Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mounted Combat

Having given it some thought, I spent time last night and time today slamming together the following post. It is not meant to be flawless. It is meant to be nothing more than a blog post. More than that, it is meant to be nothing more than a framework – you are the DM, you are expected to do some of the work.

As it happens, there are no distinct rules in the DMG for mounted combat. There may be rules in other systems – I cannot say. It seems practical at this point to address the problem myself, and attempt to invent rules for my system which, being my own, will reflect both my experience and the idiosyncrasies of my system.

I will, however, try to remain faithful to the overall AD&D format.

For the purpose of these rules, mounted individuals will be referred to as ‘Riders’, as this is a simple, direct term applying not only to horses, but to camels, mules and other animals alike. At present, these rules are meant to describe only those riders upon mounts which are earthbound – at some later point additional rules for aerial riders may be developed.

The principal advantage of the Rider is increased fighting value, the ability to outflank and avoid combat, to overwhelm opponents, and to retreat and escape as needed. The Rider has the benefit of height, speed and inertial mass over an opponent on foot. These rules are intended to reflect these qualities.

First and foremost, may I say that part of the weakness of the D&D combat system is a failure to incorporate in any practical manner the question of morale – the scant rules given on p. 67 are hopelessly inexact and pathetically unbalanced. I know of no one who has ever used the system provided. In any case, morale is not simply a question of fighting or not fighting, but rather should be the incorporation of the ability to fight according to the circumstances of a particular battle. In a perfect world, it would be easier to reflect the fighting power of horses in terms of their effect upon enemy morale – except that no perfect world, nor perfect morale system exists. Thus, the rules I intend to provide are meant to compensate for the lack of morale, meaning that in many cases Riders will be given advantages which may seem upon examination, to be illogical.

For example, if I make the suggestion that Riders have no flank, and therefore cannot be attacked from the rear nor can opponents gain bonuses by doing so, this is clearly incorrect in terms of physical reality. However, if it is considered that Riders have a greater flexibility in movement and a psychological advantage over ground troops, and that morale is taken into account, the overall effect is that footmen are weakened in their attacks against Riders in specifically that manner.

Secondly, I’d like to make the point that the movement rates throughout the monster manual are a joke. Given that a light horse’s movement outdoors is listed as 240 yards per minute, this works out to a speed of just over 8 m.p.h. I don’t plan to fix these rules here. I only bring them up to remind the reader that horses move much faster than this, and thus the impact which they are able to bring upon a group of footmen is nothing short of devastating.

Keeping those things in mind:


We cannot in any reasonable sense accept the rule on p. 49 that encounters outdoors should occur at a distance of 60 to 240 yards, certainly not in any environment where the horizon is three miles distant. We may, however, presume that actual melee might begin at something like this range, being the point at which Riders might begin to charge. In fact, against cannon cavalry charges were often begun at distances in excess of 1000 yards – but that does apply to a later century compared to the ordinary D&D campaign, and as such can be discounted here. In either case, 60 to 240 yards is a more reasonable distance than that given on p. 62, where it is suggested that 50 to 100 yards be used.

In the open, in any location where cover might be impossible, including the presence of ditches or gulleys, it may be assumed that a Rider cannot possibly ‘surprise’ an opponent. At any case, it may also be assumed that a Rider, if encountered while moving, will make sound which again will preclude the chance of surprise. It is reasonable that if the Rider is motionless at the point of encounter, surprise might be determined normally – but I do not accept arguments that the movement of the mount in some way stuns opponents so that they behave as though surprised, simply because the mount is moving more quickly than a creature on foot. This is a thoroughly ridiculous argument, though I’ve heard it made – it might conceivably be true in a world where no horse or camel was known to exist, but otherwise let us accept that the mount’s condition belies its practicable stealth.

