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.
....so 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?