OSR: Hireling Morale and Fear

I reread Verbruggen's The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages during my holiday. It drove home just how critical morale is to combat, and how poorly OSR games implement NPC morale.
Julia Zhigadlo

Part 1: Hirelings


Morale can mean two things: morale as in mutinous or morale as in terrified.

The "we've had time to think about it" morale, the kind that damp socks, cold food, and confusing war goals can affect, is fairly easily handled by most OSR-type games. Obtaining and motivating hirelings is relatively straightforward: high pay, bullshit and lies, and not doing anything too disreputable or dangerous in front of them.

Modern D&D-type games assume the PCs are a competent group of local heroes out to save the world and/or get rich. Hirelings are so far behind the power curve, and so at odds with the narrative structure, that they rarely enter into the equation, unless it's a "rescued" goblin or someone to mind the stronghold.

Whether by straight-up capitalism, feudal relationships, mercenary contracts, obtaining combat hirelings is not difficult. Keeping them in line when a fight starts is the tricky part.

Shame and Love

When faced with imminent death, only two things can keep a person from giving up and fleeing: fear of shame and a desire to protect the person next to them.

As death approaches, high-level human thought stops completely. Fear, in some ways, provides immense clarity. It's deeply wired, hard-coded when our ancestors were still worms. It has root access to every biological system in the human body, and when death approaches, fear makes use of all of them.

Abstractions won't help. The only thing that can defeat fear are two equally deeply rooted emotions: shame or love.

Fear of being thought a coward. Fear of ostracization. The nebulous sense of being cut off from the stream of the life you know. Anathema. Cast out. What will your family think? What will your country think? What will your fellow soldiers think?


I am fighting next to my family. I must protect them, as they would protect me.

Military training, modern and ancient, seeks to reinforce these pathways. "Come back with your shield or on it." I.e. having fought and then carried the bloody heavy thing home, or dead. Don't cast it aside and run. Stories of heroism. The fate of cowards. The visible rewards of victory.

In some military forces, a fighting unit was the community. You fought next to people you'd known your entire life, who shared your experience, who you knew and (hopefully) trusted. Failing that, long and difficult training breaks down existing social structures and builds new ones, ideally forging a unit that occupies the place of family in the conscious mind. Unit leaders become parental figures.

The third option, a poor substitute for shame or love, is training. Training can allow a person to act without thinking, even when terrified out of their wits. The spinal cord doesn't need wits. But all the training in the world won't help because fear can creep into every limb and strangle even well-honed instinct.

OSR Hirelings

-Have no particular loyalty or bond to the PCs.
-Will not suffer any shame from leaving some lunatics to die in their magic murder-hole.

-Have no training in common with the PCs.
-May not share a community, values, or social structures with the PCs.

Typical Dungeon Combat Includes

-Narrow hallways
-Poor lighting

-Unknown enemies
-Reaction times measured in seconds

Lack of Tools

Matt Colville
It's not the only problem, but it is a problem. Dungeons are weird places. Generic medieval foot soldiers are trained (and not very well) for a very specific role. It was hard enough to get them to perform that role on a battlefield, let alone in a strange and highly dangerous space.

You can hire people who might have those tools, but you can't make them immune to fear.


Magic Immunity to Fear

Ok, maybe you can make your hirelings immune to fear. That spell or ability is now more important than light or cure wounds, because the moment it drops and a fight starts, morale will break, and the hirelings won't be prepared for it by many smaller shocks and close calls.

Soldiers Don't Fight

In medieval warfare, large decisive battles are rare. Sieges are common. Raids, for economic damage or just to make an enemy force spend time and money getting an army together, are constant. Nobody fights unless they absolutely have to.

And in a decisive battle, combat is also surprisingly rare. The classic heavy cavalry charge smashing into a forest of pikes sometimes did happen, but usually after a few mock-charges or tests. Being charged is terrifying, but even the bravest knights in sturdy armour had difficulty launching themselves at full gallop towards a wall of steel and wood.

Battles were long and deliberately exhausting; an exhausted enemy is easy prey for fresh and rested reserves.

In comparison, dungeon combat is short, sudden, and deadly. How often does combat run more than ten or twenty rounds? A single battlefield engagement might take hours; dungeon combat is decided, one way or another, in a few seconds.

Dungeon combat is also unpredictable. A battle takes a few hours to set up after days of marching; a dungeon conceals death around every corner and behind every door. A battle contains a few predictable units. Dungeons contain immortal skeletons coated in jelly, giant spiders, sentient pie-selling pigs, etc, etc.

An army is the wrong tool for a dungeon if you want to avoid mass casualties and panic. A small group of highly trained professionals, each capable of acting independently and without orders, is ideal.

Chris Austin

Morale Tests

Now that we've established that the morale of hirelings will be constantly tested, how should this test be implemented?

