Howling Tower: Mounts

Howling Tower: Mounts

19th-century depiction of a victorious Saladin, by Gustave DoréWhen is the last time one of your characters bothered to own a horse in a D&D game? How long has it been since anyone soared over the mountains on the back of a roc or traversed the underworld on a lizard or giant worm? Has anyone ever even seen a chariot?

Considering the importance of horses, wheels, and beasts of burden in ancient and medieval cultures of the real world, horses and other mounts seem to get short shrift in fantasy games.

Much of the fault lies with game designers who don’t include playable or satisfying rules for fighting while mounted or even for traveling on horseback. Whether that’s because they don’t know much about the subject and don’t want to spend the time on research, they have no interest in it themselves, or for some other reason, who can say?

The lack of Bucephalus, Sleipnir, Hengroen, Pegasus, Widow-maker, and even Bill the Pony is a shame, because a few animals can lift the fantasy quotient, change the tactical picture, and add a fresh element to play.

Horses are the most common mounts, so they are a good place to start. What’s true about them tends to be true of most others, with fantasy creatures ramping up one or another element such as speed, size, carrying capacity, viciousness, or adding a new ability such as flying or fire-breathing.

What does a mount do for characters?

Who’s carrying the tapestry? Over the editions of D&D, the carrying capacity of characters has slowly climbed until characters have become their own pack mules. There’s no good reason for this other than to eliminate the cost of a mule. Treasure can be bulky and difficult to carry. Items such as rugs, statues, gem-encrusted chests, and anything made of gold can be heavy. A good way for DMs to encourage the use of pack animals is to be sure that characters need to carry more than they can carry.

That’s a long way to walk. Like carrying capacity, games tend to overestimate how far people can walk in a day. Horses don’t actually walk much faster than people do, but they have more endurance. Thirty miles a day over untracked terrain would be grueling or impossible for people carrying loads, but horses can manage it for multiple days in a row. They can put out great bursts of speed over short distances and even over long distances if the rider is willing to see the horse drop dead when it reaches the destination.

We’ll catch them now! On the battlefield, horses are much faster than any person. That mobility is one of their chief advantages—an enemy on foot can’t escape the wrath of horsemen, and horsemen can fight or withdraw at their whim when faced only by infantry. If the orcs run, the characters ride them down mercilessly. If the orcs charge, the characters fall back while peppering them with arrows and spells. On a higher level, characters can strike deep into hostile territory, fleeing strong enemies and overwhelming weaker ones with lightning maneuvers.

Fear the horseman. Where players will really appreciate their animals is when they’re crushing orc skulls and spearing orcs in the back from galloping horses. Many games don’t reward horses in combat as much as they should, but that’s a simple fix. Simplicity is, in fact, the key. Give the horseman a reasonable bonus to both attack and defense, and characters will never go anywhere without their mounts. If a trained warhorse can attack on its own, so much the better.

Feel the wonder. Flying horses, burrowing worms, and fast-swimming whales add an element of fantasy that’s hard to get any other way. The sky is the limit when it comes to wondrous modes of travel and fighting.

What’s your tale of adventuring on the back of a horse, camel, or dragon?

19 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Mounts”

  1. Yeah, it’s a bit of a pet peeve for me that most RPGs handle mounts poorly. It *should* be obvious that cavalry and riders kick the infantry around when weapons are all muscle and magic.

    Somehow, the rules rarely reward it, and classes like the cavalier or paladin don’t seem to get the boost you’d think.

    I suspect that the emphasis on indoor and dungeon adventures has a lot to do with it, but in any wilderness adventure, the mounted characters should really shine. Not to mention, they carry off more loot!

  2. Our group used an adult dragon for a few rides. Skeletal horses were once an option but our group chose not to use them.
    The benefits of mounts should indeed be increased and I can think of 2 things to make mounts viable:
    – The terrain should accommodate mounts and make it possible to use them often (for example: a horse in a narrow dungeon is useless).
    – the mount should level with the group, otherwise it can die too easily.

