Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Conquer, Withdraw, Surrender, or Die!

For all my cavils and criticisms of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (especially the final film), I have a great fondness for its depiction of the Ride of the Rohirrim. One of the main reasons is the moment that begins around 3:38 in the above video (in case I screwed up the formatting of the timestamp) when the morale of the orcs visibly breaks before the charging cavalry of Rohan. It's not only a thrilling moment of drama, it's also a great depiction of something that ought to happen more often in fantasy RPG combat than I suspect it does.

Morale is one of my hobby horses – despite the fact that I am as guilty as anyone of ignoring it in play. That's really the problem: it's too easy to ignore, even though I have long believed that it's one of the keys to understanding how combat is supposed to operate in Dungeons & Dragons and related games. Part of the problem, of course, is that D&D has never really had good morale rules. OD&D doesn't really have rules outside of handling hireling loyalty – hence the reason Charisma is an ability score in the first place – and Holmes, from which I took the title of this post, has none at all. AD&D's rules, as presented in the Dungeon Masters Guide, are too complex; they practically beg to be ignored.

Now, Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rules include morale rules that are simple and fairly easy to use, in large part because he was clever enough to give each monster a morale rating in its entry. The second edition of Gamma World did something similar, although it allows for a little more variability by providing a range of ratings for each entry rather than a single number. Other RPGs with which I have a lot of experience, such as Empire of the Petal Throne, have their own simple morale systems.

From experience, I can attest to the fact that Moldvay's rules work and are unobtrusive in play. Nevertheless, I keep forgetting them, except in cases where the logic of what's happening in play makes me remember. Perhaps that's enough, I don't know. Somehow, though, it doesn't feel sufficient to me, at least when I take the time to think about it, as I am right now. Is the fault with the rules or with me? I'm naturally inclined to assume the latter, except there are plenty of easily forgotten rules that I don't forget, so why do I have such a hard time remembering to check morale? It's baffling to me, all the more so because, intellectually, I know this is something I should care more about.

Consequently, I continue to cast about for a good set of morale rules – something that's easy to use and, just as importantly, easy to remember. As I said, Moldvay's rules are actually quite decent, particularly with regards to ease of use. Maybe I just need to recommit myself to using them until doing so is as habitual as checking for wandering monsters (another vital rule that's easily forgotten). Alternately, maybe there is a set of morale rules out there that are as good as Moldvay's but easier to keep in mind. If anyone has any suggestions on that score, I'd love to hear them.


  1. I think the reason morale checks are easy to forget is that they are situational rather than recurring on a schedule (like random encounter checks). To mitigate this somewhat I added an explicit check for morale step to my combat procedure, right after initiative roll at the top of each round. It’s too early to say that this alone will make the difference but I hope it will help. At least this way my players also know about it and can help me remember.

  2. I like Moldvay's rules on morale. Back in the day I ignored them but since restarting 3y ago I've used them all the time.

    One thing that I notice is that there are no other powers, magic items or spells which interact with them. It seems obvious to me that spells like Phantasmal Force might cause a morale check or even a morale failure, but there's no mention of things like this in the text. Similarly magic items which raise the morale of your henchmen or at Expert level troops aren't there either.

    The other thing which I think is missing, but can be easily played using the morale rules is that of bravado and reputation. A PC or NPC of note may use bravado to intimidate opponents. A L4 fighter (Hero) could be expected to intimidate a gang of orcs or goblins without having to fight them. A decent speech by the player (or a successful roll based on charisma) could force a morale check on weaker opponents.

  3. Hmmmm.... Maybe the morale roll could be combined with the initiative roll? No, I don’t how exactly, but it would make it integral to the process, and hard to overlook.

  4. I'm not sure there is a simpler, cleaner, clearer system than Moldvay's. If there is I don't know about it. Unlike a lot of other games, I find it really puts morale front-and-center in fights unless you ignore it . . . which is too easy, sometimes.

  5. I keep throwing my players into situations where they really don't want to slog (or, more likely) risk a down-to-the-last-hit-point fight AND I encourage them by allowing them to do things for bonuses on the morale rolls. So often my players are reminding me/asking me about the morale rolls.

    1. Any examples that you'd like to share?

    2. Jacob72: decapitating a fallen enemy and hurling the head into the fray, tearing down banners, winning a one-on-one duel with the enemy leader, targeting the enemy leader with particularly scary or gruesome spells, using illusions to make it appear the PCs are not alone or are more powerful than they actually are spring to mind among the things my players have done.

