Friday, July 09, 2010

more morale, please

I can't really pretend to be objective about the '81 D&D Basic Rules.  They're the rules I started with and the gold standard to which I hold all other RPGs.  On the other hand I'm not so myopic that I can't see why some people would prefer 9 point alignment over Law/Neutral/Chaos, or a class system where an Elf can also be a Thief.  Those are perfectly legit options on the broad spectrum of D&D.

Unlike some old schoolers I'm also willing to acknowledge that some WotC-era mechanics have merit.  Feats or skills a la 3.x aren't deal-killers in my book.  Putting them into the 3.x chargen system grinds my gears, but in isolation both are decent mechanics.  And in my current Labyrinth Lord campaign I am seriously considering switching to either 3-fold saves (Fort/Reflex/Will).  My group as a whole just doesn't seem to grok the old save system and I think Reflex +4, Target 20 would suit many of them a crapload more.  Or maybe I'll go to the single save method from Swords & Wizardry.  I dunno.

But Moldvay's morale rules is probably the one D&D Basic mechanic I don't think anyone has ever topped.  It's clearly labeled an optional rule and it only takes up half a page (B27 if you want to look it up yourself), but man that half-page packs quite a wallop.  I'll summarize for folks who don't have a Basic D&D or LL rulebook handy: Every monster has a morale score in their statblock, rated from 2 to 12.  At the first casualty received in combat and at 50% casualties you role 2d6.  If you roll over the critter's morale score, the bad guys retreat, withdraw or surrender as adjudicated by the DM.

Increase speed, drop down and reverse direction!I probably don't need to tell you how big a difference that simple rule can make in play.  Far fewer fights are to the death.  Smart PCs will boldy strike large groups of scaredy-cats, alpha-striking one poor bastard in hopes of spooking the rest.  And since 1gp = 1xp, you still get most of your experience even if the DM is a stingy bastard who holds back points on routed (as opposed to killed) foes.  Personally I normally consider routed monsters as 'overcome', which per B22 means they're worth full XP, unless the baddies have a fall-back position nearby or an opportunity to regroup.  Either way, the morale rules are a total game changer, especially back when we were all dumb kids and approached combat about as tactically as the aliens in Space Invaders.

In fact, I think the morale rules need to be used more than Moldvay indicates.  I often make a morale check for lone monsters when they are first wounded, extrapolating that the initial hit is to single critters what the first man down is to groups.  I also think that some monsters should be scared of things besides attrition.  For monsters like orcs that have problem with sunlight, a cleric using a surprise round to throw continual light might be enough to scare the bejeesus out of them.  And frankly, lycanthropes should run like hell the first time silver is on the playing field.  The smart ones will strategically withdraw at the first sign of the stuff, while the dumb ones will be completely shocked that something actually hurt them and run home to their mommas.  Similarly, an adventurers boldly brandishing a torch might be able to freak out an entire pack of trolls.  In these cases I might not allow a morale check in the monsters' lair, but I treat a lot of wandering monsters as regular joes who happen to work for Chaos.  What's their percentage in sticking around to face their one weakness?

And maybe weapons that grant a bonus versus certain monster types just hurt like hell.  A sword +1, +3 versus giants may not seem like all that much when you're second level and staring down an 18' tall viking, but maybe it stings so bad that they just won't want to bother squishing you.  Especially if the dude knows that the blade you are wielding was the weapon of choice of a long line of giant-slayers.

Heck, in a lowish magic campaign the party wizard might be able to force a morale check out of superstitious peasant or bandits with a minor demonstration of eldritch badassery.


  1. This is an excellent post. I also like how the Morale rules provide an opportunity for narrative and role-play in the midst of combat. Those kobolds become a lot more interesting when they are crawling around on their bellies, while begging for mercy and promising to show you the secret door into the lair of their hobgoblin overlords.

  2. Gotta' agree that Morale is an under-used and under-appreciated game mechanic of B/X. I think that when I was first playing B/X (ages 8-10) I didn't understand the nuances of such and did a disservice by discarding such "optional" rules...yet when I started playing AD&D (ages 11-15) I found the DMG system of Morale to be so cumbersome that I quickly junked it, optional or not!

    I like the idea of magical weapons with "specific enemies" forcing morale checks in the requisite monsters. It gives such items an even bigger benefit and reason to keep 'em in the inventory (think of Orcrist in the Hobbit).

  3. Oh HELLS yeah!

    Moldvay was the first D&D rules I ever owned. Not played, but owned. Also the first I ever ran. So there's a soft spot in my heart for them.

