Breaking Morale

Morale is vitally important in real battles. Units didn’t become hors de combat because most of the unit was dead or wounded, instead their morale broke when there was still a majority able to fight, and they fled. Morale has fallen out of use in RPGs – why?

"Two armies are two bodies which meet and try to frighten each other."
"An army's effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is worth more than the other factors combined."
[In war] "The moral is to the physical as three is to one."
- (Emperor) Napoleon I Bonaparte

Morale is vitally important in real battles. We read about bayonet charges and hand-to-hand fighting in the age of gunpowder, but as I understand it, fighting rarely reached the bayonet stage. Instead one side or the other’s morale would give way, and either the defenders would flee or the attackers would retreat. Units didn’t become hors de combat because most of the unit was dead or wounded, instead their morale broke when there was still a majority able to fight, and they fled. That was true in both melee (club, spear, and sword) and gunpowder ages, and today.

Even though soldiers often knew that breaking and running was the worst thing to do, most casualties in battles occurred during the pursuit of the side that fled.

I’ve read many sets of miniatures battle rules where morale tests, breaking and fleeing, and rallying broken units are a very important aspect of the battle as a whole, perhaps more important than the actual casualties inflicted. (D&D’s predecessor Chainmail was rules for miniatures battle, but I don’t recall the details of its morale rules). Saving throws are often a part of morale rules, and came into D&D as a standard mechanism. For a "simplified" morale system for D&D 5e, see this site.

RPGs are skirmish battles rather than pitched battles, but morale can still prevail. Yet how often does morale play a significant role in an RPG? I suspect, not often.

Why do we see morale applied rarely in RPGs? I don’t know, but this is my hypothesis: serious game players want to feel that they control their own fate, that what happens to them is a result of their own actions. They don’t want to be told that their character’s morale breaks and the character runs away. (I know I don’t!) They want to decide for themselves whether they run away.

Furthermore, GMs who are telling specific stories don’t want the story messed up because the player characters run away at an inopportune time.

The result, given the absence of the fear and stink of death that would be present in the real world, is that player characters tend to stick around long after the morale of the typical soldier would have broken. (And this actually makes sense for the characters, who know that the pursuit is where much of the killing takes place.) I suspect as compensation, most GM’s have the bad guys stick around long after their morale should have broken. It’s an application of the Golden Rule of RPGs (“what’s good for the good guys is good for the bad guys”).

The contrary point of view would be, the player adventurer party is extraordinary, just as the characters in a novel are extraordinary (or they wouldn’t succeed), and so they should have an advantage that others do not have. Consequently, the bad guys should have morale appropriate to gangs and to individuals who are more interested in many cases in finding food and water than in defeating heroes. They ought to break fairly easily! On the other hand, properly motivated intelligent bad guys will have much better morale.

If NPCs are involved on the adventuring side, perhaps their morale could break, even if the PC morale does not.

Some early versions of D&D, descendant of miniatures rules, provided morale tests for the opposition, but this was later dropped, and I've read many sets of RPG rules that do not consider morale.

That means most fights are "to the death", which is exactly the opposite of the real world.

A drawback of morale rules (aside from the additional complication) is randomness. They depend on die rolls and calculations. Sometimes enemy morale will break quickly, sometimes they just won't break. This random factor might get in the way of the GM's plans.

So, do you use morale rules in your games? Only for the opposition, or for the player characters (or just the NPCs) as well?

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Bolongo

Herr Doktor
I would be very wary about taking the PCs morale out of the players' hands.
Except, of course, if lack of control is built into the game as a feature. Pendragon most obviously comes to mind.

For opponents though, I have always made judgement calls for when they flee, based on what types of creatures they are and how motivated they are. And sometimes I roll a die if there is no obvious answer.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
I didn't realize I was supposed to stop using morale! While I don't have formal rules for the opponents, I generally keep it in mind and use some logic when determining how long the enemy sticks around and fights. So, for example, goblins are typically cowardly and will flee easily, but if they have some deranged overlord for whom any failure results in a painful death, they might feel coerced to try harder. Likewise, with stiff resistance predators will generally flee before dying, unless it is truly a matter of survival or some similar scenario (protecting young, etc).

