Morale: the Missing Encounter Piece From D&D and Pathfinder

From Daniel J. Mello (danscififan)

Morale — the esprit de corps, the willingness of the unit to continue to fight. This is an old wargame trait assigned to various armies. Infantry are well trained and usually have a high Morale, where partisans and rebels are not as well trained and often have a lower Morale. However, there are some fanatics who fight, and their Morale won’t crack no matter what. This was a big factor in wargames like civil war reenactments and D&D has its roots in the old wargaming hobby.

Why should you care about Morale in a roleplaying game? Because combat is common and this system determines if a combatant would fight, flee, surrender, or do something else. It is useful to determine what the monsters and NPCs will do in combat when the odds start to stack against them.

The Morale Rating

Morale is obtained by the troops’ training and a measure of their spirit. What are the stakes for them, what are their reasons for fighting, and what are their reasons for sticking around during a battle?

The answer to all these questions is easy — a Morale rating.

The Morale rating is a measure of how soon a unit will break. It is the missing mechanic from D&D, and you should consider returning it to your game. It was a mechanic in 1st and 2nd edition, but failed to make it to 3rd and subsequent editions.

Do the monsters in your games fight to the death? Isn’t that boring? Does your party say; “Oh, another fight to the death, why are these creatures so stupid?”

What determines when they run from battle or when they stay on to the end? Do all of them fight to the death? This is not realistic, and it is not how the game was meant to be played. Monsters, especially intelligent monsters, have a break point at which they will no longer want to fight. They will either submit, surrender, break and run, or retreat.

What determines this point is the Morale of these monsters.

Back in 1st and 2nd edition, all monsters were assigned a Morale number from 1-20. This number was rolled on 2d6 dice whenever the enemy did something that could scare the monster. Then there are Morale modifiers, such as injury, if they have a reason for being there, or if they have other reasons to fight.

Choose Unit Training

Decide how much discipline has been created through training. There are seven ratings:

Fanatic

Unquestioned loyalty to a cause. From a mother defending her brood to religious zealots, these types of troops won’t quit no matter how bad thigs get. They have a base Morale of 20.

Crack

These are better than veterans. They have the skill, experience, training, and motive to continue to fight. They have a base Morale of 18.

Most special forces units claim to have this Morale rating.

Veteran

They have fought before and know the horrors of battle. So they are not scared by the bad things that can happen in combat. They are typically well trained and can rely on that training to keep their spirits up.

The American military has a lot of these troops. They have been at war for a long time, those troops are all volunteers, and the system that trained them has been in place for over 200 years, so it is experienced. They have a Morale of 15.

Most hunting predators have a Morale rating similar to this. They are on a mission to get dinner, and they know what they are doing. Special Forces like SEAL teams, SWAT teams, and such have this as a minimum Morale — typically it is higher and closer to Crack if not Fanatic.

Regulars

Most nations have these kinds of troops. They are well trained, but they haven’t had recent combat experience. They come from a military tradition or have enough training to be good troops. They just haven’t got the experience of real warfare or lack something that makes them into the best troops. They have a Morale of 12.

Most of the members of the NATO alliance have this rating. A few are veterans from combat in the Middle East, or in Africa, but most of them haven’t been tested in battle.

Militia

Part-time soldiers are often formed into a militia. Troops that don’t regularly fight in combat, they meet at regular intervals to train and come from good to poor training, but they lack a lot of real-world combat experience. They have a Morale of 10.

Most units that are National Guard Troops have this Morale rating. National Guard units that have been sent into combat will have a higher rating.

The troops assigned to hunt down Rambo in first blood were Militia and Rambo was a former special forces soldier — a Crack troop. Most town guard or police officers have this Morale rating, although police officers have the option of calling upon SWAT, which are special forces that have a Crack rating.

Green

Have little training, next to no combat experience, and little reason to stay in a fight. Most herbivores have this Morale rating.

They will fight when cornered, but would prefer to run away. Mobs often have this Morale rating.

They have a Morale of 8.

