Friday, August 19, 2016

The Horse Charge

I am futzing around some in my free time to work on horse charging.  I interupted working on combat rules to go and get a handle on how horses move . . . so updating the charging rules on foot for horses is the next step.

That made me think of my favorite horse charging scene, from 1987's The Lighthorsemen, which I linked to an earlier post on this blog.  Found the link was dead, looked for a new copy of the scene and this time I believe I'll embed it:

I couldn't find a good cut of the scene so I've posted the whole movie.  The relevant scene begins at 1:32:00.

I love this scene.  I love the work that went into it, the pacing, the sheer beauty of the horses running (I think horses are beautiful), the absolute daring of the participants and the scale of the film to cover it to this degree.  It is evident that the director was in love with horses also, from every shot and cut.

If you're willing to watch is, listen in particular to the sound.  The scene is 1917, outside Beersheba in modern day Isreal.  Imagine the beat of the hooves in a 17th century setting or earlier.  The intensity of the wall of flesh moving towards you at the speed they're moving.  The stress, knowing this was coming, would be incredible.

If you watch the horses speeding up, you'll see from the movement of their hooves that they move into a trot, then a canter, then a full gallop.  The moment they change to the gallop is exhilarating, both in appearance and increased sound.  I've watched thousands of movies - and although the overall film is not good, I find this personally one of the most beautiful shots in film.

The horses, you can see, are fighting the bits; that's not filmmaking, that is horses naturally moving together and reacting to the stress themselves. At the start of the charge, the guns judge the distance at 2800 meters.  For us old British system folks, that's one-and-three-quarter miles, or the length of the Royal Ascot horse race, founded in 1711.  The fastest time on that race track is 1 minute, 12.46 seconds.  Double that, even treble that, we're still not talking about much time to load the guns or be steady enough to shoot well.  At one point in the film, the shot shows that the sights have not been reset on the defender's guns - that is supposed to demonstrate that the defenders are shooting too frantically, in too short a time, to properly reset their guns.  Leadership error, to be sure, but there isn't much time for the officer to shout "Cease Fire," then name a distance to reset the guns for, without the sights still being wrong when the order is given to fire.  Finally, what it would look like, from the ground, hearing the horses as they closed in?

The horses, I must mention, would be tired at the end.  Dead tired.  The horses that come to the end of a race are beat by the end of the race, something not much covered in film.  Consider that by the time they come to the end of a charge, how useless they would likely be for battle; they might manage that initial charge . . . but after?  I am considering how to make rules for that.

Cavalry charges - even light horse, in the medieval period - were absolutely devastating.  That's why swords were given up for spears, pikes and pole arms - because there was no chance of surviving the charge without spearing the horse to pieces.  We tend to over-value the importance of the bow because of Crecy and Agincourt - but those were special cases where bowmen were massed.  The real influence on the Cavalry charge, the thing that weakened it in the field, was the Swiss pike - and then, ultimately, the bullet.

In a world without bullets, the only useful weapon to have is a shaft with something pointy on the end.  Pity that more D&D players don't take such weapons as proficiencies.  That, in my world, is likely to change.


Maxwell Joslyn said...

Your point is made. Those are some fast horses.

What rules do you use for setting weapons against a charge?

Alexis Smolensk said...

The rules from AD&D say the following:

"Setting weapons is simply a matter of bracing such piercing weapons as spears, spiked pole arms, forks, glaives, etc., so as to have the butt of the weapon braced against an unyielding surface. The effect of such a weapon upon a charging (or leaping, pouncing, falling or otherwise onrushing) opponent is to cause such opponent to impale itself and take double normal damage if a hit is so scored."

I'm not certain what "otherwise onrushing" means - that seems pretty vague.

I had intended that in my system, the ability to set weapon vs. charge - with the same limitation as that described above - is a sage ability, an amateur one gained from a general puissant skill at arms. With the point system under my sage abilities, every character of 6th level or greater will tend to have an amateur ability in every category available to that particular class.

The skill would state, unequivocably, that the fighter automatically set the spear in that way without the player needing to state it. At the same time, while others might TRY to set the spear, it's presumed that they could do it, but that it wouldn't cause the bonus in damage as described.

Mike said...

"In a world without bullets, the only useful weapon to have is a shaft with something pointy on the end. Pity that more D&D players don't take such weapons as proficiencies. That, in my world, is likely to change. "

Agree whole heartedly!

Besides the usefulness against a charge, I allow players to fend with such pointy weapons, a defensive measure, against those with short pointy weapons. It gives them first attack with bonuses (no matter initiative if they are ready) and the attack needs to "get by" the pointy stick or they can't make an attack.

Mike said...

On rules for how many charges a horse can make under D&D, I'd base it on CON, HD or quality. My thinking is you want most base horses to get 1 charge with the load they were designed for, yet leave it open for PCs and high level NPCs to get superior mounts that could make 2 or 3 charges. HD may be best, they get HD number uncounted, HD-1 lightly mounted (1 person with "light gear" no more than chainmail, or studded & shield), HD-2 number if (2 persons, or 1 person with heavy armor).

You could also apply something like this to aerial mounts conducting dives, the aerial mount equivalent of a charge. But I might halve the aerial mount HD for these purposes as they are generally high compared to horses, and pulling out of a dive is tough with a mangy creature on your back. :)

Of course maybe you have druids or horse clerics on hand to "freshen up" them tired horses after the charge. I think it would be really fun if a druid could talk to animals to "rally" the tired horses for once more unto the charge!

P.S. Using the AD&D Monster Manual to get ideas on HD here.

Oddbit said...

When talking to some folks who do SCA and other re-creational combat, I also hear the spear is actually superior to the sword in another front... You're not threatened by a sword until it's in reach, and the spear has a longer reach. Apparently you're also trained in using the butt to do damage if they get too close for the point.

I can see most of that advantage being lost in tight quarters you encounter in DnD though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

In SCA, there is a tacit agreement not to sharpen the swords to a killing degree nor to deliberately destroy the carefully hand-crafted weapons of fellow participants.

In battle, a well-employed, sharpened sword will cut a clumsily used spear in half.

There is no such thing as a superior weapon, though modern fanboys love spending pixels describing such. Every weapon has a certain kind of value - and in the hands of a skilled person, will ultimately overcome a weapon in the hands of a lesser skilled person.

I was simply making the point that for horses, there is a benefit to a sharp, pointy thing . . . but quick, lively step with a sword will do very well to chop the foreleg of a horse and bring the rider down in an awful heap.