They want to go home at the end of the day, settle down with their loved ones, and count their treasure. They certainly don’t want to be killed by adventurers who just happen across them when they’re on their afternoon stroll!
However, there are times when a monster’s got to do what a monster’s got to do: defend their home against invaders, serve in the front lines of a raiding troop, or just stand up for the right for a monster to slaughter who it wants, when it wants.
The original form of Dungeons & Dragons grew out of a tabletop wargame. As such, it had a set of morale rules: rules to determine when a troop of monsters (or men) would stay and fight. (Actually, if I read it right, Chainmail had three sets of morale rules!) Variations of these rules made their way into Dungeons & Dragons. The morale rules in AD&D ended up being terrible fiddly, but the Basic D&D rules were much easier to apply, and are the default I turn to. I am not a particular fan of the current edition’s optional rules; the Wisdom saving throw doesn’t quite represent a creature’s willingness to fight and its trained behaviour.
When do you use morale rules over your own judgement as to when monsters retreat? Typically, I do so for battles which aren’t end-boss encounters, though, depending on the type of campaign you’re playing, using morale rules in those can be fine. 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.
The method of checking morale I use is that from Basic D&D (Moldvay edition). Which is to say: each monster is rated as having a morale from 2 to 12. When you make a morale check, you roll 2d6. If the roll is higher than the monster’s morale, it loses morale and either runs or surrenders. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, monsters with a morale of 12 always fight and never check morale. (Mindless undead and constructs typically have morale scores of 12).
When do you check morale?
When fighting a group of monsters, I check morale when the first monster dies, and when half the monsters die.
When fighting a single monster, I check morale when the monster first takes damage, and when the monster is down to 50% of its hit points.
If both checks succeed, the monster fights until the bitter end.
I don’t check morale individually; I do it for groups of monsters. In theory, against a large group of monsters, I could have a few of them breaking and running… but I haven’t bothered yet.
What does a monster do when it fails a morale check?
This depends on the situation.
If the monster can see a way to flee, it flees. If it can’t, it surrenders.
One exception is if the players have already killed a monster that surrendered in the adventure; if this has happened, a creature will not surrender, and if it can’t flee, it fights until the end.
The basic guideline here is the monster does what will help it stay alive. Fleeing is generally a pretty good way of surviving. Surrendering is more risky, so it should only be done if a creature can’t flee. However, if the monster knows that the characters kill their prisoners, it makes more sense to stay and fight rather than flee.
How do you set the morale score of monsters?
The default morale score is 7. If a monster has a reputation for cowardice, reduce that to 6.
A creature that is trained for battle (typically creatures like orcs and hobgoblins) has an 8 morale score.
Elite creatures – leaders, heroes and the like – gain a +1 to their morale score.
Exceptions (golems, skeletons, etc.) get the morale of 12 or 2, as appropriate.
You don’t need a big range of morale scores to significantly change the behaviour of creatures. Most monsters should have a morale of 6 to 8, with only exceptional monsters being outside that range. If you’re not sure, just give it a morale score of 7. Once you played with the system a bit, you’ll get a feel for how it works and you can start adjusting it.
Do you adjust morale scores depending on the situation?
Yes! Not by much – typically only a +1 or -1 modifier is needed.
If the monsters think they’re winning the combat (they’ve taken little damage and the adventurers are losing characters), give the monsters a +1 morale.
If the monsters think they’re losing the combat (the adventurers are still all fine, and the monsters are being killed), give the monsters a -1 morale.
If the monster are defending something personally important to them (their lair, children, great treasure, etc.) a bonus of +1 or +2 to morale may be appropriate.
Should Player Characters use morale rules?
No. Taking away decisions of the players typically isn’t so good. There are enough ways to give characters the frightened condition if necessary.
Should Henchmen use morale rules?
Yes. If the player characters have non-player characters accompanying them, it makes a lot of sense to use the morale rules to determine what their reaction to battle is. D&D used to have a concept of loyalty, with high charisma scores having an effect on the follower’s morale – as a rule of thumb, add the Charisma modifier of the follower’s patron to 7 to determine the follower’s morale score.
The loyalty of henchmen does vary depending on how they’re treated. Lower it if they’re badly paid, forced into dangerous situations, or feel abandoned. Raise it if they are paid well and well-treated.