I don't use any sort of rules for PCs, as that's for them to decide. But I definitely remind them that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. I've never had a game where the group didn't flee maybe once every 2-3 sessions as a matter of course.

One thing I've noticed is that having enemies flee can sometimes snowball into an overwhelming situation. When your group of 10 goblins flees after two of them drop, and then runs down a few corridors to another group of 10 goblins, you can get into a dangerous situation quickly. That's WAI, but it's probably not what many players are expecting.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I tend to agree with your hypotheses: players don't like it because it interferes with how they see their alter-egos. DM's don't like it because it makes the situations more swingy -- sometimes the opponents break early and the PCs get an "undeserved" win; other times the PCs break and a scripted game stalls.

I prefer games with morale and/or more general temptation systems. It gives another dimension for strategy and tactic (instead of storming the gate guarded by 40 men, maybe we can scare them off with this holocaust cloak, wheelbarrow and some fire!). It adds dimensions to character design -- if you want an iron-willed character that won't break, you need to spend resources on it. Finally, it adds potential depth to situations and pathways to the narrative that the typical unwavering group of unbreakable unbribeable protagonists won't access.
 

stargazera5

Explorer
I suspect it also goes back to the entertainment we have and the expectations it sets. Takes movies for example. In the 70s and 80s, you could still find major set-piece battles involving armies fairly regularly where you could occasionally see morale break in action, especially given that the WWII vets hadn't yet fully aged out of Hollywood and had first hand experience. In more modern movies, you tend to see retreats rather than routes. So we're not as exposed to the concept of morale breaks as much. Also, movies tend to focus a lot more on action heroes who get automatic successes on their morale checks no matter how bad it gets, which is more in-line with modern RPG games.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I make use of morale as GM. I stopped for a while but I try to use it to differentiate monsters. For example, in my planar 2E (with house rules) Rod of Seven Parts campaign, one thing that the PCs really don't like is facing yuan ti, because they never break or surrender. This is generally true of chaos monsters, most of which have embraced the notion that "death is life." By contrast, other foes will retreat, sometimes to their detriment. They haven't faced goblins in a while (they're 10th-11th level characters, that would be fairly pointless) but I made sure they were shifty and would run or shirk unless forced into battle by something they fear more. Goblins are legendarily subservient. Other monsters really fear certain things and will flee from them when they can (e.g., trolls and fire) but fight to the death for other threats. This really helps differentiate monsters.

There are games that have reintroduced it in some fashion, such as Conan 2D20. Morale is a key part of the way the swords and sorcery genre runs---S&S is a branch on the horror genre tree, after all. In addition, morale attacks are also part of what makes social characters useful in combat and not just chumps. Characters have two wound tracks, one is for physical and the other mental and morale attacks do mental damage.

In 5E D&D, one good way to represent that is through the frightened condition and/or psychic damage. A monster defeated with psychic damage might not actually be dead, or may have died of fright. I do wish 5E made more use of vulnerabilities. A more cowardly monster could have disadvantage on saves vs fear and/or vulnerability to psychic damage.
 
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DMMike

Game Masticator
"Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Count Rugen runs away.
Early morale rules came from a desire for the game to be simulationist. Now, players want the game to be theatrical.

serious game players want to feel that they control their own fate, that what happens to them is a result of their own actions. They don’t want to be told that their character’s morale breaks and the character runs away. (I know I don’t!) They want to decide for themselves whether they run away.
Odd, because panic/terror aren't exactly voluntary emotions. Being forced to run due to terror is the same as being forced to take damage from dragon jaws. Maybe players confuse that with just being cowardly?

So, do you use morale rules in your games? Only for the opposition, or for the player characters (or just the NPCs) as well?
I don't have a problem with rewarding PCs for running away, unless their character concept says something like "iron willed" or "mildly retarded." Then it wouldn't make sense for the character to turn tail.
 

TerraDave

5ever
As an aside, running (and chasing and escaping) are very much part of fictional fighting. Its boring to have the same side win all the time, but if you want to keep that important character alive, they have to have some way out.

