Thursday, 15 January 2015

Reconceptualising the Morale Check

One of my pet peeves in RPGs is unrealistic monster behaviour in combat - by which I generally mean, fighting to the death. By no means all DMs do this, and certainly not all the time, but I'm sure anyone reading this will have experienced a combat in a game in which all the orcs/goblins/kobolds/bandits/whatevers carry on a combat until the bitter end and they are all dead or incapacitated. I generally consider it something of a warning sign: it indicates the DM isn't really thinking about the game properly - unless there is some good reason for it.

The morale check is a game mechanic in D&D that is designed to remedy this, but I've always found it a bit of a blunt instrument, contingent on abstractions (25% casualties, half hit points lost, etc.) which may not be appropriate in a given situation.

My general approach these days is not to bother with morale checks at all, but just have monsters flee (or surrender) based on what seems appropriate. I try as best I can to assess, subjectively, what in a given instance would likely happen, depending on what kind of creature is involved and what is at stake. Put your mind into that of an orc, for example: you are mean-spirited, malicious and above all self-centred. While patrolling around the countryside with a band of fellow orcs, you come across a party of adventurers who are heavily armed, and one of them looks like a magician. A fight ensues and one of your comrades is felled by a magic missile. What incentive is there to carry on the skirmish? There is a good chance you'll die, and there does not seem to be a huge benefit to continuing - certainly not outweighing the chance of death. Wouldn't you aim to disengage?

As well as being realistic, of course, this approach is generally also better for the game. Monsters fleeing presents players with interesting choices: to follow or not to follow? It also presents the DM with interesting options: how do the monsters go about seeking revenge or otherwise reacting to the defeat?

What always surprises and interests me about military history is how comparatively few casualties tend to arise from battles and skirmishes when set against what one might expect - especially when it comes to what you might think of as the bloodiest part of a medieval battle, melee. Speaking in general terms, in most medieval battles the large part of the killing tended to take place in routs, when there was a disorderly retreat, and/or subsequent massacres of captives. Taking just one example, the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 was one of the major military engagements of the Hundred Years' War and a shattering blow to the French psyche, yet out of what seems to have been around 20,000 participants on both sides, after a hard day of fighting (at the very least 4-5 hours) there appear to have been something like a total of 3,000 men killed and wounded. Assuming the normal ratio of wounded-to-killed soldiers in a battle, that would be something around 1,000 deaths, or 5% of the total combatants. That would simply be unrealistic if we imagine the men involved going at it hammer-and-tongs like a typical D&D fight. Other examples will produce varying figures, of course, but it was pretty rare for a medieval battle to even produce casualty rates of 25% of total combatants, let alone anywhere near 100%. (The bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil, the Battle of Towton, during the Wars of the Roses, is said to have produced 28,000 dead, which was approximately half the total number of combatants - but this is believed to have been exaggerated, most were killed during the Lancastrian rout, and the figure includes many murdered captives.)

In any event, this is surely what one would expect when you forget about Hollywood and put yourself into the mindset of somebody in a battle. What's your first priority? Survival. What's your second? Not being captured. What's your third? Winning. I would expect that "killing the enemy" is fairly far down the list. Battle casualty figures bear that out: what happens when 20,000 men gather together with the aim firstly of survival, secondly of not being captured, and third winning? Most of them end up surviving, by hook or by crook.

But that's only half of the issue, because of course - as I've alluded to - a rout will often end up in slaughter of the losing side. Loss of discipline and disorganisation is not a great recipe for survival. In fact it's more or less the worst thing that could happen to an army. The best thing after it becomes clear that victory is not on the cards is orderly retreat.

So I wonder whether it would be an interesting experiment to interpret the morale check more broadly, and it's as follows (assuming a 1 minute round):

When the DM rolls a morale check, a successful result means the monsters either remain in the fight, or make an organised retreat. A failed check which is better than half the monsters' morale results in an organised retreat. A failed check which is less than half the monsters' morale results in a rout.

An organised retreat takes one round, during which time the monsters are open to a bonus attack from any PCs within range, but at a +4 bonus to their AC. They then have a free turn of movement to retreat.

During a rout, the monsters are open to a bonus attack from any PCs within range which hits automatically. After this, they may flee, but initiative applies in the normal way.


  1. I like using morale checks in games, but never felt it was quite right. These seem like really good suggestions, and I particularly like how the organized retreat works.

  2. I use Warhammer-style rules where being in melee and then suddenly leaving results in an autohit from the enemy (lots of exceptions but that's the gist) so this somewhat imitates "getting messed up during a rout".

    In theory, I also like it because at that point the climax of the battle is over, so it draw it out a little less.

  3. Definitely like the "half Morale Score as Threshold" to trigger different monster behaviors. I've been trying to be better about things like Encounter Distance and Morale lately. It's something I've thought about folding into Side Based Initiative.

