“Dwarf and his mount” by alexandrecarod, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links that add gold to our coffers.
Before the advent of the mechanical vehicle, the horse was an invaluable tool: farmers ploughed fields timely; travelers reached destinations quickly and with more cargo; and mounted soldiers gained an edge over those on foot. But how useful are mounts in a game of Dungeons and Dragons? As mentioned by Wizards’ Marketer Bart Carroll, this tabletop game involves extensive dungeon, tomb, ruins, and cavern exploration. Is a horse, or any other mount, compatible with this playstyle?
We think ‘yes’. Let’s explore the advantages of in-game mounts, utilizing them as players and Dungeon Masters, and overcoming mount-related challenges.
Rules for mounts are clearly stated in the Player’s Handbook, pages 155 and 198, so we will briefly sum them up in this article without going in-depth. A person may acquire a mount through purchase, by raising a creature from birth, through exchanging favors with a deity or patron, or by compelling an intelligent creature to join their cause—willingly or not. Mounts can pull carriages, carts, wagons, and other wheeled platforms; they may be armored (barding) for additional protection; they can be ridden, packed, and fought upon; and they provide cover from attacks in a dire situation.
Flying mounts cover large distances, engage airborn foes, and facilitate wily schemes in and out of combat. A maritime creature can cross bodies of water, gather food, or scout ahead while players travel by ship.
By the rules, a mount may be any willing creature that is at least one size larger than the rider and has the appropriate anatomy for riding. Halflings, Gnomes, and Goblins and Kobolds in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, are all classified as small creatures, and may ride medium-sized mounts, such as goats, giant frogs, wolves, dolphins, and mules. Small creatures may even ride on the back of a larger ally, but your Dungeon Master would need to deem that ally’s anatomy to be rideable to be considered a ‘mount’ by the rules. As a free resource to you, sort our spreadsheet of beast companions by size to see an extensive list of common beasts for mounting.
A Wizard, Sorcerer, or Artificer may cast Enlarge/Reduce to manipulate mounted creature size rules and expand their list of available mounts for one minute. A Druid can shapeshift, and a spellcaster can cast Polymorph or Animal Shapes, to turn themselves or others into creatures for companions to ride out of a dicey situation. A Paladin can use the level-two spell Find Steed to magically conjure a spirit they can mount. A Druid or Sorcerer may cast Dominate Beast to control (and mount) a creature for one minute, or, with the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything spell Charm Monster (page 151), a player could charm a creature for 1 hour to gain advantage on Animal Handling checks.
In line with a Dungeon Master’s accommodation, a mount could be anything from a horse to a pegasus, a war elephant to a wyvern, a giant salamander to a small whale. The possibilities are limited only by campaign synergy, Dungeon Master discretion, enthusiasm of a player, and some dice rolls.
Mounts provide special combat superiority, outlined on page 198 of the Player’s Handbook. By training a mount, a player earns control over its actions with shared Initiative. Limited actions are available with this option: Dash, Disengage, and Dodge. An independent, intelligent mount will act on its own volition, on its own turn, and without restrictions of its available actions.
The Mounted Combat feat grants advantage on melee attacks, additional defensive options, and assurance in Dexterity saving throws. Mounts may don armor, a practice referred to as barding, valued at four times the cost of humanoid armor (yikes) to raise its armor class (nice).
A martial melee lance gives a player Reach with 1d12 piercing damage, utilizing the lance’s one-handed property when riding on a mount. Mounted archers freely traverse the battlefield to avoid melee combat while remaining favorably positioned. Cavalier Fighters in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything shine in the saddle. Intelligent mounts may use actions such as grapple, attack, or shove on its own turn. Some mounts have special abilities like Pack Tactics or Blindsight that allow them to better serve their riders.
The usefulness of a mount out of combat mirrors closely the versatility of a horse about 200 years ago: transportation, manual labor (pushing boulders or pulling a rope to gain leverage, for example), carrying excess items and gear, delivering messages, hunting, and recreation/sport. Additionally, mounts can be intuitive and can sense approaching danger (this can be interpreted in-game as their passive wisdom). Frontiersmen frequently relied on their horse to sense when a foe was sneaking up on them.
The possibility of utilizing any to all of these skills is, of course, dependent on your Dungeon Master, but there are abilities a player can invest in to facilitate out-of-combat utility. Beast Bond and Beast Sense (Player’s Handbook) allow rider and mount to share senses, which can aid hunting, sport, and intuition. Casting Haste or Longstrider on a mount will facilitate swift cargo or message delivery.
