Wizards of the Coast released a new version of their Cavalier subclass for the Fighter this week via Unearthed Arcana, and if I like it better than the original version of the subclass, it’s nevertheless still not particularly close to being something that I would actually play. That’s a shame. As a former armored cavalry officer, I would really like to find a way to play some kind of mounted heavy cavalryman. I just don’t think WotC is there yet in terms of class design
Full disclosure: Just as this is WotC’s first take on this subclass, so too is it mine. However, my last take was way back during the D&D Next Playtest.
So what is the Cavalry, exactly?
This is one of those questions that I never expect to have to answer but which seems to come up without fail every time I talk about this topic. Most poignantly, I remember having to explain cavalry operations to a young infantry captain on the 2nd Infantry Division operations staff back when I was myself an assistant operations officer in the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry in Korea.
“You’re here from the cavalry?” he said. “So, uh… what does the cavalry do, exactly?”
I mean, really?
At least part of the problem exists in the semi-official break between line Armor units and actual Cavalry units in today’s Army. These units are separated more by the scope of their missions than by any specific bits of training or differences in equipment and organization. Armor Branch has the mission “to close with and destroy the enemy through fire, maneuver, and shock effect.” The Cavalry isn’t technically a separate branch, but its missions are not the same. Cavalry units only rarely take and hold territory. More commonly, they perform reconnaissance and security missions for a larger force and/or operate as a larger force’s mobile reserve. The Cavalry is supposed to get there fast and have enough combat power to make a difference when they arrive. Heavy Armor units are more for smashing through the enemy’s lines and holding territory afterwards.
|You see how this is a mess? Now imagine being on the receiving end.|
Concepts for the Heavy Cavalier
Shock Effect. This is the physical and psychological impact of having fully armed and armored warriors charging at you on horseback. Shock effect is one of the fundamental impacts of heavy cavalry operations because warfare is not just physical. Indeed, D&D makes frequent use of psychological impacts, notably through the Frightened condition. For our purposes, Shock Effect will be similar to the Battlemaster’s Menacing Attack maneuver, though with a distinctly different feel. Where Menacing Attack targets a specific enemy, Shock Effect probably needs to be a burst centered on the target.
Ride Through. The thing about the cavalry is that you’re supposed to strike and then ride away. That’s the whole point. Get there fast; get away fast. Especially during a cavalry charge, you don’t want to get hung up in the middle of the enemy’s line. Bad things can happen. You can get pulled from the saddle, your horse can get killed, etc. You want to be able to strike and ride through, so we need a maneuver that will allow you to do exactly that without allowing a bunch of Opportunity Attacks from the very dismounted troops you were just trying to smash and scatter.
Shield Your Mount. Here’s a secret that shouldn’t come as a surprise—a lot of times the bad guys aim at your horse. Kill the horse, and the knight goes tumbling. Even if he or she survives the fall, that knight is now far less effective. Which is important. A mounted knight should be more effective than a knight who’s been forced to dismount.
This maneuver will take some inspiration from the Protection fighting style.
Shoot from the Saddle. At the risk of political correctness, Unearthed Arcana takes an unaccountably Eurocentric view of the Cavalier. It’s true that we tend to think of European knights as heavy lancers on horseback, but almost everywhere else on Earth, horse archery was the cavalry’s true killer application. The most obvious example was Genghis Khan’s Mongolian horse archers, but even Japanese samurai were as often known for their mounted archery as they were for their katanas. Mounted archery is problematic, however, because D&D’s current rules don’t support much in the way of mounted combat, and—worse—they don’t penalize mounted archery for the uninitiated. That’s a bad oversight, though one that probably doesn’t come up in a lot of games. Still, this makes it tough to come up with a realistic reason to make our would-be Cavaliers want to shoot from the saddle.
Whatever this turns out to be, it needs to be compelling. Effective horse archers were devastating in medieval warfare.
Trample. Unearthed Arcana makes a lot of use of Tripping Attack, presumably because they think you’re going to charge and use your horse’s body to knock opponents down. How else would you trip somebody from horseback? However, I suspect that actually knocking someone down with your horse would be hard to do, especially doing it without slowing your charge or risking getting knocked from the saddle yourself. But your horse could totally trample a dude, and indeed, the write-up for warhorses in the SRD gives them a Trampling ability when they hit with their hooves. Our Cavaliers need a way to take advantage of their mounts’ special abilities.
Revised Maneuvers for the Cavalier
Shock Effect. When you are mounted, wearing heavy armor, and move at least twenty feet directly towards your target before making a melee attack, you may spend one of your superiority dice. Whether your attack hits or misses, your target and its allies within five feet must make Wisdom saving throws or be frightened until the start of your next turn. Note: this maneuver has no effect on creatures larger than your mount.
Design note: The idea here is to allow a mounted charge to scatter a clump of disorganized infantry. With the requirement to move twenty feet before the attack, this maneuver would almost certainly be limited to the first round of combat.
