Archive for November 6th, 2009

06
Nov
09

Random Reaction Rolls for OD&D

I really like the table for determining how monsters react to the characters in Moldvay’s Red Box D&D. As I recall, a roll on this table is part of the basic sequence for playing out any encounter.  Thinking about the implications of that was a major “aha!” moment for me in understanding old-school play and the role of the DM. I can’t design a dungeon as a script for how things are going to play out when the goblins I envision as a combat encounter might roll a 12 and welcome the party with open arms, while the gnomes I intended to serve as a respite from the action might roll a 2 and attack the adventurers on sight. Embracing that randomness not only encourages me to approach the dungeon as a place that exists apart from the PCs which they can approach in any way they choose, but also forces me to be prepared for a wide range of possibilities. If I want to plan ahead of time, reaction rolls push me to think about the reasons each monster might adopt adventurers as their ally or immediately assume that they’re the enemy.

The only fly in the ointment for me was that having to rely on the Red Box for my reaction table rankled the insane OD&D purist in me. I was thus very glad to find, tucked away in one of the little brown books, the original seed that Moldvay expands on: Roll two dice. On a 6-8, the reaction is neutral. Higher and it’s favorable, lower and it’s unfavorable.

I dig the simplicity of this – among other things, it’s easy to remember so there’s no need to actually consult a table. However, in some ways it seems more complicated than it needs to be. Without actually calculating the probabilities, it seems like it wouldn’t be too far off to just say “1-2 bad, 3-4 neutral, 5-6 good”. Using two dice gives you the unlikely possibility that a 2 will be super-bad and a 12 will be unreasonably good, of course, and it’s easy to see how I might adjucate these differently than just a 5 or a 9.

But the other advantage of two dice that occurred to me is that you could have the players roll one of them, while the DM rolls the other in secret. In general I like to do rolls in the open, but with reaction rolls it might discourage player action; if the dice say the orcs love you or hate you, why bother roleplaying your attempt to parley with them? Having only half the dice visible appeals to me because having partial information gives the players something to act on without making the ultimate outcome known. If their dice is a one, the orcs’ body language signals their hostility. At this point, the players could keep trying to sweeten the deal, banking on the possibility that my dice is a five or six, or they could immediately position themselves for attack given the likelihood that my dice says things will end badly. From a DM’s standpoint, having the result of my dice roll concealed somehow makes me feel that I have more latitude to modify the reaction based on the players’ actions and roleplaying. Adding up the total is like quantifying “how much extra incentive do the monsters need to be given not to attack?” or “how much goodwill can the players squander before the initial reaction turns sour?”

The other thing you can do with two dice is treat doubles as special reactions, which appeals to me because in the end I love looking things up in tables, and having some specific possible outcomes can inspire even more unexpected and fun resolutions. Here’s a proposed doubles chart:

  1. The monster takes hostile or violent action because of an outside influence. Perhaps the monster is charmed, acting under compulsion from another creature that is holding its young hostage, etc.
  2. Something happened recently to make the monster angry and hostile to the world in general. Negotiation is unlikely to succeed unless it resolves the cause of this underlying anger.
  3. The monster would prefer to be aggressive toward the party, but something holds it in check. Perhaps it is acting under orders, has taken a vow, or is favorably disposed to one aspect of the PCs’ appearance despite hating the rest.
  4. The monster would be favorably inclined to the party except for one nagging detail. Perhaps it is prejudiced against one particular party member, or upset about a past action of the PCs.
  5. Something happened recently to make the monster happy and well-disposed to everyone it meets. Negotiation is likely to succeed unless the PCs seem inclined to take away the thing that is making the monster happy (a pile of treasure, a tasty human baby).
  6. The monster receives the party enthusiastically due to mistaken identity or a belief that they fulfill a prophesy. All will go well as long as the PCs continue to conform to the monster’s expectations.



Past Adventures of the Mule

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