Discussing DruidsThe druids were fairly mysterious leaders in ancient Celtic culture. What most people know about druids is that they built Stonehenge, a "fact" that is untrue. They might also know about Getafix, the druid from the Asterix comics, who brews a magical strength potion for his village in Gaul, the northern part of France inhabited by Celtic tribes. Oak trees and mistletoe probably also come to mind. Druids as mystics and prophets appear in legends. Take all of these things, facts and myth, and mix them together, and you get D&D druids: secretive clerics that are followers and protectors of nature and have mystical abilities.
Druids in early D&D were most known for the limitations placed on the character class. They could wear no metal armor and could use no metal weapons. Additionally, they had to be True Neutral in alignment, seeking balance above all things. A fascinating part of the druid class that hasn't really stuck with D&D is that, originally, only a certain number of high level druids existed. Meaning that your character might have to challenge high ranking druids in order to level up!
By Third Edition, druids still could not wear metal armor, but only had to be partially Neutral (due, in part, to the Forgotten Realms use of warring groups of good and evil druids). They also gained the ability to shapeshift, previously only available as a spell. The wild shape ability was interesting, but resulted in a major problem for druids: their ability to cast spells while in animal form was severely limited. A feat to address this, Natural Spell, was added in a supplement to Third Edition that became almost mandatory for any druid who wanted to use wild shape.
Also in Third Edition, druidic magic became focused on summoning animals and elementals to fight with them in combat. The summoning rules were problematic, to say the least. Not only did it require players and the gamemaster to juggle a lot of stat blocks, but the animals would only show up for a few rounds and then disappear. My extended rant on summoning will have to wait until a later post, but the short version is this: In a system that uses hit points as a major player resource, you have to rely on the self-preservation instincts of the players. They do not want their characters to get too low on hit points, because it risks death. Thus, the tone of the story, the tactics used by players, and the roleplaying of their characters all change based on how many hit points they have left. When you introduce into this mix a source of hit points (a summoned creature) where there is no risk in expending those hit points, you essentially break this carefully balanced system. In addition to creating a lot of bookkeeping, the summoning rules change the way that the game plays, substantially. That said, the opposite issue comes into play with another feature of the druids, the animal companion...
Pets, Mounts, Familiars, and Animal CompanionsI have a reputation as a tough, but fair gamemaster. Players know that their characters might die in my games. And it is my hope that risk makes the game more exciting and interesting and challenging. I have even, on occasion, had total party kills. But do you know what I have never done deliberately? Kill their pet. I'm a pretty firm believer that in the fantasy genre (as opposed to the horror genre, where all bets are off), pet killing is a non-starter. Maybe you run your fantasy games dialed to a darker, Game of Thrones sort of tone, and that is totally fine! But the majority of fantasy stories that modern D&D seeks to emulate tend to avoid pet killing. This presents a problem for the game master. On the one hand you have lots of indiscriminate killing of monsters and even "bad guy" animals (rats, wolves, owlbears, etc.) But on the other hand, you kill the wizard's familiar and they will throw a fit. You kill the druid's animal companion (which always seems to be a tiger, for some reason?) and the players will not enjoy the game.
So here's the situation that arises: A low to mid-level druid has summoned a nature's ally, an animal. The druid also has an animal companion. The druid can shape change into an animal with wild shape. These three animals all have radically different statistics, attacks, and abilities, and will act in different ways. One of them, the summoned animal, is entirely expendable. One, the animal companion, is not. And the player character is themselves the third. From the perspective of the game master, the story begins to break down, because the stakes are simply not the same, depending on which animal is being threatened. From the perspective of the other players, the druid is "broken" because they have three times the number of actions as everyone else, and often three times the power level.
What is the solution to dealing with pets? Pathfinder has taken the approach of making pets as much like summoned creatures as possible, as well as giving players the option to eliminate them. Druids, rangers, paladins, and wizards now have the option to get alternate abilities, rather than getting an animal companion, warhorse, or familiar, respectively. Warhorses can be summoned and dismissed at will. Familiars can be replaced within a week, and no longer cost the wizard permanent hit point loss if they are killed. But these solutions that do little to address the underlying story problem: many players want pets as permanent companions for their character, and they do not want these pets to be in danger, despite being less powerful than the typical party member.
Three Approaches to Animals in the GameSome of you may be reading this with personal experience concerning these types of problems. Some of you, on the other hand, may never have thought about it much, and see the potential loss of an animal companion as just another part of the game. Some might not mind such a loss, as long as it contributes to interesting storytelling (see John Wick). When running a game, it is always a good idea to set expectations for the players, as well as hearing from them what they expect from you. Here are three ways to handle animals that both address some of the game balance issues with the druid, as well as determining whether animal death is something that you want in your game.
Animals as Abilities: Under this approach, an animal companion of any sort is a class ability first and foremost, and should get its own component. Depending on how important the animal is to your character's concept, it could be a primary component, like a cavalier's warhorse, or a tertiary component, like a wizard's familiar. The rules should support the story result that no animal companion will die unless the player dies (although they could be seriously injured or incapacitated). Game balance is addressed by the fact that you have to use one of your components to acquire the companion.
Animals as Cohorts: The Leadership feat allows your character to have an NPC follower who has pledged their loyalty as a squire or apprentice or such. The Monstrous Companion feat allows you to take an animal companion that is a magical beast, instead of a human NPC. Either way, this places "ownership" of the animal more in the hands of the gamemaster than the player. The rules should support the story result that such companions are as "protected" as normal NPCs are, which is to say, not at all. In addition, animals may leave because of poor treatment by the player. This approach will work best in games that have less combat, as party size could easily double in number if everyone has taken Leadership.
Animals as Flavor: When I discussed charm spells in my prior post, I noted that the same spell or ability could be used with different flavors, to keep consistency with the character's concept. In the same way, an animal companion could be used as flavor for a variety of abilities that the character already has. A wizard's mage hand could actually be a small monkey familiar. A high Perception skill could be the hawk that always sits on the shoulder of the druid. A venomous snake under this approach becomes the functional equivalent of a poisoned blade. The rules should support the story result that any action taken by the animal merely duplicates and takes the place of an ability that the character already has. Thus, these animals can never be directly attacked. This is a less realistic approach, but one that emulates the fantasy genre quite well. In addition, it is the easiest to implement for the game master.
If you are interested in the first method, animals as abilities, next post will contain a draft component to duplicate the animal companion class abilities of the druid, ranger, wizard, and paladin!
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