Napoleon’s quote is stolen here for a reason, but mostly as a jumping off point. The mightiest weapons and the most efficient logistics train mean nothing if a soldier – or an army – will not fight when told to fight, persist in their mission even in the face of their own doom, and withdraw in order rather than flee in terror on command. This holds for armies and battalions, but also for small units as well. Or, as our buddy Thulsa Doom summed up:
Thulsa Doom: Ah. It must have been when I was younger. There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.
Conan: The riddle… of steel.
Thulsa Doom: Yes! You know what it is, don’t you boy? Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do. Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
[coaxes the girl to jump to her death]
Thulsa Doom: That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him.
In short, that which gives Conan his power is his moral courage, not his weapons or perhaps even his physical strength. That in the end, two had the heart to stand against many.
As one would imagine, fear and courage – the will to fight – can occur at all parts of the story, and the fight. At the beginning – when fighting is either decided upon or left behind. The middle, in hot combat or cold slaughter – who will maintain their composure, stay in formation with shields locked? Will fear of death and pain cause the heart to break and the will to leave the fighter with palsied hand? Or will (laying about me with the quotations) they stand as Ulysses: “One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Do any games support this mechanically? Not terribly well, at least among the core rules of the books presented . . . with one notable exception, and perhaps one honorable mention.
Calling All Monsters
One thing that seems to be generally true is that morale checks are mostly for NPCs. The players are given the choice of when their paper men stand and fight, press on, or run in terror in most games. This isn’t always true, but in most cases, it is.
But the fact that each PC has a human mind driving it means that the mechanics must carefully consider (or choose another method) just how the moral component of fighting is imposed.
Beginning, Middle, End, Surprise
Just to keep it simple, I’ll try and canvas the rules books (core rules, though mention might be made of older editions or supplements which I’m familiar) for the right keywords, such as “flee,” “morale,” “fright check,” and “disengage.” But I’ll be looking for four items:
- How does a potential combatant decide to start a fight, engage in violence, and what kind? This is the beginning.
- How much persistence does a combatant show during the fight itself? If an ambush fails, will the fighter engage, or flee? This is the middle.
- When things go poorly, shields are splintered, and the battle turns against them, do they stand and fight, withdraw in order, or flee in terror, shedding weapons and defenses behind them? This is the end.
- The tentacled horror leaps from its dark perch. Arrows or bullets fell a hero with no warning and no mercy. The odds tip suddenly against the heroes, and it’s fight or flight – how does the game handle surprise?
Dungeons and Dragons
Let’s reach back for a moment to older editions, and note the Gygax, with his wargaming background, was quite aware of a long history of morale-style rules for our four contingencies – Peterson mentions them in several places in Playing at the World, and such subsystems existed for each phase of combat. Chainmail gave a morale score; and it’s worth noting the entry for Morale in Basic D&D, quoted from the D&D Wiki in full:
Morale (Basic D&D)
Some enemies or NPCs will try to disengage from combat. This is not part of the actions, but is used to determine behavior of NPCs.
It is generally checked by a 2d6 roll against the monster’s morale score:
- When a group tries to evade an encounter.
- Every five combat rounds while chasing.
- During combat, when a targeted creature takes 1 point of damage.
- During combat, when a creature is reduced to 1/4th of its starting hitpoints
- During combat, when the first death on each side takes place (regardless of which side gets the fatality)
- During combat, when only half of the creatures of their group is free to act
- When a creature is affected by a weapon master’s despair effect
- When a creature is affected by a magical item or spell that requires a morale check.
- When a PC’s retainer is ordered into danger while the employer remains in safer surroundings.
The following bonuses apply:
- If monsters have killed at least one enemy without taking casualties themselves, +2 bonus.
- If monsters have killed at least one enemy but have taken losses, +1 bonus.
- If monsters are on the receiving end of magic and have no magical abilities, -1 penalty.
- Other optional penalties may be applied, but the total bonus or penalty should be within +2 and -2.
This is a lovingly detailed system. It’s simple mechanically (roll 2d6 vs a morale score), and has a clear list of items to check, some before combat (or even dictating if a monster will avoid a fight), many during combat, and some afterwards. It even covers gently “leading from the front,” as ordering a hireling into danger while staying safe causes a morale check. The shock of violent death forces a check, no matter what side the casualty happens on.
That’s a hefty importance placed on morale, especially in games where bringing the treasure home, not defeating the guardians, is where you get experience. Of course, there aren’t three morale rules for every one combat rule . . . but at least they’re there, and they lay down some great ground rules as to when other games might think about who plans on dying today.
