In this article Ryder continues with part two of their series that talks all about the magical mounts in RPGs and how they work. This time with more manes!
Last time we trotted along how to characterize beasts of burden, we stuck to some pretty basic fare. Well, as basic as magical horse-lizards get. What many people gleaned from that article is that D&D has two main fashions of working with a mount: training and bonding. What the game is a little less straightforward with is that this can only apply to creatures under a certain intelligence level… without veering into some ethically questionable territory.
Today, I’ll be cantering the cornucopia of creatures who look like they should be as simple as slapping a saddle on and riding into the sunset- but are not.
Worgs are big cool dogs. Well, Mastiffs are big cool dogs, worgs are big, intelligent wolves. Like classic wolves, worgs are endurance hunters, known to chase prey using the advantage granted by a pack, or relying on their individual wits and going it alone. They tend towards prey smaller than themselves, such as sickly or otherwise low risk creatures. This is not to say worgs pose no threat to more robust creatures or humanoids- like a pride of lions, worgs will sick their keen senses on fitter, larger creatures- and even humanoids- when pickings are slim. Worgs are notably evil, but this doesn’t play much into much inherit cruelty when it comes to their survival- they defend themselves when threatened, and hunt to survive. It’s not the worg’s fault farmers encroach on their territory with all those delicious, nutritious sheeps.
The worg is not limited to an animalistic life, however. They speak common, goblinoid, and a language all their own. They will bargain with what are typically considered ‘evil’ races for a mutually beneficial arrangement: this is how worgs end up as orcish attack dogs, mounts for goblins, and breeding stock for ogres. If that last note left you feeling a little funny in the tummy, it should have. When captive, worgs may find themselves held against their will even once they have determined a partnership no longer viable. It’s said that the safest place to be around an aggressive horse is on it’s back, and many goblins have figured this out with worgs. If you piss off a comparably massive, fast hunter, you’re best off in the one place it can’t reach you.
Pros of worgs:
Big cool smart wolf. Perfect size for small creatures to ride. Will eat your enemies. Keen senses makes for a great tracker. Can be negotiated with.
Cons of worgs:
Might turn and kill you. Has its own wants and desires, and might hoof it (paw it?) if your’s don’t match up.
Not just a horse with wings, a celestial force of chaotic good. These are communal creatures, living in a family band if not a full herd. They will fight if absolutely necessary, but otherwise flee from trouble. They are dive bombers when it comes to combat, often competing for land with other flying creatures such as griffons and even dragons. Pegasi have some affinity for religion, and may be loyal to a similarly good-aligned god. A pegasus is capable of understanding Elven, Sylvan, Celestial, and common, though it can’t speak. It seems reductive to assume it cannot, however, communicate.
The D&D history of pegasi is dotted with inconsistency in regards to if they can be domesticated, with notes of training them from the egg, as well as being entirely untameable in 5e. Considering their similarity to Griffons and Hippogriffs, whose eggs are valuable commodities for hopeful riders, the presence or lack of Pegasi eggs to train as mounts can be an incredibly telling bit of worldbuilding for a campaign. After all, we do know that Pegisi are sometimes captured with the express interest of altering them into something far more sinister. You can form something of a bond with a pegasus in the same way you can bond with any friendly NPC, but a pegasus will reject a rider who strays from a good and righteous path. There is a way to bring your feather pony with you if you take a turn for the dark side, but it calls for a firm commitment in your turn to the dark side.
