Friday, May 14, 2021

Vagueposting- Gryphons are hard to beat

 Art @Tomasz Chistowski

When it comes to designing fantasy mounts or animal companions/warriors for fantasy settings, it's REALLY hard to beat the griffon.

I don't necessarily mean beating as in like, they're really strong and powerful in a fight or whatever- though that is certainly the case. It's like a flying horse that can fight, both with a beak AND claws. This makes it pretty powerful in combat, and that's without the high level badass knight no doubt riding its back. Also: I'm using Gryphon as I like that spelling the best, but Griffon in the text, because that's the one that doesn't trigger my spellchecker.

But anyway; specifically I meant the griffon is hard to beat as a conceptual mount. What do I mean by this? Let's examine it.

In fantasy worlds, you tend to think of ways to "power up" medieval warriors or battles- as to add levels of power not available in the real world. Of course, it's difficult to do so. Don't take me as a historical revisionist or history worshiper, but typically speaking the people of the past are going to roughly use the most efficient and effective means available to them to basically anything; including warfare. It's kind of hard to improve on the concept of slashing someone with a sword or polearm, so in order to add some fantasy pizazz on top, you make them out of magical materials and the like. Pretty simple.

Mounts are a bit of a tougher problem. In real life, people never decided to go around riding hippopotami or bears because they're scary and never got around to domesticating them. Which is fucking stupid, because they totally should have. Horses were used as mounts probably because they eat grass, which is something humans can't directly eat, had backs uniquely suitable for carrying a heavy person in a way that a wolf or cat simply can't do even if sized up appropriately, and because they're already social animals that fit well for domestication. This is, of course, all armchair theorizing stuff, but you're reading Vagueposting so I guess that's your fault right? lmao.

Anyway, with that in mind, you want to make up a fantasy animal that knights and warriors can ride into battle. Being on a mount is such a massive advantage in any pre-modern combat; but horses are kind of lame. Note: Obviously, horses are actually extremely dangerous, and the simple momentum of being on a giant animal is more then enough to give this huge advantage! But they don't have claws or a fearsome bite of a predator- they're grounded, and aren't especially armored. They are mostly known for being fast. Of course, realistically, that's all they NEED to be; no animal can fulfill all of these qualities in a way with the same efficiency in a realistic way- but in fantasy you can make animals fit these roles.

Art @Studio 0618(?)
BUT But there is more to this! You could take things like giant cats and lions, which is fine, or giant wolves or bears or boars and what not- BUT there's a bit of an issue here. I'll take lions out of this; but for all of these animals there is a bit of a wild or negative connotation connected to them in certain ways. This is why you see orcs riding wargs and not humans. And then you have tigers and elk and stuff, but those are more fitting for one off, special natural characters like elves or druids, not a "knight".

So in order to make a more powerful, sup-ed up version of a horse, it needs to be something that has a bit of nobility to it, has to be able to fight or be more intimidating then a horse. In this, I would say that lions/big cats can be a good substitute. However, lions in my opinion are a bit harder to sell because everybody kind of already has an idea of what a lion is and how big it roughly is, and they aren't quite horse sized. Perhaps specifying that they are giant lions could help, but in the end, lions are still grounded. They can't fly. They are also a "mundane" animal, which lacks some of that fantasy danger/power level increase.

Now you COULD go with magical version of a horse. Typically, a Pegasus (or THE Pegasus) is a cool one, but is a bit weak in terms of combat prowess. It's just a horse with wings; could be incredibly fantastical in a grounded setting, but in a setting where players are going to be jousting against dragons, it's comparatively weak. Another example would be a unicorn, or an alicorn to borrow My Little Pony terminology (which is a winged unicorn.) These are pretty badass on their own, but we're talking specifically about combat mounts.

There are some magical beasts or beings you could use for this too. Flying sharks, wyverns, harpies, sphinxes, gragoyles, manticores could all be potential monsters- but here's the thing. They can't be too innately magical or "out there"- I won't even get into detail about all these creatures being typecast as evil or bestial as you can kinda change that, but the point stands. They need to be grounded somewhat, biologically and in terms of ability. The standard fantasy knight needs to be the "mundane" character, and can't be too crazy or else it breaks some of the fantasy suspension of disbelief.

Art @Deiv Calviz

Now let's discuss the elephant in the room- not an actual elephants. Dragons. Dragons are the big one you could argue are stronger or "better" then a gryphon; but herein lies the issue. Dragons are actually TOO powerful to really serve as a mount in my honest opinion. Now I know dragons have a long history of serving as heroic (and evil) character mounts, but dragons fail for two reasons in my opinion. Firstly, dragons are a bit too powerful and outshine their riders in a way- this is not something you want a mount to do. Breath weapons change up the dyanmic in a way that takes away from the "flying/magical knight dude" idea. If the dragon is significantly small then it could work in this context, but then the other issue is that dragons are too smart. Dragons are usually portrayed with a human level of intelligence or "greater", thus meaning they can usually talk and would be more of a partnership of the rider and the dragon they are riding. 

