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!