Frustration with the Riding Proficiency

Although I’ve owned the books for a couple of years now, I’ve only finally begun running my first full-scale ACKS campaign in the past month. In running a primarily wilderness-based game thus far, a couple of my players and I have developed some concerns that the Riding proficiency as written is deeply problematic.

First, some context: in many years of playing/running D&D 3.x, one of the features of that ruleset I came to despise is the skill or feat “tax”. This is a skill or feat in which you don’t really want to invest your limited character build resources, but for which the rules of the game force your hand (whether in plain text or by implication). A perfect example of the implied version of this tax are the Listen and Spot skills. By mid to high level, no character has any chance to notice anything with a level-appropriate level of stealth or concealment unless they’ve heavily invested in those two skills. If Listen and Spot are cross-class, that represents a heavy investment of the character’s skill points just to remain relevant in any situation in which awareness is of any importance at all. On the feat end, any warrior oriented feat tree that isn’t Power Attack has similar problems; multiple feats must be purchased over the life of the character just to keep up with what a decently strong guy with Power Attack and a greatsword can achieve with only that one feat.

One of the great things about ACKS is that it’s managed to avoid this problem to a large degree, all the while substantially expanding the character building options from the game’s B/X roots.

I think the secret of ACKS’ success in this regard is the fact that no proficiencies (well, Adventuring, but everyone gets that) are required for a character to do anything that his B/X counterpart could do already. In each case, a character with no proficiencies at all can perform every action that an equivalent B/X character can perform by the rules as written. Proficiencies are icing on the cake, either allowing actions that have no clear rules to govern them in B/X, or else substantially improving a character’s chance of success on those actions for which B/X does have rules.

Except for Riding.

The Riding proficiency stands alone in that it takes something away from every B/X character coming into the system, then makes them spend one of their very limited proficiency slots in order to get it back. In our gaming group, only one of our three martial characters (and none of the non-martial ones) was willing to pay that tax, because the others each had another general proficiency that was more intrinsic to their character concept at 1st level. It should probably also be noted that the character who did take Riding is the only martial character who rolled a high enough Intelligence to gain an extra general proficiency at first level, so it didn’t cost him as much to spend it on Riding. Without a high Intelligence, every other character is stuck: one general proficiency is all they’re going to get until 5th level, which is an eternity.

The rules have punished them for that (reasonable) choice in every outdoor combat encounter we’ve had since. The entire group travels mounted, but only one character can so much as swing a sword from the back of a horse. Everybody else has to spend a turn dismounting before they can do anything other than retreat, which has the effect of granting the enemy an effective surprise round in every encounter.

To add insult to injury, a 0-level character can be trained as cavalry without needing any additional proficiencies. After all, an adult 0-level character is assumed to already have all their proficiencies in place when their military training begins, and 50% of them will be ready to fight as light cavalry (having gained a phantom Riding proficiency) after 3 months of drilling. No other proficiency or its equivalent can be passed along in this way, which highlights the fact that the Riding proficiency as it currently stands is dysfunctional.

What happens when a 0-level mercenary with cavalry training gains enough experience to reach 1st level?

Is he forced to take Riding as a proficiency (losing something he already had) or does he forget his cavalry training?

Alternately, is the game assumption that only those 0-level conscripts who already possess the Riding proficiency are suitable for cavalry training? If that’s the case, then why does it take so much longer to train them than it does equivalent infantry, and what are we to conclude from the apparent prevalence of expert horsemanship among the peasantry when it’s such a precious commodity in professional adventurers.

Am I alone in this, or has someone else had similar problems with the way this proficiency is put together? What solutions have other folks adopted to bridge this gap, both mechanically and from the standpoint of our assumptions about the larger game world? I’ve got some house rules of my own that I’m looking to institute, but I’d like to benefit from the collective wisdom of the community and Autarchs before I make any final rulings on such a pivotal issue.

I can answer, at least, the 0-level character leveling up.

ACKS Core page 115.

The new 1st level character retains any general proficiencies he already knew. When he advances to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th level, he must remove one of these pre-existing general proficiencies (representing erosion of skills over time). When he reaches 4th level, he acquires the Adventuring proficiency.

