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Whenever I DM (5e D&D), I tend to treat any creature without a language as bestial in its behavior (mostly in combat), especially if it has an intelligence score of 5 or less. This has never been a problem for me as outside of combat my players typically were happy to treat dangerous creatures as things to be destroyed or reasoned with (if possible). This always felt like it only applied to combat though as a mastiff has an INT of 3 and no known languages - but dogs have been known to understand somewhat complex commands with instruction.

Recently my players have expressed on multiple occasions the desire to tame and train various monsters as pets. I tend to allow things that are not explicitly forbidden in the rules and am excited for the potential challenges "taming" wild beasts and monsters could bring. However, one player is fixated on draconic pets and I had to inform him that dragons are sapient and so can be befriended or enslaved (unless he has some kinky relationship in mind har har).

This led me to the question in my title: How should I determine a creature's sapience?

  1. Is my rule of INT>5 and knowing a language adequate?

  2. Is there a better way?

  3. Or is it case by case and influenced by lore?

To clarify

I mean by sapience that a creature that has a level of intelligence and personality that would allow them to have a sense of self and understand that others have a separate perspective from their own and see the world differently. This is a difficult concept to convey, I just want to know where to draw the line between between friend and pet somewhere.

  • Example. How complex are a pseudodragon's thoughts? It has INT 10, can understand but can't speak a language, but apparently can only convey emotions like hunger, fear, and affection. Does it secretly contemplate its place in the multiverse?
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    \$\begingroup\$ What's the relevance of "sapience" here? Is it just "can this be trained or does it need to be befriened/reasoned with?"? Because humans can be trained as well, if that's really something you want to do. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Oct 15 '18 at 6:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik I feel that training a human (or other sapient) as a pet would need to be accompanied by a reduction of intelligence and self-awareness, otherwise you are just creating a slave or educating someone. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Oct 15 '18 at 9:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Szega that's probably a deep and semantic discussion about the nature of training and being a pet, hence my question (and the new information clarifies it as far as I'm concerned) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Oct 15 '18 at 10:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you consider a PC with an intelligence of 3 to be sapient? When rolling up a character, one could get an intelligence that low. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 15 '18 at 11:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I realize that Science Fiction sort of conflate the two, but are you asking about sentience or sapience? As an adjective they have some differences in their definitions that may be important. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Oct 15 '18 at 13:07
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It's likely case by case and influenced by lore. You can probably find examples failing your test on either end, but it seems a good starting point. But honestly, I'd just run it case by case, as situations come up where a player wants to influence an actual creature in your game.

Let's take some examples:

Ogres are Int 5 and know a language; by your criteria they would be pets. Most people would consider them sapient (if barely).

Trolls are Int 7 and know a language; they would be sapient by your criteria and most people would agree.

Worgs are Int 7 and know multiple languages. They are described as being "mounts", but are also known to turn on their riders if mistreated.

Likewise, Winter Wolves have Int 7 and know multiple languages. They are described as being "companions", which probably makes them sentient.

Your Pseudodragon example has Int 10 and understands languages, but can't speak. It seems that its ability to communicate is limited only by its body, not its mind. They seem to make a conscious choice to bond with people and do not accept poor treatment. I'd say that makes them pretty sapient.

Remorazes have Int 4 and don't know languages. According to their description, they can be trained to become guards.

But then, Ropers have Int 7, also don't know languages. They do not appear to be trainable at all. Whether they are sapient is unknown, but they certainly seem smart enough to be.

Scarecrows have Int 10, understand languages, also don't speak. These things are "bound to their master's will", so despite pretty high intelligence, they probably aren't particularly sapient and they can be "trained" in so far as they do what their master tells them to.

But then Helmed Horrors also have Int 10 and understand languages (but don't speak). But they are clearly described as being "intelligent" and "loyal" and can interpret your orders and act on your intentions. They also devise tactics. So clearly they are some form of sapient.

So it seems that neither having (or not having) a language or having an Intelligence of 5 or more is a clear indicator of something being sapient. Some creature types seem more likely to be sapient (ie; humanoids, giants, dragons) while other less so (constructs, beasts, undead) but there is probably counter examples within each type.

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