Animals in D&D

Animals.  In many games, the most basic foe.  (Heck, in World of Warcraft it doesn’t matter what level you get to, there are mutated demon boars of EXACTLY YOUR LEVEL to kill!)  But the real world is often more hardcore than your average fantasy realm.  Take this new fun Cracked article on The Six Deadliest Creatures (That Can Fit In Your Shoe).

There’s the golden dart frog, which is so poisonous that Wikipedia claims chickens and dogs have died from contact with a paper towel on which one had walked.  Now that’s an unfortunate trap for the party ranger; poisonous tracks!

Or the scorpion which is called, with no exaggeration, the Deathstalker.  Lame overblown D&D 4e name?  No, it’s a couple inches long and you’re quite likely to die of it.  Imagine the giant variety!

And why has poison become so lame in D&D?  It’s just a DC check for some stat damage.  The Brazilian Wandering Spider’s venom not only causes pain and spasms, but gives you a huge rock-hard boner like a critical Viagra overdose while you go out (no, really!). Tell THAT to your next poisoned PC and they won’t be so blase about it any more.

Or, for more inspiration, 6 Endangered Species That Aren’t Endangered Enough.   Here’s a ready-made scenario, the Slavemaker Ant!  It fakes death to be carried into another ant nest, where it kills the queen, coats itself in her parts, and then the locals raise the eggs it raises!   You could probably do the same thing with halflings.

How about the 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World?  Like bot fly larvae, which are basically rot grubs that don’t have to depend on the lame trick of “lie here and hope they listen at this door.”  Or a shrieking attack ant; that’ll scare the bejeezus out of a hapless adventurer.

Perhaps the 6 Biggest Assholes in the Animal Kingdom is more your style.  The cuckoo does a trick kinda like the slavemakers above in that it makes you raise its young.  Smart animals that say “hey, I don’t want to raise a cuckoo egg?”  They get their ass beaten by the cuckoo mafia.  No, really.  Angelina Jolie was getting off easy in Changeling.

As most D&D players curl up in a fetal ball at any mention of sex in any form, I’m glossing over the sexual predators of the bunch (Bat-bug, I’m looking at you) but this quote is too fun to pass up.  “Some marine biologists believe adult dolphins kill babies for the same reasons lions do, to bang dolphin moms, except that there are reports of female dolphins also killing dolphin babies, which either destroys the theory or makes it much, much sexier.”

Not done yet?   How about the 6 Cutest Animals That Can Still Destroy You?   One of the things D&D seems to omit is how Godawful strong animals are.  That’s why people get ripped into bitty-bits by chinpanzees all the time.  And monkeys on Costa Rica rob people of their food. Anyway, using the D&D Strength measure of “you can dead lift 15x your Strength score?”  Chimps, by a conservative estimate, would have a STR of 40.  A gorilla?  120.  Eek.

Of course, D&D animals lack any attribute of real animal behavior.  They tend not to attack people, which is the only reason that even the damn cows haven’t stomped us out (get it?).  It’s why animal-attack horror movies exist and are scary; even a domestic dog/feral cats/irate sheep (heh) can put a whupping on a human if they decide to go at them for some reason.  I hate that morale got pulled from D&D…  I’d like animals (and all monsters) to have a representative aggression and morale rating.  Aggression is “how likely they are to attack you for being around” and morale is “how likely they are to stick with it.”

So given the freaky deakyness that the animal kingdom has to offer, I think it sucks (yes, that’s a scientific opinion) that rangers can’t use their abilities on magical beasts, aberrations, etc.  I feel like many of these creatures are misclassified regularly.  In our recent Pathfinder game, we ran across ‘reefclaws’ – just big crawfish on steroids.  Oh, but they were *aberrations*.  Bah.  I say if it’s got an Int of 1-2 and no supernatural powers, it’s clearly in bounds.   “Oh sorry it’s an owlbear” my ass.  A ranger should be an invaluable resource with most naturally dwelling creatures – all the lore you hear about normal animals (play dead with a bear, don’t move with a T-Rex, etc.) should be their bread and butter schtick.

What bugs you about animals in D&D?

8 responses to “Animals in D&D

  1. Psst. Reefclaws have an Int of 6. They’re as smart as ogres, but tastier.

  2. Yeah, but that’s just part of the problem. Making what are just ravening animals “intelligent.” Real animals have plenty of evolved clever strategies without needing a 6 Int. Like speaking otyughs. Why? What purpose does that serve? The reefclaws appeared to use no tools and have no civilization, just “skitter about and attack in small groups.” I feel like Int on most of these foes is purely because of the chosen template (aberration in this case) and is totally not taken into account in the creature design, which means to me “isn’t this an animal?”

  3. Frankly, I like otyughs that talk. Opens things up for negotiation (and comic relief–my PCs decided that otyughs speak like LOLcats, and they won’t let that idea go).

