I’m slowly wrapping up my 3.5 campaign, and it looks like my next D&D game will be 4e. This is something I wouldn’t have imagined 18 months ago, but 4e has grown on me. (Though I’m interested in Fantasycraft, which apparently just came out, but it’s really hard to convince my players to try a different system and the Spycraft core rules, while utterly enthralling in their depth, look like they might be on just the wrong side of too complicated for me — barely. I dunno. But, anyway, about the mounts…)
My next campaign is on a world I am calling Cret. It is a world with all the standard fantasy races… and dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs. The world has been settled for a long time in mortal terms, but it’s still a young, vibrant, and powerful world, filled with deep jungles, massive swamps, shallow inland seas, and strange eldritch things lurking in the depths. Anyway, while I’m playing fast-and-loose with the general timeline, mixing Pleistocene Megalodons with Permian Triolobites (hardly the first time I’ve done this sort of thing) I don’t want horses, mules, or donkeys. So I set about creating some dinosaur mounts, which led to some interesting design decisions that I shall elucidate…
I don’t care about the design intent of 4e — I want my world to make sense. This means things like making sure the riding beasts I design make sense for the world in which they exist, not just as treasure or equipment for a handful of PCs. This means, in turn, thinking about the roles the beasts might fill and why someone might choose animal "a" over animal "b". Which mounts are more common, any why? Who uses them? At the same time, I need to think about the fact PCs will be riding these creatures, and that they should not be useless in combat or have one which is so amazingly good I need to explain why every NPC on the planet isn’t riding them. And, of course, they ought to look and feel cool — or if they don’t, have their "uncoolness" make sense in the world. (The Plodfoot is the example of this. It’s utterly unheroic, but PCs may want to ride them over long distances through swamps, and they should expect to see peasants on them, and so on.)
So anyway, here’s some design notes on each beastie, often with rambling digressions.
Plodfoot: The Plodfoot is, basically, a small short-necked sauropod. It is the "mule" of the world of Cret, at least the small part of it I’ve detailed so far. It’s stubborn, slow moving, doesn’t eat much, and is very good at trekking through muck and mire. This involved coming up a new mechanic, as seen in its Swampwalker power. Basically, 4e has pretty sparse rules on overland travel, so there’s not a lot of dials and levers to work with. The one "travel speed" mechanic they have is the "amount of difficult terrain" chart, so that’s what I worked with. This also leaves a lot to the DMs discretion, both a strength and weakness of 4e. There is no official or codified "Swamp" or "Mud" terrain, per se. Almost all interesting battlefield terrain is lumped into "Difficult Terrain", but making the Plodfoot ignore all difficult terrain would make it an agile leaper, not a stolid plodder. So I basically toss it into the DMs court to decide if any particular difficult terrain "counts" for the Plodfoot’s ability. Is foisting this off on the DM a net gain over a page of specific terrain types? On the one side, you have the problem of deciding if you wany "Swamp, Deep", "Swamp, Shallow", "Swamp, Reed-Choked", or "Swamp, Bubbling" for your encounter and memorizing or looking up a dozen different possible modifiers. On the other side, you have the "one size fits all" concept of "Difficult Terrain", which can make abilities less flavorful and reduces the feeling of "reality" to the world — there’s no difference between swampy water, debris and clutter, deep sands, or sharp rocks. Anything which interacts with "Difficult Terrain" works equally well with all of them. Given the choice between going very much against the general design intent of 4e and thus making this mount less useful for most players, or going with the flow, invoking the spirit of "Exception Based Design" and punting a small amount of work back to the DM, I chose the latter. See what I mean about rambling digressions? (But I think it’s often interesting to know why designers make the decisions they do, and I rather egotistically assume anyone reading this might be at least marginally curious as to my thought patterns.)
