On Morale, or should enemies run away

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raniE

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This post will contain spoilers for the films District 9 and Blackhawk Down and the television series Band of Brothers (although as the latter two are based on an actual event I don't know how much I can spoil them).

So, I was rewatching the end fight scene from District 9, like you do, with Wikus in the mech-suit killing all the mercenaries, and once again it hit me (as it does every time I watch it) that the mercenaries are portrayed with just inhuman morale levels. Everyone that goes up against the mech suit dies. Everyone. And not in particulalry ambiguous ways either. They get their heads exploded, get hit with a pig thrown at immense speedcs, get exploded, shot in the face etc. It's all very bloody, and yet the mercenaries just keep coming. at the end of the fight, they've suffered a near 100% casualty rate with the only survivor being their leader, who acts as though he's won (then he gets ripped apart by the aliens because he's the only soldier left and only has a side-arm). And these are as mentioned mercenaries. They're in it for the money, and they're used to picking on defenseless people and having a grand old time killing people (or aliens, here) who can't fight back. They're not fighting like cornered rats either as Wikus is in no way pursuing them, he is simply running away trying to get Christopher Johnson to the alien dropship. Wikus only fires when fired upon (or when people drive humvees straight at him).

Every time I watch the film this brings me a bit out of it. Now, I realize that this serves an artistic purpose in the film as the humans are all portrayed as inhuman monsters, while the aliens are very human-like and sympathetic despite looking like insects, but it still bothers me. Why are these mercenaries sacrificing their lives here?

I also watched scenes from Blackhawk Down, the film about the Battle of Mogadishu. This has a duality of morale. It clearly shows the Americans suffering during the battle, when their friends get killed or they get wounded etc. On the other hand the Somali fighters are pretty much portrayed as a mass of willing cannon fodder. I wasn't there, so I can't say how accurate this portrayal is but it feels off. Band of Brothers seems to give a very good portrayal of soldiers on both sides running away, retreating, breaking down and in general not always being willing to fight to the last man and bullet in every situation.

So, how do you feel about combat morale in rpgs? Do you have NPCs fight to the death, or do you have them retreat or surrender? Do you use morale rules or do you simply decide when a given enemy has had enough and runs? How complicated do you make the rules if you use them, and how much do you take into consideration concerning the individual combatants or groups of fighters?
 

Black Vulmea

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So, how do you feel about combat morale in rpgs?

In the games I run, morale apples to a lot more than just combat.

Do you have NPCs fight to the death, or do you have them retreat or surrender?

Non-player characters rarely fight to the death in my campaigns unless the morale rules in use specifically produce that result, frex, it can happen in Boot Hill.

Do you use morale rules or do you simply decide when a given enemy has had enough and runs?

Yes.

I prefer games that have rules for morale, but I'm fine with winging it if they don't. Either way, fighting to the last man is the exception when I'm at the skinny end of the table, not the rule.

How complicated do you make the rules if you use them, and how much do you take into consideration concerning the individual combatants or groups of fighters?

Rather than a group morale rule, I like thresholds at which unit cohesion breaks down, such as 20% casualties or x number of casualties in LOS.
 

Moonglum

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I feel like morale has to be a central feature of any good treatment of combat, for pretty much any era or scale. Neglecting it result in a world where every combatant in every situation is essentially like a zombie from 28 days after. Which is both wildly unrealistic, and reduces the significance of monsters or people who actually fight as if their morale can never change or break (berserkers, zombies, ferrets, etc.)

The question is, how to apply morale to a game setting? Nearly all games assume, by default, that the players will decide for themselves how they want their characters to behave, and the DM will make rational choices for everyone else. In principle that is fine, but can be unsatisfying because it makes morale something that all players just 'game' to promote whatever outcome they want. It is a little like leaving the damage done by successful attacks to player and DM choice - you will see lots of people declaring that their PC does maximum damage!

There are a couple of widely known roleplaying games with morale systems (Basic D&D has a pretty good one; AD&D has a pretty horrible one buried somewhere in the DMG). But for my money all the best systems are found in hex-and-chit war games. Panzer Grenadier is the best of the best, as a starting point for a system that would translate well to a roleplaying system.
 

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I like morale for NPCs as something that takes the decision out of my hands as a GM when combat should be over. There are exceptions, of course. With my group, they nearly always used to stay to the end (or at least until one of them dies). Recently, one of my players has caught on that not all fights can be won and now runs away after a few blows have been traded and he's taken a little damage. Its made the group rethink, and now they make an effort at a fighting withdrawal.

