The Weekly Noun: Pets!
The opening episode of The Weekly Noun breaks free of the leash, covering characters and their pets. You don't need a license to read this column, and always feel free to adopt these stray ideas into your gaming sessions. The Weekly Noun is guaranteed housebroken.
Welcome to the Weekly Noun! Each week, I'll present a new, suitably system-nonspecific character (PERSON), location (PLACE), or item (THING) for incorporation into a session or your campaign. Usually, I'll highlight something that will work in more than one genre, but when too mood strikes me, I'll alienate most of my readers and go for something very specific: One week, a weird alien race. Next week, an abandoned ghost town. Week after, a strange engineered disease.
And now, after a quick spin on the Wheel of Nouns...
Pets. You heard me. Dogs, cats, ferrets, trained apes, Tamagotchi, certain species of nonsentient bugbears, cybernetic watchdolphins, ghosts, horses, talking fish, cursed frogs, animated dolls, shoulder dragons, and the soon-to-be-classic pet roc. Studies show that most people (in that place known as the Real World) have pets already, or want a pet of some kind. Old ladies collect cats, young coeds get large dogs, the quirky convince their friends to snake-sit. What the hell does this have to do with your game?
Every single character in a game (PC or NPC) knows or is someone who has or wants a pet. In some games, this could be a liability (GURPS: Dependent, say a rare carnivorous plant) or an asset (Deadlands: Animal companions from Rascals, Varmints & Critters). Sometimes, it's neither- just a different accessory for a character to show off to their elite guests (Cyberpunk: Artificial pets, ChromeBook 3).
Basic pet-centric plots include the famous missing pet cliche (get your players together with a different sort of job), the search for an exotic pet by a wealthy socialite (just who trains miniature horses, anyway?), a PC could easily covet a pet displayed by an NPC (shall we go hawking this afternoon?), and espionage.
Espionage? After all, pets are below second-class citizens, and the law doesn't often hold animals for questioning. In a game where psionics are a reality, an animal witness could make or break a spectacular courtroom drama. Common mechanical bugging is also a possibility, as collars on less than human-sized animals are more than adequate to hold a small datachip and recording device.
Here's a few quickie uses for pets in different genres:
Horror: The town's blind beggar recently picked up an animal companion. Luckily for him, fewer people bother him about his sorry state of affairs, and he doesn't have two mouths to feed now. Unluckily, the unspeakable creature that sits faithfully by his side has taken a significant chunk out of his daily income..
Fantasy: How many manner of creatures have animal intelligence? Like dogs, cats, and cows, various beasts in your world may have value, once they're domesticated. Giant insects may become a food source, high society will have their own ideas on the desirability of exotic pets, molds or jellies could be turned to simple industrial projects, and many heros have ridden pegasi or griffins. Even undead skeletons could become simple pack animals, turning a mill wheel.
Spacefaring: Live pets eat into the most valuable of all resources- air. This sort of restriction allows pets in a renewable, sustainable environment only, such as a colony ship or a permanent station. Artificial pets with minimal AI or expert systems would take the place of live animals, with a need only for batteries. With a sophisticated enough computer system, digital "pets" are nonhuman companions, providing a different sort of entertainment for their keepers and owners.
Comedy: In this sort of game, pets usually appear as GM-controlled sidekicks. Missing pets provide all sorts of hijinks, as Ace Ventura demonstrated all those years ago.
Like most any game element, it's vital not to let pets overrun your entire game. You don't want your Call of Cthulhu game to become an episode of Lassie- but that's more of an issue of keeping your mood intact.