Saturday, 25 September 2021

Game Design #85: Morale Rules Suck

While changing mechanics in my 15mm space horror homebrew (think Event Horizon meets Doom) I was thinking about key design elements to emphasize. One of them was morale.

Obviously a sci fi horror game would have to have strong/influential morale rules. Definitely a key design plank. 

How would I do it?  Maybe a shared "morale resource pool" that slowly is nibbled away as scary stuff happens? How do I link squad or individual morale to overall army morale? I grabbed out a few random rulebooks to see what ideas I could borrow (originality is overrated imo). That's when I realised....

Morale Rules Suck!

Morale is always something I've been a bit ambigous about it; apart from noting that willpower/morale is finite and can be eaten away slowly (and perhaps should be a global resource or dice pool).

But it's obviously something other game designers are ambiguous about as well.  Activation and initiative is something many ignore - but I've seen some brilliant innovations. Campaigns and scenarios are often put on as an afterthought - but I've seen great, deep campaign rules. 

I don't think I've ever seen good morale rules. In fact, they are usually unclear, obscure, and most look like they were thrown together in 5min with minimal thought. Activation rules have moved on from IGOUGO - but morale remains mired in the dark ages. It's an area even more low-effort than campaign rules yet it's a vital part of the game.

Let's grab some examples. On top of my recent rules pile, somewhat topical to my rules:

1.Reality's Edge cyberpunk was a hefty 320 page book. Less than 1 page was devoted to morale. Models test when: they are wounded, a leader is downed, crew is reduced to 50% or 25%, or by a special ability. A failed Will test means they move towards their board edge*, preferably to cover if possible. Once they get to the board edge they test again, a fail = removed from play.

Wow, so many questions. So many gaps. So - can a model re-test each turn, or only when it gets to the board edge? What if moving to the board edge moves it towards the model that caused the test? if they hit the board edge and pass the test, they are back to normal?  *If a model didn't deploy from a "home edge" it attempts to escape to the nearest edge...

There is also suppression rules - if a model is hit but not damaged it must pass a Will test or move to cover within 3" or go prone. What if the cover is closer to a flamethrower? 

OK let's skim a few more rules...

2.Zona Alfa near future sci fi/horror was a 64-page Osprey. There was actually no morale rules, but just suppression from a non-damaging hit - you must pass a Will roll or collect a Pin counter. A model can collect up to 4. It needs to spend an action to remove them and cannot do anything (except defend in melee) until Pins are removed.  FAIL/INCOMPLETE.

3.Space Hulk - Space Alien Horror (admittedly a boardgame) has 0 morale rules. Well, I suppose they are superhuman Space Marines, so I'll let that pass. PASS not GRADED

4.Dracula's America - Wild West Horror. 137 pages. Less than a page. The whole crew makes a single morale test if 50% or more models are down. If the leader is down, less dice are used. A failure means the entire team is magically removed and the game ends. 

There is a "Shaken" - an unsaved hit can be 1-2 shaken, 3-4 damaged, 5+ dead. Shaken is basically a permanent penalty to everything* - so it's not suppression, but basically a permanent wound with a different name. (*this game is one of those ones who proudly use "one stat does everything" in the mistaken belief they are smart). EPIC FAIL.

Lol this is getting ridiculous.

Let's try some more. I'm grabbing randomly from my horror/pulp section of my rules cupboard*. (*Yes it is an embarrassingly large cupboard and 90% of them have only been playtested a few times then abandoned)

5.Empire of the Dead. Weird Steampunk includes vampires etc. 152 pages. Another single morale page. Again the "everyone tests when 50% casualties" but can use leaders morale if within 6". Must also test Will to charge a scary critter <- ooh after 3 rulebooks focussed on horror - the first actual reference to scary things. Anyone failing a morale test is magically removed. *poof*

There's  kind of suppression - after you are hit, you roll - can have no effect, suppress (move only 2" can only defend in melee); wounded, or dead. Since it actually wears off after a turn, it's actually a temporary effect not a wound (glares at Dracula's America). FAIL.

6. Malifaux 1st ed (Steampunk Horror) 202 pages. 1 page of morale rules. God, it's been 10 years since I played this. Umm no force-wide morale rules at all, but there is a morale "duel" against scary things - losing it means you fall back at 2x normal walk toward your board edge, avoiding enemy melee and hazardous terrain if possible. If forced to fight it does so at a penalty. Once it hits the table edge, it skips a turn, rallies and returns to normal. FAIL/INCOMPLETE

7. Strange Aeons - Cthulu Mythos Horror 74 pages.  Ok this is all about horror - but there's till only 2 pages!  There are no whole-team tests (unless you are literally the last man standing) but models must test if: a friendly is killed nearby; if no friendlies and 3+ enemies close by; hideous enemies in CQC or any scary enemies nearby, or if trying to cast a spell. Hatred of a particular foe allows you to ignore its effects. A failed "Will" test means you may be catatonic (skip 2 turns); stupefied (skip 1 turn); revolted (run towards own table edge), or go into a frenzy (CQC against nearest enemy, pass all further  morale tests). It's go more detail, but given the whole bloody book is about horror, I'd give it a MEH.