  6. Adventures Dark and Deep gives all monsters a morale rating, and there are only a few modifiers. I like to think it makes it pretty easy to use.

  7. I don't necessarily make the morale checks (using Moldvay/Mentzer 2d6 morale) at the appropriate times by the book, but I do often check morale when I notice the battle is obviously turning the PC's way. I also allow the players to try to force morale checks by taunting, demanding surrender, etc.

    I think the easiest thing would be to just check morale for NPCs and monsters every round. There are enough times when the monsters really should turn and run or surrender but the dice indicate they keep fighting. I should stop rolling and just have them do so using common sense, really. By rolling every round, the morale is more likely to break eventually, and it's less likely that you'll forget it.

  8. Morale is another thing that was lost from OD&D game play due to the lack of players having access to Chainmail.

    Morale was a major factor in Chainmail, both in the core miniature wargame rules (page 17) and in the "Fantasy Supplement" rules, in which each creature was given not only a particular "Morale Factor" for morale during combat (for which there were numerous sub-ruled for facing charges, types of tactics, etc.) but also a special morale rule for checking morale after suffering casualties.

    You can see elements of the first set of morale rules, the "Post-Melee Morale" rules, in the Morale rules Gary created for AD&D (DMG p.67).

    A variant of the second rule -- casualty-based morale checks -- are what made it into D&D via Moldvay. However, while Moldvay clearly adapted this rule, he went with higher morale score being better -- in Chainmail, you roll above the "Score to Remain" to make a morale check, whereas in Moldvay you roll under the "Morale Rating" to remain in combat.

    … [T]he mental and physical condition of the men (their morale) is taken into consideration in this game.

    Morale is checked before and after combat, basing the determination on historical precedent, just as the fighting ability in actual cases was drawn upon to calculate melee results. A loss of "heart" is at least as serious as a defeat in combat, and perhaps more so, for most battles are won without the necessity of decimation of the losing side.

    FIRST or POST MELEE MORALE Rules (Variant in AD&D)
    1 . The side with the fewer casualties determines the positive difference between their losses and those suffered by the enemy. This number is then multiplied by the score of a die roll and the total noted.

    2. The side with the greater number of surviving troops which were involved in the melee determines the positive difference between the number of his troops and those of the enemy. This number is noted.

    3. Each side now multiplies their surviving figures, separating them by type if more than one type is involved, be the following "Morale Rating" factors:

    more to follow...

  9. Peasants 3
    Light Foot and Levies 4
    Heavy Foot 5
    Elite Heavy Foot 6
    Light Horse 6
    Armored Foot, Janissaries 7
    Medium Horse, Landsknechte 8
    Heavy Horse, Swiss Pikemen 9

    Fantasy Supplement Morale Ratings
    Halflings 5
    Sprites 3
    Dwarves and Gnomes 5
    Goblins 5
    Elves 6
    Orcs 5
    Heroes and Anti-Heroes 20
    Super Heroes 40
    Wizard 50
    Sorcerer 40
    Warlock 30
    Magician 25
    Seer 20
    Wraiths 10
    Lycanthropes 20
    Ogres 8
    Trolls (Never Check Morale)
    Giants (Never Check Morale)
    Treants 20
    Dragons (Never Check Morale)
    Rocs, Wyverns, Griffons (Never Check Morale)
    Elementals (Never Check Morale)
    Basilisk or Cockatrice (Never Check Morale)
    Wights 10
    Magic Swords 10
    Magic Armor 10

    4. Both sides now total the scores arrived at in steps 1 . - 3 . above, and the side with the lower total must immediately react as follows:

    0 - 1 9 difference — melee continues
    20 - 39 difference — back 5 move, good order
    40 - 59 difference — back 1 move, good order
    60 - 79 difference — retreat 1 move
    80 - 99 difference — rout l j move
    100 & + difference — surrender *

    *Victorious side may continue a charge if applicable, leaving the proper ratio of prisoner guards (1 per 5 prisoners)

    For melees involving less than 20 figures per side double all totals.

