Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A beastly problem: animal companions in 5e D&D

So* recently I've been playing about with making a Beastmaster Ranger.

No, come back! I promise not to let this post descend into excoriating it for being sub-par or anything like that. Although it... kind of is. That may crop up. But it is not the primary thrust of this post.

* I am aware that an awful lot of my sentences start off with "so". Here my blog accurately recreates the experience of talking to me. See also: constantly going off on tangents, rarely reaching actual conclusions, talking far too much. On the plus side, here I tend to at least finish my sentences, instead of just tailing off, so...

See what I did there?

NOTE: since I wrote this, I've discovered that some issues are addressed by the PHB errata. I'm leaving this as written, partly because I'm too lazy to change it, partly because it frankly horrifies me that things like "is this animal less sentient than an actual literal zombie?" were not picked up before publication.

What's the point

The Beastmaster ranger is intended to do some overlapping subset of the following, and maybe other things:

  • Replicate a feature of rangers in previous editions
  • Let people sort of play Drizzt Do'Urden if they really feel they must
  • Evoke the archetype of the warrior with faithful hound/wolf/cat/falcon/dragon companion that appears in a reasonable amount of mythology and fantasy
  • Let you have a pet wolf because you think that would be cool
  • Be an alternative subclass to the hunter-ranger, broadly balanced against it in effectiveness

I think it succeeds to some extent at these tasks, but variably.

The Beastmaster Ranger is notably less powerful than pet classes were in 3rd edition, but then that was one of the problems with 3rd edition. In 5e, the Beastmaster is no longer a powerful warrior accompanied by a loyal bear more powerful than the party fighter, and this seems like an improvement to me. I am fine with this. Nevertheless, it does allow you to continue to play a wilderness warrior who has a loyal animal companion with a special bond between them, so you can transfer a ranger into 5e and retain that feature if you liked it.

Drizzt Do'Urden is sort of replicable. Bear in mind that Drizzt's pet panther was not, in fact, an animal companion, but a figurine of wondrous power. You can play a drow ranger who fights with two scimitars and has a pet panther. It's mechanically suboptimal for various reasons (notably the fact that you can't benefit fully from an animal companion and dual wielding at the same time) but you can do it.

The warrior-and-faithful-X thing works reasonably well, although as I'll discuss later, it's a thorny one.

Having a Cool Pet Wolf is exactly what this class does well. It does this better than it does anything else, perhaps because Cool Pet Wolf doesn't really require any particular mechanical effect. The more you are satisfied with the mere existence of your wolf, the better this class will suit you.

...and, well... there's always something.

A ranger's companion is strictly limited, for good reasons. It must be of the beast type (animals or things that would plausibly be non-magical animals, basically); of Challenge Rating 1/4 or lower; and no larger than Medium.

The companion gets to replace its hit points with 4xlevel if that's better, and can add the ranger's proficiency bonus (+2 initially) to basically all rolls.

There's also a crucial control mechanism.

"On your turn, you can verbally command the beast where to move (no action required by you). You can use your action to verbally command it to take the Attack, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, or Help action."

By rules as written, if you do not give an order, the creature does nothing. Many people, including the designers' Twitter feeds, hastily reinterpreted this to include the animal companion defending itself from attack, protecting a fallen ranger, and even continuing to attack a target once the order is given. This remains technically a houserule. Patched in errata, although you still need to issue an attack command every round unless the target is attacking the companion.

Something which is interesting to me, and perhaps unanticipated, is that companionizing a beast has some non-trivial effect on its effective Challenge Rating.

The Rating Challenge

There are three major components to this "rechallengizing".

The first is the hit point rule. Because companions can take 4xLevel (12 or higher) rather than their own hit points, a creature's hit points are in almost all cases completely irrelevant.* At least, having low HP is in no way a disadvantage. Because HP is one of the balancing factors in CR, low-HP creatures are basically a slightly higher CR as a companion than normal, whereas those with about 12HP or more get no such boost.

It's worth noting, though, that hit dice remain important for healing during short rests. If this is a thing that happens a lot in your game, having more hit dice may be important. If you don't really bother about it, or have other important sources of healing, it will be less important.

A couple of viable companions have 13-18HP, which is relevant for about one level of play before Levelx4 HP exceeds it.

The second is that the ranger receives a specific list of actions that they can command their companion to take, and this does not include all the actions that are available to an animal. As such, companionizing has a very uneven effect on the effective CR of creatures, depending on their action menu.

Let's take a few examples.

The bat is a tiny animal with 1 hp (1d4), echolocation, and good hearing. Under "actions" is listed "Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +0 to hit,* reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit:1 piercing damage."