D&D Fifth Edition
The Player’s Handbook makes no mention of morale in its index. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, however, does cover it succinctly on p. 273. Much like Basic D&D, the morale rules require a simple test to see if a creature or group flees. In the new edition, it’s a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw (so even with Wisdom 20 and a +5 bonus, there’s a 20% chance of failure here on a straight roll). The conditions include being surprised, being reduced to half the original HP, or having no effective way to hurt the other side when his turn comes around. There are also group conditions, such as when a leader drops or sufficient casualties are taken (the book gives half; this is a huge number for real life, not so much so in RPGs – decimate meant to kill one in ten, after all!).
There are no real rules for creatures gearing up to attack, or receive an attack from, a foe or group of foes. This is somewhat understandable, in that this is often situational and always up to the GM whether an adversary will attack or not. Still, the GM will need a feel for whether even a mountain lion will decide to pounce on a group of foes instead of a single, weak-looking future meal.
The few conditions that are listed invite more. Animals would probably need to make a morale check – likely at Disadvantage – upon being hit with a fireball. The guidelines present are leading enough to allow for improvisation, and since every creature has a Wisdom score listed, the Saving Throw can be calculated easily. Some monsters may have saving throws that are higher than their stats might indicate, but you’ll need the Monster Manual for that detail.
Since a morale check is made upon suffering surprise, the possibility that a PC group waits in ambush, wins surprise, and gets in one turn of furious action which causes their foes to break and run is a real possibility if the GM chooses to play it that way.
Looking up morale and surprise in the core rules shows that there is a small section on morale tucked inside a section on mass combat. When an army loses a token (a slice equal to 10% of the largest army) the side makes a Spirit check modified by circumstances. Failure means an orderly retreat. Rolling 1 or less is a disorganized rout.
Surprise is really a function of initiative, and who acts when. The consequences of being surprised are usually dire enough in any game that being on the receiving end of a full turn of woe and carnage is enough punishment.
It would not be difficult to scale the morale table down to character scale. As creatures and characters get taken out or surprised, calling for a Spirit roll would not be out of the question. Fail the roll, and perhaps you’re Shaken. Since movement is one of the primary things you can do when Shaken, the logical course here is run and hide. Unless you’re a PC – more on that later.
Night’s Black Agents
Jason Bourne does not run away. Dracula might pause to regroup, but again, the cadre of “blood-sucking fiends from beyond the grave” (Pike: BtVS movie) isn’t likely going to be frightened into much. Besides, the wound system is coarse enough that if you go “unconscious” from wounds you might well have panicked and fled, rather than been filled full of holes. The details (and the broad strokes) are left up to the GM and players . . . but a powerful mechanic that in a real way represents “hit points of fear” is found in the Stability score.
The score is 4 for free and in some games might be capped at 12. It represents willpower and self-possession, as well as resistance to mental attacks and psychological trauma. One of the few games that deals with the murderhobo trope directly: NBA in “BURN” mode you lose 1 stability point (or a rating point in an interpersonal ability) for every human being you kill.
Stability tests have a standard difficulty of 4, so succeeding in one without a point spend is 50-50. Failed tests that rub up against mental phobias or quirks might compel even a PC to flee. Spending yourself negative can leave you Shaken, Shattered, or Incurably Insane. Night’s Black Agents plays mind games for keeps.
Stability might refresh automatically between adventures, or might require some purposeful narrative downtime. You can also be helped along by friends with the Shrink skill. But ultimately, there’s an impressive list of things that trigger stability checks, and most of them involve violence, horror, or horrific violence, or violent horrors. The impact of these things can last well beyond a particular fight.
The primary vehicle for morale in GURPS – at least on the “oh God oh God we’re all gonna die!” end of things is the Fright Check (p. B360). But the book takes some small pains to remind the reader that Fright Checks are for unusually frightening events, not run-of-the-mill blood and violence, depending on the campaign. One of the reasons for this is that for the truly frightening event, the Will roll is capped at 13, leaving 14 or higher a failure (about one failure in six). Mechanically, you make your will test, and if you fail, you add that margin of failure to a roll on 3d6, and consult a fairly extensive table. Recall the average of 3d6 is 10.5, and the table shows results totaling from 3 to 11 being various versions of “frozen in place,” which goes by the technical term of Stunned in GURPS. After that, though, things get ugly. Vomiting for tens of seconds, aquiring mental quirks and disadvantages, losing Fatigue Points, fainting, or even being scared into total panic, catatonia, or a coma (the probability of those results is low unless your Will is modified to lower than 3 and you roll badly a few times).
