March 20, 2024

Ride Easy

Your mileage may vary, but when I first started playing D&D, it was a bit of a thrill when things got to the point wealth-wise when any of my characters could afford a horse. Owning an imaginary horse always felt really cool to me, because horses in fantasy games are fun. Having friends who play fantasy games who are really into horses and can tell you what type of IRL horse your character should ride makes it even more fun, as is those friends’ ability to point out how bad the rules for horses are in most games. But that’s incidental to the current topic.

The addition of mounts to the game cuts down travel time, allows for the easy outrunning of less nimble monsters, lets the characters dramatically storm into town in a cloud of dust, and ties into all other kinds of archetypes from the medieval/Wild West-hero playbook. But horses and other mounts can introduce a particular logistical issue with the story of a campaign — a problem unrelated to the actual rules for running mounts — that’s worth thinking about.

An armored paladin rides a warhorse in full barding.
Art by Darlene from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

Don’t Hurt the Horse!

Animals becoming endangered in a story is a huge trauma trigger for many people, and for pretty obvious reasons. A lot of us generate intense amounts of emotional attachment to the animals we make part of our lives, and the experience of loving and being loved by a furry friend can be life changing. Many folks easily develop emotional attachments to animals in fiction for the same reason. And because RPGs connect our real lives and our engagement with stories in extraordinarily powerful ways, it’s not a surprise that when characters’ mounts are threatened in the game, it can easily mess with the fun.

Talking about animal welfare in the game is an excellent topic for session 0. During the preamble to a new campaign, players discussing their expectations for play can note how comfortable they are with violence directed toward animals, whether mounts, companion creatures, or animals acting as threats in the game. Some might want the campaign to avoid the topic entirely. Others might be fine with having animals as threats fighting against the player characters, while wanting to avoid threats to the characters’ mounts and companions. Other others might be fine with threats against the characters’ four-legged friends as long as the GM doesn’t arbitrarily target them for no reason.

In the event that the topic doesn’t come up in session 0, all players should understand that they can bring it up during a game session. If a story goes into narrative territory that’s making them uncomfortable, players should say so, whether that’s harm befalling a character’s companion, mount, or pet, or the party being expected to mow through non-evil animal threats with no options for noncombat resolution to the conflict.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A problem that comes up more often with mounts than animal companions (most of whom are either kitted out for combat themselves or small enough to hide during a fight) is worrying about what happens to them if they’re left on their own. Especially for characters traveling the uninhabited frontier that’s typical of many fantasy campaigns, it can be especially advantageous for a party to be able to roll up to the dungeon on horseback. But it can be equally easy for the players to then worry about what might happen when the party’s horses are left alone in the monster-haunted wilderness while the characters delve into the nearby ruins.

A house rule I came up with long before I’d even heard of the concept of session 0 is to go all meta and establish ahead of time that the GM isn’t going to mess with the character’s mounts as long as the characters do their level best to keep their mounts out of danger. If the horses are left hidden in the forest while the characters head off on their dungeon long weekend, they’ll fend for themselves and be right as rain when the party makes it back into the light. During a random encounter on the road, if the mounts are quickly hopped off and ordered away from the fight, they’ll steer clear of danger while the characters finish dealing with it. This approach will definitely stretch realism from time to time, but that stretch is more than worth the players not having to worry about a trusty mount ending up as part of a wandering dire wolf buffet.

A Horse of a Different Color

Although horses are the typical mount in most fantasy campaigns, the fun of obtaining a mount for the first time can be made even more enjoyable with an unusual mount. Griffons and hippogriffs are apex-cool flying mounts, carrying an enormous amount of predator gravitas, while giant dragonflies make equally great aerial steeds for Small characters. In a subterranean-focused campaign, giant spiders and cave lizards make excellent mount choices — especially when fitted with saddles that allow a rider to stay on board while their mount clambers upside down along ceilings. Axe beaks and polar bears make formidable mounts in arctic climes. And in a plane-hopping campaign, a phase spider makes a most iconic ride.

Moreover, the best part about obtaining an unusual mount often isn’t the mount themself — it’s the story setting up how your character and that mount got together. Did you earn a creature’s trust after saving their life? Were they a mount trained by someone else and offered to you as a reward for service, or who you rescued from an abusive owner? Being able to afford a mount is a nice milestone for a starting character. But being able to say you truly earned a mount is even better.