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I'm a first time DM in D&D 3.5e.

My ranger player just earned level 4 and gets his animal companion. How do you grant this to him within the context of the story? Does an animal just magically appear next to him? Does he have to go find one and tame it? Can one find him in the middle of a dungeon, or next time he's in the wild one just starts following him around? Does he need to perform any kind of additional checks to find, spend time searching for, or otherwise use any other game mechanics to gain his animal?

Thanks for your advice.

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3 Answers 3

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The DM and player can decide this together, and it'll differ based on the character of your game

Rules as written, there is no requirement to wait, or to be anywhere in particular, when the companion is granted. (This is true for abilities granted at levelling up in general, e.g. knowing new spells, or having an ability you didn't have yesterday.)

In more "gamey" campaigns it's fine to just handwave this and say "Poof! Now you have a camel!"

In a more story-based campaign, think through how you want this to add to the story. Since it's supposed to be "free" for the character I wouldn't make it onerous, but (especially if the player is amenable) it's fine to make it interesting.

  • Perhaps you spend a night meditating and fast in the woods, and it comes to you?
  • Perhaps you go out, track it down, and tame it?
  • Perhaps the animal was sent by your deity, and meets you at some reasonable location?

In a campaign with a high level of realism, I'd talk with the player about is/n't possible. For example, at this level you might rule that certain kinds of companions that are normally allowed aren't realistic to find nearby in your biome.

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+1 for "Poof! Now you have a camel!" But what if I don't want a camel!? :D –  cr0m Dec 18 '13 at 21:28
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Don't be silly @cr0m, of course you want a camel! Everybody wants a camel. –  Jeff Fry Dec 19 '13 at 5:31
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The best way I have found, within 3.5, to handle the very sudden and abrupt changes that occur on level-up is to prepare for them ahead of time. Have the ranger adopt an animal, or have an animal start to follow the party, or otherwise introduce the future companion prior to level-up. This gives the ranger an opportunity to gain the animal’s trust and begin its training, while still getting the class feature “on time.” The class feature thus isn’t “you gain an animal companion” so much as “the animal’s training is complete, and it may now act as your loyal animal companion.”

This approach also works very well for other class features. Someone’s going to multiclass into wizard? Have them enroll in an arcane university, apprentice themselves to an archmage, find a tome of power, or whatever, before they take that level. So they are studying and preparing for that level ahead of time. This is also an excellent time to introduce the beginning-wizard’s spellbook, which is extremely time-consuming and expensive to produce “manually.”

I would also say that you shouldn’t be afraid to ret-con these things if it’s for the good of the game. “Oh hey, I decided to multiclass into druid this level; can we say that I’ve been spending some of my downtime training a wolf?” is a fairly reasonable request and should be granted most of the time (assuming it was conceivable that he could have been doing this).

Of course, a lot of the time we hand-waive this entirely, either with timeskips, or in sillier games, deus ex machina. One game, the paladin’s level-up was handled thusly:

DM: “Ding!”

Paladin: “I’m riding a horse! Backwards!”

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Really like the suggestion to prepare for it. The ranger could have a lot of fun prior to getting the companion by using his Handle Animal skill to convince the animal to stick around, fight enemies and otherwise "train" it. –  cr0m Dec 18 '13 at 21:30
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@Jeff's answer is solid, just adding some perspective from my experience.

In my campaigns, I've never had a player complain because I added a bit of storytelling to how they acquired their animal companion. That being said, your campaign and play-style affects this more than anything. To give an example from an intensely story-driven campaign:

It took 2 or 3 sessions for our Paladin to gain his mount at 5th level, but it was worked into the encounters we were playing at the time, so the other players didn't feel left out.

The player of our Paladin expressed an interest early on about having a giant wolf to ride instead of a horse. I mentioned it in this answer, it has a bit more background on why.

The players were tracking a band of orcs through a dense forest in the foothills of the Misty Mountains (LoTR campaign). They eventually realized that the orcs in question were meeting up with a band of warg-riders for reinforcements. The giant wolves in the area had been hunted (so they could be turned into wargs by the orcs) and were not very happy about it.

So when the warg attack was imminent, the Ranger convinced the wolves in the area to aid the party. The alpha wolf's attack on the warg-riders was a thunderclap, and he killed many of them, but was surrounded. The Paladin (with no nudging from me) saw this, and stormed to his rescue (forgive the unsubtle metaphor), but was too late. The Paladin was in trouble then, being wounded and cut off from the rest of the party, but the alpha's mate burst from the shadows, stuck the wargs from behind, and bore the Paladin away from danger.

The party eventually defeated the warg-riders, but the beta wolf took over the pack. The alpha's mate howled in mourning over the alpha, and the party left. A few days later, the Paladin discovered that the she-wolf was following him, when she came out of the shadows and laid down next to him.

It wasn't a hard story to work into the adventure I already had planned, and all the other players really wanted to find their own special mount after that too. They began discussing how they would do it (in story terms) during each session.

It made the story rich, and I loved running it, but everyone has their own tastes: use your own judgement.

I guess I should mention, the "poof! you have a horse" thing was way out of character for this campaign, we were playing with a very subtle-magic style. Spells rarely had flashy visuals, magic potions tended to taste like mud. A horse (or wolf) just appearing out of thin air didn't fit.

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This is sort of ironic, since by the fluff a druid or ranger is supposed to go and find their companion, but the paladin’s mount is supposed to be “poof! now you have a horse,” since it’s a summoning effect. –  KRyan Dec 18 '13 at 19:38
    
@KRyan The way I described it was always sort of like how it looks in Assassin's Creed: the horse runs in from somewhere behind you, like it was there all along (but it wasn't!) –  Zachary Yates Dec 18 '13 at 20:11
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