Irregulars

Hastily assembled troops with no combat experience and little to no training, they are gathered to defend and rarely conduct an attack on their own initiative.

They have a Morale of 6.

Choose Resilience

Decide what type of training or instincts your monsters have.

For example, you might have a town guard. Are they effectively a Militia, a Crack unit, or maybe Veterans?

The imperial guard would be expected to have a Morale of Crack, while the imperial troops of the regular army would have a Morale rating of Green to Veteran depending on how well they are trained and their unit pride, spirit, and combat experience.

The villagers assembled to defend against a werewolf attack might be Irregulars. Kobolds, goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins can be given a Morale of troops and organized into almost military-like units.  But their morale can vary.  Hobgoblins come from a military tradition so have a higher moral than regular orcs.  Goblins are raised to care little about death, so they too have a higher moral rating, but if things go against them they are more likely to break.  Kobolds are organized and have a high moral rating when guarding their young or their dragon god, but less so on a simple patrol.

Morale can vary among the troops based:

  • Training
  • What is at stake for them
  • How they feel about fighting and what they are fighting for

What you need is an aggregate Morale rating for the monsters in question.

Example: Kobolds

For example, kobolds. In D&D, kobolds are descended from dragons, so kobolds guarding a dragon lair will have high Morale. The guards at the entrance to the cave may be bored and not as attentive, so their Morale may be only Veteran. But the kobolds guarding the dragon and its lair have a Morale rating of Fanatic. They are serving their god and their race.

Mothers almost always have Fanatic Morale when defending their children. Almost anyone can tell you not to tease a mother bear in front of her cubs, but what about the humanoid races?

Example: Goblins

Goblins come from a culture that puts little value on education, a high value on right makes might, and a higher value on being fed. A troop of goblins searching for food would have the Morale of Regulars. They could be well trained, have a good motive, and are persistent. If they don’t find food, then their tribe will starve. They are small though. Most of the world is bigger, so goblins can’t help but have an inferiority complex, which makes their Morale worse. Inside the lair, Morale varies from those guarding the goblin king to those who are slaves. Those watching over the nest are safeguarding the next generation and would have a Morale of Crack to Fanatic. Hunter gatherers searching for food, or those guarding the slaves are going to have a lower Morale of Regular to Militia. Young troops are almost always going to be Green, due to their inexperience.

Example: Other Monsters

But, a lot of monsters are not units of humanoids, so how do you determine their Morale? A predator has the instincts of a natural born hunter and killer, so they start with the Morale of Regular. Once they have experience, and most do, they are Veterans. If they are hungry then this Morale can increase to Crack. It all depends on the situation and what the DM determines as their training or instincts, what their need is, and how hungry they are. 

A monster protecting its lair is going to start at the same Morale as a Veteran. They are protecting their home and their treasure. If they have wealth, something they value, then this Morale is going to raise to Crack. If they have young in the lair, then the Morale of the monster will raise to Fanatic.

A predator who is hunting is doing so to survive. They will attack almost anything that they think they can tackle, but their decision if they are to continue the fight after a few rounds is going to be determined by how badly they need to eat and how good the opposition is. After all, a predator needs to be healthy to continue to hunt, and if this prey creature is too tough, it is better at some point to move on and to try something easier.

How To Determine Morale

So, how do you determine Morale? First you need to assign it to each creature you plan on using:

  • Training and instincts
  • What their mission is
  • Difficulty or deadliness of their opposition

Magic is unknown to most animals, even their dire forms, so this will be a factor. But creatures that cast spells or have spell-like abilities will consider magic less of a factor.

Determine a creature’s Morale by rolling 1d20 or by the situation it is in and the instincts or training it has.

A Morale check is made on 2d6. If the creature’s Morale number is less than the roll, then that creature’s Morale breaks, and it disengages in whatever manner is best for it. Intelligent creatures could surrender, throw down their weapons or withdraw. Nonintelligent monsters will just withdraw.

