Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Morale

With the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, morale rules were no more (or were altered heavily and vaguely placed under the Intimidate skill). This staple from D&D’s formative years had its roots in the wargaming that informed the creation of roleplaying games, but after years of minor tweaks and changes, and — so it seemed to me at the time — a lot of folks who simply ignored them, Morale Checks were a thing of the past, now just a “story point” for the DM to roleplay if combat went sideways for the enemies. Often, that meant most — if not all — fights were to the death at many tables featuring a more competitive play style, which perhaps informed (or plagued) 3rd edition and 4th edition games for years.

Those that remember the morale rules of yesteryear might have hoped that Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition resurrects these rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but instead discovered a simple Wisdom saving throw system. While elegant, these rules miss some of the intricacies of separating Morale Rating from an Ability Score, so what follows is a house rule based very closely on the Morale rules found in the AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The beatings will continue until morale improves

The symbol emblazoned on every orc banner.

Design Goals

I have left out much of the explanatory text as that, to me, is fluff, and I have greatly reduced the modifiers. That second point is worth explaining: the number (and range) of Morale Rating modifiers in 2nd Edition (and earlier) were often pretty large, which led to the base Morale Rating often having a surprisingly small “say” during a pitched battle. Being cumulative, it was likely to rack up penalties approaching -8 or more on average, which is a huge variance on a dice roll of 2d10. To make creatures “feel” like they have different Morale Ratings in light of this, I have taken out most of the modifiers, and reduced the bonus and penalty amounts for the ones that remain.

When to Make Morale Checks

  • Surprised by overwhelming force (check on the 1st round of combat in which they can act).
  • Taking significant losses.
  • Leadership defeated.
  • Persuaded with leverage (a bribe, a chance to steal, etc.).
  • No escape route.

Morale Checks

Step 1: Calculate Morale Score

Calculate the creature’s current Morale score (ML) using the ratings below as a guideline, and applying any modifiers.

Table 1: Morale Ratings

This table is more or less verbatim from the AD&D 2e Dungeon Master’s Guide. Props to the original writers!

Morale Rating Examples
Unreliable 2-4 Common rats, typically non-aggressive animal
Unsteady 5-7 Common dog, slave or serf, typical predatory animal
Average 8-10 Commoner, constabulary, bandit, mobs, kobold, tiger, wolf, goblin, monster with low intelligence
Steady 11-12 Soldier, worg, bugbear, hobgoblin, ghoul, monster with animal intelligence, green or regular troops, hirelings, behemoths, owl bear
Elite 13-14 Knight, bugbear champion, doppelganger, elite soldiers, displacer beast
Champion 15-16 Henchmen, most elementals, fiendish soldiers
Fanatic 17-18 Dragon, non-intelligent monster, powerful elementals
Fearless 19-20 Old dragons, kender, powerful fiends
Immune (AKA “Special”) n/a Mindless undead, constructs, automatons

 Table 2: Circumstance Modifiers

Alignment & Leadership

  • Leader is of differing alignment -1
  • Treated favorably by leader +1
  • Treated poorly by leader -2

Situation

  • Defending lair +Advantage
  • Defensive terrain advantage +Advantage
  • Fighting natural enemy +Advantage
  • Unable to affect opponent +Disadvantage

Step 2: Roll Morale Check

Roll 2d10 once, adding the dice together to get the total for the Morale Check.

  • Success! Total is equal to or less than the ML: the creature continues fighting.
  • Fail! Total is greater than the ML: the creature panics and takes the appropriate action (see below).

Table 3: Failed Morale Checks

  • Failed, but just barely (failed by 1-2): Fighting disengage, then flee.
  • Failed, moderately (failed by 3-4): Panicked flight, will risk Opportunity Attacks.
  • Failed very badly (failed by 5+): Surrender or suicide.

Limits of Morale

Creatures that pass three morale checks during an encounter no longer need to make morale checks: they are committed and will fight to the death.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He’s been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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