Another use for mounts out of combat is transporting dead or nearly-dead companions. Though healing is readily available in Dungeons and Dragons, a reduction of an ability score like Strength or Constitution could leave a party member physically unable to carry on. A poisoned individual might also need transportation.
It has been my experience that a mount is usually seen merely as a tool and often forgotten about or disregarded when not in use. How can a Dungeon Master make mounts more meaningful to players? What is lacking is an emotional connection. That creature needs to feel like family to the players!
Take Tolkein’s Bill the Pony, for example. Introducing the reader to this noble steed as mistreated and half-starved, Bill took to adventuring eagerly after being nursed back to health by Sam Gamgee. Bill’s courage and devotion gave readers an affection to the creature, and we cheered when reunited with the beast throughout the journey.
Though a controlled mount may not have many actions available in combat, a Dungeon Master may still give the companion virtuous personality traits. Execute inconsequential actions for the mount, such as tripping a fleeing thief or kicking closed an open door to cut off exposure to a threat. Small actions reap abundant emotional rewards, and the usefulness of the mount will broaden beyond packing loot and traveling fast. Players love useful NPC’s, and that includes mounts.
Other factors that may increase emotional connection to a mount:
- Allow players raise their mount as a hatchling or newborn.
- Tie the mount to a player’s backstory.
- Give the mount a unique quirk or trait that proves beneficial or special to the player. Maybe its noises differ from others of its kind, or it has the ability to raise its eyebrows for comedic moments. Perhaps even make its coloring different like a “shiny” in Pokemon.
- Introduce the mount through means of rescue, whether the player rescues the mount or vice versa! I would gladly overlook a deus ex machina of an elk charging my attacker in my moment of need, and I’d love the creature forever.
- Describe the emotes of the mount. Cute is always a winner here, but noble and intelligent may be more meaningful to your player.
- Provide exclusive “bling” for the mount’s barding.
- Bolster the mount against attacks so that it is harder to kill or damage. A mount will be seen as a tool if it is easily expendable. Players might avoid attachment to anything that they expect will easily die.
- Give the creature a slight edge against its peers: able to carry slightly more or move a bit faster.
In order to ride and control a beast, players should spend downtime training their new companion. There is little guidance in the manuals on how to train an animal, but as suggested on this Stack Exchange Role-Playing Games thread, training in downtime should require a gold cost and workweeks required, similar to crafting magic items in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
Some beasts will be easier to train than others, with factors such as domestication, predatory nature, alignment, owner history (was this creature abused by humanoids? Raised in brutal captivity?), method of acquisition, and intelligence levels. For example, a horse bought from an equestrian trainer can be expected to be controlled nearly instantaneously. Contrast this to a giant lizard, taken from the wild, which is not naturally domesticated or acquainted with the saddle, and may take many months to train.
Dungeon Masters can decide how much effort they wish to put into role playing training. Perhaps only an animal handling check is required once per long rest to keep an animal tamed until deemed trained. Perhaps training an animal is central to the plot of a quest, which can add an emotional depth to a player’s interest in their mount.
Certain skills and class traits, such as Animal Handling and the Ranger Beast Master archetype, should give players an upper hand in training an animal. Spells like Animal Friendship, Beast Bond, and Speak with Animals can also speed up the process.
A mount with higher intelligence should be perceived more like a non-player character than a controlled mount. Dungeon Masters may wish to role play these creatures to engage players continually with their mounts. This can provide enriching story development and a deeper emotional connection to the campaign.
An intelligent mount is one who has Intelligence of 6 or higher. Beasts that can communicate with players are especially interesting in this category. Some examples include Dragons, Giant Owls (understands Common, Elvish, and Sylvan), Giant Eagles (understands Common and Auran), Centaurs, Unicorns, and so forth. DM Dave has listed monsters by Intelligence in this article for your easy reference.
Intelligent mounts may have their own end goals for adventuring: seeking treasure, redeeming their slayed clan, repaying a debt, fighting evil. Acquiring such a mount would take tact and patience. Training this sort of mount may not be as intensive if the mount is privy to the adventurer’s plans, but learning to effectively ride a mount in-combat will still require some practice.
An intelligent mount could become loyal, or could decide its path no longer aligns with a player’s, a tool to help a character achieve introspection and development. Intelligent mounts can nudge players in the right direction, give advice, or warn players of unforeseen trials.
