Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why I don't use monster reaction rolls

Monster reaction rolls have been praised as an especially good “old-school” mechanic. It is supposed to make your fantasy adventure game less into a series of combats and to give opportunities to get around monsters without murder. Sometimes monsters will be your friend, accept bribes, or negotiate. It is not just fighting and killing.

I gave wandering monsters a shot, with fun results, but I just can’t bring myself to use this kind of reaction roll. I prefer to rely on my sense of the monsters’ motivations and role-play them.

It’s not just that a lot of the foes in my current Barrowmaze campaign are undead and constructs and other entities with “programmed’ reactions.

My principle is that player choices and circumstances are the most important conditions to monster reactions. These are not randomly determined.

I expect my players to characterize how they act when they are encountering monsters. If they barge through a door into a subterranean monster lair, holding torches and weapons and wearing armor, those monsters are likely to perceive a threat (no matter how Charismatic the heroes are). This is especially so where monsters are aligned in factions that hate each other and are in a constant state of struggle.

If a home invader, who does not speak your languages, bearing a gun or a big knife and shining a flashlight at you, breaks into your apartment, do you invite him to sit down with his weapon to join you for dinner? The odds of that don’t deserve an outcome on a reactions chart. Probably you would do what the monsters in my game do: attack, or adopt a defensive stance, or flee.

Even if the PCs come in with offerings of rations for the monsters or with toys to play fetch, heavily armed strangers trudging into their homes or lairs are not likely to be welcomed.

The monsters’ response depends on their monstrous goals, their level of intelligence, and above all the stakes for them, not on a chart. What kind of threat do the player characters pose? Do they look tough? In fleeing, will the monsters abandon their prized possessions or their food supply? Do they have anywhere to which they might flee without running into dead ends or other monsters? Will they face punishment from a master if they flee?

These are specific to the conditions of the scenario, not random conditions.

If the encounter takes place away from the monsters’ home, then the monsters’ goals are the main factor. It is easy to create goals for monsters on the spot, depending on what they are and where they are. Rolling for these things can make delays just when the excitement of players is piqued at an encounter. I do not delay to roll; I just play.

But in a dungeon exploration fantasy game, I take the point of view of the monsters at hand and make a call without yet another roll of the dice. The monsters’ motivations and resources are the main factors in the decision I make on their imaginary behalf. You know: role-playing.

If the monsters need help or if they are injured, if they are clever or if they are benevolent, then their responses will vary according to their motivation.

I’m not going to roll for reactions when these things already have a rationale in the game. Rolling for reactions seems artificial and violates the sense of story and ignores player choice.

In short, in my games, player choices and setting are the factors that determine monster reactions in dungeons, not dice. That is just how I do it.


  1. When outside their lair (and “lair” doesn’t include common areas of a dungeon), I don’t know what monsters’ motivations are much of the time, hence I roll reactions. Even in the cases where I have some idea, the monsters can have good days and bad. Plus, I like the level of randomness to keep me from guiding player actions.

    Now, when the PCs camped out in the ogre lair on Sunday when they had only killed half the ogres? That brought the predictable reaction. I rolled at a massive penalty (-12, after accounting for being in lair, ogres eating people, and the PCs having missile weapons and magic while the ogres did not), but it was mostly to guide the general attitude they’d take as I role played them, and the roll came out to -1 anyways; a fight was always in the cards.

  2. That all seems perfectly sensible.

    I wonder, though, if the historical importance of Basic D&D's reaction roll is simply that it underscored that there could be alternatives to combat.

    There's something nice, too, about random rolls as a spur to on-the-spot creativity. For example, if the players barge into an orcish lair and the GM rolls a friendly reaction, what's up? Well, perhaps the orcs have been drinking and have reached the garrulously friendly stage: "Shhit down, dwarfsshh, and drink shome of thishh ...".

    Or perhaps there's something odd afoot. What could be more disconcerting to players than a group of orcs who welcome the party with "Thank the gods you've come!"? The player reaction to that should give the GM just enough time to figure out what's got into the orcs - a mind-controlling parasite, perhaps? Or perhaps there's some strange prophecy involved. Or perhaps these orcs are an exceptionally crafty sort, who rely on guile rather than brute force to obtain their slaves and supper ...

