Morale in D&D

The D&D 5e design team is talking about morale in D&D. I miss morale.  For those not familiar with morale, it was a mechanic that told you when foes were likely to break and run or give up instead of just fighting to the death like killbots. (Yes, I know, hard to believe.) It was in Basic and 2e if I recall correctly, and you’d roll 2d6 against it and apply penalties in various circumstances. For examples from my 2e MM, Kobolds were unsteady (7) and Kuo-toa were Elite (13).

To forestall the inevitable poorly thought through complaints, you can ignore it just like you can any other piece of a stat block or monster writeup as a DM, you don’t have to be beholden to it.  (“It says they appear in mountainous terrain and it’s not mountains!  NOOOOOO!”)  But it helps define more specifically how vicious/cowardly a monster or NPC (or PC ally) is. I have this problem right now in our Reavers campaign – the PCs have a bunch of pirate allies, and I’m continually having to make 6 judgment calls a round as to which keep fighting and which fall back; I’d rather have a mechanic for it.

In fact, I think morale can be improved. Back in my Animals in D&D article I proposed to split morale into two factors – one which determines how likely something is to attack in the first place, an aggression value – and one which determines how likely something is to keep fighting. This is especially great for animals – unlike in computer games, animals usually don’t just attack for grins.  And some will flee if they get hit once, while others won’t.  Heck, it’s good for NPCs too – I remember as a new GM back in AD&D 1e days being confused in T1 the Village of Hommlett as to whether the berserkers in the gatehouse were just going to attack anyone they saw, or what? They’re berserkers, but on the other hand they seem to just be chilling in a building with other kinds of creature around…

Sure, if you plan out every single encounter and what is “supposed” to happen you might not need the aggression. But many of us use random encounters, and also have just stuff out there people can wander across – is that owlbear feeling very irate, or just standoffish today?

So I’m definitely in favor of morale coming back.  Let’s say convert it to a d20 roll as is more traditional now. First value, roll over to attack, second value, roll over to keep attacking. And you get a bunch of more interesting behaviors quickly defined…

  • Morale DC 20/10: isn’t going to attack unprovoked, will bail about half the time if it’s in a fight that’s not going well (most animals might fit in here.)
  • Morale DC 10/0: Somewhat likely to attack you, but once the fight starts there’s no going back! Maybe a good value for those berserkers in T1.
  • Morale DC 20/20: Not gonna fight, always gonna run, like a peasant or small herbivore or my dog.
  • Morale DC 10/0: Going to attack half the time, will never flee or surrender
  • Morale DC 7/15: Likely to attack, but not likely to stick with it (many ambush predator types fit into this category, like my cat)
  • Morale DC 5/5: Aggressive and elite critter
  • Morale DC 0/0: Stone golem, crush them!

Etc.  Thoughts?

13 responses to “Morale in D&D

  1. Come back?! You mean they got *rid* of it? I never set foot outside 2e for purposes of playing, and so did not know this was an issue. By all means, go for the d20 solution. Quick house rule, and who knows? It might catch on.

  2. I thik it also pays to think about morale in terms of more specific decisions. If a fighter wastes a half a dozen kobalds, I think the others may be less inclined to step up to him than they are to run over and engage the Rogue who is struggling to stay in the fight. An all-or-nothing approach to morale misses this.

    I’ve also seen battles where I found myself splitting morale up depending on which side of teh battlefield an enemy was on. the battle may have looked quite winnable on the left flank, but the right flank is crumbling. So…

    • That’s also a great point. “You two go hold off the fighter while we clean up the little guys!” I think one of the concerns about morale (like other soeial skill mechanics) is that they are a “win button” if exploited. In our big pirate fights, I often check morale not just to see if someone flees/surrenders but do they close to melee or do less useful missile attacks, etc.

      It also seems like some kind of integration with Intimidate is valid. And frankly the current PF calculations to resist Intimidate are crufty as hell, having it opposed by a Morale + d20 (or morale + 10 for simplicity) would be so much cleaner. And you could “assist” morale rolls with friendly commanders. “I SAID GO GET HIM!!!” (rolls Intimidate and passes, they all get +2 to their Morale checks).

  3. I don’t roll, but use my best judgement.

    When we played last weekend, the wizard cast burning hands on a couple of orcs blocking a pass through the hills. One instantly died, and the other was down to 1 h.p.

    Would the orc really keep fighting to the death?

    No. So he ran away to fight another day, screaming, “I’ll get you back some day!” And the side benefit for plot richness: maybe he will!

