Mastering Morale: Know When to Fold ‘Em

Conan wheeled, to see the girl standing a short distance away, staring at him in wide-eyed horror, all the mockery gone from her face. He cried out fiercely and the blood-drops flew from his sword as his hand shook in the intensity of his passion.

“Call the rest of your brothers!” he cried. “I’ll give their hearts to the wolves! You can not escape me—”

With a cry of fright she turned and ran fleetly. She did not laugh now, nor mock him over her white shoulder. She ran as for her life…

— Robert E. Howard, “Gods of the North”

When I played D&D as a kid, monsters had a habit of fighting to the death. After all, wasn’t that what they were there for? Realism—Gygaxian or otherwise—didn’t rank highly on our list of gaming priorities.

I got back into D&D in my early thirties, playing a heavily house-ruled version of Third Edition under a DM marinated in Second Edition tropes. Our enemies often fled or surrendered, but there were no rules for it; morale was a matter of DM fiat. Sure, it worked for our DM, but the effect wasn’t easily replicable.

Imagine my surprise, upon cracking open a copy of Red Box D&D, to discover a set of simple and straightforward morale rules! They tell you exactly how to determine when monsters decide to flee from combat. This has an enormous influence on play, both adding a valuable naturalistic element to combat and allowing the PCs unexpected victories.

A year and a half after starting my Red Box campaign, I decided to take a closer look at the details of the morale rules. Imagine my surprise at discovering that they aren’t quite that simple or straightforward. In fact, they’re both deeply mutable and—get this—completely optional.

At last the trolls broke and fled. Hotly did the elves give chase, cutting them down, driving them into the burning camp. Not many escaped.

— Poul Anderson, “The Broken Sword”

It’s right there in the section title: “Morale (Optional)”. You can completely ignore the morale subsystem, either determining for yourself when monsters flee or simply making them all fight to the death like the aliens in Space Invaders, and still remain completely within the rules.

If you do employ the morale rules, you still have a lot of control over how to use them. Check it out:

* The rules indicate that you should check morale after a side’s first death in combat and when half of the side has been incapacitated, but these are explicitly called out as “recommended times for morale checks.” You may decide that one or both of these conditions doesn’t apply to a particular group, replacing them with new conditions of your choice. E.g.: the Five Ogre Brothers check morale each time one of them dies, while Morgan Ironwolf’s Irregulars only check morale if their leader falls. You may also call for morale checks on the fly if the situation calls for it; green hirelings are liable to bolt upon encountering the eviscerated remains of a prior adventuring party, while a gnoll warband may flee in the face of a dramatic phantasmal force.
* The DM is free to apply pre-planned or ad hoc modifiers to morale checks. The rules recommend that such modifiers don’t exceed +2 or -2, but otherwise the referee has a free hand to apply such modifiers. Such modifiers are easily suggested by circumstance—or by the players. Are the monsters winning or losing? Do they think they can outrun the party? Are they driven to fight by habit, hunger, greed or a desire for revenge?
* It’s up to the DM to determine what a morale failure means. Do the enemies fall back en masse to a more defensible position? Do they scatter in terror? Or do they lay their arms down and surrender, throwing themselves on the player characters’ unlikely mercy?

Interestingly, aside from the general optionality of the rules, the only inflexible component is retainer morale. After an adventure, each retainer must make a morale check. A retainer who fails the check will never work for that employer again! Of course, this check can be modified just like any other morale check, so be nice to your retainers if you want to keep them.

Hoom Feethos was beyond all earthly help, and Quanga, now wholly the slave of a hideous panic, would hardly have stayed longer to assist him in any case. But seeing the pouch that had fallen forward from the dead jeweler’s fingers, the hunter snatched it up through an impulse of terror-mingled greed; and then, with no backward glance, he fled on the glacier, toward the low-circling sun.

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ice-Demon”

Like a Bizarro-world equivalent of the Tenth Amendment, old-school rulesets reserve all powers to the DM that are not otherwise placed in the hands of the players. (This stands in sharp relief to new-school games which transfer much of this authority to the players.) As such, the DM should use the morale rules to supplement and enhance gameplay without letting them override one’s own understanding of the milieu. That gnoll is charmed? Let him fight to the death to defend his master. The enslaved goblins are trying to escape? Don’t roll a morale check to see if they keep fighting when you know they’re going to run away anyway.

Use the system. Don’t let it use you!

7 Responses to “Mastering Morale: Know When to Fold ‘Em”

  1. March 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I love morale! I also love seeing things I’ve heard you talk about on the train blossom into posts annotated with S&S quotes, hunting down further implications, etc.