This is not to suggest that Riders themselves cannot be surprised. Obviously, the ability of the mount to suspect danger must be incorporated, as a Rider will recognize any change in the mount at once. I would recommend that both mount and Rider each be allowed a surprise roll, accepting the better of the two results.

It must be noted that even if the Rider is inactive during those combat opportunities inherent in surprise, the mount will not be. It would not remain motionless as though stuffed, but instead will move away from its attacker instinctively. I do not myself use the “three rounds of attack by virtue of surprise” rule ... having reduced the length of my rounds to 6 seconds in length and having always considered the rule rather stupid.

Moreover, simply because a Rider is surprised does not give a thief the automatic opportunity to backstab. Unless the thief is able to leap onto the back of the horse behind the rider as a circus stunt (in which case, someone will need to explain to me how he makes the leap with weapon in hand having only the victim to grab onto, managing the murder while simultaneously slamming full speed into the victim) or attacks from above, I feel the Rider is entitled to some protection by the rear of the mount itself. I must argue that if the backstab were to be allowed, it could not be managed at +4 to hit – surely it must be noted that the situation is a little harder than moving behind an unmounted opponent.


While initiative may be resolved normally, there are relevant facts which must be considered. The first would be the relative ease with which a Rider may strike at the breast of a footman, compared with the relative difficulty a footman has at striking the breast of a Rider. Furthermore, the length of the Rider’s weapon becomes more circumstantial, given that the Rider is able through training to place the body of the mount between himself and the footman.

In other words, while a footman may run forward and inside the killing range of another footman defending with a pole arm, the tactic is harder to accomplish with a horse in the way. The length of the weapon must be applied to the initiative roll. My simple solution would be to add the length of the weapon in feet to the die roll.

For example, a Rider with scimitar rolls a 4 for initiative; the scimitar adds 4, for a total of 8. The footman using a 5’ spear rolls a 2, for a total of 7. Thus the rider was able to successfully avoid the footman’s set spear and attack first.
To this I would add that if a spear set vs. charge does not win the initiative in during the initial impact of mount and defender, the spear does not gain the benefit of causing double damage should it hit that round.

In many cases, the initiative modifier would favour not the rider but the footman, since most hand-held weapons which can be used from horseback are shorter. The circumstance of using horsemen’s flails and maces is due to the fact that these ordinary sized weapons would have resulted in the user crushing the horse’s head. The standard European sword, for example, could not be used from horseback for the same reason. This is why the scimitar, or curved sword, came into existence – the curve enabled the power of a sword while sparing the horse.

An increased bonus of +1 damage should apply in any case where a Rider is moving past an opponent at half-speed or better, including another Rider. I would argue that both Riders, when rushing directly at each other, should receive a +2 damage bonus if both are moving at half-speed or better.

Missile Discharge

Missiles fired by Riders experience no negative modifiers when fired from a mount that is not moving. While it is possible to drive a mount forward by use of the thighs and feet, I argue that this is a distraction to the attacker and therefore demands a -1 modifier to hit. If the mount is moving at less than half speed, the modifier remains at -1; if, however, the mount is moving at half speed or better, the modifier to hit should be at -2.

Missiles fired at Riders must be designated as to whether fired at the Rider or at the mount. The Rider’s body will provide 5% protection for the mount; the mount’s body will provide 10% protection for the rider. For example, a horse has an armor class of 7. A first-level fighter attacking the horse would normally have to roll a 13 to hit – however, the rider on the horse increases the horse’s AC to 6, meaning that the fighter must roll a 14. However, if the fighter rolls a 13, the horse is untouched ... but the Rider, regardless of armor class is considered to have been hit.

Before arguing the AC of the Rider, consider that in this case the chance of hitting the Rider is 1 in 20 ... the same chance needed if the Rider were targeted and had a -5 AC. One could argue that if the rider’s AC were better than -5, the Rider would suffer no damage. Otherwise, it may be assumed the Rider is willing to take the hit for the sake of the horse.