I also watched scenes from Blackhawk Down, the film about the Battle of Mogadishu. This has a duality of morale. It clearly shows the Americans suffering during the battle, when their friends get killed or they get wounded etc. On the other hand the Somali fighters are pretty much portrayed as a mass of willing cannon fodder. I wasn't there, so I can't say how accurate this portrayal is but it feels off.

With regards to Blackhawk Down. I remember watching an interview with British troops with regards to the Taliban in the early days of the invasion. The troops were expressing their disbelief that "the Taliban just kept running at the bullets". It took them a few weeks to change their tactics. Blackhawk Down was only a day or two so I find it believable. The book IIRC states that the Somali fighters used their entire armoury of RPGs in that short period of time.
 

Brock Savage

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On Morale, or should enemies run away​


Yes. Intelligent beings and beasts value their lives. Fighting until the last man is rare. Even highly disciplined units with excellent morale are going to make a coordinated fighting withdrawal when outgunned (but they are unlikely to panic like lesser quality troops). Only mindless opponents like undead, slimes or constructs fight to the bitter end.

For my current game B/X morale system is perfectly fine but sometimes I will use my own common sense and not rely on dice.

Edit: There are nuances to morale. Even poor quality troops might fight to the bitter end if their escape route is blocked against an enemy known to take no prisoners. When morale breaks, the DM need to decide the manner of retreat. Blind animal panic is worlds apart from a disciplined orderly retreat.
 
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Baulderstone

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I'm very much in favor of taking morale into consideration, whether with mechanics or through GM judgement. While using morale makes for more realistic combat, it also makes for better gameplay. If you are fighting 30 goblins, the early part of the combat might be exciting, but mopping up those last 10 is tedious. I can think of many times as a player when I've looked at the situation and realized we had the fight won, but that it was going to take another 20 minutes of dice rolls to get to that inevitable result. If you use morale rules, fights tend to end close to the point where the result became inevitable rather than rounds later. That makes for more dramatic gameplay.

It also has a good effect on PC behavior. It's a common complaint that PCs are often averse to retreat and surrender to the point of stupidity, but if GMs want to encourage more thoughtful player behavior when it came to fights that were going bad, they need to demonstrate it with they way NPCs in the world behave.
 

robertsconley

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I roll Morale regardless of system when.

1) when 50% your compatriots go down or leave the field of battle.
2) when 75% of your compatriots go down or leave the field of battle. Which could happen very quickly after #1.
3) initially when there is twice the number of enemy combatants or more.

I use Will rolls, wisdom saves, etc whatever makes sense for that system. I roll individually for each combatant or in rare cases for a subunit (usually a figure representing 10 combatants).

What happens with a failed roll depends on the experience of the combatant. Most of the time it means running away unless experienced or led by a charismatic leader in which case it will be an organized retreat.
 

xanther

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...So, how do you feel about combat morale in rpgs? Do you have NPCs fight to the death, or do you have them retreat or surrender? Do you use morale rules or do you simply decide when a given enemy has had enough and runs? How complicated do you make the rules if you use them, and how much do you take into consideration concerning the individual combatants or groups of fighters?
Morale always plays a big part in my games. I think Squad Leader instilled this in me.
I use moral rules, I call it a Valor Save, and same save use for fear spell effects and the like.

Mechanically, use a count success system, 5 or 6 on a d6 is a success, 1 a failure.
On rolls a number of dice equal to Will Power (usually ranges from 2-5 dice) and the roll is modified by your Valor Save (VLS) modifier.

For example, say I have a Will Power of 3 and VLS of +2 (which is good), I roll three dice and can use the +2 to raise two dice 1 each or one die 2.
Usually single success is need to save, I apply situational modifiers or if things are bad require more successes. Those with leadership skill can rally and use their skill as a + VLS modifier.

Things like a flag/standard can provide a +1 VLS.

As to when a roll is required kind of leave it to the situation, it is more relative "power" in combat. If one side is untouched, one side's member get killed in a single blow, one side is outnumber 2 to 1 or surrounded, etc. I also have an in game concept called Rank, which determines who has to declare what they are doing in combat first...in setting this would mean the side with lower Rank can't predict or anticipate well what the other side does and the higher Rank side can make such "predictions."

Creatures will first try to run, then as to surrender...if they feel it will be accepted they will do so but if you take no prisoners they may fight to the death, perhaps at a penalty due to fear.

One can also ask for surrender, to have the other side yield. And amongst humans and ilk posit in my setting ransoming someone is a fairly common thing.

It helps have no hard coded alignment type stuff.

