Monday, December 27, 2010

D&D Morale Through the Ages

The discussion below is only for those who are really into role playing games. It deals in minutiae and might irritate non-gamers to no end. If you are not a gamer, please don't become annoyed as you will only have yourself to blame for reading deeply into the post.

I was reading through the Troy Denning Black Box the other day. The box has a nice "toy value" quality about it and is my personal favorite "introductory box" edition of D&D. I love the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Sets as rules sets to play, but I think that Denning's "Dragon Cards" system is one of the best pedagogical approaches to teaching role playing games I have ever seen.

To make a long story short, I noticed an interesting rule in the Morale section of the rulebook. According to the Denning box, "A monster or NPC who rolls 12 for his morale check has become a fanatic. A fanatic need not check morale again during this particular encounter." This quote got me wondering as to what the specific morale rules were in earlier editions of "traditional" Dungeons and Dragons, since this rule seemed to go against my understanding of how morale worked in the Basic/Expert rules set.

The Denning boxed set was published in 1991, and republished with some changes to presentation in a tan box in 1994 as The Classic Dungeons & Dragons, which makes it the last edition of the Basic/Expert rules for the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Denning box was meant to serve as the introductory product that led people to purchase the Dungeons and Dragons: Rules Cyclopedia which had the "complete" rules for the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. It should be noted that these rules were produced during a time when TSR had two D&D product lines that cannibalized some sales from one another, Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

For those of you who don't know what morale is, it is a system by which the "spiritedness" of a given monster or opponent is represented. It simulates the courage of units and how they react when they are under fire, fighting a superior force, have sustained significant casualties etc. In essence, it answers the question "do the survivors flee or keep on fighting?" A historical example of a fighting force with extremely high morale would be the 300 who fought at Thermopylae. They fought to the last with no thought of surrender. Moral rules are a legacy of role playing games war game roots. Morale is extremely important in simulation war games, and is important in some role playing games.

The above quote regarding morale checks in the Denning edition is a typical description of the mechanical resolution of checking morale in the Basic/Expert series of products, but it also -- as I will discuss later -- seems to counter mechanical to that system and I believe is based on a misreading of the rules set. It was this sense that the Denning Morale rule ran contrary to the underlying mechanics of Basic/Expert morale that made me wonder what the rules had been historically and how they changed. Maybe Denning's solution was an upgrade and not a mistake. In order to find out, let's explore the morale rules of the various editions.


Before there was Dungeons & Dragons there was Chainmail. The "fantasy supplement" introduced in the 3rd edition of Chainmail is one of the direct descendants of the D&D game. The morale rules are fairly arcane and lack internal consistency. Chainmail morale can be divided into three categories -- Melee Morale, Casualty Morale, and Cavalry Charge Response Morale. Units in Chainmail respond using the morale rules appropriate to the situation. Chainmail defines morale in the following manner:

In addition, the mental and physical condition of the men (their morale) is taken into consideration in this game.

Morale is checked before and after combat, basing the determination on historical precedent, just as the fighting ability in actual cases was drawn upon to calculate melee results. The loss of "heart" is at least as serious as a defeat in combat, and perhaps more so, for most battles are won without the necessity of decimation of the losing side.

In the definition we see not only a description of morale and its effects, but a justification as well. It is a justification that fits well with early editions of D&D where many of the enemies players defeat flee rather than fight to the death. The game would have been much more deadly for the player's characters if the villains always fought to the death.

Melee Morale

Chainmail evaluates morale at the end of each round of combat. This is done through a relatively arcane system, which I have paraphrased below to make the rules clearer.

1. Compare the number of casualties on each side and subtract losses of the side that lost fewer troops from the side with greater casualties. Multiply this score by the roll of a six sided die and credit these points to the side with lower casualties.

For example: Steven's 10 Heavy Cavalry attacks Charlie's 20 Heavy Foot soldiers. Two of Steven's figures are killed in the melee, but 8 of Charlie's troops are defeated. We subtract the two troops Steven lost from eight Charlie lost and get a difference of 6. We roll a six-sided die and get a 3. We multiply this die roll by 6 (the loss differential) and get 18. Steven's base post melee morale is 18.

