Behind the Screens – Companions, Mounts, and Familiars. Oh my!

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!


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.


  1. What specific freelance projects are you referencing in your this post? I’d like to check them out. Heck, I enjoy the blog & the New Private Sanctuary enough that I’m interested in any project you had a hand in. 🙂

    • Anthony Li Reply to Anthony

      Thanks, Nate!

      The first bit of work I referenced you can find for FREE in Wayfinder #11 available for download on It’s the first article (if memory serves). While that was a volunteer work I still consider is a very serious milestone for me as Wayfinder’s selection process is quite rigorous. And I got to share a byline with the likes of Neil Spicer, Mark Seifter, Linda Zayas-Palmer, and – of course – Ryan Costello.

      The second work I can actually talk about because it has been announced. It’s an article in Player Companion: Monster Summoner’s Handbook, which is scheduled to be released in June of this year. You can also find that in the Paizo Store.

      Everything else is *hush hush*. NDA’s and all that. But I’ll be sure to mention them when they get announced.

      Thanks for the interest and the support!

  2. Anthony I’m really enjoying your blog! I am playing in a Kingmaker campaign; we just began book 2. [I just shared your kingdom-building post with my group BTW]

    All of us players have a familiar or animal companion. Our GM limits us by having us make Handle Animal checks, and he simplifies things by ruling that our animals act at the same moment as our characters do (ie the animals aren’t granted their own independent initiative rolls).

    Our GM has also ruled that since we all have animals, we can’t take the Leadership feat; he doesn’t want to keep track of all of our minions/underlings. Understandably so. (We’re all fine with it).

    Us players have, for our part, reined in our animals by not “over-optimizing them”. The druid’s wolf companion is a tank, and participates in every combat; but our other animals mostly remain in the background. I think that’s the problem with many campaigns: too many players try to turn their pets into combat machines. Animals (well, familiars, at least) should be there to add color; deliver the occasional touch spell; and run and fetch people/things. That’s exactly the sort of support that familiars lend in classic literature and folklore, no?

    Keep up the good work!

    • Anthony Li Reply to Anthony

      Thanks, Scott!

      I’ll be honest, large parties and numbers of turns on the Initiative tracker have always been my weakness as a GM. Which is not to say I won’t allow them in games, but I’m wary of player’s motivations for having them.

      Like, when a player asks if he can be an Ape Druid and have an Ape animal companion. That Ape is going to out shine the party’s Monk for the first four levels or so. Sure, it might be a cool, George-of-the-Jungle-type character concept. But I’m also mindful of spotlight balance.

      Sounds like your group is doing a great job finding that balance.

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