When 3rd Edition hit the shelves, the morale rules disappeared. I can only speculate as to why: The Dungeon Master should decide when the monsters retreat. Monster behavior should be based on circumstances and not on a single die roll. Morale rules can prematurely end an interesting fight when a roll goes horribly wrong. And if the PCs are kicking monster tail, and they want their foes to surrender, the DM can just call for an Intimidate/Bluff/epic Diplomacy check. Simply put, 3rd Edition didn’t need morale.
But wait. If we don’t need morale, why are we all still here talking about it? Weeeelll, I’m not comfortable throwing away what was a pretty handy rule back in the day. Here’s why.
As a roleplaying game, we kind of expect Dungeon Masters to roleplay the monsters in the adventure. That’s why we include all sorts of story information around the entries in the Monster Manual. With these tools, a skilled DM can portray monsters as we think they behave in the world. There’s a big difference between expected play and actual play, however. It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of combat after combat and fight after fight. By the time the players have squared off against their third band of goblins, “accurate” portrayal tends to fall by the wayside in the interest of keeping the game moving forward. Sure, the goblins would likely flee before a righteous band of ass-kicking adventurers, but I can’t tell you how many times fights I’ve run have been brutal contests and battles fought to the bitter end. How many times have I thrown band after band of humanoids into the blender that is the adventuring party without thinking twice about the creatures I’ve sacrificed on the altar of fun? Countless times. Countless.
Even when fleeing seems like a good thing to do, I’m reluctant to have that happen since I know my players will chase down the offending humanoids and put them to the sword. Or, worse, the retreating goblins will go get help and turn what was a manageable fight into a TPK. Often, I just err on caution’s side and let the battle play out.
Now that I’m pounding out the words and thinking about it, I kind of feel like I’ve done a disservice to my players and the game. My monsters have often been little more than bags of hit points waiting to cough up XP with their final, rattling breath. See, most monsters, unless there’s something they fear more than death by adventurer, aren’t going to sacrifice themselves for evil’s cause. In fact, I can imagine most monsters, once they’ve lost about half their numbers, will say screw it and run away. It just makes sense. Evil doesn’t usually place a lot of stock in honor and fighting to protect their fellows.
Looking back, I always used the morale rules as a reminder that the monsters can and should fall back. Their absence took away this reminder and, after a while, turned my games into an abattoir. Sure, I ignored the morale rules when I wanted the fight to go on, but they were extremely useful for abbreviating extended fights and preserving player character resources.
But there’s more to it than this. Fourth edition taught D&D fans to focus fire on one monster at a time. Morale rules provide another option. A robust morale system might reward PCs who do something other than kill one mook at a time. Maybe the monsters check morale when their leader dies, when the PCs kill the standard bearer, or when the characters destroy the altar to Gruumsh. The monsters might still outnumber the PCs, but they find their confidence shaken after the adventurers destroyed the idol to their unspeakable master.
The other cool thing morale gives us is an impartial way to decide if the PCs’ followers and henchmen stick around in a tough fight. Often, followers are there to soak damage. However, do we honestly think Pig, the human warrior, is going to stick around to face down a medusa?
This is why we’ve been exploring morale rules. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to give it a go. What do you think?