    I think triggering the bonuses/penalties associated with an organized retreat is probably an excellent application for more militarized/disciplined monsters (like your conventional Hobgoblin Contubernium), I just wonder what we could trigger with the Half Morale Score for less disciplined foes.

  4. If you dropped in a rule where if you can hit someone, not just withdrawing from combat, but someone actively running away from you, then its Save or Die for them, what effect would that have?

    1. That sounds cool, but also it sort of ruins the 'purity' of doing combat through the attack roll, if you're bothered about that sort of thing.

  5. I'm confused.

    It's unrealistic to say that a group of orcs would stay, and fight to the death, but if they run it's easier to hit them. So...running away is more likely to get them killed than staying and fighting, eliminating the point of running away.


    A) If the enemy gets an extra/free attack when they stop fighting, and flee, why not fight to the death?

    B) Why have a check? Just kill them like you were going to anyway.

    It's a D&D thing isn't it?

    1. 1. Depends on the range. If you're getting magic-missile hits, you might be far enough away to just hoof it without anyone getting the chance to stab you in the back.
      2. Even a free hit isn't automatic death if you start at full HP; better to risk eating one when you're able to stagger home than when you're on your last legs.
      3. Orcs may not *know* that the GM is going to assign auto-hits against them for fleeing. They may not even know there's a GM.
      4. An auto-hit is the penalty for fleeing in panic; organized retreats offer far better odds.
      5. If you're in a panic, you probably aren't making the best decisions.

    2. Confanity has explained it well, but I think you're letting your prejudice against D&D influence your reading of the rule. An organised retreat will generally be the best option.

    3. If I run away, I might make it, if I stay, I am surely dead. My odds go up if I am one of the first to run away (in a mass combat). We all know an organized retreat would be better, but that requires coordination, leadership, and somewhat level heads, all things a panic'd losing enemy is short of supply on.
      Though not a perfect fit, there is that old saying, I only have to outrun the fellow next to me.

  6. Nice post. In the comments on casualty rates, you might also note that "decimation," which to us denotes utter disaster, literally means losing 10% of your force.

    1. Indeed, though I think I'm right in saying that decimation was a form of punishment for mutinous units in the Roman Empire?

    2. Yes! I still believe the meaning the word has taken on gives us a good yard-stick for expected casualties, though. It also implies that (since a punishment for desertion must be worse than the fate you avoided by deserting, in order to be effective) that odds of survival in battle were commonly recognized as being better than one-in-ten.

  7. The morale check is a game mechanic in D&D that is designed to remedy this, but I've always found it a bit of a blunt instrument, contingent on abstractions (25% casualties, half hit points lost, etc.) which may not be appropriate in a given situation.

    I haven't played "out-of-the-book" D&D for ages, but the above should be combined with command rules.

    Here are my quite simple Morale rules, but they're based on BRP and not on D&D:

    1. Yeah, there need to be exceptions for mook-style creatures and also animals, which let's face it are going to run away at the soonest opportunity they have when things get nasty.

  8. I'm going to be running the IKRPG tonight, so I'm glad I saw your post.

    In all honestly, I'm guilty of the fight-to-the-death mindset, and yes, a lot of that has to do with lack of forward thinking, and not visualizing the motivations of antagonists in combat.

    It'll probably take some homebrewing to manufacture some morale checks in IKRPG, and I may steal 賈尼's mechanics and mod them for a 2d6 system.

    Let's hope 2015 is the year I start letting thugs and cutpurses escape with their lives, if not all their limbs.

  9. I've been torn between the more varied outcomes of the overly complicated post-melee morale system of Chainmail and the simplicity of the 2d6 vs. Morale score from B/X. Your system puts the "good order" back in the game.

    Thanks for these good ideas, noisms.

  10. I have a question. In my experience, largely running and playing versions 3 and 5, Every time opponents run away, they are almost always slaughtered as they run. The turn based, flat movement rate mechanics of the systems make it difficult for enemies to put enough distance between themselves and the PCs to escape properly, particularly in wilderness settings, and particularly when there are more than one ranged character. Is this a problem with those particularly systems, or do earlier versions suffer this as well? Are my groups and I just particularly vicious? How do you recommend handling players who want to chase down and slaughter every fleeing enemy?

    1. I think it's a perennial problem with D&D but I think the 'organised retreat' rules I suggested may make things a bit more realistic.

      In wilderness chases, though, I would also roll a random encounter roll pretty frequently (maybe every other round). All that noise is going to attract attention pretty rapidly.

    2. Your question was discussed in an angryDM post.

      His approach is that the combat rules should only be used when there are two sides who are actually fighting each other.

      When a retreat is declared or it is obvious one side has won stop using them and use something else.
      My thoughts on that something else for a side that retreats. They roll 2d6 add their dex mod and +1 for ever 5ft of move speed past 30 -1 for every 5 ft below 30

      The winners do the same and if you beat the runners score they take a hit.
      Maybe have each panicking unit get run down and killed or captured if caught.