It might also be argued, generally, that the saddle and saddle bags provide protection to the mount equivalent to that of a shield. I would be in agreement with that assessment regarding attacks against the horse if it were saddled and at the moment of attack was riderless.

Do I need to include the alternative example, where a Rider with an AC of 4 is given a +2 AC bonus in lieu of the horse taking damage?

Last point: the modifier to hit a Rider from the ground should be +/-0 if the Rider is moving at less than half speed, and -1 if moving at half speed or better.


I follow a rule which states that if a spellcaster is in anyway disturbed during the casting of a spell, the spell is ruined. I do not impose the use of excessive verbal, somatic or material components on the part of my spellcasters – the necessary time spent concentrating followed by a pointing of a finger is sufficient for me. Obviously, if you wish to incorporate the complicated arrangements of the Player’s Handbook into your campaign, most spells could not be thrown while mounted.

Regarding concentration, I do not allow war mounts for characters who are not fighters, paladins or rangers – so I would not accept any argument from a spellcaster that their mount was ‘trained’ to stand still. Therefore, I would expect a saving throw to be made every time a spell was thrown from a mount – possibly a dexterity check by the spell caster – to determine if the animal moved and therefore ruined the spell.

An easy way to get past this circumstance would be to take speak with animals as a spell, and thus reason with the mount that when master does such and such, be still and we’ll both be better off. This would provide a very intelligent application of the spell, making it more useful.

Turning undead, as it is not a spell, would not be subject to any saving throw to determine its effectiveness.


Here is where the DMG fails grandly to incorporate the reality of any sort of charge, particularly that performed by an ordered cavalry.

The principle effect of the charge is the shock of its impact. The theory is that the mount is driven to full speed, to plough thus through the line of defenders, trampling the much smaller bodies of the footmen and enabling the rider to cut down any standing being the mount may have missed. What unfortunately sometimes occurs is that the mounted animal, just prior to impact, ‘loses its nerve.’ Since the animal is simultaneously charging forward and attempting with all of its might to rear in terror, it often slams into the line of footmen in a state of disarray. This can be made worse when a second line of mounts in turn slams into the front line, resulting in a mass pile-up that can easily be torn asunder by those on the ground.

On the other hand, the charge is especially effective when it is the line of soldiers that lose their nerve just before impact. As the lines break, the horses are freer than ever to drive through, trampling not just those at the front, but several hapless victims, one after another. An excellent example of this is shown in the film, Return of the King, where the orcs break just prior to the charge of Rohan. Historically, in such cases, great slaughter occurred with little loss to the attacking force.

The success of the charge and the success of the defence are a question of Mass and Density. Cavalry charges were often made with the force four or eight abreast, in a line ten or twenty horses deep, so that the charge hit a very small part of the enemy line, smashing right through and then making its escape by running behind the enemy force. Defensive lines, in contrast, attempted to form ‘squares’, six to eight men deep, which would foul the charge, break up the compact arrangement of the attacking cavalry and make it possible to fight them one-on-one.

Provided that the mounted Riders were able to maintain their density by moving in ‘order’, or squares were able to maintain their density, both tactics proved successful. However, once order was broken (‘disorder’), units could be destroyed more effectively.

The crucial moment occurs just prior to impact. Both sides must roll their ability to maintain order if they expect to survive the impact. The one that fails will be cut to pieces. If both fail, the result was typically a disorderly retreat on both sides with brief moments of melee. If both succeed, the result was typically full melee until one side or the other lost morale and routed.

Now, in D&D, parties (NPCs and Players) rarely move in anything but disorder. This should mean that a mounted rider, moving into combat, should gain two attacks on side by side opponents– one being the attack of the Rider on opponent A, the other being 2d6 damage caused by the horse as it tramples opponent B. I would continue to roll dice to determine the willingness of the horse to charge. Success, plus a won initiative, should allow the mount a +5 modifier to hit (all modifiers given on p. 66 are a joke), a +10 if the attacked footman fails his morale check to resist charge (this would assume he had turned to run, and was thus overrun from behind). The rider would gain no bonus to hit, since attacking from a moving horse while holding the reins does not make the effort at all easier. Go on and try it.