I have NPCs retreat fairly often. Mostly to end a battle that has gotten to one sided (and to be in character). My PCs generally learn that they also need to retreat once in a while.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
As an aside, running (and chasing and escaping) are very much part of fictional fighting. Its boring to have the same side win all the time, but if you want to keep that important character alive, they have to have some way out.

I have NPCs retreat fairly often. Mostly to end a battle that has gotten to one sided (and to be in character). My PCs generally learn that they also need to retreat once in a while.
Surrender is also a great tool for battles that aren't "good vs. evil to the death." It's much more palatable for PCs to storm a guardhouse when the guards surrender once they are clearly outmatched, rather than force the PCs to slaughter them. That, in turn, helps demonstrate that surrender can be a viable option for the PCs themselves, if they don't want to be slaughtered.
 

AriochQ

Explorer
IMHO Morale is an artifact of the wargaming roots of D&D. It was never a good fit. Morale for players makes no sense as players can determine when to run away on their own. It makes no sense for NPC's or monsters since the DM can make that judgment based on far more factors than a simple die roll. If the DM wants to use a simple die roll, feel free, but I think it removes some of the more interesting aspects of RPG's.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I really should use morale much more than I do. The problem lies in somehow making it more or less equally applicable to PCs and their foes while avoiding treading on the toes of player agency.

Hmmm...I really didn't need more homework today but now this has me thinking on reviewing and-or redesigning morale rules...
 

Hurin88

Explorer
Great article! I think it is all too easy for DMs to forget about morale, and every game should at least mention the fact that creatures rarely fight to the death.

Like Schmoe, I don't have strict rules, but I do try to run NPCs and monsters in a realistic fashion. When the PCs kill two or three out of a pack of six Goblins, there is a good chance the rest of the goblins will flee. I don't make rolls for PCs, but I find that once one or two of them are dead and the bad guys are still looking fine, the remaining PCs will naturally start thinking about fleeing. So in my experience, the PCs generally act pretty rationally or at least realistically; I really only have to worry about the NPCs/monsters.
 

Celebrim

Legend
My early attempts to use the morale rules made combats far too swingy, so started ignoring them and just tried to estimate when morale would break based on the circumstance and motivation of the attacker. A predator looking for a quick meal probably is going to retreat as soon as it is clear he's going to take meaningful damage. A predator defending offspring or which is starving to death is going to behave very differently.

And that is in a nutshell the problem I have with rules governing morale. Rules that are suitably complex enough to actually model morale in a way that makes sense to me will tend to be too complex to use at the table, where as rules that are simple enough to use in play tend to produce results that are just too random to be worthwhile.

Plus, it really creates wonky balance issues in that effectively it's like casting a hard "save or suck" repeatedly on the NPCs, especially with PC's using having the same degree of fearlessness as undead. Depending on how the morale check falls, the encounter could be deadly or trivial. And again, this is realistic only for complex rules that involve gradations of effect, take into account motivation, social queues, allow forces to rally or rout, and so forth. I wouldn't mind having them for some sort of mass combat rules, but for the sort of skirmishes involved in D&D with the highly varied participants its just usually best to judge for yourself how participants would behave.

One thing I note about D&D combats, is that by the time you know you are in trouble, it's usually too late to retreat. This applies to both NPCs and PCs.
 

Yaztromo

Villager
After the advent of D&D version 3, the players actually do expect that whatever comes up against them must be manageable. For this reason, lots of players never think about retreating or fleeing as the best (or only) option in a given situation.
Sometimes it is disheartening as the Game Masters find themselves in lose-lose situations when they prepare scenarios where straightforward fighting in each occasion doesn't really lead to success.
 

pemerton

Legend
Of the systems I'm currently GMing, all has some form of morale mechanic and all but one has that player-side as well as GM-side.

Classic Traveller (1977) has morale rules for combat that apply equally to PCs and NPCs.

Prince Valiant (1989) doesn't have a discrete moral subsystem, but in various circumstances can require a successful check for a PC to engage with an enemy (or to engage without suffering a penalty), and also has rules for the emotional state of a character affecting resolution (fear imposes penalties; fighting for a passionate cause grants bonuses).