The usual approach is as follows:
-give hirelings, individually or collectively, a numerical Morale value.
-create a table of when to test (if outnumbered, after X casualties, etc.)
-create a table of modifiers (allies surviving, proximity to a holy day, etc.)
-roll some dice and compare numbers. If the numbers are bad, the hirelings flee. If the numbers are good, the hirelings do not flee.

The AD&D 1E DMG has some short tables on pg. 67. AD&D 2E has some longer and fiddlier tables on pp. 69-71.

The method works, but it requires looking at tables and doing math in the middle of a tense situation.

Alternative Morale Rules

Morale is, in a sense, how effective a hireling is in combat. Will they run, freeze, or fight? Can they be trusted to hold the line or carry out a plan?

Hit points are already an abstraction. They're not meat points - effects that drain HP don't necessarily need to cause physical damage, merely degrade a target's ability to avoid a fatal blow. 0 HP doesn't necessarily equal death, but does mean the target is out of the fight. Morale can easily be rolled into the same abstraction. Why have a separate system?

A Knight's charge deals 2 automatic damage; hirelings have 1d6 HP. A Lich's fear effect deals damage instead; anyone reduced to 0 HP instead ages 2d100 years and is driven insane, etc In a large formation, fear and disorganization (especially under cavalry charges) can lead to trampling or crushing death as soldiers are herded together. Trampling in a dungeon corridor seems feasible, if a bit strange to describe.

Most of the time, I roll 2d6 compared to 7 minus the number of terrible things the hirelings can currently see (dead comrades, manticores, etc.). If they roll over, they panic. If they roll under, they hold... for now.


How To Avoid Morale Failure

It's possible to hire or obtain a coherent, well-trained unit that can resist fear. Small medieval mercenary warbands were capable of extraordinary feats when cornered because they knew they were fighting for their lives, alongside people they lived with and relied on. Peasant levies, ordinarily treated as fairly useless blocks, developed alarming confidence and competence as they developed a sense of community.

A single lance (an archer, a page, and a knight, or equivalent) is one of the smallest coherent units you can reasonably hire.


Medieval armies are comprised of what Bret Deveraux calls "retinues of retinues". Stacked tiers of obligation. Great lords have little lords to bite 'em, and so on, down to a lone farmer-knight with a spotty page and a tired old horse, who is obliged to round up a levy of 2 when his lord puts out the call to war.

A typical D&D party is an (often leaderless) retinue. Even in my most medieval-inspired games, where people from the Second Estate carried considerable social power, they were rarely the people who decided what the group should do next. RPGs are a collaborative experience.

Each PC can have a retinue. Some games tie the number of hirelings and followers a PC can support based to a PC's charisma score. This makes some sense - Charisma is an underused stat and it makes sense - but it really shouldn't be the primary limiting factor.

AD&D differentiates between hirelings (who get paid a fixed rate) and Henchmen (who get a share of loot, gain XP, and act as backup PCs). These specialists are treated as valued members of the party (and can therefore potentially benefit from the shame/love motivations described above). They've got a vested interest in keeping everyone alive. They are members of the same unit.

Giving someone a proper share of the loot is a big investment for most groups. Players tend to err on the side of greed and avoid hirelings, but if they do pick up a few, I make sure they roll Save like PCs (see below).

Downtime Training Camps

If the PCs need more help than a few acolytes can provide, running a training camp to prepare masses of hirelings for dungeon activities could be fun. Paper monsters, obstacle courses, lessons in identifying common traps and magic items, etc. In some settings it could even turn a profit.

Inspiring Speeches

They help and they're fun too, if your players like that sort of thing.

Uniforms, Unit Names, and Standardized Equipment

Also helps improve long-term morale and effectiveness. Players sometimes enjoy picking a colour scheme, banner, and organization name.
Daniel Landerman

Part 2: PCs and Fear

The GLOG has Saves against Fear. This isn't Fear, the supernatural spell-like effect of AD&D, but regular emotional fear. In properly terrifying situations - the sudden appearance of an unexpected vampire, the explosive rebirth of a hydra, the sight of a friend immolating after drinking a potion - I have the PCs to save against Fear. If they fail, I tell the player "your character is afraid. What do they do?"

Some people treat this like an abominable heresy. The GM is allowed to poison a PC, alter their appearance with a potion or mutation, change their alignment (if applicable) with a curse (though this isn't really common anymore), add plausible details to a backstory, tell a player their PC thinks an object or person looks suspicious, but describing an emotional state goes too far!

Seems arbitrary to me. And Saves against Fear work out fairly well in play. Reminding players that their characters are still human and still subject to fallible responses is useful. Players, in turn, often make remarkably realistic and interesting choices when their PCs are afraid. 

A very small number of abilities won't work if a PC is afraid, but otherwise, there's no mechanical effect. The PC can still fight effectively if the player decides they can. But most of the time, since the player has a decent grasp of their character's motivations, they do something entirely sensible, like running away, freezing, hiding behind an ally, or vomiting into a bucket.

