Saturday, January 21, 2017

Using Morale in Dungeons & Dragons Without Bringing Dice Into It.

Since I first began running Dungeons & Dragons back in '04 I've had this notion that I like Morale rules in my games. I say notion because I've never actually read what the real Morale rules were in AD&D 2e but my beloved Monster Compendium showed what the morale for monsters were and so I wanted to use the damned thing. Only thing was I didn't have access to an AD&D 2e Dungeon Master Guide so I never actually read a solid explanation for the rule so playing with it was a bit of a hit or miss affair. After a while it simply went missing from my games altogether.

Last night, though, I was reading through a copy of the Sword Lords of the Eastern Regions that was given to me when I read this passage:

". . . USING THE UNIT MORALE CHART: Use this chart when a unit's morale is called for, such as facing up to a Demon. If the roll is missed on one die, the unit must withdraw from the action for one turn at half movement, and then check again. The facing of the unit is up to the player whose unit is affected. If the morale save is made, the unit will obey battle orders . . ." (Becker, 27)

It struck a cord and got me to thinking again about using a Morale Rule in my Dungeons & Dragons game - only this time I'm going to actually look up what the rule meant in AD&D 2e instead of just making it all up on the fly. So let's look at the explanation that David "Zeb" Cook wrote in 1993 edition.

". . . Monsters and NPCs are an entirely different matter . . . The DM makes their decisions, trying to think like each creature or non-player character, in turn. 
In combat, thinking like a creature mainly means deciding what actions it takes and how badly it wants to fight - the morale of the creature. 
As a general rule, monsters and NPCs are no more eager to die than player characters. Most withdraw when a fight starts to go badly. Some panic and flee, even casting their weapons aside. If they think they can get mercy, brighter foes might fall to their knees and surrender. A few bloodthirsty or brainless types might fight to the death - but this doesn't happen too often. These are the things that make up morale, things the DM must decide, either through role-playing or dice rolling . . ." (Cook, 69)

I really wish that I had read this passage from the AD&D 2e Dungeon Master Guide years ago because the line ". . . most withdraw when a fight starts to go badly . . ." is something that I could have used earlier to dramatically improve my games. Even with my bastardized morale rule too often I found myself pushing the monsters to stay in the fight until every last one of them had fought to the death. While that can be interesting on occasion having monsters run from the players can create its own sort of drama as the players can gain a real reputation in the world that feels more authentic.

Jeff Easley title unkown
It's also interesting that with the morale rule it seems that there are degrees of failure for the monsters and non-player characters that your players encounter in the world. Are there degrees of success as well?

Zeb continues:
". . . The first (and best) way to handle morale is to determine it without rolling any dice or consulting any tables. This gives the biggest range of choices an prevents illogical things from happening . . . To decide what a creature does, think about its goals and reasons for fighting . . ." (Cook, 69)

As I've been reading more of AD&D 2e in recent weeks I've noticed that there is a decided trend among the writers that as a Dungeon Master you should think about your monsters' and non-player characters' motivations behind what they're doing. This aspect of the game wasn't missing from my beloved D&D 3.5e but it wasn't as pronounced and as a result for a long time I didn't consider such things. Instead I tended to look at the Challenge Rating chart and pick monsters to throw at my players based on what lined up with their level. That was a mistake and it made my game less interesting as a result.

With that in mind let's talk about unintelligent creatures for a minute. Zeb writes:
". . . Unintelligent and animal intelligence creatures attack, most often for food or to protect their lairs. Few ever attack for the sheer joy of killing . . . A mountain lion, for example, doesn't hunt humans (as a rule) and doesn't stalk and attack humans as it would a deer . . . Such creatures normally allow a party of adventurers to pass by unhindered, without even revealing themselves. Only when the creature is close to the lair does the chance of attack increase . . . When they do become involved in combat, animals and other creatures rarely fight to the death . . . Their interest is in food . . ." (Cook, 69)
I find it interesting that while I have often had trouble remembering to get monsters to flee I almost never experience the same issue with wild animals. The difference tends to be that I am around animals both wild and domestic regularly so I've internalized their habits; while monsters, to my mind, tend to be nothing more than imaginary creatures bent on destroying the civilized world of man and demi-human alike. Even though I know what the monsters are doing in my game world and why they're doing it, it's rare that I've treated my monstrous encounters with the sort of complicated motivations that they deserve. Reading Cook's discussion of morale I can't help but feel he would be slightly disappointed in my handling of the monsters.
". . . Intelligent Creatures have more complicated motivations than the need for food and shelter . . . Greed, hatred, fear, self-defense, and hunger are all motivations, but they are not all worth dying for . . . As a guideline for intelligent creature and NPC motivation, consider the actions of the player characters. How often do they fight to the death? Why would they? At what point do they usually retreat . . ." (Cook, 69)
And here comes a point where I begin to understand why I might have simplified monsters' motivations. My players almost never retreat. Not once in the 13 years that I've been running have I had a group that fell back (though I have been a part of two groups who fell back as a player). Typically my players fight to the death every time the enter into an encounter. This begs the question, though: do they determine their notion on how to handle a fight from the way that my monsters interact with them, or do I take my lead from them?