The DM makes a Morale check when the encounter starts, and then adjusts Morale by the modifiers on the Morale Modifier Table.

When to check Morale:

  • When the creature falls below 75% of its total hit points it suffers a +2 penalty to any Morale check and a Morale check must be made
  • When the creature falls below 50% of its total hit points it suffers a +4 penalty to any Morale check and a Morale check must be made
  • When the creature falls below 25% of its total hit points it suffers a +6 penalty to any Morale check and a Morale check must be made

Morale Modifiers

All effects are cumulative.

Modifier Situation
+1 Penalty When facing organized prey. This will go away if the monsters can cut one creature off from the herd or the organized group, or if the monsters outnumber the prey.
-1 Bonus A creature in a pack, herd or other organized unit. There is strength in numbers.
+2 Penalty Has no access to magic and has magic used against it. This magic must be showy and potentially harmful to the creature, and the creature must be able to recognize the potential harm. Examples are a fireball, burning hands, a flaming sphere, large illusions. An acid arrow is not powerful or showy enough, and neither are most cantrips or orisons. The effect can be delivered by a magic weapon, say a cold or electric shock sword, or a magic that has a visual effect, like mirror image.
+1 to +5 Penalty Suffers artillery fire. From sling stones or darts to siege weapons. Larger artillery generates a larger Morale roll penalty. Arrow, crossbow, or slings of 10 shots or larger per round suffer a +1 modifier to Morale for each 10 units firing. Artillery from a large source has a +2 Morale penalty (this includes giants and siege engines). Artillery from huge and gargantuan sources have a +3 Morale modifier. The size of the artillery Morale modifier is cumulative with the size of the artillery. Most sieges on castles had only a handful of siege weapons, but when the Romans sieged a fortification their engineers could build dozens of siege weapons and used them effectively.
+1 Penalty Showy effects will scare monsters of animal intelligence. A light show, or fire like a torch, campfire, or lantern. A ghost sound of a large number of creatures or a loud sonic attack. Intelligent monsters are immune to this, unless they have reason to fall for the effect (like an illusion that is preceded by a call for reinforcements).
+1 Penalty A flanking attack that’s perceived as a threat. One man flanking an army is not a credible threat, but one man flanking a single large cat is. If the group of creatures outnumbers the flanking force by five or more then flanking is usually not considered a threat.
-1 Bonus Mounted forces or forces larger than their foes cause their foes to suffer a +1 Morale modifier.
-1 or -2 Bonus The ferocity of the creature could also be a factor. Tigers and other big cats tend to be apex predators, so they are more likely to have a +1 or +2 to their Morale rating.
-1 or -2 Bonus Unusual creatures like dire monsters, displacer beasts, and abominations can have a +1 to +2 to their Morale rating due to their nature. They are not only apex predators, but many are magical and that provides extra confidence. Or they might be in constant pain due to their mixed-up nature and so want to take this pain out on other creatures.
Varies Intelligence. Smart creatures tend to be overconfident. They have handled most situations they have been in and feel they are more than up to the task proposed by a party of adventurers. Greed or other strong emotions can also have a Morale effect. For example, a beholder is greedy and covets treasure the party has so they might gain a +1 to their Morale rating.
Varies Rank. A quasit is a low-level demon and they are not going to have the same Morale as type five demon, and that type five demon may not have as high a Morale rating as a demon lord would. The organization would determine the Morale ratings. Demons are chaotic so with less organization they are likely to have a lower Morale rating when compared to their lawful devil cousins.
Varies DMs choice. Any Morale modifier that the DM can think applies to the situation. Usually this is a +1 to +2 modifier, but in some situations it can be higher. For example, if the giants feel they have a cunning plan, if monsters have allies waiting in the wings for an attack, or if the monsters are planning a trap and the party seems to have fallen for it.

Nonintelligent monsters like plants, molds, and oozes have a Fanatic Morale rating because they are focused on getting their next source of food and don’t think about retreat.

Using Morale Ratings

When would you use Morale ratings? Here are some common reasons.

