Gary thought he was setting up the encounter perfectly. He drew out a large room with several beds – a goblin barracks – soldiers on hire by the evil mage. Gary figured that a dozen of these guys would give his players a decent challenge. Come game day, though, the story was different. His players unexpectedly used a powerful spell, and killed over half of the goblins in one round.
While most of Gary’s players ran characters more than content to slaughter the goblin soldiers, Mike had a different thought. Playing the group’s paladin, he asked Gary, “Dude, we’re wasting these goblins, if we’ve killed this many so quickly, wouldn’t the rest just turn tail and run?”
Gary thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged. “I don’t know. I never really thought of that. I guess they’ll fight to the death.”
Morale, at least in the RPG sense, is a measure of a creature’s willfulness to continue a dangerous venture (such as combat), even when faced with certain death. Player characters have a built in sense of morale. If a player decides that his character wants to flee, he simply informs the DM of his actions. Unfortunately, the DM (at least with recent versions of DnD), doesn’t have this option. A monster in recent versions of the game simply doesn’t have a “turn tail and run” stat.
However, this wasn’t always the case. Older versions of DnD monsters were equipped with a “morale” stat. It was usually a d20 value that indicated whether or not a specific creature would run when a check was called for. The key here is “when called for”. Only under certain conditions would a monster actually check for morale. Usually these conditions had to do with how damaged a specific creature was (or in the case of multiple creatures) how many of their number had been killed. If the morale check was successful, the creature would fight on. If the morale check failed, the creature could do anything from flee to offer total surrender.
For DnDNext, I think some option for creatures other than fighting to the death, should be a given. While I’m not sure that a “morale rating” should return to the monster stat block, I do believe that morale options for creatures should be built into encounters. Seeing morale rules as part of the encounter building tools only makes sense. While certain mindless creatures (certain undead, furiously untamed elements, etc.) might fight until destroyed, most intelligent creatures will probably think twice about throwing themselves on a hero’s already bloodied sword.
In a sense, “checking morale” is simply a mechanic for allowing alternate endings to an encounter scenario. It should be in the toolbox alongside “natural/magical accident”, “bizarre unexplained capitulation”, and “sudden but inevitable betrayal”. Tools for morale can help build meaningful encounters that are consistent with the game universe you’re playing in.
Of course, if a morale “stat” becomes a part of the monster stat-block, then I hope it’s a part of the monster’s descriptive text. Straight up morale probably isn’t appropriate for many creatures, and having an endless parade of creatures that say “NA” under “Morale” is just a waste of ink. Instead, creatures that might actually have morale issues (humanoids, beasts, certain planar entities), should have their morale behavior explained in the descriptive text. That way, such behavior can become a part of the narrative that makes that monster come alive at the game table.
Morale has a place in the game, and I hope it will be used carefully in order to construct the exciting and dynamic encounters promised by DnDNext.
My name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game
Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. R.M. Walker, who can be found in numerous places on the internet as “DeadOrcs”, is a long time gamer with some 30 years experience playing RPGs. Despite occasional forays into the bizarre, Randall has always come back to Dungeons & Dragons.