With training, it is entirely possible. At about the same rate with which one hits normally.

Failing initiative as a Rider would mean losing the horse’s attack bonus against the second opponent (not the attack itself).

If the footman succeeds in resisting the charge, and wins initiative, he should be given the option of either avoiding the horse’s attack or gaining the same +5 bonus to hit. Avoiding the attack should allow the footman no attack that round; if he does not want to be trampled, he would need to kill the horse ... entirely possible if using a pole arm or spear set vs. charge (thus causing double damage).

Please note: the above makes the paladin’s warhorse an especially dangerous mount, as it is presumed it would virtually always succeed at charging any and all opponents, when directed by the paladin to do so.

Ordinary Melee

I have very little to say on the subject. A Rider should maintain a simple +1 bonus to hit when attacking from horseback and moving at less than half-speed. All opponents attacking Riders should suffer a -1 penalty to hit, regardless of the speed of the Rider.

Also, as stated before, defenders do not gain bonuses for attacking Riders from the flank or rear. Obviously, there is nothing to stop opponents from targeting the mount, which would have a flank or rear to gain bonuses from. This was not normally done only because the mount itself was of great value, and therefore not to be squandered. Is it worth destroying the treasure just to kill the Rider?

Breaking from Combat and Evasion

No penalty of movement should be incurred by Riders wishing to break from melee (since it is the horse and not the Rider that takes the action). My system demands that if a player has a movement of 5 hexes per round, two movement must be used in breaking from melee. If mounted, no such penalty exists. Thus a Rider may enter and retreat from combat repeatedly, with relative ease. Each attempt to close to combat must be accompanied by an initiative roll.

Well, that was a lot. Anything I forgot?

Hah hah ... a great deal, I’m sure. I’m avoiding intentionally adding any specific rules about movement, only because I know many players do not play with miniatures as part of the combat method. I do, and I might if asked do some testing and come up with some movement rules for charging, retreating, wheeling and the like. This is enough for now.


Carl said...

It's a very good start. I have a couple of discussion points that you've probably already considered.

1. Stirrups and Saddles. If your riders have them, they should get a damage bonus because the rider can use the mass of the horse to increase lance/spear damage in a charge. Additionally, they should be more difficult to dismount if they have proper saddles and stirrups. Cavalry, for a couple of thousand years, did not have stirrups or saddles and so that primitive (or demi-human, say goblin) cavalry would get only a to-hit bonus when attacking from horseback. Also, warhorses in ancient times were small and maneuverable -- more like ponies. It wasn't until much later that the horses got big, like the destrier. Destriers don't turn very well, by the way.

2. Footmen. Successful footmen surround riders, pull them off their horses and beat them to death while they lay on the ground. This is in clear violation of the rules of chivalry which state that people on horses are not to be pulled off by people who are not on horses and then beaten to death while on the ground. So, footmen should get a bonus to win a grapple with a rider *if* the horse is moving at 1/4-speed or less (and in an adjacent hex/square). This would be balanced by the horseman's +1 to hit bonus for striking from horseback. He can try to swat them and may be successful, but he's going to get surrounded, pulled off his horse and beaten to death on the ground, unless the peasant footmen have been instructed by their lord in the rules of chivalry. In this case, they will refrain from this very effective tactic at the risk of offending their lord by beating his cousin to death on the ground after pulling him off his horse.

There's historical evidence that this tactic was very effective -- I should cite something but I'm lazy. So effective that the rules of chivalry were changed so that the knights could ride around and chop down peasant footman like God ordained without being pulled off and beaten to death, which was obviously an affront to God and The Natural Order.

R said...

