[RPG] Controlling animal companion in first round of combat


I am a novice player who recently started playing D&D 3.5 with a group (who are also novices).
In the game I am a druid, and this question relates to using the animal companion in combat.
As we understand it, the druid needs to command her companion with a handle animal check.
This check is a free action when commanding the animal to perform a trick it knows.

I roll initiative for both my own character and the animal companion. If the druid goes first
then she can command the animal in her turn, but what if the animal companion goes first?
Does the animal have to act on its own because the druid cannot command it to do anything, or what happens in this situation?

Possible ways this could work out:

  1. The animal companion acts out of instinct in the first round, essentially giving control to the DM.
  2. The animal companion delays in the first turn until the druid gets her turn and can command it.
  3. The druid is able to command the animal companion even if it acts before the druid.

For now we have used option 1, but we are not sure that this is the correct way to deal with the situation.
As the player, obviously I would prefer 2 or 3 so I can control the companion in the first round.

Does anybody know the correct way to handle this situation?

Best Answer

The Rules

The rules don't address this in much detail. Strictly speaking, the animal is an independent, intelligent creature and should have its own initiative. That means it's going to act on its own in the absence of a Handle Animal command. The DM gets to determine what that means.

As you noted, this is no problem if you get to go before the animal does. If the animal goes first, it can be annoying.

Why That Sucks

Most games I've played in (including the one I'm DMing right now) don't handle it that way. I find that players find the extra initiatives confusing, get unhappy when the DM has the animal do something before the player can react, and so on. You've got what is essentially a powerful class feature that you can command, except in this edge case at the start of combat where sometimes you can command it and sometimes you can't.

The people I play with love consistency, and that edge case is inconsistent.

Solving It

We solved that annoyance in two ways:

  1. Tell the DM a "default" command that you're giving the companion while you're not in combat. As it's a free action you can just keep doing it while you're wandering around town/the dungeon/whatever and have it continuously in effect. Normal ones are Heel (The animal follows you closely, even to places where it normally wouldn’t go) and Defend (The animal defends you (or is ready to defend you if no threat is present), even without any command being given). Which one depends on if you want the animal to attack something automatically if you get attacked, or to just follow and wait for your command. This removes the inconsistency, as at least the DM now knows that 6 seconds ago you told the animal to Heel in the last round, and it should probably keep doing that until you get a chance to react.
  2. House Rule - Animal Companions always start on the same initiative as their PC. Not strictly necessary, but as it makes things simple and consistent, the people I play with like it.
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