As a companion, the bat has a minimum of 12hp, one hit die, echolocation and good hearing. It can use the Bite to attack with +2 to hit, inflicting 3 damage. It's a viable scout, since it can fly and navigate in darkness, but not a good combat companion. It's certainly rarely worth giving up your own attack to maybe inflict 3 damage, given yours will be more accurate and far more deadly. On the plus side, it has AC 14, which makes it able to avoid attacks to some extent.

* I don't understand how animal attacks get calculated. They don't seem to reflect Strength, Dexterity nor hit dice, and there's no obvious sign that even the most dextrous use Dex to calculate damage.

The giant badger has AC 10, 13 HP (2d8+4), burrowing, and a good nose. Under "actions" are listed Bite and Claw attacks (Melee Weapon Attacks) and something called Multiattack, which allows the badger to use both a Bite and a Claw as a single action.

As a companion, the badger has the exact same HP, two hit die, burrowing and a good nose. It can use its Bite or Claw attacks to attack with +5 for about 8 damage. Its AC is now 12, which is about the same as a wizard, so it's not very tough nor particularly mobile.

Despite what an awful lot of people seem to be saying on the internet, the giant badger companion cannot, according to the rules as written, use Multiattack. It especially cannot use Multiattack combined with the companion progression Bestial Fury ability ("make two attacks when you command it to take the Attack action") to attack four times, since the Multiattack action is not the Attack action, nor is the Multiattack action one attack made with the Attack action.

This does, in fact, make the giant badger a weak companion. Many people On The Internet seem to be using this as a clincher to demonstrate that the rules must allow companion badgers to Multiattack. This is not a very good argument, because there are a vast number of potential companions, and many of them are extremely weak. You can select a perfectly normal seahorse as your animal companion if you want; you have to carry it around in a jar and change its water regularly. It is demonstrably not the case that all potential companions are equivalent or in any way useful in combat.

EDIT: this is one of the things changed by the errata. The companion can now use Multiattack instead of making two attacks, when the Bestial Fury ability kicks in. This makes minimal difference.

The giant centipede has 4hp, AC 13, blindsight, and a Bite Melee Weapon attack that deals poison damage. For some reason it has a +4 to hit despite a Strength penalty (and it's not due to Dex either). Apparently attack bonuses for animals are purely arbitrary? Anyway, it's worth noting that the centipede has no special Actions at all, only its bite.

The giant crab has 13hp, AC 15, a swim speed, can breathe air and water, and its pincers auto-grapple when it hits a target. It can hold up to two targets grappled at once, preventing movement.

The giant frog has 18hp, AC 11, a swim speed, can breathe air and water, can auto-grapple a bitten target, and is able to swallow a Small or smaller creature, slowly digesting them while rendering them mostly incapable of action. As a companion, it loses the ability to Swallow, which is a specific Action listen on its entry, rather than a rider on a Melée Weapon Attack.

Giant poisonous snake is a favourite. It has a massive +6 to hit, a poisonous bite with 10ft. reach, AC 14, a swim speed and (short-ranged) blindsight. None of these abilities are affected by being a companion. The combination of poison and reach means it may well be worth a ranger giving up their attack to let the snake attack, and it's worth noting that even against undead or other unpoisonables, the snake's physical damage (1d4+4 + proficiency) is nothing to sniff at.

How about the hyena? A hyena has +2 attack, AC 11, 5hp, advantage on attack rolls if an ally is within 5' of the target. Its 1d6 bite is somewhat feeble.

Finally, the vulture. A vulture has +2 attack, AC 10, 5hp, a massive 50ft. fly speed, advantage on sight- or smell-based Perception rolls, and advantage on attack rolls if an ally is within 5' of the target. Its beak is fairly feeble, though (1d4).

  • The bat is CR 0, gains many additional hit points, and loses nothing from companionizing. Its flight is very useful. In combat it is very poor, and provides no special attack type.
  • The giant centipede is CR 1/4, gains many hit points, and loses nothing from companionizing. Because its bite deals a special damage type and has a special effect (paralysing rather than killing a target reduced to 0hp), there are specific reasons for a ranger to give up their attack and allow their pet to attack instead.
  • The giant badger is CR 1/4, but its combat effectiveness is actually lowered if it becomes a companion. It has no special attack type, so there is rarely a reason to give up an attack in favour of the badger.
  • The giant crab is CR 1/8, but is actually the most effective combatant of them all. It loses nothing in the transition to animal companion. Meanwhile, its AC escalates to 17 and slowly climbs to the levels of fully-armoured knights, and its ability to hold enemies in place makes it well worth giving up an attack to let the crab fight. A ranger can use their crab as a miniature tank to block enemies, and hold others in place. Although the escape DC is low, the enemy still needs to give up an action to escape, while they'll find it difficult to hurt the crab.
  • The frog is a pretty decent companion, since it retains the grapple ability and its amazing jump. However, its high HP quickly become irrelevant, while it has poor AC and a moderate attack bonus. It loses the very useful (perhaps too useful) Swallow ability.
  • You can really see why the CR 1/4 giant poisonous snake is so popular. It has a long reach, so it doesn't even need to get near an enemy to attack. Its attack is more accurate than the majority of PCs will ever be, even before the ranger's proficiency bonus is included. It has a high AC, likely better than the ranger's own, an excellent Dex save, and decent Con and Wisdom saves. It suffers absolutely no penalty for being a companion, but the companion benefits synergise nicely with its own abilities. Even its Strength is decent, so that it can cope reasonably well with things like grapples.
  • The CR 0 hyena has a weak attack (both plus and damage), but its pack attack ability means that a melée ranger could always give up their own attack to let their pet attack with advantage, which may well be a good option. You can also send them off to support an ally at a distance. It loses nothing from companionizing, and gains a lot of HP.
  • The CR 0 vulture loses nothing from companionizing. Its low HP are compensated for, and its combination of good senses and rapid flight make it a very usable scout. It's flat-out better than the hyena because it has the same pack attack ability on top of flight and is worse at nothing.

