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.

14 Responses to “Random Reaction Rolls for OD&D”

  1. November 6, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    That’s a great idea! I’ve been considering rolling some reaction rolls behind the screen, but this partial-information solution seems like it’ll be even better, due to the reasons you give: the players will have some sense of the monster’s reaction, but no certainty.

    It might be interesting to reverse the polarity of your doubles chart, however, in order to increase player uncertainty. Right now, rolling a 1 basically guarantees them trouble with a monster, while a 6 basically guarantees a non-hostile encounter; making a 12 negative or snake-eyes positive will restore ambiguity to the situation.

  2. November 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw that little bit in Vol 3 and said “WEEE!”. I use that quite a bit, keeping in mind that what the players do will add bonuses (as will the CHA stat give a bonus if it’s high enough) or penalties.

  3. November 6, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Interesting idea. I was thinking that following the existing polarity would increase the players’ information – “we know our 1 is bad, and there’s a 1 in 6 chance that the monster is charmed.” That assumes, of course, that the players will pay any attention to this table. Reversing the polarity decreases the information in some ways – “we think our 1 is bad, although there’s a 1 in 6 chance it’s actually good” – but also makes it more certain that if the monster seems to be excited to see you, you know the reason is that it thinks you’re the Promised One.

  4. November 6, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I didn’t mean to suggest using that exact table but with the results reversed. Instead, if the roll is a low double (1,1 or 2,2) the monster appears hostile but is actually helpful, while if the roll is a high double (5,5 or 6,6) the monster appears friendly but is actually hostile.

    Not that this is necessarily a good idea, but it would make the player’s die an imperfect indicator of a monster’s intent; you can discern its demeanor without having a guarantee as to its nature.

  5. November 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    I like the idea of a mismatch between the monster’s apparent reaction and its true mental state – although isn’t that covered the possibility that you rolled a 6 and so think everything is going well, but I rolled a 1 to represent what’s going on in its head that you don’t know about?

    In any case, if you’re talking about a different table, I encourage you by all means to whip it up! One can never have too many tables.

  6. November 6, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    I like the idea that doubles means the opposite of what is apparent – doubles in the unfavorable range mean they are bluffing or acting negatively, but in fact would be positive towards the party. Doubles in neutral range (3s/4s) would indicate a disinterest and ultimately not caring at all while maintaining a neutral face and doubles in positive range would indicate they are being friendly to fool the party into doing something for them, or along those lines.

    My issue with too many tables is that once I get the game rolling, I hate to stop to look at tables. I like to come up with guidelines I can keep in my head while the game is going.

  7. 7 Cameron DuBeers
    November 6, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    As mentioned elsewhere, nice idea! Very nice, indeed.

  8. November 6, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    “I like the idea of a mismatch between the monster’s apparent reaction and its true mental state – although isn’t that covered the possibility that you rolled a 6 and so think everything is going well, but I rolled a 1 to represent what’s going on in its head that you don’t know about?”

    If we’re using the core rules, that’s a 7, which is merely a neutral reaction; there’s no chance of antagonism.

    Chgowitz also makes a fair point that sometimes, it’s better to have a simple guideline than a complex table. His variation on the rule is straightforward and easy to remember; I like it.

  9. 9 maldoor
    November 6, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    One important but pedantic note (sorry Tavis, I went ahead and thought about the probabilities!). In the spirit of doing things just as they were written in order to understand the original playstyle, I have been paying more attention to how tables were put together in OD&D versus AD&D, and think there are a lot of valuable assumptions hidden there.

    In the OD&D 2d6 reaction roll, you will encounter a neutral (6-8) reaction about 45% of the time. If you assume monsters rolling reactions of 5 and 9 are at least going to listen to the characters, you have a 67% chance that intelligent monsters will parley. So if you use a d6 reaction roll, you would be better of assuming “2-5 neutral” to be closer to the original intent.

    In OD&D a majority of intelligent monsters will ask questions first and fight, flee, or frolic after. That speaks volumes about encounters in OD&D, and player discretion about who and what to attack, form alliances with, etc.

    I LOVE the idea about double-rolls producing a special result, but would make sure they are not TOO special, since one in six encounters will qualify. It reinforces Chgowiz’s suggestion to use it as a guideline rather than against a specific table.

  10. November 6, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    No apologies necessary – I’m glad to be able to throw out ideas half-baked and rely on the scholastic pedantry of others to carry them home! Does the Moldvay table preserve the same balance of potentially friendly encounters?

    Good points about “special” encounters being potentially too common – many people in the White Sandbox do seem to be geased or charmed sooner or later, but no need to overdo it – and on the limited range of results if players roll an extreme.

    The only thing I’m unhappy with about the doubles-are-a-reversal is that it’s not clear to me how I’d use a double 3 or 4 in play – maybe the monsters are apparently willing to be swayed but in fact they’re just trying to waste as much of the player’s time in parlay as possible, either so reinforcements can arrive or because they just like to hear themselves talk?

  11. November 6, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Oh, I’ll take a shot at that. I hate to start off with “it depends” but it would depend on the monster and what the players are doing.

    In my head, since the doubles actually indicates a reverse action, I’d say a neutral double would indicate complete disinterest, to the point of rudely ignoring the players. For lesser strength creatures, they would do whatever they’re doing, keeping away from the party to the point of leaving the room and waiting for the room to be empty. For stronger monsters, they would do what they do, and just not talk to the players at all. Attacks would be met with enough force to make the party leave, but that’s it.

  12. November 7, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    One of the things I grew to love about random reaction rolls would be the strange opportunities offered by friendly yet ordinarily hostile monsters, and especially the strangely homicidal demihumans.

    The latter keeps things way more Poul Anderson-ish with the demihumans.

  13. October 14, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!!

    Finally I’ve found something which helped me. Thanks
    a lot!

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