I think I largely agree with you; I’d be inclined to alter Riding to inflict a penalty to attacks while mounted, instead of forbidding them. I also like the saddle rule as a penalty for nonproficient riders (normally, a character who is not using a military saddle must save vs Paralysis whenever they’re hit or fall off. My inclination right now is to say that without a Riding proficiency, you cannot benefit from a military saddle, and must always save or fall off when hit.)

Yes, that bit of the text covers how 0-level NPCs acquire Adventuring over time to replace a few NPC proficiencies, but it doesn’t tell me what happens to a guy who’s trained as Cavalry and later gains a level, vis-a-vis the Riding proficiency.

The simplest way to cover that instance, perhaps is when that cavalryman hits veteran/1st level, he starts with his Fighter or Explorer 1st level General or Class proficiency being Riding - much like starting with a template.

At that same moment, his “Armor Training” (ACKS:PC) proficiencies gained from his cavalry training time are subsumed into his Fighter or Explorer class abilities. (given that non-vet mercs hit at 11+, it can be assumed they’re equally bad in all weapons and no weapon training proficiency needs to exist)

For simplicity/consistency with existing rules, I would treat it as a character using a weapon they’re not proficient in - they attack as a 0-level human if mounted and not proficient in Riding.

I have not experienced this problem, perhaps because our parties are usually mixed foot and mounted. (In retrospect, I’m fascinated it’s worked out that way; there have been instances when riders separated from the main group, but they are often avoiding combat.)

I was spurred to check the rules, and I see: “In lieu of moving
or attacking, the rider may dismount.” I have not been playing this way, but using the standard rules for moving and attacking (essentially treating dismounting similarly to standing up from prone; see the rules and discussion on these boards for more about that.) I do not think dismounting should be worse than standing up from prone, and I wonder if that one sentence is worded in an overly specific way.

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, I think 100% mounted combatant parties should be rare. When I think of examples of such, I think of “born-in-the-saddle” cultures. (In ACKS terms, such cultures might be receiving a free Riding proficiency.)

Also, I’m reminded of a show with R. Lee Ermey, in which Old West re-enactors try to teach him to shoot a cavalry pistol from horseback. The technique for firing at a gallop requires riding and shooting a target at essentially point-blank range. Ermey, a former marine and frequent recreational shooter tries the technique and fails, over and over and over … He eventually gives up, successfully hitting the target once when driving by on a motorcycle.

Fighting from horseback is hard, really, really hard.

I’m surprised that the requirement to dismount is perceived as being so onerous, given that most wilderness encounters begin at long range that makes immediately sword attacks impossible anyway. The benefit of riding is that you can charge and close fast as a melee attacker, but it’s not as though losing a round to a group at long range is catastrophic in the same way that it would be in a dungeon.

Most wilderness opponents don’t have the benefit of being mounted, so there’s really no disadvantage to just standing in place and waiting for them to slowly advance toward you. Being able to charge with a lance is a special benefit that favors the players, and things that are unique advantages for PCs are good candidates for non-baseline proficiencies.

This post does raise the general simulationist issue, however, of why it isn’t possible to gain certain martial skills just by training over more time instead of leveling up. There are some other skills where this should arguably be possible, and that wouldn’t atrophy so quickly if underused. I might be tempted to allow a house rule where players could start out older (and risk aging penalties sooner) in exchange for additional proficiency slots, to cover the idea of retiring from a previous career in the cavalry, etc, as opposed to just being a wet-behind-the-ears farmboy. That would also be a way to pick up some of the underutilized professions, by making them more or less expensive to “buy” with a given number of years of starting age. This would work well with an alternate system for level-draining effects based on aging (as I recall Alex suggesting a while back), so that starting older would be a definite trade-off.

I don’t think it should be just three months, though. The fact that only a fraction of recruits are suitable for cavalry is an indication that they’ve probably been training to learn to ride well for a longer period of time, even before enlisting.

[quote="EHamilton"] The fact that only a fraction of recruits are suitable for cavalry is an indication that they've probably been training to learn to ride well for a longer period of time, even before enlisting. [/quote]

That's what I took it to mean. Normal folks have 4 Proficiencies, and the fraction who are capable of being trained as cavalry either have Riding, or an open slot. This doesn't make them better than adventurers (remember, they don't have Adventuring!), just able to fight from horseback and act as a cohesive unit.