Just wanted to chime in and say thanks for the info - this is great. I'm trying to figure out the movement rates for horses, using averages, but I've just been using wikipedia.

I completely agree that mounted combat is woefully ignored in AD&D and any more you can post about it would be much appreciated, even if it's just your minor house rules. It's difficult to figure these things without having any relevant personal experience.

JB said...

Some great points and great ideas. I think the main reasons mounted combat is ignored in D&D is the same reason mass combat is so woefully ignored…D&D remains a small-scale tactical (often Indoor) adventure game featuring individual heroes.

Doesn’t mean it can’t be more, though!

You’ll excuse me if I pillage some of your lines and streamline them for my own (B/X) use. Especially intriguing is the idea of “who breaks first” with regard to cavalry charging massed footmen. I believe a simple morale check or two will go a long way in this circumstance. Since PCs don’t need to check morale, they can turn the tide of such an engagement regardless of which side (charger or charged) they may belong to.


Zzarchov said...

On the note of movement,

In D&D (maybe they changed it) did not one have the option to run up to 5x speed?

Thus a horse could run up to 40mph?

Alexis said...


I know of no rule in any of the original books that allowed for multiplication of the speeds given in the Monster Manual. For myself, I'd rather make the base speed of the horse 10 m.p.h., so as to not foil with the system I use.

Although, a saddled, loaded horse with an ordinary rider (not a jockey), not being bred for speed, would be hard pressed to reach 40 m.p.h.

Dojhrom TRW said...

Players Handbook: Jogging and Running (Optional Rule)
If your DM wants greater precision in a chase, the speeds of those involved in the chase can be calculated exactly. (But this is time-consuming and can slow down an exciting chase.) Using this optional rule, a character can always double his normal movement rate (in yards) to a jog. Thus, a character with a movement rate of 12 can jog 240 yards in a round. While jogging, a character can automatically keep going for the number of rounds equal to his Constitution. After this limit has been reached, the player must roll a successful Constitution check at the end of each additional round spent jogging. There are no modifiers to this check. Once a Constitution check is failed, the character must stop and rest for as many rounds as he spent jogging. After this, he can resume his jogging pace with no penalties (although the same limitations on duration apply).

If a jogging pace isn't fast enough, a character can also run. If he rolls a successful Strength check, he can move at three times his normal rate; if he rolls a Strength check with a -4 penalty, he can quadruple his normal rate; if he rolls a Strength check with a -8 penalty, he can quintuple his normal rate. Failing a Strength check means only that the character cannot increase his speed to the level he was trying to reach, but he can keep running at the pace he was at before the failed Strength check. Once a character fails a Strength check to reach a level of running, he cannot try to reach that level again in the same run.

Continued running requires a Constitution check every round, with penalties that depend on how long and how fast the character has been running. There is a -1 penalty for each round of running at triple speed, a -2 penalty for each round of running at quadruple speed, and a -3 penalty for each round of running at quintuple speed (these penalties are cumulative). If the check is passed, the character can continue at that speed for the next round. If the check is failed, the character has exhausted himself and must stop running. The character must rest for at least one turn.

For example, Ragnar the thief has a Strength of 14, a Constitution of 14, and a movement rate of 12. Being pursued by the city guard, he starts jogging at 240 yards a round. Unfortunately, so do they. His Constitution is a 14, so he can keep going for at least 14 rounds. He decides to speed up. The player makes a Strength check, rolling a 7. Ragnar pours on the speed, increasing to 360 yards per round (triple speed). Some of the guardsmen drop out of the race, but a few hold in there. Ragnar now has a -1 penalty to his Constitution check. A 13 is rolled, so he just barely passes.