Now as to animals, they will rarely fight anywhere near death unless they are defending young. A PC with knowledge of a creature or the animal world will allow them to drive off an animal.
 
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Brock Savage

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If you are fighting 30 goblins, the early part of the combat might be exciting, but mopping up those last 10 is tedious. I can think of many times as a player when I've looked at the situation and realized we had the fight won, but that it was going to take another 20 minutes of dice rolls to get to that inevitable result.
You raise a good point so I want to chime in on this. I will often wrap up a combat against mindless foes when it's a forgone conclusion with no risk on the player side. I approach it with the assumption that the PCs and their retainers are competent in small unit combat and will use their superior numbers to leverage that into victory. "The party manages to surround and destroy the last two skeletons with no casualties."
 

raniE

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As perhaps was obvious from my original post, I fully agree with using morale. Not only is it more realistic to do so, it also gives several gameplay advantages. Fights end faster, as noted, and different morale values of different combatants serve as one more mechanical differentiator between different troops. Changing just the morale value and no other stats can make some basic troops act like hardened veterans or even crazy fanatics. Skeletons and zombies and other mindless automatons go from being basic cannon fodder to incredibly scary simply because they never break and never stop fighting until destroyed.

I like the Morale system from D&D Basic, which also feels very similar to the ones found in various hex and counter and miniature war games: roll 2D6 when in certain situations (leader killed, losing half your number, losing half your hit points, powerful weapons or magic the force has no counter to used against them, etc) try to get equal or less than the units or creatures morale value, possibly with modifiers. In games where there is no morale system, or one I think is poor (the optional one in D&D 5e is not good in my opinion) I'll simply import this basic morale system. I like the mechanical aspect of it, otherwise it can feel too well timed, or I'll unconsciously make all creatures behave the same way if I just decide for myself.
 

raniE

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I like morale for NPCs as something that takes the decision out of my hands as a GM when combat should be over. There are exceptions, of course. With my group, they nearly always used to stay to the end (or at least until one of them dies). Recently, one of my players has caught on that not all fights can be won and now runs away after a few blows have been traded and he's taken a little damage. Its made the group rethink, and now they make an effort at a fighting withdrawal.



With regards to Blackhawk Down. I remember watching an interview with British troops with regards to the Taliban in the early days of the invasion. The troops were expressing their disbelief that "the Taliban just kept running at the bullets". It took them a few weeks to change their tactics. Blackhawk Down was only a day or two so I find it believable. The book IIRC states that the Somali fighters used their entire armoury of RPGs in that short period of time.
Yeah, some Finnish machine-gunners in the Winter War were amazed that the Russian troops just marched into their beaten zone over and over. So it can happen. At least in those cases there were some successes (they did bring down those two helicopters after all).
 

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I feel like I should do more with morale (like treat them like a Fear resistance check or something), but I usually just have the enemies run away the moment things obviously turn south for them, instead of having them fight like mindless automatons till the end. I never liked when they do that in film (it breaks my suspension of disbelief and just makes me wonder about it, so I stop paying attention to WTF is going on), and I hate it whenever GMs do it in RPGs as well. It feels so pointless and cheap! Unless characters are fighting zombies or golems, there's zero reason for enemies to stay there in the face of certain death (baring rare circumstances, like being cornered and such).
 

raniE

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Sometimes there are situations where someone not mindless or mind-controlled will fight to the death. A parent trying to save their child may very well fight to the bitter end, as might certain soldiers in defense of their compatriots etc (the stuff Medals of Honor and Victoria Crosses are given out for). That's why I like using a random roll too. Maybe there is a goblin equivalent of Audie Murphy in the squad the PCs run into. Probably not, but you never know.
 

Fenris-77

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Sometimes there are situations where someone not mindless or mind-controlled will fight to the death. A parent trying to save their child may very well fight to the bitter end, as might certain soldiers in defense of their compatriots etc (the stuff Medals of Honor and Victoria Crosses are given out for). That's why I like using a random roll too. Maybe there is a goblin equivalent of Audie Murphy in the squad the PCs run into. Probably not, but you never know.
I always roll, but I also have no problem with situational modifiers to the roll. I like systems where rolling high means good morale, generally, so positive mods make the right kind of sense.
 

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As an addendum to my post, I found that with RPGs it is more important to know when to check for morale than what the actual mechanics are. A single roll suffices with at most three modifiers to reflect the character experience in combat. For me that is non-combatant, veteran, elite. For something like GURPS something like combat reflexes is an excellent marker of combat experience.

