August 12, 2020

Inside the World of Training Pet Monsters

If you haven’t been in a group that tried to train and keep a monstrous pet, then you are in for a treat. This ubiquitous trope always seemed like a horrible idea to me: vicious pet chimpanzees that mauled their owners’ faces sprang to mind. But, players can’t seem to stay away from this tempting challenge. Just how difficult is it to train and care for a vicious D&D monster? Animal expert and zoo keeper Mike Marazzi sounds off.

I begin with a Girallon, a four-armed, primate-like beast. This creature seemed to share the most characteristics with real-world animals.

Me: Alright, let’s talk about what goes into training a wild animal.

Mike: Some broad strokes things about animal training in general:

An underlying thing to consider here is that mental stats in DnD are historically very anthropocentric. A lot of times, people ask zookeepers, “What animal is the smartest?” We have to explain that animal brains are basically perfect. They are evolved to do the thing they need to do, and none of them are really “smarter” than the other. What people are really trying to ask is, “Which animal brain is most human like?” That’s what the mental stats in DnD are measuring.

Another boilerplate thing zookeepers say is that any animal is trainable. You just need to be patient and also understand how to properly reinforce the animal. You’ll hear people say their dog/cat doesn’t want to be trained, but typically the root problem could be that whatever reinforcer the trainer is offering isn’t worth it to the animal.

Me: This is horrible news. I always just assumed some creatures were off limits due to their mental stats, but it looks like PCs trying to keep everything as a pet is in play. But I mean, they’ve at least got to find a young specimen, right?

Mike: Hand raised animals are usually more dangerous than wild animals. Wild animals are naturally distrustful or fearful of humans, and are more inclined to just run away before the human gets too close. They will attack if they’re cornered. Hand raised animals are used to human presence and less inclined to runaway. Sometimes people can get too close without thinking, at which point they get attacked.

Me: Keep that in mind, DMs. Even if your players succeed at a bunch of checks, anything they train might bite their faces off if they’re not careful. Tell me more about this. I’m in the camp that it’s a bad idea to keep dangerous monsters.

Mike: A lot of the discussion about their social structure leads me to believe they have a chimp-like temperament. I should point out that even well-trained chimps with good relationships with their trainers could turn on a person. Their social structure is basically built upon infighting and they have crazy hormones that can make them do weird things.

I’ll also note that “Smarter” animals can be more rebellious (not sure if it’s the right word) sometimes. A dog might think “if i sit, i get snack from backpack. I should sit and get snack.” But a chimp might think “if i sit, i get snack from backpack. If i murder ranger, I can take backpack and I get ALL snacks.”

Me: Although I don’t think there’s a specific rule around it, I could see some clever players trying to teach their Girallon sign-languages. What are the chances of making that work?

Mike: There’s a few examples of apes that have learned American Sign Language, all started really young. Koko (gorilla) started at the age of 1; Michael (gorilla) was 3; Chantek (orangutan) was 9 months. All of them were raised as humans. Chantek never met another orangutan until he was an adult. Michael and Koko only really spent time with one another (Michael came from Africa but was orphaned).

There’s a lot of debate about whether apes doing sign language is “real” language or just mimicry. Experts have pointed out that most of these apes have learned to “create” words for concepts they don’t have names for by combining signs they’re familiar with, as well as repeating or exaggerating signs for emphasis, similar to what ASL speakers do. 

Volo does say that people have trained Girallons for their own purposes, but they can’t learn much beyond simple commands (e.g attack strangers). I would guess they’re not going to be trained to the point of “true” language

Me: OK, that’s good to know. Your druids and rangers won’t be out of a job and will still need to jump in with a Speak With Animals spell from time to time.

But on the whole, it seems like it’s actually pretty doable to train a Girallon.

Mike: Long story short, early on, it might be fairly easy to train a young Girallon. There’s a good chance that Girallon might even see you as a parent. But as that Girallon grows up, it will see you more as a partner or an equal. That relationship is going to take constant attention because your Girallon might want to declare itself the alpha of the adventuring party. You might even run into a case where the Girallon attacks, the party fights him, and then things go back to normal because that’s just the way life goes in a Girallon band. 

Me: Well, that’s an interesting note to end on. If the party does wind up capturing and training a Girallon, this is a plot point they’re going to have to come back to over and over. You end up with a four-armed loose cannon hanging around your hideout.

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