  3. My players are quite fond of the phantom steed 4e ritual, but are now in love with the spined drakes they got after Riuns of the Empire, a Dungeon adventure focused on getting flying dragons under the PCs. We will see how they will keep them alive….

  4. Even when systems make mounts useful and/or necessary for proper portage and travel, there’s still one huge glaring drawback… mounts are almost always easier to hit than you are and die easier than you do, so both both intelligent and hungry foes tend to attack and kill them first.

    Just last Sunday I was in a game where the following happened: “You are awakened by horrible noises. Surprise round… the young dragon kills all your camels.” :/

  5. Got to agree with Yobgod. For many players the problem is the vulnerablity of mounts once they’ve travelled from A to B. How do you protect them while the characters are rooting around in the dungeon for days on end? You either have to have loyal henchmen and/or hirelings to look after the steeds (with enough steel to see off the local predators) or some magical means of protection. I’m not sure what the solution is particularly at lower levels unless it is common practice that horsemen employ grooms or squires in the campaign world that are automatically available for hire when you purchase the steed. I’ve just had an image of Planchet the put upon character played by Roy Kinnear in the Three Musketeers. I’ll offer him up as an NPC to my players and see if they bite.

  6. My entire party was saved from certain death by one of our compatriot’s heavy warhorse in a recent Pathfinder Society game. It was an orcface-kicking machine.

    In the few weeks since then, that character has attempted to take horse into a city sewer, the second and third floor of a mansion, and up a sheer cliff. His plan for that was simply, “ropes!”

    I talk him down. That’s part of my job now.

    It’s all true, what you say, though. I’m Texan, so there’s that, but I do wish that they played a bigger role than they typically do.

  7. I have two players with mounts, a huge mountain ram and giant lizard, both have provided wonderful flavor but neither have seen any battle…..

  8. A game I ran a while ago saw every member of the party with a mount, and several scenes of mounted combat. There was the Fighter on giant spider, the Ranger on her bongo(type of deer) animal companion, the Cleric on a skeletal horse, and the Sorcerer with a phantom steed intelligent magical item.

    On that note, while mounted combat gets very little attention, mounted casting gets no love whatsoever. Anyone got any ideas?

  9. I think mounted casting would not be that advantageous, in that if anything there would be some concentration checks and then a rather hard ride check after you spook you’re Horse with a fireball.

    Ranged combat should get some more love since historically the Huns used cavalry charges to increase the range and damage of their arrows.

  10. I actually blame the focus on dungeons and the lack of mounts survivability in higher levels for the lack of mount uses. However, I love them so much that I look past that.

    In 3.5 there was a way for someone to ride inside of a gelatinous cube and I took advantage of that as a GM. I added a template to the cube to make it tougher and put a sorcerer inside of it. The combination of potion effects and a spellcaster made the encounter overwhelming and the party almost didn’t make it.

    I am currently playing a small sized witch, and his mount has allowed him to do so much more that I really, really want to find a way to keep the mount alive in higher levels. A medium sized mount can go into almost any part of a dungeon, and is strong enough to carry a large amount of gear.

    There needs to be some way to easily make mounts tougher without causing a paladin’s or cavalier’s mount to be trivial. To be honest, just more HP would be a big step but special magical items just for mounts would also go a long way.

  11. Charles Lee Carrier

    Vulnerability is certainly a big part of the problem. In real life, even a poor-quality horse is still way tougher than an elite (“high level”) soldier. In FRPG’s this is absolutely not the case.

    Quick off-the-cuff rule: We know the many hit points of a high-level character are largely a measure of luck and divine favor. There is no reason this luck and favor can’t extend to the character’s mount (provided the mount is a normal animal – supernatural creatures like dragons have their own luck and favor). So if a 100hp fighter mounts up on a 15hp horse, the horse gains 100 temporary hit points. Same thing goes for saving throws; if the character makes it, so does the mount.

