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This question comes from discussion in the comments to the question "Can my Beast Master ranger's baboon animal companion use her Wand of Magic Missiles?"

The description of the Beast Master ranger's animal companion states:

[...] The beast obeys your commands as best as it can. It takes its turn on your initiative. 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, or Help action. If you don't issue a command, the beast takes the Dodge action. [...]

I'm unsure whether this is a list of the only actions that an animal companion can take during combat (and thus excluding options such as Use and Object and Hide).

Notice that this is different from what find familiar states:

[...] Your familiar acts independently of you, but it always obeys your commands. In combat, it rolls its own initiative and acts on its own turn. A familiar can't attack, but it can take other actions as normal [...]

The description of the Ranger's Companion feature goes on to state:

If you are incapacitated or absent, your beast companion acts on its own, focusing on protecting you and itself. [...]

Here there are no such action restrictions put on the beast companion. Does this mean that while you are Incapacitated your animal companion could now take actions such as Use an Object if they protected you, whereas otherwise it could not?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are we assuming that the beast companion "acting on its own" is still acting at the Ranger's player's direction (as opposed to the Ranger's, while not incapacitated, or the DM, as the person that runs every non-PC)? \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Sep 26 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Upper_Case That's a good question... I'm honestly unsure, but I'm also not sure if it matters, would the companion only gain (or not gain) new actions in one of those scenarios? \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Sep 26 at 18:52
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I think it's telling that the Revised UA Ranger was updated to more closely match the wording for familiars:

  • The companion obeys your commands as best it can. It rolls for initiative like any other creature, but you determine its actions, decisions, attitudes, and so on. If you are incapacitated or absent, your companion acts on its own.

But, leaving that aside, it seems to me that the way these two clauses interact is critical to the interpretation:

If you are incapacitated or absent, your beast companion acts on its own, focusing on protecting you and itself. [...]

I would interpret "on its own" to mean in the way it would naturally act in the wild. For lack of intelligence and manual capability, you don't see too many wild animals slinging wands of fireball around.

In the context of the rules, this would mean playing the animal companion directly from its stat block. However, the general rules in the Monster Manual (pg 10) do say that

When a monster takes its action, it can choose from the options in the Actions section of its stat block or use one of the actions available to all creatures, such as the Dash or Hide action, as described in the Players Handbook.

and since "Use Object" is such an action, an animal acting "on its own" in accordance with the general action rules would be allowed to use an item among other actions available to it.

Some animals are pretty intelligent and do possess opposable thumbs or prehensile tails, etc, so it's conceivable that they could intuit that the long stick its master waves around to turn things into smoldering corpses could be used in defense.

At the end of it all, I don't think it's possible to arrive at an answer that isn't "Ask your DM" because the rules seem to allow the companion access to the full array of actions but don't necessarily allow it to think or act any differently than a wild animal would act.

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RAW, I would say yes.

At my table, I would probably be less strict and allow a Beastmaster to train their companion to do more tasks in combat, with some limitations.

The basic principles of 5e rule interpretation should apply here, namely that things do what they say they do and not more. There is a list of things a Beastmaster can command their animal companion to do, and that list is shorter than the list of actions that a generic creature can take in combat.

An animal companion is part of a team with its Beastmaster. The Beastmaster trains the animal companion to follow specific commands and, importantly, to act at the Beastmaster's direction rather than on its own. So it's less that the animal companion cannot do other things and more that its training is limited to a finite set of maneuvers which the companion can reliably understand and execute in a combat situation.

That training isn't represented in-game (you don't really get incrementally "better" at handling your companion), and consequently there are no mechanics for adding new abilities to the repertoire.

So a Beastmaster can direct the companion and tell it to attack or dodge (familiar behaviors, attractive to generic Beastmasters, that could be practiced repeatedly during downtime). But giving it instructions on something more abstract might be problematic, and even though you could make a plausible case for training an animal to do very specific things with objects the lack of a corresponding game mechanic makes this impossible (RAW).

That's not to say that the only thing an animal companion can do is obey commands, and if the normal cues it gets from its Beastmaster aren't coming it'll have to make its own decisions. A baboon, struggling to protect its incapacitated friend, might fumble with an object. Maybe it grabs a fallen sword, having noticed that the enemies were wary of the object when its friend held it. Or maybe it has seen someone use a Wand of [something], and might try to make it work as they observed.

Commands to use these objects might fail because they require abstract understanding the baboon doesn't have (like "grab the sword" would probably mean "grab the sword by the handle and get into a reasonable stance", but that's too much to convey in a <6 second command).


The danger:

If allowing a Beastmaster to continue personally direction its companion (through the player), expanding the possible actions available to the companion could be problematic and open up some exploits. It becomes a lot more like having a backup NPC available at all times, and some players might purposefully incapacitate their characters in safe locations just to trigger the extra abilities in their companions.

As very basic examples, a downed Beastmaster could simply direct its companion (nominally acting on its own, but still controlled by the Beastmaster's player) to feed them a Potion of Healing (or similar) to immediately get back up. Or, in a room that might be laden with traps, the companion could be used to scout in a way it normally could not and bear all of the risk while the players hang out in the entryway.

It's not necessarily a huge deal, and I think that meaningful exploits would be rare and not necessarily desirable. But it's awkward, and there isn't a particularly strong case that this was an intentional transition (as opposed to an inadvertent edge case).

I think that the operative question is really about who controls the companion if the Beastmaster is incapacitated. Having the DM do so resolves all awkward contradictions about the expanded menu of possible actions, and is probably the smoothest way to implement the rules as written on this issue.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "That's not to say that the only thing an animal companion can do is obey commands" if I understand this, you are however says my it's mechanically all it can do while its master is conscious? If they don't issue a command the beast has no choice but to take the Dodge action? \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Sep 26 at 21:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 That's the thrust of my answer. But what I'm trying to express with that phrase is that the limit isn't on what the companion is capable of doing but rather on what the Beastmaster can command it to do. The limit is in the commanding, not the literal capacities of the companion. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Sep 26 at 21:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah that honestly makes a lot of sense to me \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Sep 26 at 21:04

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