Monday, October 12, 2009

Speaking with Animals

One thing I've routinely seen in RPG's but in practice and in rules as written is the ability to speak with animals has all kinds of limitations on the intelligence of the animal and what they understand.

Things like an empathic understanding, or short memory, or using childish words..squirrels focusing on if things are shiny and not noticing the bigger inability to count.. etc etc etc.

I use a much clearer method. Animals talk and by and large (depending on animal) have average intelligence and vocabularies. The notion of animal intelligence as being universally sub par is very much a modern concept. If a druid speaks to an owl in my game, the owl is not dull as bricks (as real life owls are some of the dumbest birds around) but is instead very wise and intelligent, probably more so than the druid.

Why don't animals use more tools? Religion, thumbs..the usual reasons. Animals may very well use magic and miracles however, some of them may also have levels. Ol' One Eye isn't just a grizzly bear, he's a level 3 warrior as well. The silver fox is a thief, and the leader of the wolf pack is a priest to the moon god.

This also means that talking to animals is no more of an auto-win in the woods than "language common" is an auto-win in the city. Just because you can talk to animals doesn't mean they obey you, it doesn't even mean they want to talk back. And lord help you if they decide to lie or trick you.

The nature of animal speech as just another language also means PC's can learn the language non-magically, if they have a teacher. Their voices may not allow them to imitate the cry of a bird, but they can hear the crows talking about something wicked moving through the woods to this direction. You could also extend this to tree's and the rustling of their leaves should you wish.

Consider trying it in one of your games.


  1. There are a lot more races of animals than races of people in D&D, especially since most of the time an "Elven" language works whether you're talking to a Waterdhavian Elf or a Sembian Elf. So do you pick Beaver? Or Honeybee?

    To prevent making the language useless I'd suggest either combining them (Avians of Toril, for example) or adding regional "common animal tongues".

    In Watership Down the rabbits spoke Lapine (the standard rabbit language) but regional dialects even within the same dozen miles of English countryside made communication somewhat difficult. Animals each spoke their own language, as far as I could tell, but they could also sort of understand a common language and communicate very simply. It would be like speaking in Basic English.

  2. Excellent. I've totally taken your advice on this topic.

    My stupid modernman blinders made me never consider adding levels to animals. I did it to "monsters" all the live-long day, but not once thought to make a sorceror fox.