2. We now look at how many troops each unit contains. We subtract the number of troops in the smaller unit from the number of troops in the larger unit and credit those points to the player who controls the larger unit as a bonus to his or her base morale.

For example: Charlie's unit of 12 surviving Heavy Foot soldiers contains more units than Steven's unit of 8 Heavy Cavalry. We add this difference to Charlie's post melee morale score giving Charlie a base post melee morale of 4.

3. The player now examines their surviving figures and adds up their total "morale ratings." Different troop types have different morale ratings and this number is multiplied by the number of figures of that unit type and added to that player's post melee morale rating.

For example: Steven has 8 Heavy Cavalry surviving at the end of the battle. Heavy cavalry have a morale rating of 9. Since Steven has 8 figures with a rating of 9 (9 x 8 = 72), he gains an additional 72 post morale points for a total of 90. Charlie has 12 remaining Heavy Foot soldiers who have a morale rating of 5 (12 x 5 = 60), he gains an additional 60 morale points for a total of 64.

4. We now subtract the lower post morale rating from the higher value and compare the results to the morale result chart. If there are fewer than 20 figures per side of combat, then we double the result before comparing the results.

For example: We subtract Charlie's 64 post melee morale points from Steven's 90 points and get a result of 26. Since there are now fewer than 20 individual figures per side, we multiply this result by two and get a total morale differential of 52. After looking at the chart (which I am not including as this is wordy enough), we find that Charlie's troops back up 1 full move in good order and are not fully routed.

As you can see, this system is fairly arcane and fairly involved, but it is workable for a miniatures war game. It isn't particularly effective at the "man to man" combats that typically occur in a role playing game and only takes into account group morale after a round of engagement.

Casualty Morale

In addition to using a morale system that represents the effects of changes in the comparative strengths of units, Chainmail has a morale rule that is to be used when a unit becomes unstable due to an excess of casualties. Not only can a unit become routed due to comparative losses in an immediate engagement, it can become routed due to long term (or short term) attrition as well. This kind of morale is reflected in what I call Chainmail's "casualty morale" system. It is this system which provides the framework that will inspire the morale systems of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game.

Instability Due to Excess Casualties: When casualties from any and all causes exceed a certain percentage of a unit's original total strength, morale for that unit must be checked by rolling two dice. If the loss is brought below the set percentage by missile fire, the unit must check before the melee portion of the turn. If the loss is brought about by melee, the unit must check morale after melees have been completed for that turn. If the unit remains stable, it need not again check morale until such time as it suffers losses to the stated percentage of its original strength, but at that time it must be removed from the table for the remainder of the game.

Under this system, each unit type has a different casualty rate and required morale roll. Less "professional" units have to check morale at smaller levels of loss and need to roll higher to remain stable. A peasant levy might need to check morale after losing 25% of its membership, and would thus be completely eliminated if it ever lost a total of 50% of its starting membership. This peasant levy would have to roll an 8 or better on two six sided dice. In comparison, mounted knights might only check morale if they lose 50% of their membership and would thus require a total loss to eliminate them if they made their initial morale test. The knights might only require a roll of 4 or better to succeed on their morale check. Failure at the roll means that the troops are totally defeated. Unlike the arcane comparative system used during melee, this system is quick and easy to use.

As I mentioned earlier, it is this system that eventually inspired the morale system of the D&D role playing game. The use of percentage of troop strength lost (which could be group members or total hit points) is easier to translate to an rpg, and the use of a simple roll of two dice for resolution ensures a quick resolution.

Cavalry Charge Response Morale

The final representation of morale effects in Chainmail is their "cavalry charge response" system. Mounted troops have historically had a significant advantage over their more earthbound foes due to the fact that a cohort of well armed men on horseback is an extremely intimidating thing to face. There were rare armies, like the Romans or Swiss pikemen, who had the discipline and courage to stand firm when confronted with a mounted charge, but these were the exception rather than the rule. To represent the fear most troops experience when confronted with a charge, Chainmail uses the following system:

Cavalry Charge: In order to withstand a charge by mounted men, the defending unit must check morale. Fear of the charge was usually more dangerous than the impact of the cavalry. Units that fail to score the required total retreat 1 1/2 moves, backs to the enemy, and must rally. If both units are charging, both must check morale, adding 1 to the dice score if Foot, and two to the dice score if Horse.

