In his most recent post about playing Burning Wheel, Steven Jarvis discusses the tendency of many players to react instead of act.

This play style, “Patron X hires you to retrieve Thing Y,” is very pervasive. It’s also perfectly valid, and a lot of fun to play — with one exception.

The exception is when everyone at the table isn’t on the same page, which is why action vs. reaction is a major social contract issue.

Steven ties this play style to D&D in particular, which I don’t entirely agree with. I’d argue that since most gamers cut their teeth on, play or have played D&D, that’s where it happens most often — but D&D isn’t really the cause.

Let’s quickly define active and reactive as play styles.

  • Active is when the players drive the game through the actions of their PCs.
  • Reactive is when the GM sets up a situation and the PCs deal with that situation.

Both styles are fun. Neither is better than the other. Problems only crop up when the group isn’t on the same page about which style they’re going to use.

And as the GM, making sure everyone is on the same page is usually going to be your job. This is essentially a social contract — “We all agree that in this game, the PCs will be leading the way” (or vice versa).

If you’ve gamed with the same group for years, no worries. If not, it’s best to discuss play styles when you’re choosing your next game.

Shifting from one style to the other midstream isn’t likely to be the best idea, unless feedback from your players prompts the switch.

Conveniently, Scott M. just added a section on social contracts to our GMing wiki. It’s just getting rolling, but it’s an excellent place to start (and we’d love for you to add to it!).

Have you run into problems with expectations about these two play styles in your games? As the GM, have you ever caused those problems (I know I have)? How do you solve them?