Interrogation

The point at which a prisoner starts telling the truth could be up to their Morale and the damage they have taken as torture, combat, or mistreatment. A prisoner could take one point of nonlethal damage per week of confinement. If the conditions are worse, then it might be two points of nonlethal damage per week.

Hunters

Predators face Morale each day as they hunt. Are they hungry enough to risk damage in a battle? Are they looking to feed their pack or their family? Or are the just looking to feed themselves? How long has it been since they last had a good meal? All of these would be factors that determine their Morale rating. It typically starts as Veteran, but it can be adjusted by several factors.

Prey

Prey animals also face Morale checks on a daily basis. Are they being hunted? Are they outnumbered by the hunters? Are they within the protection of a herd? All of these could be factors for their Morale.

War

Soldiers defending a castle can be in a siege condition, a normal condition, or something in between. For example, if they are at war and the enemy is close, if they are far behind the front lines, if their side is fighting a famous unit, or if they are a well-trained unit.

Their Morale can be used to determine when the castle itself surrenders or how individual guards on duty might react.

For example, troops on normal guard duty in a castle behind the lines would have the Morale of Regular troops. If they were well trained or staffed with Veterans, then their Morale could climb. If they have a long tradition of peace or if they are poorly paid then their Morale might be lower. This could be used not just to determine if a castle would fall to a siege, but if the guards on duty might respond to a strange noise. Or how they would respond if captured and interrogated.

Monsters

Most monsters are predators. They seek out living creatures for food and sometimes that can be the player characters. How long do the monsters pursue their prey, how long do they fight them, or will they will attack at all?

Campfires are intimidating to most animals so the DM might assign an encamped party a +1 Morale penalty to any predator that wants to attack the camp.

Intelligent creatures who know how to create and use fire are less like to worry about a campfire.

Therefore, the DM has to determine the Morale of the possible attackers based on who they are.

Bandits raiding a caravan would call for Morale rolls on both sides. The caravan has to resist the urge to flee and abandon their goods, while the bandits have to determine if they are willing to make the attack.

The most common use of Morale rolls will be in situations where the party is fighting monsters in a dungeon or module. The training of those monsters or their instincts would determine their Morale and when they might break.

Example: Wolves

For example, an eight wolf pack attacks a party of five player characters. Characters don’t have Morale ratings because players decide what they do. Only NPCs have Morale ratings. The wolves are predators hunting for a meal, so the DM assigns them a Morale of Veteran 15. You can’t roll over 12 on 2d6, so when the wolves engage in battle, they think they outnumber the prey and are willing to attack.

When the wolves are knocked down to 75% of their hit points the DM gives them a +2 to any Morale rolls. Then the wizard PC casts burning hands, which is a showy use of magic and provides a +1 Morale modifier. The wolves are also assailed by a ranger archer, so they suffer a further +1 to their Morale. Net result is a +4 penalty to the roll.

Now a Morale failure is possible. If the DM rolls an 11 or 12 on 2d6, then the wolves Morale break (all ties go to the defender and the wolves are defending their own Morale).

When the wolves lose two pack members and are reduced to ½ of their total hit points, then the wolves have to make another Morale check, this time at a +6. So, they will break on a roll of 9 or higher on 2d6.

The wolves still feel confident and continue the attack. The wizard decides to get creative and casts an illusion of five bears coming into the battle. The wolves are now outnumbered and suffer a further +1 to their Morale rolls. The wizard has the bears come in on the wolves’ flank, so that generates another +1. The wolves now have a +8 to any of their Morale rolls and can break on a roll of 7 or better on 2d6.

But, they don’t have to make a Morale check until they are dropped to 75% of their hit points. The wolves fail their saving rolls vs. the illusion, they have been shown showy effects, they believe they are outnumbered, they are flanked by the bears. They suffer a +8 modifier, so now they can break on a roll of 5 or more on 2d6.

