Thursday, October 2, 2008

4e Morale Check: A DM utility power

A Dungeon Master utility power? Why not?

Even though I've decided to use 4e from now on, I'm keenly interested in applying 1e concepts and traditions to the modern rule set. To that end, I've been composing my own 4e house rules.

One set of rules that I feel are neglected by 3.5e and 4e are the ones pertaining to morale checks. The morale check was an important part of D&D before 3e. In 3e, this fight-or-flight rule is essentially eliminated. Instead it is incorporated into 3e's system of attack bonuses. In 3.5e and 4e, whether or not monsters or NPCs flee while in the midst of battle is entirely up to the DM.

At first, I thought that adding morale checks to a set of 4e house rules might be a simple matter of just using the rules provided in the 1e DMG. But upon closer examination, I realized that these rules seemed archaic in the context of 4e. For example, it uses a percentage dice roll. Well, why not simply use a d20 and divide the bonuses by 20? Then I got to thinking that rules pertaining to morale could be somehow created for 4e D&D in manner that is consistent with the rest of the rules.

How can combat morale rules be created that are consistent with 4e? As detractors have observed, all of 4e D&D seems to revolve entirely around the axis of combat. Everything is defined in terms of character powers and abilities. But morale rules, something that has everything to do with combat, is strangely absent. The 4e DMG is mostly fluff and advice with scant rules pertaining to rigid conduct of the game. This was done with the purpose of simplification. Perhaps this is good because it has produced a much more unified system of rules. Perhaps this is bad because the game seems to only focus on combat.

In 4e terms, what is a morale check? In 1e and 2e, it was a roll made by the DM during combat at appropriate predefined occasions. It is never a roll made by the players. Well, I thought, perhaps a morale check could be something akin to cause fear, the 1st level cleric attack power? Fear is certainly a factor. But a morale check is not something that is rolled by a player so it can't be a character power. If it's a roll made by the DM, what does he roll against? A "moral score?" In 2e, all monsters had a moral score included with each monster description. Adding a new statistic to every single monster in 4e seemed to be counter to the spirit of the streamlined rules of 4e. Furthermore, modifying the combat system with a subset of rules handling morale checks seemed counter-productive. There has to be some way of safely inserting an optional morale check rule without "breaking" the game.

Then it hit me. Why not define morale checks in 4e as a "DM utility power?" Powers are, by definition, optional. The DM would not have to use it at all. And if the ability used in the "attack" is simply a placeholder, then the only concern would be bonuses.

So this morning I whipped up some 4e Morale Check rules:


The morale check is a utility power used by the DM against monsters or NPCs. It is never used against PCs. It can be used to check the morale of individuals or groups of individuals. In the case of groups, use the average Will score of that group.

The morale check DM utility power does not use a character ability for its "attack." Instead, the DM's Morale "ability" has a "score" of 10 and therefore has no "ability modifier." The DM merely rolls a d20, adds any relevant bonuses, and compares the result with the target's Will.

Morale Check DM Utility
You determine whether or not an NPC or monster withdraws from combat.
At-Will * Fear
Immediate Reaction Personal
Trigger: Surprise, facing an obviously superior force, ally is slain by magic, 25% of group has fallen, 50% of group has fallen, companion slain after more that 50% of group has fallen, group leader deserts or is slain, fighting foe that cannot be harmed due to magical protections, ordered to attempt a heroically dangerous task, offered temptation (bribe, chance to steal, etc.), told to act as rear guard, directed to use up an encounter power, directed to use up a daily power, directed to use charge from a personal powerful magic item, given chance to surrender, or completely surrounded.
Prerequisite: You must be the DM.
Requirement: You must be a grognard. ;)
Target: One creature or group of creatures with averaged Will.
Attack: Morale vs Will
Hit: If the attack roll succeeds, the target will fall back but keep fighting (save ends). If the attack roll succeeds by 3, the target will disengage and/or retreat (save ends). If the attack roll succeeds by 6, the target will flee in panic (save ends). If the attack roll succeeds by 10, the target surrenders.

