I have to ask myself from time to time: is there a point where the game I'm designing becomes too gritty, too much for the players to manage, too much for me to manage. At what point should I stop adding rules, knowing that there are just so many rules that a person can keep in their head.
Of late, one of my grittier players expressed a 'concern' about the proposed horse rules. There was a definite feel of ". . . erm, maybe this is more than what is needed . . ."
I should warn the reader; this is going to be one of those posts where I look at something from a bunch of potentially negative angles and then decide not to change because I don't want to change. That really is the truth. There's no point lying about it.
I admit, however, when one of my strongest players shows hesitation, that's a sign. That is a moment for introspection.
On the recent poll that I ran, that I've just taken down, about a quarter of the participants tagged the choice, "why would anyone want this?" I added that to the poll because it is a fair question. Why would anyone want this, why would I want this?
A central part of the rules proposal is this: that when the player wants to ride their horse at the enemy, or along a road, or up into the hills above the road, the usual statement that the player will make would be, "I ride my horse at the enemy." "We ride to the next town." "We head up into the mountains." The last would probably make no reference to the horses in the party's possession at all.
Usually, when the party is in a town and wants to buy some horses, the players say, "We want to buy some horses."
Simple. Direct. The way the game has always operated.
My rules would propose the following statements for the player to make when riding: "I gallop at the enemy." "We trot our horses along the road." "We amble our horses off the road and over the hill paths."
My rules would propose the following statements to be made when buying horses: "I want a good pacer. I want a foxer that does well off road. I'm not a rider; I want a quiet 9-year-old that doesn't have much spirit."
When players usually ride a horse into battle, they usually say, "I ride my horse at the enemy," accepting that when they get there, they get there. No fuss.
My rules would propose that the character plan the speed of the horse, that they choose to trot until they get to such-and-such a distance, then they dare to canter, then they kick the horse into a gallop, hoping they haven't done it too late or too early, hoping that their timing on their charge isn't off so that they're stuck three hexes in front of the enemy when the enemy gets to let loose with a volley of crossbows at perfect range.
I can see the problem. The first time the players try it, they'll probably screw it up. They'll probably feel overwhelmed by the rules and the finicky nature of it and get confused about the difference between a canter and a trot. They'll judge the field wrong or miscount or find themselves at the slamming end of a cavalry charge that I mount at them without making the mistakes they'll make. They'll lose a lot of hit points and feel that they've been screwed by rules they had no part in deciding upon, and hate the horse rules because these will stop letting horses be, well, non-entities.
Let me step back and consider a different variant. I played a number of modern RPGs once upon a time, spy games, future games, auto games and so on, where cars were involved. The cars raced around the track and never once in any of those games was the player asked to say when the car would be shifted out of first gear or into third. We would just say that we make the car go faster, always describing the experience in numbers - numbers of miles/km per hour or numbers of hexes between the where we were and the corner. We were never "in the car." Like with most games, D&D included, all these things were decidedly meta-gamed, from God's point of view, where there was time to count the distance between the car and the wall and divide it by the distance per second, then measure the angle of the turn needed in the time left over to make the turn without hitting the wall.
This is most games. Either the images and the squares are obvious, like chess pieces, or they're represented in such abstract terms that distance or timing means nothing at all. I played many games where I would say to the players, "Ogg is moving towards you, he's close enough to shoot an arrow without penalties at if you want. Derek the Fighter is closer, if he wants to run in with a weapon, he's close enough to melee. No, Gareth is too far away for an axe throw, unless you want -5 to the die roll. Yes, the mage can cast a magic missile easily." And so on. Such games are not tactical, they're not complicated with movements and angles and line-of-sight; and they are totally dependent on the DM's whim as to who can swing or shoot or cast what spell within what range at which opponent.
Which is why I moved away from them.
There is a legitimacy to those who call for less rules, or at least for a ceiling on present rules, because it does seem easier to have God's point of view and be able to see horses as very easy to manage, interchangeable vehicles that enable the players to move faster between towns and between enemy combatants. The more that horses operate like hover-boards without rules, the less clutter there is on a battlefield and that is a good thing.
This does not keep creators from inventing hundreds of different styles of weapon or armors, mostly because these all work like a hammer to some extent and go on like a jacket. Horses are complicated. They're difficult to relate, because most players have never, ever been on a horse. Or, at best, they have been on a trail ride, not maneuvering their horse but instead acting as part of a train, on an animal that is trained to train. Most have never actually operated their own horse, have never cantered, wouldn't know what a canter was if they were actually moving at one and couldn't care less.
Asking a player to describe their actions driving a car, saying that they're pressing on the gas pedal or turning the wheel or changing gears seems way too gritty for players who'd rather just look down on the car like God or imagine the car as an abstract - and this for people who drive cars every day, who know from experience how much it matters to touch a gas pedal just so much or turn a wheel just so much. Driving is a visceral experience and that sort of thing can't be captured - it is supposed - in an RPG.
People know cars and they don't want that. People don't know horses; that makes it a hundred times worse.
What is the value, then, in wanting any such rules for horses?
For me, it makes the horse real. It matters what horse a player picks to buy. It matters because this horse potentially goes faster than that horse, in a way that will matter when the battle plays out. It matters because the player has a level of horse skill that lets them do things with a horse that other players can't do. It matters because the horse itself becomes a treasure, an acquisition, a cherished thing that can be taught additional skills - because we've defined skills and details for horses that can be tweaked, adjusted, played with, overcome, used as a defect or exploited as a measure of some special injury or obstacle that will matter where it comes to the players achieving the end of an adventure. The player tried for this and the horse is tired. The player tried to make the horse do something it wasn't trained to do and now the horse's leg is broken. The player bred the horse, trained the horse, taught it to be a warhorse, rode the horse in a dozen battles and now the horse is dead. All because we have rules for these things.
There are no rules for horses in most books. And what books do have rules don't talk about the horses themselves; they talk about charging, hit points, how fast a horse can go, how much does a horse cost and so on. Nothing whatsoever about what makes a horse a horse.
All of which makes the horse a very dull, easily ignored part of the game. And that is what I have seen players do for thirty plus years. Ignore their horses. Hand them over to just anyone, because it doesn't matter; if this horse dies, we'll just plug another into its place, because all horses are the same. No horse is special. We wouldn't know how to make one special if we wanted to, because there are no rules for that. No one took the time.
There are hundreds and hundreds of other parts of D&D that are exactly the same. We're not talking about the difference between complicated rules and simple rules, we're talking about no rules vs. any rules. My only answer to that is to keep making up new rules and to hope, seriously, that the wiki can keep them all straight and organized so that when I want to look up the many odd things that players may want to do in my world, I will have at least the basis for giving them all the dimension on that thing that they could wish for.
Sometimes, yes, it means they're going to have to canter their horse rather than ride their horse. But you know, that's going to pay off in the long term - because when they meet the girl or boy of their dreams, and it turns out that person loves horse-riding or equestrianism, our D&D player is going to come off as much less of a moron . . . in fact, it's good public relations, because he or she is going to ask, "Where did you learn all that stuff about horses?"