Monsters can be Friends, Too! Monster Reactions

One of the rules I never quite understood in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set of 1981 was the Monster Reaction table. The basic idea was when you encountered a group of monsters, you’d follow the following sequence:

  1. Roll 2d6 to determine distance between monsters and party (in tens of feet)
  2. Roll to determine surprise (in Basic D&D, there was a 33% chance for each party that they’d begin surprised and unable to act)
  3. Roll 2d6 to determine Monster Reactions

The Monster Reaction table was as follows:

2: Immediate Attack
3-5: Hostile, possible attack
6-8: Uncertain, monster confused
9-11: No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
12: Enthusiastic Friendship

This reaction check would be modified by the lead character’s Charisma modifier (from -3 to +3 in this edition).

Part of the problem I had with it was that I was about 10 when I first was reading this. The other was that I was also reading a lot of published adventures, which had monster reactions pretty obviously laid out in the text. Why then did I need this table?

The answer comes from the dungeon environment where the reaction check was made: the early D&D was full of dungeons inhabited by many groups of monsters, who’d occasionally fight each other, and the dungeon population was large enough to support wandering monsters that would encounter the party as they explored. The original D&D states that at the end of every 10 minutes, the DM rolls 1d6, and on a 6, a wandering monster would appear.

With so many disparate groups, all competing against each other, it makes sense that some monsters would see the adventurers as potential allies, who can defeat their enemies and improve their situation in the underworld. Now, the overworked Dungeon Master, who has been designing his or her own dungeon, likely hasn’t described the monsters in enough detail to determine what they’ll do in every situation. Thus, a way was presented to determine how they reacted to the party. In Original D&D, it’s described as “Random Actions of Monsters”, with results being 2-5:negative, 6-8:neutral and 9-12:positive. The later Basic & Advanced versions of D&D renamed this to “Monster Reactions” and “Encounter Reactions” respectively.

Of course, the Dungeon Master can always determine reactions based on his or her interpretation of the situation, but for situations where the Dungeon Master is unsure of how the monsters react, this provides a quick way of determining this.

The Monster Reaction assumes the party are going to try to communicate. The way it’s actually intended to be used is that the DM secretly determines how the monsters react, and the players then announce if they’re going to attack or talk. If either party attack, then there’s a combat, otherwise we’re on to role-playing. This is the bit I didn’t really understand; that it’s there primarily to determine what happens when the players speak. The way it was presented, it’s rolled before the players have said whether they’re going to speak or not. I suppose it allows the DM to describe the monsters frantically trying to communicate as the players cut them down – a way of provoking guilt in the players? – but it wasn’t how I read it.

Although it took me a long time to properly appreciate the purpose of Monster Reactions – at least, I think I appreciate the rule now! – I note that I have used friendly groups of monsters on several occasions over the years. In my Caverns of the Oracle campaign (an AD&D game I ran between 2011 and 2014), the characters befriended a tribe of orcs in the dungeon. The characters were able to use the orc lair as a staging point, and would occasionally launch raids against the tribe’s enemies. Meanwhile, there was more than one occasion where a badly damaged party retreated to the tribe to rest and get healing. It was a mutually-beneficial arrangement.

In my current 5E Greyhawk campaign, the party encountered some gnolls who wanted to recruit them to wipe out a nearby tribe. The party declined the offer, but combat between the gnolls and adventurers didn’t occur. When neither side is sure who will win, it doesn’t make sense to provoke a combat!

In modern D&D, the Diplomacy check can be used in place of the Monster Reaction check; you could set a DC for various monsters based on their innate aggressiveness and modify it based on how dangerous the party look. In a dungeon ecology – as opposed to just a small 3-room dungeon – the potential of befriending groups of monsters allows for interesting play, beyond the hack’n’slash style that most of my early campaigns consisted of.

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One Response to Monsters can be Friends, Too! Monster Reactions

  1. Callan says:

    If either party attack, then there’s a combat, otherwise we’re on to role-playing. This is the bit I didn’t really understand; that it’s there primarily to determine what happens when the players speak. The way it was presented, it’s rolled before the players have said whether they’re going to speak or not.

    It might not be intended by the authors, but it could be rolled before the players say what they are doing then the GM describes the monsters body language before the players make their choice. Because the PC’s might choose to talk, only to be instantly attacked – maybe the monsters automatically go first or even get a surprise round (certainly sometimes players think if they just advance on the bad guy who is talking to them, they’ll somehow catch him by surprise and get a surprise round).

    So you get this sort of gruesome psychology where characters attack just in case talking leaves them vulnerable, perhaps not getting the body language of monsters, even though they could have talked it out and the tragedy of that passed up opportunity. But for that to really be rubbed in, you’d want to roll the morale roll in a box, cover it then show the players the result after the battle…hehe

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