8. Secrets of the Third Reich (Weird WW2 Horror incl vampires aliens zombies). Man this is such a good game. So underrated. A  fantasy game much deeper and more realistic than Bolt Action. (Admittedly not hard bar to step over). About 3 morale pages from 154. Some effort made....

Squads take a morale test for each time any squad models are 'downed' - a failure means they must flee at speed towards cover, and if in cover become "disorganized"; if no cover in range they flee toward their table edge and go prone. In melee, the unit suffering the most casualties must test. Tests must be made to fight horrifying foes.

Squads with enough firepower can "suppress" either units or terrain features like houses - forcing units to take morale tests and interrupting overwatch.

Disorganized units may only move to cover and rearrange themselves behind cover/to improve coherency to leaders. They can be regrouped by a leader command, or by themselves at a penalty.

Models which are hit can be dead or just "downed" - which includes everything from stunned to wounded. Downed models are helpless and crawling 2" - which can recover. PASS

Wow 8 rule sets before a valid set of morale rules. Let's do one more.

9. Kill Team (not the last one). 205 pages, 1 page (paragraph, actually) of morale rules. Ok there are whole team morale rules; a whole team is broken automatically if all models have wounds/are shaken, or if 50% are wounded/shaken and the best morale model fails a test. 

There's also shaken aka suppression - test each model that takes a wound (or everyone if the whole team is broken). A shaken model must miss a turn. The test is modified if friendlies are nearby; negatively if the friendlies take injuries. MEH.

OK, this was a random grab out of my cupboards pulp/fantasy/sci fi section. Let's discuss:

The Math = 1338 pages of rulebook. Merely 11 pages of rules devoted to morale (and that's being charitable). That's .008 - not even a tenth of a percent!

And you can see the rules, usually are desperately poor.  A complete token effort. And these are mostly rules about supernatural and horror - surely a key design element would be the morale rules. All of them left huge questions and ambiguities.

Let me create a typical morale rule for you, the amateur designer.

"If 50% of a team/army are killed, the rest must test their Will: if they fail, they magically disappear"

"If a model is hit but not wounded, make a Will test: if they fail they move towards cover/the table edge"

Boom! Publish me now! Insert this as needed into literally any skirmish ruleset you want....

To return to my argument. Morale rules suck. They are low effort parts of the rulebook and are very seldom done comprehensively. Morale is a very important aspect of warfare - and is one of the core 4M mechanics - Melee Missiles Movement.... and Morale.  But it's definitely the unloved stepchild.

Most "real" battles are decided by morale. Casualties (regardless of era) in history tend to be around 2% (not 50%!) until the mopping up stage aka after one side breaks (or if the battle runs for weeks not days).

Morale is important in real life battles, but not in wargames. Is this because wargames intrinsically unsuited? I mean, removing 1 man of 20 (5%) then ending the battle is lame - you'd spend more time setting up than playing. But can we do better? I think so. I'll explore this a bit myself when making my own sci fi horror game, but I don't promise any clever solutions. 

However I think this rant is worth keeping in the Game Design series - merely because of the consistently weak effort by a wide range of designers. If you're making a wargame, think carefully about your morale rules and what you are trying to achieve. If your rules are uncomfortably similar to my spoof rules above.... *shrugs*


  1. I prefer morale rules that are inferred rather than implicit. Mechanisms that grind down the ability to be effective, but I agree that casualties are way too high in most wargame rules.

    1. I've also played with folk who dislike/wanted to ignore ALL morale rules. "It's not fun" - which is hard to disagree with. I mean, if it interrupts the cool pew-pewing with your toys...

      I wonder if it was worded differently i.e.
      "Pinned units miss a turn" is not the same as "Units which are not pinned get an extra action" (I think I've discussed negative game design somewhere?)

  2. I noticed it. In my PMC 2670 (and the first edition you knows - PMC 2640) morale plays probably the most important role.
    It's definitely not 0-1, but it's depended on units losses and current battle stress.

    1. I'm not saying good morale rules don't exist, but certainly the trend is for low-effort offerings.

      I'll probably go digging through my cupboard for better rules over the next few days, but my random grab certainly wasn't impressive.