Weighing up


Okay, where does all this get us? It's pretty hard to weigh up the companions, but we can notice that there are some significant imbalances in how much becoming a companion affects them.

Most obviously, the CR0 vulture companion is at least as powerful as the CR 1/4 giant badger companion. They have equivalent HP and AC. The vulture's attack and damage are slightly lower, but it benefits from advantage on most attacks if used sensibly. The badger loses its innate ferocity, becoming a much less effective fighter in the process. The vulture can fly 50ft. per round, whereas the badger can burrow 10ft. - situationally useful, but the vulture will more often be valuable. The vulture can also attack flying enemies, while the badger can't do that and has no equivalent special benefit. The vulture has advantage on two senses, and vision is more often useful than scent. The badger has a slight advantage on saves and checks, but companions will make relatively few skill rolls, and being able to fly deals with quite a lot of them. On the plus side, the badger does have darkvision. Personally, I'm inclined to say the vulture is mechanically better; it seems to have an edge in combat, and clearly has an edge in most non-combat situations. Even if not, it is at least as good as the badger, despite the substantial difference in CR.

The giant crab benefits greatly from becoming a companion. Unlike the vulture, this isn't because of compensating for weakness - it's because of enhancing strengths. The crab is already well-armoured and has a quite potent attack; the additional bonus from becoming a companion makes these very good indeed. It's difficult enough for PCs to get an AC of 17, but the crab is right there at level 3 and it only gets better. It may not be particularly dangerous, but it can control enemies and soak up a lot of attacks, especially once ranger cure wounds spells come into effect.

Note in particular that the grapple rider on its claw attacks, and the PHB errata allowing attacks of opportunity, makes the crab excellent at locking creatures in place who don't want to be locked.

Again, where does this get us? Well, I think where this gets us is an argument that using animal CR to determine which companions are appropriate is a bad idea. I've just shown that in one case, there's minimal difference between a CR0 and a CR1/4 creature. It seems likely that the same applies for, say, CR1/4 and CR1/2 creatures. Is an ape really so powerful that it would be unbalancing to have one as a companion? A quick look at the ape says no, it's certainly no more powerful than the giant snake, and probably less so.

On the other hand, there are some very substantial differences between certain creatures, and these mostly relate to HP, movement types and attack riders. A crocodile (CR1/2, illegal) isn't noticably more powerful a companion than a giant frog (CR1/4), and arguably actually less so.* A giant wolf spider can run across ceilings at great speed, has amazing stealth and a poisonous bite, making it very potent. The vulture's strength comes from its ability to fly and gain advantage, not anything to do with its stats. Even the brown bear (CR1, illegal), as a companion, would mostly be overpowered because of its excellent HP, rather than anything aggressive - the single attack it gets as a companion (+5, 8 damage) is less potent than the (legal) giant poisonous snake (+6, 6-16) or the (legal) wolf (+4, 7, potentially knock prone) or panther (+4, 5, potential to knock prone and make a bonus attack).

* The crocodile has a few extra HP that become irrelevant after one level. It's worse at stealth and perception, doesn't have darkvision, and is capable of drowning, which the frog isn't. Its attacks are slightly better and deal slightly more damage, but the frog can grapple a target of any size with a successful attack; this is a useful rider than adds new utility to the ranger's capabilities, whereas just dealing damage is something rangers can handle fine without a pet.

Bizarrely, you can make a reasonable argument that the humble stirge is the most powerful animal companion, at least at low levels. Why? Because once it attaches to a target, it keeps hurting them. That is extremely valuable. As soon as they successfully hit a target, you can spend your actions hitting people yourself, rather than commanding your pet. The stirge doesn't even need to roll at all! It caps the deal off with a very good AC14, darkvision and flight. The only question is how the DM will handle auto-detaching. You should get at least a couple of turns of free damage, though.

