Groundbreaking – Downtrodden Companion vs Brighteyed Partner

Title Image: Riders by Sandara.

“The sign clearly says ‘No animals!'” growls the bartender. He stares daggers at the huntsman who’s wolf is currently lapping up some ale that spilled when a scared server dropped a tray. The huntsman laughs, throws a small coin purse onto the counter, and starts walking toward the hearth “This should cover any costs incurred.” He barely finishes as his druidic companion enters from the darkness “And pay for a new sign too” she says as there is a loud crack of wood breaking outside. Shortly after she crosses the threshold a 7 foot tall black bear ambles in, chewing on what used to be a wooden sign. The bartender’s jaw drops, and he starts to stammer “Y-y-you can’t b-b-ring …” he trails off, not sure if he should grab his crossbow he keeps behind the bar or run. Another voice enters the tavern slightly before the floppy hatted wizard it belongs to “Why don’t you weigh that purse before you finish that sentence?” the elf suggests as a crow flies in and lands on his hat. Just as he was sure he had seen everything, the bartender watched in stunned silence as a halfling riding a velociraptor entered behind the wizard, followed by a gnome leading a goat. His mid snapped so hard it reset itself, and he picked up the purse, put it in a pocket and asked “What’ll you have?”

Like much of medieval fantasy, Pathfinder is no stranger to animal companions and familiars. While the rules generally try to limit you to one magically bonded animal, it is still easy to wind up with an array of characters that provide you with a stable, or perhaps farm, full of different animals. But how do you play them differently? Do you even play them differently? I have found that over the years, there seem to be common themes or patterns with how the animals are played or treated during the course of games. This topic is very much under the heading of YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), but after writing “Familiar Blues” I wanted to take a look at it under the (perhaps stretched) guise of providing some context to how the animal companions and familiars of Marathis’ Cradle are treated while also trying to inspire new ideas for possible stale tropes.

Tired: Unused / Underused Animals as companions quite often are ignored or forgotten. While this is often seen as a beginner player’s problem, I have seen it just as often in veteran players. (Admittedly I mostly play with veteran players so my sample size is skewed.) Some players get overwhelmed by their options and forget to include their animal among said list, while other (more likely newer) players aren’t aware of how controlling a companion works.

Wired: Set Dressing / Exposition Even if you are overwhelmed by options or simply don’t want to deal with the numbers and actions that go with controlling another character, you can still get mileage out of an “unused” companion. Describing how the animal reacts to your actions and moods can do wonders for setting a scene, setting a mood, or providing context clues. Many people that have animals speak with them as if they were sapient, so using such conversations to provide context and exposition to scenes also makes wonderful use of an otherwise “unused” animal companion.

Tired: Simplified Many see familiars as simply the skill/save bonus (1e) or the extra focus point (2e) or spell delivery system and similarly see animal companions just as a status condition (flank) or temporary hit points (when enemies split attacks between the two).

Wired: Redefined Come up with quests or missions where you are retrieving something for your companion in which they get to shine as a part of it. Find ways to utilize their skills and abilities outside of deadly situations. Write up their backstory, habits, and goals … regardless of how simple.

Tired: Mistreated / Misused While I haven’t witnessed animal companions being used as trap bait, I have seen (or heard of) animals being sent against overwhelming odds when they should have retreated. Just because a paladin would sacrifice himself, it doesn’t mean his steed would. Just because the druid is injured or dying, doesn’t mean his companion will throw itself into the midst of a pack of wargs. Every veteran knows that the second your crow delivers your shocking grasp spell that it will be the next thing the lich targets with disintegrate. While treating companions as trap bait is usually the domain of summoned creatures, I still contend that you gain a rep with outsiders for it.

Wired: Redirected / Repurposed A fast companion, such as a mount/steed could in theory lead slow foes on a chase to provide respite for healing and recovery. A strong companion, such as a bear, could pick up and carried a downed ally. A dexterous companion could retrieve and administer a potion. A vocal companion could use mimicry to confuse or lead foes astray, perhaps splitting them up. Companions are smarter than your average bear, and if their partner isn’t, perhaps they know that their allies need to be made aware of the stupid thing that is about to happen? (This involves some solid role-play or a little GM fiat.)

