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Turning the Tide: Morale in D&D 4E

Turning the Tide: Morale in D&D 4E

Edward Burne-Jones - Saint George Fighting the Dragon Is it better to stand and fight to the death, or to run away when the tide of the battle turns against you? Logic and idioms say it’s better to run away and live to fight another day. So why, in Dungeons & Dragons, have the old rules for monster morale been forgotten, when they could vastly shorten the length of combat?

The BEMCI box sets included a fairly simple morale rule: During combat, the DM rolled 2d6 and compared it to the monster’s morale statistic. If it was higher, then the monster fled. Given the thousands of monsters for 4E released in the Monster Manuals and various adventure modules, assigning a new morale statistic to each of these creatures is unfeasible. So what kind of rule should be used to determine a monster’s morale? I’ve tested the following two options and found them both to be good.

1. Attack Against Will

A morale check could be an attack against the monster’s Will defense. There are two problems with this approach. The first is deciding what attack bonus to give the check. If we set it as the encounter level, then as the heroes level up, and face more epic opponents, it actually becomes easier for those godlike enemies to run away. The second problem is that unintelligent creatures such as zombies would be more likely to run away due to their low Will defense—representing their limited brain power and lack of Charisma, whereas unintelligent monsters shouldn’t consider running away to be a valid option and should fight to the death.

2. Morale Check

A morale check is a saving throw. Existing modifiers to saving throw rolls, such as the bonus from elites or solos, are taken into account. This check gets around the issues raised for a Will attack, but now every creature is likely to run away—it doesn’t matter if they are cowardly kobolds who want to gang up or berserker orcs.

To address these issues, a few fairly generic modifiers can be added to the morale check saving throw. Mindless creatures, such as oozes, undead, and elementals, shouldn’t make morale checks. If a monster with the leader role is present in an encounter, there should be a +2 bonus to the check. If the race is known for its warrior nature—dragonborn, warforged, hobgoblins, orcs, ogres, giants, and the like, then there should be a +2 bonus to the check. On the flipside, cowardly races or those renowned for their sneaky stealthy tendencies such as kobolds, goblins, or drow, should have a –2 penalty to the check. If the monsters outnumber the adventurers, they should have a +2 bonus to the check.

So, if a party of four adventurers was up against a group of five orc warriors and an orc Eye of Grummsh (elite leader), the DM would make morale checks with a +8 modifier (+2 from outnumbering, +2 from warlike race, +2 from leader, and +2 from elite).

When to Check

In basic D&D, there was a clear list of points on which each monster should make a morale check:

  • the start of a fight
  • the first time it is hit
  • the first death
  • half the creatures are dead

In 4th Edition, we have the bloodied value, which is an obvious trigger for a morale check. In addition, we’ll keep the criteria of when half the creatures are dead, and we’ll also make a morale check if a monster with the leader role is killed or fails a morale check.

What Happens When You Fail?

When a creature fails a check, it must attempt to flee the battle, and it spends its move action and standard action to move away from the adventurers toward an exit. Ideally, it will flee toward its allies in another room/location.

Summary of Morale Check Rules

Checks are made when:

  • a creature becomes bloodied
  • half of the monsters are dead
  • a leader is killed or fails a morale check

The following bonuses and penalties are applied to a check:

  • Leader present: +2
  • Reputation for bravery: +2
  • Reputation for cowardice: –2
  • Monsters outnumber PCs: +2

Fanatics and Cowards

Earlier editions of D&D had a concept of fanatics, or creatures that could never fail a morale check, and cowards, or creatures that would always run away when combat started or as soon as they were hit. In 4E, they introduced monster themes, which is a nice way of representing these creatures. The following powers can be added to monsters to represent bravery or cowardice.

Fanatical Dedication * Encounter
Trigger: The creature makes a morale check.
Effect (Immediate Interrupt): The creature succeeds on the morale check and gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls and +5 bonus to damage rolls until the end of the encounter.

Fanatical Inspiration * At-Will
Trigger: A creature within 5 squares makes a morale check.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): You gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls and +2 bonus to damage rolls until the end of your next turn.

Coward’s Escape * Encounter
Trigger: The creature makes a morale check.
Effect (Immediate Interrupt): The creature fails the morale check. It gains a +2 bonus to speed, and it does not provoke opportunity attacks for the first square of movement. In addition, it gains a +2 bonus to its defenses against opportunity attacks.

5 thoughts on “Turning the Tide: Morale in D&D 4E”

  1. Interesting, but I usually don’t need numbers for this. I spend a little of my prep time trying to figure out why the monsters are fighting. This gives me a good idea of when they’d consider running. After all, this is a very complex idea.

    The thugs in Niska’s employ aren’t fanatical, but they know they’ll be tortured to death if they show weakness.

    Arkena won’t leave his brother in danger and will cover his brother’s escape.

    These orcs are defending their tribal homeland. They believe that their spirits will be bound to the land if they fall defending it.

    A couple of the soldiers were press-ganged into service and they’ll make a break for it if they get a chance where they won’t be spotted.

    Romeo has lost his true love and seeks an honorable death so that he can be with her.

  2. I like the modifiers here, but some of the rules ideas I find a bit unnecessary. Under the description of the Intimidate skill (PHB 186), this is sort of covered. Making an Intimidate check against a bloodied creature can force it to give forth any information it might have. You could simply use the same ruling to declare that an opponent has been frightened off and runs, if it has not been captured.

    So, if you feel the need for guidelines as to when any opponent might flee, I would say any character could theoretically make an Intimidate check after killing an opponent or even just damaging the target to bloodied. Modify the checks as more NPCs are killed or bloodied, based on the modifiers Mr. Page has suggested (although you might limit the modifiers somewhat, as a +8 to Will defense seems a bit high).

    Of course, this is the kind of article that has fueled the Edition Wars: Using rules instead of DM wisdom (or roleplay) to determine the behavior of monsters. Like Philo, I tend not to let my dice think for me, but instead determine at the beginning of a battle whether or not the enemies will try to flee at some point in the battle. Of course, by the time I come to that conclusion, the enemies don’t have enough actions available; they can’t run far enough fast enough. :-)

  3. Thanks for the comments on this article. I had a technological nightmare when writing it, and that, coupled with a word count limit means its not quite the article I wanted it to be.

    Doc, I’d like to address your comments specifically.

    Intimidate is a great skill, and the Rules Compendium Page 148, says the skill can be used to force a monster to take some other action, and running away would be a sensible option. However, it is a players decision to make that intimidate check, giving up their standard action (though in combat, I allow skill use as a minor action), and thus giving up potential damage output or even healing in order to make a skill check that is actually quite likely to fail, since the monsters will have a +10 to their Will, rather than my potential +8…

    The intention of my article was to put the emphasis on the DM to decide when the monsters turn and flee. I certainly don’t advocate that they run away every fight, rather when it makes sense for them to flee deeper to join reinforcements, or when the can flee out into the wilderness and evade capture.

    As for your comments about rules like this fueling the edition wars, I find that slightly insulting. I myself have 20+ years experience, most of them behind the DM’s screen, but I still appreciate articles on how to improve my skills, whether through advice or rules. I’ve gamed with people with 35+ years, and some with no experience, and there is nothing to say either will instantly make a great DM when they step up to the mantle, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t need a helping hand with ideas on how to run monsters.

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