    Maybe I’ll try your simple house rules next time we play.


  4. I like morale rules, because it hands me an outcome that’s free of my own bias. (“Of course they fight on! They’re mad and their backs are to the wall… Oh, they flee? Surrender I guess. Well that’s unexpected. Okay, let’s see what happens…” is *way* more interesting than DM-fiat.)

    There actually is/was separate mechanics for attacking initially and for morale. The first was NPC/Monster Reaction rolls. Rather than varying with the monster’s aggressiveness, (in 2e) the table was modified by how friendly/aggressive the PCs are at the start of the interaction. An aggressiveness modifier would be a better idea, I think.

    I’ve been playing a B/X variant for the past few weeks and I’ve really, really loved the NPC Reaction table and Morale table. Things have happened at the table that have been a) zero decision-making weight for me b) unexpected and enjoyable turns in the emerging story. (I wrote about how refreshing and lightweight-to-DM this makes the game: ) Our bard’s best moment of that evening (by the bard player’s standards) only happened because of the particular set of rolls on the NPC Reaction table.

    I will say right now that D&D Next not including morale rules is going to be a huge red flag that indicates Mearls et. al. don’t actually understand the old-school play that they’re wishing to support. From my experience the past few weeks, randomisation tools that relieve the DM Fiat Burden are *essential* for old-school play the way I enjoy it.

  5. I totally agree to Seven. AND this randomisation tools can almost always used as is in later editions… maybe modified by skills like intimidation etc.

    And damn you, mxyzplk, your double diced morale system beats my own, one roll d20 system… But I think I will go back to a 2d6/2d6 roll because of the bell curve… Or maybe 3d6/3d6? Now, where’s that Monster Manual? 😉

  6. I had not considered random encounters, in that instance I can see how this would be useful. I typically prefer that whoever wrote the adventure or the DM thinks of this before an encounter starts and how it will affect the story. If it’s just a dungeon crawl with lots of randoms, I can see it’s usefulness.

  7. Ha! I was just reading through some of my old emails (I use Eudora and have them all back to like 1998) and I found an email from when I was a Living Greyhawk Triad, and they had just given us galley proofs of the 3e rules to prep for Gen Con 2000, and we started asking/griping about the lack of morale rules. Here’s me 12 years ago hassling Robert Wiese…

    “So is the official 3e word that there is no mechanic to determine NPC/monster reactions? Not only is there no morale there’s no encounter reaction chart. Are we really reverting to the days of ‘all encountered monsters attack on sight and fight till dead?’ You’d think there would be guidelines as to monster aggressiveness if nothing else – it’s fine to say “no mechanic, DM fiat” but it’d be nice to have some kind of backup info with which to make an informed decision. And what about normal non-monster NPC reaction rolls? Can’t find those either. I guess I understand why Charisma is now officially less important than Strength (per the create-your-own-race rules). ”

    So apparently I’ve always loved morale. Forgot about this since it’s from so long ago.

  8. how about this?
    Giving orders: (use diplomacy rules)
    Starting Attitude Diplomacy DC
    Hostile 25 + creature’s Cha modifier – 1/2 your morale modifier
    Unfriendly 20 + creature’s Cha modifier – 1/2 your morale modifier
    Indifferent 15 + creature’s Cha modifier – 1/2 your morale modifier
    Friendly 10 + creature’s Cha modifier – 1/2 your morale modifier
    Helpful 0 + creature’s Cha modifier – 1/2 your morale modifier
    Loyal 5 – creature’s Cha modifier – 1/2 your morale modifier
    Cohort’s morale rating is your diplomacy roll. Every event that occurs reduces the morale rating by the following chart. The resulting morale rating remains until either the problem is resolved or another attempt to manage leadership is made. Once morale rating hits zero, the cohort will not follow orders and may abandon the leadership, if they are persuaded to stay but the attitude level is not improved (normal diplomacy rules) they may work to undermine the leadership and mutiny or double-cross.
    Starting Attitude Diplomacy DC
    Bad weather -5
    Bad info -5
    Bad equipment -10 and one attitude level
    Low rations -15 and one attitude level
    Friendly -20 and two attitude levels
    Not enough men -25 and two attitude levels
    Powerful foe -25 and three attitude levels (ex: dragon, ect.)
    Low HP -30 and three attitude levels
    Heavy losses -30 and four attitude levels

  9. of course this requires that there be a leader to build the morale in the first place, but that’s pretty accurate as MOST groups with tasks have someone that is the leader/ driver.

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