    I never really dwelled on the lack of morale rules in other editions, because I always had Moldvay to fall back on.

    Verification: spoker - the guy who tries to jam a stick through the spokes of your bike, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

  4. Great post as always but I must uphold my mystique as the Anti-Old School Old Schooler and say Feh to morale rules. That is right! Feh I say!

    Never liked'em, never used'em. There is no way every group of goblins in any of my campaign woulds have the same morale score any more than all humans would.

    Morale is based on a wide variety of elements...the group, its culture, the situation, what appears to be happening, what is actually happening and so many other factors. I, the GM, determine moralebased on the situation and how clever the players are at using and/or abusing it, not some random die roll.

    Morale rolls were just one of those things that always bugged me and I quickly did away with.

  5. By the time of the Rules Cyclopedia most of your additional morale checks were explicitly in the rules - first blood, 75% hp damage, first death, and 50% casualties as well as specific magic.

  6. Does Labyrinth Lord use morale rules?

  7. Well, BA, I say nothing wrong with replacing the morale rules with DM judgement. In my book, that’s implicitly OK for anything.

    Likewise, they’re up for ad hoc tweaking as much as anything else. Just like you might add a HD or two to an alpha monster or take ’em away for a runt, you might adjust the morale score based on the individual and the situation.

    Jeff, I also find other opportunities for morale rolls. Lone monsters get them at first hit and 50% hp.

    Simply seeing a pointy hat and other MU accoutrements might be enough for some monsters, but just about any MU spell will be enough to force a morale check by anything but other spell slingers. The real power of the MU is the mystique, not the spells/day.

  8. Anonymous2:23 AM

    i agree, using morale very useful.

    i mix the 2 styles mentioned: i decide when to test based on all conceivable factors and set a morale score for that situation, but dice are still used to test.

    what i don't like is "first blood" vs. single monsters and "first kill" vs. hordes. this can turn serious threats into wimpy pushovers. use with caution! :)

  9. I have always enjoyed using the Morale rules, as it allows me to consider how they would react to danger without having to make decisions on the spot. I also make rolls for fear-inducing elements, like spell-use. The spells I use are so Carcosan in style, that even the threat of a curse (real or otherwise) would spook most enemies. I totally agree with with your first-blood option with solos, as it makes a lot of sense.

    I find that wargaming rules like Warhammer has Morale rules that could add to B/X D&D Morale rules. e.g.: Goblins fear elves and wizards, and fighting a hated foe would raise the score to 10 - if not already higher. There are other games systems to exploit then just Warhammer.

  10. Can't see the point of it. In my 4E D&D campaign I just use bloodied state for the monster to stop and "look around":
    "Aha, I'm bloodied, most of us are, but only one enemy - RUN AWAY!!!"
    I guess a bit roleplaying is better that rolls.

  11. Anonymous7:20 AM

    I used to play a Swashbuckler in AD&D 2nd Ed for many years. The character was later updated to play in a 3.5 group.

    Although the GM wasn't that much into roleplaying monster morale, I made a point that my character wouldn't wear armor, ever, and was fighting with great finesse and showmanship. I took great risks in combat just to look cool, stuff like acrobatic charging through a whirling wall of blades, praying for a successful reflex save but oozing with sheer badassery when I succeeded. Having a monster party reflect this in their behaviour would be great fun and encourage this style of playing.

  12. Anonymous9:47 AM

    I agree. I got used to morale rules after B/X, when I got the hang of tactical wargames.

    Yes, role-playing a bit as the opposition is more appropriate, but it was easier (for me as a DM) to remember to check morale, than it was to get into the head of the monsters amidst the chaos of the table.

  13. I think morale checks are a good thing in general, not just in B/X, and wish groups I'd played with had used them more. OSRIC strongly advises the DM to use morale rules, and I'm fully in agreement; monsters will break and run if they're getting badly beaten, and the characters deserve a little moment of badass glory if they can badky beat monsters. Besides, morale checks encourage tactical approaches to combat, which I really like.

  14. I agree that those rules cleanly paved the way, but I do think they've been bettered many times over in games that incorporate all those factors more completely into the system (whether specifically or abstractly). In general, I prefer to RP the RP and crunch the crunch, but such mechanics are good for newcomers or GMs who find themselves at a loss to juggle one with the other.

    But I'm not sure if you meant that statement in the context of RPGs or just D&D and D&D knockoffs, so I don't know if I'm disagreeing or agreeing :)