Distinguishing Companions With a wide array of companion types, it can be hard to make them feel different from each other. Here are some common notes/ideas I use to remind myself to make one type of animal distinct from another:

  • Animal (pet) A pet is just that, and animal that you adopt (or were raised with, or perhaps it just adopted you and never left) and feed and love, but ultimately protect like a child instead of taking on adventures. If you have a pet you take on adventures, you have likely trained it very well to stay out of harm’s way or have a method of keeping it away (such as a leash or harness you can tie somewhere safe).
  • Animal (worker) Working animals are things like plow oxen, wagon horses, or shepherds. This type of animal is often not distinguishable from a pet, but due to the physical labor they perform you need to take extra care with their well-being to ensure you do not over work them. Common adventuring working animals would include the horse or mule that pulls your wagon or carries your packs as well as things like a goat you take along for fresh milk.
  • Animal (mount) I consider mounts are a more specialized form of working animal. While they may not work as hard daily as say a plow ox if you just ride them lightly a couple hours, they need to be in top shape and ready to run at a moments notice. Additionally, they are more likely to be in danger, and so their well-being is going to involve a little extra stress-release that animals with simpler jobs may not.
  • Animal (bonded) A bonded animal is somewhere between a pet and a companion. You have worked hard to bond with this animal, but it is still just an animal that you have trained with. Sure, it is going to go above and beyond that of a pet or worker, and likely a mount, but there isn’t (yet at least) any kind of innate spark that binds you as companions.
  • Companion (Champion) A champion’s ally/warhorse (paladin’s mount for you non-2e types) is something of an edge/special case in my opinion. The animal usually starts as a mount that progresses to a bonded animal before obtaining the divine spark that makes it a true companion. In some cases, you first meet the animal when the spark occurs while other times it is a natural evolution of the bonding process that creates the spark.
  • Companion (Druid) I view a druid’s animal companion as more of a sibling or a child/parent relationship. Perhaps you were raised together, making it a true sibling bond. Maybe you adopted the animal and raised it as your own. Whatever the story, even if you meet them one your travels, something inside you both just clicks and you know it.
  • Companion (Ranger) A ranger’s animal companion is similar to a druid’s, but I view them more as a partnership, like that of a sniper and a spotter. You may have liked each other when you first met, but you had to work together and overcome differences before becoming the perfectly matched hunting duo that you are.
  • Familiar (Alchemist) An alchemical familiar is a creation of life from your own blood. This creature is intrinsically tied to you and is likely to never question you, your actions, nor your motives. It would give its life for you without every questioning the ask.
  • Familiar (Sorcerer) Distinguishing between a sorcerer’s familiar and a wizards’ familiar might be a wasted effort, but I like to think that sorcerer’s get their power from their blood, and that a sorcerer’s familiar is somehow tied to that. Perhaps the creature was present when your gifts manifested and were touched by your power. Perhaps the creature is part of a line of animals that have simply been drawn to your familial talents. Perhaps you just met them and something clicked between you. I see this as the more open ended of the connections, but try to shy away from what I consider witch or wizard familiar bonds.
  • Familiar (Witch) A witch’s familiar is liken to a deity’s avatar grooming a cleric. It is the physical embodiment of some unknowable creature that is intrinsically linked to your powers, in fact, the source of your powers. You aren’t so much a slave to it, as you are simply dependent on the bond if you wish to grow. You will never truly know the inner workings and thoughts of your familiar all the while constantly needing its presence and fearing its absence. This can be a powerful euphoric bond, an intellectually stimulating bond, or even something akin to a chemical dependency.
  • Familiar (Wizard) In keeping with the tropes of wizardly masters and apprentices, a wizards familiar is often seen as a simple assistant to the wizard. In many cases, even with the best of relationships, that is truly what a wizard’s familiar is all about. Somebody to bounce ideas off of, somebody to help with lab experiments, somebody to fetch ingredients or help find something. The important thing is to try and make the relationship a positive, perhaps about teaching the familiar the larger world they were awakened into, instead of simply using them as a tool.

Well, there you have it … my thoughts on animal companions and familiars. I hope I inspired you to rethink how you handle them, both as a GM and as a player!


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Randal Meyer

As a lover of crunch (rules and numbers), Randal is always tinkering with rules options. His love of magic users has led him to always fuss with the mechanics of magic and magic items. Years of GMing on the fly have given him vast amounts of ideas and content from which to draw on for adventures (ideas, plots, NPCs). When not working, playing with his kids, bowling, or running a PF campaign, Randal is likely writing some new mobile web app (http://halfmugtavern.blog) to enhance the experience of playing Pathfinder!