There are a few special considerations you might want to take into account when incorporating an animal companion into your duet game, which we’ll outline in this post.
We first instituted these rules in our home game for my PC, Iellieth, and her dire wolf, Daphne.
More recently, we had the pleasure of creating a Boston terrier NPC and companion for one of our patrons and, while sharing these optional alternate rules with them, thought it might be fun to share them more widely as well!
When to Use
You might consider incorporating these special animal companion rules if you or your duet partner are an animal lover who wants the fun of having an animal companion without:
- a) running them as a full PC or sidekick or
- b) unnecessarily bringing the loss of a pet or treasured creature to your very fun D&D table
Caveat: The type of companion animal you choose for your PC will shape the following guidelines to some extent. A tiny or small bird will have very different game statistics to a dire wolf or brown bear. Feel free to pick and choose from the following suggestions to figure out what’s the best fit for your gaming table.
The rules below assume a creature that starts at CR 1 or lower.
We’re also assuming, with the following guidelines, that your animal companion is weaker than a DMPC or sidekick character would be and that you don’t really want anything to happen to them. Can they be under threat or in danger? Absolutely. Is it fun for them to die or almost die? Probably not.
Rule 1: Animal companions do not have to roll saving throws on damage-dealing area effects.
- The PC rolls with disadvantage to spare the animal companion from needing to roll. RP-wise, the PC is moving to save their animal from, say, a fireball, so they’re taking the brunt of the damage
- You do have the animal companion roll their save, but they only take half damage on a fail and no damage on a success. Similar flavor explanation as above
Rule 2: Expand the class and creature options for find familiar
This can be a really fun mechanic to add to your game where the PC can cast find familiar on their animal companion once per day. Perhaps your dire wolf might run ahead and scout, or maybe your ranger’s raven provides the party with a bird’s eye view?
If you want to add a magical item that contains this mechanic so you’re not simply giving them the spell, that can work too!
Casting Through the Companion
You’ll also want to decide if the PC can cast spells with the range of touch through the companion, as a caster can with the find familiar spell.
Wild Companion Druid Feature (Unearthed Arcana)
We talk about the new class feature variants in more detail below, but one of them does lay out the option for a wild companion for druids, where a druid can cast find familiar by expending one use of wild shape. The animal companions we’re suggesting would stay with their PC, but I’m sure there’s an interesting way of incorporating this optional play-test mechanic as well!
And, if you’d like to try out a special fey familiar or two, check out the Circle of Balance,* where you’ll find a jewel fox wild companion option and a fey pug companion or sidekick!
Return to Life
Rule 3: The PC may expend a 1st-level spell slot or higher to return their animal companion to life as long as the animal has been dead no longer than one hour.
This is a new mechanic, called Primal Rebirth, introduced in the Unearthed Arcana class feature variants, and we love it! My PC in our Steymhorod game is a Beast Master ranger, and she also has a raven animal companion who we allow her to cast find familiar with (see rule 2 above).
This rule offers a great safety net for something happening to the animal companion while also requiring that the PC plans ahead and makes difficult choices—will they expend that last spell slot or keep it free in case something happens to their companion?
Other Scaling Options
Perhaps every other level, the animal companion gains a new spell, spell slot, or special ability. My PC’s dire wolf, Daphne, has worked her way up to knowing detect magic and cure wounds, and each of those abilities she’s gained through her experiences in our narrative.
We gave her a small radius for detect magic, which she reacts to with a bark or growl, and she casts cure wounds by poking people gently with her nose.
We prefer this organic and slower approach for animal companions as opposed to using the sidekick guidelines for them. Again, this keeps the animal more in line with how they might appear apart from an adventuring party and allows for their special abilities to shine without the player having a near-PC-strength animal companion.
Rule 4: Equip them with armor!
How much cuter is your black bear going to be in specially fitted barding?
This doesn’t have to be elaborate, but even adding leather armor to the animal’s regular AC is going to make it 5% less likely that they’ll be hit by an enemy’s attack! This addition also gives you some more flexibility for PC loot!
And consider letting them share spells or magical coverings.
Does your PC have a spell or magical item that lets them turn invisible? Could they also turn the animal invisible if they agreed to occupy the same square? Would this give them disadvantage on stealth checks or cut their movement speed in half? Both?
This is another flexible area. You can use the guidelines for the Beast of the Air or Beast of the Earth from Unearthed Arcana or consult your Player’s Handbook for the Beast Master ranger archetype’s beast companion.
Or, perhaps you add 4 or 5 to their hp each time the PC levels up. And your baseline number would be whatever starting hp the creature has in their regular stat block.
Flavor for the Player
The mechanics listed above are really just the tip of the iceberg for how much fun and enjoyment you can gain from incorporating animal companions into your one-on-one games.
More RP Fun!
Animal companions add additional RP opportunities for you and your DM—what does your parrot have to say about this particular situation, for example? What new phrases has your parrot picked up on her recent travels?
Don’t Speak With Animals
We actually don’t allow the speak with animals spell between the PC and their companion, but you are, of course, more than welcome to! For us, we wanted to maintain the bond that’s beyond language between a person and their animal companion, but we make sure to narrate the nonverbal interactions between the two characters.
This can also set up a really cool RP moment for when your character meets someone else with the speak with animals spell! What would their companion animal say in this one rare opportunity when they can speak together?
One of my favorite in-game moments was my PC speaking to another ranger’s wolf for them. It was such a beautiful and moving moment! And we also made an exception to this rule when my PC turned into a werewolf.
We’ve mentioned a couple times already that these rules are meant to help protect an animal companion in combat.
But how angry is your PC going to be if someone does attack their companion?
This can be a really powerful character trait for your PC’s motivations. Maybe they tend toward mercy and understanding unless someone attacks their animal companion, and then all bets are off.
As we’ve said a couple times in this post, the primary aim for these rules is that they add fun to the gaming table. These guidelines have helped us be on the same page for our home game while also creating a safety net around real-life concerns like something happening to our dogs.
The second goal of these rules is to make the DM’s life easier. While the player will need to keep up with an additional stat block or decide on another option for their bonus action, the DM doesn’t have to worry about destroying the PC’s best friend when they’re facing a particularly powerful adversary.
What about your duet games? Do you have any homebrew rules for animal companions? A favorite instance of an animal who was part of your adventuring party? Let us know in the comments below!
Cover Photo by Philippe Montes on Unsplash
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