Of when to check is either about

The odds are visibly bad*.
Or something unexpected that negates ability to calculate the odds. For example surprise, revealing a major supernatural ability in otherwise mundane fight.

Sadly in life some combat gets dragged out because one side doesn't know that they are screwed either from bad intel or fog of war.
 

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I always roll because I don't want it to be something I have to decide every time, for a bunch of reasons. Randomization is my friend.
Same, it helps keep me honest and from leading the story, so to speak. Now of course if the PCs came upon 40 orcs and killed all but 1 before they can draw their swords, that remaining orc still rolls just at super high penalties...but perhaps he is the one true orc who never surrenders. :smile:
 

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I roll for morale once, at the 50% point. I roll a d6. Creatures stay and fight to the bitter end on a 1-2, they run on 3-4, and surrender on a 5-6. Of course I ignore that for the situations in which it doesn't make sense. The chase and surrender results are both great because it forces players to make difficult decisions that sometimes have serious consequences.
 

raniE

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I always roll, but I also have no problem with situational modifiers to the roll. I like systems where rolling high means good morale, generally, so positive mods make the right kind of sense.
Yeah, I use modifiers too, if the situation calls for it. I use roll-low morale because it's what I'm used to and how most systems with Morale ratings work, but either works of course.
 

Fenris-77

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Yeah, I use modifiers too, if the situation calls for it. I use roll-low morale because it's what I'm used to and how most systems with Morale ratings work, but either works of course.
I like a 2d6 system for morale. I can put the most likely results in the middle of the bell curve and then the less likely stuff high and low. I prefer that to a straight single die roll.
 

raniE

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I like a 2d6 system for morale. I can put the most likely results in the middle of the bell curve and then the less likely stuff high and low. I prefer that to a straight single die roll.
That's the standard as far as I know. Most wargames I've played use 2D6 for morale, as does D&D Basic, which are the best morale rules in D&D. Or do you mean that you use something that isn't just a pass/fail system? The Basic system is roll 2D6, try to get equal to or below Morale score (typical morale is 7, kobolds have 6, Elves 8) to hold. Otherwise break and either flee or surrender if fleeing seems impractical.
 

Fenris-77

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That's the standard as far as I know. Most wargames I've played use 2D6 for morale, as does D&D Basic, which are the best morale rules in D&D. Or do you mean that you use something that isn't just a pass/fail system? The Basic system is roll 2D6, try to get equal to or below Morale score (typical morale is 7, kobolds have 6, Elves 8) to hold. Otherwise break and either flee or surrender if fleeing seems impractical.
Ahh, that's not what I'm doing. I use a mostly standard 2d6 reaction table with mods based on creature and situation, not a roll to beat mechanic.
 

Baulderstone

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I forgot to mention another benefit to using a morale system: when your players know they can win fights by demoralizing the enemy, they get a lot more creative than if they are always trying to win them by removing every last hit point from their opponents.
 

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The degree of fatalism/determinism and their faith in that fatalism/determinism is something that can be a factor. If Orks believe Gork and/or Mork have already seen their deaths and there is nothing they can do about it, they they might be disinclined to run away and/or surrender. This is just a made up example and I don't think it's Orky canon. In general Orks in 40K seem to be fine with running away, but I'm sure it's just so they can find a better fight later. They are engineered to fight, but not necessarily to throw their lives away.
 

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Whether or not enemies 'run away' is actually irrelevant, in my experience. It's whether or not the players LET THEM that's the bigger issue.
 

Brock Savage

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Whether or not enemies 'run away' is actually irrelevant, in my experience. It's whether or not the players LET THEM that's the bigger issue.
I get ya. PCs can easily prey on panicked mobs and that’s how it should be. An orderly, fighting retreat with smoke grenades (or the fantasy equivalent) that leads to an ambush might teach the PCs a lesson about rash pursuit.
 

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I like a 2d6 system for morale. I can put the most likely results in the middle of the bell curve and then the less likely stuff high and low. I prefer that to a straight single die roll.
Like it as well as know how it feels from Squad Leader, but do also like to have my base mechanics be the same as far as possible, like to avoid subsystems these days.
 

