Thursday 9 July 2015

Gaming in fantasy Central Asia: more notes on mounted combat

Back in my first post about Central Asia, I made the point that it's a setting in which horses are not optional. Now, that's not strictly true: depending on exactly where you are, you might prefer to ride a camel, a pony, a sled pulled by huskies, a reindeer, or even your own reflection. But you need to ride something. Without some kind of mount, the landscape will eat you alive.

See? This kid has the right idea!

This means that if a fight breaks out anywhere except a city or a dungeon, it's probably going to involve two groups of mounted combatants. So it's worth making a few notes about the differences that makes. 

1: If only one side is mounted, then they are at a huge tactical advantage.

Basically, the side that has horses gets to decide how the whole encounter plays out. If they decide to attack, you can't outrun them. If they decide to run off, you can't catch them. If they decide to stay at range, you can't close with them. If they decide to get up close and personal, you can't get away from them. Your only real hope is to even the odds by shooting their horses.

2: Being on the receiving end of a cavalry charge is utterly terrifying

Anyone other than trained soldiers should really need to make a morale check to stand their ground with a bunch of horsemen charging towards them. If they fail, they scatter, throw themselves prone, and generally do anything they can to avoid getting mown down.

3: Getting trampled by a warhorse will fuck you up

If infantry do stand their ground, then unless they have spears or similar weapons to hold the oncoming horsemen at bay, the cavalry can simply ride right over them. If you find yourself in this unenviable position, then you must make a REF save or take 1d6 damage from being kicked and trampled: a breastplate or heavy shield reduces this damage by 1, and half plate or better reduces it by 2. This is in addition to whatever damage you take from being whacked by the guy on the horse - who, remember, is probably at +2 damage.

4: Height disadvantages suck

Anyone on horseback gets +2 to-hit vs. human-sized targets on foot, unless the footman is carrying a spear or similar reach weapon. (A jezail with a bayonet would do the trick.) By the same token, anyone on foot who doesn't have a spear or similar weapon gets -2 to hit anyone on a horse. They don't get any penalty for attacks on the horse itself, though.

5: You should probably be aiming for the horse

Horses provide cover (+2 AC) for their riders against enemy missile fire. This means that it will usually be much easier to hit the damn horse. Horses have AC 13 unarmoured, AC 15 in light barding, and AC 18 in heavy barding; a normal horse has 10 HP, and a warhorse has 15. Two or three musket rounds should do the trick.

6: Just assume that everyone is an awesome horse(wo)man all the time

Your PCs, and everyone they're likely to meet, have all been riding their whole lives. So rather than a complex system of riding rules, just assume that you can reliably accomplish any ordinary feat of horsemanship, and so can everyone else. Really extreme feats might call for either a Dexterity roll (as you try to keep your balance in extraordinary circumstances) or a Charisma roll (as you try to coax that little bit of extra performance from your steed), but these should be kept to a minimum.

If you ever encounter people who aren't amazing horsemen - most travellers from the east or west, for example - then just assume that you're a better rider than them in absolutely every way, and that whatever they try to do, you can do ten times better, while also cleaning your musket and/or firing your bow over your own shoulder. Because you are just that good.


  1. Do you have any suggestions for communicating the large distances to players w/o it becoming tedious? Like.. finding a way to suggest huge distances being moved w/o just throwing random encounter after encounter?

    1. Time, mostly. Emphasising that the trip to the next city will take three weeks rather than three days, and that the PCs need to plan and supply themselves accordingly. Showing the seasons turning around them as they travel. ('So, you leave in late summer, and arrive on the empire's borders just as winter is starting to bite...') Children growing up in the time taken to complete a journey. Situations totally altered in the time it takes for a message to reach the PCs and the PCs to respond to it. ('When I set off they'd just started to invade, so by the time we get there they'll probably have occupied the whole country!') That sort of thing.

      Plus emphasising that they *have* to have horses, that if they lose their horses they need to buy or steal some NOW, because otherwise it could literally take them years to get where they're going.

      And difficulty of locating stuff, I guess. 'The ruined city is said to be about one square mile in size. This region of steppe is about one million square miles in extent. You could wander here for your whole life and still never find it. So let's talk about your plans for getting hold of local guides...'

  2. Hi, I have a weird question. I started at the beginning and have been catching up but I am only halfway through. I was wondering if you have suggestions regarding music, soundscapes, or the noises of the Wicked City or elsewhere in you world?

    1. I keep meaning to do a post on Mongolian Throat Singing. There's an example here:

      So that's what the music of the steppe peoples would sound like, and would probably be my go-to source for general setting-appropriate background music. Along the Great Road you'd get music that sounded more like this:

      Or this:

      And the music of the taiga would be more like this:

      As for the Wicked City itself, I assume the political and religious elite would listen to very formal music in Chinese and Islamic styles. But when the revolution finally comes, it'll be to a soundtrack of Mongolian folk metal by Tengger Cavalry...

    2. If we're talking about Mongolian music mixed with metal, here's something that y'all have probably seen already. It's times like this I wish I had the patience to learn languages.

      Sadly, it's a lot easier to find music evocative of a melancholy nightmare city when the city's lit by neon, not oil lamps. If you don't mind getting some cyberpunk in your clockpunk, there's a few tracks that are perfect for setting that 'crushingly apathetic dystopia' mood. Probably better as writing ambiance than table music, though.

      ...maybe existing soundtracks are cheating, though.

  3. This was fantastic. Thank you so much for this. I am tempted to ask another new question but maybe I will wait until I get through the remainder of the posts. Thank you.