In my opinion, this messes up the dynamic. For two reasons primarily- first, it takes away focus from the combat power and prowess of the rider once again, but two, it makes them irreplaceable in a way. If you ride a dragon into battle, you ride A dragon, not a dragon. The thing about mounts, in my mind at least, is they need to be at least somewhat replaceable, or at the very least, not of equal value to the rider if one had to be slain in a fight, if that makes sense.

To better explain this; you could imagine a fantasy knight going into a stable getting a new horse if theirs died, or if the horse is exhausted and needing to switch it out for a long journey. You could imagine a fantasy knight doing the same thing with a griffon- but NOT with a dragon. Not with a character. Of course, if you make dragons into the setting closer to animals then it works out- but these are starting to not resemble the stereotypical fantasy version of dragons!

What about other mounts? Well- anything reptilian (including dragons to an extent) is going to be a bit too sinister to work as the generic noble knight mount. Those flying Fell-Beasts that the Nazgul ride around are also great, but once again, very villainous! An artificial mount, like a flying carpet or something would only really fit for a Wizard and is a bit too wacky. Giant bugs would also totally fall flat here- most people don't like bugs except for maybe a big fuzzy moth, but that lacks punching power. Now riding around a giant bird or eagle has a lot of promise here- I think these are plenty good, (and in a way, you could argue they are the in between of a horse and griffon; a "mid level" option, if you would, that or a Hippogriff.), but the griffon is still a bit more powerful in this direct confrontation. Being the "most" powerful isn't necessarily a good trait here, but it's part of the factors for being in the running.

Now, you could always make up your own mount, which is totally fine. I have no problems with that; but it lacks a certain fantasy "realness" that existing creatures have. I'm sure that you as a worldbuilder or dungeon master run into a similar issue; you'll make up a unique race and just feel they can't really stand up to the mass cultural power that things like elves, dwarves, and orcs simply have. I feel the same way about trying to make up my own fantasy mounts or "good" creatures for people to use or live with in a fantasy setting. In a weird way, I actually think that random whacko made up stuff works better for monsters then for knowable, domestic creatures in the setting- though if you're trying to make your own setting, it's equivalent.

Art @Seb Lee

But the Griffon? It has clout. It's a real mythological beast. It's been used as a fantasy flying mount for a long time- I know Warhammer and Warcraft have done it, I'm sure at least one of the official D&D settings have done it; and there are certainly more examples I cannot name here. It's part of the pop culture and social consciousness for fantasy tropes. While that's not really a "fair" reason- it IS a reason nonetheless. You can even switch them up a bit; griffons could be made of different birds or cat bottom halves; it isn't too hard to imagine giving griffons animals stereotypes of birds, or lions, or both in a combination. Their capabilities could be more grounded and animal, like roughly equal to a flying predatory cat/bird creature, or they could be supernaturally strong and "boss like", as they are seen in games like the Witcher, Dragon's Dogma, etc.

And another thing; birds are attractive. Not in a weird sexual bestiality way, but in an purely looks way. They're majestic, especially birds of prey. Larger reptiles we would associate with mounts (like crocodiles, komodo dragons, etc.) are scraggly, not symmetrical and "cute" enough to really cut it as something humans want to ride around on and pet and feed scraps around the campfire- same goes for giant flying bug mounts, massive bats, or like weird giant smoke monsters or whatever.

So to sum up; When it comes to giving a good or generally honorable Knights a souped up version of a knight for epic fantasy battles or powerful tools for adventuring types- griffons are going to be really hard to beat in terms of aesthetics, power, plausibility, thematic grouping, and especially cultural relevance and reiteration.

If you have ANY ideas on mounts that can beat the Gryphon- please share. I'm desperate.


  1. My very first meeting with fantasy stuff as a children was whfb 4th edition box, with a gorgeous token for Elrharion on his griffon. He manages to be both grimdark and noblebright:

    He does appear on the box too:


  2. I agree with most of your points here. So I'm just going to brainstorm here:

    Wyverns. Basically like a dragon, but smaller and dumber and weaker, usually without breath weapons. I also picture them being more like pterosaurs, with hands/claws on their wings and not four limbs plus wings like dragons.

    Sphinxes. These might be too smart, have some of the Dragon problems. Also it might remind your players too much of the scene from Narnia with Aslan when he was flying.

    Manticore. Too smart and generally too villainous.

    Giant Bats. Maybe this is too Vampire-like. Also, I can't imagine a hero riding on a giant bat.

    Constructs. Maybe a real Dragon or flying lizard is too scary, but what about an artificial one. This would be more like a fantasy airplane than a mount, but it has potential I think.

    Ghosts. What if you were held aloft by the ghosts of your ancestors, who supported you on their partially insubstantial fingers, surrounding you in a cloud of shimmering forms.

    1. Wyverns are up there, but rely a bit too much on fantasy knowledge. For the uninitiated, they'd feel just like smaller dragons.

      Bats are actually a really good one, though as you said they're a bit villainous. Maybe if the heroic characters come from notTranslyvania it'd work.

      The constructs are good too- my favorite are the flying fish cars from Atlantis (the Disney movie), but don't have the same bond between animal and rider.

      Finally; ghosts are too supernatural for sure. If it was a single ghost (ghost horse maybe) it'd probably work, but then it's just a flying horse. Lacks the deadliness of a gryphon. Not bad suggestions though.