The hard truth is that mounts are often collateral damage. With limited hit points, it is expected that a mount will eventually perish in battle. However, this can cause a player to disengage with the game if done distastefully or off-handedly, especially to a mount the player really connects with. Rather than allowing mounts to become easy cannon-fodder, find ways to help players prevent the death of their beloved beasts: armor, healing, tactful maneuvering, luck, and allowance for death savings throws instead of outright death at zero hit points.
Nevertheless, if a mount does succumb to a deathly blow, grant the players an opportunity for last words and an homage they will never forget. Allow the mount to self-sacrifice in an epic battle scene, followed by a tender cut scene between mount and player. Allow NPC’s and party members to give a proper funeral and burial, per the rites of the land. Perhaps leave the player something to remember the beast by, such as an item, advice, or offspring, like a phoenix rising from its ashes.
There are many considerations with having a mount: cost of feeding, practicality in dungeons, what to do with mounts in a new town (tie to a mounting post, leave in stables?) and what to do in the wilderness. Even keeping a mount alive in-combat, with their limited hit points, is a major deterrent for many players.
Choosing a mount particular to a terrain should help with the problem of feeding: a horse or elk will find plants suitable to graze on in a pasture or forest; a giant lizard will find bugs, plants, and animals for eating in a desert, which is familiar to them.
Costs associated with maintaining a mount may be settled during downtime, similar to crafting magic items or honing a skill or craft. Dungeon Masters may not even be interested in the particulars of maintaining a mount, so long as there is an obvious cost that takes place behind the scenes.
The problem of where to park your mount while dungeoneering and adventuring is a more interesting topic. It could be very dangerous and stupid to take a large beast down a small cave, but leaving it outside may expose it to predators or enemies who would scare, steal, or eat it.
Perhaps the best solutions are to give your mount sanctuary, employ expendable/impermanent creatures, or find an unusual mount suited for dungeon-delving.
Tying your mount to a tree may not be sufficient if you wish to find it when you return. We recommend utilizing spells that could give it a hideaway while you’re away. Any sort of demiplane or protected pocket like Tiny Hut can help defend your mount, but it may give away your position at the entrance of the dungeon.
Glyphs of Warding may warn you of predators approaching the dungeon, and a triggered spell can also be expended to further hide your mount (Invisibility, for instance, or Rope Trick if the mount has rope-ascending capabilities). However, this method is expensive for spell slots (and money in the case of Glyph of Warding).
Sequester, a very expensive spell, would do well to keep your mount hidden while your party enters a dungeon. Talk to your Dungeon Master about creating a homebrewed magic item that casts Sequester only upon your mount a limited number of times per day. Otherwise, I hope your mount’s guaranteed wellbeing is worth 5,000 gold pieces to you!
Spellcasters have many spells at their disposal for conjuring impermanent mounts: Find Steed, Find Greater Steed (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything), Giant Insect, Conjure Animals, Conjure Elemental, Conjure Fey, Conjure Woodland Being or Create Undead will all do the trick, though some of these mounts last only a short duration, and some require you to be a small size.
As mentioned, a mount must be one size larger than the rider, and possess anatomy suitable for mounting. This can be on the shoulders or back of a bipedal creature (perhaps in an unusual saddle or carrier), upon the exoskeleton of a giant creepy crawler, or saddled to a giant lizard.
For dungeon delving, a giant spider may be an excellent mount. For swamps, perhaps a giant alligator can navigate murky waters. Giant goats are suited to traversing cliff sides, and a Wyvern can peruse the skies while you’re adventuring underground.
Most mounts have limited hit points, and despite the protection of barding, collateral damage happens. If you can find a clever way to allow a horse to wear the required ring (maybe wearing the ring with a chain necklace will work), Warding Bond can help keep your mount alive, increasing its AC and resistance to damage. Similar spells and healing abilities will also be useful in preserving your mobile ally.
Keep in mind that a more intelligent mount may have an easier time staying alive, as they can maneuver themselves and communicate about battle plans. Consider using the spell Awaken to make an ordinary beast intelligent.
A more unusual method (run it by your Dungeon Master first) is training your mount in downtime for better defensive stats and maneuvers. Alternatively, use your skills in Herbalism to concoct strengthening treats for your steed; craft magic items that would provide better armor or protection.
Though often underutilized or disregarded for its complication or nuance, a mount can be a helpful tool for all types of players. Whether permanently kept or temporarily used, a mount can accomplish in-game character development, combat maneuvers, favor-currying jobs, and plot advancement.