In real life, I would say that I identify as an “animal person”. In the sense that I am a pet-owner and appreciate the fellow creatures we have on our planet. I have two black cats, both rescues. One about five years old and the other seven. The latter, Luna, is sleeping in my lap as I write this. She often sits on my desk as Alex and I record the Private Sanctuary. She sleeps by, and occasionally on, my head every night. She’s been my constant companion and contrary to the popular opinion of cats in general, quite loyal. If I were actually a Wizard she would most certainly be my familiar. Without question.
As GM, as a gamer, I hate pets. I hate mounts. I hate animal companions. I hate familiars. I hate that both new and veteran players want them. I hate amount of additional rules they add to the game. I absolutely loath them in my games. It’s not a rational hatred . Mounted Combat or Handle Animal rules aren’t any more complicated than say, Under Water Combat or rules for Diplomacy checks. Yet I love the idea of undersea adventures or the fate of nations hanging in the balance of a few crucial persuasive words.
Player Characters who have pets add a layer of complication that I don’t like dealing with as a GM. So I thought I’d sit down and figure why that is. Through my process, maybe there will be some advice on how you can deal with pets in your games. Or at the very least, it’ll be an entertaining read (I hope).
More Rules (That no one seems to follow – for one reason or another)
This is probably my first and foremost issue with pets. Thus far there are three different types of pets you can have: Animal Companions (Mounts are included in this), Eidolons, and Familiars. The rules, tables, and archetypes could fill their own Player Companion (actually, they did that). And the number of players I see not following the rules for pets far outnumber the ones who do.
For example, Animal Companions can only be taught to do specific commands, called Tricks, and can only learn a set number of them based on their Intelligence score. The character needs to make a Handle Animal check each and every time he wants to give the animal a command. How often do we see this happen? In many cases, like with Druids, Rangers, and Cavaliers, the PC gets to add some sort of bonus to the Handle Animal check such that they automatically succeed at a Trick. Well then why have such a rule at all?
The Initiative Tracker is Crowded Enough Already
Tracking Initiative order can be cumbersome enough without adding pets to the mix. Did you know that unless you are riding your pet, it has to roll its own Initiative using its own modifier? That means the Diviner with the Compsognathus sitting on his head can’t confer his +18 Initiative bonus to his dinosaur. Most GM’s I’ve played with will just hand-wave this discrepancy. But it’s a major buff to pet-owning characters, as I’ll address in a bit.
More Actors, Less Spotlight
Fluff-wise, pets are really cool. I’ve spent literal years bonding with Luna to the point where she trusts me implicitly, follows basic commands, and eats out of my hand. But she would not go toe-to-toe with a dragon to save my life. The idea that a Ranger’s wolf, or a Druid’s bear would is astounding. How did that bond form? How is it maintained? In novels and movies we often see such questions answered. But very typically in RPGs I see this sort of element glossed over because there are five other people at the table and they aren’t necessarily interested in how Billy met Lassie.
Action Economy Loopholes
When it comes down to it, pets are just another rules subsystem in Pathfinder, and like any other rules subsystem in Pathfinder, the filthy, unrepentant optimizers are going to find a way to break it. (This coming from a recently-showered, repentant optimizer). In many ways having a pet as a class feature is just as unbalancing to combat mechanics as the Leadership Feat. When one player has twice the number of Initiative turns as the person sitting next to him, it can breed enmity.
Early on in Shattered Star I played a Gnome Summoner. I’d read the optimization guides and really tried to deviate from them. My Eidolon wasn’t a six-armed Shiva with Pounce. Nor was he a magical charge-pony atop which I would ride with my lance. I tried to build something that could pass as a golem. Just two arms, and two legs. Bump the AC to simulate stone. Bump the Natural Attack to simulate heavy slams. I was still out damaging everyone else in the party combined. Because both I, and my Eidolon got full attacks every round.
So what do we do in the face of such wanton pet-ownership? The answer is not really anything. The loyal animal companion trope is as old as fantasy stories themselves and what is this game for if not to simulate those tales. I’ve come to terms with my gripes with pets in Pathfinder. I’ve accepted that my distaste for them isn’t rational. Heck, the first serious bit of freelance work I did was a Prestige Class that required you to have the Animal Companion, Eidolon, or Familiar class feature. The second freelance assignment was a Prestige Class that summoned and bound its own pets!
The bottom line is that my players are having fun with their characters’ pets. So I’m happy. I do my best to make sure that everyone’s following the rules, and that their cats and dogs and birds and mephitis don’t end up hogging all the spotlight. And I give them moments to shine too. Learning to adapt to pets in my games was a challenge, but I think I’m a better GM for it.
Do you have experience with PC pets, good or bad? Let us know in the comments section below!