Morale Bonus

Listed below are conditions and situations that can affect morale check bonuses.

Target abandoned by friends: +6
Target bloodied: +6
Target is chaotic: +1
Target is fighting hated enemy: -4
Target is lawful: -1
Target is surprised: +2
Target's group is fighting wizards or magic-using foes: -2
Target is level 5 to 10: -1
Target is level 11 to 15: -2
Target is level 16 or more: -3
Target is defending home: -3
Target has cover: -1
Target's leader is of different alignment: +1
Target's most powerful ally killed: +4
Target is PC ally NPC that has been favored: -2
Target is PC ally NPC that has been poorly treated: +4
None of target's enemies have been slain: +2
Target's group is outnumbered by 3 or more to 1: +4
Target's group outnumbers opponents by 3 or more to 1: -2
Target is unable to affect opponent: +8
Target group has magic-using creature: -2

Perhaps the wording of the trigger entry could be simplified. And perhaps the list of morale bonuses could be simplified, eliminated, or somehow incorporated into the power's description entry. I'm open to suggestions.

One interesting side effect of applying the 4e mold to this 1e concept is the idea of essentially treating the effects of a morale check as a saving throw. I like how 4e simplified saving throws and treats them just like an AC defense score. If a morale check power is applied in this manner, fleeing creatures might make a saving throw and return to battle.

The idea of a DM utility power could be a practical solution to re-introducing old school game concepts to 4e. I haven't tried this in actual game play. But my intuition tells me that it might work just fine. If this concept of a DM utility power is viable, I have a feeling that this might open up tremendous possibilities.

As described at the beginning of the fourth edition Player's Handbook, Dungeons & Dragons is an exception-based set of rules. From my perspective as an amateur programmer, it also appears to be modular in the sense that you start with a core library of functions and then build upon it. Unlike previous editions of D&D, 4e seems to be more conducive to this mindset. DM utility powers could open up an entirely new "library" of "functions" that are waiting to be written.


Mike Lee said...

There are rules for causing a bloodied creature to surrender using intimidate. You can piggy-back off that system.

One simple way:
Use passive intimidate, like passive stealth and perception. If all enemies are bloodied, or dead/unconscious, check passive intimidate. If the the passives beat the check required, it's a rout. -Unless the DM decides otherwise for whatever reason.

Elmer said...

I think that is a cool idea. I very much like the idea of a DM Utility Power. A few alterations I would suggest:
1.) Streamline the triggers. Slain by magic isn't really that surprising with two divine, two arcane (4 with artificer and swordmage). I know it is an old throwback, but tailoring it to 4e conditions a little more would change the flavor to a "turning point" of a battle, instead of a series of incrementally worse conditions.
2.) Instead of At-Will, make it an encounter power, again representing a climactic moment (more 4e) more than attrition.
3.) I think the attack roll should be something along the lines of (Average Party Level /2) + 2/4/6 depending on tier of play. Attack Will defense. Handled as an "area" attack, you would be able to effect certain monsters in a group, leaving others (presumably the tougher ones) in play. Your list of modifiers is very thorough, but in play, I'd imagine generalizing it to between a -2 and +2, depending on groups, combat advantage, vulnerabilities, etc.
4.) I like the effects of a hit, and the scaling ability based on how much they fail it by. I was playing with a Demoralized condition, but I think that granting combat advantage, weakness, vulnerability, etc. could be used similarly. And I guess if you are of the school that HP can represent morale as well, you could be doing some actual damage. Although special considerations should be taken for minions.
5.) As much as I love the concept of a DM utility power, if this is an attack roll, it probably should be an attack power, not a utility power.
Anyway, just some thoughts. All in all, I thought your post was very interesting, and I'm inspired to make some more DM powers. Thanks for the cool post!