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I get ya. PCs can easily prey on panicked mobs and that’s how it should be. An orderly, fighting retreat with smoke grenades (or the fantasy equivalent) that leads to an ambush might teach the PCs a lesson about rash pursuit.
That would mean, at least in D&D, that the players don't wipe out the baddies before their turn, where they can retreat...
 

raniE

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I get ya. PCs can easily prey on panicked mobs and that’s how it should be. An orderly, fighting retreat with smoke grenades (or the fantasy equivalent) that leads to an ambush might teach the PCs a lesson about rash pursuit.
Last time I ran LotFP the player's came to me with a problem, they thought the fights were too hard. They gave as an example one where everyone had gone down while fighting in a cave, including their henchmen, and only three (two PCs and one retainer) had survived (the enemies died too, one dying PC killed the last one). I pointed out that the enemies ambushed them from a secret door when they weren't looking, and the PCs still managed to kill some of them and drive the rest off (they failed their morale roll). The PCs then decided, despite having wounded on their own side, to pursue the enemy through unknown tunnels and ended up cornering them where they fought to the death because the PCs clearly weren't going to let them go (their only escape was a rowboat that was dragged up on the shore, no time to get it in without being slaughtered by the PCs). So they'd come out of a fight with no deaths on their own side and turned it into a disaster by insisting on fighting the fleeing enemies. They also forgot their previous formations and tactics and simply charged in a mob in the cave, one PC per enemy.
 

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I always use morale in some manner. If the game has morale rules, I will use them. If it does not, I revert to the B/X Dungeons & Dragons rules, or something similar.

The Reaction Table and Morale Checks are two of the best tools for keeping encounters interesting, and both are frequently absent in game rules.

I suspect morale checks and reaction rolls were discarded because so many scenarios rely on combat encounters and "onion layer" information gathering. A captured enemy can bargain with information the writer doesn't want revealed yet. An NPC who simply decides not to fight in the first place and help the players is even worse, from the perspective of the writer, but will be both interesting and useful to the referee. Is she honest? Is she biding her time? Will she lead the party into a trap? Has she been misinformed herself? Is she looking for a way out of the mess she's in? Does she want to save someone or get revenge on someone and sees the party as a means to achieve these goals?

Or she can stand they being stabbed until she dies.
 

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That would mean, at least in D&D, that the players don't wipe out the baddies before their turn, where they can retreat...

Yeah, unfortunately feeling enemies are essentially like a free combat round for some players. They'll unload everything on a fleeing enemy before they get away. No mercy! Like shooting fish in a barrel.
 

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I'll often just make rhe call based on common sense and have the enemies retreat although I did learn to apply that method from the Basic D&D morale system.

5e also has a morale system in the DMG, although I know some criticize it as it is based on a Wisdom check if I remember right. Can't recall what the criticism was per se as having those with higher wisdom more likely to retreat makes sense to me, the only exception being wild animals but then in RL most wild animals, even predators, will flee at the first wound unless cornered so houseruling their behaviour seems obvious to me.

Right now the D&D campaign I'm in the DM has the monsters always fight to the death past all sense but I'm not sure how to suggest doing otherwise to him as he's a sensitive sort and likely to take it as criticism.
 

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There's kind of a circular problem where some systems aren't particularly pleasant to people trying to flee, which leads to people not trying (on either side; GMs may not think about it consciously, but when enemies get cut down trying, it still tends to teach them its tantamount to "go ahead and let the opposition die"), and that gets lodged in people's brains, to the point that if a new system does make it practical, they won't even think about it.
 

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I’m a fan of morale as well for many of the reasons already enumerated. If the system doesn’t have it, I’ll import it (usually based on the one from B/X). I like that breaking morale provides an alternative to just killing all the enemies. I’ve had a few combats that were looking dicey turn around for the PCs because they were able to break the morale of some of their enemies, and that was enough to swing things back in their favor.

I’ll also add codified retreat procedures to reaction rolls as important to good combat. It can be something as simple as the concession mechanic in Fate or the evasion and pursuit procedure from B/X. As long as the PCs can feel confident it will work (provided they’ve dropped enough treasure or bait or whatever), it helps reduce the risk of a TPK should the party get into a fight they shouldn’t have. Someone may still die, but that’s better everyone (and that dead retainer can serve as bait for the ghouls while you retreat).
 

Malleustein

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There's kind of a circular problem where some systems aren't particularly pleasant to people trying to flee, which leads to people not trying (on either side; GMs may not think about it consciously, but when enemies get cut down trying, it still tends to teach them its tantamount to "go ahead and let the opposition die"), and that gets lodged in people's brains, to the point that if a new system does make it practical, they won't even think about it.

This has always been an issue in Dungeons & Dragons, primarily with small groups in short, confined fights. Unfortunately, this brings us back to how most adventure modules are written.

Larger fights, with more than just two close-knit groups slugging it out, over a bigger area, tends to promote better tactics. You might be able to safely fall back if you've got archer allies nearby, reinforcements just waiting to charge, etc.
 
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