Burning Wheel (2005 - I use a version of Revised) uses a Steel attribute for both PCs and GM-controlled characters and creatures - a failed check allows the player to choose the response from a list, which includes standing and drooling, running screaming, swooning, or falling to one's knees to beg for mercy.

Marvel Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic (2012) allows for three categories of stress to be inflicted - Physical, Mental and Emotional - on both PCs and NPCs. Emotional stress can include fear. As well as stress, characters can also suffer similarly-rated Complications, which might include fearful or phobic or other emotional responses.

D&D 4e has rules for using Intimidate to affect the willingness of NPCs/monsters to fight, but there is no comparable mechanic to force PCs to check morale. Individual monsters can have non-magical fear effects - eg a Tyrant Fang Drake (= T-Rex) can stun a PC with its roar - but they are relatively uncommon.

Whether morale rules are a problematic burden on player agency depends heavily on how they work as a mechanic, how they are integrated into other elements of the system, and also what methods the GM uses to establish downstream consequences of the PCs succubming to their fear.
 

sim-h

Explorer
My PCs leg it left right and centre at the first sign of any trouble! Morale rules would actually keep them fighting longer ;)

I sometimes use morale for monsters, and have them run off to warn others or just flee. I don't (or rarely) use a dice roll or save, I simply decide when the NPC or monsters have had enough, based on common sense and the type of monster.
 

Olaf the Stout

Adventurer
I miss the 2E morale rules. I wouldn’t try and put them on the PCs, but I think it is good for monsters to not fight to the death every single time.

Yes, I could rule on it ad-hoc, but I liked the 2E system where different monsters had different levels at which they would flee (I.e. Goblins flee much more easily than hobgoblins.) and different factors that impact on whether they flee or flight.

As Jay said, it helps give another variable to differentiate monsters.
 
It seems like Morale is critical to playing RPG's, yet the mention that not all have them is interesting. Good thinking OP!

I use Reaction rolls for my critters and NPC's. Morale is just another Reaction roll. I also really like very simple game mechanics that I can play on the fly.

I do it differently than how most games apply them. I base my reaction on what would be normal for the type of creature it is and what its motive might be.

2d6 with 7 being a keep doing what it would normally do. Either high or low, depending on my mood, means it either does more of something or less of something.

This allows me to base reactions more on motive than anything else. I don't play a dungeon with stupid robot monsters anymore, I like to think of them as thinking creatures, even if they are ugly and evil. My players end up in a lot of mexican stand off's where they are trying to negotiate out of situations, because my whatever level players may realize that fighting equal level and number monsters is a 50/50 split on who gets taken out. The monsters think the same kind of ideas about their odds.

So as an example, a party of 12 runs into 4 orcs. Well, the orcs can't be so stupid as to stick around and fight. These over matched critters would likely run away first thing. I roll and perhaps high 9-12 is them just surrendering. 6-8 is that they run away. 2-5 despite everything they decide to attack.

Here is where the difference comes in. If they decide to attack, then these guys have a normal inclination to do just that. Every combat round I roll to see if they feel like sticking around. If they have taken more casualties than the players, then they are more likely to leave because things look bad.

Thus, I always am rolling for that middle range as being their most likely primary objective and that is a moving target based on what is happening in the moment.

Hope that makes sense. ;)
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Early morale rules came from a desire for the game to be simulationist. Now, players want the game to be theatrical.
The early RPGs were outgrows of wargaming, where morale rules were common. Wargames were extremely simulationist, though.


Odd, because panic/terror aren't exactly voluntary emotions. Being forced to run due to terror is the same as being forced to take damage from dragon jaws. Maybe players confuse that with just being cowardly?
Could be. I also think that on this point designers just really feel that PC agency is more important. I'm not entirely sure I agree and think that things like fear effects aren't bad, though it depends on how they're handled. Rallying feared allies would actually be a pretty cool thing for leader type characters to do and I could see ways of making that interesting in the game. Of course, you could also view hit points as being ablative morale, too.
 

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