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In the core book for 5e D&D, it says you have to command your pet to take an action every round, so on the surface it would seem that if you are knocked out or are dying your pet will not be able to protect you/continue fighting. This doesn't make sense to me since the animals can react instinctively to danger and other stimuli, so one would think it wouldn't be unreasonable to let the ranger pet continue attacking after the ranger is incapacitated, either by protecting the body of its owner from continued threat, or possibly lashing out at seeing his master injured.

So the question is: Is there anything in any of the books that accounts for the animal companion's own ability to make decisions, including continuing to attack without being explicitly commanded?

I expect the answer to this question might be "if the ranger is unconscious it would be imbalanced if the pet got to attack, since that allows the player to essentially continue fighting even after they have been knocked out/killed". But I think it's reasonable to allow the animal to protect its master, or maybe it just starts attacking random people, even allies, since its not being directed to a specific target by the ranger.

I am preferably looking at a 5e RAW answer, but am open to possible house rule options based on previous editions rules if it seem non-game-breaking in the 5e context.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that post-edit, "RAW or a reasonable house-rule" is within scope for this site and is an expected mode of inquiry for 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 16 '15 at 16:22
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By RAW, no. From page 93 of the PHB:

though the beast does not take any actions unless you command it to.

That much is pretty clear-cut.

By RAI, were it my game, I'd probably allow the beast to stand guard and engage with anyone who tries to harm the unconscious body of its master, but it would be under DM control and if I were using morale, that would be a definite cause for a check.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good - but when using morale remember though that morale failures are of many flavours, and berserk attack is a likely possibility as well as run or hide. For a carnivore berserk attack might even b regarded as more likely than run and hide, but one cannot discount it for a muskox or a horse either. \$\endgroup\$ – Pieter Geerkens Mar 16 '15 at 0:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am getting really close to choosing this as the answer, just one thing I'd like covered: when you use your turn to command the pet to take the "attack" action, is it possible to phrase it thusly "Attack all enemies until they are are dead or fleeing."? If so, would that a) allow the pet to keep attacking after you die/get knocked out? and b) would that command also skirt the need to continuously command the pet on each turn? (I would think question b would be game breaking since it would possibly make the ranger OP) \$\endgroup\$ – MC_Hambone Mar 16 '15 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, you command the companion to take an action, basically for the reason you said in the parenthetical. I don't have my PHB on me now to provide a page reference, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Polisurgist Mar 16 '15 at 21:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ -1 because iIn the errata, it says "yes." \$\endgroup\$ – Forrestfire Jun 11 '15 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ The answer below you has it, so I didn't post my own. Here's the link itself: dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/ph_errata \$\endgroup\$ – Forrestfire Jun 11 '15 at 16:32
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In 5th edition, it is as you have said. The animal will normally only act when commanded.

However, in the PHB Errata, it says:

Ranger’s Companion (p. 93). If you are incapacitated or absent, your beast companion acts on its own, focusing on protecting you and itself. It never requires your command to use its reaction, such as when making an opportunity attack.


Since you asked about previous editions...

In 3.5e, you command your Animal Companion by using the Animal Handling skill as a free action. Some of the Tricks that a trained Companion can perform are:

Attack: The animal attacks apparent enemies. You may point to a particular creature that you wish the animal to attack, and it will comply if able.

Defend: The animal defends you (or is ready to defend you if no threat is present), even without any command being given. Alternatively, you can command the animal to defend a specific other character.

Down: The animal breaks off from combat or otherwise backs down. An animal that doesn't know this trick continues to fight until it must flee (due to injury, a fear effect, or the like) or its opponent is defeated.

Clearly, in 3.5e the Companion is a lot more independent than in 5e.

Adopting the 3.5e behaviour in 5e would be a big boost to the combat effectiveness of characters with Companions, as it allows both companion and master to act in the same round.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Looks like the Defend command is what I was thinking of. It seems to only require you to tell the pet to defend once, and then it defends until there is nothing left to defend or it is defeated \$\endgroup\$ – MC_Hambone Mar 16 '15 at 2:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MC_Hambone The attack command was also one of those "Keep doing it until I tell you to stop or until you get bored and forget and wander off like the dog you are" commands, it's just not obvious from the quoted text. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Mar 16 '15 at 4:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe That's why I highlighted the part of Down: "An animal that doesn't know this trick continues to fight until it must flee or its opponent is defeated." ie, if the Companion doesn't have this trick, you can't tell it to stop! \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Mar 16 '15 at 7:08
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From page 93 of the PHB:

though the beast does not take any actions unless you command it to.

I'd say it depends on what you tell it to do before you get incapacitated. A command of "fight these attackers" or "protect me" wouldn't stop just because you are unconscious.

If you told it to "bite that guy", that is another story.

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