And yes, if a PC is a notorious vampire hunter and the sudden appearance of a vampire is more of a "hooray, bonus time!" situation, their player is free to object and automatically pass the test. It doesn't come up often.


  1. Excellent post! I might have to try the save against fear. I've tried some other approaches with varying levels of success. The easiest one to apply was a penalty to attack rolls. You are afraid and your performance is affected so it's harder to hit is the thinking. The player then gets to decide whether or not to run.

    I keep track of "loyalty" for hirelings and henchman. The basic idea is that certain things increase loyalty and other things decrease loyalty. Pay, what kind of treatment they get in general, does the party have them open sketchy doors, does the party heal them when they are wounded, do they get some sort of extra compensation when bad things happen... It's arbitrary honestly. The mechanic is the same as a morale check. When it seems like the henchman/hireling might have their loyalty tested, I do a 2d6 roll vs the current loyalty number. If it fails, then I consider what the most likely response of the hireling might be in the moment. They might just leave, backstab the PC (if things are really bad), steal the horses and run away with the loot, resign and tell all the local men looking for work to steer clear of the party etc. I should formalize it more than I have but you get the idea.

  2. My favourite Fear mechanic that I've seen so far has been "take x2 damage while suffering from Fear. Every round that you can't see (etc.) the source of your fear, reduce the rounds remaining by 2". So, rather than the *character* being afraid, the *player* is now afraid, because they could die from it! And they can easily freak out in a number of ways: retreat and regroup, run and hide, use magic to protect themselves, or just sit down cover their eyes and weep.

    1. Rounds remaining until what?

    2. Like if you suffer fear for 1d6 rounds, spending the round cowering reduces the time remaining faster.

    3. Hey, that's pretty good! I had never heard of that before but I want to steal it.

  3. I've always been a fan of the idea that PC's in OSR games are superhuman in subtle but notable ways. Infinitely patient (really, who would search a room top to bottom for 2 hours, then do it again on the next room), unflinching in the face of death (no morale rolls), skilled in many useful areas (literate, able to tie knots that hold perfectly), disciplined as a cohesive unit (carrying out a plan in the time of one round requiring precise coordination), and slow to tire.

    Having a Saving throw versus mundane fear seems like nice reminder that a normal person would turn into jelly at the sight of some of the things that happen in D&D, but I'd like a less mechanical check on fear. Spwack's fear suggestion sounded pretty good.

  4. I like the "morale as part of HP" approach. I haven't explicitly done that, but in effect that's basically what I do in many of my games, I just didn't even think of it as morale since I always just ignore morale rules lol. Anyway, it's the most parsimonious way to deal with it imo, if you take "HP isn't just meat points" to its logical conclusion.

  5. i like morale tests for dicipline like
    -dont get drunk when you find booze in dropped baggage
    -dont torment prisoners despite your predjudices
    -dont run after money on a side quest
    -dont accepr bribes

    1. All extremely good ideas. If only they applied to PCs...

  6. Great post!

    I don't like the idea of having a morale score (another number track! ...damn torches and rations...) for hirelings, henchmen or NPCs in general. That, unless you make them using totally different rules than the PCs, who already have many scores to track.

    I like abstracting morale into HP. HP as "hit protection" or "hero's poise" [1], rather than "health points". HP as willpower. Fear spell depletes HP, as fighting with terrible foes or falling into dark pits do. Trained individuals have HP, poor peasants don't. Peasants bleed to death in the first stabbing, or they run away when they see a bandit. Peasants are level 0 characters, characters of 1+ levels can sustain some stress because they have HP.

    If HP is hero's points, then it doesn't make sense it being bound to CON. It makes more sense for CON to be related to surviving wounds rather than resisting stress.

    If HP relates to morale and stress, then healing spells are boosting the mind/soul, instead of boosting health. Religion elevates the soul as it recovers the HP of the faithful. Resting, eating and entertainment would do the same thing. Healing wounds would be much more miraculous feats.

    [1] http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2020/05/blood-sweat-and-tears.html

  7. I'm a fan of making the cleric class play more of a social role and this sounds like a great place to implement that.
    It also sounds like a good match for "blood and grit" health systems where grit is the portion of you hp that relates to your stamina or fighting prowess (and now morale) and blood's the part that represents physical health (and is much harder to recover).

  8. I like the 'penalty for every terrible thing you can see' idea and just having it impact HP directly.

    My only addition would be the follow up to what happens them; perhaps:
    1 - Fleeing hireling stumbles into deadly trap, other monster, is eaten on their own
    2-5 - Finds a nook to hunker down in, returns once the combat is over
    6 - Once out of immediate view of the horrors (next round) gets to re-test against raw morale. Failure is as 2-5 above, pass means they come back the next round

    1. The downside to impacting HP directly is that a 1 HD hireling has 1-8 HP (and I typically use 4). In some ways, that's automatic panic.