The wolves are probably going to decide these prey animals are too tough and their Morale will break. The DM can roll a 5 or more on 2d6, or decide that with the Morale penalties are so high the Morale of the wolves is going to break, and the wolves run. However, if the DM decided these were starving wolves who hadn’t eaten in four days, then their Morale might be Crack or even Fanatic. They are fighting for survival and not as likely to have their Morale break.

Example: Kobolds

An adventuring group of five comes across a cave of kobolds. They tackle the four guards on duty. The party sneaks into range and surprises the kobolds.

The DM decides this surprise gives the kobolds a +2 Morale penalty.

The DM thinks the kobolds are defending their lair, but the creatures are bored with guard duty, so their Morale is only that of Regular troops, a rating of 12.

The kobolds are highly organized, so the DM decides to improve their Morale to 13.

The party outnumbers the kobolds, so that’s a +1 penalty.

The PCs bring the kobolds under artillery fire, so the kobolds suffer an additional +1 penalty.

The party has access to magic, but they decide to save it for use later. The kobold guards are not spell casters, so if the party used magic, the creatures would suffer a further +2 to their Morale. The kobolds know the dragon and their leaders have access to magic, but they themselves do not have access to magic. The DM must make a judgement call and might decide the kobolds’ Morale would suffer further.

The kobolds now have a Morale penalty of +2 from surprise, +1 from being outnumbered, and +1 because the party is composed of creatures who are larger than the kobolds, for a total of +4. This means, with their 13 Morale, the kobolds would break on a roll of 9 or higher on 2d6.

When combat starts the kobolds must pass their first Morale check.

When they drop to 75% of their hit points and lose one of their guards they now have a +6 to their Morale check and can fail a Morale check on a roll of 7 or more on 2d6.

Once they lose another kobold and fall to 50% of their total hit points, they suffer an additional +2 to their Morale checks, meaning they can break on a roll of 5 or less on 2d6d.

The DM decides the kobolds are intelligent and will run to warn the rest of the tribe. One kobold runs inside the cave, while the other runs west in an effort to distract the party. The party ignores the distraction and pursues the kobold fleeing into the cave complex. Little do they know that an adult red dragon is waiting and the kobold running inside is yelling so the dragon will be awake and alert.

Now let’s say the player characters get further into the cave system and confront the red dragon. The dragon is a hyper-intelligent creature, so it is overconfident. The red dragon is a predator and is experienced in battle, so the DM assigns it a rating of 16. It guards its nest, so that increases its Morale to 17. The party comes in and starts unleashing spells. This might scare the kobolds, but the dragon has spells of her own, so she is not afraid of this. The dragon considers the kobolds to be inferior, so when they start to die, she cares little. However, once she starts to take damage herself then she starts to care.

When she falls to 75% of her hit point total, she would only break on a 15 or better, which you can’t roll on 2d6, so the DM doesn’t bother to roll a Morale check. However, when the dragon falls to 25% of her hit points, the dragon suffers a +6 to her Morale checks. That means if she rolls an 11 or better the dragon’s Morale can break. This is not too likely, but the dragon is outnumbered by the party — a +1 penalty — and the party is using archery against the dragon, so another +1.

Now the dragon’s Morale can break on a 9 or better. It is still unlikely the dragon’s Morale would break, but the DM may reconsider and have the dragon use her ring of spell storing with a teleport spell in it to escape. After all, the DM may want to have the dragon become a reoccurring villain, or she might be smart enough to realize this is a fight she can’t win so she could decide to grab as much of her treasure as possible and teleport out.

Tweak As Desired

Like any system, this could use some tweaking and needs a little adjustment by the DM. But the mechanic is sound. It has been used in war games for over 100 years.

The modifiers a DM uses, and the Morale ratings they assign to their monsters, will vary with how determined they decide the creatures should be and the circumstances they are in.

Employ Morale to finish fights faster, portray foes with greater realism, and give players interesting tactics and options to consider.

Use Morale checks as a reaction guide in any kind of conflict, such as interrogation, wars and sieges, and encounters with animals and intelligent monsters.