Ride Through. When you are mounted, and you move at least ten feet before and after using your Attack action, you can spend one of your superiority dice, adding the value rolled to your AC and to your mount’s AC against Opportunity Attacks until the start of your next turn.
Design note: I don’t necessarily love this mechanic, but the concept is important. Plus, if you charge a dragon or a cloud giant, you might be happy to have this particular maneuver.
Shield Your Mount. When an attack targets your mount, and you are using a shield, you can use your Reaction to make yourself the target of the attack instead. Roll one or more superiority dice and reduce the damage dealt by the triggering attack by the amount rolled.
Design note: I don’t know how much “game sense” this maneuver will make, but I’ll bet you’d do it a lot in real life. This is especially true if your mount is in danger of dying and you can’t easily replace it. That should be a legitimate concern in-game. Again, it speaks to the value that your mount should add to the so-called mounted subclass.
Shoot from the Saddle. When you are mounted, and you move at least ten feet before and after using your Attack action to make a ranged attack, you can spend one of your superiority dice, adding the value rolled to your AC until the start of your next turn.
Design note: This is all about tactics. You’re nigh unhittable as long as you’re in the saddle and moving. The monsters therefore have to find a way to force you to engage hand-to-hand. That was exactly the problem that China’s army faced against Mongolian horse archers.
Trample. When you are mounted, and you move at least ten feet directly towards your target before making a melee attack, you may spend one or more of your superiority dice to have your mount make one of its attacks instead you. This attack cannot be a multi-attack, but if your mount has a special ability that’s triggered on a hit, it can use that ability when applicable. Roll one or more superiority dice and add the value rolled to the damage your mount’s attack inflicts. Starting at 5th level, you and your mount can both attack on your turn in lieu of you taking one or more of your Extra Attacks. You can still only add your superiority dice to the damage from one of these attacks.
Design note: Trying to leave the Action economy intact. So you can use Trample if you have a Warhorse, and it hits with its Hooves attack, but you can’t use your Wyvern’s multi-attack to make both a Bite and a Claw attack with one Attack action.
Final Thoughts and Comparative Critiques
Brandes Stoddard noted in his write up for Tribality that using Superiority Dice as the core mechanic for this subclass theoretically opens up all of the Battlemaster’s maneuvers to the Cavalier, especially if you get the right feat support. I can think of no reason why this should be disallowed or even discouraged. In fact, I might argue that the maneuvers here should be available to the Battlemaster—and vice versa—though the other stuff that makes the various subclasses unique ought to remain. The differences therefore aren’t based on mechanical ingenuity; they ought to be thematic and mission-oriented. Battlemasters probably won’t have much reason to take one of the maneuvers off this list, but it’s hardly off-theme to allow them to have some facility with mounted combat. Similarly, allowing one of the Cavalier’s maneuvers to come from the Battlemaster list is probably a good idea for those times when he has to fight dismounted.
Brandes also notes that few D&D games make extensive use of mounted combat, and I’ll own that this is true. I’ve even tried in some of my games to encourage the use of mounts, though the effort has been a mixed bag. When Players had a reason to use a mount—for example, because they were underwater and needed their characters to have a swimming speed—the idea worked well. When I gave them mounts without an associated task and purpose, the idea bogged down.
Again, this is down to theme and to the way that Players see their Characters. If you want to play a mounted knight, and you’re serious about it, then the game needs to give you that flexibility. It needs to give you a reason to do it. Having a mount need to adds something to your character, so losing your mount must take something away.
Mounted combat probably makes more sense in an outdoor, exploratory-type campaign, but there are also lots of ways to let Characters be mounted in dungeons. Maybe they’re Player-designed (i.e. “I knew we were going down into this dungeon, so I bought a Giant Riding Lizard at the Svirfneblin stables yesterday.”), or maybe the GM facilitates the issue via a figurine of wondrous power. There are even spells that can conjure mounts. Perhaps mounted combat requires a bit of ingenuity from the Players, but that’s not a bad thing.
Whatever the final design turns out to be, the designers need to understand the mounted combat archetype (Hint: “Death before dismount!”) and the advantages that being mounted confers. As with cavalry in real history, your Cavalier should be able to get there in a hurry and make a difference through applied combat power once he or she arrives. At a minimum, a Cavalier ought to enable your party to engage a larger than normal battlespace. This makes sense when paired with stealthier characters using a hunter/killer concept or with ranged characters trying to use battlefield depth. Maybe your Rogue or Ranger finds the enemy before your Cavalier charges by way of forcing the issue on the party’s terms. Or maybe the Cavalier charges into melee at long range, keeping the party’s shooters at a safe distance while allowing the other melee characters to maneuver to their own best advantage. Regardless, there can be no successful implementation of the Cavalier concept without an understanding of what the concept itself ought to be trying to accomplish.