  3. My skirmish games have a major resource that is morale + C2. The resource can influence activation rolls, enable second actions for active units, enable reactions for inactive units, and more. As units fail morale tests they consume one of that resource. Even if they rally the resource isn't returned and once the resource pool is gone the side 1) is wildly less effective and 2) must pass a moral test each turn or flee.

    I've enjoyed the mechanic as players getting towards the end of their resource pool will usually attempt to consolidate on objectives or make an orderly retreat with a delaying force slowing the enemy. Unless your my brother-in-law, in which case he doesn't change anything.

    1. Sounds interesting. Will as a finite resource certainly makes logical sense (and it probably where I am going with my own rules). Mind elaborating?

    2. Using the generic "command points" term to cover a finite resource encompassing command and control as well as morale. CPs are generated based on the experience of models (green units generate 0, trained generate 1/3 of a cp, veteran 1/2 cp, elite 1 cp) and command units generate extra based on their command skill. Each turn the cp pool is refreshed minus losses (killed units remove CPs at the same rate they generate them, panicked units remove 1 cp in addition to what they generate). In sorry high morale units can handle lots of deaths and continue to be fairly effective, but morale failures will tend to cascade as the CP pool erodes faster.

      CPs are spent each turn to enable reactions, additional actions, and improved chance of activation (boost activation rolls). Once a side reaches zero CPs per turn through loss of units and morale failure each unit takes a will test on activation, failure means they retreat. A small elite force facing of against a large untrained force activates fewer times per turn but it's able to do more actions per activation, they may react to enemy actions, and can handle far more casualties before falling apart than the untrained force.

      I've played with the bog standard move away from nearest enemy morale failure to unit/faction specific reaction charts. Given my setting is generic fantasy combat I'm not overly interested in how they run away, just what gets them to the point of running away.

  4. Many gamers simply are not interested in morale, they are interested in killing stuff and removing it from the board. The *magically disappearing* factor is the preferred methods as no one wants to waste time dealing with "combat ineffective" units in their games, or so I have been told. Plus, morale rules are frequently additional mechanics that are not integrated into the to hit/to wound structure of games. This makes them to hit/to wound/Morale(?) structures instead which can make them bolt-on and clunky.

    I do not have a better way myself, and have leaned heavily into the "easy" morale mechanics as you have stated above. The only adds are take wavering checks when injured and if failed wavering impacts TNs, ability to use special rules, test to move, etc. This can be cleared via resources. Once units start disappearing, you take escalating collapse tests on a unit by unit basis or the units will Collapse and flee. Very simple on paper, but in play have some pretty big impacts. Probably about half a page of an Osprey wargames rulebook.

    In a mild defense of Strange Aeons, they also have morale impacts in the campaign elements that could leave permanent scars on models. Therefore, if you do fail those morale checks in game, or see bad stuff in game it can leave your model with a permanent mental injury called a Black Mark. The game does horror well in the sense that your models do not necessarily improve over time, they get ground down and worse.

    1. Also, another mild defense of the games you surveyed; they are just following the tried and true GW Skirmish game format for morale rules. :)

    2. If morale is minimized deliberately because it is 'not fun' - that's fine. A design choice. I only got interested in the topic because of the horror rules made it a 'key feature.' If I was just going generic sci fi I wouldn't have noticed or cared.I've had other players tell me they don't like ANY morale rules.

      It doesn't excuse a complete lack of clarity, and historical game don't get to 'dodge' the issue if they are pretending even vaguely to be historical.

      As usual I don't claim to fix anything - I just want to shine a light on it to ensure some critical thinking occurs before we just magic off minis after failing a test at 50%.

    3. Actually I don't have it to hand, but from memory, GW's 40K rules were probably BETTER than most of those I've mentioned. If they copy from it, then they should tweak it to improve it, not make it worse.

  5. They vary from GW game, but Necromunda's had pinning if you were shot at, Bottle tests to flee, and some psychology rules like frenzy, terror, fear, etc.

    For a bit, 3rd edition also had a fall back mechanic where you could take casualties if you opponent got between you and the board edge in a crossfire; which was neat but never really used. Typically, a unit broken by failing a Morale test after taking 50% casualties had to move to the nearest deployment edge until they left the board.

    1. Yep - some of them are quite decent. I just have this nasty feeling the platoon game I'm working on would be better as a Necromunda-alike...

  6. Looking on many examples - morale if it's treated as a resource - could always just go down. What about going higher after some successes, critical hits etc? Never seen such mechanic I believe.

    1. Interesting idea. I'm not sure if I have either....