If you are anything like me, you don't want every fight to be a fight to the death. If a group of kobolds had half of their ranks killed in a single round, maybe they won't stand to the last. A unit of guards, ambushed at night and unable to see their attackers, may have some of their numbers route while part still chooses to hold their ground. The way to manage these situations used to be a morale system, where every monster had a morale rating that described their relative bravery. What I particularly liked about this implementation was that it removed bravery and morale from the ability scores and allowed modifiers to be applied. Since 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons lacks this, I will look over several systems that can be used and how they could be implemented in 5th edition. As discussed, they can be used in any tabletop role-playing game that lacks such a system.
Current and Older Rules
So far, 5th edition D&D does not have such a system in place. There is a morale rule presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but since it is an optional rule it is not very detailed. It also linked morale to an ability score. That being said, those of us who have old Monster Manuals (I personally liked 2nd editions method with ratings and rolls against those ratings) and other books can use the older morale systems. In the case of systems like 2nd edition (where there are morale ratings), a Dungeon Master may need to make up a rating themselves. Naturally, creatures with very low morale will be easier for players to beat and as a result the experience players gain could be considered “overly generous” (something to keep in mind).
A few details need to be worked out when trying to design a system like this. First, does a lower morale rating mean they are bravery or more cowardly? Historically, higher rating means braver. If you roll above the morale rating, the creature is frightened (so for a D20, a morale rating of 20 can never be frightened. This is what I will use later in this piece). Of course, you could say you are frightened if you meet or exceed the rating (meaning that a morale rating of 21 is never frightened). You can also treat it as a save, so a 1 (or 0, if 1 is always considered a fail. In this case, you would never roll for a 0 DC) would be the bravest morale rating since any roll on a D20 would meet that DC.
Touched on the above is if you meet the morale level, do is the creature frightened or not? For the remaining of this piece, I will assume that if your roll equals the morale rating of a creature, it is not frightened. You could just add a rating of one higher than the highest roll.
Purposed General Rule
- Select the kind of distribution you want as well as how many points you want. If you want it flat, do a single dice such as a D20. If you want something more bell shaped, use multiple dice (2D10, 2D6, 3D6, etc.).
- Choose a max morale rating. Skeletons won't run away since, you know, they are dead and don't fear for their lives. In this case, take the maximum of all of the dice you chose and make that the highest morale rating (remember, if you roll higher than this number, the creature is frightened).
- Assign a rating to every creature based on how brave you feel it should be on average (this can be a range based on rolling morale. See below for this).
- At proper times (as chosen by the Dungeon Master), roll morale. If you roll higher than the rating, creature tries to run etc.
Morale Based on Context
One side effect of having no morale system at all or having a morale system as an optional component (see most versions of D&D, as they suggest that situations and context should play the major role) is that it means you can improvise when needed. A very common situation I find myself in is adjusting morale based on context (there is no way I want to make a full table of bonuses and penalties to morale. They won't be accurate for any situation anyway). This means that instead of thinking of morale as a system of the game, you can think of it on an adventure to adventure basis. Examples include:
- When leader is killed, everyone surrenders.
- When leader is killed, roll a D6 for each conscious creature. If they roll lower than 3, they surrender. If they roll a 3, they try to run away. If they roll higher than 3, they fight to the last.
- If enemies makes it to within 20 feet of big bad leader, he tries to run. If half or more of his bodyguards are killed, he tries to run.
In such cases, the morale considerations would need to be imbedded in the adventure a long with the description of the room/location. The adventure would also need to be generally planned in advance or the Dungeon Master would need to make up such situations on the spot (“Purposed General Rule” above may be easier to apply for consistency, though the general morale ratings would need to be planned in advance or made up on the spot).
A side note is that with this kind of system, every confrontation would need to be considered. You can reuse elements you used in the past, but it would be less centralized than having a general system.
Hybrid Solution by Combining the Above
You can of course combine the two solutions together. This usually means that you have a general system in place (like “Purposed General Rule”), but the actual morale rating and times when rolls occur is based on the context.
Another alternative is that there is a general list of times the Dungeon Master always rolls for morale and the situation may add more to the list, as well as screw the morale up or down.
Finally, you can choose to apply a general system in situations morale isn't specified and apply situational rules (ignoring the general rules) when an adventure mentions them (this is usually used when running a published adventure).
Instead of choosing an exact morale for a creature, you can choose to create typical ranges (certain specimens may be braver or much more cowardly still). To do so:
- Select the lowest rating on average you will have (e.g. 8)
- Select the highest rating on average you will have (e.g. 13)
- Take the difference of the highest and lower (e.g. 13 – 8 = 5)
- Create some kind of dice method to get those numbers (1D6 – 1 for an even distribution, 2D6/2 – 1 for a less even distribution, etc.).
Morale systems and ways to determine when monsters run isn't an easy topic and can be done in many different ways. Depending what makes the most sense or is easiest to work with, choices can be made. Though there is only basic rules given in 5th edition, more complex systems can still be used quite easily (as well as other role-playing games that lack a morale system). I hope the above helps. If there is anything I missed or you wish to mention, please feel free to comment.