This is a guest article written by Harry Menear of Black Citadel RPG.
Whether you’re a noble paladin charging headfirst at a rampaging dragon astride her faithful warhorse, a wizard slinging spells from the back of a soaring griffon, or a halfling trotting along on the back of their pet dog, here’s the basics of what you need to know about mounted combat in Dungeons & Dragons 5e…
But mostly this article is going to chart my journey from disillusionment and disappointment to bloodthirsty joy as I research how to, RAW, do the one thing that everyone actually wants to use a mount for in D&D 5e: charge an enemy while mounted, attack them, and ride out of range again (preferably while laughing). Welcome to my guide to the fantasy drive-by: the Ride-By Stabbing.
First, let’s look at the short, seemingly simple rules for mounted combat in the D&D 5e Basic Rules. The rules for mounted combat in D&D 5e take up just half a page of the Basic Rules, divided equally into flavor text (with a note on the broadest possible definition of a mount), rules on Mounting and Dismounting, and how to control your mount in battle.
Despite the rather straightforward rules, mounted combat is one of those areas that can frequently trip up DMs and players alike — so much so that Jeremy Crawford did a whole Sage Advice segment on the Dragon Talk Podcast about it.
How Does Mounted Combat Work in D&D 5e?
In D&D 5e, a mount is defined rather simply. According to the SRD, you can ride any “willing creature that is at least one size larger than you and that has an appropriate anatomy.”
That obviously leaves some questions of what exactly constitutes a mount open to interpretation, but halflings have RAW been riding big dogs since 3rd edition, so I tend to err on the side of making my players happy.
Mounting such a creature takes up half of your movement and can only be done once per turn, much like getting up from being prone. If you don’t have half of your movement remaining, you cannot mount a creature on that turn.
If you are mounted and your mount moves involuntarily (as the result of falling or being hit by a spell like Thunderwave, for example), you must pass a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw to avoid being thrown off (especially dangerous if you’re riding something that flies), landing within 5 ft of the mount. If you are knocked prone while mounted, you must make the same saving throw. If your mount is knocked prone while you’re riding it, you can use your reaction to dismount it as it falls and land on your feet. Otherwise, you fall prone in a space within 5 feet of where the mount lands.
There are two kinds of mount; controlled and independent.
A controlled mount (like a horse or donkey) usually has a low intelligence score and/or has been trained to bear a rider. It shares its rider’s initiative count and acts either immediately before its rider takes their turn or immediately after. On its turn a controlled mount can only take the Dash, Disengage, and Dodge actions while the rider is commanding it. If a controlled mount has its own attacks and isn’t being ridden, it attacks, flees, or otherwise acts at the DM’s discretion.
Independent mounts (usually more intelligent and powerful creatures, like dragons or unicorns) act on their own turn in the initiative order and, while they may listen to instructions from their rider, aren’t obligated to follow them.
And…that’s about it.
Ride-By Stabbing — A User’s Guide
When you think about mounted combat and its benefits versus fighting on foot, one of the first things that leaps to mind is being able to charge into an enemy, smack them with your melee weapon, and ride away again before they have a chance to react.
Now, this tactic is possible in D&D 5e, but we have to do a bit of rules lawyering to make it work without incurring Attacks of Opportunity. An AoO occurs when a creature moves out of melee range of an enemy (usually 5ft, unless the attacker has a reach weapon), whereupon the enemy can use their reaction to attack them.
The rules for mounted combat state that if your mount “provokes an opportunity attack while you’re on it, the attacker can target you or the mount.” This obviously puts a bit of a kink in our plans. However, you can get around this issue by having your mount take the Disengage action on its turn (or dodge if you think there’s a chance that an AoE spell will be coming your way), which allows it to ignore Attacks of Opportunity. Still, what’s to stop the attack of opportunity from targeting the rider?
This is the slightly fiddly bit. Because you are using your mount’s movement speed not your own, you are technically under the effects of forced movement. The rules for Attacks of Opportunity state that you “don’t provoke an opportunity attack when you teleport or when someone or something moves you without using your movement, action, or reaction.” Therefore, as long as your mount is taking the Disengage action, you can ride past enemies without them attacking you.
However, because your mount moves either before or after your turn, you can’t break up your separate turns into move, attack, move, like you’re a single creature. What you can do is use your Reaction to ready an action (“I will attack the Orc as soon as I’m in melee range”), then end your turn and have your mount ride by the target, triggering your readied action.
Obviously, this doesn’t let you make use of your Extra Attack if you’re a martial character, which is an issue, and actually makes the best drive-by mounted stabbing contenders characters with big single-hit damage potential, like rogues with Sneak Attack (guarantee that damage with the Mounted Combatant feat), paladins (SMITE!), and Hexblade Warlocks.
Of course, if you don’t want to go to all this trouble, just do what the Mongols did to completely decimate two-thirds of the known world in two generations: buy a bow. Use the superior mobility of a mount to outrun your enemies, stop, shoot them a few times, and keep riding. If your enemies also have ranged weapons and you can ride into range, shoot them (using a readied action as mentioned above), then ride away again laughing all the way back to Xanadu.
The Mounted Combatant Feat
Lastly, if you want to maximize your potential while astride your trusty horse, dragon, or 7,2’ Barbarian friend (at what point do shoulders become “appropriate anatomy” for riding, exactly?), there really is no better option than the Mounted Combatant feat, which grants the following benefits.
- You have advantage on melee attack rolls against any unmounted creature that is smaller than your mount.
- You can force an attack targeted at your mount to target you instead.
- If your mount is subjected to an effect that allows it to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, it instead takes no damage if it succeeds on the saving throw, and only half damage if it fails.
The combined offensive, defensive, and survivability-focused benefits of this feat take the concept of being mounted from a kind of niche benefit to something you could plan a campaign around. Seriously, for all the DMs out there who want to do a “knights fighting battles and questing around on horses” campaign (but can’t convince their players to have a go at Pendragon), I would consider giving out this feat as a reward for joining a knightly order. It’s just that good.
That’s all from me on the subject of mounted combat. It’s surprisingly simple, often overlooked, and with a bit of clever rules usage, you can absolutely fulfill your dream of riding at full tilt past a goblin, and smacking its bloody head off like you’re playing an especially grisly version of polo.
Until next time, happy adventuring.