One of the features for druids, rangers, sorcerers, and wizards is the ability to gain an animal companion or familiar. Although treated in different ways, these loyal beings can be seen as extensions of their master's will. Animal companions are commonly utilized as an alarm, a tracker, or an extra fighter during a brawl. Familiars boost their master's skills and can literally act as an extra set of eyes and ears. We'll look at some effective tactics for getting the most out of your furry friends.
Animal Companions in Combat
Obviously, picking the right tactics for your animal companion in combat situations depends on the creature. Boars, badgers, and wolverines work best when you can let them cut loose and charge an opponent, while snakes, weasels and hawks work best when they can sneak up and attack from cover. A druid or ranger's choice of animal companion probably complements her own fighting style -- combining stealth with stealth, for instance. Alternatively, choosing an animal companion that goes counter to your style can throw your opponent for a loop. If you're a stealthy ranger, having a vicious dire badger as your animal companion can work to divert attention while you sneak up from behind.
Information on animal tricks can be found in the Handle Animal skill description on page 74 of the Player's Handbook, as well as in the Druid's Animal Companion section on page 36. Basic tricks include attack, come, defend, down, fetch, guard, heel, perform, seek, stay, track, and work. For related information, you might also consider the Rules of the Game: Familiars series, which examined questions regarding animals and their relation to their masters.
If you have an animal companion that you intend to use in combat, it's imperative to teach it the following tricks: attack, down, and stay. The defend and guard tricks are also useful (if the creature is smart enough to learn more than three tricks), especially to protect allies or to guard an area from interlopers.
One of the best uses for an animal companion is to have it serve as a flanker for you or your group. Most animals have rapid movement rates and can easily flank your opponent or harry it into an optimum location where you and your party can inflict the most damage. Alternatively, your animal companion can be trained to stick close (the "heel" trick), in which case it remains by your side, thus reducing the chance of getting flanked by melee opponents.
Remember, if your animal doesn't know the "down" trick, it will flee from combat once it takes serious damage!
Other Uses for Animal Companions
During down times, animal companions make great alarms, sensing potential intruders while you (or the rest of your party) sleep, especially if it has the Scent ability. The usefulness of an animal companion depends on the type of creature and the tricks that it has been taught. Here is a list of ways to utilize tricks (other than the ones listed above) effectively for your animal companion.
Fetch: Small animals can get items in small spaces that you yourself can't reach. If your animal companion can fly, it can snatch up an object before your enemy can get to it, and then rise high enough where it can't be reached.
Perform: Perform is great for setting up a distraction before combat begins. Have your bear befuddle the goblins by balancing on one paw while you set up your ambush from the rear. Or, if you're the thieving type, your animal companion can amuse the populace with your animal companion's antics while you or your compatriots pick their pockets.
Seek: Use this trick to send your animal companion into a potentially dangerous area to find living creatures that might be hiding or waiting in ambush.
Track: At least at lower-levels, your animal companion is probably more adept at tracking down creatures than you are. Let it hunt down your quarry for you.
Work: Although using your animal companion as a pack animal is probably a waste of its abilities, if it has a greater Strength than you do, it can haul heavy stuff (including your treasure at the end of the adventure!). Alternatively, you can load some of your gear onto it to lighten your load (avoid giving it more than light encumbrance, however, or its combat ability suffers greatly).
Familiars in Combat
Many of the abilities of familiars work only when they are within close proximity of their master, and few are allowed to engage the enemy on their own terms. Most familiars are Tiny size or smaller, and they lack much in the way of offensive capabilities. If you get in combat, casting defensive spells, such as mage armor or the like, also apply to your familiar if it's within 5 feet. Keep your familiar's AC pumped up to help it from getting killed -- with all the nasty side effects.
Familiars are far more effective for their masters at lower levels, where they serve as an extra set of eyes, ears, and nose to spot danger when you lack the right spells. The deliver touch spell ability of familiars is potentially the most devastating offensive weapon for your creature. Load your innocuous looking toad familiar with shocking grasp and let it hop unseen toward your opponent. Flying familiars, such as the hawk or raven, can use this ability best, swooping in for a simple touch attack before fleeing. Snakes obviously have their poison -- let it strike fast and escape quickly, letting the poison do its work for you. Of course, improved familiars, such as quasits, come equipped with all manner of useful abilities in combat.
Other Uses for Familiars
Small and relatively weak, but quite intelligent, familiars are best used for noncombat-oriented tasks. Ravens can speak one language, making it perfect for relaying messages to allies or sending notes to your home base if you're willing to let it leave your presence for that long. They make superior scouts, although their communication is limited until 5th level. However, the empathic link ability lets you discern danger ahead of time if your familiar spots it in time.
Familiars even can act as ambassadors of sorts -- at higher levels they can speak to animals of their own kind, letting you interrogate animals for (limited) information. Familiars make great distractions, knocking over objects (such as lit oil lamps onto parchment in the evil wizard's tower . . .) or leaping onto the enemy's head.
Animal companions and familiars can function as mere flavor, or they can be useful partners for your character. The best way to use them is to think creatively!
Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.
About the Author
Eric Cagle cut his teeth at Wizards of the Coast, but now lives the extravagant freelancer lifestyle. Look for his name on D&D, d20 Modern, and Star Wars books. Recent credits include d20 Apocalypse, Races of Destiny, and Monster Manual III. He is also a contributor to the Game Mechanics, Green Ronin Publishing, Dragon Magazine, and this lovely website. Eric lives in Seattle where the coffee is dark and bitter like his goddesses.