    One could argue that there are two broad GMing styles: *omniscient*, in which the GM knows how the monsters and environment will respond and acts the responses out accordingly, and *exploratory*, in which the GM discovers things at the same time as the players do, through random rolls. The former takes a bit of work; the latter keeps you on your toes. But each can be a lot of fun - and it's easy to switch between them in a single session.

    1. Hi, JC. I agree that the idea that there are alternatives to combat is important, and that's what I take the reaction rolls to represent.

      About the two GMing styles, I'd characterize my own as exploratory even though I "know" the monsters and environment, because I don't know what the players will choose. The environment responds to their choices, and one variation in their characterization of the PCs' behavior may change everything. I like random stuff, but not when it makes little sense.

      Your friendly orcs sound fun, though. Maybe some day you'll introduce me.

  3. I'll cosign the above. A group of orcs in an otherwise dangerous wood, but not in their lair, wouldn't be put off by armed strangers. They might very well be willing to talk (failing to do so at least some of the time would rapidly kill them all, chaotic evil or no). Yeah, guy barges in to my house with a shotgun and flak vest? I'll react badly.

    That said, I've never used reaction tables, I usually just reason things out or have motives pre-noted. Reaction rolls make better sense with a truly random encounter table and motives that don't simply suggest themselves.

  4. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy takes this approach. You can negotiate with monsters, but you get a flat -5 to start with. It can/does get worse with the factors you mentioned - armed strangers ready for action provokes the expected response. It's hard to overcome barriers of species, language, and culture on top of at least one set of the negotiators being murder-happy loot-seekers armed to the teeth and only willing to negotiate if you look too tough to kill.

    1. Funny you should mention that, Peter, because I *do* use reaction rolls when I run GURPS. (I should say "did use," because it's been more than two decades, and I never once ran a GURPS dungeon, strictly speaking.) GURPS has the most refined reaction roll system of any game I know because it's tailored per circumstance, per character. It's complex, but a GM who is fluent with it can make it work smoothly without a hiccup. If I ran GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, I'd use reaction rolls because they are much more nuanced in the ways you mention.

      My current players, all newbies, are nowhere near ready for GURPS.

    2. Do it. Introduce them to GURPS. Bribe them with pizza, shiny new dice, hide the d20s leaving only d6s on the table. But play GURPS with them.

    3. Unknown, I'd like to do that, but I have my own light rule set (d6 only!) that I'm enjoying, and I swear my wife would quit if I make her count character points. My son may come around, but he's too fascinated by the novelty of D&D 5e right now. If we move towards GURPS it will be via The Fantasy Trip.

  5. For humanoids that had just been beaten up by the recent Orc/Goblin alliance those well armed home invaders might be the answer to prayers. This is one way to help introduce factions to the players.

    1. Or they will freak out, thinking that an enemy faction sent the invaders.

      In my current home game, the Mongrelmen surrendered and offered treasure in return for help with an enemy faction. The players felt bad for the poor things and offered to help, demanding jewels in return. As long as they thought they could beat the player characters, the Mongrelmen fought them (starting from an ambush), but when the tide turned against them, they surrendered most pathetically! No reaction rolls needed.

  6. I believe every rule in D&D for the random determination of an outcome only applies if the circumstances do not indicate that the outcome is certain.

  7. Even if the motivations, morale, etc. of an encounter is known by the GM, there's still a myriad of unknowable environmental variables which will affect how they'll actually react to the PCs - maybe they're hangry and just want to smash some faces, maybe they got a major windfall and don't want to threaten the party more than enough to get them to leave, etc. The random roll just simulates the net result of all those factors on top of what the GM does know (represented as modifiers to the roll).

    Going back to the kriegsspiel games which informed Arneson's contributions to the genre, most situations were generally adjudicated by the umpire figuring probabilities of an outcome (based on personal experience), assigning those to faces of a d6 (some of which had duplicate faces for various reasons), and rolling for the actual result (vs relying on the rules to give explicit instructions for every possible factor). The reaction roll is an outgrowth of that mindset. As a GM knowing the details of the encounter, you can create small tables (say, a d6 or smaller) with a short range of possibilities ahead of time, maybe giving a quick ±1 to tweak results as necessary.