Monster Morale with Meaning for 5E D&D

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Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to talk about monsters and their tendency to fight to the death every single time in tabletop roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Now, I’m not saying they should break and run every single time but morale is a real thing. Dungeon Masters have a tendency to get into the middle of a game and hit a point where we’re thinking about the things on the battlefield just as things on the battlefield for the adventurers to hit then vend treasure and experience points from. But it matters why the monsters are on the field and what they’re trying to accomplish. A group of goblins who got bullied into joining this fight by a much larger hobgoblin probably aren’t going to stick around, for example, after their hobgoblin bully gets decapitated. Consider what monsters are trying to take and what they’re trying to protect. What are the stakes for your 5E D&D antagonists and creatures and what happens if they lose? Is it going to be worse than dying?

What morale says about the monsters

Creatures willing to fight to the last either have a lot to lose if they lose, or they’re incredibly disciplined. Think about what this attitude says about them if they’re willing to die for their cause. It could signify highly trained fighters if their comrades are falling like flies around them and they still refuse to leave the field, or it could show how much more terrified they are of what happens after they fail than if they drop here.

More importantly if you have other enemies willing to run when things get too hot, it stands out when adventurers face enemies that won’t. It is a signal to the party that this is different, these creatures are organized, stubborn or similarly disinclined to flee or retreat.

Morale allows for larger 5E D&D encounters

When enemy forces are ready to break and run under certain conditions the action economy still matters but it doesn’t matter as much as it would if everything on the field was willing to die.

An encounter with one raging half-dragon and a dozen frightened kobolds could go very differently depending on how you ran with the scenario. Maybe half of the kobolds are ride or die for their commander but the other half run away when he falls. Maybe all of them would rather be somewhere else and the second they get the chance, they’re out.

These circumstances give you an opportunity to pelt your players with a bunch of rocks and let the combat end on the dramatic note of killing the main guy instead of the adds.

Monsters at your back

Some parties will see enemies break and run and immediately want to chase after them because you don’t leave enemies at your back. They’ll be worried that the kobolds and goblins are going to go warn something else bigger and badder than they are that the party is coming.

Sometimes, the party is going to want to just hunt down the bandits that broke and ran for the simple audacity of trying to attack them in the first place.

Now, you may be thinking that defeats the purpose of having them run in the first place. After all, wasn’t the point to have a satisfying finish to the combat? And if that’s why you did it, by all means, this could be defeating the purpose, however, consider that you can also run ‘hunting down the stragglers’ as something other than an actual combat if you want to.

Make survival checks to see if you can track those bandits through their own woods. Introduce traps that the party might trigger while they’re in hot pursuit. Then, when they catch up, the running creatures might fight like cornered animals or you might just gloss over it. After all, they were already injured or they wouldn’t have been running.

Alternatively, if you’re the kind of DM that wants to punish letting the enemies run you very much could have this bite the party in their rear later. Things ahead of them will be prepared for their arrival. They might be set up with an ambush at some point in the adventure.

So long story short, the monsters should try to run away more often. It makes it seem more okay for the PCs to do it, it says something about the monsters that don’t do that, and it gives a good tool for running larger scale combats without having to worry about continuing to use 12 different turns every single round. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Take your monster tactics to the next level and check out The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters]

Do your monsters ever cut and run? Do you have a story about this? Please let me know in the comments below, and as always, stay nerdy!

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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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