In D&D, many animals, even tiny animals like rats, have stats. That means they have statistics for Armor Category, base attack (or THAC0), STR, DEX, etc. They even give you experience points in case you go on a cat or cow-killing rampage.
[Unless you use these stats, of course, in wich case you are screwed. Watch our for those “Thunderous moos”]
Well, I think that’s ridiculous. Most animals shouldn’t have general stats, and the smallest animal that should have any sort of combat attributes should be something like a big dog or a wolf-like creature.
Why did I say “general” stats? Because they could have event or encounter-specific attributes or, more precisely, skill or stat checks. I’ll explain this in a second, but first, let me tell give you an example of how ridiculous it is for small animals to have combat stats, as if they were random monsters that fight on sight and to the death (not even monsters do that, though, but Morale and Encounter Reaction are some of the first rules to be ignored.)
Swordflight is a brilliant mod for an otherwise “meh” game (Neverwinter Nights.) The mod is excellent, but something that irked me when I first played it was that it has rats. You know, the standard rats-in-the-cellar quest.
At the beginning, the owner of the inn where you start sends you to fight some rats that have, of course, infested the basement. There’s an interesting twist to that, and it’s a nice first quest to see where and at what Swordflight shines, but it also has the problem that, well, those freaking rats are ninjas.
Yes, you are not seeing an error, the rats have a +5 base attack. Why? I have no idea, but I guess it’s because they are small, they are flanking me, and, according to D&D 3E rules, they have the Finesse Attack feat. To understand the magnitude of what that means, remember that a chainmail gives you +5 to your AC, which means a rat is skilled enough to nullify the effect of wearing a goddam chainmail suit. You know those divers who wear chainmail suits to protect themselves from shark attacks? Well, that stuff is useless against the mighty power of a rodent bite.
And Finesse Attack? Sure, why not, a rat trying to bite your ankles is like a professional fencer. As I mentioned in that post about Strength, that’s ridiculous. How can a rat attack you using “finesse”? And why would a rat charge towards you and attack you anyway? A rat would only try to bite you if you grasp it. Not to mention that at level 1 you can easily die from a few lucky, or not so lucky, rat bites like those, which is utterly ridiculous. If you are mage, you’ll probably have to use spells to kills a few annoying rodents.
[Note: I should mention that -unlike other video games- in that encounter rats do not attack you on sight, which is a nice detail. They only become hostile when you attack them.]
In fact, you can easily die in that Swordflight encounter because there are a LOT of rats, and they all have an absurdly high base attack modifier. A thousand rats like that and you could conquer a city. Note that they are not “giant mutated men-killing rats” (they look giant, but that’s because you wouldn’t see them on the game screen otherwise,) just “rats.”
Something a little less extreme but also similar happened to me years ago during a Baldur’s Gate playthrough. As usual, I was roleplaying a psychotic gnome (Neutral Evil, steals everything, attacks almost everything and everybody, behaves like a lunatic, etc.) so I naturally went to the warehouse with the rat problem and did the logical thing: killed the rats, and then started a fight with the useless and traitorous cats. What happened? Well, I was a mage, so I naturally sucked at fighting, and the freaking cats (two of them) almost killed me. One scored a critical hit (-2 hp, I think) so I ended with 1 hp remaining. If the cats had been luckier, the Child of Bhaal, Lord of Murder, would have died there, killed by two felines.
It doesn’t even make sense for such small animals to have any combat stats because the damage they do is insignificant for roleplaying purposes. 1 hp of damage is NOT a scratch, 1hp of damage is what a dagger can do. Or a sword, for that matter. As dmdr pointed out, it was possible for a player character to have 1hp in D&D first edition. If we assume that a cat scratch or a rat bite deals 1hp of damage, that would mean that any normal human (commoner stats) would die after 4 o so cat scratches.
Why give them stats then, if not only are they useless but misleading?
My solution or proposal is this one: At most, many animals should only have a few attributes regarding their status as possible prey or predators (how difficult it would be to catch them, their hiding and spoting skills, etc.) For everything else, I think animals should be used as skill cheks, almost as if they were traps.
For example, instead of making someone fight a diseased rat, make him roll a DEX or Reflex check to represent him triying to avoid the rat that has suddenly appeared from behind a few old, rotten boxes. If he fails, he gets bitten and has to roll a Fortitude Check.
Another example would be a swarm of bats. You don’t need to give stats to any swarm, just a skill check to try to scare it. Using a torch could give you a bonus, for example. Now, I don’t know what skill or Stat should be used, and in fact it may depend on what the character is trying to do (scare it, “fight” it, avoid it, hide from it?) but I think that would be much more interesting than “fighting” a bunch of bats using Finesse and Surprise Attack.
That would also give an interesting challenge to high-level characters. Most animals are just fodder for low-level characters, but if poisonous rats, snakes, spiders, or swarms of other beasts are skill or stat checks, they could still be a good and refreshing challenge for an 8th level fighter.
My proposal is this, to give difficulty checks and simple skills to represent these situations:
-Tracking the beast.
-Hiding from it
-Fleeing from it
-Dodging it (like a stampede of ramming bulls)
They don’t need to be standardized, though. They work basically like traps or obstacles, so you can create your own.