But one of the blasted guardsmen is still on his tail! In desperation, Ragnar tries to go faster (trying for four times walking speed). The Strength check is an 18: Ragnar just doesn't have any more oomph in him; he can't run any faster, but he is still running three times faster than his walking speed. The player now must roll a Constitution check with a -2 penalty (for two rounds of running at triple speed). The player rolls the die and gets a 4--no problem! And just then the last guardsman drops out of the race. Ragnar takes no chances and keeps running. Next round another Constitution check is necessary, with a -3 penalty. The player rolls an 18. Exhausted, Ragnar collapses in a shadowy alley, taking care to get out of sight.

Copyright 1999 TSR Inc.

The NWP:

The character can move at twice his normal movement rate for a day. At the end of the day he must sleep for eight hours. After the first day's movement, the character must roll a proficiency check for success. If the die roll succeeds, the character can continue his running movement the next day. If the die roll fails, the character cannot use his running ability the next day. If involved in a battle during a day he spent running, he suffers a -1 penalty to his attack rolls.

Copyright 1999 TSR, Inc.

Dojhrom TRW said...

An optional skill I made>>
Sprints are normally explosive races in athletics, but on the battle feild sprinting could help a combatant get to a location faster. Unlike runners that have to "pace themselves" for the entire distance a sprinter will run as fast as possible until they burn out. Sprinting requires an acceleration so the player must make all rolls in succession. This skill superceeds the optional rules in the Player's Handbook.

Sprinter Can Increase to Jog automatically with Sprint skill
Sprinters can Jog Number of Turns (10 minutes) Equal to Constitution
Movement Rate x2

Light Sprint:
Sprinter Can Increase to Light Sprint with a Successful Sprint Check
Sprinters can Sprint Number of Turns (10 minutes) Equal to Constitution
Movement Rate x3

Standard Sprint:
Sprinter Can Increase to Standard Sprint with a Successful Sprint Check at -4
Sprinters can Sprint Number of Minutes Equal to Constitution
Movement Rate x4

Heavy Sprint:
Sprinter Can Increase to Heavy Sprint with a Successful Sprint Check at -8
Sprinters can Sprint Number of Combat Rounds (6 seconds) Equal to Constitution
Movement Rate x5

After sprinting, a character must rest for 15 minutes before sprinting again and can sprint up to 3 times per day (6 times if they possess the running skill). Then at the end of day they must sleep a full 8 hours.

An unencumbered human can walk 120 yards (360 feet), slightly more than a football field, in 60 seconds. (4mph)
An unencumbered human can heavy sprint 120 yards (360 feet), slightly more than a football field, in 12 seconds. (20mph)

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Some very good points raised here, and fairly comprehensive.

A few minor details from my study of medieval combat.

The standard European sword definitely could (and was) used from horseback. It was one of the standard weapons. The Master Fiore dei Liberi covers it in his manual:

Interestingly, he was of the opinion that in an engagement two horsemen, lance vs. sword, the sword would win every single time. The swordsman can wait until the lance is about to strike and beat it aside, and strike the lance-wielder as he rides past.

The only option (in his opinion) was for the lance-wielder was to target the horse:

Some proviso might be made to allow for an opponent with a longer weapon targeting the horse effectively keeping their foe at bay, and denying them an attack.

He talks about this as a footman, as well - waiting for the lance, and beating it aside, rather than the traditional D&D "set for charge". It's an extrapolation, but I think setting for the charge would probably be more effective against the horse, and trying to keep the rider at bay.

Just a few thoughts from a historical perspective.

Quincy Jones said...

An account of equestrian warfare from William of Malmesbury, describing in part the Battle of Hastings (1066 AD).

“Observing this, [Duke] William gave a signal to his troops, that, feigning flight, they should withdraw from the field. By means of this device the solid phalanx of the English opened for the purpose of cutting down the fleeing enemy and thus brought upon itself swift destruction; for the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled them to fly. In this manner, deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in avenging their enemy; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, for, by frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps.”

These were beasts who were trained to bit and kick and trample the fallen with sharpened hooves. Nice to see some rules giving them their dues.