Speak with Animals
Bard, Druid, Ranger - 1 Level Spell
Casting Time: 1 Action
Components: Verbal and Somatic
Duration: 10 mInutes
Reference: PH 277
You gain the ability to comprehend and verbally communicate with beasts for the duration. The knowledge and awareness of many beasts is limited by their intelligence, but at minimum, beasts can give you information about nearby locations and monsters, including whatever they can perceive or have perceived within the past day. You might be able to persuade a beast to perform a small favor for you, at the GM’s discretion.
My Comments: This is a pretty straightforward spell. It’s basically magic that complements that weird friend you have who carries on conversations with their loud cat as if they understood what they were saying. (Yes, that weird friend is me.)
As it says on the tin, mostly you have to roleplay with your DM and get their approval for anything you convince an animal to reveal and/or do. It’s wonderful fluff that can be incredibly useful and a lot of laughs in a game. I don’t know a single Druid in any of my campaigns that doesn’t keep it prepared, and isn’t one the edge of their seat waiting for opportunities to use it.
So let’s talk a little bit about how to spice up Speak with Animals for your game, and ways to adjudicate what it can do. With science!
Animal behavior is a fascinating thing. Almost all animals – a category within which humans fall, remember – do not have a developed cerebral cortex in their brain, which is where cognition happens. What this means, at least theoretically, is that animals as a whole don’t really understand time in any structured way and they cannot think through the consequences of their actions (without repeated attempts that have been foiled). Therefore, most animals can be very easy to predict once you know how they operate. And I’m talking primarily mammals; avians, reptiles and amphibians have even less going on up there and are mostly instinct. However, the extent of what their minds do – emote, dream, etc. – is entirely speculation, because we can’t Speak with Animals.
Now, this is a fantasy game. Many animals are magical and therefore you may just go the route of making them more human (anthropomorphizing). However, I think it’s more fun to play to the inherent mystery of how minds work by giving the animals your Druid strikes up conversation with a bit of personality. Play with the idea that they don’t understand time, but they are fixated on the things they love. They can also be canny, deceitful, traumatized, and all manner of ways both like and unlike people. Make them real NPCs, but don’t make them human.
Hyssop, the scholarly druid: “Were you here yesterday?”
Puppy: Standing up and cocking his head, he says, “What’s a yesterday? Is that like playing?”
Hyssop: “No, it’s about what happened the day before this.”
Puppy: “Before this I was napping…”
Hyssop: “No, no. I mean before the sun came up.”
Hyssop: “The light.”
Puppy: “Oh! The thing that gets so warm when Master is done in the fields for the day!”
Hyssop: “No, that’s a hearth fire.”
Puppy: “You know so many things. I like you. Do you like playing?”
Hyssop: “Maybe later…”
Puppy: Sighing. “You sound like Master. He and his mean friends don’t like playing, either. Even though they dig big holes, they won’t let me play with them.”
Hyssop: “Yes! The mean friends! Tell me about them.”
Puppy: “They smell bad. And they don’t play with me.”
Hyssop: “And? Were they here yesterday?”
Puppy: “What’s a yesterday?”
Hyssop: Scrambling for words, she says, “The day before.”
Puppy: Cocking his head, he pauses, thinking very hard. “What’s a day?”
Make sure to give the animals some character. Play with what you know about them, and make clever players come up with ways of bridging the communication divide. This can not only reveal some of your player’s canniness, but can also make such a simple spell truly memorable.
I like that this is a ritual spell. Granted, that means a Ranger can only cast it with a spell slot and taking one action. But if a Bard has it in their repertoire, or a Druid uses a prepared slot on it, this spell doesn’t require a spell slot to use, as long as you give them enough time. Tracking those thieves through the woods? Take 10 minutes and they’ll leave you in the dust. Want to know what Old Man Withers was doing in his backyard last night? Take 10 minutes making friends with that food-obsessed dog next door, and he might give up that, indeed, he was the monster all along. Pesky kids and their talking dogs.
Tell us in the comments some stories of how Speak with Animals has functioned in your games.