Morale Failure: DM's Options & Running Away

MORALE REQUIRES CREATIVITY, and is this element which separates the mediocre Dungeon Master from the awe-inspiring. I mean, this looks simple, right? We check for morale when the tides of war are against the NPCs; and if they fail, then they run away! Not difficult, right? But how interesting is this? A failed moral check can mean multiple things for different types of troops which depend on situations, terrain, alignment, and natural intelligence.

Morale can signify a refusal to perform a task, utter betrayal, or simply a change of tactics depending on what, or who failed their morale check. Today we’ll look at a few more options. We can’t make a complete listing for every event, but we can get ourselves to the point were we are able to think outside of the box.


The first thing to look at when pondering what a failed check indicates, is a character’s alignment. This is typically your best tool! It tells us instantly their outlook on life and gives us an idea of how they’ll react in dire circumstances.

Lawful Alignments: These characters are typically honorable and organized. They will not break ranks and only during the most extreme circumstances will they simply run away. Lawfully aligned troops will have a backup plan if the battle isn’t going there way, only in the worst case scenario will they attempt a withdraw, and only if they think that they can get it to work. When fighting lawfully aligned enemies, it isn’t rare to call for a surrender, or at least a stop to the fighting so that the leaders can discuss a more suitable way to solve the current conflict. Battles are expensive and no general of a lawful alignment is going to want to risk the lives of fine soldiers over something stupid, or that can be solved by just having the best company fighters fighting each other 1 on 1 and the winner takes all.

Chaotic Alignments: These characters are typically incapable of fighting as one with their peers, however they also are under more pressure to deliver results. A loss to a chaotically evil army is unacceptable, and their masters will deal more harshly with the failure then simply fighting until honorable death by combat will ever give. Chaotic troops are easier to force a retreat, however they are disorganized and rarely do a tactical withdraw, if they do retreat they run, unless they know that they can’t get away; at this point they’ll typically start groveling and begging for mercy. Chaotic Good creatures will surrender if they feel that their enemy is honorable, they’ll also setup escape plans in advance and be able to follow through with them, hit and run tactics are common with chaotic alignments.

Neutral Alignments: These characters are always unpredictable. They use tactics that work best, they aren’t honor bound, however they do know how to fight as one, or breakup into smaller groups to spread out attacks. Granted, you won’t see any brilliant tactics which are common with the lawfully aligned, but they will use tactics that they’ve seen before. If they themselves except surrender terms, then they will usually allow their enemy this courtesy. They also see the waste of troops and value individual lives in truly bad situations and won’t typically fight any more once they know that they are going to lose, unless the thing which they are fighting for is worth it to them.


Intelligence is a huge factor for dictating a reaction to a failed morale check. The more stupid something is, the more likely it will be that it will simply run away regardless of if it can make it or not.

Animals for instance, can be run differently then humans. If a creature has been cornered, to where it can’t run away, or if it is smart enough to know when it can’t retreat, then it may become berserk! It may faint, or, if it’s small enough, attempt to run through the line.

Dumb creatures are more likely to grovel and even they may try to reason with attackers, especially if they feel wronged by the deal. Player Characters are well known to try and solve all of their problems with blades, you can really put a wrench in this system by having a goblin tribe call them murderers and no good humans, especially if the Goblin tribe was peaceful and just looking for a place to live where they won’t be bothered by anybody. If they haven’t harmed anyone, and just been seen by locals, the players could be summoned to hunt them down before they launch an attack. Imagine their shock when they discover that they are acting like villains!

Average Intelligence is 9. Anything above a 5 is probably going to be able to tell if they can run away or not and come up with some other method to survive the encounter. The more intelligent that the creature is, the less likely it is to actually run away, if you want to test this theory then quickly do ability checks against WIS or INT, whichever one is higher, a failed Moral and a failed ability check probably indicates that the thing will try and run for it. I wouldn’t use this method for large armies, but it works really well with single creatures, or mixed parties of different alignments.


Withdraw: Of course the most logical effect of failed morale is the retreat. Intelligent creatures will attempt a withdraw, this doesn’t change anything defensively, but the creature focuses all attacks on defense and will not make any attacks of his own, and instead will move at 1/3 of his movement rate away from the situation. Of course this works best when the person can somehow put a stop to the enemies advance. This can be done by either having fresh troops move to the front, or by effecting the battlefield in some way which blocks the opponents advance.

Retreat: Simply running away gives your enemy a free attack if they wish to use it, Lawful creatures may or may not take this attack, and allow the enemy to retreat unless they are extremely hated, or if they stand to lose more by allowing the retreat to happen. Running characters can move at their full movement rate as dictated by the terrain. The fleeing character drops his defenses, and loses all bonuses to AC due to high DEX and shields. If the enemy is slower, then this will work, however the fleeing character will still be a target to any missile attacks while still within sight and range.

Full Surrender: An opponent can wave a white flag or signal to the enemy, that they wish to stop fighting at any time. It may take a couple of rounds before the general or leader sees it, and decides to allow the surrender or not. Naturally, not all enemies are going to allow such a method, and some Players may have to be taught that this is an option.