The real meat to “morale” as GURPS would define it will lie with the Disadvantages a character carries. “Disadvantages” are things that flesh out your character by restricting your choices when faced with certain events. Sense of Duty (Companions) prevents you from ditching them. Sadism means you’ll indulge in cruelty when you can. Honesty (which should best be thought of as “Law Abiding” rather than the more mundane use of the word) means you’ll need to make self-control rolls to break unreasonable laws.
For the purpose of combat and staying in it, there are many that might apply. The lists and notes below are not comprehensive; they’re illustrative.
Bad Temper might force you to start a fight, while Berserk will make you attack anyone around you until you are felled if your condition is triggered. Bloodlust will eventually land you in jail or dead, as you will go for (perhaps unnecessary) fatal blows, even to the point of not accepting surrenders or taking prisoners. If you suffer from Combat Paralysis, you tend to freeze up in combat and other stressful situations; fail a HT roll (not Will!) and your body will not obey your instructions when you tell it to fight. Cowardice can lead you to refuse combat or even risk-taking; it can also provoke strong reactions in others. Fanaticism gives you unwavering dedication to a country, organization, religion, or philosophy.
One of the more interesting ones is Pacifism, which of course rather limits your options in a fight. Some flavors include Reluctant Killer (you’re not prepared to kill those you recognize as fellow ‘people’), Cannot Harm Innocents, Cannot Kill, Total Nonviolence, and a perpetual favorite of mine in days past: Self-Defense Only.
Note that Pacifism (Self-Defense Only) makes an interesting combination with Bloodlust if the GM allows it. You never strike first, but when you do strike, you finish the foe, if you can, every time. I played a character with this combination in college, and it was a lot of fun, and you could get the conversations between hated adversaries that you will see frequently in fiction and cinema but rarely in RPGs, where talking might be seen as an inferior option to impaling.
There are others. Some supplements, notably Hans-Christian Vortisch’s GURPS Tactical Shooting (for which I was Lead Playtester, and also a friend of the author), go out of their way to note that combat can be pretty horrific, and suggest Fright Checks be made for “coming under Suppression Fire (pp. B409-410); being the target of a near miss (by 2 or less) from any attack; being in the blast zone of an explosion (2 x dice of damage in yards); suffering a wound (even a grazemay set some people off); or seeing an ally incapacitated or killed.” All of these could be extrapolated to gritty fantasy easily.
The mechanical support for the “stunned” condition (you can’t act and defenses are at -4 until you snap out of it) means that it can be applied evenly to PCs and NPCs alike.
Fate has one of the most interesting mechanics that deals with morale that I’ve encountered, in that it’s one of the only games that provide direct mechanical support in the form of a game benefit for giving up and conceding a fight.
More on that in a bit . . . but it’s one of the unique elements of the Fate combat mechanics, and it’s a great selling point for it as a narratively strong game.
Getting into a fight is also going to be narrative choice, but avoiding one might be an interplay between Aspects – and avoiding a fight is a good example where an Aspect might come up directly, or even be played against a character. Thor has endless opportunities to go head to head with Loki in Thor, The Avengers, and Thor 2 (also jokingly called Loki 1, Loki 2, and Loki 3 with no small amount of truth). But in many cases, he does not – he talks, persuades, taunts, captures, and even partners with him. Drama, yes – but perhaps a good instance of a Compel (accepting a Fate point to have an Aspect used against you). A more direct use of the Aspect might be a predatory animal with the Aspect “Hungry, not stupid.” She’ll pounce on and kill prey separated from a group, but will not jump into the middle of a group of armed, dangerous, and noisy foes.
The very nature of the “damage” tracks for Fate in terms of Stress and Consequences can lead naturally to non-fatal outcomes to conflicts. As one or both build up, there will come a time when enough is enough. At that point the most interesting of the positive-feedback mechanics present in Fate comes into play.
I give up!
If you’ve had enough of a fight, you can concede. If you concede, you get Fate Points, the metagame currency used to regulate the use of Aspects to get extra shifts in a contest (that +2 you get is a big bonus). The more consequences you took in the fight, the more you get. So there’s an increasing incentive to bow out somewhat gracefully as the fight goes against any given combatant. Also, a written rule of conceding a conflict is that you avoid the worst potential outcomes. You’re left bleeding and unconscious on the field, or taken prisoner instead of killed. You leave your fallen nemesis alive to baste in the shame of his defeat . . . but take his prized heirloom weapon.
