It all started when I drew a slip of paper from a hat. The words written on it would decide from what caste my next character would come. As it turned out, I drew the “slave” caste. Being a fan of history, I decided to blatantly steal a concept from the past.
I created a character inspired by the Mamluk, a soldier who was owned by his Sultan. Looking at the Wikipedia page, I noticed that most of the depictions of Mamluks had them on horseback. I liked this picture of the battle-hardened soldier riding into the desert, and decided to theme my character as a mounted warrior.
That was where the problems began.
Signs of Trouble
Our game was to be run in D&D 4th Edition, so I broke out the trusty WotC Character Builder. In order to build a sixteenth level character, I had approximately a gazillion choices to make. I ended up with seventeen powers, eleven feats, six class abilities, four trained skills, a class, and a Paragon Path. With all those choices of character features, I could find only one in any way pertaining to fighting from horseback: the Mounted Combat feat.
I was a little annoyed. It would be one thing if I’d been aiming at some obscure theme. If I’d had trouble trying to make Marvin the Martian in D&D, fine. You’re telling me that I can find plenty of options to play a tribal dragon-man who turns himself into trees when he fights, or an insane angelic magic user who uses fairy power, but there’s only one minor feature available for a guy who fights riding a horse?
Cavalry is a staple of medieval fantasy. There’s a reason for this: an armed guy on a horse was the freaking super weapon of the ancient world. He’s fast, massive, and able to wear more armor without getting tired. Even modern armies used horses well into the 20th century, and if you’ve ever been close to a squad of mounted police, you know exactly why infantries might be intimidated.
Go ahead, think of a fantasy novel. Does it have chivalrous knights, like Once and Future King? Maybe it has a Germanic horse culture like the Lord of the Rings’ Riders of Rohan. Perhaps it has nomadic horsemen like the Memory, Sorrow, Thorn trilogy’s Thrithings. Or maybe it departs from history altogether and has people riding dragons or griffins like in a Pern or Dragonlance story. Whatever the form, I’ll bet you can find specialized cavalry there somewhere.
Bryan recently sent me Dragon magazine number seventy two. This issue includes an article from Gary Gygax debuting the Cavalier. This was an AD&D subclass of the Fighter, specializing in chivalry and mounted combat. It was dated April 1983.
I don’t have any AD&D Second Edition materials left anymore, so I can’t speak to that version’s support of the mounted specialist. However, it’s quite prevalent in Third Edition. There were five feats related to mounted combat in the Player’s Handbook alone. It seemed that every new expansion introduced a new feat or prestige class in this vein. Though I never played a Cavalier, Halfling Outrider, or Wild Plains Outrider, I’m certainly missing them now.
What’s up 4E?
When I couldn’t find a Paragon Path that was even close to the theme I was looking for, I started to get a bad feeling. I thought that maybe I was missing something. Maybe Wizards intended me to get this specialty in another way. So, I went looking into any material that supported creation of a horseman character.
The rules governing mounted combat take up about a page in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Between that and the Mounted Combat feat, you’ve pretty much surveyed Fourth Edition’s coverage of skewering enemies while riding on stuff. There certainly aren’t any related class features in any of the three tiers of play. The Paladin no longer has a Special Mount. Last I checked, you won’t even find a lance in the weapon list.
This absence is too complete to be a coincidence. So thorough a change from previous incarnations of the game has to have been a conscious design decision. Why, then, have cavalry characters been reduced to a token guest appearance in Fourth Edition?
One possibility is the age-old problem of what to do with a horse when you go into a dungeon. I don’t know how many times I’ve run into this issue. It definitely came up with my Mamluk character. It’s reared its head in our Swords and Wizardry game as well, and we ended up having to pay a guy to watch the mules we had (thinking optimistically) brought to haul away all our spoils.
Another, related issue is that mounted characters don’t often get the chance to actually fight from horseback. It’s an unfortunate side effect of variety in our games that not all combat can take place outside, on level ground, and with your horse at hand. In fact, experience seems to indicate that this almost never happens. After all the work theming my Mamluk warrior, he’s so far only ridden his horse once. Way back in Second Edition, we had a long running campaign in which a friend played a grizzled veteran complete with a lance that I only remember him getting to use once.
Third, there’s the problem of scale. Most D&D combats are not mass battles, but rather small scale clashes taking place in a restricted area… the battle map. The increased movement rate of a horseman isn’t as effective in a constrained space. The issue is exacerbated by terrain as well, whether its rough ground, city streets, or dense forest.
Finally, cavalry in real medieval warfare were not exactly power balanced with infantry. On the contrary, they were pretty darn dominant. Unless you had terrain, defense works, better cavalry, or really well trained pikemen on your side, you were in serious trouble. As Genghis Khan demonstrated repeatedly, you were probably in trouble even then. The limiting factor on cavalry was the exorbitant cost of training and outfitting them, which isn’t nearly as much of a problem for an outrageously rich RPG adventurer.
Still, all these points can be answered. For instance, the first problem was confronted in Third Edition by making the Paladin’s mount appear and disappear like gear in a computer RPG. The second issue is simply the cost of specializing: you’re not always going to be in a situation to make use of your talents. However, it’s incumbent upon the DM to give everybody the chance to shine, whether it’s the horseman warrior, or the bard diplomat. Third, while the map is an artificial barrier, the issue of terrain was vital in the real world as well. The small scale of the map affects the balance of ranged weaponry too, but the longbow hasn’t been eliminated. Fourth, we can hand wave away a false balance between cavalry and infantry the same way we do every other time reality impinges on our fun. I get a little twinge of anachronism every time a swashbuckler stabs a platemail encased opponent with a rapier, but I live with it.
Not the Right Kind of Fun?
In the end, I suspect that the reason the mounted character was diminished was that it just didn’t fit the gameplay experience intended by the designers. To me, though, this is like making a Star Wars game, but leaving out spaceships because you want to focus on Jedi. As cool as Jedi are, sometimes I want to play the ace fighter pilot. Similarly, as cool as dragonmen turning into trees might be, sometimes I want to play a desert horseman.