Speeding up D&D 4E Combat: Morale

A large problem many groups have with 4E D&D is that 4E combat takes a very long time. Various methods have been proposed to fix this, such as reducing monster hp, but after some discussion we realised the best way of doing it is simply to revive the Morale system, used in 1st and 2nd Edition, but thrown out in 3rd. The problem with these systems is, like the whole editions themselves, they were overly complicated; I’ve seen an attempt at adding Morale to 4E that mostly just put the 2nd Ed system in… and it looked terrible. So, we decided to do it from the ground up: a complete, effective, and simple Morale system for 4E D&D.

Update: We discuss the Morale Rules on this podcast clarifying a few details.

Overview

This article will cover the following, in order:

  • The new Morale system
  • Effects of using the new Morale system
  • Problems with existing systems
  • How we developed the new Morale system, why we did what we did

The 4E D&D Morale system

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The core concept in the Morale system is the Morale Check.

A Morale Check is a Saving Throw (PHB 279). Anything that modifies a Saving Throw modifies a Morale Check.
 

If a Morale Check is passed, then there is no effect.

If a Morale Check is failed, then the creature immediately tries to Flee the battlefield by whatever route seems appropriate. This Fleeing provokes Opportunity Attacks. The creature will continue to Flee in all its subsequent turns.

Mindless creatures, such as Undead and Elementals, never take Morale Checks.

Morale Checks are only made by NPCs and Monsters, not by PCs: the Player always has the final say in what their character does. Creatures that would logically be immune to Morale, like Undead, never have to take Moral Checks, and the DM can rule that certain creatures and foes are exempt from Morale Checks.

Remember that Elites and Solos get a natural bonus to Saving Throws, and thus to Morale Checks.

For purposes of Morale, a group of creatures may have a Leader: this Leader may or may not be an actual “Leader”, as defined in the Monster Manual, it just has to be in the position of leading the others. A regular everyday Orc could count as a Leader if the rest of the Encounter Group consists of Goblins.

In addition, for all purposes in the Morale system, a Minion counts as 1/4 of a full creature, and round down: so 3 minions count as 0, and 6 minions count as 1.

A Creature Makes a Morale Check When:
 

  • It is Bloodied for the first time
  • 50% of its group are Dead or have Fled
  • The Leader of the group Dies or Flees

The Morale Checks are made at the end of the turn the condition is triggered in. So, if Toki reduces a creature to 50% health (making it Bloodied), Toki finishes anything else he’s doing in his turn, and then the creature takes a Morale check. A creature can be forced to take multiple Morale Checks in a single turn, and they can cascade. So, if the create Toki Bloodied fails its Morale Check and Flees, and that reduces the group to 50%, then the rest of the group have to take Morale Checks.

As mentioned above, Minions count for 1/4 and are rounded down. Thus, if you have a group consisting of a single Orc, and 4 Goblin Minions, all 4 Goblins have to die before the Orc takes a Morale Check for 50% of the group being dead.

The DM can call for Morale checks at any time outside these conditions, if he deems it appropriate.

Bonuses and Penalties to Morale Checks
Situation

Modifier

Group outnumbers foes 2:1 or better

+2

Group outnumbered by foes 2:1 or worse

-2

Creature is Brave

+2

Creature is Cowardly

-2

For non-Leaders: Leader is Alive

+2

For non-Leaders: Leader is Dead or has Fled

-2

Group is a 50% strength or less

-2

All modifiers are +2 or -2, so basically you just need to know “good” or “bad”. Most of these will be common across most or all of the monsters in a group, so it’s easy to keep track of.

For outnumbering, don’t forget that Minions only count for 1/4.

For Brave and Cowardly, this allows the DM to give some variance in creatures. Goblins are Cowardly, whilst Minotaurs are Brave. It’s up to the DM to decide what monsters deserve these ratings. A creature defending its home is automatically Brave: if the creature is naturally Cowardly (so, a Goblin defending its home), then the bonus and penalty cancel out.

The Leader bonus and penalty only apply if the group has/had a Leader. The Leader doesn’t give himself a bonus, although the Leader happens to be an Elite, then he will have a natural bonus. This can mean a Leader has more chance of fleeing that the other monsters; well, that’s fine: the Leader decided they’re all doomed anyway, and legs it before he shares the fate of his underlings.

As to rewards, Fled monsters naturally give full XP. For loot, my solution is thus: if a creature is holding something valuable that is feasibly dropped, let it drop it as it flees. Otherwise, give the same loot to the party in a different way: insert an extra treasure chest or something. The structure of 4th Edition’s rewards system is such that this works fine.

Effects of the new Morale system

The obvious effect is that combats are faster. Once the battle hits the half-way point, with half the monsters dead, the Morale penalties and Checks start piling up, and the battle will finish quicker as monsters Flee. This timing ends up being pretty good, with monsters generally starting to flee as the party finished using their interesting Powers: the Morale system helps reduce the amount of boring At-Will slogging.

