does for the character.
- Scout: Animals can’t talk. Everyone knows this. But animals often have great senses; everything from having Perception as a class skill to having neat special abilities like blindsense or scent. Animal companions also grant the Alertness feat to their masters, so they make the druid/hunter/ranger/whomever better at noticing stuff too.
- Combat: Animal companions can be built to be absolutely devastating in combat. They possess excellent Strength and Dex scores and although the number of feats they receive is small, they get just enough to pick up the basics.
- Mounts: Perhaps the most often used role for animal companions is that of a mount, specifically by the paladin and cavalier. That said, any animal companion user can make great use of a mount that scales with his or her class level.
- Teamwork: These types of animals are in combat, but they’re not there to be damage machines themselves; they position themselves to assist their masters or their master’s allies by helping others to gain flanking bonuses or allowing teamwork feats and other abilities to trigger.
- Meat Shield: These types of animals are defensive and designed to put pressure on enemies while being difficult to combat themselves.
So, how do you build for each of these purposes? I thought you’d NEVER ask.
This type of animal companion needs special senses, movement types, and skills, first and foremost. Specifically, they want Perception, Stealth, and Survival (for tracking). This is difficult to pull off; because of their limited Intelligences, animal companions don’t get very many skill ranks. (Hint: next to none.) Choose animals with special abilities like scent or blindsense that have decent Wisdom scores and/or Intelligence scores for this purpose. Paladins are REALLY good at this because their animal companion starts at an Intelligence of 6, but horses and other mount-type animals aren’t great at special senses and abilities so it comes with a catch. Things with fly speeds and climb speeds make great scouts, as do any animals with abilities like scent (most mammals and reptiles) and blindsense (bats). Another great tip is to find a headband of vast intelligence for your animal (assuming that your GM allows them to wear one) that has these skills selected; the headband gives your animal free ranks despite its terrible skills.
Playing a combat animal is relatively easy. First, pick whether your animal is Dex-focused or Strength-focused. It is MUCH easier to be a Strength-focused animal, although Dex-focused animals can work. Second, pick the same feats you’d pick if you were a rogue. Done. Feats like Power Attack, Piranha Attack, and Weapon Focus are all staples for this type of animal companion. Another alternative is to pick up combat maneuver feats that don’t require an Intelligence perquisite, like Overrun, Sunder, Bull Rush, or Trample. Animals, especially Large ones, are great at maneuvers, and some even have special abilities like grab or trip that help them be even better at it. An animal with grab is awesome at shutting down spellcasters while an animal with trip can make melee fighting very, very difficult for characters with Medium BAB or lower.
Typically, a mount builds for one thing and one thing only: movement. The big advantage of using a mount is using the mount’s speed instead of your own, so most mounted characters choose to take feats on their mount that allow the mount to ignore effects that make movement difficult. Good examples of effective choices for movement-focused mounts include Nimble Steps and Agile Steps, Step Up, Following Step, Fleet, Spring Attack, Ride-By Attack, Steady Gallop, and so on. Ultimately, you need to decide what sort of mounted combat strategy that YOU have and use that to decide what your mount needs to make you more effective.
This special type of mount can be used by any animal companion character, but it is most often used by hunters, cavaliers, and inquisitors with the sacred huntsman archetype. This type of animal companion uses itself as an “extra body” of sorts; it is a second character that its master has (relative) control over, and therefore can be placed wherever the master desires. If the master wants its animal to flank with the rogue so she can get her sneak attack bonus, it can do that. If the master has teamwork feats and needs a character that she can count on to always have those feats, the animal companion can do that too (this is VERY effective for hunters and sacred huntsman inquisitors, but anyone can “get in” on this perk via the Pack Tactics feat). Unless you’re going the teamwork feats route, you really don’t need to invest anything special into making your animal companion your Teamwork Buddy; any character can do that effectively well.
This is the opposite of the combat animal; the total defense animal. The idea for a meat shield animal is to be threatening while making sure to make defense the number 1 priority. This is open accomplished by increasing the animal’s AC with barding, spells, and feats that boost the animal’s AC and hp. I usually see the meat shield animal coupled with the combat animal, the maneuver animal, or both, as the added pressure from high damage makes enemies more likely to choose to attack the animal companion over the character himself. This sort of character is rarely the mount, as Mounted Combat is designed to allow the rider to protect the mount, but the mount doesn’t need (or necesscarily want) protection if it’s a meat shield.
So, Who’s Best?
If we’re comparing straight-up animals, the hunter is easily the best. From having great druidic buff spells to all of the animal-focused class features, the hunter is going to have the nastiest animal companion at the table. But this doesn’t mean that they’re the only option you have. A paladin with aura of justice shares his smite with his animal companion along with his allies. A ranger can share favored enemy bonuses with his mount with a special spell. Druids have all the power of a 9th level spellcaster. Cavaliers have awesome attacks and are by far the best at fighting in the group. Ultimately, it is important to think of how much of your character you want your animal companion to be when deciding on which class to play. Ultimately, animal companions are fun, effective creatures that can be vital resources when build and used well.
And that’s all I have for my Player’s Guide to Animal Companions! I know I didn’t cover everything; today’s article was supposed to be a brief introduction. Do you have any questions about animal companions that I didn’t answer? Do you want to see me do any other animal companion-themed articles? What about other creature class features, like the eidolon or the familiar? Leave your questions and comments below, and I’ll see you back on Friday for another new installment of Guidance! Take care!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue and his favorite Pathfinder animal companion is an allosaurus. Because raptors.