Size and the Animal Companion

Here's another problem: when playing a beastmaster ranger, the choice of race makes an enormous difference to your capabilities. This isn't anything to do with stats or racial abilities or skills or any of the usual culprits; it's about size.

Why is this? Because animal companions are limited to being Medium or smaller, and because a Small character can ride a Medium animal.

If you are a gnome or halfling beastmaster, you have a vast array of ridable companions available to you. Want to ride across the sea? You can. Want a mount that can climb walls and ceilings? No problem. Want to fly? Sure.

If you are a dwarf, elf, human, dragonborn, half-elf, half-orc or whatever the heck else, you can't even get a horse. While the gnome is soaring off into the skies to adventure on the back of a freaking pteranodon, you are incapable of befriending a creature capable of carrying you on its back across the land.

Not only is this a potential problem for the GM (at-will flight at 3rd level really changes the game), but it's a massive and arbitrary difference in what rangers can achieve depending on their race. A small ranger can gain all kinds of movement speeds, and also usefully turn any mount into something much tougher with only a few hours of bonding. A larger ranger can't do any of that. This is a qualitative difference, not the usual quantitative ones that races should create.

I feel like the inability to even take a horse is a real weakness here. Warriors with a deep connection to their horse have been around since ancient times. It's not like you can make any credible argument a horse is overpowered, either. It's rubbish in a fight.

Loss of class abilities by hit point loss

There's another, unique aspect of the beastmaster that's very hard to weigh up. This is the fact that with the animal companion, we have a class feature - no, an entire subclass feature set - that can be killed.

An animal companion has somewhere from 12hp at 3rd level to 80hp at 20th level. Let's assume that our DM is being kind, and taking this "lifelong bond" thing seriously, and animal companions get the same death rules as a PC.

At 5th level, a wizard gains access to the fireball spell. A fireball deals 8d8 damage, which is 36, which means a full-health animal companion that fails its save against a fireball will not quite be dead. If it's taken a single hit already, though, and is down 4hp, that remaining damage will wipe its HP and take it all the way to negative its HP. It could also be downed and then take damage or simply fail death saves. After all, stabilising a companion is likely to be a lower priority than saving the rest of the party.

This is just one of the ways an animal companion could die while the party is in the bowels of some dungeon. And there we find a problem, because while other class features recover on a long rest, or sometimes a short rest, the animal companion recharges when:

If the beast dies, you can obtain another one by spending 8 hours magically bonding with another beast that isn't hostile to you, either the same type of beast as before or a different one.

This is really helpful, providing you can find a beast that isn't hostile to you that you have any interest in bonding. And that is a mixture of DM fiat and setting. If you have a forgiving DM? Sure, in the goblin prison where you awaken, you happen to find a pteranodon just hanging about. There's a giant poisonous snake in a noble's mansion in the middle of a city in the arctic. If your DM is a bit more for the realism, it may well be very difficult to get a new companion, especially if you want one of the same type. And that's a problem when that is a major part of both your character concept and your actual competence.

In contrast, let me point out that dealing extra damage on every attack, attacking multiple creatures at once, and evading attacks are all features that cannot be taken away from the Hunter Ranger.

Meta all the way down

For me, one of the biggest annoyances about the beastmaster is that it breaks the game/metagame boundary.

See, I appreciate that action economy is incredibly powerful, and I can well believe that allowing a character to take a full set of actions for both themselves and their animal companion would make them more powerful than any other character some of the time. This is a problem reported from 3.5e.

At the same time, the beastmaster mechanic makes no sense whatsoever in character, and this is a problem for me. See, speaking and gesturing doesn't require an action. Commanding an animal to attack requires you to speak. When you say "attack!" to your animal companion and point at the goblin, neither of these things requires an action.

But your animal companion does nothing unless you expend your action.

There is no in-game way to expend an action saying "attack!". There is no in-game difference between shouting "attack!" to your loyal barbarian friend and shouting "attack!" to your friendly panther. There is no resource that is depleted. There isn't anything your character can do to create this effect. It's an overtly in-game effect being created by an overtly metagame mechanic, and that annoys me.