Once a cavalryman advances to 1st Level as a Fighter, he doesn't initially gain any General Proficiencies, only a Fighter Proficiency. Nor does he have Adventuring. As he increases to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Level, he removes a General Proficiency at each Level, representing the loss of skills through lack of use. At 4th Level, he also gains the Adventuring Proficiency. This process is detailed on pg. 115 of ACKS Core under 0TH LEVEL CHARACTERS AND EXPERIENCE FROM ADVENTURING.

As for what Proficiencies a given Mercenary cavalryman has, this rarely matters, and it's far simpler to assume they can do what they are hired to do without worrying about it. Moreover, it's actually quite difficult for Mercenaries to advance in Level. While the XP process for Mercenaries isn't spelled out explicitly in ACKS Core (that I can remember), it is in Domains at War: Campaigns, and Mercenaries don't get XP from killing stuff, only from the spoils of war.

I've been running an open table campaign for some time, and the party recently came to possess horses. Only a single martial Character, a Fighter, has Riding, and no one has complained about a "Feat tax" (with players who've played both 3.x and BECMI), particularly not the Fighter who chose it! It's part of his Character concept, and provides significant benefit under certain circumstances. That's not really that different from Precise Shooting, with Characters being unable to shoot into melee without it (which I don't remember being explicitly forbidden in B/X).

Neither of the above two Proficiencies seem to fit the parameters of a classic "Feat tax" to me, as both are single selections that grant significant ability that others do not have. They are both far more akin to something like Power Attack than they are to something like Two-Weapon Fighting, Enhanced Two-Weapon Fighting, Even More Better Two-Weapon Fighting, etc.

Whether or not Characters in another game system could attack while riding is pretty much irrelevant. What matters is whether everyone else in this system can, and the answer is, "No, unless you have Riding." Personally, my experience from running the game for a while is that the existence of the Riding Proficiency is a complete non-problem. Your mileage may vary.

Clearly my mileage does vary, since I’m spending my time here posting about it rather than working on other aspects of my game. If it’s never been a problem in your game, then I’m happy for you, but it’s already been one in mine and we’re only two sessions in.

It seems like a lot of the respondents have chosen to focus on the question of what happens when a 0-level cavalryman (who may or may not have had Riding prior to being trained as cavalry) levels up, which was meant to be illustrative of my larger point, rather than the point itself. Let’s forget about that aspect for the time being, as it seems in retrospect to be a distraction.

My true concern is for my players, two of whom are seriously asking me if Riding is meant to be “required” as one of the starting proficiencies for any character who wants to wear medium-heavy armor and adventure outdoors.

You’re right by the way, Bobloblah, neither 0E or B/X has any explicit rules for firing into melee, although the implication I get from reading both Moldvay and Mentzer is that it’s not supposed to happen. Every B/X game in which I’ve played has disallowed it, so I had to look it up just now to be sure. The first mention of shooting into a melee in any edition of the rules is in the 1e Player’s Handbook, and it just says that if you shoot into a melee you should determine the actual target randomly (you may shoot your friends).

Strictly speaking though, you’re right in that B/X doesn’t address it at all, and ACKS specifically forbids it without Precise Shooting. I would hold that it’s a distinction without a difference, since Alex has just codified something for which B/X required a DM ruling.

Riding is different, in that B/X explictly allows any character to fight while mounted, and ACKS takes it away. Now, I absolutely support the idea that fighting from horseback is a specialized skill-set and that dedicated horsemen should be able to do things that mediocre riders should not. Where I have a problem is with the notion that an average rider (one with Adventuring, but not Riding) can ride a horse all day long without difficulty, including riding at a gallop, but can take no combat actions whatsoever unless they dismount. A character who knows how to ride a horse (Adventuring) and knows how to swing a sword should be able to at least try to do those two things together without that privilege hijacking such a significant chunk of their character customization.

My notion of a fair solution is that Adventuring should give a character a limited ability to fight from horseback (albeit with limitations and penalties), but that Riding is necessary for full equestrian combat capacity. Characters that want to specialize in fighting from horseback still need to take the proficiency, but other characters can make do with a few basic combat options while mounted on a properly trained steed.

