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I’ve been thinking about “meta-currencies” in roleplaying games – those resources that allow players to interact directly with the mechanisms of a game without really having any reflection in the fictional world. I’ve also been thinking about how often people talk about wanting their games (especially dungeon fantasy games) to have more ways for characters to influence social encounters.
Most OSR-style games have some sort of Reaction Roll mechanism in place, whereby the GM makes a roll (often in secret) to determine the initial attitude of NPCs and creatures first encountered by the players. This is less common in “modern trad”-style games like Fifth Edition and Pathfinder 2, though something similar can usually be found squirreled away in appendices of optional rules (or in the 5e Dungeon Masters’ Guide, the book that everyone owns but nobody reads).
One easy way to increase player agency in social situations is to simply combine extant meta-currencies with the system’s rules for determining NPC attitudes. Here is a brief rundown of some popular systems (by which I mean “the first few books I pulled off my shelf while writing this”), looking at their meta-currencies (if any) and their reaction rules (if any) and how they can be combined to give players a little more control at the table.
Mörk Borg – Omens
We’ll start with the system that needs the least effort to make this work. Omens are technically an optional rule in Mörk Borg, but in my experience everyone uses them. Classes (also an optional rule) have a set number of Omens, and classless characters get d2 Omens. They refresh at the start of each day. Omens can be used to:
- deal maximum damage with an attack
- reroll a dice roll (yours or someone else’s)
- lower damage dealt to you by d6
- neutralize a Crit or Fumble
- lower one test’s DR by -4
The relevant part here is the second entry, “reroll a dice roll (yours or someone else’s). Mörk Borg uses a reaction table based heavily on Holmes/Moldvay Basic that looks like this:
When meeting creatures whose reaction is uncertain.
9-10 Almost Friendly
For reference, since I’ll mention it a few more times in this post, here’s Holmes’ reaction table:
It’s not indicated whether the GM or the players should roll this check (I roll it in secret as the GM simply because that’s the way I learned to do it when playing older editions of D&D) but it doesn’t really matter. What seems self-evident to me here is that there’s no reason why players couldn’t use an Omen to force me to reroll this if they meet someone who becomes immediately hostile (or to reroll it themselves, if you have players roll for reactions).
Pathfinder 2nd Edition is almost the polar opposite of a game like Mörk Borg, but all the mechanisms for making this work exist in it (sort of).
NPC attitudes in Pathfinder 2 are Conditions with specific implications in game terms. Characters can attempt to make a Request (a game term) of Friendly NPCs but not of Unfriendly ones, for example. Players already have mechanisms for changing these attitudes on a fictional level with the Diplomacy skill, by Making An Impression. That looks like this:
With at least 1 minute of conversation, during which you engage in charismatic overtures, flattery, and other acts of goodwill, you seek to make a good impression on someone to make them temporarily agreeable. At the end of the conversation, attempt a Diplomacy check against the Will DC of one target, modified by any circumstances the GM sees fit. Good impressions (or bad impressions, on a critical failure) last for only the current social interaction unless the GM decides otherwise.
Critical Success The target’s attitude toward you improves by two steps.
Success The target’s attitude toward you improves by one step.
Critical Failure The target’s attitude toward you decreases by one step.
But we’re not talking about character abilities to interact with NPCs on a fictional level here, we’re talking about players having the option to change the initial state of an NPC before any “in game” interaction takes place. We’re letting players put their thumb on the scale.
Pathfinder 2 has five distinct NPC attitudes:
They are, incidentally, almost identical to the reactions in Holmes. I can’t find any rules within PF2 for setting the initial attitude of NPCs, though it’s possible that they exist. Most adventures that I’ve read tend to dictate the initial attitude of NPCs, and I think it’s probably expected that the GM will simply make a decision.
For our purposes we need this to be random, so we’re going to introduce reaction rolls back into PF2. On initially meeting an NPC whose attitude is unclear, the GM rolls 2d6 to select their initial attitude with the following results:
2 – Hostile
3-5 – Unfriendly
6-8 – Indifferent
9-11 – Friendly
12 – Helpful
(Side note here to say that I honestly didn’t expect Pathfinder 2’s attitudes to map so perfectly onto the Holmes reaction table. I love finding the DNA of the earliest editions of the D&D in modern versions of the genre.)
Now that we’ve got a mechanism for determining the initial reactions, how do we let players influence it? That’s where PF2 already has us covered in the form of Hero Points. Here’s how they work:
Your heroic deeds earn you Hero Points, which grant you good fortune or let you recover from the brink of death. Unlike most aspects of your character, which persist over the long term, Hero Points last for only a single session.
The GM is in charge of awarding Hero Points (guidelines for doing so can be found on page 507). Usually, each character gets 1 Hero Point at the start of a session and can gain more later by performing heroic deeds—something selfless, daring, or beyond normal expectations. You can have a maximum of 3 Hero Points at a time, and you lose any remaining Hero Points at the end of a session.
You can spend your Hero Points in one of two ways. Neither of these is an action, and you can spend Hero Points even if you aren’t able to act. You can spend a Hero Point on behalf of your familiar or animal companion.