On the reverse, when you do not spend an action shouting "attack!", your companion does nothing. Despite being literally a jaguar that made friends with you one day, beloved for its intelligence and loyalty, your animal companion will do nothing while any of the following happen:

  • The cliff it is standing on begins to slowly and predictably crumble into the sea. You are out of earshot.
  • The water in which it is sitting gradually increases in temperature. You are out of earshot.
  • The walls of the room slowly contract around it. You are out of earshot.
  • Six burly orcs beat it over the head with spiked clubs. You are out of earshot.
  • A sexy jaguar of its preferred type rubs up against it and suggests going back to its place for a cup of hot marrow. You are out of earshot.
  • You, its best friend in all the world, fall unconscious and are then very slowly devoured by ants.
  • You, bound and gagged, are horribly tortured for hours by a group of giggling dwarves right in front of it.
  • Having been directed towards a point and started moving that way, a gaping pit full of spikes, fire and poisonous snakes opens up along the route, and a sensible creature would stop walking.

Although it would react in any of these circumstances right up until the conclusion of the 8-hour bonding ritual, the very second that ritual is complete, the beast companion becomes completely incapable of independent thought or action.

As mentioned, most of these points have thankfully been addressed by the PHB errata. This should not have been necessary. Interestingly, sexy jaguar remains unpatched.

It gets worse. Want to go on a long journey with your pet? Have fun issuing verbal commands every few seconds for the next six weeks. It won't move unless commanded. You could command it to travel way into the distance if the way ahead is visible, but if it's faster than you it could well get eaten by something long before you arrive, since it's completely incapable of defending itself or even running away.

Oh, and don't go anywhere noisy. Verbal commands, yo.

Don't even consider taking your companion on any stealth missions, either. It can't move unless you "verbally command the beast where to move (no action required by you)". That means making noise, which you don't want. And you'll need to do it all the time, because exact positioning is very important in stealth missions, and that means constantly telling the beast exactly where to go, because even if it's a cat or another creature for whom stealthy movement and hunting tactics are first nature (never mind second) it will be completely unable to move to a sensible location without your say-so.

This issue is entirely unpatched by the errata.

Dude, where's my bonus damage?

One of the big ranger class features is, in fact, hunter's mark, a humble 1st-level spell. This is because it's essentially intended to give them +1d6 damage to most of their attacks.

The spell only works on your weapon attacks. It does not work on the attacks of your animal companion. Commanding an animal companion to attack is therefore likely to significantly decrease your damage output.

Clash of the Titans

I promised at the top not to moan about the beastmaster being weak, and I probably still won't. However, I do want to run a quick experiment for my own satisfaction.

The beastmaster ranger has a special bond with an animal they've befriended who is their loyal companion and protector. So let's see how that stacks up against two very special contenders.

The Animal Companion

An animal companion can attack in combat, doing anything from +4 with 5 damage to +8 with 20 damage, and it only gets better. At low levels, getting that attack means giving up your own attack. At 5th level, you can make one attack while using this. At 11th level, your beast can attack twice while you also attack once.

From 7th level, the companion can Help, Dodge, Disengage or Dash if you spend a bonus action. This allows you to attack with both attacks, while gaining advantage on the roll.

An animal companion often has very good senses, making it a fine scout. However, as an animal, it has limited ability to understand what it sees, or communicate this to you.

If you lose your companion, you must befriend another beast and spend 8 hours bonding with it.

The Familiar

Anyone who knows the find familiar spell can gain a familiar. The familiar is one of a set of tiny creatures. They can't attack, but some have useful sensory abilities and some can fly.

A familiar is useless in combat. Except when it isn't. See, the Help action exists. A familiar can absolutely distract and otherwise annoy an enemy, granting you or an ally (say, the rogue) combat advantage. To command a familiar, you communicate with it telepathically whenever you want, without spending any kind of action, which means it can do this on every single turn. And if you want to use a touch spell - to attack an enemy, or to buff or heal an ally - you can cast it through the familiar.

You can also see through your familiar's senses by spending an action. This, plus the telepathy, means your familiar is a really excellent scout.

A familiar has only 1hp, which means one successful hit will take it out. This still soaks an attack, of course! You can bolster it somewhat with spells, and an invisible creature can use the Help action to grant combat advantage, or indeed steal stuff. To regain a lost familiar, you spend one hour and 10gp-worth of herbs and stuff. You can change the nature of your familiar at any time by performing this ritual.

Pet Shop Boys

The equipment section of the PHB lists various animals, including a mastiff.

The mastiff is one of the animal companions available to the ranger. A shop-bought mastiff receives no proficiency bonus, unlike the animal companion, making its attacks significantly weaker.

As a completely ordinary animal, a mastiff will defend itself when attacked. A trained mastiff can move as directed, keep guard, retrieve objects, and potentially attack or withdraw on command, although it is not clear whether the mastiff in the PHB has any or all of these capabilities. There is no rule stating that issuing a command to a normal animal requires an action of any kind, and it is established that simply speaking does not, so there is no reason to believe that commanding a mastiff requires an action.


For the sake of argument and simplicity, let's say that a ranger, for reasons known only to themselves, selects an owl as their animal companion. Hey, owls are pretty cool.