This awkwardly phrased paragraph is followed by a chart that compares defending unit type to attacking unit type and gives a number that must be rolled in order for the defending unit to stand firm. For example, a force of Heavy Foot soliders must roll a 9 or better (on 2d6) or flee the charging cavalry. This system is very similar mechanically to the casualty morale system with some modification allowing for the differing ability of some troops to withstand charges from different kinds of cavalry. Like the casualty morale system, some legacy of the cavalry charge system can be seen in later editions of D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons (First Edition)

The first edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game uses the morale systems as they are presented in Chainmail and provides no specific guidelines for a morale system. All references to morale in the original 3 D&D books refer to modifiers that are applied to morale checks with one exception in the section discussing the "Loyalty of Non-Player Characters (Including Monsters)." This additional rule is a demonstration of how the morale rules were developing away from war game considerations and into narrative role playing situations. This was done by essentially combining the casualty morale rules with the cavalry charge morale rules. The additional rule reads as follows:

Non-player characters and men-at-arms will have to make morale checks (using the above reaction table or "Chainmail") whenever a highly dangerous or un-nerving situation arises. Poor morale will mean that those in question will not perform as expected.

Periodic re-checks of loyalty should be made. Length of service, rewards, etc. will bring additional pluses. Poor treatment will bring minuses.

The emphasis on "highly dangerous situations" rather than a quantified representation of damage or unit loss signifies a major shift away from mechanics and demonstrates one of the ways that D&D began to emphasize how the player's characters interacted with non-player characters could affect behavior in the long run. This is one of the early rules hinting at how to incorporate the "acting" portion of role playing games into a game by mechanically rewarding the behavior when it is done in a particular manner. Though the rule mentions the possible use of a reaction chart for morale reactions, when one looks at that chart it becomes clear that the Chainmail morale system gives more individualized results that represent the specific kind of non-player character being modeled by the rules. The reaction chart is useful as a quick and dirty solution, but it gives uniform results regardless of troop type. It should be noted that no monster is given a morale rating in this edition of D&D, though Chainmail does provide morale scores for fantastic creatures that can be used in the melee morale resolution system. How much braver a dragon is than a goblin is only reflected in the fact that goblins subtract 1 from all morale checks in sunlight.

Dungeons & Dragons (Basic -- Holmes Edition)

The word morale is only used three times in the Holmes Basic Set. The Bless spell is listed as adding 1 to morale checks, Hobgoblins are listed as adding 1 to morale checks, and the rules mention that the morale of retainers might be affected if players continually force hirelings to test potentially dangerous magic items. It appears that the Holmes set assumes that players who are interested in adding details like morale can find them in the other rules available at the time, which included both the original three D&D rulebooks as well as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. That said, it is possible that monsters will surrender in the Holmes set if the dungeon master decides that is the case, or if the monster has a positive reaction to the player's characters when it first encounters them.

Dungeons & Dragons (Basic -- Moldvay)

It could be argued that the Tom Moldvay edited D&D Basic Set -- published in 1981 -- is the first version of D&D that can be "played out of the box." Previous editions of D&D almost required aspiring players to find a group of existing players who could explain the mechanics of the game so that the new player could play the game at all. Dr. Holmes attempted to create a version of the game that could be played by neophytes with the earlier Basic Set, but there are those who believe that he failed at the task. I think that the failure to have any morale rules, while including references to morale effects, is indicative of Holmes' failure to deliver on his intentions. He certainly laid the foundations for how a Basic Set could be written, and articulated clearly the task of a Basic Set, but it is arguable whether he succeeded or not.

Holmes described the purpose of a Basic Set in Dragon Magazine #53 as follows, "the D&D Basic Rulebook is written for people who have never seen a game. It is intended to teach the game to someone who's coming to it for the first time. All other considerations should be secondary to teaching how to play the game with a minimum of confusion." Holmes believed, and I agree, that "the first Dungeons & Dragons rule sets...were intended to guide people who were already playing the game. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible." As I have demonstrated above, the morale rules are clearly an area where this was true. Early morale rules were difficult to understand and inconsistent in mechanics, and Holmes' Basic did not dispel any obfuscation in the original rules.