Riding Longclaw: Ok, you can’t have a dinosaur laden world without riding raptors, can you? So, naturally, this was the first mount I came up with. Again, though, the worldbuilder in me just won’t shut up. Meat-eating animals are almost never used as mounts — they’re too costly too feed. OK, I says, first, these are rare beasts — they’re the mounts of elite warriors, not farmers and merchants. Second, we’re postulating a very rich, very vibrant world, a world where things like the Seismosaurus can get enough to eat. This changes some parts of the equation. Third… why not work this in? And, again, we get back to some mechanics. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition wants to shove all that "eating" and "drinking" stuff off to the side, with some very abstract and slightly broken rules for lack of food and water. (As written, you need to eat only one meal every 3 weeks to suffer no ill effects from hunger.) And there’s absolutely no hint of rules on food for mounts — at best, you can decide a mount counts as two "people" for these purposes. Again, though, I didn’t want to write "Starvation and Suffering", a 40 page supplement on eating, complete with caloric value tables. (Aftermath, a post-disaster game by FGU, thoughtfully included the nutritional value of everything from cockroaches to human flesh.) So my fudge here is the Ravenous Beast power. This power models the fact that the creature eats so much, any attempt to find or forage food for a party including one will suffer a penalty. It’s not that it makes it hard to find food, it makes it hard to find enough. This abstraction seems to do the job. (If I had my way, it would be something like "-2 per Longclaw in the party", but this stuck me as getting too finicky for 4e. Abstract, abstract, abstract, is the 4e motto, and I feel it’s my job as a designer for a game to stick to the game’s core design principles as much as possible, and not impose my own "druthers" on it. For 4e, I feel obliged to create the fewest mechanics needed to achieve the desired effect.
Whiptail: I wanted something fast. Really fast. The equivalent of a racehorse, something which could be ridden by scouts and messengers. I also, again, wanted a reason why this wouldn’t be the only animal anyone would ever choose. When it comes to PCs, the economic constraints on normal folks just don’t exist, and they quickly reach the point where any semi-mundane equipment costs them, in effect, pocket change. There’s also that pesky "worldbuilding" thing again — there must be a reason that people choose slower mounts. So we have the "Easily Exhausted" power. The whiptail can cover 60 miles in a day — and then has to rest. It’s perfect for Pony Express type setups where there’s a fresh mount waiting (but that requires a high level of civilization and organization). It’s also likely miltaries will keep a few with them to race orders to nearby divisions, but not rely on them for regular travel. They’re also much weaker than most mounts — riders must be small and lightly armored. (Of course, 4e’s strength/carry rules are 50 different kinds of broken when it comes to mounts, as they decided to use linear Strength instead of 3e’s exponential Strength, a decision which really didn’t save anyone any complexity or math but just mandates your Dragonborn Paladin can’t ride anything in the Player’s Handbook.)
Warbeak: Of course, with all of the various "why this mount isn’t common" logic I’d been working on, I had to come up with what mount is common, and that’s the Warbeak. Borrowing from some of the nasty, nasty, birds of prehistory, the Warbeak is a flightless biped. It’s an omnivore (even if the historical models were all flesh eaters), so it’s easy to keep fed, but it’s also not going to shy away from blood. It provides a useful benefit to a rider in combat, but the Longclaw is more of a fighter, especially in a group. So this becomes the default "Warhorse" of the campaign era, the primary mount of elite soldiers.
There’s some niches left to fill. I don’t really have a "cavalry’ beast, but I think a "Heavy Warbeak" or "Armored Warbeak" could fill that role. I haven’t even touched on flying, swimming, or truly magical and fantastic mounts, such as the equivalent of hippogriffs. But I have a good baseline — a beast of burden, an elite warrior’s mount, a scout’s mount, and the mainline military and wealthy traveler mount. I personally think these are a good start and provide enough diversity and flavor to help make the world unique — when I tell the players "These are the standard riding mounts that are commonly available", it makes it clear this isn’t Middle Earth warmed over.