Have you ever fired an old-school cavalry pistol? I’d be willing to wager that Mr. Ermey would have had equal difficulty cocking and firing that puppy with any accuracy while running a 40m sprint, horseback be damned. Performing any manually complex action, especially one that also requires real-time spatial calculations, while also moving erratically in a physically demanding way (which galloping on horseback and sprinting both qualify, but riding a motorcycle doesn’t as much) is going to be really, really hard.

Besides which, I’d definitely require the Riding proficiency from any character who wanted to try to shoot a bow or crossbow from the back of a galloping horse. That’s clearly a more specialized skill, given how highly regarded the Mongols became for managing it.

That was the first solution I hit upon as well, but I don’t favor it at the moment.

Simulationist problems with the proficiency system aren’t really meant to be the thrust of this thread, although I do think many of them could be addressed by a slightly modified classification system for general proficiencies. That’s a topic for another day, however.

As to whether cavalry-suitable recruits are simply those that have Riding already, I cannot say. I will note that there are 37 general proficiencies available (not counting Adventuring, which 0-level characters cannot take), so the odds of any given character having Riding as one of his four starting proficiencies is roughly 11% if you assume an equal distribution of those proficiencies across the population. While such an equal distribution is unlikely in practice, it’s also worth noting that Knowledge, Labor, Performance, and Profession each represent a multitude of possible proficiencies and are probably the most common of all amongst 0-level characters. I’m not certain that I buy into the notion that 50% of all recuits are going to walk in the door with the Riding proficiency, when I consider those numbers.

Okay, allow me to re-frame then, as I think I came across differently than I intended. You seemed, in your first post, to be implying that there is some kind of objective problem with Riding as a Proficiency. You gave examples of how this was a problem in 3.x, but Riding doesn’t actually operate in the same way that the things you said were a problem do.

Sorry. I only answered it because you asked, and there are relatively clear answers to this one.

I got that, and that’s what I was trying to answer with the anecdotal experience. I think EHamilton and CharlesDM were trying to answer in a similar fashion (but don’t let me put words in their mouths!), in that, in our experience, this isn’t a problem in actual play. Characters don’t need Riding to engage in combat outdoors. It’s an advantage, under certain circumstances, if they have it.

Virtually all the Basic games (other than my own BECMI games, once upon a time) I’ve played in have allowed firing into melee (with everything from random target to a penalty to hit). That’s the trouble with drawing specific conclusions from something that’s not specifically stated, as different people houserule it differently. There really is a difference in old school games between forbidding something, and not mentioning it.

I don’t have my B/X books handy, but can you point out where this is? I assume it’s in the Moldovay Expert book somewhere?

My impression around this is something like the following: clearly, anyone, particularly someone who is good with a bow, could fire into melee. So why can’t PCs attempt to do so? Simplicity. Because the reality of firing into melee is that you’re surprisingly likely to hit (and kill) your friends, what with (typically) firing from behind them. Rather than go through the complexity of tracking and checking all this (Okay, who do we hit? Okay, did he see the shot from that angle? Okay, what’s his AC from behind without noticing?), we just avoid the hassle by saying, “Nope. It might seem like a good idea while you sit there eating Cheetos, but, if you were there, your friends would skin you. Assuming they survived.”

Riding, or more to the point, attacking without Riding, brings up a lot of similar considerations: Okay, what kind of penalty to attack? Hmm, how fast are you riding? Okay, what are the odds that you fall off? Keep in mind that falling off a horse, at any significant speed, particularly while carrying pointy objects, produces a significant chance of death. So, like with Precise Shooting, instead of worrying about all the interim calculations, we just say, “Nope. It might seem like a good idea while you sit there eating Cheetos, but, if you were there, you wouldn’t likely make such a dumb decision. Assuming you didn’t fall off before getting close enough to attack.”

In both cases, ACKS is simply erring on the side of simplicity instead of worrying about the real world complications of these actions, and then ignoring those complications once a Character has invested the resources (i.e., a Proficiency) to make sure they’re really good at them.

Why can Characters ride, even gallop, without Riding? Because overland Movement is relatively leisurely, such that nearly anyone can sit astride a horse for it with a little practice. You can even get a horse to gallop, provided you hang on for dear life. But when you want to gallop, rear, and change direction, possibly without using your hands, while in Combat? You’re either good, or you’re dead.

This ignores the fact that the recruits are not a random sample of the population, but a self-selected group who are looking to get involved in combat. And cavalry pays more.