  • The owl becomes available at 3rd level. It has a +4 attack dealing a small amount of damage. It can dart in and out of combat without taking AoO, which means it can hang in the air and swoop down to attack. Taking this attack, or any action other than movement, including Help, will eat the ranger's attack.
  • At 5th level, the owl can make one attack and the ranger also make one attack. This is, in most circumstances, weaker than the ranger attacking twice, although it does allow attacks on two targets.
  • At 7th level, the owl companion can use Help as the ranger's bonus action, while the ranger gets two attacks on the target.
  • At 11th level, the ranger can attack once and the owl can attack twice in the same round. The owl has 44hp by this point, enough to survive multiple normal attacks, as well as a significant bonus to attack and damage rolls.
  • At all levels, a dead owl will take at least 8 hours to replace, plus whatever time is necessary to find a new companion. If the new companion must also be an owl, this will depend heavily on location and context.
  • At 15th level, some spells cast on the ranger can be shared with the owl.
  • At all levels, the companion has very limited capacity to communicate with the ranger (unless awakened). Speak with animals helps with the language thing, but not the intellect problem.
  • If the companion is lost or killed on a scouting run, any information it has gathered is lost. If the body can be recovered, raise dead or similar magic may be usable.

A second ranger, possibly a human, takes the Arcane Initiate feat and obtains a familiar, which can be an owl. Also, two nifty cantrips! Take mold earth, seriously. Ahem! Yes, owls.

  • The owl becomes available at 1st level for a human, 4th level for another creature, although it does eat a feat. It cannot attack. It can dart in and out of combat without taking AoO, which means it can hang in the air and swoop down to attack. It can use the Help action whenever it chooses, and obeys mental commands (which require no actions) within 100ft. The ranger can obtain advantage on their own attack in this way, and can take their attack as normal. If the ranger uses two weapons, they can take the bonus attack as well.
  • If any party member requires healing, the owl can deliver a touch spell (such as cure wounds), flying above the battlefield and ignoring opportunity attacks. The owl can deliver a touch attack spell using its bonus action, although normal rangers don't have any.
  • At 3rd level, the ranger takes one of the Hunter abilities which increase their damage.
  • At 5th level, the ranger can take two attacks per round, while also commanding their familiar to Help them and grant advantage on one of these. If they dual-wield, they can take three attacks. All of these potentially benefit from hunter's mark.
  • At 7th level, the ranger gains a defensive ability. Their owl still has only 1hp.
  • At 11th level, the ranger gains an ability to attack multiple targets with one action. Owl? 1hp.
  • At all levels, it takes a one-hour ritual and 10gp-worth of incense to resummon a dead familiar. It is explicitly the same familiar, so anything the familiar sees or knows can be recovered by resummoning it, making suicide scouting runs a real and fairly cheap possibility.

A third ranger goes to the big city, finds a falconer and buys a trained owl. Falconry was massive in many mediaeval cultures, which is the default setting for D&D, and owls are indeed used in falconry, so it would be somewhat unreasonable to suggest this wasn't possible without positing an alternative setting. A falconer's owl would be somewhat expensive, since getting and training them is hard work, but equally it shouldn't cost as much as a suit of plate armour, say.

  • The owl becomes available at whatever level, depending on cost, but 1st level isn't unreasonable for someone willing to save up and splash the cash. The owl is a normal owl, and therefore fairly dim. It can attack, although its ability to obey specific directions depends on the DM's ruling (which should mirror the rules used for controlling other animals, such as mounts). A ranger with speak with animals can talk to it, however, and can ask it to pester enemies by using the Help action, which will be more useful than attacking. Since directing verbally requires no actions, the ranger can use their normal full attack progression, or spells, as they choose.
  • The tame owl has no ability to interact with spells.
  • At 3rd level, the ranger takes one of the Hunter abilities which increase their damage.
  • At 5th level, the ranger can take two attacks per round, while also commanding their pet to Help them and grant advantage on one of these. If they dual-wield, they can take three attacks. All of these potentially benefit from hunter's mark.
  • At 7th level, the ranger gains a defensive ability. Their owl still has only 1hp. At this point, however, the ranger should easily be able to afford a more resilient pet, such as a giant owl with 19hp. These are Large, but then there's no size limitation on animals you just buy to go around with you. Heck, buy two. Buy a dozen.
  • At 11th level, the ranger gains an ability to attack multiple targets with one action. She can never find any targets, though, because they're all covered in owls.
  • By 15th level, the ranger never travels anywhere without a retinue of giant owls leading the vast owl army that darkens the skies above her.
  • At all levels, obtaining a replacement trained owl is no mean feat. You'll need to go to a city with a falconer and seek out an owl, so it's very much DM fiat. In most games you can very reasonably expect it to be possible, but how quickly and easily it can be done is harder to say. After a certain point, though, you have so many pet owls that they just make their own replacements. And giant owls are intelligent, so they can train themselves up! In fact, if you are sufficiently charismatic, you may be able to persuade your DM to let your giant owl army take levels of ranger.
  • A falconer's owl is a bit different to a companion or familiar. It might be trained to attack, but it has little personal investment in this whole fighting orcs thing. If it's scared or has just eaten, it might just stop.