A full surrender means that you put yourself into the custody of the enemy. Weapons are dropped and all soldiers assume positions of submission, such as kneeling with hands behind the head. The general will walk upon the field, bow and offer his sword to the victor. At this time the enemy can make his demands such as leave the field, or take all of the warriors into custody and put out a ransom to the opponent’s superiors so that they can buy them back. Of course an enemy can also slaughter the opponent, too. But, this will typically result in more fighting which is more savage then ever.

Negotiations: A full surrender is not always the best idea. Generals can call for a halt to fighting, which is fairly common during wartime. This is an uneasy peace which gives both sides a chance to collect their dead and injured, and rest. A time will usually be agreed upon for the battle to resume, but until that time it is not expectable to attack an enemy.

If the death toll is too high, or if both sides agree that it would be in their best interest to avoid bloodshed, then the generals can produce their greatest warriors, maybe knights or an exceptional warrior. These two men will fight on equal terms and to the death. The loser will give up their arms and clear out of the area, or perhaps even join the enemy army under a contract, if that is what the battle is about.

Tactical Change: A failed Morale check could also indicate that the general or leader has determined that what he is doing isn’t working and change tactics, this can be anything as subtle as moving frontline troops to the back, and filling their ranks with fresh troops; to something as advanced as calling a partial retreat of your front line to focus entirely on archery fire.

Evil troops with a win at any cost attitude can use some dirty tactics which are brilliant but destructive, even to their own side. Tactics such as causing a stampede of large beasts to mow through the battlefield is highly effective, even though it butchers your own side as harshly as the enemy, but for these people, a win is still a win. The more shocking and destructive a tactic is, the better. Setting fire to a village can keep a party of heroes from focusing all of their rage on them, taking innocent hostages, all of these things can count as a reaction to a failed morale check which is more suitable to chaotic evil alignments then simply running away.

Finding Options

The best time to come up with tactics isn’t at the table, it is during prep. Identify the encounters that will benefit from using advanced tactics, and jot down notes. Players can also benefit from this with their own troops, setting up backup plans which are easy to follow so that troops are confident in shifting to them when they get the orders.

Granted you don’t want to do this for every encounter, and no matter how good your intentions are, they won’t always cover all situations. Logic is your best friend here, say you are setting up an encounter with PC’s charged with protecting an NPC merchant vessel at sea, and your enemy will be 3 pirate ships. We of course need to identify the goal of the pirates: To take the treasure.

Their original tactic will be to immobilize the merchant vessel with the largest pirate ship, and the other two ships will focus on trying to steal the PC’s ship without injuring her. Their backup plan will be to sink the PC’s ship with the lead ship, and have the two smaller vessel attempt to board and take the merchant’s galleon. If this doesn’t work, stick with the plan of boarding the merchant vessel, but only loot the ship for 1 turn, then sink both ships. Forth, abandon all plans and flee, perhaps setting up an ambush on another day.

That is 4 morale checks before the enemy actually flees. It is a pretty versital plan and these options can change if the pirates fail the moral checks or not.

It is up to the PC’s to plan their side of the battle, and since there might not be any contact between the two ships, this plan has to be known by both ships in advance, if they failed to do this, then we have to decide what the merchant vessel will do. Will they run? The pirate ships are faster, and if the pirates can separate the two convoys, then the galleon is an easy target.

But, if the players tell the ship to form a formation, and can board the galleon with a few strong fighters before the pirates, defending both ships as one, they can fire cannons at their full radius and defend her from being boarded more easily, completely ruining the pirates plans and forcing a retreat much quicker.

Different situations can also cause different effects in morale and tactics. If the pirates have a wizard on board, then they may not even have to keep the ship afloat, they can sink the merchant galleon and simply use magic to retrieve the treasure. All of this stuff should be thought out in advanced, thus making the battle as dynamic and as fast as possible.

Of course you can force a morale check to fail, no intelligent enemy is going to keep using a tactic if it clearly isn’t working. Having more options in front of you helps your game considerably, but we only want to use this for big battles, else we’d be spending more time prepping then actually playing!


Again, this is another aspect of the game which requires a DM to judge. A rule of thumb for figuring out XP is the amount of fighting that the players had to deal with. If they avoid combat at all, this could be worth more XP then actually killing them! But when dealing with large scale wars which are commanded by and fought by player characters, or in situations where the players are vastly outnumbered, then they may qualify for XP for all of the creatures they fought, even the ones that they didn’t kill.

Say the players defend a village from an Orc army of 35, they were able to slay 10 of them out-right, but the others either surrendered or ran away, the party would still qualify for the full XP of all of them since they defeated them.

If the party were defeated themselves, and were forced to surrender or retreat, they still gain XP from the enemy numbers that they did kill.

On the other hand, if the players are leading an army of 3,000 and meet an enemy of 6,000, and were able to manage to convince the other general to settle the fight with a joust between a player knight vs. the strongest NPC knight, and win, and the enemy excepts this loss and leaves the field under the terms agreed upon, then the players wouldn’t get all of the XP for the 6,000 soldiers that they didn’t fight, but they will get full XP for the knight they did slay, and the general they defeated, plus whatever bonuses that you decide to give them for saving so many lives on their own side. Perhaps a few hundred enemy soldiers will join the players cause? That will be a benefit all in itself.


Timeshadows said...

I'd like to see more detailed info on Animal-level intelligence and Morale checks. What you've presented was helpful, though.

Good stuff here. :)

RipperX said...

Glad that you liked it, and I'll see what I can do.

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