Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Pony

My party made my machinations unnecessary last Saturday, which I thought rather marvelous. Instead of continuing to flee from the gnolls pursuing them, the ranger tracked the mastodon back to its origin, miraculously passing through the various hunting parties and arriving at a “barn” where two other mastodons were being kept in reserve.

Then, while the rest of the party slaughtered the “stable boys” and the two riders, the 80-lb. female elven ranger managed to climb aboard one of the mastodons and get it under control.

Which gives me an opportunity to talk about mounts and animals.

The question has come up from time to time, just how hard is it to ride a mastodon, oliphant, hippogriff, griffin, pegasus and so on? In the case of some intelligent animals, such as a dragon or unicorn, it is obviously a case that if the mount is compliant, riding is a breeze. But what if the mount isn’t compliant?

I’ve been playing with a rather loose system, which worked brilliantly the other day, so I feel confident enough to outline it here. The system for riding an unwilling animal is simply a base chance with a load of modifiers. Before I begin, the premise here is that any potentially domesticated animal can be eventually controlled—and because its D&D, the same can be said for a non-domesticated animal, such as a bear, zebra, giant owl, what have you…so long as the creature is at least of animal intelligence.

The base chance is 90%. I’ll list the modifiers below:

And it’s that simple. At first glance, it may occur to some of you that the table doesn’t work: the percentage chance of success in many cases is much too low. So I’ll just point out that the attempt to control the animal may be made every round, regardless of previous failure.

That means that if a first level thief wants to attempt to break a wild horse, the chance may be only 5%…but as long as he’s prepared to be thrown, he will eventually succeed.

In the case of the ranger and the mastodon, the base chance was 45%…once the ranger was in the saddle. Because of the size of the beast, and the general mayhem going on around it, the ranger had to make a dex check (at –4) to seize the saddle and another (no modifier) to get into the saddle. Once there, the ranger had a 45% chance of getting the beast under control (the mastodon had 12 HD; the ranger is 7th level; -25% modifier).

An additional rule I use is that if the roll is 40% above that needed to control, the animal lies down in order to get rid of its rider or otherwise the rider loses his grip and is thrown. In this case, the ranger would have had to jump free if a roll of 86-00 was made.

Meanwhile, the ranger did get the beast under control, after about four rounds. What then?

Having an animal under control only means that it has stopped fighting back. It doesn’t mean that it will automatically obey. I play so that you could move the animal in a direction, but if you want to do anything tricky, well…

The ranger decided to use the mastodon to trample one of the pesky gnolls who was proving to be hard to kill. To succeed, I again invoked the same 45% chance…which the ranger failed…which meant again she had to get the animal under control, involving another successful 45% roll. And so on.

Now, this made for some hilarity.

In the end, the ranger never did get back into the combat. The mastodon threw the ranger off…which turned out to be not a bad thing.

The party includes two players able to speak with animals. The sixth level monk can do so automatically, while the 8th level druid has the spell. Following the death of the last gnoll, the mastodon was reasoned with…whereupon I threw the luckiest reaction roll possible. (I think I said before that I throw most of my dice in the open where they can be seen). The result on 3d6 was 18. Complete fanatical approval.

Having “rescued” the mastodon from its former owners, the party began to make its way towards the Ural Mountains. I promptly gave a +15% chance for the ranger to succeed in controlling the beast (I would have given more, but the ranger can’t speak with animals). So with 60%, the mastodon won’t throw the ranger, but the ranger still might not be able to make the mastodon do what she wants.

A control roll is pretty much necessary for any command other than “forward.” But with each successful control roll, I grant a +1% chance of further success. If the mastodon could be gotten into an enclosed corral, where it could be fed and trained, I’d simply eliminate the chance for control and call it automatic. However, since the party is still stumbling onward through the wilderness, I’m restricting matters this way.

My next point on the matter would be the mastodon’s “morale.” I give all animals a morale number between 3 and 12, which must be equaled or bettered on 2d6 whenever the animal is placed into a position of stress.

Let us say you have a war dog, which you just bought from the local menagerie (pet store). Typically, I give the morale for said purchases as “9”…to account for the animal’s general training.

You get into combat with your dog. Your dog jumps in and fights for you…until the dog receives a single point of damage. Whereupon you must make morale check—or the dog runs.

Each time you succeed in a morale check, the moral of the dog drops 1 point. This is the manner in which I increase the overall loyalty of whatever animal you might have, until the animal’s morale is 3. Except in some unusual circumstance, the morale will never drop below 3 (snake eyes always scares the animal).

For the ranger, given the situation, I would set the morale at 12. Because the mastodon has already proved its willingness to be fanatic, I dropped this automatically to 11. Again, I could have lowered it more, but they are in a vast wilderness, the mastodon has never been ridden by an elf, the mastodon has only seen elves as enemies (gnolls and elves have a long blood feud) and so far, the mastodon is unsure of this strange group of human/dwarven/gnome/elven characters. Besides, 11 over 12 triples the chance for a successful morale roll.

The player is wildly happy about it. She doesn’t care that the mastodon won’t be a huge combat asset for quite awhile, because she’s been talking about getting an elephant or oliphant since starting the character and now her dream has come true. This was why she broke convention and headed back into the army of gnolls…the party being enormously agreeable.

And it has worked out. The mastodon, which the party can communicate with, has been able to guide the party over the difficult muskeg-and-small lake terrain to the foothills of the Urals; its massive hulk is a tremendous benefit in breaking the deep snow for the members of the party, and for aiding in the provision of shelter during those hours when the mage’s Leomund’s secure shelter isn’t in existence (lasts only an hour a level).

As such, the party has been able to more easily reach the upper foothills and endure the numbing –30 degree temperatures (it is now the middle of November); what’s more, since the druid can change shape, he too can become a mastodon (admittedly, a smaller one, limited by no animal more than 8 HD) and between the two of them they hope to breast the high passes through the Urals where the temperatures are sure to be a brutal –60 degrees with wind chill.

Twas a brilliant gambit that has paid off very well. I don’t even mind that the ranger has decided to name the mastodon “Pony.”

Update: the first two modifiers on the table should read, "+10%."

A few other notes occur to me. You might notice that the table given means that a first level fighter might have trouble with a medium or heavy warhorse. A medium warhorse, for example, with 3+3 hit dice, would be a –10% modifier for the level of the fighter, or (90+10 for horse-10 for level) a 90% chance. This is not to say the fighter couldn’t ride the horse; if you’re familiar with the early scene of Eastwood attempting to mount the horse at the beginning of Unforgiven, that might give you some idea. Which could prove interesting if the horse decides to act stubbornly just as the fighter desperately needs to get going.

If a flying mount throws a rider, the rider is quite likely dead. I once had a horse take off at a gallop, then stop dead, throwing me into a fence. Imagine a pegasus dropping towards the ground like a stone, then throwing its wings out at the last moment and pulling up. Gravity.

Finally, you might consider a modifier for particularly fractious animals. Horses are well known for various “tricks” to dump riders, such as stepping under an eave before bucking or diving into a creek. Intelligence would be a big factor with a pegasus, unicorn, dragon or similar mount.


KenHR said...

Sounds like a great session. I've added your animal control system to my rules miscellany file...it'll come in handy one day, I'm sure.

Randolph said...


Forgive my ignorance but which ruleset do you use for your game basis? I'm going to steal your wonderful riding system as well by the way!