"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reaction Rolls - My favorite sub-system

I have previously written that I love that randomness and subsystems in my D&D. One of my favorite B/X sub-systems, and likely the one that I use the most, is the reaction roll as detailed on page B21 for retainers and B24 for monsters. A quick 2d6 and you can determine all sorts of wonderful things. Just about any type of interaction can be determined with this mechanic.

When I DM I have a tendency to do a lot of it using third person context. I try paint a picture that the players can "see" in their mind's eye by using lots of description and adjectives but I rarely roll play "in character". One of the offshoots of this is that I can abstract some of the less important interactions and introduce some randomness so that things don't always have to come to their logical conclusion.

An example of this from the last Northern Marches session was when the magic-user went out to see the local mysterious magic-user, the Striped Mage, who has a tower just north of town.

Barbarian Prince has a couple of rules about gaining audiences with various NPCs, for lack of a better term for that game. As a daily action you could spend the day trying to gain admission to the hall, court, etc for an interview with the town mayor, castle lord, high priest, etc. You would roll 2d6 and consult a table and each result would lead you to some other event.
2 - Grievously insult the town council
3 - A slanderous aside about the mayor's wife is blamed on you
4 - Meet hostile guards
5 - Encounter the Master of the Household
6,7,8 - Audience refused today, you may try again.
9,10 - Audience permitted
11 - Meet daughter of the mayor
12 - Audience permitted

I took this same idea and fit some of the results into the B/X reaction roll framework where:
2 = real bad
3-5 = bad
6-8 = neutral
9-11 = good
12 = very good

The magic-user spent 2 days trying to gain an audience with the Striped Mage. The first day resulted in him being told to come back the next day and his second visit saw him escorted from the property for being a nuisance. These were just the results for trying to gain an audience. If he would have met with the Striped Mage another reaction roll would have to be made.

Now not everything is completely random. Special steps can be taken by the party to, if not ensure the result, at least put the odds in their favour.

For example, there is a character who is getting a bit of a reputation in town for poor treatment of hirelings. He went to look for a musician that works in an inn to compose a little song about how great he was. In speaking with the musician, he made sure that it was known that he would pay lots of gold for this song. This was enough to give him a bonus on his reaction roll so that it was likely his offer would be accepted.

It is also funny how a couple of random results can give an NPC some character. Now the Striped Mage is a bit of a pompous jackass.

I find this system also puts a premium on charisma. Using the reaction roll and stressing the importance of hirelings keeps this attribute very important.


  1. 2 = real bad
    3-5 = bad
    6-8 = neutral
    9-11 = good
    12 = very good

    This framework is cool for a lot of different things - thanks!

  2. I consider it one of my failings as a referee that I often decide how all sorts of unrelated and random NPCs react to the PCs instead of rolling on the reaction chart and discovering it along with them.

  3. Coincidentally, I've suddenly "discovered" reaction rolls. I've always ruled nearly everything based on PC action.

    Now I roll nearly everything with modifiers (-1-3 or +1-3) for PC action plus CHA modifier. When the PCs do something pretty good to earn a -2 modifier then totally blow a roll, I get to make up a reason to explain why, despite their best efforts, they were completely blown off.

    As you wrote, sometimes it's just because the NPC is a jerk. Which is completely fine. Good, even. Now we know something about him.

  4. I love random. My favorite part of DMing is using my imagination on the fly to explain why these random things happen and try to draw a connection between a bunch of random things.

    Why is the NPC blowing you off? Is he just a jerk? Is he up to something?

    Why do the gnolls want to talk to you? Is there a common goal you and the gnolls share? Are they trying to trick you?

    That is the good stuff. If I knew how everyone was going to react it would be dull.

  5. One other thing I try to do with this is to make sure I have a clear understanding of the players objectives. If I know the goal of the characters interaction with an NPC then I can fairly adjudicate what a successful result of the reaction roll means.

  6. I use 2d6 very similar, except that I have a yes no maybe mechanic. I basically just ask the dice a yes/no question. 2 is big no, 12 a big yes. 6,7, or 8 can cover degrees of maybe. Used it for over 20 years, and never let me down yet.

  7. So much better when Charisma MEANS something. "Oh, THAT'S why they bothered to have that attribute." It's not just about how pretty you are.

    WotC had to make classes that were dependent on CHA bonuses (sorcerers, paladins, etc.)...and it STILL became a dumping ground. Ha!