|Not what I had in mind when I googled my post topic.|
The Reaction Table is one of my favourite elements of old-school D&D. The idea of not moving straight to combat with a random encounter, but assuming that the creatures have agency and so their own ideas of how things might go down is a wonderful idea that leads to vastly more varied gameplay.
The idea of how the Reaction Table should function has not been consistent across D&D editions; I'm going to take a look at the differences, with the hope of drawing some useful lessons for my own efforts.
Despite the above, monsters automatically attack unless they're both intelligent and confronted by an "obviously superior force". As such, the table doesn't actually come into play all that often. Otherwise, it's definitely the simplest reaction table, very easy to use, albeit with no advice as to how to adjudicate results.
AD&D 1st Edition
AD&D 2nd Edition
2nd edition has a reputation for cleaning up 1st ed's wonkiness, but in my experience it tends to improve only the clarity of the text. In terms of mechanical subsystems, it delights in baroque complication every bit as much as 1st, and in many cases even more so. Here we've switched to a 2D10 table (rather than percentile), with the players' base attitude being the primary factor. Why there needed to be a threatening vs a hostile column I don't know, but if players want to be murderhobos (as 2nd ed tends to encourage, since combat became the primary XP source in 2nd unless the DM really embraced the vague story-based XP reward concept or used the now-optional gold for XP rules), then they have a 40% chance of immediate hostility, the highest chance by far in any system featured here.
One of the most important things the table assumes is that hostility is the "good" result. That is, hostility is the highest result in the chart, so that any positive chart modifiers lead the players towards it. This is true even if the players want to be friendly: a friendly approach only reduces the range of possible hostile results.
At the same time, the 2nd ed reactions are the most nebulous aside from OD&D. Even hostile is coded only as "Irritable, hot-tempered, aggressive, or violent": that is to say, there are no behaviours mandated by the results, only attitudes. However, these rules don't have the same restriction on communication and creature intelligence that the earlier systems do. As such, it's easy to assume you roll reaction for wolves and the like just as much as you would bandits, although the DMG suggests that "The creatures should act in the manner the DM thinks is most appropriate to the situation" and that you should only use reaction when you don't "have a clue about what the monsters will do." Considering combat is much more the norm in 2nd ed, I suspect that most campaigns went with DM inclination, that inclination being "attack".
Overall, I can see the value in having a player-directed reaction table, but not in four categories and having Charisma behave in such a monolithic, unintuitive fashion.
Reaction Adjustment: -5 (Charisma 3); +7 (Charisma 18). Again, the chart tends towards hostility as the "positive" option, so that someone more charismatic is more likely to get into an immediate battle, even if they don't want to (i.e. their initial approach is Friendly). This is a baffling system for me. What's worst is that this could have easily been avoided: just alter the Friendly column so that the friendly results are the highest results, so that a Friendly approach plus a charismatic actor leads to friendly results. Similarly, while I don't see the need for a Hostile column separate from a Threatening column, altering the latter so that flight is the highest result then makes room for a charismatic intimidator. As it is, there's little difference between the two except that you still have a 3% chance of bullying someone into being your friend (more if you're uncharismatic, oddly enough).
Holmes / Moldvay Basic
Clean, simple, and straightforward, this system originated in Holmes. The use of 2D6 effectively creates a curve leading towards the confused monster result (44.42% of the time), which suggests that most monsters of the world are baffled by the existence of adventurers and means that most of the time the initiative lies with the players. (The image is from Moldvay; Holmes notes the 6-8 result as "Uncertain, make another offer, roll again").
Holmes and Moldvay, like 2nd ed, don't place the restrictions of OD&D and 1st ed about only applying to certain subtypes of monsters and situations (beyond specific monsters such as zombies). The entirety of the relevant section is given above: there's no further advice. Unlike 2nd, however, the reaction roll is given as an equal option to predetermined reactions, not a fallback.
Reaction Adjustment: None in Holmes. -2 (Charisma 3); +2 (Charisma 18) in Moldvay. All you need is a Charisma of 13 to avoid all possible immediate attack results (though admittedly these only occur 1 in 36 times anyways). A Charisma of 18 gets you a 1 in 6 chance of enthusiastic friendship for every encounter.
Mentzer Basic (Red Box)
People are fond of saying that Mentzer and Moldvay are the same, the only difference being formatting, but this is not the case: reaction is one area where they notably differ, as seen above.
