I love the idea of the faithful animal companion in fantasy stories. While the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons has some element of this for rangers and wizards, the support for this trope is not nearly as robust as it has been in previous editions.
As much as I love the trope, however, I can understand why that support has been limited. In the 3rd edition era, there was a whole lot of effort centered around pushing the boundaries around animal companions, making a class feature of a given class shine more than entire other character classes.
Pathfinder also had some interesting forays into companion rules, with the original point-based system for Summoner Eidolons, which could produce some interesting results if left unchecked.
But who doesn’t want to find a baby griffon and raise it to be a trusted mount? Who doesn’t want to find a dragon egg and become the Mother of Dragons?
I can still remember the references to finding various young monsters or eggs in AD&D first edition, with vague notes about how to raise such creatures. For all of the above reasons, I was definitely interested in checking out the Baby Bestiary Companion Rules.
This review is based on the PDF of the Baby Bestiary Companion Rules for 5e. The PDF is 26 pages, with a one page ad at the back of the PDF for other Baby Bestiary projects. There are bolded, color headers, a parchment treatment to the pages, sidebars, and various tables. Artwork from the various Baby Bestiary projects appear throughout the product.
The book is split into two sections—Baby Bestiary Critter Training, and Class Archetypes. The first section details options for creating a customized NPC animal or creature companion, with levels and variable features. The second section includes subclasses to existing D&D classes that emphasize animal companions or familiars.
Baby Bestiary Critter Training
The emphasis in this section is to present animal/monster companions as unique NPCs, with a specific level and features that change over time. There are archetypes and origins that you select to “build” a type of creature, and wild features that give creature specific abilities.
This section doesn’t tell you, for example, how to create a hellhound companion, but it does allow you to make a brute (archetype) fiend (origin) companion that you envision as a hellhound, with various wild features that may emulate creature abilities. Because of this flexibility, you might build three different hellhounds in three different ways, one as a brute (a front line fighter that can take a lot of damage), one as a skirmisher (a highly mobile creature that specializes in hit and run tactics), or as artillery (a creature that will play up using its breath weapon from a distance to attack).
There is nothing to keep you from adding in wild features that make the creature ultra-suited to a particular combat role, but the GM is given final approval over what wild features a companion can take, based on the kind of creature it is emulating. While the creature may not have the exact statistics of a creature of its type from the Monster Manual, it should still have thematically appropriate abilities, but outside of final approval, nothing limits any set of wild talents to any type of creature.
Wild features are organized by tier, so there are Low (level 1-5), Medium (level 6-13), and High (level 14-20) abilities. Your companion may be more powerful than any other example of its kind, but it’s not going to reach that legendary status until you do as well.
Companions are not a class feature in this section. They are a separate NPC. They can level up, and they may bond with a particular PC, but they are still treated as a separate entity. Each companion has a temperament, determined by the GM when the companion is first acquired. That temperament may make them easier or harder to train, and may affect their ability scores.
Companions have a disposition that affect how they work in play. They can be hostile, distrustful, indifferent, friendly, or loyal. A PC must make a set number of successful checks to move the creatures disposition. A loyal companion is run by the PC. A friendly one generally does what it is told, but is still run by the GM. A hostile companion actively tries to escape confinement.
Training can use multiple skills, and using the same skill twice in a row imposes a penalty on the trainer. Failing a training check too many times will move the companion down the disposition track, and in the short term, may trigger a mishap from a table provided (for example, the companion wails all night, keeping the PCs from getting a long rest for the day).
If something drastic happens, a companion may move down the track automatically, such as feeling like it’s master left it in a dangerous situation, or didn’t properly care for it.
In addition to the broad rules for archetypes, origins, and wild features, some example monsters are showcased as beginning companions, including two versions of bulettes, a blue dragon, a hydra, an owlbear, a feytouched phase cat, a phoenix, and a rust monster.
My initial take on these rules is that I really like them, but there is a lot of variability. Without playing with them for a while, I can say how they might be abused, but given that these are abilities given to an NPC, and that there are rules for when and where PCs can absolutely count on them, I am a little less concerned than adding more robust animal companion rules into the games as a class feature.
The subclasses added include the Circle of Summons druid, the Houndmaster fighter, and the Familiar Spellmaster wizard.
The druid subclass feels a little bit scattered in its theme. They can cast beast friend every long rest, their summoned creatures have attacks that count as magical, they gain immunity or advantage on fear saves depending on creature type, and at 14th level they can cast a summoning spell once per long rest that doesn’t require concentration.
The fear ability feels like an odd addition, and while it’s useful for a summoner, I’m not sure the magical attacks play into the feeling of the class being closer to summoned creatures than other druids.
The fighter subclass gains a spectral hound that has the stats of a wolf, modified similarly to a ranger animal companion. Unlike the ranger, there is no action penalty mentioned for commanding the animal. If your animal is killed, you can summon it again after an hour and 50 gp spent in a ritual.
Later abilities give you bonus damage on prone opponents, give your dog the Protection fighting style, increase your critical threat range when fighting together, and give you advantage on opponents for the remaining member of the duo if the other one is dropped to 0 hit points, as well as bonus damage resistance and damage against that foe.
There is a sidebar on using the class with a living dog instead of a mysteriously summoned ghost dog, changing the summoning requirement to a time and training component for replacing the previous hound.
I love the concept of a warrior that trains a dog to fight with them. I love my Mabari in Dragon Age. But, balanced or not, it feels weird to have an easier to command companion for the fighter than the ranger. The optional rules for replacing a living dog feel a little punitive, since they require multiple wisdom checks to replace a class feature, and I’m not sure how I feel about a capstone class feature that functions best if one or the other of the pair hits zero hit points. It’s like only operating at full capacity of one of the worst potential things happens to you.
The wizard subclass allows the wizard to cast find familiar as a bonus action without expending spell slots, and extends the range of its link to 300 feet. It also gives the familiar an attack with damage that varies by level. When the familiar is reduced to 0 hit points or the wizard dismisses them, they can go boom for variable amounts of damage. The familiar can steal spells from enemy spellcasters when they hit them later on, and eventually, the wizard can shunt damage to their familiar when they are hurt.
Wizard familiars are weird things, so maybe it’s not as strange to let them work without penalizing the wizard’s actions, but it still feels a little fuzzy compared to the ranger’s animal companion. I really like the exploding familiar and damage soak abilities, however.
Who’s A Good Yeth Hound?
There are a lot of solid rules in this supplement that address not only a well-represented element of the fantasy genre, but also an area of the rules that had more support in previous editions. I really enjoy the flexibility of the system, and the fact that the creature is treated as an NPC. I like the rules for training, and how they utilize multiple skills.
Bad Displacer Kitty!
Even though I like the training rules, they do feel like they drift a little bit from similar rules in the 5e core books. There is a lot dependent on the GM and the players being on the same page, and even if a companion is a separate NPC that the GM controls under many circumstances, each table will need to figure out how much of a problem it will be if one PC has a companion, and others don’t. Additionally, if multiple companions are in play, the detailed rules could become a detriment, given the added complexity.
Two of the three subclasses feel like they take a concept similar to the ranger’s animal companion, but don’t execute that concept in a similar manner. The other archetype feels like it doesn’t quite bring everything back together to create a coherent theme.
Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
There is definitely enough going on in this supplement to recommend it for anyone even a little interested in having the theme of beast companions in a campaign. With some work, it can even be used to create some custom versions of existing monsters.
The biggest downside is that some of the systems feel a little more fiddly than core 5e rules, and that introducing these rules involves everyone being on the same page with them, and checking in to make sure that no one’s companion is taking up too much spotlight time.