How about this “House Rule” to give an acks-style solution?

Attacks from horseback may be made at -4 to hit. If attacked on horseback, the character must make a save vs paralyzation to maintain control of the horse.

Thanks for your thoughtful thread.

Your overall assessment of my design intent was correct; I tried to eliminate “skill taxes” and ensure that characters in ACKS possessed all of the abilities that default adventurers in B/X did, even if they did not have proficiencies.

When it came time to assess whether characters should be able to fight while mounted by default, however, I decided they ought not be able to. This was a decision made based on my research into mounted combat. Fighting from horseback is very hard. It wasn’t just mounted archery that was challenging - mounted melee was, too!

Thus, if you believe that fighting while mounted should be a default ability of adventurers, then ACKS does impose a skill tax. If that is causing problems for your game, then you should adjust the rules! Every campaign is a law unto itself. I don’t expect my personal assumptions and assessments to necessarily hold for all Judges at all times.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Allow all characters with Adventuring proficiency to be able to fight while mounted. Riding proficiency includes the ability to fight while mounted in formation.

  2. Allow all characters with Adventuring proficiency to be able to attack in melee while mounted, provided they do not charge; and to attack with missile weapons while mounted, provided they remain stationary.

  3. Allow all characters with Adventuring proficiency to be able to fight while mounted. However, if they charge or are struck they must make a saving throw v. Paralysis in order to remain mounted.

  4. Allow all characters with Adventuring proficiency to be able to fight while mounted. However, if struck they must make a saving throw v. Paralysis in order to remain mounted.

  5. Allow all characters with Adventuring proficiency to be able to fight while mounted. Characters with Riding proficiency gain +1 to attack throws while mounted.

Unlike me, Alex took the Diplomacy Proficiency. He has higher Charisma, too.

I can certainly appreciate the bow to historical realism, which has always been a welcome feature of this game. I am also glad to hear that my instinct as to your general design goals and Riding’s status as an exception is correct. It gives me greater comfort with the system in general and with my capacity to make good choices when house-ruling to fit the needs of my own campaign.

Here’s the thing, I don’t believe that fighting while mounted should be a default ability of all Adventurers, just that the Riding proficiency as it is written solves that problem in an overly binary way. I think there needs to be a level of proficiency in between a) can sit a horse but can’t do anything but hold onto the reins and pray while he’s up there and b) was born in the saddle and treats his mount as an extension of his own body.

These are all interesting solutions and again confirm a lot of my thinking on the subject. Here’s what I’d come up with (mostly independently but I’ve borrowed a few finishing touches from your ideas here):

All characters with Adventuring can engage in melee while mounted, but only with a one-handed weapon; their other hand must remain wrapped tightly around the reins at all times. They may cleave as normal, but do not possess sufficient control of the horse to allow a 5’ step in between attacks.

They may attack with a charge if they succeed on a saving throw v. Paralysis but receive no bonus to their attack throw for the charge; failure on the saving throw means they must abandon their attack to keep control of the mount (but have still ridden into melee range of the opponent and suffer a -2 to AC until their next turn).

If struck, they must make a saving throw v. Paralysis to remain mounted. If they fall from their mount, they take an additional 1d6 damage, doubled if the mount was charging or galloping at the time.

A character may only make bow or crossbow attacks from horseback if the horse remains stationary. One-handed missile weapons may be thrown from a moving horse at a -4 penalty, subject to the same saving throw v. Paralysis if the horse moves at a charging speed. Failure means the weapon is dropped instead of thrown at the target.

To reward characters who do still take the Riding proficiency, I’ve also included some additional benefits for them, including the ability to push a mount for additional speed, resist being unhorsed by trip attempts, or even keep a riding horse under control in combat by using proficiency checks. That also gives a player who wants “the worlds greatest horseman” a reason to take the Riding proficiency multiple times for the same animal.

I realize that my solution is considerably more complex, but it’s easy enough to adjudicate in actual play.

Sounds great! I would love it if you’d write up your full house rules and post them in the House Rules section as well as make it available as a file download. I’m sure you’re not the only one who would appreciate the additional rules.

I’ll do that, but give me a few weeks to field test and tweak it with my own playgroup before I inflict it on anybody else’s.

That is nice and clean, mirroring the combat maneuvers proficiencies.