As I said here, "Cavalry... get surprisingly short shrift in the classic D&D rules. The three-page Chainmail section on man-to-man combat (p. 25-27) manages to contain more detail on mounted combat than the entirety of the OD&D and AD&D system, for example." Let's look a little deeper at the issues around cavalry.
Quotes to Consider
First, recall that the primary thesis around cavalry is this: Cavalry attack is intrinsic to the unit's own movement. Before saying anything else on the matter as regards D&D, I'll look at a few quotes from Matthew Bennett's excellent essay, "La Régle du Temple as a Military Manual, or, How to Deliver a Cavalry Charge". (Accessible in full online here; highly recommended.) Bennett relates the regimented formation of the Knights Templar immediately prior to their engagement on the battlefield, from their official manual of conduct:
When the knights were armed they took up their position in line, placing their squires with their lances and shields before them. They were expressly forbidden to break ranks or charge without permission, and even turning their horses' heads to the rear in order to fight, or in response to an alarm, was not allowed (161)... With permission he could take his lance and shield...Then he quotes a very evocative passage from George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man", describing a cavalry charge:
You can tell the young ones by their wildness and their slashing. The old ones come bunched up under number one guard; they know they're mere projectiles, and that it's no use trying to fight. The wounds are mostly broken knees from horses coming together.And finally a supporting quote from Louis Edward Nolan (of "Charge of the Light Brigade" fame):
A charge, even on good ground, is seldom executed by the whole line at once; the enemy is reached in succession by different points in the line more advanced than others. It is therefore of the greatest consequence that those detachments which reach the enemy first shall be compact, and go at him as one man, to burst through.I think the Shaw quote is perhaps the most poignant: They know they're mere projectiles. In this sense (thinking of archetypal European "heavy cavalry" in the Middle Ages) the men are actually rather unimportant. Their role is to hold the lance with discipline; in this sense they are simply proto-cannon, delivering a massive shock across the battlefield when called upon. The expectation is for the initial charge to "burst through", or else it is something of a disappointment.
Rules from Chainmail
That said, let's now think about cavalry as it appears in D&D. As mentioned above, the Chainmail man-to-man rules have more detail than later D&D publications. In particular, Chainmail features on page 25-27:
- "For non-mounted versus mounted men: add one to the die roll of the mounted man, subtract one from the die roll of the man on foot - 1st round only horsemen add two."
- "On the 2nd round of melee the horse as well as its rider attack, the horse counting as the following weapon(s), and able to attack a different opponent than its rider, but only footmen: Light 1 Mace; Medium 2 Maces; Heavy 2 Flails"
- "Men may be unhorsed by footmen if they specifically state this is their intent before dice are rolled. A score equal to a kill, with no subtraction for their being afoot, indicates a successful unhorsing. An unhorsed man is possibly stunned: Die Score 1-2 Not stunned; 3-5 Stunned 1 turn; 6 Stunned 3 turns. Remounting requires one-half turn, as does voluntary dismounting."
- Jousting as a complete and separate system from the rest of the rules: "Each player selects an aiming point (his attack) and a position in the saddle (his defense)... The aiming point of each player is matched against the position of their opponent and the result found. Results can vary from both opponents missing to both being unhorsed, as a study of the jousting Matrix will reveal. (See Appendix C.)..."
On Lance Double Damage
Interestingly, in the 1E AD&D PHB, all of the "situational combat modifiers" are scrunched into footnotes in the table of weapon types (p. 37-38). I would argue that (as compared to Chainmail), this is a fairly deficient presentation method. Here we see:
- Certain types given the ability to "set" for double damage defensively, against a charge (military fork, glaive, glaive-guisarme, javelin, spear).
- Certain polearms having reserved the ability to dismount a rider with a normal "to hit" roll (fauchard, fauchard-fork, military fork, glaive-guisarme, guisarme, guisarme-voulge, lucern hammer, ranseur).
- Certain types capable of disarming an opponent with hit on AC 8 (ranseur, spetum).
- Missile attack adjustments of 0/-2/-5 for short/ medium/ long ranges.
- Any weapon striking +2 against the back or unseen; +4 against stunned, prone, motionless opponents.
