A New Approach* to

Morale and Reaction Checks

*at least, as far as I know.

While playing around with ideas for my Cold Wars '01 event, Bad Day at Blood River, one thing that struck me was how seldom the Zulus in our games act the way real Zulus acted. Generally, Zulu players believe that the only way they can win is to launch one massive charge. Either that mass attack bowls over the British and the Zulus win, or the Zulus suffer a morale failure and flee from the field. There's no skirmishing, no going to ground, no falling back to regroup and try again, no realizing that the fire is too hot and maneuvering toward a flank instead. Players simply won't pursue any of those tactics because they "know" that the Zulus' only chance for victory is the big rush.

Whether the big rush is or isn't the Zulus' best tactic is beside the point; the big rush isn't representative of the way Anglo-Zulu battles developed. The actual battles tended toward more ebb and flow. The Zulus had a tendency to get pinned by fire without their morale suffering too much; as soon as the fire slackened, they'd be on their feet again, either advancing or redirecting toward a flank where the fire was less intense.

If the game is to develop more authentically, players need to be compelled at times to do things they don't necessarily want to do; control of their troops has to be taken away momentarily. Most games use morale check (or reaction check, if you prefer) results that are bipolar—a unit is either OK and under complete player control or it is routed and running in panic. It seems to me that what's needed is something that can produce a range of results.

Rather than two morale poles or even a morale scale, I've been tinkering with a reaction flow chart (I've since been informed that this isn't really a flow chart, it's a state transition diagram). The appeal of a diagram is that it allows morale (or aggression) states to shift not only up and down but also laterally; in other words, the relationship between morale states can be both more complex and more direct. Such a chart also needs a strong random element.

My first attempt was far too complicated; it looked like a wiring diagram for a hand calculator. My second attempt was much simpler.

Click here to see the entire diagram, with numbers. It's pretty big, and I think it's easier to flip back and forth between the diagram and text by using the forward and back buttons on your browser (or the ALT-arrow keys) than to keep scrolling up and down. You can refer to the small, numberless diagram on this page as a general reference, if you wish.

A Zulu unit can be in one of seven "attitudes," for lack of a better term: Reserve, Retreat, Stand, Maneuver (move across the enemy's front), Skirmish, Advance, and Charge.

The lines and arrows show how those attitudes are interrelated. Most of the connections are two-way, but two key exceptions should be noted.

Two sets of numbers are included on the chart. One set is printed inside the boxes—these are used to determine the success of a deliberate attempt to change states. The other set is printed outside the boxes—these are used when a unit must check for an unintended change of state, i.e., a morale check.

In practice, I find it helps to make up chits, one for each Zulu unit in the game. Print out the chart and place it near the gaming table. The chits can be placed directly on the chart, in the appropriate boxes, to keep track of each unit's attitude at all times. It also helps to make the chits two-sided. One side represents the unit in good morale and under control, the other represents the unit in poor morale or out of control.

Changing States on Command: At the start of a game, most Zulu units will be in Reserve, Stand, or Maneuver attitudes. In order to shift to another state, the player first announces which box he wants to shift to and then rolls one six-sided die. If the result is equal to or greater than the number near the line leading to the desired box, then the unit makes the shift (slide the chit to the new box). If the roll is too low, then the unit keeps its current attitude. Generally, the more aggressive a unit tries to become, the harder the die roll becomes.

Numbers that lead into the Retreat box are circled. The circle indicates that the die roll must be equal to or less than the circled number (which is always a 2). This is because a shift to Retreat is always a shift toward less aggression, not more. The die roll is modified by the unit's casualties; taking casualties lowers the unit's die roll, making it more willing to retreat and less willing to attack.

Example: An iviyo is maneuvering. The player would like it to advance. He must roll a 3 or higher on one die to make the shift. On a roll of 1 or 2, the unit continues to maneuver. If the player had wanted to skirmish instead, a roll of 2 or higher would have been sufficient.

Changing States Involuntarily: When a unit must make a reaction check, roll one die and compare the result to the numbers outside the box. If the roll matches one of the numbers, then the unit shifts to the indicated box. If the number that was rolled is not listed outside the box, then the unit maintains its current attitude.

Example: An iviyo is maneuvering when a reaction check is called for. On a roll of 1, the unit shifts to Retreat. On a 2, it shifts to Stand. On a 5 it skirmishes and on a 6 it advances. On a roll of 3 or 4, the unit continues maneuvering, because none of the lines leading out of the Maneuver box is labeled with a 3 or 4 (outside the box).

The remaining question is, when must a unit make an involuntary reaction check? I require an involuntary reaction check whenever casualties cause the unit's reaction check modifier to worsen—see below.

Modifiers: This depends to some extent on the rules you use, but here's how I handle it. My Zulus are mounted with three figures per stand. All of my ibuthos contain either 6, 12, 18, 24, or 30 stands. Notice that all those numbers are evenly divisible by six.