Pros of a Pegasus:
Super fast, lets everyone around know what a goodie-goodie you are
Cons of Pegasus:
Literally making moral judgements on you 24/7
It’s hard to beat the aesthetic of a nightmare. Nightmares are real bad horses, or rather bad pegasi. The origin of nightmares is debated- there are remarks about selectively breeding them in their D&D flavor text- but the tried and true method for creating this psychological terror pony is to traumatically remove a pegasus’s wings. Needless to say, the inverse of a pegasus is of course, quite evil. These are voluntary predators, not needing to eat, but enjoying an especially cruel hunt. They cannot speak, but with their ability to appear in dreams as well as their understanding of Abyssal, Infernal, and Common, nightmares can communicate well enough to negotiate when it comes to serving as a mount. Nightmares typically want to inflict pain and suffering, but that is not to say a nightmare will be down to pack around any old fuddy-duddy with a perchance of mischief. Much like worgs, nightmares will turn on their riders if they decide it’s not really working out, or if the methodology of their rider’s evil doesn’t match their own. Considering these critters can fly at a speed of 90ft and slip into the ethereal plane at will, you probably want to stay on its ‘good’ side if you intend to be riding it.
Nightmares have been recorded through D&D history as mounts and servants of notable baddies, but a closer look at these tales keys one into a core fact: if a nightmare doesn’t want to serve, it won’t. This is a creature so prideful and selfish, it will choose its own demise or torment rather and be forced into servitude it doesn’t desire.
Pros of Nightmares:
Super fast, super spooky. Immune to fire. Doesn’t seem to require food.
Cons of Nightmares:
Will only serve evil aligned creatures, and they have to be to the nightmare’s liking. Will trick you into trusting it as part of a long con to murder you horribly. Bad dreams.
Unicorns are celestial creatures, like pegasus (pegasi?), and yet mainly interact with fey entities. A unicorn is incredibly long lived, able to stick it out well past 1,000 years. For all of that life, these are creatures who have seen a lot- similar to high elves- and may have a more removed opinion on things that do not directly strike as evil or immediately relevant to themselves. Sort of a benign presence unless you mess with their forests. That being said, they are celestial good creatures, and act as servants of good aligned Gods.
A unicorn is far closer to a sacred creature than any other mount we’ve covered. While most other mounts have flavor text with reference to creating bargains with riders or being straight up domesticated, the unicorn’s history is far more scarce. These are not creatures with whom you will bargain for partnership, rather a unicorn will come to your aid if ordained by the Godly being it serves. As horsey as it looks, riding one would be a lot like summoning your planar ally to ask for a piggy-back ride- they’re a lot more use doing coming else, or acting independently. The situations where a unicorn will make a better mount than ally are going to be fleeting at best- it’s basically a fast, stabby cleric, so limiting it to packing a paladin around is really not using it to its fullest.
Unicorns are notable in that like wyverns, their bodies are rich in alchemical ingredients. Don’t let that be a motive to go hunting them without a lot of careful thought however- these are sacred creatures. The Gods are not fond of people bloodletting their sparkle ponies for magic elixirs, and their mortal followers will seek to strike down anyone who does. Unicorn vigilantism may be one of the coolest things I learned about researching for this article.
So, can you ride it? Technically yes, but do you really want to?
Pros of the Unicorn:
Magical abilities up the wazoo. Immune to poison, charm effects, and paralysis. Incredible support unit. Built in stabby bits.
Cons of the Unicorn:
The Gods will literally kill you for hurting it. A look, but don’t touch type of being.
So, when it comes down to it, why do you want an intelligent mount? The abilities and improved stats are lovely of course, but at a certain point, a creature should act more as an NPC than a standard, instinct-driven animal. NPCs ally with PCs because when they are getting something out of the arrangement. Unless you’re trying to make a point about a character’s cruelty, or the world your players are exploring, intelligent ‘mounts’ are less in the same vein as horses and lizards, and more like alignment specific transport and combat support. Don’t get me wrong, captivity of intelligent creatures is a viable world building tool, and homebrews allow for re-statting intelligent creatures as one pleases- but if you’re looking to leave creatures as they are in the monster manual, push your players, and yourself, to really think through what they’re really looking for in a mount.
What are you looking for when your character desires a steed? What mounts did we miss that you’d like to see an equestrian take on? Leave us a comment, and there’s a chance we’ll include it in the next installment of Fantastic Mounts!