Morale Checks: Does Wisdom Make One Courageous or Wise?

In the real world, battles end when one side loses morale and surrenders or runs. Fights to the last warrior become legend because they come so rarely. In most Dungeons & Dragons games, fights routinely end with one side wiped out, often because monsters that surrender or run can spoil the fun unless dungeon masters cope with the hassles of broken morale.

If you want a D&D game where sensible monsters try to save their lives through escape or surrender, then how do you, as DM, decide when morale breaks?

Usually, DMs decide by roleplaying the monsters. The second edition Player’s Handbook touts that option. “The first (and best) way to handle morale is to determine without rolling any dice or consulting any tables. This gives the biggest range of choices and prevents illogical things from happening. To decide what a creature does, think about its goals and reasons for fighting.”

This roleplaying approach marked a break from D&D’s roots. In the wargames that led to D&D, competitors used arcane formula and impartial rolls to decide when morale broke. The fifth edition rules acknowledges this tradition by including optional rules for morale rolls. But why bother rolling? The latest edition gives no reasons.

Second edition offers a weak reason to roll. “Sometimes there are just too many things going on to keep track of all the motivations and reactions of the participants.”

Merric Blackman offers something better. “One of the big reasons to use morale rules is to provide some unpredictability. As a DM, it’s very easy to fall into patterns of thinking; morale rules allow monsters to react in ways you didn’t expect.” In D&D, the dice add an impartial element of surprise.

DMs who want morale rolls should skip fifth edition’s optional rule. The rule’s designer dutifully recognized D&D’s wargaming tradition using the game’s modern mechanics, but the result often makes no sense. “To determine whether a creature or group of creatures flees, make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw for the creature or the group’s leader.” This works based on Wisdom as a measure of courage and resolve, but if Wisdom also works as a measure of wisdom, then a successful check would often make someone run from a bloodthirsty band of treasure-hunting killers. D&D’s Wisdom score bundles an awkward set of traits.

The 1991 Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia featured the best morale rule to appear in a D&D game. Each monster has a morale score. Abject cowards start at 2. Mindless undead, constructs, and fanatics top the scale at 12.

The book’s Morale Scores Table (p.103) suggests scores.

Morale Scores Table
Type of Personality Morale Score Range
Abjectly cowardly 2
Always frightened or very cautious 3-5
Unmotivated 6
Disinterested 7
Normal 8
Brave, determined, or stubborn 9-11
Suicidally brave or berserk 12

To make a morale check, roll 2d6. If the roll is higher than the monster’s morale, the creature either runs or surrenders. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, monsters with a morale of 12 always fight and never check morale.

This simple method adds unpredictability without weighing the game with calculations that only benefit simulation games. Usually though, just roleplay the monsters based on their goals and temperaments.

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7 thoughts on “Morale Checks: Does Wisdom Make One Courageous or Wise?

  1. TDW

    In early editions/OSR editions of the game, morale is critical, as it supports the “fight rarely and fight dirty” approach of wise PCs. Given that characters are much more fragile in those systems–and get relatively little experience from killing things–play is often about tricking, chasing off, or evading enemies in favor of grabbing loot. For these reasons, good players quickly learn to use morale to their advantage, making a fight lopsided by killing leaders, exploiting the dog-eat-dog weaknesses of many evil groups, etc. This is one reason, too, that undead are so terrifying to old-school players: once you engage the dead, they’re not going anywhere.

    As you pointed out, DM David, this does require an extra level of thought and finesse on the part of a game master. Worse, the “make them run” principle is *emergent*–that is, it’s never spelled out explicitly, and if players don’t put two and two together they may never discover it. Most groups have enough cognitive overload that stuff they need to figure out will take a back seat at best. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that morale rules have gradually been nerfed or essentially dropped. The game now assumes that parties will try to win in combat as a first and even second resort, shifting the “challenge,” such as it is, to how many combats the players will enter in a “day.” This supports short-term, casual play, which is all that many WOTC customers will ever experience.

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  2. Helpful NPC Thom

    David,

    To incorporate morale tests into 5e, I’d view it as something closer as a test to keep your wits about you in a crisis. If you have an issue with Wisdom being the saving throw (and it’s already an important enough save of its own), I’d treat it as an Intelligence saving throw instead. On a failure, the creatures are unable to think coherently, gaining the Frightened condition and (probably) fleeing in a panic. On a success, they can act as they see fit.

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    1. TDW

      As Gygax once wrote (rather grimly ironical, as it turned out), “Intelligence is knowing smoking is bad for you, wisdom is actually quitting.”

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  3. Matt

    Breaking morale is a different thing entirely than a wise decision to retreat. The old-school idea of breaking morale reflects the game’s wargaming roots. In a war game (or in a real war for that matter), if the commander orders a tactical retreat, that is not breaking morale. If troops break off and flee against orders, that is breaking morale.

    Combat adversaries in D&D don’t always have anyone ordering them, but the basic idea is the same. Breaking morale means that the enemies flee or otherwise stop fighting because their morale (willpower, resolve, etc.) is broken by the circumstances. Since a Wisdom save is a test of willpower and resolve, it is indeed a logical thing to roll in order to determine whether morale has been broken.

    Generally, deciding to flee or surrender for reasons other than broken morale is decided by the DM based on roleplaying the enemies. A DM could just make the decision based on the DM’s understanding of the enemy that is making the decision, or make it a roll of some kind, but this kind of roll would obviously not be a Wisdom save. This in no way negates the idea that a Wisdom save makes sense to determine whether morale has been broken.

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  4. Mattwandcow

    Getting a good set of morale rules has been on my mind recently, so this is nice.

    It also gives mechanical value to players who want to try to intimidate. They make an Intimidation vs the creature’s insight, and if the creature fails, they make an additional Morale check. It’s probably needs to be allowed only a once per fight, so the players can’t spam intimidation, but having that as an established option could be neat.

    I also want to toss out that I’ve stopped being as concerned at some tables with the idea of monsters fighting to the death, because of the Dark Glass philosophy. The players actions don’t translate 1 for 1, so of course, there’s mercy, people surrendering and running away. But in terms of Gameplay and the Story we’re telling, we’re not going to worry about it. This nod towards translation issues has assuaged my desires for Verisimilitude.

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  5. Simulated Knave

    As others have commented, Wisdom definitely makes sense for this. A wise goblin will retreat. He will not throw down his weapon and run in panic.

    The thing to do with prisoners isn’t really a PC decision, though. It would be something dictated within the game world, by the standards of the game world – how prisoners are treated is a social convention.

    So establish that before it comes up. Then the players do that. There have been a variety of historical options (adoption, ransom, slavery, execution). I think all of those are perfectly defensible if you have set up something well-considered beforehand. If the players are having to figure out what to do with prisoners once they capture them without any guidance from the GM as to what is acceptable in the world, that’s a failure on the GM’s part, not theirs.

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