    The problem, I think, is the opposite. There’s plenty of real-world animals that could be strongly argued to have Int scores higher than 1-2. The great apes, dolphins, ravens, octopus; I’d peg them all at 3-6.

    I do agree with your core hypothesis, though, that animal stat blocks in D&D are boring. On ENWorld, I did a huge project, statting up all of the dinosaurs and other beasties in “The World of Kong” book. That thread can be found here:

    And I tried my best to give the critters in there something more than Improved Grab. Roars that acted like sonic attacks, weird diseases and poisons, damage reduction, that sort of thing. I’m still getting requests for the compilation document, so I think my design philosophy is one that’s resonated.

    I don’t think that the proper solution is the 4e one, to make magically enhanced versions of every animal in addition to the “boring” baseline ones. The animal kingdom’s got enough weirdness as it is!

  4. I agree in terms of normal animals and their abilities not being used by DMs properly. But that goes for almost anything in D&D. I recently made a terrifying disease that immobilized and terrified my level 2 characters… I called it “Lockjaw” a.k.a. tetanus. Yeah, I just used a normal disease. And used it the way that it should be used in a wilderness situation with no “cure diseases” around. One character had to be carried by the other characters and if they had been attacked on the way to the city they were heading to, he could have been the victim of a coup de grace in a pinch, since he was completely immobilized.

    I do miss morale, but more and more that sort of thing is being delegated to the DM to deal with since it’s still weird to have one really crazy wolf (who keeps winning his morale checks) while the rest run away. A lot of 4e stuff is basically giving more leeway to the DM to change what they want.

    I don’t mind the “magically enhanced” animals in 4e, since it gives a better feel for the Shadowfell and Feywild, which I still like as concepts that really need to be explored (haven’t looked at the new Manual of Planes, so I don’t know yet).

    But I do agree, we need to expand on “normal” animals and give them the due they deserve. To be honest, I’d treat more of the small crazy-poisoned critters as traps, since noticing them is really the trick and stomping on them easy… though they may kill you since their initiative may be much better than your PCs (scorpions are super-fast, as are many normal snakes).

  5. @Steve, I agree that diseases, poisons, etc. are also very underutilized.

    I very much disagree with the “leave morale to the DM” excuse though. Everything’s ultimately up to the DM anyway. May as well not give monsters hit points, either, the DM can decide when they fall. My experience haws been that the removal of morale has turned every combat into “they fight until killed”, ESPECIALLY with unintelligent animals/monsters – DMs sometimes will say “well, those soldiers are smart, maybe they run off” but any critter is 100% dedicated to killing.

    Besides, a good morale system would take “my buddies all fled” into account. Maybe they don’t all flee the exact same round – but that’s realistic too; somehow everyone being able to magically coordinate their actions on the same phase of a six second span is a little egregious too.

    @Demiurge – I don’t know, I just think there’s a lot of monsters that are clearly there to be dumb beasts and giving them a higher Int is pointless and just a ranger-hose. I’ve fought lots of otyughs over time and for some reason, they’re always played by the DM as nothing but a poo-beast that wants to eat you. When I first encountered one that spoke (thanks to boxed text in a Paizo AP) I about crapped myself (no pun intended). I figured it was an illusion or something.

    I mean, an occasional “against type” thing can be cool (intelligent poo-beasts? Who knew?) but it’s way too common. If a critter has an Int above 5-6 it should have a society, not just be clinging to a dungeon wall waiting to eat someone.

  6. In terms of morale and critters, it is possibly the reason why my PCs haven’t dealt with any straight up dungeons full of critters in a dog’s age. I tend to have sentient, intelligent creatures or undead harrass my players. I relish the amount of time the players spend dealing with the hobgoblin who surrenders because I decided he would. I think, as the DM, you have a good feel for when the tide of the battle is turning and when the “monsters” will feel that they’re in a completely untenable situation. I don’t think that the old morale system did that sort of thing justice. Maybe a simpler system would be that any critter that has taken damage that rolls under 4 (and doens’t hit) either flees or gets it in their head that fighting to the death is the only method (which was my thing with goblin skullcleavers, who went berserk). Maybe use the bloodied value in 4e and make that decision then. I just don’t want to roll more dice to make a decision in combat (i.e. slowing down combat more).

    What sort of morale system would you use?

  7. I rarely compliment 4e, as it killed Gary Gygax, but the bloodied state is a great hook to do a morale check.

    I’d like just a simple methodology that you’d roll in certain situations. Wouldn’t have to be too deterministic – “When bloodied,” “When it looks bad for them (bosses down, group 50% down)”… Worked fine in 1e-2e.

    Oh, I see “Xeventini” has come up with a 4e morale check for you already!

  8. Pingback: Morale in D&D | Geek Related

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