Centaur Knights and Fantasy Cultures in 5E D&D
Over on Nerdarchy the YouTube channel, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted came up with ideas for a classic fantasy character concept, a centaur knight. The image of an half human, half horse warrior in shining armor captivated me since I was a little kid and after helping plan this video, watching it and putting the Character Build Guide together I’m thinking about how awesome this concept is all over again. This got me thinking how there’s not a whole lot of centaur action going on in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, at least not in my experience. Centaurs get a bump in Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica, there’s a centaur mummy in Tales from the Yawning Portal’s Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and the terrifically named Centaur of Attention encounter in Dragons of Icespire Peak. And that’s about it in beyond the Monster Manual entry. Never a better time like the present to take a closer look at centaurs and by extension fantasy cultures for our 5E D&D campaign settings.
A centaur knight is not a monster!
In the 5E D&D Monster Manual centaurs are monstrosities, which seems weird right from the get go. In earlier editions centaurs were monstrous humanoids. Way back in 2E AD&D you could find centaurs in the Monstrous Compendium under sylvan centaur, and every edition except 4E D&D offered a player character option for centaurs. The playable race version of centaurs in Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica holds the distinction of being the only official race with a type other than humanoid. This version is a fey creature type, and personally I like the fey connection for centaurs the best. Seriously, this description of monstrosities from the Monster Manual doesn’t fit my view of centaurs one bit. In fact the “almost never benign” part of the description below is no joke — centaurs are one of only two monstrosities out of all the official 5E D&D creatures were any good alignment (guardian naga is the other one).
“Monstrosities are monsters in the strictest sense — frightening creatures that are not ordinary, not truly natural, and almost never benign. Some are the results of magical experimentation gone awry (such as owlbears), and others are the product of terrible curses (including minotaurs and yuan-ti). They defy categorization, and in some sense serve as a catch-all category for creatures that don’t fit into any other type.”
In all their iterations centaurs share a connection to nature, most often presented as reclusive, nomadic hunter-gatherers. In campaign settings populated by elvish, dwarvish, human and other standard D&D cultures, centaurs fade into the background along with huge numbers of other sentient creatures. Is there a place for them in your world?
One of the conceits of D&D is planets and ecosystems can support a tremendous variety of creatures. In addition to all the strange monsters lurking in the wilderness and perilous dungeons, there’s so many intelligent creatures who organize into societies, which can test the limits of believability. But we’re also dealing with magical worlds, so even something like plausibly feeding a population of centaurs or other societal creatures becomes mitigated when you consider something like goodberry. A centaur with 1 level in the druid class could reasonably feed 40 centaurs each day with a few castings of this spell, resting long enough to get their magic back.
So if you want to include centaurs in your 5E D&D campaign as a vibrant, interesting culture you’ll need to put some work in developing a place for them. In my campaign setting, which I adapted from the Collabris live streamed collaborative worldbuilding sessions with Matt Colville a few years ago, centaurs roam the Ban Tuur Steppe and consider the volcano Tuur a sacred place. They make no distinction between the volcano itself and the god it represents for them. Other intelligent creatures like humans desire control of the volcano, because the magical properties there enable the creation of powerful artifacts. Steppe nomads protect the volcano, and because the white Heartstone lies within the volcano’s heart, strange energies nearby cause mutations among these people.
The steppe nomads consider these mutations a blessing from Tuur. Their leaders make pilgrimages to the summit, returning as centaurs, minotaurs and satyrs after the dangerous trek. Centaurs often take high positions with the elite Ash Wind cavalry. At least one Gân (a hereditary title named for the first ruler of the horselands) has been a centaur in the past. The savage minotaurs are left to the labyrinths in and around Tuur, to guard the sacred volcano. Satyrs sometimes take on the fole of Firespeakers or mystics among the Ban Tuur tribes.
A world of fantasy cultures
Thanks to the explosion of growth for 5E D&D there are so many creative people out there making new content for our games and expanding on the possibilities for adventures and settings. For your own games, consider a world without the usual trappings of D&D like elves and dwarves, orcs and goblinoids. What other creatures can take their place as the preeminent fantasy cultures in your D&D world?
Centaurs make a compelling case for one such fantasy culture. They’re intelligent and mobile, strong and wise. They share a deep connection to nature, both mundane and magical. The bog standard centaur from the Monster Manual describes a relationship with elves despite their reclusive behavior and with the fey creature type as player characters it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine centaur culture strongly tied to the Feywild.
In the video above, Dave and Ted talk about how a centaur knight could be found guarding a bridge and refusing passage to travelers. This idea really stuck with me, and suggests a very fairy tale quality and immediately made me think of the Three Billy Goats Gruff story. In the timeless tale a troll confronts three goats who wish to cross a bridge to reach a meadow where they can eat. The goats outwit the troll, who is carried away by the river and leaves the bridge safe to cross. All three goats make it to the rich fields around the summer farm in the hills, and they all live happily ever after.
For a 5E D&D adventure, maybe the bridge is a fey crossing leading to an eladrin’s estate. The troll was a bother, and the trio of smart goats took care of that problem. But now there’s emerging “civilized” races from the Material Plane beginning to explore the wider world, and some of them begin wandering into this eladrin’s lands. This fey lord needs a deterrent and reaches out to the native centaur population for help. If you check out the pay-what-you-want Character Build Guide linked above and in the video, you’ll find a new creature, the centaur knight, designed with this scenario in mind. Give them a trio of goats as allies and the next time your adventuring party wanders where they ought not to go, you’re all set.
The more I play, think about and create stuff for D&D the further from traditional fantasy my imagination takes me. I love the idea of high fantasy settings with influences like fairy lore and extraplanar elements. Traditional elements of a D&D setting, even in wildly unique campaign settings like Dark Sun, present the standard array of elves, dwarves, halflings, humans and the like. With so many incredible resources, starting with the Monster Manual and ballooning out from there in other official 5E D&D products, third party content and my own imagination, the adventures and settings I create often have very little resemblance to a traditional world.
To take the place of traditional fantasy cultures I enjoy discovering new creatures that capture my imagination and developing their unique places in the world. Centaurs are a part of this, as I described above. Other intelligent creatures with their own fantasy culture and place in my world include firenewts, alliumites, grung, aldani and harpies. My go-to campaign setting takes a “points of light” approach, with new adventurers shipped off from their homeland to explore a largely unknown continent. The lands where player characters originate from are familiar D&D settings, but the lands where adventures take place are much different. There are no elven kingdoms hidden in the forest or dwarven strongholds in the mountains.
Exploring the possibilities for creatures in 5E D&D and developing your ideas for their unique fantasy culture can really make your setting memorable for players in your games, and it’s fun! Consider something like the Humblewood setting from Deck of Many. This phenomenal campaign setting for 5E D&D presents a world of anthropomorphic animals as the premiere fantasy culture in the world. Birdfolk and other humblefolk like fox people populate the setting, and it is a truly remarkable creation. You can visit the Deck of Many site and check it out here.
If centaurs and other tauric creatures sound cool, Nerdarchist Ted created a player character version of one of his absolute all time favorite creatures, the wemic, right here on the website.
I want to hear about your experiences with centaurs and other fantasy cultures in your 5E D&D games. Does a centaur knight sound like a fun character to play? Does your campaign setting have a bridge in need of protection or unruly adventurers in need of justice? A centaur knight and three giant goats might be the perfect solution.