Friday, November 21, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Morale

Issue 6 of the Dragon introduces Morale tables. Morale is an essential component of any combat system, since it can't be assumed that all parties will fight to the death (although many PCs I've seen will invariably do so).

In early editions of D&D, morale checks are sometimes made by the DM on behalf of the monsters to determine how committed they are in combat. The morale system presented in The Dragon Issue 6, however, designed for the Player Characters! In short, the DM determines the "Fright Factor" of the enemy. Then she determines the morale score for the adventuring party, which takes into account the party's racial makeup, character levels, the enemy's Fright Factor, and other variables. After deriving the morale score, the DM rolls a d10 and consults a table where the x-axis is the 1d10 result and the y-axis is the party's morale score. This generates one of four possible results: Break and Run, Hesitate, Stand and Fight, and Fight with no further chance of a morale check. And I thought my Fudge Point formula might have been overkill.

There is an ongoing debate between old-schoolers (which I consider myself ) and post-3e'ers over tactics versus role-playing. Generally, a tactical game is rules-heavy, with a game mechanic for just about anything. A rules-light game leaves more to the imaginations of the players and DM. Old-schoolers typically lay claim to more descriptive, role-playing oriented games, and abhor 3e and 4e for being too "by the book." Yet a survey of old issues of The Dragon reveals a table for just about everything: family background, tomb generation, random monster generation, physical appearance generation...and that's just in the first ten issues.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was largely pieced together from addenda -- a sort of Frankenstein system, where tables govern just about everything. The assertion that 3rd edition introduced too many rules is one point where I respectfully diverge from my fellow old-schoolers. What's simpler, a game which utilizes one mechanic -- the roll of a single d20 -- to resolve most actions, or a game where a low d6 is used in finding traps, a low d20 for attacks, a d% for picking pockets, a high d20 for saving throws, et cetera? I still despise Feats, but that's a subject for another day.

Anyway, back to the morale tables in issue 6: First of all, I don't believe morale checks are even necessary for monsters. Basic D&D used morale checks to determine if monsters would retreat from the PCs. This makes sense in a game which is essentially designed to attract newcomers. But in the "Advanced" edition of the game, the DM ought to be skilled enough to determine for himself when the party's enemies are driven before them. Good DM'ing means getting into the heads of all intelligent NPCs and making their decisions.

But morale checks for PCs? The proposal of the idea is somewhat insulting, because it betrays a lack of confidence in players' ability to appropriately direct their characters actions. Furthermore, it takes power out of the hands of the players, which is potentially a violation of the Rule of Fun.

Am I accusing the authors, Jim Hayes and Bill Gilbert, of poor judgement in offering morale tables? Not necessarily. Remember, D&D grew out of wargaming. Early players lived in a very dice-centric environment. It's not surprising to me that subjectivity was a big no-no in early D&D campaigns, which had a more tactical bent. But for today's gamers, such tables are almost meaningless.

I can only think of one possible use for these tables. In a session where the players are either very young or complete RPG novices, the DM could use this table to cue himself when to suggest something other than direct conflict. In this context, it is a coaching tool.

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