I think that I will have to put Zeb's ideas into action to tell.

More later.

Works Cited
Becker, Michael, Keith Elliott an Wilfredo Aguilar. Sword Lords of the Eastern Regions. Archive Miniatures & Game Systems. 1981. Print. pg 27

Cook, David "Zeb." Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide. Random House. USA, 1993. pg 69 - 72,


  1. Interesting post. Toward the end (about PCs retreating) the tangential thought occurred to me how much different groups of players can vary in their approach fleeing/falling back. In the game I'm currently playing, our group turned tail mid-battle and bolted twice in our last session alone.

    1. Amazing, and with the group I'm currently playing with we've yet to turn even though I'm fairly certain we should have several times now.

    2. The group I'm gaming with has, upon occasion, attempted to flee battle . . . but they always wait until it is too late and -- at the least -- most of them die. To be fair, they always bite off more than they can chew and so my "monsters" rarely have enough time to "lose heart" and run away themselves.

    3. This ^^ has been my experience more often than not.

  2. I have a lot of morale considerations baked into Dragon Heresy. It's one of the "big" adds in the rules over the basic SRD5.1

    1. Cool! I'm slowly catching back up on you Douglas!

  3. Seems like we are on a similar wavelength. I posted similar thoughts a bit over a week ago. My player's also rarely retreated. My conclusion is player's, sitting at a table, just don't feel the seriousness of a situation. Ultimately, I think implementing a morale rule for player characters might well add something to the game. Come to think of it, the Call of Cthulhu sanity check is really a form of morale mechanic in disguise and people love it.

    1. Adding a morale rule for the players though runs counter to the spirit of the game. As DMs we're not supposed to have rolls overrule the players' choices unless they're specifically compelled through magical means. Cook even admonishes would be Dungeon Masters repeatedly in the 2e DMG that you should not do so.

    2. Dang it had to delete my first one for a typo. Yes, I used to think that. But, I've changed my mind. I would agree that a DM shouldn't say "Your character can't do that because they aren't like that." Who is the DM to say what someone's character is like after all. But, morale is more of an involuntary response imposed by a rule mechanic. And, the rules have lots of mechanics that do that sort of thing. Come to think of it, Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system is really a morale system in disguise. It's fine there, I can see using a similar thing in D&D.

  4. Check out "Table 50: Situational Modifiers" on page 71. After I've read you post, I'm not seeing these in a different light. Rather than straight mechanical bonuses and penalties, they're ideas for a DM to tailor an encounter or an adventure.

    For example: "Creature has lost 25% of its hp"

    What if the goal of a low-level adventure isn't necessary to kill a dragon, a giant, or powerful creature, but to hurt it to the point where it leaves? That marauding goblin warband might outnumber the PCs 3 to 1, if the PCs can inflict enough casualties, it might leave the area.

  5. As Cook suggests, it is best to consider the motivations of the monster(s) when determining morale (I only use die rolls to break ties when it comes to morale). Depending on your campaign, any monster, even undead, might break off a fight under certain conditions. For instance, in my game, wights are tomb guardians and wraiths are grave good guardians. Wights attack intruders but don't pursue them beyond the tombs entrance while a wraith will pursue grave robbers until it retrieves the stolen item whether that be because the item was dropped or pried from the robber's cold dead hands.
    As for PCs' willingness to retreat, it depends on the players. My wife is a cautious player. In the last session of Palace of the Silver Princess (The Jean Wells original version), her PC and retinue encountered some female Ubues engaged in domestic chores with two males standing watch. The females fled through a doorway with the males acting as a rearguard before retreating themselves & slamming the door shut. My wife decided to retreat as well to a room she felt was defensible where she & her companions could recuperate from a day of adventuring. Needless to say, the Ubues are alerting the rest of the tribe that they are under siege by outsiders and will break up into small groups to search the palace for the intruders.

  6. The whole notion of "game balance" taught players that sitting a fight out has a good chance of survival, too, because enemies should never be much stronger than they are ... It's computer game logic, really. Add to that that players are far more tolerant about their characters pain than they are about their own (being aware it is fiction and all that) and you get a huge discrepancy between how players act and what would be sane for any living creature.

    And by the way, my players not only flee if they think they don't have a chance, they even contemplate who they'd leave behind as bait ... Just the other day they were running for their horses and I told one character that his mule won't cut it in a chase. He just said: "I know, that's why I'm taking hers (points at slightly slower other player)". Her face had been priceless [and she already started loading her crossbow when he extended a hand to let her join him on the horse's back ... but for a second there :D]


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