Friday, 27 February 2015

Game Design #28: Morale Rules & Combat Stress

This is a bit of an unglamorous rules area I think.   I admit I used to pay them little attention.  Even now I tend not to focus in on morale like I do other areas of the rules.

A friend once said "I'm interested in rules for how to fight my minis, not how they run away" - and I kinda adopted his approach - that morale rules should be as simple and non-intrusive as possible.

I liked rules like this: once you lose half your army, make a morale roll each turn you take further casualties.  Short, simple, sweet - and stops armies fighting to the last man.

However ignoring or oversimplifying morale is ignoring a major aspect of combat.  Modern combat, for example, tends to have very low casualty rates, and troops "suppress" or force enemies to withdraw; often with very few dead on either side. In medieval and ancients, a lot of the time the aim was to "break" the enemy line - and most of the slaughter occurred after a force routed; i.e. sometimes battles were apparently very one-sided i.e. 20 deaths to 500 - but most deaths were after the force broke. The morale failure caused the slaughter, and not vice versa. 

Perhaps due to my own lack of focus, I am hard-pressed to think of unusual and interesting morale mechanics - most seem to follow similar trends.  In fact, this article was due to several rules I've reviewed lately having no morale rules at all.  Obviously some game devs think they aren't even relevant, full stop.

Removal of global morale rules in favour of individual unit morale
Quite a lot of rules recently seem to be removing the global (army-wide) morale rules in favour of squad/unit-centric rules. I.e. all units test individually based on their circumstances, kind of ignoring losses to the army as a whole. 

Whilst this makes morale more dynamic, with individual squads being pushed back, pinned or routing,  this isn't a perfect system.  It does often seem to ignore the potential for chain-reactions - i.e. units rout past friendlies, causing them to rout - and it can allow armies to sustain unrealistically high casualties - to fight if not to the last man, then to the last unit. 

However using only a global morale "break point" (especially a hard cut-off) is also unrealistic: in many historical battles a part of the army (wings, or units) fought on long after the rest were routed.

Leaders & Morale
Leaders often allow an improved morale roll for units in range/attache, may test to rally routing troops, or can improve the morale effect (i.e. turn a pinned unit to being merely suppressed, or restore a suppressed unit to normal status). 

Status of Units
Modern, firearm-focussed games tend to have morale increasing in 3 or so levels of severity:  suppressed-pinned-routing,  and older eras tend to have "pushed back/recoil"or "fleeing/routing."

Stress or Suppression Counters
Another approach is for a unit (or individual) to accumulate tokens denoting combat stress - triggering certain events once the stress tokens exceed a particular level. 

Too Many Morale Checks
Too many can bog a game down. Want to charge? Morale check.  Take enemy missile fire? Morale check.  Fight in a melee? Morale check.   This may add depth, but is it sacrificing speed and playability? How much is too much?

No Morale at all
In a few games I've reviewed lately I've got halfway through the rules before realizing there were no morale rules at all. Is the gain in speed/simplicity worth it - or does it take away a vital aspect of the game?

Combining Morale with Combat Effectiveness
In some games, the morale of the troops is tied to their offensive/defensive effectiveness. i.e. d6  rookie troops attack and defend with d6, while d8 experienced troops attack and defend with d8.  This tends to be primarily modern/WW2/near future games. Could it/should it be used elsewhere, or should morale be kept distinctly separate?

Morale for Different Scales/Eras
Is there a "best"system for a particular genre/scale?  For example, I've heard some argue a company+ size game (like Dropzone Commander) does not need morale; but individual-based skirmish level games do. 

Morale that gives choice
I recall the Heavy Gear rules did not actually force you to withdraw, or "freeze"when pinned, but simply accumulated negative modifiers to dice rolls until you decided to get them into cover and rally them. what's this article going on about?
Well, this article didn't have the usual focus or a message/preachiness most of the "game design #" series does, but I think that reflects my general ambivalence in this area (I DO think morale has a place, but I'm not sure there is a 'best' way to be implemented - or which current rules are doing it drastically wrong). For example, no morale system (no matter how poor) stirs in me the same dislike as vanilla IGOUGO activation mechanics.    This post is more a "think aloud" and I'm sure I'll revisit this topic later, now I'm looking at morale rules with a more critical eye.

Anyway, over to the readers.  Here's some focus questions, that I'm rolling around in my head at the moment:

Is there a great morale system you enjoy? 
Is it ever OK to eschew morale rules completely? 
If so, for what scales?  Should you use different morale systems for different scales? 
When/where do morale rules bog a game down to an unacceptable extent?  S
hould morale be included with combat effectiveness or should it remain a standalone trait/as a standalone mechanic?
How many levels of morale should there be, and how should you record it?
What is the ''best"way to handle morale? What is the most realistic?


