RPG Talk: You Animals!

Sword & sorcery role-playing games are full of monsters, but as someone reminded me on social media last week (and I wish I could find the message again so I could give credit), normal animals are sorely underused. Lets explore the role of real-life fauna, then, good, bad, and neutral.

Ecological Concerns
When building your fantasy world (or interpreting a pre-existing one), one question you should ask is what the natural order is like. If the world is filled with terrifying, carnivorous monsters, how have ANY animals survived natural selection? Are they in fact rare and even precious? What safeguards are put in place to protect livestock and pets, if that's the case? Or did the animals adapt in some way? Rabbits, for example, are said to have "lucky" feet; what if it's literally true? AND it's what's saving from from dire wolves and dragons. Of course, rabbits breed quickly and could continue to exist through large numbers alone, but what about deer? Might their antlers have magical properties, in particular in defense of magical creatures? This train of thought might lead your adventurers to think of animals in terms of valuable resource, and give a magical world just a touch more magic.

You can of course go another way. What if the normal animals HAVE all been eaten and replaced by more monstrous forms? On the low end of that, jackalopes have replaced rabbits, or giant versions of animals are the norm because these could prove more of a threat to magical monsters. Dinosaurs are another favorite, but it may be cheating to use them. Or do away with them completely, at least in nature. So while you raise your pigs and your cows and your horses, etc., outside the community, it's all Owlbears and Otyugh. The reverse is also possible, with very very rare magical monsters - perhaps they only ever live underground, or where there's a confluence of magical forces - and nature seems very normal. But is that as much fun?
Animals AS Magical Monsters
Well, it can be. A fantasy world where animals are imbued with some kind of spirit makes them a lot more unpredictable. What happens when that white rabbit starts to talk to you? Or a beautiful steer appears out of the blue and symbolically turns the tide of battle? Animals generally do have a symbolic meaning. Spirit guides. Spell components. Good and bad omens. Totems to associate your character with, sharing in their attributes. They could technically replace monsters on your world, either because certain lands have been infected by magical radiation and turned them into mutants, or perhaps animals at night become something else entirely. That cute bunny will crunch your bones if you're out there after sunset. And of course, in a world where true monsters are absent or rare, a tiger or gorilla will be the ultimate threat. Or, and this is crazier still, replace all those fantasy races with intelligent animals. Think Aesop's Fables, or Watership Down, or the Spellsinger series, or Animal Farm, or Narnia, or Bunnies & Burrows. Vaguely anthropomorphic, they could walk on two legs and use swords. Not all species would be uplifted, so that people still ate meat. But perhaps it wouldn't seem as seemly.

The Problematic Case of Animal Allies
One way animals ARE used by role-players is one that's always given me trouble as a GameMaster is as pets. Mounts, I can deal with. Even familiars But guard dogs? Hunting falcons? It seems like players always want to make their pets do things in battle, things they would like never have been trained for, in situations where an animal would likely panic. What they want is a second PC they can use. As if it shared the PC's brain. They want to cheat. But today, you know, I don't mind crazy heroic stuff - I'd rather be entertained than nitpick logic - and I would totally allow these Super-Pets (I'd also allow crazy mounts like rhinos and giant eagles). Probably put some Hero Point cost on it or something, but would still allow it. Letting the players invest in their pets, familiars and mounts so they can feel like characters too, closer to how we feel about the tame animals in our lives, and less like tools too easily disposed of.

So yeah, animals. There's a lot of untapped potential there. We've just lost site of it looking through flashy monstrous splatbooks... Oh and if you play with miniatures, you can get them at the dollar store (not sure about the scale, but whatever).

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