Wednesday, November 25, 2020

My Kingdom for a Horse

I've always been fond of the illustration above; it's by Bill Willingham and appears in the Cook/Marsh D&D Expert Rulebook. Aside from its esthetic virtues – seeing two fully armored combatants, complete with helms has always been appealing to me – what I liked most about it was the suggestion that fighting from horseback conveyed advantages against an enemy on foot. The problem, unfortunately, is that, aside from a few sentences about lance combat, which requires charging from 20 or more yards away, there's no mention of mounted combat in the Expert Rulebook whatsoever. More is said about aerial combat than is said about mounted combat (though, again, it's not a great deal). 

Sadly, AD&D isn't much better on this matter. I don't believe it was until the publication of Unearthed Arcana in 1985 that we even get suggestions of rules for mounted combat and, even then, the rules offered would seem to apply exclusively to the cavalier class. According to UA, cavaliers are treated as one level higher for combat purposes while mounted. There is also some discussion regarding the characteristics of warhorses too, but it has very little in the way of rules and mostly focuses on the sizes of the various breeds. I find this disappointing, since the image of knights fighting from horseback is deeply ingrained in my imagination and I've long wanted to see mounted combat given its due.

My recent experience with historical wargaming has probably played a part in reviving my interest in the topic. Horses were used in warfare for more than three thousand years, right up until World War I more or less made them obsolete. Is it any surprise then that I'd start to think more about this subject? The difficulty, as is so often the case, is that, when all is said and done, I'm not entirely what I want out of "proper" mounted combat rules or indeed whether I'd even make regular use of them. My experience to date has been that most RPG session, to the extent that mounts come up at all, think of horses more as vehicles for getting from place to place than as engines of war. That's completely understandable, especially in games that involve subterranean exploration and similar activities where horses would prove unwieldy. Still, I don't think it's unreasonable to give this matter some thought.

If you have experience of such, what RPGs have good rules for mounted combat? I know, for example, that the most recent edition of Chaosium's RuneQuest includes rules for both ranged and melee combat from horseback, as well as using polearms against charging cavalry. Free League's Forbidden Lands contains some very brief rules but the focus in that game, as in so many, is on mounts as a means of traveling from place to place rather than their potential use in combat. I find myself wondering if mounted combat is one of those things that, while important historically, was left behind as roleplaying games became less indebted to their wargames roots.


  1. Weirdly enough, D&D 5e has provided the best mounted combat I've experienced in an RPG, and that is mostly due to improved mobility in a heavily position-dependent game.

  2. These are the rules I wrote for my Majestic Fantasy RPG.

    Mounted Combat
    Mounted Combat is an important aspect of fighting outside the dungeon. A mounted warrior has greatly enhanced mobility, speed, and strength compared to the foot soldier. As the centuries roll on techniques will be developed by massed troops to effectively counter the mounted warrior but in the interim the fighting man on horse is the lord of the battlefield.

    When fighting from horseback the following rules are in effect.
    • When the mounted fighting man moves more than ½ move towards his target he is considered charging.
    • Automatically wins initiative if charging. If charging mounted fighting men are present on both sides initiative is diced first among those charging followed by everyone else.
    • Gains a favored attack roll to hit any target on foot
    • Any target on foot is hindered on his attack roll to hit the horseman.
    • If charging the mounted fighting man gets to +2 to his damage on a successful hit on any weapon.
    • If the weapon is a lance and the wielder attacks while charging he has the option of doubling the lance’s damage to 4d4+2. When this option is use the lance has to make a saving throw of 15 or better or it be shattered. Knights will do 8d4+2 damage.
    • On a charge, the rider may opt to do a knockdown. The horse will slam into the target instead of a rider’s weapon attack. If successful the target is knocked prone and must make a favored roll for his saving throw versus paralyzation or be knocked unconscious. Damage is 1d10.

    The horse can attack separately from the mounted fighting man.
    • The horse may not attack if charging. Note the charging knockdown attack is an exception.
    • The horse can only attack a target on foot.
    • If a person on foot attacks the horse on the rider’s shield side then the horse gains the rider’s shield bonus.
    • If you track rations a horse requires rations equal to that of an individual character. The referee may rule that if the party is in a fertile region with grass then horse requires only half of the rations an individual needs.
    Some of this is my own observation. But most of it resulted from a discussion on Knights and Knaves about mounted combat in OD&D and Chainmail.

    So I went through all the rules I could find, edited for clarity and rewrote them into a coherent whole.

    If you don't like advantage or disadvantage then sub in a +4 or -4 which is what I use in my first version.

  3. Well I am an idiot. You have a copy of my mounted combat rules. Check out page 67 of my Majestic Wilderlands supplement.

    1. I'll take a look. I'd completely forgotten about these rules, so a reminder is welcomed.

  4. I don't think I'd agree with that assessment of Forbidden Lands. It's got an entire profession (eg class) called the Rider whose exclusive talent trees revolve around getting more out their mount, and two of those three trees make the mount or rider much, much more dangerous than any footman - but they have the realistic limitation that they can't be used at all in confined spaces, which makes Riders rather a narrow choice compared to (say) Fighters. Even less focused characters on a warhorse (or wolf, or maybe bear if you feel like being exotic) are more dangerous than they would be on foot simply because they all have pretty good stats. You need the Animal Handling skill to control and heal your mount, but that's hardly surprising - and because of the attribute its tied to, characters who are really good at Animal Handling are often a bit lacking in personal combat skills.

    That said, there's some mind-boggling gaps in teh rules in that game. Notably, there's nothing on the subject of taking and avoiding damage when your mount is slain underneath you, something that was the doom of an awful lot of cavalrymen over the millenia. A game that doesn't allow for you being pinned and crippled under your dead horse isn't doing its job right.

    1. You're right about the Rider and I feel foolish for having forgotten about it (probably because no one in my current campaign plays the class).

  5. Strange pull, but Emmy Allen's Dolorous Stroke has rules for horse combat that I like a lot. It IS a miniature wargame, but they're pretty easy to port into RPGs with minimal fiddling.

  6. Chivalry & Sorcery has always addressed mounted combat and it's advantages, although the biggest advantage comes from chivalric characters being much better trained than your average peasant or yeoman.

  7. FGU's Chivalry and Sorcery had rules governing the joust, before i say more i'll have to unearth my copy and see what it says.

  8. WhiteBox has rules for jousting as well--not sure how well these track with OD&D rules, but I found them interesting at least.

  9. IMO the main rule needed for warhorse combat is that either mount or rider can attack, not both. Getting your horse to attack needs to be your action/attack for that round. Otherwise I don't see much need for rules; there are a lot of advantages & disadvantages to mounted vs infantry that tend to fall below the threshold of worth dealing with.

  10. The more I've read about historic cavalry and its use the less inclined I am to add much in the way of rules. The major advantage seems to have been increased mobility and (at times) intimidation...the latter based on formation, opponent, and tactic (there's a difference between a flank charge at peasant levies and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," you know?). An individual horseman was especially vulnerable if surrounded by foot soldiers...and horses are fairly fragile creatures, both physically and mentally. You can just treat any horse as a bred/trained warhorse!

    I'd guess the main reason you don't see many rules for horse combat in early editions is the inconvenience associated with taking one into dungeons (and the assumption of that style of play). They're more useful as a means of transportation.

  11. Try the Wilderness Survival Guide, pp. 86-7.