As you can see, the three options are by no means equivalent. The ranger's owl is a much better combat prospect, although until 11th level it is normally more effective for the ranger to attack than for most possible companions to attack. A companion is much tougher, and more hit points to absorb damage is always good. In terms of general utility, the familiar is hands-down better: telepathy, easy resurrection and spell delivery are incredibly useful. The bought pet is the least useful of the three in general, since you're reliant on its training, but has some strong advantages: it only costs gold, and there's no mechanical limit on how many you can own.

Look, obviously a beastmaster who wants to be effective is not going to take a CR0 owl instead of a wolf, panther, giant wolf spider, giant poisonous snake or giant crab. I just used the owl because it's an available familiar type. But having a wolf instead doesn't dramatically alter the picture, in all honesty. The wolf can deal more damage and knock enemies prone, which is nice, but it's still going to be 11th level before it's seriously worth the ranger's while to give up one attack to let the wolf attack.

And the wolf can't even fly!

And bear in mind that this is not just a case of comparing wolves to owls, but also considering both the marginal effect of having a wolf companion versus not having one at all, and the opportunity costs of choosing to have a wolf companion of fairly limited marginal utility rather than being a hunter.

Looking at these, it seems that the animal companion is only significantly better than the familiar in two ways: high-level skill rolls (where the proficiency bonus helps a lot) and providing extra hit points. Some companions do offer specific unique attack forms, but a ranger's own damage-dealing capabilities tend to equal or outstrip what companions can do most of the time, especially if magical items become available or feats modify their combat capabilities, so giving up an attack in favour of even two companion attacks may not be mechanically sound.

Meanwhile, companions are in many ways weaker than familiars for general utility, and far harder to replace. This means that actually using them for their combat capabilities could backfire badly. The familiar dies easily in combat, but can be replaced during any short rest.

Balancing Features

Here's the thing which bothers me: the animal companion is the entirety of a ranger subclass. It is an alternative to taking two powerful offensive abilities and two powerful defensive abilities, all of which are available to the ranger at all times; they cannot be captured, killed, imprisoned, controlled by magic* or otherwise nerfed.

The familiar is not even a single subclass ability; it's a 1st-level wizard spell. Nevertheless, the familiar is significantly better than at least a low-to-mid-level animal companion for general utility. Because quite a lot of the time the animal companion will not be contributing to combat (because you need your action for something else, or you gain no significant benefit from the companion's attack versus your own), they are surprisingly similar in combat value: both can use the Help action, both can provide advantage to a rogue, and the familiar can deliver touch spells on your behalf.

From what I can see, it is entirely possible that you could be eaten by your own animal companion under magical compulsion.

What this seems to boil down to is that except in the highest few levels (where many games never reach), the main benefit the beastmaster receives is a portable block of hit points. Some companions are unusually manoeuvrable, some companions have special riders on their attacks, and a halfling beastmaster can ride a pteranodon, but mostly you're getting hit points. Technically you also get the ability to attack in two different places at once, but you can already do that - it's called a bow.

It seems to me just very difficult to argue that that's enough of a benefit to make the beastmaster worth an entire subclass when find familiar is one 1st-level spell.

The nonspecific companion

I'm really inclined to think that Wizards missed a trick here by making the companion a specific animal with the abilities of that animal.

What this introduces is various kinds of imbalance. It means that some companions are extremely weak because their main capabilities are broken by being a companion, while others have their weaknesses overridden and their strengths boosted further. Importantly, this alteration is not transparent. Players who like analysing the rules will realise that some companions are either innately powerful or have abilities that can be used to great effect; players who are new to the game or less interested in mechanics may find themselves with a companion that's rarely of any help at all. There may be some companions who make the ranger much more potent than expected.

It also leaves the game open to splatbook creep, where an animal may be introduced that synergises particularly well with rangers. This hypothetical companion will have a low CR because of poor stats or HP, but will have fluffier properties like reach, sensory bonuses, riders on attacks (even if they do no damage), granting or obtaining combat advantage, or high AC.

I don't actually think there are any overpowered beasts - as discussed above, this subclass seems quite weak - but there could well be some that are very exploitable by a cunning player. Mostly, though, there are loads of companions that sound fun, but are largely worthless.