After some playtesting, we found that players would sometimes try to specifically target the Leader of the group. If they could take the Leader down quickly, the dramatic -4 difference in modifiers coupled with the instant Morale Check often caused many monsters to immediately Flee, ending the battle quite quickly. This led to interesting tactical decisions: sometimes, a Leader is so much tougher than the rest of the group that trying to take them down first is suicide, whilst other times, killing the Leader first is very feasible.

Problems with existing systems

The most commonly recommended way to shorted 4E combat is to reduce (say, halve) the hitpoints of monsters. However, this doesn’t work all that well, for a few reasons:

  • It’s indiscriminate. Tougher creatures sometimes suffer from this a lot.
  • It’s unbalanced. Certain classes become stronger or weaker: Controllers are generally weaker, since dead creatures don’t need controlling, whilst Strikers are usually stronger, since their damage counts even more.

What about existing Morale systems? Either the 2nd Ed system, or the 4E system I said I found? Well…

  • Overly complicated: the list of times to take checks, and modifiers, is huge and silly. It’s impossible to remember them all.
  • Don’t scale well: A 20th level Dragon should damn well flee if a 22nd level party is wiping the floor with it. The existing systems make it harder and harder for high-level creatures to fail a Morale Check.
  • They don’t fit with 4th Edition: 4E standardised a lot of things, and it makes sense for a Morale system to use those standards, rather than tacking on a whole new system.

This Morale system solves all those problems. For how we dealt will all this, keep reading.

Development of the Morale system

With our 4E D&D combats taking forever, I set about trying to make a Morale system. I cracked open the 1st and 2nd Edition DMGs, and had a look. Urgh.

The 1st Ed system wasn’t all that bad, but used percentages and was a little complex. The 2nd Ed system moved past percentages, but had a list of modifiers a mile long, including for whether the creature is Lawful or Chaotic, and whether there are allied or enemy spellcasters. In addition, neither system was very 4E-ish, and inherently couldn’t be.

I considered how best for a Morale Check to be made. The 4E system I’d seen before used the Will Defence, but that has two problems:

  • The whole scales-with-level thing
  • Certain types of creatures have higher Will than others. A Wizard shouldn’t be braver than a Barbarian.

This led me to Saving Throws: they are a very 4E-ish concept which are constant across levels, are very hard to modify, and are consistent across all types of creatures. I then had the awesome realisation that since Elites and Solos get a Saving Throw bonus, they naturally get a bonus to Morale Checks, which would otherwise have been a problem. This means that more interesting monsters that are the focus of a fight will stick around longer.

I compiled a list of Morale situations and Modifiers, and we tried it out. The original list included a few things suggested by the 1st and 2nd Edition rules, such as bonuses and penalties for No Ally Slain and No Enemy Slain. The modifiers were also a bit more varied than +/-2.

We noticed a few things: firstly, half of the modifiers and situations had lain forgotten and unused, but, what we had remembered had worked pretty well, with a few minor issues. So, we scrapped everything we had forgotten, standardised the numbers, adjusted a few things (after a few playtests, adding the -2 penalty for group under 50%, to help finish things off), and things started working right.

As the DM of these playtests, I was quite pleased at how simple it was. At the beginning of the encounter, I counted the number of monsters (accounting for Minions being 1/4), and wrote it down. Then, I halved that, and wrote it down as, basically, the group’s Bloodied value. I then wrote the initial modifiers down, and from then it was simply a matter of keeping a tally of monster deaths, and occasionally checking to see if the outnumbering situation had changed. The change to everything being +/-2 made it very easy to keep track of the modifiers, and, since the modifiers are so simple, I didn’t have to keep referring to the rules sheet.

The wonderful thing about using Morale, rather than something clumsy like reducing monster hitpoints, is it feels D&D-ish in its randomness. With a few lucky or unlucky rolls, the entire feel of the combat can change, and can lead to memorable stories. On one occasion, , a player managed to Bloody the Leader… who failed his Morale Check and fled. All the other monsters thus had to take Morale Checks, and enough of them failed that the group was reduced to less than 50% strength, forcing another check, in which all the rest of the monsters fled.

Conclusion

Overall, we’re pretty happy with this Morale system. If you decide to use it in your game, please come back and tell us how it went, and any opinions you might have on how to improve it further.

Custom D&D4e Morale Rules Summary Sheet

DriveThruRPG.com

About Duncan

Ellisthion's all about 5E D&D at the moment, but has at times has played every edition from 1E AD&D through to 5E, plus Star Wars: Saga Edition, Paranoia, and more. He DMs a lot, and tends to make overly-complicated campaigns and characters.
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