  1. The morale rules for Wrath of Kings are pretty interesting. It makes morale less of a forced action/reaction and more goal.

    1. What''s Wrath of Kings like? I got a Confrontation v3 vibe (i.e. fairly complex skirmish) but it may just have been the not-Wulfen models and the unit cards I saw.

    2. The notion is that the army has a Morale score that you need to deplete to win the game. You lose morale through casualties and motivations. Leader casualties are more harmful to morale than grunts. Motivations include things like additional morale loss for particular casualties (marked leaders, specialists), interactions with objective markers, or interact with enemy models.

      Changing a player's goals, and hence the relative value of various game elements, seems like a more elegant way of managing morale than the forced-action effects you talk about in the article.

  2. I kinda like the FUBAR approach of making you choose between taking casualties or getting suppressed.

    No morale system? I must admit, if there's no way of influencing the enemy beyond killing them, I tend to lose interest unless there's a good in-setting reason (like robots).

    Fundamentally morale serves an important purpose: It lets you temporarily or permanently remove a unit from action, without killing each one of them.

  3. As always, your posts evoke a few thoughts in my scatter brain.

    - First up, C2 and morale are absolutely critical matters in Company level games and above. Real commanders are worried about employing their assets most effectively to achieve the mission, not trying to sack somebody with a ruddy great sword! They can do that of course, but it isn't their primary job! C2 also works differently in deferent eras so it has to give the right feel.

    - there are indeed a few modern game systems which don't have a morale system (BA, IHMN) but allow you the player to decide when to push or not. Works well in a campaign, not so much outside that context. But it is quick and easy and is suitable for skirmish level games.

    - I recall one of my fav morale mechanics was to take casualties, suffer morale effects and then get back 2/3 of your casualties. This showed the 'shock effect' of incoming fire, but also the resilience of units not melting away. Troops generally fell back at the 2/3 and 3/4 casualty level, could then be rallied and return to the fray. Far more historical then every unit having 50%+ KIA.

    - I also REALLY like the Battlegroup "Break Point" system for a force. When you build your force, different units cost certain amounts of points but also contribute Break Points to your force and the two are not related. e.g. a Heavy Tank platoon is expensive but provides less BP than an infantry platoon. This represents their value on the battlefield and how willing your next up commander is willing to risk them. You can then buy unit like first aid parties and hospitals which provide extra BP and make the force more robust.

    As the game progresses, you draw blind 'chits' with numbers on them when bad things happen (not just casualties, but say being out scouted, or the enemy capturing an objective). These are kept secret from your opponent and subtracted from your starting BP. When that gets to zero your attack stalls, your higher up commander decides that you aren't achieving what he want and pulls you from the fight - i.e. you loose. But because your chits are kept secret you never know how close the enemy is to breaking. Has he been pulling 3s and 4s out of the bag or 0s and 1s? It adds a great meta game to the table. And because its generally a Company level game it avoid the group morale issue you mentioned

    - Whatever the system in use (or not), there must be a chance, however unlikely, that a unit will stand its ground to the end, or will crack and break early. Such is the Clauswitzian Friction of War and the stuff of heroic legend.

    - Random thought - noting my comment on genre aligned C2 and morale. Noting the reliance on electronic connectivity for Comms, surveillance, battlefield support etc, I wonder if there might be a place in a SF game to give negative morale factors to units which are 'cut off' electronically though jamming, cyber etc. Just a thought.

    As always, an interesting post Mike - thanks! I'm looking forward to a similar discussion on C2


    PS It would be most useful to have a consolidated post listing the titles of each entry to your Game Design series with a hyperlink to each.

    1. Actually, you may be able to answer this: how does morale impact a ship/taskforce? I'm presuming the anyone not in the control room/bridge doesn't get much say, so does it really matter if Jonny on the aft 40mm is telling his mates they're all going to die?

      For a task force, again I'm presuming only the commander gets to make the call when to break off. So if the WW2 Italians have a tendency to break off and leg it, then thats actually command choices, right?

      Likewise the German E-boats were, I think, instructed to avoid damage and so seemed to have lower "morale" than the more death-or-glory MGB/MTB commanders.

    2. "I'm looking forward to a similar discussion on C2"

      I actually already have half an article on this, but it may not deal with the company+ scope so much (as I seldom play bigger scale games simply as I am a lazy painter)

      "It would be most useful to have a consolidated post listing the titles of each entry to your Game Design series with a hyperlink to each."