    Example of a small melee: 10 Heavy Horse attack 20 Heavy Foot, kill 8 and lose 2 HH. The HH then score 6 (for greater kills) times a die roll, thus: 8 - 2 - 6 x 3 (assumed die roll result) = 18. To this total the HH add a morale rating of 9 multiplied by the number of their survivors, thus: 9 x 8 = 72. The entire score for the HH is 18 + 72 = 90. The HF have more survivors, so they score 4 (12 HF as opposed to 8 HC = a positive difference of 4), plus a morale rating of 5 multiplied by their entire force of survivors, thus: 5 x 1 2 = 60. The entire score for the HF is then 4 + 60 = 64. The score of the HF is subtracted from that of the HH and the remainder doubled: 90 - 64 = 26 + 26 = 52, the difference. So the Heavy Foot must immediately move back 1 move (9" in this case) in good order. The Heavy Cavalry must continue their charge, if applicable, and if they again contact the Heavy Foot the two units will again melee that tum.

    more to follow...

    1. You can see the similarity in the table for the result of a failed morale check in the AD&D system (DMG p. 67):

      1% to 15% fall back, fighting
      16% to 30% disengage-retreat
      31% to 50% flee in panic
      51% or greater surrender

  10. Second or Casualties-based MORALE Rules (Variant in Moldvay D&D)
    Instability Due to Excess Casualties: When casualties from any and all causes exceed a certain percentage of a unit's original total strength, morale for that unit must be checked by rolling two dice. If the loss is brought below the set percentage by missile fire, the unit must check before the melee portion of the turn. If the loss is brought about by melee, the unit must check morale after melees have been completed for that turn. If the unit remains stable, it need not again check morale until such time as it suffers losses to the stated percentage of its original strength, but at that time it must be removed from the table for the remainder of the game.

    Any unit that fails to make the required score to remain in battle is removed from play immediately unless no route of retreat is open to it . Surrounded units that fail morale checks are assumed to immediately surrender.

    Unit Type: Light, peasants or levies
    Casualty %: 25%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 8 or better

    Unit Type: Heavy Foot
    Casualty %: 33.33%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 7 or better

    Unit Type: Elite Heavy Foot, Armored Foot, Mongols
    Casualty %: 33.33%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 6 or better

    Unit Type: Medium Horse (not Kts.)
    Casualty %: 33.33%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 7 or better

    Unit Type: Swiss Pikemen
    Casualty %: 50%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 5 or better

    Unit Type: Heavy Horse, Norman Knights
    Casualty %: 50%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 6 or better

    Unit Type: Mounted Knights
    Casualty %: 50%
    Score to Remain (2d6): 4 or better


  11. One of the fun things about Chainmail is that Superheroes (aka Paladins and/or 8th level Fighting Men) approaching within charge range of an enemy unit cause those enemy units to immediately check morale as if they had taken excess casualties.

    [Unsurprising, because they attack as if they were 8 figures (of whatever type they are equipped as, normally AC), and require 8 simultaneous successful attacks against them in one turn to be eliminated (which is almost impossible for normal troops to achieve).]

    One of the problems with traditional morale (and morale checks) is that they are designed to apply to units on the battlefield, and are rather old fashioned in wargaming circles. Most modern wargames tend to change the emphasis and incorporate morale into their command and control systems, which I also think is a better fit to individuals and the role-playing genre.

    In this sort of system the officers exhort the troops to perform an action (with certain headstrong troops this can be particularly easy ["Lieutenant, I think I will take my hussars and charge uphill against emplaced cannon." "That sounds like an excellent idea sir!"]). In other situations, such as getting the unit to hold the line against a charging line of Rohirim, may be slightly more difficult.

    It's a subtle distinction, but the later case definitely illustrates the key effect nicely - the orcs may well break before the cavalry actually reaches them (which is the worst thing to happen for infantry facing cavalry), and be run down.

    But it also pushes the emphasis onto the officers of the unit to be able to exhort the unit to act (or frequently, not act - especially if a chivalric or noble unit thinks that they may be missing out on the glory). It's proactive rather than reactive. Leadership now counts for something, and player characters are natural officers.

    It also means that you can adjust the difficulty of the command by the opposition that the target is facing. It's easier to get a unit of levies, for example, to hold than to advance. So your base C&C roll will be adjusted by the order and the opposition. In OD&D adding the HD of the opposition to the 2d6 roll to advance/attack is a nice contribution, methinks. Those elephants are scary!

