E. R. F. Jordan tackles one of my favorite subjects in Animal Training (5e Rules): befriending the monsters you meet on your adventures and turning them into useful allies! It dovetails nicely with the established rules for Beast Master ranger animal companions in that it states outright it’s doing something for all characters and classes. It divides the subject matter into three simple sections, each with compelling, elegant mechanics. For a subject that I’m so invested in, it’s a tall order for Animal Training to bring something I like to the field, but E. R. F. Jordan’s system mastery and concise writing delivers in every way imaginable. I’m definitely using this guide in my games.
Animal Training is a 7 page guide that covers how to recruit, train, and maintain a bond with an animal found during gameplay, allowing creatures like beasts to become a sort of lesser version of the Beast Master Ranger’s animal companion. The guide splits the process up across three main sections:
Bonding: meeting and befriending the creature.
Training: teaching your new companion commands that allow it to perform specific actions during combat or exploration.
Maintaining: ensuring the animal doesn’t feel neglected, and finding out what happens when it does!
Animal Training starts off by noting that the rules presented don’t interfere with things like a ranger’s animal companion: those class features provide inherent special actions and rules that go above and beyond what’s presented here. In short, a ranger doesn’t have to train their companion to do stuff, while these rules require the investment of time, resources, and reinforcement to teach an animal even basic commands.
Splitting up the book into three sections makes a lot of logical sense. The Bonding section goes over first impressions, and covers what sorts of creatures can be bonded with. It rightly doesn’t limit itself to the beast type, featuring creatures like blink dogs (fey), worgs and winter wolves (monstrosities), and so on. But in all cases, there’s a sort of unstated rule that the creatures aren’t going to have Intelligence scores much higher than 6 or 7 at the top end. There is a note saying sentient creatures won’t subscribe to these rules — dragons and humanoids, obviously — but it’s no harder than that. There’s a reason for this: the Handling Difficulty table, which defines how the creature views the character during their first meeting and sets the DCs for later training checks, relies on adding or subtracting a creature’s Intelligence score from a base DC set by the creature’s initial attitude (DMG Chapter 8). This may seem like a mistake for folks used to seeing Intelligence modifiers applied to such things, but it makes complete sense in the context here.
In the Training section, we see what sorts of commands (“tricks” in some previous editions of D&D) can be taught, how difficult they are too teach, and what it takes to teach a companion. The commands take into the action economy as set by the Beast Master ranger’s precedent, so that might irk some folks but I’d argue it’s completely fine here: these aren’t supposed to be as good as the ranger’s animal companion in the first place, so even if you house-rule some change to the Beast Master, these rules still work. Additionally, by showing the training DCs and times, you really get a sense of why bonding is so important during the first meeting with the creature, and why maintaining that bond (in the next section) works the way it does.
Finally, speaking of Maintaining, the last section does a great job of showing how animals bond with their master using an elegantly simple system of “Social Points” that add up throughout the day. The accounting is super-simple, and can be done at the end of an adventuring day and again at the end of a week (even during downtime), so it’s not a big accounting procedure. Arguably, it’s simpler than tracking Loyalty (DMG Chapter 4), though admittedly my analytical, RAW-thinking mind has me wanting to see an option for using the Loyalty rules as a basis, as well. For the folks who use that system already, might as well serve them something similar. But with that digression out of the way, it’s important to look at how the Social Points add up because if they come out low, you’ve neglected your companion, and there are specific rules for what happens: in this book, they are presented as a series of behaviors. Rather than throwing on penalties or changing training DCs or do some other systematic change, the book instead offers minor behaviors for animals that feel neglected during an adventuring day, or major behavioral problems if you’ve neglected them over the course of an entire week. They might not obey certain commands, or might take additional actions that can impede the group (not being stealthy because it’s whiny that day), or they may do more severe things like never moving beyond 10 feet from you or lashing out your allies. These are all things real-world animals do when they are neglected, so it’s a beautiful, elegant mechanic that really sings.
It’s worth noting that I’ve got my hands on the Baby Bestiary 5e Beast Companion, which also has some rules for training companions, but is largely a book about creating more complex monster allies. Animal Training couldn’t be more different, and covers the bonding/training/maintaining cycle in far more depth, such that you can easily use the Beast Companion‘s creature-building rules (the bulk of that book) and the Animal Training supplement in equal measure in your campaign but you’re not losing anything from either. That’s huge for me, because I intend to do exactly that.
Like I mentioned in my review of Quirks by E. R. F. Jordan, the form factor is very simple: two-columns with no internal artwork outside of the cover. As before, we’re looking at this as a largely player-facing supplement, or at the very least, a short guide (this one is 7 pages) on one specific subject that just needs the occasional rules reference, so I find the layout perfect for that. You can print it out with a minimum of ink-usage, or you can scroll through it on any device comfortably and quickly to get what you need at a glance. I’m sure others would want more artwork, but I think that’s better served in cases where the artwork serves as a reference: to an archetype or class, a spell, a magic item, monster, an NPC, or location in an adventure. This guide’s giving you just the facts you need to bond with, train, and maintain a relationship with established beasts and other creatures, so making it a useful reference is key. The fact that there’s not a single editing problem that I could find only bolsters this assessment: this thing is pure gold in campaigns where your players constantly ask to befriend all of the blink dogs, wolves, mastiffs, and worgs they come across, rather than killing them for experience points.