      Done. And you can also find "Game Design Index" as a label on the right of the blog.

  4. At an individual ship level, Morale is being effected at a very low level - firefighting teams, pumping teams, the ops room team etc. All of these teams perform their functions (well o otherwise) which then impacts upon the ship's capabilities. These teams are broadly isolated from the action and don't know if they are winning or loosing the battle, so its is really about the training of the crew and how well they do their job. Shock, confusion and surprise then impact about how well different teams do their jobs.

    At a Task Group level, its going to be about the Commander personally. He is going to decide about the employment of his ships and aircraft and decide when to push on or pull out. The Commander will also have been given instructions on what kind of losses are acceptable for that particular mission. As Naval units are expensive and have long build times, they generally have some operational/strategic level value so one doesn't see too much risk taking.

    I'm talking modern naval stuff here - not Napoleonic or earlier.

  5. I feel bad for rolling out the 'I've read some books and' but whenever I read anything about 'real history' I'm convinced that morale is the most important (and generally poorly modelled aspect) of warfare. Napoleon famously said 'An army's effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is worth more than any of the other factors combined.' History if full of examples of inferior forces made superior by their morale, or where leaders or freak events exert a huge influence over a battle due to their effects on a soldiers motivation. I think the reason that morale gets such a poor showing in quite a few wargames is as you stated at the beginning - some people have a real problem with friction and removal of control. Morale rules are a removal of control because they treat your little lead soldiers as real people who will get scared and hide in a ditch or runaway. Some people just can't deal with that - they want a team of robots that will perfectly follow their orders. Sounds a bit dull to me.

  6. From the modern wargame rulesets I've looked at, morale rules have always seemed the weakest element.

    Look at 40k to start with. Last time I looked it seemed like at least half the forces were or should be immune to these effects. Tyranids? immune. Daemons? immune. Necrons? immune. Space marines? They shall know no fear. Orks? Crazy and might as well be immune. You could virtually remove psychology from the game and make it a special rule for forces like the Imperial Guard. Most 40k games are an absolute bloodbath because forces will stand their ground rather than run.

    And that's fine for a universe that is filled with mindless horrors and blood-crazed lunatics. (Interestingly, WH Fantasy does psychology a lot better - rank bonuses alone can make an enemy flee.)

    Compare this to a game trying to realistically represent modern (or WW2) warfare. The basic for infantry combat should be: find, fix, manoeuvre, destroy. Most of your fire is not about killing the enemy but about suppression. Yet while games carefully track casualties, as you say, they tend to have a simple three-step model.

    FoF/TW is a good example of the problems this can cause.(1)

    Since even the first level of suppression (suppressed or pinned) can have a serious impact(2) the chances of it happening are pretty low. This makes suppression very variable. Sometimes you'll be blasting away at a target for ages with literally no effect. Sometimes you'll get lucky with your first round of fire. There's no sense of steadily building up suppression through weight of fire; instead there's a sense of repeatedly making rolls that will almost always be passed.(3)

    I imagine this problem occurs with most similar systems. What's the reason for it? I think it's an aversion record keeping. Game designers don't want players to have to track gradations of suppression. I think that's lazy. Firstly because it sacrifices too much. Secondly because I think there are elegant ways to do it. It might be as simple as lying models down. I've always liked Epic, where blast markers track suppression and improve the look of the battlefield.

    Introducing a decent suppression both makes games more realistic and means players can have tangible successes that aren't related to casualties. Games don't have to involve heavy casualties to be decisive. They may also make games less random - compare a suppression system with gradations to a TW game where a single failed morale roll or a single serious injury can be disastrous - and be beneficial for campaigns where you want units to build up experience rather than die.

    (1) Predictably with FoF/TW the rules are actually rather more complex - if I count correctly there are three different morale states caused by fire (of which suppressed doesn't lead on to pulling back), plus one caused by serious injuries and one caused by deaths (which, confusingly is determined by a troop quality not a morale roll).

    (2) Except on green troops where it makes no difference.

    (3) Incidentally, the design of morale checks in FoF/TW means that units with an even number of models are more likely to fail than those with an odd number.

  7. I have Simmons Games "Napoleon's Triumph" which IIRC is grand tactical scale.

    I think the morale rules are built into the scenario. As losses pile up, there is a meter for tracking morale which adjusts towards or away from the opponent.

    Morale can also be lost by committing certain units like Cavalry or the Guard, and can be regained during night turns. It has no short-term immediate effects on how well units perform during game-play.

    However, the game ends when one side is entirely demoralized have lost all of its Morale points.