When making rolls on the reaction chart, an ibutho has a -1 modifier on the die roll for every complete sixth of its stands that have been lost. Because all my ibuthos begin with an even multiple of six stands, figuring out one-sixth is very easy. Consider the "typical" ibutho of 18 stands. A -1 reaction roll modifier kicks in when three stands have been removed. The modifier becomes -2 when six stands are lost, -3 when nine stands are lost, and so on.

The modifier applies whether the roll is for a voluntary or involuntary change. The one exception is that a roll of 6 is always treated as a 6, regardless of modifiers. An iviyo gets reluctant to Advance or Charge once it starts losing casualties, and Skirmishing becomes the only reliable option. But there's always a chance that it will "go berserk" and become more aggressive rather than less.

Each time the modifier gets worse, an involuntary reaction check is required.

Attitudes: Each reaction state has restrictions on what it allows a unit to do.

Stand: No movement. Unit may fall prone or stand up. Unit may fire at half effectiveness.

Retreat: Unit must fall back from enemy at full movement rate. "Fall back" is a loosely defined term, sure to start arguments. Refer to whatever rules you use for a clear definition. No firing or falling prone.

Maneuver: The unit can move at normal speed, but it cannot move closer to an enemy unit if it is within both the enemy's line of sight and range. Note that this does allow moving behind hills, along gullies, or creeping through concealing brush within enemy range. Firing is allowed at half effectiveness. Unit may fall prone or stand up.

Skirmish: The unit can fire at full effectiveness. Movement is allowed at one-half normal speed and with all the same restrictions as Maneuver. Unit may fall prone or stand up.

Advance: The unit can move at normal speed in any direction without restriction. It cannot fall prone. Firing is at half effectiveness. It cannot, however, move into contact with enemy units unless it is approaching from outside their arc of fire.

Charge: The unit moves at charge speed, and it must try to come into contact with the nearest enemy unit. It cannot fall prone. Spears can be thrown at full effect and rifles can be fired at half effect, just before impact. Also note that although there is no line connecting Charge to Retreat, the rules may require units to make that jump automatically when they lose a melee.

Reserve: No movement, no fire. Unit may fall prone or stand up. If the unit is outside the range of all enemy weapons, roll a die. If the result is greater than the number of stands left in the iviyo, the unit recovers one stand. Note that it's OK to be in view of the enemy, but not within range even if the line of sight is blocked.

Closing Notes on Intentions: Sometimes it helps to know what the designer had in mind when he wrote something. Here are a few final thoughts on the chart.

Because this chart restricts the Zulus' ability to launch headlong rushes, it gives the British more freedom of movement on the battlefield than many games allow. In practice, this means you need more Zulus on the table. Large masses of Zulus moving around outside rifle range have a sobering effect on the British. The British players know that sea of Zulus will never be stopped with firepower if all of them get rolling at once. Odds are high that they won't all get rolling at once, which gives the British a chance to defeat them in detail. Still, the risk is always present, which creates tension.

A Stand attitude indicates either that the unit is awaiting orders or, more likely, has "gone to ground" after getting shot up. One thing I discovered while using this chart was that the British eventually find themselves ringed by Standing Zulus (who are probably prone). The British must decide whether to keep shooting at those pinned units in an effort to make them run, or turn his firepower against a more pressing danger and give the pinned units a chance to resume their advance. It's an effect I hadn't foreseen, but I really like it.

Maneuvering units are typically probing toward the British flank, something Zulus were very good at. Because you can't advance with Maneuvering units, you might as well use them to extend the line. I suspect players will find this state the most frustrating, but they can be comforted by the thought that they're handling their troops more like Zulus.

Advancing is basically something you need to do before charging. Charging represents getting up the steam to actually close with the enemy. You should dispense with any sort of pre-melee morale checks for the attacker when this chart is in use. Any units that make it into the Charge box have already passed their close into contact check.

Skirmishing is where a lot of units wind up after suffering casualties while advancing or charging. In reading accounts from the war, it's clear that the Zulus had a lot more rifles than they're commonly portrayed with. They used them frequently, but not to very good effect. I use independent stands of Zulu skirmishers to harass the British purposefully, but I also allow every iviyo (six stands = one iviyo) to fire as if it contained a stand of skirmishers, regardless of whether it contains any rifle-armed figures and even if it has only one stand remaining. This is weak firepower, but en masse it gets worrisome and further contributes to the British players' discomfort. It also increases the danger from all those shot-up units that get pinned down around the British position. Even shaken and unable to move, they can still plink away at miserable odds and occasionally get lucky.

This same approach could be used for the British as well as the Zulus (with a different chart). It could also function as simple artificial intelligence in games where one side or the other is under automatic control. That will be my next stage in evolving this chart. I have a pretty good idea how it will work. I expect it will require a switch to 10-sided dice.

I'm interested in hearing any reactions to this chart from people who try it out.

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