D&D Emergent Strategies: Animal Friendship

Do you know Kira Magrann? She’s a smart and cool game writer; you can find her here on Twitter and Patreon. She tweeted this:

It caught my eye because, in the 5ish campaigns I’m currently running, this is actually really common. Kira noted that D&D mechanics don’t explicitly support this type of play, and it got me thinking about why my players do it and what I might be doing to push them in that direction (or at least not pull them away from it).

First, while there aren’t any big rules expressly pointing players toward helping animals, there are at least a number of features that might act as signposts in that direction. A few of them off the top of my head:

  • the speak with animals spell, available to rangers, druids, Oath of the Ancients paladins, Nature clerics, Path of the Totem Warrior barbarians, and potentially bards and warlocks depending on their build (and the forest gnome’s ability to speak with small animals)
  • the ability to turn into animals, especially the druid’s wildshape, but also via spells like polymorph
  • animal companions, such as from the urchin background or Beast Master ranger build
  • other animal-centric spells like awaken and animal messenger

So Kira’s definitely right; there’s no “help animals to advance your characters” or similar rule in D&D. But with all those options, if the group has the right make-up, there’s a lot of animal business in there. However, that could easily get squashed under the D&D stereotype of “kill monsters and get loot.” So why isn’t that the case in my game?

A big part is because I give XP/levels just for showing up.

I don’t track monster or encounter XP, I don’t give XP for quest milestones—everyone gets a fraction of a level after every session.

Originally, I did this because I ran a pure drop-in game where anyone from a group of 14ish players was invited over every week. They ranged from the ages of 25 to almost 50. It was a miracle that any of us could find a free night. I didn’t want to penalize anyone if they happened to come play when the game was more focused around travel, carousing, or other interactions not typically considered XP-worthy.

And it may not have been conscious, but once the players realized they didn’t have to quest for XP, they started doing all sorts of strange things: getting drunk and rambling around town, uncovering reticent NPC’s backgrounds, going on dates, and, well, talking to animals.

The party I was thinking about when I said that my D&D experience has been animal-centric has a druid, a ranger, a Totem Warrior barbarian, an urchin sorcerer, and a rogue who bought a goat. Once they realized they could do animal things, it became a primary way of scouting locations, interacting with NPC friends, and traveling. They save “dungeon monsters” from the intelligent baddies that imprisoned them. They ask me every session how their animal companions are and what they do with their downtime. They once all turned into mice and saved a mouse kingdom from a fungal invasion; the ranger almost excepted the mouse king’s proposal to rule beside him, which would have led to her retiring that character and making a new one.

It makes me wonder what other emergent themes might be hiding out in D&D.

(Shoutout to Greg the Mouse, Ricky the Goat, Rations the Pig, the swanmays, and all the other animals in my current campaign. And shoutout to adrienne maree brown, whose book title I stole for this blog post but whose work is otherwise unrelated to mine. Or is it?! Regardless, get the book. And of course, go follow Kira Magrann.)

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