A generic companion would avoid a lot of these issues. You could simply provide a statblock, or a selection of 2-3 statblocks. Maybe a fast/tough/strong set? More interesting things could be accessed via keywords. Give your companion a fly speed, or a poisonous attack, or the ability to gain advantage on attack rolls. These could be level-dependent. Simply determine appropriate properties appropriate to the chosen animal. You can skin it however you want. Is that a wolf, a komodo dragon or a very angry beaver? Your choice. This would also make it easier for people to take non-animal companions for the sake of flavour, without having to worry about balance or reskinning. You want a skeleton companion, a bear, a weird abberation based on a dream you had once, a robot? Fine. Things like 5-point differences in AC, or 6-point differences in attack bonus, would be out.

This would also have the advantage of filling in gaps. At the moment, you can take a very small, weak owl. You can't take a giant owl because they're Large. You can take a weak goat, but not a giant goat, also Large. There's a CR1/8 giant rat, which is small and (as the CR indicates) a less powerful creature than you're allowed, but there's no bigger, CR1/4 rat to take instead - and so on. Using generic companions would allow you to have a quite-big goat or really-giant rat without the need for ever more distinct animal statblocks. You could viably have an owl companion, a rat companion or whatever you wanted, without worrying that you're sabotaging yourself.

beast type; Small or Medium; AC 12; HP = 4xLevel; Speed 40ft; 12/12/12/3/12/4; attack +4, 1d6+1.
The animal companion gains proficiency in one saving throw.
The animal companion gains proficiency in two skills.
The animal companion has advantage on ability checks using one of sight, smell or hearing.
The animal companion's damage is one of bludgeoning, piercing or slashing.
The animal companion gains one of the following: fly speed 50ft., poison rider, knockdown rider, pack tactics, grapple rider, Large size.
The animal companion gains one of the following: climb speed 30ft., swim speed 30ft., flyby attack, sure-footed.

The saving throw proficiency is a quick way to make animals seem strong, fast or tough. You could instead allow them to make one physical stat a 15.

Also, have a single standard ruling on whether or not a companion can be ridden. The huge disparity between "grants you free, non-magical, near-permanent flight at 3rd level" and "you cannot ride it at all" based purely on character size is silly and annoying.

Personally, I would be inclined to simply say that (given I'm allowing Large companions) companions can be ridden, but flying companions cannot. This would even things out an awful lot, as there's minimal advantage to a companion horse over an ordinary horse - particularly when you consider the opportunity costs of taking a low-combat mount rather than a flying scout or a tag-teaming wolf buddy.

Note that the above is an attempt to streamline companions under the existing rules, not to rework companions generally.

Digression: size-based stats

One of the things that affects companion usefulness is their size. Size correlates pretty well with the physical capabilities of the animal, and very often also with the usefulness of any special abilities. For example, a giant crab has the free grapple rider on its attacks, whereas a normal crab doesn't - presumably because a) it's simpler, and b) free grapples on passing mice is probably not seen as relevant.

In older editions, small animals actually benefited substantially from their size, because AC was influenced by size, so that a Tiny creature had a significant boost to AC.

In this edition, there's no such AC boost, which means it's exactly as easy to hit a stationary wasp as it is to hit a stationary cow. This gets quite weird if you think about archery competitions: archers aiming at a target (which is DC-based) will find it much harder to hit a wasp-sized bullseye than the entire target, but if you simply put a wasp on the bullseye and aim at that, the difficulty drops dramatically.

One of the effects is that it further prejudices the choice against the small, weak creatures. While it would be flavourful and fun to have a rat companion, the rat has a lower AC than most, terrible saves, does minimal damage and no exciting riders. And it can't fly, and it's slow (whoever assigned the rat a speed of 20ft., the same as a spider, has apparently never seen a rat. Interestingly, rats move faster in large groups, according to the Rat Swarm entry!). The size-based AC bonus used to somewhat compensate by making small companions harder to hit, and therefore better at surviving than larger creatures. I think this has merit: you can have a big tough wolf that hits hard and soaks up damage, or you can have a nippy little falcon that's weak in combat, but agile enough to avoid most attacks.


  1. Have you heard the latest D&D podcast? (http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/state-game) They talk a bit about how they are looking at the Ranger class and want to give it more distinctive, unique Ranger-only options.

    1. No, not yet. That might well be interesting, thanks.

      I don't actually hate the beastmaster, I think it would probably be quite fun to play, and particularly for those players who are either new to the game and find it fun, or really not that bothered about mechanical effectiveness. It's simple, and that counts for a lot.

      I do think it's problematic an animal companion's value is so heavily dependent on flight, attack riders (particularly any not easily available to PCs, like poison), AC and whether you're a halfling.

  2. okay, reading this 1 year late, but dang, i like it! i totally addresses the issues i had

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! It's my most popular post ever... looks like a lot of people have trouble with the beastmaster!