    Quick in-game justification for this rule: We already know that a character’s hit points protect the character’s clothing. How do we know that? Consider this – if a low-damage spell like burning hands is enough to turn a normal peasant (including his shirt) into a pile of smoked sausage, shouldn’t a high-damage spell like fireball be even more destructive? Yet when was the last time a 10HD fireball left your high-level group naked? If an 80hp cleric can brush off a fireball spell, and if the cleric’s delicate less-than-one-hp silk mantle can brush off the fireball spell, then so can the cleric’s 15hp horse.

  12. I know many players who would consider the damage-absorbing ability of horses to be a major bonus. My preference for D&D-style games is to treat the horse and rider as a single entity with combined hit points and the rider’s AC. After combat ends, damage can be divided between them proportionally.

    Some games do handle this well. I played many enjoyable sessions of The Fantasy Trip, for example, with Arthurian knights slaughtering highway bandits, ogres, giants, and each other with lance and sword from horseback. An excellent horse was one of a character’s most prized possessions, and you’d take great risks to preserve it. Characters would flee from enemies to save their warhorses before they’d flee to save themselves, even though the horses were seldom the ones in most danger.

  13. Horses tend to die in my d&d games but at least they’re being used. In my current Savage Worlds sword & sorcery campaign warhorses are terrific beasts that can easily kill grown men. Currently only one character has had the money/background to get one but I’m sure the party will get beastly black stallions as soon as they see the party’s hellknight on one murdering scores of enemies.

    I think the best way to get players excited about animals is to give them a lot of agency with the animal and a clear identity for the beast. The players can decide the name, the color and they get to roll the hp and maybe a quirk or special ability for the creature.

    In D&D the stats should be easy to remember too – maybe just one line.
    E.g. Murderhoof, AC 15, hp 13, hooves +5 (1d6+3), saves+2, horsery+5 is enough for a 3.x horse.

  14. In my (ssh) Rolemaster campaign, my players mined two forms of favorite transports (a third being the pricey use of Navigators who specialize in long-range mass-teleports). One has getting their elementally-specialized Magician to summon mounts composed of Elemental Wind (Air-Fire) bound to the players. They tended to be obvious and noisy, but they were marsupial fast. :)

    The other was a relatively simple mage (from Companion II for those who recall it) called Flying Disk. A simple circle of force that could carry a goodly weight for an hour or so. You could cast those Disks within frameworks and voila create flying “Diskcraft.” Both were fun and lead to hundreds of miles being consumed as the PCs flitted about across the continent and beyond.

  15. I started DMing again about a month ago. We’re playing 4e and loving it, doing more roleplaying than combat. I wanted to give the characters a world they would feel familiar in (greyhawk, but 300 years later) and NPC’s they would grow attached to — a completely re-populated Hommlet. When they first heard about the dragon Grolsch, some members were ready to split. How could I better anchor them to their world?

    We spent the beginning of one session describing the geography of the country as they knew it, using the big old Greyhawk boxed set map from the 1980’s. Then I gave them a HORSE CHARACTER SHEET and some crayons. It was a big hit and the lone magic user (gnome warlock) in the group has a somewhat aberrant magical horse that does things like munch on small mammals while grazing at night. The gnome is planning to go back to IUZ to find out what’s wrong with his “horse”.

    I’ve now had the enemy attack their horses twice (lizardfolk, gnoll’s hyenas). Yes they have a rapport with their horse, but also walking sucks. I expect they’ll all spring for some barding to help their horse’s AC when they get back in town to see the blacksmith, or perhaps shell out some $ for warhorses somewhere down the line.

  16. In 3.5 games I run I always look for ways to include mounted combat. It’s true that for PC’s the drawbacks are a horses hit points, but more often I think that once magic like teleport and wind walk (a 4th level cleric spell that allows the entire group to fly at 60mph and lasts for hours) a horse then becomes a burden… “I can teleport the entire group to the dungeon? I guess we won’t need the horses.” As a GM this problem is far more difficult to resolve.

  17. My group has a fascination with llamas, for some reason. Wherever they go, and they might find treasure, about five llamas come along, not counting the cleric’s heavenly llama, the warlock’s fey llama, the wizard’s magic llama, the fighter’s war llama, and the rogue’s flying llama. Even the paladin’s find steed spell summons… a celestial llama.

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