Tower of the Archmage is hosting this month’s RPG Blog Carnival with the topic “Animals in RPGs”…so let’s jump in!

Animals have been companions to humans since time immemorial — from work animals to pets, people surround themselves with these creatures. They care for them, name them, and sometimes view them as part of the family. Who hasn’t gotten at least a bit misty when a family dog or cat dies? Before cars, horses weren’t just your transport, they were your companion — selling a prized horse just didn’t happen unless you fell on hard times. Farm animals might be less “familial” for people, but they were no les important — they were your food or your money made incarnate in noise and crap.

Yet, outside of fable-based games like Mouse Guard how often do animals play an important role in role playing games. Yeah, you ride your horse to the dungeon…then what? A horse doesn’t do so well in a 10×10′ room with other people and some nasty…in fact, the horse can, at that point, become a seriously dangerous liability. I’ve seen people buy a falcon in a D&D campaign, only to forget it’s even on the sheet; they don’t know how to use it as an item, so it gets forgotten with those climbing stakes until last minute.

If animals are so important in most peoples’ real lives, why do they disappear in the game world?

One reason is obvious: Who’s playing the dog? Is the dog an NPC? Is he the GM’s responsibility? Tracking the creature’s stats, actions, and location can be distracting from the main character, thinks Runeslinger. (Good guy, by the way; check out his blog!)

The trick, if the character is managing his animal companion, is not to think of the creature as separate from him, necessarily, but an extension, a familiar… I have a cat named Vishnu that knows my moods well – he knows when to try and comfort, he warns me when my infant daughter is waking up with a meow and a nose on the eyelid, he eats bugs… So make the critter an extension of your character.

We had a Serenity campaign where one of the characters had a shepherd mutt named Asshole. He picked him up as a pup in the Unification War, and the dog grew up through the combat. It warned the characters of intruders, of things not right with the ship (he heard strange noises and prodded the engineer awake), he attacked villains, he crapped all over the ship providing comic relief…he was useful. The players originally hated Asshole, then grew to love him. When he got injured by a thug, they made that person their sole focus of ire for an adventure. The dog provided story.

I had a ferret in an old DD campaign that would hunt rabbits and other things for the character. That’s how he got his meals when they needed meat. I would forget about him periodically, until he was killed by an arrow. He stopped the arrow, actually, and saved the character. He was useful. and I made the OIQ (orc in question) pay for it dearly. It provided motivation and story.

“I find I prefer the understanding that the animal companion is a specialized form of NPC and as such is not merely a tool for the player, but a being with whom the character has a close and very personal relationship…” opines Runeslinger. If the GM is running the animal, it can get lost in the shuffle of NPCs…hell, major NPCs have gotten lost in the shuffle when running a game. “Say…wasn’t Trapp Sommers with us?” Oops! But if the GM infuses the animal with its own character (I played Asshole as a bit stupid, lovable, and codependent on his owner, and had a ball with him…so to speak.)

If they have a purpose, they’re less likely to forget them. In the current Battlestar Galactica campaign, the characters are serving in Aegis, a light battlestar that is new off the line. During construction of the ship, a cat somehow got onboard and has been with her ever since. The crew named it Kevin and we learned from the previous commander that Kevin is considered not just the mascot of the ship, but her good luck charm. They had put Kevin off and within days suffered major engine failure. When Kevin was brought aboard once more from Scorpia yards, things just seemed to work themselves out…or so the crew says. Kevin is, in many ways, the living expression of the ship for the characters to become attached to. He’s fat, cantankerous, and shows up in places he shouldn’t be…but the characters have taken to him already.

Not every campaign requires a pet companion. The sword & sorcery genre is a good one for having animals that hunt for you, or that you ride from place to place. So are Victorian-period/Western games: the English are crazy for their dogs and often would drag them on holidays (or adventures) — how the hell did Tintin get out of half his scrapes? Dogs are useful for cowboys in herding or warning of danger. And they are good companions. In space-based campaigns, a dog or cat might not be the best addition. For one, the dander and loose fur get in the air filtration systems…it’s a mess! they may not always be appropriate, but they can add to the fun.