The mammalian reovirus (MRV) genome comprises 10 double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) segments, packaged along with transcriptase complexes inside each core particle. Effects of four small molecules on transcription by MRV cores were studied for this report, chosen for their known capacities to alter RNA duplex stability. Spermidine and spermine, which enhance duplex stability, inhibited transcription, whereas dimethyl sulfoxide and trimethylglycine, which attenuate duplex stability, stimulated transcription. Different mechanisms were identified for inhibition or activation by these molecules. With spermidine, one round of transcription occurred normally, but subsequent rounds were inhibited. Thus, inhibition occurred at the transition between the end of elongation in one round and initiation in the next round of transcription. Dimethyl sulfoxide or trimethylglycine, on the other hand, had no effect on transcription by a constitutively active fraction of cores in each preparation but activated transcription in another fraction that was otherwise silent for the production of elongated transcripts. Activation of this other fraction occurred at the transition between transcript initiation and elongation, i.e., at promoter escape. These results suggest that the relative stability of RNA duplexes is most important for certain steps in the particle-associated transcription cycles of dsRNA viruses and that small molecules are useful tools for probing these and probably other steps.