Moldvay's Basic Set, the set that I learned to play D&D from, was different. It was not only clear in its presentation of the game's mechanics, it was also fun to read and contained some writing that sparked the imagination. The prose wasn't high art, but it was fuel for starving fantasy fans. It was also the first edition of D&D to have a quickly resolved, and easy to understand, morale system.

Knowing that morale rules added complexity to the game, the morale rules in the Moldvay Basic Set are optional. That said, they are easy to understand and clearly articulated:

MORALE (Optional)

Any creature in battle may try to run away or surrender. Characters are never forced to do this; a character always reacts in the way the player wishes. NPCs and monsters, however, may decide to run away or surrender. To handle this situation, each monster is given a morale score...

MORALE SCORES: ...This number is from 2-12. The higher the morale score, the better the morale. A score of 6-8 is average. A score of 2 means that the monster will not fight. A score of 12 means that the monster will fight to the death without checking morale. Creatures with a score between 2 and 12 will need to "check morale" at some time during battle, as explained below.

HOW TO CHECK MORALE: ...To check morale, roll 2d6. If the result is greater than the monsters' morale score, the monster will try to retreat...If the result is less than or equal to the morale score, the monster will continue to fight.

There are a couple of interesting points here. I believe that the Moldvay book is the first time that player's characters don't have to check for morale. Older editions of D&D are more rooted in miniatures war gaming, and morale checks would equally apply to PCs as to monsters. At least, this is the first reference I have seen to pure player empowerment with regard to moral. This is an important innovation in role playing as it gives full decision making to players. If they want to play cowards, they can. If they want to play foolhardy combatants, they can.

You can see how the Moldvay rule runs contrary to the Denning morale rule. Denning's presentation of the morale system is almost identical, save for the "if you roll a 12 on the morale check the monster becomes fanatic and won't surrender rule." Under Moldvay's system, the roll won't ever make a monster fanatic, only an initial score will. More on this difference later.

Dungeons & Dragons (Basic -- Mentzer)

In 1983, TSR published a third edition of the Basic Set. This time the rules were edited by Frank Mentzer. Mentzer brought some innovations to the presentation of the rules, including dividing the rules into a player's booklet and a dungeon master's booklet. This edition keeps the morale rules as optional and expands on Moldvay's description of how and why the rules work. Though the language is expanded, the rules are the same as those in the Moldvay edition.

Dungeons & Dragons (Basic -- Denning)

As you may remember from the beginning of this post, at least those of you still reading this will, the Denning Basic Set -- published in 1991 -- contains a change from the earlier morale rules. In Denning, "A monster or NPC who rolls 12 for his morale check has become a fanatic. A fanatic need not check morale again during this particular encounter." This is in contrast to the Moldvay and Mentzer rules where only a score of 12 indicates a fanatical opponent, and where the roll only determines incidental success or failure.

What is interesting about this rule, and why I believe it to be rooted in a misreading of the earlier rules by Denning, is that it effectively removes any difference between an 11 morale and a 12 morale. Under the Denning system, these scores are statistically identical. This is because a roll of 11 or less gives a successful morale check for the monster and a roll of 12 makes the monster fanatical. At first, I wondered if the rule was an intentional change as it gives any monster (including one with a morale of 2) the chance to become a fanatical opponent. This could lead to some interesting, and amusing, encounters, but when I checked the D&D Rules Cyclopedia -- the rules set that the Denning rules are supposed to be an introduction to -- it turned out that the Cyclopedia did not have the "roll a 12 and monster becomes fanatic" rule. This is something that only exists in the Denning version.

Having written all of this, I am pondering whether to use the Denning "mis-reading" of the rule precisely because of its fun possibilities and the randomness it adds to the game. The rule will only come into play 3% of the time for monsters with other than an 11 morale as one only rolls a 12 once in every 36 rolls on average, and it might create situations that surprise my players.

What are your thoughts on whether to use the Denning rule or not?

1 comment:

Brendan said...

Thanks for the rundown. I'm writing morale rules for a homebrew of mine, and it's nice to see how the morale rules have changed over time.