- Lances doing "twice indicated damage against creatures of any size when it is employed by an attacker riding a charging mount."
This last detail (lance weapons doing double damage in a charge) was "sticky" in the sense that it became the archetypal rule for dealing with the increased shock of a cavalry charge; it was propagated forward into all later versions of D&D (2E, 3E, B/X, etc.) But does it truly make sense?
I would argue "not really". The true impact of the cavalry charge comes simply from the speed, strength, and inertia of the horse. The fact that in D&D it's the rider that gets to use their attack level, Strength modifier to hit and damage, and weapon adjustment is frankly missing the point. There's nothing special about the lance in this regard (other than the length allowing the blow to be delivered before most counters). If there were, then one might ask what the point is with charging with implements such as bayonets or swords, as was commonly done in other contexts (see sidebar photo; Leicestershire PAO Yeomanry c1930).
On Mounts Attacking
The one notable constant throughout classic D&D is that mounts get no attack in the first round of contact, but do get one or more attacks in subsequent rounds:
- "On the 2nd round of melee the horse as well as its rider attack..." [Chainmail, p. 25, repeated from above]
- "When mounted troops are engaged in combat the mounts will not count in the first melee round. On the second and succeeding rounds of melee, however, mounts will fight as follows..." [Swords & Spells, p. 18]
- "Warhorses fight on the second and succeeding rounds of melee, as long as their rider remains mounted. Their attack consists of two hoof thrusts and a bite." [AD&D Monster Manual, p. 53]
This artifact is a combination of (a) the only benefit of the charging being the double lance damage (and relatively minor +2 to-hit bonus), and (b) the very large number of attacks per round given to horses after D&D Sup-I, but only in non-charging rounds.
On the Move/Attack Sequence
In short, D&D mechanics pretty uniformly adjudicate movement in its entirety, prior to any melee attack resolution. (See Chainmail p. 9, Swords & Spells p. 3, 1E AD&D DMG p. 66, etc.) The problem with this move-strike-end-turn sequence is that it overlooks the "overrun" effect of cavalry breaking and stomping directly through a line of defense. As Louis Edward Nolan would agree, a cavalry charge that does not "burst through" the enemy is a failure, and this is in fact impossible in the standard D&D turn sequence.
So ideally, we would like a mechanic wherein the cavalry lancer drops his target and then keeps moving. (There is a rule like this in the Chainmail mass rules, p. 15; and also a rule that makes standing mass cavalry weaker, p. 17; but such rules appear nowhere in either the man-to-man section nor any flavor of D&D rulebook.) Other questions then arise from the gap: Can footmen be knocked over without being killed? Can the horses get some kind of trampling or bludgeoning attack as they run by? And so forth.
Another amusing complication is that while every version of classic D&D features barding (horse armor) on its equipment list, none specify what the effect is. OD&D has just one type of barding (Vol-1, p. 14), while AD&D has three types (leather/chain/plate, PHB p. 36), none of which have any commentary in the rules (recall horses have different starting AC than men; AC 7).
If we look back to the Chainmail man-to-man melee table, then we have at least a clue (Chainmail p. 41); the last two columns in the weapon-vs-armor chart are for "Horse: No Armor/ Barded", and in each case the barded score is 2 pips more difficult than the unarmored (single exception: morning star scores are identical, likely a typo?). If that's the intent for D&D, then we again have to consider if we should convert this as a +2 AC or +4 AC bonus.
On 3E Figure Positioning
A special note here on the 3E miniature-based rules: "A horse takes up a 5-foot-by-10-foot space, and you take up a space 5 feet across. For simplicity, assume that you occupy the back part of the horse." [3E PHB p. 138].
While initially attractive (each of two spaces has one "head" in it), on further reflection this doesn't work so well. To begin with, a two-square-long lance now barely reaches ahead of the horse, seemingly losing any advantage for first-attack-from-reach. More keenly, an enemy directly in front of the horse cannot exchange sword blows with the rider at all! (The rider & footmen each have one square reach, but the horse's head keeps a 2-square gap between them; again see sidebar sword-wielding cavalry above to see how this makes no sense.) So if the rider figure cannot be positioned directly in the middle of the horse (where they really sit), then I would argue in this case that the rider is more properly positioned in the front square of the horse (perhaps mostly leaning forward).
