Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Force Morale and context

A discussion on the TFL group got me thinking about morale. Specifically, the question of why we have morale rules at all, and how deep they need to go in order to make man behave 'correctly' under combat conditions.

A cusp.
Morale seems to divide into two: first, there's unconscious actions. Fundamentally, these are the ones driven by the raw fight/flight reflex, and reflects that point at which your force flips over the cusp from fight to flight. This is all modelled by a branch of science called Catastrophe Theory, which I remember pretty vividly from a Royal Institution Christmas lecture (video link!) in my early teens. Essentially, under normal conditions, the transition from fight to flight is smooth and relatively rational. Under stress, the curve sort of folds back on itself, and given enough provocation you drop off the high (fight) part of the curve onto the lower (flight) part, and pretty much can't get back until you've calmed down. The converse also holds - if you're scared, and provoked enough, you can flip the other way.

These can be modelled with dice effects and rules: they're semi-predictable, but uncontrollable at the conscious level, so you shouldn't be able to override them by, if you like, gamer decree.

The conscious effects are rather more interesting. Do we continue the attack? Dare we risk it? Many systems have global force breakpoints to handle this - once you pass army breakpoint your army flees, and that's it. There's an argument that the whole 'La Guarde recule!' reaction is just a larger version of the fear/fight cusp, and in fact there will come a point when it's all too much for your army and that's it, whatever you do.

But the interesting thing is this. If your game is set in a larger context, how much of that kind of thing do you find yourself doing anyway? If you know that if you retreat NOW you'll concede a 2 point loss in campaign terms, will you do it, rather than push on to break point and risk a 5 point loss? Will you resist the temptation to send a damaged unit back into the fray if you know it'll take it longer to recover afterwards as a result?

Context is everything. Discuss :D


  1. Context is everything. If there are no negative consequences to going all out regardless of losses, some players will always choose that option. A force morale limits that somewhat but the context of a campaign such as with Dux Brit forces the player to consider this on their own.

  2. I recall reading a Scientific American article on catastrophe theory I think back in the 1970s. Very persuasive it was.

    There has been a discussion in the Wargames rules design group of which I am a member. Much of this stemmed from a more general philosophical discussion that I think was centred around modelling dynamic systems (such as a battle is, indofar as we may describe a battle as a 'system').

    I have long been in sympathy with Brig Peter Young - a wargamer no stranger to the real thing - who preferred to leave the morale aspects in the mind of the player. Of course, he didn't want the fight to go down to the last man and last bullet sort of thing, so he had two simple rules for loss of morale:
    1. A unit that still had more than 50% of the strength it had to begin with is OK; otherwise it was un-OK and certain unit-level things happened.
    2. If the army still had more than 50% of the strength it began with, it was OK; otherwise it was un-OK and certain army-level things happened.

    Pretty unsubtle, eh?

    But what I found, in the games we played, that once a unit got to 2/3 strength or below, you started seriously thinking about whether or not to commit it to further action - especially offensive action. If it was part of a formation - a Division, say - in which its constituent units were all more or less equally battered, you might be the more inclined to pull the thing out of the line and into reserve, whilst committing a reserve Division.

    It seems to me that this very simplistic approach concealed a subtle complexity. An effect is to bring into players' awareness the need for certain types of decisions that, so far as my own observation has discovered, are rarely made upon the table top.

    In 'Catastrophe Theory' terms, the 'area of rapid dynamic behaviour' is not simply the 50% point, but rather the zone from maybe the 60% point onwards. At that, it would vary from player to player (I have seen this in games using 'Charge!'-like rule sets).


  3. While using self-preservation as a base, using it as a be all and end all is inaccurate. What about situations where a unit is withdrawn by its commander to preserve lives?

    Most games exist in a vacuum, i.e. that one engagement is all that matters. In the real world, men not only fight 'today', but they fought yesterday and will likely fight tomorrow.

    The way most gamers act, their forces would be 'combat ineffective' if they were forced to fight a subsequent game with the survivors of the first.

    If it was a realistic context, a sensible commander would usually withdraw a damaged unit well before they came anywhere near their 'break point'... with the exception of rearguards etc.

    1. These are the reasons I prefer to play campaigns than one-off actions, and why I don't really understand 'competition' wargaming. Even a pick-up game can be played and the victory conditions set within the context of some wider narrative.

  4. This is something that came up a lot in my BattleTech days -- the classic lance-on-lance pickup game has everyone fighting to the last unit, because there's no reason not to and you might get lucky. I'm very much in favour of some sort of campaign system for just this reason, or at the very least some sort of victory point system that encourages you to preserve your forces if you can't win.

    I particularly like Jim's implied suggestion of one side having to fight another battle with little or no repair or resupply.


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