    One of the nice things about Ironclaw (which is a very tactically orientated RPG), is that individuals can rally individuals that can remove or grant them conditions. This may not sound like much, but management of these conditions can be the difference between soldiers fighting together as a unit, and individual warriors charging a battleline.

  12. Hmmm. I use an "Overloaded Encounter Die" for initiative each round various events including morale rolls. I have found that a 6 result in a 2d6 morale check means failed morale almost never happens. Perhaps it should be more fully integrated into the overload chart... modifications to the old table in quotations. Not sure about it, but inspired to spitball here. Good post!
    1 Grave Danger: Foes act first & reinforcements arrive (if available): "Allies roll morale check: Wounded allies retreat"
    2 Tides of Battle: Foes act first & tactics change, lights go out, body underfoot, or "Wounded allies check morale"
    3 Weary: All suffer -1 HP: Party acts first: "Allies, Cowardly & Wounded foes check morale"
    4 Expiration: Effects end (spell, potion, stun, etc): Party acts first: "Cowardly & Wounded foes check morale"
    5: Discovery: Clue to foes weakness, story, or treasure: Party acts first: "Cowardly & Wounded foes check morale"
    6 Foes Falter: Party acts first & gains one extra action: "Cowardly & Wounded foes flee or surrender: Brave foes check morale"

    1. This worked pretty good in play this eve! Introduced quite a bit of chaos and a chase! Maybe too much? Still to tinker...

  13. I think the reason morale is overlooked is because you, as DM, become accustomed to making decision for the opposing forces/NPCs as if they were your PCs. It feels like both morale and reaction rolls take that out of your wheel-house, and convert "what would those foes do if they were my characters" towards randomness. As a DM, we tend to rely on our own logical assessment of the situation in preference to dice. I think the AD&D rules are probably (as much else is in the 1e DMG) a codifying of good DM judgement---Gygax trying to mechanize what he would (naturally) do in a game.

    1. I think you're definitely on to something here, including your feelings about Gygax's attempts to mechanize something most DMs do naturally.

  14. I had a similar forgetfulness and started making morale checks for monsters before rolling initiative. It has worked well for me because I decide what the opposition is going to do before I pick up the initiative die. I will sometimes look at the situation and decide that the opposition runs for it without rolling morale. If the monster is somewhat intelligent and the situation is hopeless I decide they've figured it out and they are going to run.

  15. As a couple of other posters hinted at, Morale rules are a staple of wargaming. In many wargames there is this phase at the end of a combat turn where everyone figures out which units need to make morale tests and rolls them.

    If you came to D&D with a background in these wargames, your "check unit morale" muscle would be really well developed. I think without that background though, it seems like an odd phase to have in a combat round. (And maybe it is odd, and I just grandfather it in because I'm used to it...)

    1. That makes absolute sense. Sadly, I have never been a wargamer, so that muscle, if it exists in me at all, is very flabby.

  16. I have made morale a type of damage the PC's inflict. Ignoring the specifics that moves the "remember it exists" to the group most invested in it.

    If you made it a condition the players can trigger and that THEY roll for, you'll find it happening a lot more.

    I also have opponents only give XP for breaking or being captured (dead men tell no tales), so there is way more incentive for players to try to force the issue.

    1. This sounds good in principle but I wonder if you could give an example?

  17. It is quite surprising that your players could keep quiet when you forgot to roll morale. I usually roll morale on first monster loss and half monsters lost, if they make both rolls they will fight to the death. I don't remember that is the default, but since my players learned that, that have not allowed me to forget it.

  18. Another morale related moment in this clip is Theoden's impact on his army. When they come over the rise and see the legions of Mordor's army, you can see the fear and uncertainty in their faces.

    Then Theoden takes command of the situation, he issues his orders, and then addresses his troops. By the time he's done, the Rohirim have absolutely crushed their own morale roll and are champing at the bit to engage the enemy.

    On a related note, this is my favorite of all the inspirational speeches in Jackson's movies. Certainly Aragorn's, "Not this day," speech is wonderful, but it's meant to inspire us, the viewers. There's no way the soldiers five ranks back were able to hear Aragorn's words.

    But the way they framed Theoden, he's speaking to the troops. His words are simple, loud, easy to understand. The sound of his voice, the slapping of the sword on the lances, the troops may not catch the words but they know what he's saying. Theoden is lighting a fire that spreads through the ranks and by the third cry of, "death," the riders in the far back who can't even see the king are ready to go.