Let me start by making a, perhaps, controversial statement: player autonomy should be limited and a lot of potential for fun resides in player limitation. It is often stated as a clear neophyte mistake for a Dungeon Master to tell players what their characters do. I agree with this as a general principal but, let’s take a step back for a minute. Are there times that players aren’t in control of their character? Yes, there is! Every time dice are rolled a player has ceded control of their character – they have put the character into the hands of fate.
Players like rolling dice. In fact we fetishize rolling dice like no other dice-using game short of craps. Heck, even war-gamers are willing to use dice towers but, dice towers are too dispassionate for role players. We role players have favorite dice, and special bags for dice, we project our hopes and dreams into our dice, we banish dice that have betrayed us one too many times and, we need to roll them ourselves for the unreal thrill of feeling like we can influence the outcome. Dice, are role player’s Athena providing strength to Achilles. Who can argue with the whims of the gods? So, players are perfectly fine with not controlling their characters if there is some other thrill involved and if there is a system that seems fair when they give up control. While dice are arbitrary, they are not as personally arbitrary as a DM by fiat ordering a player to do something. If there is a rule for how and when a player gives up control it can work and is fun.
In Moldvay Basic, the optional morale section starts, “Any creature in battle may try to run away or surrender. Characters are never forced to do this: a character always acts as a player wishes.” Much as I love Moldvay, he’s wrong. Characters often do not act as a player wishes. Why, right there on page B16 there is the spell Charm Person. When Charmed, a character certainly does not act as a player wishes. Of course, charm spells are not the context of the quote but, I hope my point is clear. Moldvay’s approach goes back even earlier. The Chainmail miniatures rules, which provided an early system which the Original Dungeons and Dragons rules built upon, in its Fantasy Supplement section exempts both Heroes and Superheroes from morale checks. Though, Wizards do have to make morale checks. I can see the reasoning: all player characters are some form of hero so, no morale checks.
For an example of the utility of morale checks in play, last year, the party was ambushed by a group of peasants driven by poverty into banditry. During the combat, the peasants failed morale and surrendered. This added complication because the players then had to do something with their captives. Ultimately, they sent them off to the local powers for judgement under the law. Later, the party finds these same peasants, still alive, but, impaled by the local Lord for their crimes and the party then has to decide what to do. Accept it? Try to heal the peasants? Put them out of their misery? The party chose that last option but the intervention in this punishment then led to further conflict with the Lord who made the sentence which gained them some ongoing enemies. One morale roll provided inspiration for both me as the DM and the players leading to a series of entertaining events. Isn’t this just the sort of thing we want out of a game mechanic? So, now, turn this example around. What if players were subject to morale rolls? Assume given the same ambush by peasants, the players had to roll morale and failed – what would have happened? Imagine a lost combat, the characters captured by the peasants. Any number of events might come of it: they might be ransomed and shamed; they might use social skills to take command of the bandits and become bandits themselves; they might make a daring escape. The same inspiration that led me as a DM to improvise a number of events based on the peasants failing morale could/can inspire players to a variety of unexpected decisions and actions. I can see implementing a player morale system organically adding a much wider variety to potential events. And, isn’t that just what we want as role players?
A lost morale roll is nothing but being overcome by fear isn’t it? While we all individually have our own level of inner strength, can anyone really say we are fully in control of our emotions? A character losing it on occasion should be both realistic and potentially entertaining. The lauded sanity mechanic in Call of Cthulhu is example of how modeling both fear and other mental states adds to a game. Reading combat memoirs definitely makes it clear that everybody has breaking points. The counterargument is that morale effects don’t need a rule for player characters because the player’s real emotion is used for this purpose. So, why are there so many times when players fight to the death despite clearly unwinnable odds? This very same situation was the reason morale mechanics were invented for war games in the first place. Shouldn’t characters run away more often or surrender? I think it is because players don’t feel fear in the same way a person actually fighting does. Why would they? They are sitting at table rolling dice and eating pizza; the gravity of the situation is hard to convey. Modeling that fear is just making a rule system to represent this very basic human emotion. Very few players embody the actual characteristics of their characters so why is this one aspect separated out? Let’s face it, most people aren’t muscle bound barbarians, or super intelligent, or preternaturally wise, or super sneaky. To players I argue, you might not want to feel your character is a coward, but, I say give it a chance, stop identifying so closely with your character. Your character is not you, and the greater scope of situation your character finds itself in may well be worth it in terms of variety and fun. To turn a slogan around, “Roll play, not role play.”