    The Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets have a nice expansion of the OD&D morale rules, which they also say are a “guideline for determining NPC’s morale in important situations; add the NPC’s morale rating (determined when hired) and adjust for circumstances”. 2d6:
    2, Panic – roll on random action table
    3, Dread – run, back to enemy
    4, Fearful – fall back in loose order
    5, Apprehensive – fall back in good order
    6, Shaky – no advance, no attack (note says “may melee” which I assume means will continue fighting if engaged but not seek to engage, fire missiles, etc.)
    7, Uneasy – no advance unless attacked
    8, Half-hearted – slow advance, no charge
    9, Steady – quick advance
    10, Calm – charge
    11, Ready – Charge, Automatic 1st round (if at least equal weapon length)
    12, Stalwart – Charge, Automatic 1st two rounds (if at least equal weapon length)

    Outnumbered -1
    Num. Superior =1
    Wounded -1
    Badly Wounded -2
    Per NPC’s 4 lvls +1
    Veteran Fighter +1
    4-7 HD monster -1
    8+ HD monster -2

    Panic random action table:
    1 surrender, throw down weapon
    2 play dead, crawl away
    3 freeze, no attack nor move
    4 run away, random direction
    5 hide nearest place possible
    6 berserk! attack +3 HP for next 4 rounds, -1 per round thereafter, cumulative

    This is clearly for henchman-type morale; a note says “NPCs morale may be checked as a group if appropriate.”

  2. March 10, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Clearly we need to talk more on the subway. And I need to read more sword & sorcery so that I have access to more quotes!

    This is a very interesting set of tables. It is, perhaps, a little too detailed for my taste; it leaves very little to the DM’s imagination. It’s the sort of thing I’d want to test out in play, using intermittently to see how it stacks up against the more freeform nature of the extant morale rules.

    Based on the references to advancing and charging, I suspect that this is less a general morale table than it is a table for determining the hirelings’ initial reaction to an encounter. It also makes hirelings pretty ineffectual until you’ve built up their morale, which is a nifty emergent quality!

  3. 3 maldoor
    March 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    My very first adventure – circa 1980 – involved a lesson in morale. This was a one-on-one game, me and the DM. Our rule set consisted of Holmes and Blackmoor and he ran me through B1. Since I was the only player, I recruited two hirelings to help me.

    I was a callous teenager and treated my hirelings poorly, having them open each door we came to, carry the heavy stuff we found, generally bossing them around and taking them for granted. After a bad experience opening a door (I forget what happened exactly) the DM rolled – and the hirelings asked for more money. I balked, not wanting to lose any treasure, so they left me there.

    I also learned a valuable lesson that session about the importance of mapping.

    I treated the next group of hirelings with more respect, and generally have ever since. Just because we have the “PC glow” setting us apart as heros in a land of NPCs does not mean the dice will go along. If you need hirelings, retainers, and henchmen in the first place, then you especially need them to stay when the dice start rolling.

    Charmed creatures are a whole other matter, as we have discussed on this blog before…

  4. March 10, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Eric, I find the level of detail interesting – I’m drawn to the extra specificity of having a dozen labels with which to identify each possible morale result – but I think it’s best used for hired NPCs as stated, and as an “open” table known to the players instead of a “hidden” one like wandering monster table.

    Because henchmen are kind of in player territory – like a suit of armor, they’re something a player pays for and writes on their character sheet – I think there’s good justification for also treating the chart of possible outcomes as a player resource. If I hire dudes and they run off without me knowing why, I may feel like the DM is screwing me, whereas if I see that their morale roll is a 4 and they’re facing a higher-level monster I’m more likely to say “yah, them’s the breaks”. Note that the Metamorphosis Alpha rules at least state that initial morale adjustment is determined secretly by the DM when the NPC is hired, so the table is more likely partially open: the probabilities are known but not all the modifiers.

  5. 5 maldoor
    March 10, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Tavis said:
    > initial morale adjustment is determined secretly
    > by the DM when the NPC is hired

    I am strongly in support of this, since it adds an element of randomness – all hirelings are not cut of the same cloth – but at the same time allows the players to have an effect on things. Treating your hirelings well, buying them chain mail (and 10′ poles!) and treating them to drinks at the tavern will be rewarded.

    Facing terrible monsters will have an interesting added effect of (possibly, dice willing) separating the truly loyal hirelings from the spineless ones, meaning that over time players will come to have favorite hirelings, while others can become a “running” joke. Heh.

    This sort of detail promotes more engagement with the world, always a good thing in my book.

  6. March 10, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Great story, Maldoor! I wonder just how much of the hirelings’ response came from the dice, however, and how much came from the DM…

  7. March 10, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Tavis, Maldoor: Putting the hirelings’ reaction table in the players’ hands makes a lot of sense for the reasons you lay out. And hidden modifiers work well in this case because they come in layers — baseline modifiers based on the NPC’s personality and additional modifiers for recent treatment — which usefully obfuscates the modifiers’ origins.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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