Some Suggested Fixes
So granted how terribly deficient the D&D rules are for mounted combat (the norm being exactly the opposite of what would be reasonable!) we come to a point where we wonder how much alteration and divergence we have the stomach to import to our game.
First, we might consider the usual desired doubling of modifiers from Chainmail. We could make mounted men -2 to be hit by footmen; +2 to hit footmen; and +4 to hit in the initial charging round (original source Chainmail p. 25). Same for barding: Give it a +4 bonus to horse AC (AC7 becomes AC3, as plate)?
We might momentarily consider possible game-theoretic advantages of different levels of mounted armor bonuses; say we use the Chainmail rule for felling a rider and possibly stunning them (above). Then when is it advantageous to attack the rider directly (lower HD, but likely better armor and mounted penalty to-hit) versus the mount (more HD, but possibly lower AC and being able to stun the rider and take away the mounted bonus), assuming that's permitted?
According to the computer simulations that I've run, if the rider AC bonus is +2 then it is always the best choice to attack the rider (even assuming unbarded horses); if the bonus is +4, then it's better to attack light riders and heavy horses; if the bonus is +6, then it's always best to attack the horse. However, in the latter two cases we would actually be making plate-armored riders totally unhittable (to-hit 21 or more for OD&D fighters up to 3rd level), which is probably not what we want. In my game I've decided to use the +2 bonus for rider AC.
Secondly, we might reconsider the mechanics for mounts moving and attacking. In my game, I strongly recommend giving horses only a single attack per round, which seems both reasonable as they simultaneously carry the rider and maneuver, and also prevents the prolonged melee from outweighing the effect of the charge round (i.e., sticking with by-the-book OD&D, and also Swords & Spells p. 18). In addition, we might consider a charge-round sequence such as the following: (1) mount & rider move to lance range, delivering initial attack; (2) mount continues move to first target or one behind it, delivering one hoof/trample/smashing attack; (3) mount & rider continue balance of movement if way is clear.
This doubles the shock potential on the charge round (granted both knight & horse make attacks), and offers the hope of cavalry "bursting through" on the attack, at the expense of some added mechanical burden on our play. However, in practice I've found that even this actually makes very little difference; the chances for 1st-level attack success in D&D are fairly low (less than 50% to hit, even with charge bonus; and even then no guarantee to score killing damage), so we have at best a faint chance to drop at most 2 men in file. Thus the difference is fairly marginal, if we do not add some additional large creative bonuses for the charge attack.
I end with a compiled list of questions we could ask about mounted combat in classic D&D:
- Should the modifier for mounted-vs-foot be doubled (+1 to +2) if we use it in the context of D&D?
- Can any of the following ignore the rider AC bonus: (a) footmen with polearms, (b) archers, (c) giants?
- If a footman's attack misses because of the mounted modifier, does it hit the horse?
- Can men opt to intentionally attack the horse instead of the rider (and is there any symmetric modifier or chance to hit the rider)?
- Can unhorsing be accomplished with any weapon type in OD&D?
- Should there be some radical change to how charge attack to-hits are adjudicated (i.e., no lance exceptionalism, use horse attack level, speed indicator, re: to-hit and damage)?
- How many attacks per round should horses be given?
- Should horses continue to be barred from any attack in the charge round?
- Should there be an "overrun" capacity in which cavalry can move/attack/move (and possibly more) within a single charge round?
- What level of AC should barded horses be given?
- Should riders be positioned at the front or rear of the horse (i.e., can they sword-attack an enemy in front of the horse)?
- Do we use the "rider stun" chart from Chainmail? What if the horse is dropped in a non-intentional-unseating attack?
- Do warhorses attack on their own if the rider is killed or unhorsed? Do they run from the line of battle, or stand motionless?
- Should we use a +4 to-hit bonus for charging cavalry (doubled from Chainmail's cavalry-first-turn-bonus, p. 25), and a separate +2 bonus for anyone else charging (as per AD&D DMG p. 66)?