5E D&D animal handling skill checks

Animal Handling 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks

The Dreamt Join the Ranks of the Lord of Dead Dreams
A Group of Clerics is called a Priesthood

When it comes to fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons many of us take understanding ability checks and skills for granted. However, I’ve found many Dungeon Masters struggle with understanding the nuances of ability checks. As a quick disclaimer, every 5E D&D DM has their own right to call for any skill check in any situation; this is just meant as a general reference. Today’s featured skill proficiency is Animal Handling!

5E D&D animal handling skill checks
Illustrator Robson Michel describes this as a redesign of the Bobby and Uni characters from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. Not only his body got bigger and stronger, but his friendship with Uni as well. He is not the little guy of the group anymore. [Art by Robson Michel]

What is Animal Handling?

Before diving in, let’s present how the 5E D&D Basic Rules defines Animal Handling.

When there is any question whether you can calm a domesticated animal, keep a mount from getting spooked, or intuit an animal’s intentions, the DM might call for a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check. You also make a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check to control your mount when you attempt a risky maneuver.

Deception, Insight, Intimidation and Persuasion

One of the most apparent applications of Animal Handling is the ability to communicate with an animal despite its inability to understand language, as well as your own inability to understand the animal. Animal Handling in 5E D&D works sort of like an all-in-one skill allowing communication back and forth between a creature that operates with reason and language (your character) and a creature operating off instinct (the creature in question).

Courtesy of the feeblemind spell we can reason that feral instincts operate off of the Wisdom score, and we know Wisdom primarily represents a character’s awareness. Thus, Animal Handling assists in your awareness of how an animal (or other creature that relies on instinct) perceives you.

In D&D 5E, I tend to view a creature’s ability to understand language as a gauge of its self-awareness. This is where we get into muddy territory with communication. The way I rule it at my table, a creature that understands a language can be persuaded, deceived or intimidated with language. However, in order for a character to understand said creature, they would use Animal Handling rather than Insight. The reason for this is because the creature in question may be able to understand the character on a linguistic level, but it is incapable of communicating in kind. The creature must rely on animalistic communication and its own limited ability to gesture in order to communicate with the character. In this case, I would rule the creature would use Animal Handling to relate to the characters because a language barrier exists without the creature’s ability to communicate outside the realm of gestures. The exception here would be monkeys and apes, because in our world these species can use Sign Language.

QUICK SIDE NOTE: In my own games, Sign Language is a universally-codified visual language, which I allow characters to adopt as one of their language choices.

In 5E D&D games I run, I rule any creature that does not speak a language (regardless of creature type) relies to some degree on Animal Handling.
Additionally there are some animals that speak their own language. Examples include birds with the “Giant” tag in front of them (Giant Owls, Giant Eagles, etc.). In the case of these animals I universally allow druids, rangers and other primal-based characters to adopt these languages as language options. Other characters wishing to adopt these languages must either have the outlander background or otherwise have some story reason as to why they’ve developed this language proficiency.

Taming and training animal companions

Another capability I associate with Animal Handling I think most DMs agree with is the ability to tame or train an animal or other feral creature, such as a griffon or owlbear. Taming animal companions and mounts can be a blast for players, and it can really aid in suspension of disbelief for your group.
Sadly, I find the base rules lacking when it comes to a system for animal friendship levels and ability to tame them. A few YouTubers like Runesmith, Dael Kingsmill, and Amelia Moseley have mentioned developing homebrew systems of animal companionship, and having played a game using the system developed by the latter I found it a wonderful and immersive experience!

Stunts and tricks

Along the lines of taming and training animals, another key feature of the Animal Handling skill is the ability to teach a creature to perform tricks, stunts and other unnatural maneuvers. Whether it’s fetching something you gesture to, biting through ropes, leaping gaps in the earth or other feats of prowess, teaching an animal companion to perform for your character can be a rewarding experience, and it’s a fantastically fun way to customize a creature’s stat block.

Calming your spooked horse in the face of a beholder is no small feat, but riding your horse as it leaps over the beholder gives a rush of accomplishment as you realize this is something only your horse can do, because you trained it yourself. Customizing animal companions with extra abilities like stunts and tricks is a great way to spice up the nerfy Beast Master archetype for rangers, as demonstrated by Laura Bailey in Critical Role’s first campaign. In that campaign, Laura’s character Vex’ahlia had a brown bear companion named Trinket. Trinket was a good boi, and everyone loved when Matt portrayed the lovable furball, but when Vex trained him to wear armor and curl up to do a Pokémon-style rollout attack, the additions to the brown bear’s stat block made that animal hers.

What do you think?

Do you have any stories about times that you used Animal Handling skill checks to great effect? Do you have special rules for animal companions? Leave us a comment and let us know what you think! If you want to spice up your games with some fantastic animal companion mounts, check out Nerdarchy the Store and pick up Chimes of Discordia: Fantastical Mounts! One of our earliest products, Fantastical Mounts recently got revamped with stunning new cover art. You can use the promo code MOUNTUP for 10% off your entire cart until Feb. 2, 2020.

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Follow Steven Partridge:
Steven Partridge is an aspiring author and experienced tabletop gamer. As a child, he dreamed of growing up to be a dinosaur, but as with many children, his childhood dreams were dashed when the rules of reality set in. However, our valiant Steven never allowed this to sway his ambition. He simply... adjusted it to fit more realistic aspirations. Thus, he blossomed into a full-fledged nerd with a passion for the fantasy genre. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing D&D with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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