You may well see that foe again, of course.
Fear and Panic for Thee, Not for Me
Wargames are easy. If the 501st Motorized Rifles roll poorly on a “gut check” or some such and don’t act that turn, you can curse their hopelessness, send them back to Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy next season, and generally carry on with the rest of your units. The morale rules are usually clear, evenhanded, and are part of the game, rather than seen as interrupting or diverting it.
For NPCs, random die rolls for morale allow a broader spectrum of reactions to events. Sometimes foes will break and flee, sometimes they’ll stick to a fight. Sometimes your retainers will break and flee. All of that is well and good.
But tell a player that his character is frozen in fear and you may just get the stinkeye. Suggest that the six players about to attack the slavering gorignak-beast are starting to feel damp around the collar (and maybe breeches) and you’ll get cursed at for railroading. Force a character to run in fear mid-fight? Inconceivable!
Some of that is overwrought, and deliberately so. But RPGs put the decisive agency – the game equivalent of sovereign franchise, or the vote – in the hands of the players when it comes to their characters’ actions. If they want to fight until they’re dead, they can do so. If they want to just walk right in over the Dread God’s Threshold, they can do so.
The best mechanics and support will support a few concepts, I think.
Anything Can Be Attempted
The old adage that defines the RPG as a unique experience must still hold. No matter what, unless trumped by some other factor, agency should still be retained overall. Immediate gratification may be lost. In GURPS, if you get scared, you may well be mentally stunned, unable to take positive action (you have to take the Do Nothing maneuver, and active defenses are at -4). But once you break out of it . . . you can do what you want until the next cosmic horror emerges to make you soil your shorts.
Hindrances not Prohibitions
Games that permit action of any sort, but penalized or otherwise modified make for nice, evenhanded application. If you decide that failing a Scary Movie Check in your house-ruled GURPS game is the same as being “Grappled by Fear!” and assign -4 to both DX and IQ (and therefore -2 to Parry and Block, -1 to Dodge, and -1 to Basic Speed) then the characters that have high enough skills can still be Awesome and succeed despite their fear. Other characters or NPCs might decide that they’ve had quite enough, thanks. Or, even better, that -4 will have to be offset by All-Out Attacks or other things that will likely simulate Fight or Flight! behavior through emergent choices.
I’m working with GURPS here, but one could easily assign temporary Aspects in Fate, assign Disadvantage or a flat -4 penalty in D&D5, or increase target numbers or assign penalties in Savage Worlds or even Night’s Black Agents. It doesn’t matter – the important thing is to give the PCs hills to climb, and let the behavior emerge. High enough penalties will generate the response of “I can’t do anything useful here, at all. I might as well make a strategic withdrawal.”
So long as those penalties are evenhanded and the mechanics for both their imposition and removal are clear, things should go well.
Quite simply: Fate has it right. There are tangible and direct inducements to conceding or withdrawing from a conflict.
Now, not all systems have such strong metagame currency as Fate. But Savage Worlds has its bennies, D&D has (for some classes) superiority dice, GURPS can have luck points or bonus points for some genres, and spending points is the entire rules mechanic for GUMSHOE. Any of these or variations can be utilized if desired to create an actual incentive for not fighting until your foes or your party are all incapacitated.
The moral may be to the physical as three is to one, but it certainly doesn’t play that way most of the time at the table. It should be possible to run off an adversary – or at least some adversaries – by a fusilade of near misses, some convenient planted nearby explosions, and a clear path for them to run away. Mostly, that would be resolved in most games as “a bunch of misses for no damage, an explosion for no damage, and who cares about an escape path!”
With the right emphasis, “initiative” becomes a lot more than who goes first. The shock of contact and pressure of wounds may well cause mental capacity loss, which will be met by even decent troops falling back to blunt-instrument responses. Keep them guessing, pressured, and disoriented, and magic swords and repeating weapons will be forgotten. Disciplined fire will give way to blazing away with autofire. Carefully planned attacks and techniques might still happen, but they can only happen via an all-out telegraphic attack that gives bonuses, or tactics will be adjusted because the party is all rolling with disadvantage.
Tip your hat to the moral, and see what the physical can do in duress. If nothing else, it’ll make for great stories.