• Spend 1 Hero Point to reroll a check. You must use the second result. This is a fortune effect (which means you can’t use more than 1 Hero Point on a check).
• Spend all your Hero Points (minimum 1) to avoid death. You can do this when your dying condition would increase. You lose the dying condition entirely and stabilize with 0 Hit Points. You don’t gain the wounded condition or increase its value from losing the dying condition in this way, but if you already had that condition, you don’t lose it or decrease its value.
We literally don’t need to change anything here. The GM rolls for an initial NPC attitude and, if the players don’t like it, one of them can spend a Hero Point to force a reroll. Done.
D&D Fifth Edition
Of course I’m going to talk about 5e.
As with Pathfinder 2, much of what I want to do here already exists in the game. (Fifth Edition actually has a lot of procedures hidden in the DMG that make the game feel much closer to an older style of play, and I’ve been intending to write a “how to make dungeon crawling work properly in 5e” post for a while. One day that will happen.)
As with Pathfinder 2, the initial attitude of NPCs is left to DM fiat. Here’s what the DMG tells us about starting attitudes:
Choose the starting attitude of a creature the adventurers are interacting with: friendly, indifferent. or hostile. A friendly creature wants to help the adventurers and wishes for them to succeed. For tasks or actions that require no particular risk, effort, or cost, friendly creatures usually help without question. If an element personal risk is involved, a successful Charisma check might be required to convince a friendly creature to take that risk.
An indifferent creature might help or hinder the party, depending on what the creature sees as most beneficial. A creature’s indifference doesn’t necessarily make it standoffish or disinterested. Indifferent creatures might be polite and genial, surly and irritable or anything in between. A successful Charisma check is necessary when the adventurers try to persuade an indifferent creature to do something.
A hostile creature opposes the adventurers and their goals but doesn’t necessarily attack them on sight. For example, a condescending noble might wish to see a group of upstart adventurers fail so as to keep them from becoming rivals for the king’s attention, thwarting them with slander and scheming rather than direct threats and violence. The adventurers need to succeed on one or more challenging Charisma checks to convince a hostile creature to do anything on their behalf. That said, a hostile creature might be so ill disposed toward the party that no Charisma check can improve its attitude, in which case any attempt to sway it through diplomacy fails automatically.
This section then goes on to talk about how characters can change these attitudes during play – again, not what we’re interested in here.
The categories are much less granular, with only three results instead of five, but we can use the same table as Pathfinder 2 (and Holmes) by simply collapsing the top and bottom results – i.e. “Hostile” and “Unfriendly” get rolled into “Hostile”, and “Friendly” and “Helpful” become “Friendly”. So our table looks like this:
2-5 – Hostile
6-8 – Indifferent
9-12 – Friendly
This is, in fact, identical to the reaction table from OD&D, which looks like this:
Fifth Edition also has Hero Points as an optional rule in the DMG. They look like this:
A player can spend a hero point whenever he or she makes an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw. The player can spend the hero point after the roll is made but before any of its results are applied. Spending the hero point allows the player to roll a d6 and add it to the d20, possibly turning a failure into a success. A player can spend only 1 hero point per roll.
In addition, whenever a character fails a death saving throw, the player can spend one hero point to turn the failure into a success.
All we need to do here is to say that in addition to using them on attack rolls, ability checks, or saving throws, a player can also spend a hero point after the GM makes a reaction roll. It requires the GM to actually tell players what the result of the roll was (or to at least ask “do you want to make me reroll that?”), but that’s fine.
My instinct is to keep pulling games off my shelf and making this work in them, but frankly I don’t want to keep writing the same thing over and over again. Some games (like the three I’ve looked at here) will already have the means to make this work built into them, while others will take a little wrangling, but at its heart it’s very simple. You just need two things:
- A means to randomise the initial attitude of NPCs and monsters. As demonstrated, the reaction table from Holmes Basic has been getting the job done since 1977, and that’s really only a slightly more granular version of the OD&D table that’s having its 50th birthday as I write this.
- A metacurrency that lets players alter the result of rolls before the effects are actually applied to the fiction.
Where games already have an extant metacurrency it’s very easy, as demonstrated, to rule that it now applies to reaction rolls. (Really you should let it apply to everything, because that’s fun. I let my Mörk Borg group apply it to initiative rolls and to checks for Miseries.I also let my A Dungeon Gameplayers exert themselves on initiative rolls, which isn’t identical to what we’re talking about here but sits in the same philosophical space).
Where games don’t have a built-in metacurrency it’s fairly easy to add one, and you’ll often find that they have something else that might serve the same purpose. Dungeon Crawl Classics doesn’t have a metacurrency (or reaction rolls), but characters do have Luck points. Players can be asked to make Luck checks to dictate the outcome of situations, and they can also “burn” Luck points to influence the outcome of rolls. You could easily say that a player who wants to change an initial reaction roll should either make a Luck check to automatically have a beneficial result, or else burn a Luck point to force the GM to reroll. You could even be entirely transparent with the result of the roll and allow players to burn as many Luck points as required to get the result they want (though since Luck is also used in the rest of the game this blurs the line between “over the table” metacurrency used by players and an actual in-game resource that characters rely on).