I dislike this system as it falls back to a 1st edition sin that Holmes/Moldvay dodged: the reaction re-roll. It actually triples down on this: rolling a 3-5, for instance, gets a possible attack, but you need to roll again, and if you roll 9-12, you have to roll yet again. Your possible attack could thus turn into friendship. I again see the value in varied results, but not via such a clumsy implementation; I'd prefer a reworked version of 2nd edition's master table if I was going for that. It does have the advantage of giving more guidelines than Holmes/Moldvay, however, including a little advice on negotiations.
Reaction Adjustment: -2 (Charisma 3); +2 (Charisma 18). The notes given for Holmes/Moldvay in this section apply here as well. However, unlike Holmes/Moldvay, Charisma adjustments only apply if the players can talk to the monster. There is also a specific allowance made for character reactions, with the same -2 / +2 range of possible reaction adjustments suggested for this, which is cumulative with any Charisma modifier. It's not clear if you apply your modifier(s) to every subroll, or just the first roll in the series.
Rules Cyclopedia / The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game
1991's New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game (TSR 1070) and 1994's The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game (TSR 1106), the final gasps of old-school D&D base rules implementation, use the exact same table. This table walks back from the nested subcomplexities of Mentzer, but still relies on re-rolls. The nature of the 2D6 scale means that a 4-point modifier is huge, making it very likely for you to achieve the result it's pushing you towards. Still, it is possible you could wind up rolling several times. Both books state to not roll more than three times, however. "If the PCs don't do something to get a reaction (talk to it, or attack it, or put it to sleep—something) by the third roll, the monster attacks if the roll was 9 or less (remember to take into account the monster's alignment). It just leaves if the result was between 10 and 12."
"Monsters" here are specifically defined as anything that isn't an NPC / doesn't have a character class. As such, the reaction roll is very clearly applicable for most anything in the game.
1991's Rules Cyclopedia also uses the above table, only changing the wording on the first part of result 10-11 to "monster is neutral". Like Mentzer, it also suggests a -2 / +2 allowance for character reactions, which its more introductory 90s brethren skip. It oddly decides to be less granular than the intro products, however, if three rolls occur: "If by the third roll the monster hasn't achieved a roll of 10 or better, it will decide to attack or leave." Interestingly, it is the only ruleset that uses subrolls to rule on when Charisma adjustments apply: they are only used for rolls after the first. As such, if you get a hostile result, no amount of Charisma will save you. Essentially, the initial reaction is as-is, but if the room for negotiation is there, charm (or the lack thereof) can come to the fore. I like this a lot, although by being able to stack Charisma adjustments and player behaviour adjustments to these later rolls, it's pretty easy to swing the 2D6 scale in your favour.
Reaction Adjustment: -3 (Charisma 3); +3 (Charisma 18). Unless using the Cyclopedia, with an 18 Charisma one can avoid any "monster attacks" results, and it's not clear if you apply your modifier to every subroll, or just the first roll in the series. Also unless using the Cyclopedia, a Charisma of 18 gets you a better than 1 in 4 chance of a friendly result with every encounter.
What I Use
|Click for pdf.|
I wanted results that reflected monster alignment, clear statements of intent about what each reaction means, no nested rolls, and some decent guidelines as to when to use the rolls and how to modify them. As such, I've gone with a basic 2D6 scale, matching Holmes and Moldvay (and thus maintaining compatibility with products designed for such). Sometimes I've gone with major changes when implementing a common system, but I really felt in this case that if it isn't broken, why fix it? The only mechanical change I introduced is a roll penalty for dealing with Evil creatures and an accompanying hostility re-roll when generally dealing with Good ones.
My main "alterations" have been in presenting firm guidelines as to how the system is meant to work: not just when to use it, but what specifically happens when you do. Holmes and Moldvay were very weak here, lacking the solid advice of Mentzer or even the 1990s efforts. I wanted a GM to be able to readily able to apply this at the table.
I don't use Charisma modifiers, so the table results stand as they are, which is also a key structural change. This was because I wanted to completely leave social interactions to roleplaying and random rolls, without even a stat influencing them. I have nothing specific against Charisma: this was just something I wanted to do here.
There is a note about the "Ambushed" result in the text. That is because I introduced a basic encounter structure table, specifically for outdoor encounters, meant to adjudicate the general tactical situation so as to provide some encounter variety. It's possible that the encounter begins with the monsters springing an ambush on the party, and so I wanted to make sure that such a situation was covered. I'll examine that in a future update.
I must admit to being tempted by the prospect of a cleaned up and more
rational 2nd ed approach, and having written this up I am again, but for
now I'm sticking with the Holmes/Moldvay interpretation. I may come
back to this, however.